By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—James Wan has established himself in Hollywood as the go-to director for modern horror films. The visionary filmmaker counts the original “Saw,” “Dead Silence,” “Death Sentence,” “The Conjuring” and two “Insidious” films under his belt.
Wan now returns for yet another journey into the realm of the demonic possession with “The Conjuring 2.”
At a roundtable interview, Wan reveals he was unsure he wanted to come back to helm the sequel even though the 2013 original was a phenomenal worldwide hit, taking in more than $319 million in box office receipts. Once he was satisfied there was a new story to tell—one of a possessed adolescent in England, based on true events—he jumped on board. Bringing back “The Conjuring” writers Chad and Carey Hayes, along with some of the original cast and crew, also were convincers for the in-demand director. His last big hit was last year’s worldwide smash “Furious 7.”
Returning for “The Conjuring 2” are Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga who portray real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Moreso than the original, the “Conjuring” sequel delves deeper into the Warrens’ personal challenges in fighting demonic forces. Lorraine’s recurring premonitions of her husband’s death convince her to be less gung ho about pursuing new cases. And yet, the couple realizes it must answer the call to help a family in crisis—even at their own peril.
They are joined this time around by Frances O’Connor (“Mr. Selfridge”), who plays Peggy Hodgson, a single mother of four who fears her pre-teen daughter Janet (newcomer Madison Wolfe) may be possessed by a demon. There are strange, inexplicable events happening in their row house north of London. The Warrens are called in from America to investigate. The cast also includes Franka Potente (“Run, Lola, Run”) as a skeptic and Simon McBurney (“Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation”) as a local paranormal investigator who brings in the Warrens when he can’t explain the goings on at the Hodgson home.
Wan, a jovial and energetic fellow, says he was too busy on set to notice any unexplained happenings there, but just to be sure the filmmakers brought in a Catholic priest to deliver a blessing prior to production.
Q: How excited were you to return for “The Conjuring 2?”
Wan: I was actually very apprehensive about coming back to direct “The Conjuring 2” because the first one was really beloved. I was like, “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to top the first movie.” When I eventually did come back to it, I was like, “OK, collectively all of us from myself, the writers, the actors, the producers, and the studio, we all felt we had to live up to the first movie. We have to try hard to live up to the expectations of the first movie. Because of that, I never took this lying down. I went for it. That was something we felt we had to do.
Q: A lot of horror movies, particularly sequels, aren’t really that scary. What’s the key to making a truly scary horror movie sequel?
Wan: It’s hard to make any sequel to a commercially successful movie, whether it’s a superhero or action movie. It’s hard to live up to what people liked on the first one. But it’s triply difficult when it’s a horror movie. I can’t think of a horror movie where the sequel was better than the original. I guess there’s “Aliens” (the sequel to Ridley Scott’s “Alien”). I would say there’s just a handful of those. So I thought about what we could do to make (the sequel) different. I realized that although people love the scares of the first movie, what made them love it even more are the characters. They fell in love with Ed and Lorraine Warren played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who are so lovable. Because of that we decided to make a movie that focused more on them. For me, crafting the scare scenes is kind of the easy stuff. I wanted to get the character arcs and the story correct and then go back and see what kind of scares I can come up with that feel different.
Even though I’m playing within the stringent tropes that come with the haunted house sub-genre, I always look at it as, “How can I make this different from what you’ve seen before?” If the audience knows what’s going to happen, I try to tweak things a little bit and throw surprises at you.
Q: In making horror movies, does anything supernatural ever happen on set?
Wan: I’m so busy trying to make the movie that I’m not privy to the bizarre and supernatural stuff that might happen around me. I could have a ghost standing right next to me and not be aware of it. I’d probably tell it to go get me a coffee or something. (He chuckles.) On “The Conjuring 2,” it was actually smooth sailing.
Q: You had the set blessed by a Catholic priest?
Wan: That is why (the production went smoothly). It was Peter’s (Safran, the producer) idea to bring a priest in early on. It worked well. That’s why we didn’t have any ghostly experience.
Q: How do you feel about using practical effects like pulling a dresser on a wire rather than using CGI?
Wan: That wasn’t how we did the dresser gag. (He laughs.) I’m a huge fan of practical filmmaking. I like to capture as much of the weird stuff on camera as I can because it makes it feel more real, and I can compose the shot and my actors can actually react when they see something move. They can look at it with jaw-dropping awe. I like it to be naked to the eye. The computer effects that are so important to a movie like this, I use it more to help tell the story. For example, it’s hard to shoot exterior shots in a period movie (like this one). Everywhere you look, it’s filled with modern technology—cars, cell phone towers in the distance. Nothing looks like what it used to look like. What is great with digital filmmaking is that it allows you to go in and paint out the cell tower or the high tech hotel that wasn’t there back in the ‘70s. It’s a great tool for things like that.
Q: Did the water sequences in Hodgsons’ basement in this prepare your for the next film you’re signed to direct, “Aquaman?”
Wan: The irony was when I was shooting all that rain and the submerged set with all that water, I was thinking, “Oh crap, I’m going to have to put up with this for an entire film. This sucks!” (He laughs.) It’s difficult to shoot in water. Over the years, with water-based movies, you hear how miserable it was for the actors to shoot, so we’ll see.
Q: There were rumors that you weren’t going to stay on with “Aquaman.” Can you clear up what’s happening with that?
Wan: I don’t know where that came from. Like everything, I found out about (the rumors) on Twitter and Facebook. I read about it on social media. It was like, “Oh, is that happening?” about my career, which is even funnier. That week, I was in the middle of finishing up “The Conjuring 2.” I was working on the sound mix and then all that stuff broke out. And I was like, “I don’t really know what’s going on here.” I’ll say this, it’s more exciting and tantalizing to write it up with all this dramatic stuff that’s happening on set. I’m not fully immersed in that world. I’m more on the outside looking it. But it’s not as dramatic as everyone is making it out to be. It’s not that heavy. That’s all I can really say at this point.