James Wan is known as a master of the horror genre: his films have started a number of popular franchises including Saw and Insidious, but there's one that's closer to his heart, that he said he would only come back to if he felt he could make a worthy sequel — The Conjuring.
The Conjuring 2 hits cinemas this week, so we sat down to talk with James Wan about practical effects, romance in horror movies and being inspired by Nicholas Cage films.
Warning: Minor spoilers follow
The Conjuring 2 feels cohesive with the first film — from the eerie, droning soundtrack to the subdued yellow subtitling and, of course, the appearance of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Aside from these similarities, Wan didn't want the sequel to just be a clone of its popular predecessor.
"I didn't want to repeat myself with what I did in the first movie," he said, "but obviously the thing that I really wanted to carry on is the characters of Ed and Lorraine Warren. I love the idea of expanding on their world, and watching them grow from the first movie.
"Other than that, I really wanted the first movie to feel different from the second movie. For one, that's so that it doesn't feel repetitive — at least for myself, I don't really want to make the same movie twice. I know that there's some structure to it, and a feeling that I need to keep so it's uniform with the first movie, but from a storytelling standpoint I wanted to shift and tell a different story."
That starts with a change of location, with the story taking Ed and Lorraine to England to investigate the Enfield poltergeist. Working class London is quite a departure from the 'pleasant' country farmhouse the Perron family inhabit in The Conjuring, and when Wan characterises England by saying "it's gloomy, it's constantly raining," it sounds like the perfect place to set a horror film.
"Trying to capture the spirit and the detail of the family's London was something that was very important to me too, because I feel like that helps me to ground the movie, and ground it in a world that feels real. I think that's what makes it different to a lot of other horror films."
The production design of the run-down, working class flat in 1977 London was in fact one of the film's strongest features, often matched closely with real pictures of the haunted house that were taken during the investigation of the haunting. "I want it to smell real," Wan explained, "but obviously as a film maker I needed to take artistic license to really make the movie scary, and to make the movie entertaining." The inspiration for using this very real, true-to-life setting with the overtly supernatural events that follow came from an unexpected source, however:
"The movie that I thought a lot about when I was making this film wasn't a horror film, it was Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation," Wan told us, laughing at his confession. "I know that's a weird one to make that connection, but the whole time I was thinking, that was a movie that was supposed to be based on a true story, and then somehow Charlie Kaufman sort of wrote himself into the script. No, I did not write myself into Conjuring 2, but for some reason I just love the idea of this real amalgamation of the real world and the fictitious world, and how the two of them just gel together to the point where you're not sure what is and isn't real."
The Conjuring 2 hasn't been shy about the fact that it's based on a true story, with the original recordings from the Enfield Poltergeist case even being released as a featurette leading up to the film's release. While that claim isn't uncommon in the horror genre, and a number of other films have been made based on the Warren's other investigations, James Wan has been a stickler for accuracy in recreating the Enfield Haunting. Basing the movie off such a well documented case has its advantages, but it also has a number of drawbacks, as Wan explains:
"The upside of a story like this that is so well documented is that there's a lot of media areas that you can go to and find what was recorded back then — obviously with the internet you can also find a lot of stuff on what happened. The downside to something that's so well documented is that it really limits you with what you can do, because people can so easily say "well, that didn't happen" or "this was meant to happen instead" or whatever."
It's no secret that Lorraine Warren has been a part of both of the Conjuring films — she's credited as a 'consultant' on the first film, and even has a cameo in one scene — so it was no surprise when Wan told us that he and some of the cast had been back to speak to her about the new film. Vera Farmiga, who plays Lorraine in the films, was particularly interested in meeting up with her again.
"Vera is very fastidious with how she adopts those mannerisms and little things that she wants to pull through from the real Lorraine, even down to certain props that Lorraine would use. She wanted those props in the movie because it just helps her emotionally and spiritually connect with the real Lorraine a bit more," he said. While Ed Warren passed away in 2006, Lorraine could also provide some insight about her late husband. "For Patrick and myself, it always helps when Lorraine tells her stories about Ed. In a lot of ways, hearing her sweet stories about Ed really dictated the more romantic aspect of this movie that I wanted to capture — because you don't really see things like that in a horror film."
Lorraine was not the only real person depicted in The Conjuring 2 — in fact, ghostly presences aside, all the characters were based off real people. "We realised very early on that we needed to go to the real source of all these stories and actually meet with the real family," Wan said. "So in that early stage, myself and the writers sat down to talk with Janet Hodgson, Margaret and Billy — the three kids from the actual haunting."
This featurette released in the lead-up to the film's premiere features a recent interview with the adult Janet
"It was good for me because they didn't necessarily tell me anything about the haunting that I couldn't find online, but what I did gather from speaking with them was just the emotional aspect, and how they felt back then. It really helped me empathise with their story, and I think it made a big difference with how we put the film together."
Not all of the characters are real people, of course — a few of the roles in The Conjuring 2 went instead to ghostly apparitions. One of these, known as the Crooked Man in the film, looks a lot like a CGI character — which is an odd choice considering how Wan has largely stayed away from CGI in previous films. We were corrected in this assumption, however. "The Crooked Man is a real actor," Wan revealed. "It's funny, a lot of people have said that he is a CGI character, and the actor who plays him has gone on social media to say 'wait, I'm a CGI character now?' He's a real person, and the movement you see in the film — that's actually him doing it. He moves like a stop motion animated character, I kid you not."
The actor in question is a man named Javier Botet, who has found his niche in embodying creatures and monsters for horror films. He's been in a number of films from Del Toro's Crimson Peak to Spanish found footage film [REC]. "He's super tall, he's like… 6'7" or 6'8", nearly 7 feet tall," Wan continued, "and he's very gangly and just really skinny, and he can do some amazing movements with his body. He is a 'human effect', in that respect."
Indeed Botet's inclusion only underscores the importance that Wan places on practical effects, something that's often set aside for the ease of CGI effects. "I did a lot of this movie practical as well," he said. "I'm a big fan of practical effects — I tried to capture most of it in camera, and the only time I really used CGI in this film is if there was a cell tower in the background to paint out, or some modern structure that doesn't quite reflect 1977 London. That's where CGI really comes in handy to take care of those things."
The Conjuring 2 will be released in Australia on Thursday June 9.