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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.
In the reviews of Insidious, very rarely did mainstream critics acknowledge your directing chops in a non-begrudging way. It was always, "James Wan is talented, but…"
You're right, man. Sometimes they're so ready to dismiss the whole genre that they'll miss some of the great stuff that a horror director is doing with the camera, but if it was in another genre, I'm sure it'd be heaped with praise. A horror director is lucky to get even a passing acknowledgement. [Laughs.] But that's the game you have to play. It just means that you have to work harder to prove to everyone that you're more than that. It makes me stronger as a filmmaker, and that's always a good thing.
One of the few times where reviews have pointed out something you've done directing wise—the parking garage action setpiece in Death Sentence—comes from, interestingly enough, your one non-horror movie.
There you go, and I wonder if they point that out because it's not a horror film, even though I would point out to people that Death Sentence is actually my most violent film. It is so violent and so gory, yet people don't lump it into the horror genre, because it's drama/action/thriller, so people look beyond the blood and gore in that movie for some reason.
Making The Conjuring and Insidious: Chapter 2 back to back, did ideas or concepts bleed over from one film into the next? Was there any instances of one film cannibalizing ideas from the other, or vice versa?
They definitely crossed each other. It's hard to make three movies that, like you said, live in the same wheelhouse. They deal with similar themes, they deal with ghosts, they're supernatural, they deal with creaky doors and rocking chairs. They do cross over in a lot of ways that I may not necessarily want. The perfect example I use is when James Cameron was writing Rambo and Aliens at the same time, he ended up with soldiers in outer space, so you can't help but be influenced by the headspace that you're in. I was very mindful of that, and I worked very hard to not let the two different worlds collide with each other.
But I think, every now and then, some elements would peak through from one film that I then brought into the other. Basically, techniques I learned from the first Insidious, I know for a fact that I brought them into The Conjuring, and I know that ideas that I came up with for The Conjuring but didn't use, I used in Insidious 2.
You and Leigh had the initial idea for Insidious as far back as when you first had the Saw idea, but was there always a bigger mythology with it? Or did you two have to think up the sequel's plot once you were approached about making it?
We always had a bigger picture for the first movie, but in the first movie there were elements that kind of dropped off, that we couldn't do anything with in the first film. Leigh and I always joked that if we were able to do a second one, we could pick up right where the first one ended and bring back a lot of those abandoned or only hinted at elements.
One of the things that I wanted to do in Insidious was, I don't know why, but I kept seeing time-travel in a horror movie. I kept seeing time-travel elements in a horror film, and I wanted to play with that a bit more. We sort of touched on it in the first Insidious, where Patrick Wilson's character is walking through the darkness in The Further and he meets the kid who points him in the right direction; I don't know if many people know this, but that kid is actually his younger self. That was an idea that we thought of that I really wanted to play up if we made another movie. When Insidious 2 came around, we already had seeds that I wanted to try out. Without giving Insidious 2 away, there are moments in Insidious 2 that appeared in the first Insidious.
When people ask me what the storyline is about, I give them a general overview that doesn't ruin the movie. It literally picks up at the end of the first movie, which ends with Patrick Wilson's character killing the Lin Shaye character, and then Rose [Byrne] comes running in and discovers this, so we're picking it up right from that moment onwards, and then what happens to that family. Where do they go from that? I will say this: Whereas the first movie plays more like a haunted house movie with a twist, the second movie is a domestic thriller with a supernatural twist, because now our family is living with someone whom they're not quite sure about. Is it a loved one? Or is there someone else inhabiting that person's body?
One thing that makes the first movie so special is the attention paid to iconic imagery, something that's been mostly lost in horror lately. Did you feel any pressure to up the imagery ante in the second one?
That is true, it's always tricky. I always remind people that horror sequels rarely top their first movie, because the first movie has the luxury of being the first one. The second movie is no longer original, it's basically a continuation of the world you created in the first one. But having said that, Leigh and I do have our pride, and we wanted to still have original things, even if it's small elements. For example, in horror films, we've seen seances done to death, right? Where they play with the Ouija board or whatever.
In the first Insidious, we found a really strange way to do a seance, which is we had Lin Shaye wear a gas mask that's hooked into an earpiece. It was this really weird and bizarre idea, but we didn't just do it for the weird and bizarre sake. We did it because we wanted something a bit different. Even if we failed, we could say that we tried to do something different. In Insidious 2, we have another seance sequence, but we're trying something even more different from that, and we show The Further from a different perspective than what you see in the first film. Are we topping the first one? I don't know, the first one is really strong, and sequels rarely top the first movie.
But the thing I hope we've done is we wanted the story to be just as strong. The first movie was more about creepy visuals, and the second one, to me, was more about finding a story that honors the first film but wraps up some of the mythology from the first one.
Moving from Insidious and The Conjuring into Insidious: Chapter 2, your last three movies all play within the "haunted house" wheelhouse. Did the thought ever cross your mind that people would now call you "the haunted house guy"?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I have thought about that, but very fortunately, my next movie [Fast & Furious 7] after these three films is in a very different wheelhouse. Hopefully I'll soon be known as "the car guy."
How does it feel landing Fast & Furious, one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises?
