The Insidious: Chapter 2 director discusses the horrors of being pigeonholed, defying the industry’s expectations, and switching gears for Fast & Furious 7.
This feature appears in Complex's August/September 2013 issue.
James Wan is a master. A master of putting asses in seats and scaring the deuce out of them. The Malaysia-born, Australia-raised filmmaker made his 2004 directorial debut, the puzzle-based serial killer flick Saw, for just $1 million. It grossed 100 times that, and spawned one of the genre’s most lucrative franchises ever. In 2011, Wan reinstated Saw’s independent model for Insidious, an inventive haunted-house chiller that cost $1.5 million, earned $97 million, and allowed Wan, 36, to helm this summer’s big-studio horror slickness The Conjuring and Insidious: Chapter 2 (in theaters September 13). Now he’s directing Fast & Furious 7 (2014), determined to prove he’s capable of more than scares. A true master is never content.
After having your name associated with six inferior Saw sequels, were you hesitant to direct Insidious: Chapter 2?
The flack I got for Saw is why I wanted to direct Insidious 2. I didn’t direct any of the Saw sequels, but people thought I did. When Insidious 2 came along, I said, “If anyone’s going to fuck up my franchise, it might as well be me.” [Laughs.] The Saw sequels went in a direction I wouldn’t have gone in. With Insidious 2, I wanted to push a potential franchise in the direction I thought it should go in.
Did you notice Hollywood’s perception of you changing after the success of Insidious?
Definitely. Leigh [Whannell, writer of Saw and both Insidious films] and I knew we were capable of more than Saw, but no one else did. It didn’t help that I went off and made Dead Silence and Death Sentence, neither of which caught on commercially. With Insidious, we set out to prove that we’re genuine horror fans who know how to make scary films in the PG-13 realm. Making a scary PG-13 movie is a badge of honor. We wanted people to take us seriously outside of these gory films we got pigeonholed for.
When did you notice that change in perception?
When Insidious opened, it wasn't a huge opening. We didn't open to, like, $20 million. We opened at $13 million, but the fact that word-of-mouth kept that film going was huge. Week after week after week, that movie kept playing and new people kept discovering it. It started popping on social media, and that's when I started seeing that it was playing in the industry as well. My agent was telling me that we were getting calls from big people pitching their projects and telling him how much they loved the film. It was cool that it wasn't an immediate thing.
Are you resentful of your Saw experience?
I’m thankful that Saw helped me not just put my foot in the door but also basically kick the fucking door down. [Laughs.] Not many people can say that their first movie started one of the biggest franchises ever in that particular genre. But it’s a double-edged sword. A lot of people wouldn’t see my other movies because they thought of me as the “Saw guy.” It took a long time to get out from under that shadow.
Were Dead Silence (2007) and Death Sentence (2007) your attempts to combat that stigma?
Yeah, definitely. After Saw, I wanted to make another horror movie, but one in a very different style. One that was bloodless and more of a classical throwback to the old Hammer horror movies that I used to love, and that's what Dead Silence was. It was a throwback to the style of filmmaking where sets were built inside studios, and they had that in-studio look to them. I really love that look, it's the look that Tim Burton loves as well, but I wanted to do a genre film with that.
With Death Sentence, I wanted to show that I could do something outside of the horror genre, but something that's a very visceral film as well, so that my fans wouldn't be too removed. Those movies did let me try something different.
After Saw became a big deal, did it seem like the industry was trying to turn you into “the next big horror guy”?
Yeah, that’s how Hollywood works. If you’re successful with one thing, [producers] only come to you for that one thing. It’s up to you to find ways to branch out. Insidious was a response to that. I wanted to do it slowly, to show people that I could make a different kind of scary movie. When that worked, that led me to The Conjuring, which allowed me to make a movie like Insidious but at the proper studio level, with the time and money to shoot all of my concepts and ideas. A lot of people in my position would embrace the “master of horror” label, but I see myself as more than that.
Older horror icons like Wes Craven and John Carpenter have always gone on record saying that they'd like to be seen as more than horror guys. It's a problem that's plagued successful genre directors for decades.
Here's the funny thing: There's a kind of snobbery surrounding the horror genre. It comes with a stigma, and that's part of the reason why people typically don't want to be labeled with this stigma that's generally frowned upon.
You don't hear a filmmaker saying, "I don't want to be pegged as a drama director," or, "I don't want to be known as a comedy director." Because those are the genres that are accepted, whereas horror is never really seen as a good thing, so it makes it harder for you to find other jobs.
That's one reason why filmmakers who break out in horror tend to want to show that they can do things other than that. The business industry really, for some reason, has a perception if a director is successful at horror, they're only good at that. John Carpenter is actually pretty fortunate, because he's been able to branch out and do action and sci-fi. I'll be happy to have his kind of diverse success.