The director of "Saw" and "Insidious" made a classic studio horror film, "The Conjuring," but that only cost a small fraction compared to what's next — "Fast and Furious"
When New Line Cinema first submitted James Wan's "The Conjuring" to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, executives expected the film would receive a PG-13 rating. It didn't have the excessive gore of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" or the blunt nudity of "Wild Things" — just old-fashioned creaks and screams.
The ratings board slapped an R-rating on it anyway. When New Line asked what scenes it needed to excise to earn a PG-13, the board didn't have an answer.
"They said there isn't a moment, there isn't a scene, there's not an image, there's nothing we can point to," New Line's Walter Hamada, a producer on the movie, told TheWrap. "It's the totality of the film; it's just too scary."
That should come as no surprise given Wan's pedigree. He has built a career on horror films, making his grand entrance into Hollywood with "Saw," a film indelicately labeled torture porn.
Yet while "Saw" is unabashedly violent, "The Conjuring" is anything but. The movie — which stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as married ghostbusters brought in to investigate strange doings at a rickety house – steadily builds tension, scaring people with visual and aural trickery. The camera movements and music are as chilling as any stabbing could ever be.
In that way, and many others, it's an old-fashioned horror film.
It's also the most expensive movie Wan has ever made. Produced for $19 million, according to Hamada, it cost more to make than all of Wan's previous films put together.
This is a welcome change for the director, who grew up wanting to emulate Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and James Cameron.
For a boy of Malaysian descent raised in Australia, blockbusters set in foreign and futuristic lands like "Indiana Jones," "Star Wars" and "The Terminator" were the closest he could get to Hollywood.
"I love those big summer films, and I've loved them since I was a kid," Wan (above left) told TheWrap. He wanted to be a filmmaker before going through puberty, and his respect for his predecessors is intense.
When asked what he made of Lucas' and Spielberg's recent foreboding comments about the future of film — at a recent USC panel both directors saw TV and movie fare merging on giant home screens, with far fewer, megabudgeted theatrical films playing year-long runs in luxury environments at Broadway-sized prices – he demurred.
"I would not even dare to critique what they are saying," he said.
When asked how those filmmakers influenced him, he demurred again.
"I'm not very good at talking about my own films," Wan said. "I can talk about other people's movies better than I can talk about mine." He said he's only ever done one commentary on a DVD for one of his movies, "Saw," and that was at the behest of its distributor.
Despite Wan's desire to make a hyperkinetic action movie and work with a Hollywood studio, he became famous for the antithesis of a summer blockbuster — the microbudget horror film.
First he made "Saw." Produced for $1.2 million, it grossed more than $100 million worldwide and spawned six sequels. Wan and his frequent writing partner Leigh Wannell produced three more of those before leaving it behind.
While Wan made a pair of tiny horror movies, producer Jason Blum and director Oren Peli birthed their own microbudget horror franchise in "Paranormal Activity."
So perhaps it was fate that Wan, Wannell, Blum and Peli would all come together for "Insidious," a psychological thriller made for $1.5 million. Filmed in a matter of weeks and starring a pre-"Conjuring" Patrick Wilson, "Insidious" grossed close to $100 million during its theatrical run.
"I definitely paid my dues in the indie world," Wan said, and by the end of "Insidious," he was ready to leave horror all together, afraid that focusing on one genre was "very limiting for me as an 'artist'."
But he couldn't pass up "The Conjuring." Wan has been fascinated with the supernaturally inclined Warren family — paranormal investigators of "Amityville Horror" fame who were also protagonists of "The Conjuring" — for much of his life.
Hamada was equally smitten with the idea of working with Wan after seeing "Insidious."
"We wanted to do a throwback, classic horror movie, so we wanted somebody who could scare you without resorting to bloodshed," Hamada said. "When you watch 'Insidious,' James does that."
Stuart Ford, the CEO of IM Global, which handles foreign distribution rights on the "Insidious" franchise, said Wan "has this ability to generate creeping tension punctuated by 'out of your seat' jumps, often with a nod and a wink to camera at the same time."
Wan embraced "The Conjuring" with exceptional gusto, drawing on thoughts about the Warren family dating back to when he saw "The Haunted," a TV movie starring Sally Kirkland.
"From day one, James said this isn't about language or blood or nudity or anything that puts you in the 'R' realm," Hamada said. "He went out of his way to make sure he did that." Of course, as it turned out, the MPAA didn't agree.
In addition to netting Wan some of the best reviews of his career, "The Conjuring" earned him the job he's wanted since he was a kid.
After watching footage of "The Conjuring," Universal and the "Fast and Furious" producers picked Wan to direct the seventh installment of that franchise, placing him at the helm of a series whose most recent movie was made for $160 million — almost 10 times the cost of "The Conjuring."
"James designed every scare in 'The Conjuring,' and they are set pieces," Hamada said. "That's why he'll do great in the action world. Those movies are carefully crafted set pieces that build and escalate, that zig when you expect them to zag."