I got into filmmaking because I grew up a big fan of directors like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Michael Bay. The chance to finally exercise that [blockbuster action] muscle feels exciting and liberating. Horror is a world that, at this point, I feel I’ve played out. I’ll always love it, though, and it would be great for me to do something different, get rejuvenated, get new ideas for scary movies, and then come back to one. In the meantime, it’s great for me to take the next step in my filmmaking career.
In what ways have your slower horror films prepared you to direct a balls-to-the-wall Fast & Furious movie?
The horror/thriller genre is no different from the action genre. It’s about understanding the beats to your scene. I want my action scenes in Fast & Furious 7 to have audiences on the edge of their seats, as opposed to just going along for the ride. One of my favorite action movies is Die Hard. It has big action scenes that are so grounded and scary, you feel for the characters. When John McClane jumps off the roof at the end, it’s frightening! That’s what I want to bring to Fast & Furious.
You're also producing genre movies now for younger, up-and-coming directors to make, like House of Horror, starring Maria Bello.
Yeah, I may not see myself directing horror for a while now, but I love the genre so much. The chance to produce other movies in this world is very exciting. For me, it's about finding the right projects that I can get passionate about. A lot of horror projects come my way that people want me to quote-unquote "produce," and I've turned a lot of them down.
I realized that whatever horror movie I attach my name to, I want it to be something that, in my earlier days, I would have loved to direct. I need to be passionate about these projects as a filmmaker and not have it be about just the money. It's exciting to get the chance to produce other horror films. Ideally, I'd love to do what Sam Raimi does. He went off and created Ghost House Pictures, so he can still get new horror movies out there and then direct movies like Oz the Great and Powerful, which isn't horror at all.
Sam Raimi must be a major influence on you. Yeah, I always look up to Sam Raimi's career trajectory. He made the Evil Dead films, but outside of that he made all kinds of other films, and it took him so long to finally branch out and get a big summer tent-pole movie, in Spider-Man. That made me realize that your career shouldn't be a sprint, it should be a carefully laid-out marathon. If you're determined and you keep doing what you believe in, you eventually get to where you want to go.
Was there any hesitation to get back into the big studio world, where tons of other hands get involved in the filmmaking process, after having so much independent success with Insidious. I know that your experience making Dead Silence, where outsiders got involved, wasn't a positive one.
When we made Dead Silence, I was still so young, and I'm not a first-time filmmaker anymore, or even a second-time one. And, more importantly, I'm not a first-time studio director anymore. I've learned a lot since that period. Fast 7 is my seventh feature film. Everything is a life-learning experience, you apply it all, and then you move onto your next project.
That's how I'm looking at it with Fast 7. I think I'm much better at playing the game that is Hollywood than I was when I first got into this business. Being able to navigate this business is very important to one's career longevity. I've been doing this for 10 years now. That's pretty crazy to me.
When you made Saw, you were only, what, 26?
Yeah, I was 26. That was 10 years ago, yeah. I'm constantly hearing people say, when a new movie comes out, is, "Oh, that's his best movie," and then next one comes out, and it's, "Oh, that's his best movie," and what that basically means is that with each movie I make, I'd like to think that I'm growing as a filmmaker. I'm very lucky that I didn't start out peaking at the top and then heading down. In some ways, I started somewhere at the bottom, even though Saw a huge hit, but I've been slowly climbing my way upward ever since.
Do you look back on Saw and cringe at all, over how you shot it, or how much you've grown since then?
Yeah, one of the things I definitely look back at, and it's not something where I look back and say, "Why did I make those filmmaking choices?" I look back and I go, "Oh, that's why I made that filmmaking choice, because I didn't have the money to do it properly." I didn't have the budget and the time to shoot the movie that I wanted to shoot, so I did certain things that I wouldn't have otherwise done because I was trying to make up for something, or hide something. I had to try to make scenes work.
People ask me, "Why did you cut Saw like a friggin' music video?" And I did that because, if I'd cut the movie how I initially wanted to cut it, which was slow and brooding, you would've seen that my actors are standing on a set that's falling apart, and that my camerawork isn't as refined as I wanted it to be. [Laughs.] On a good day, I would get, maybe, three takes, and on a bad day I'd be lucky to get one take, and I'd have to get it right.
I like where I am now, especially with The Conjuring. That's the movie that I can do what I wanted to do, and yet still have the budget, the time, and all that stuff to visually make it work. I kind of say that The Conjuring is Insidious but with more money to try things that I couldn't have tried otherwise.
Whether you're doing an interview or you're tweeting about seeing The Conjuring's poster hanging up on a Hollywood wall, you always have this genuine sense of excitement and enthusiasm about your career. How have you avoided becoming jaded by your ups and downs?
Thanks, mate. That's so good to hear, and I think my excitement is pretty genuine. Every now and then, I forget that I'm directing movies in Hollywood, and I take a step back and say to myself, "Holy shit! This is what I dreamt about doing back when I was 11-years-old."
When I’m deep into making a movie, I can forget that this is what I dreamed about doing when I was 11 years old. Then I’ll walk past a theater and see the poster for my movie and I’ll feel like that 11-year-old kid again. It’s important to remember why you wanted to do this job in the first place.
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Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Also check out more of James Wan on Complex TV's Nightmares below.