‘The Conjuring’: Director James Wan channels real-life scares

April 03, 2013 | 6:02 p.m.
From left, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston star in James Wan's haunted house thriller, "The Conjuring." (Warner Bros.)

From left, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston star in James Wan’s haunted-house thriller, “The Conjuring.” (Warner Bros.)

In 1952, paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren founded the New England Society for Psychic Research. Ed was a demonologist, Lorraine, a trance medium, and together, they worked on a number of cases, including the legendary Amityville haunting. But it’s a different supernatural situation that’s explored in the new film from director James Wan, “The Conjuring,” set for release July 19.

The real Lorraine Warren appeared alongside Wan on stage at WonderCon in Anaheim this past weekend, where she praised the accuracy of the new movie, based on the investigation of a haunting at a Rhode Island farmhouse occupied by the Perron family. (Ed Warren died in 2006.)

The Perron case was made public in the 2011 memoir “House of Darkness, House of Light: The True Story” written by Andrea Perron, one of the young girls whose family occupied the house for nearly a decade, and the story sparked the imagination of Wan, whose previous film “Insidious” became a breakout box-office hit, spawning a sequel, “Insidious Chapter 2.”

Wan spoke to Hero Complex about his latest haunted-house thriller, which stars Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as the Warrens, his own relationship to the supernatural and the pride he takes in making horror films scary enough for adults.

HC: Did you spend much time with Lorraine Warren before or during the making of the film?

JW: I got to spend a little bit of time with her. Patrick [Wilson] and Vera [Farmiga] definitely spent time with her. She’s an amazing character. She’s such a sweetheart, but when you hear the stories she tells … wow. Pretty fascinating stuff.

HC: Did she ever demonstrate her clairvoyant abilities to you?

JW: One of the days she came on set, she was walking through the two-story house we built on a soundstage and she turned to me and said, “James, there’s something in that second room upstairs.” Upstairs, there was a little room. I said, “Lorraine, I don’t think so. There’s no history here because it’s a set. It’s not a real house. It was built a couple of weeks ago.” She said, “James, I’m not talking about the house, I’m talking about the items around the house.” As it turns out, my production designer had dressed the set with really old stuff she had found around Wilmington, stuff she’d found in old houses. Lorraine said she picked up the energy from the armoire, from the bed, stuff like that. Really interesting.

HC: Are you a believer in the supernatural?

JW: Um, I am. Yeah. That’s one of those questions I have to be careful about how I answer it. I believe in spirits. I believe in faith. I believe in spirituality. I believe in aliens as well. I’m not the right person to judge anyone. I like to think we’re not the only thing that exists on the plane of existence. I like to think that just because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

HC: Making a film based on real people must force you to confront that? Either the person is telling the truth or they’re lying to you.

Director James Wan on the set of "Insidious." (Film District)

Director James Wan on the set of “Insidious.” (Film District)

JW: I think Mel Gibson could make “Passion of the Christ” because he really believed in it and gave it his all. I think to make a film like this, you need to be partially open to stuff like this in order to dabble in it — unless it’s a straight-out fictitious film, and then it just is what it is. I remember reading an interview with Roland Emmerich when he was making “Independence Day” and someone asked him if he believed in aliens. He said he doesn’t believe in aliens and extraterrestrials, and a lot of people were surprised by that. His response was “I believe in the what if.” I believe in the “What If” and beyond the “What If.” With this story about the Warrens, I keep telling people I’m not here to judge who they are. I’m not here to say what is true and what isn’t true. The movie is unapologetically subjective, it’s not objective. It’s telling their story through their point of view and I hope I’ve made an entertaining movie that people will enjoy and go along with. And it’s up to people to decide what they believe in.

HC: How did you first come across the Warrens’ story?

JW: I’m fascinated by this world and their names always come up in whatever research that you do. I don’t remember any specific time their names came up, but after “Insidious,” I wanted to get back into studio filmmaking and a studio was not going to give me something completely outside of what I was known for. So I knew I’d be doing a horror movie, but I wanted to do one that was different. And doing something based on two people that exist was what made it exciting for me. So that’s why I decided to make “The Conjuring.”

HC: How do you keep from repeating yourself after doing three haunted-house films in a row in “Insidious,” “The Conjuring” and “Insidious Chapter 2”?

JW: It’s challenging. It’s not easy. I always say, it’s not different from the action genre. If you’re an action director you have to top yourself with set pieces you haven’t already done. If you come down to it, there’s only a handful of worlds that action films live in. You have your car chases, your gun fights and your fights. So within that you have to find something new. That’s true within the horror genre as well. You have your ghosts, your haunted house, you have your more violent horror films. With “Conjuring,” one of the things I felt was really cool was the writers interviewed the Warrens and the Perrons and they had a whole list of scary stuff that happened to them in that house. They lived in the house for nine years and they had a lot of scary stuff happen to them. So my thing was trying to cherry-pick what served the film best. There was some stuff that I heard and thought, if I put that in a film, no one is going to believe me. Everyone’s going to think I made that up. I had to walk that fine line of what feels true to the world and what feels different.

HC: Some of the film’s scares are revealed in the trailers. Do you have any say as to what audiences will see ahead of the film’s release?

JW: That all has to do with marketing. Marketing isn’t what I do. I’m just a filmmaker, I make the film. I trust those guys. Trailers in today’s world tend to give a lot of stuff away. You kind of have to. It’s the same with trailers for comedies as well. They always give away the funny bits. It’s what you have to do to get people in there. My biggest thing, I don’t mind them showing stuff, I just don’t think they should be shown in the context of how the film plays out. Like in the first “Insidious,” I was OK with showing the demon’s face in the trailer because that was out of context in how they cut the trailer.

HC: I heard you mention that the MPAA gave the film an R rating, but when you asked what you could cut to get a PG-13, they said nothing, that “The Conjuring” was just too scary. That had to be a little unexpected.

JW: It’s just one of those things. It’s not a violent film, not by a long shot, certainly not as violent as some action films that get PG-13. It’s not gory. I was surprised that I got the R rating. But I guess certain things you can’t change. They felt the movie felt too adult. I think that’s a good thing. This is the biggest compliment I can take away from it — I didn’t make a teenage horror film, I made an adult horror movie. And they don’t make adult horror movies anymore.

— Patrick Kevin Day

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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2 Responses to ‘The Conjuring’: Director James Wan channels real-life scares

  1. Taryn says:

    Excellent interview, and most excellent responses.

  2. I think James Wan is the best horror director right now!

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