Watery footprints are scattered around the floor of the humid soundstage. Men in creepy makeup pop out from behind doors. A dark, murky underground basement has been flooded by God knows what and just then, all the lights go out. Yup, it’s about to get real Conjuring up in this bitch.
On November 3, 2015, io9/Gizmodo visited the Santa Clarita, CA soundstage set of The Conjuring 2, which opens June 10. It’s day 33 of a 50 day shoot and the unofficial theme of the day is water. Star Patrick Wilson is going to be sloshing around in it, new cast member Frances O’Connor (A.I) is going to be thrashing through it and returning director James Wan is going to put the camera right in it. “This is my Anaconda shot,” Wan joked, setting up one of the day’s shots. “This is my tribute to Jon Voight. This is so cool.”
Don’t worry. All references to the terrible 1997 Jennifer Lopez snake movie are strictly in the director’s head. The Conjuring 2 shares nothing in common with it. It has plenty in common with the original 2013 Conjuring, though which followed the continuing adventures of paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson). The sequel picks up a few years later for a story that’s going to be much bigger and—if things go as planned—even better.
Despite what you may have thought from the tease at the end of the first Conjuring, The Conjuring 2 is not the Amityville Horror. The Warrens were involved in that famous case and the first film teased it (“There’s a case in Long Island he’d like to discuss.”) but that’s all. To keep continuity intact, this movie starts in Long Island, but the story quickly jumps to another famous case, the Enfield haunting in the U.K. In that 1978 case, mother Peggy Hodgson (O’Connor) reported strange occurrences, involving her kids, in their north London council house. Occurrences that were continuing to escalate. The reports became international news, complete with photos, videos and plenty of skepticism. Daughters Janet and Margaret even admitted they made some of it up. However, in the end, many still believe the family was honestly being haunted. And despite the involvement of many paranormal investigators, the Hodgsons believed one pair ever truly tried to help: Lorraine and Ed Warren. Hence, The Conjuring 2.
“It’s spiritual warfare,” said star Vera Farmiga, who plays Lorraine Warren, of the experiences in the movie. “It’s a different beast. Literally,” added her co-star Patrick Wilson, who plays her husband Ed Warren. Yes, the Warrens are once again facing a poltergeist, because The Conjuring 2 has the same bones as the first movie. Where this movie is different, however, is in its more sprawling, international setting, and a big dose of perspective.
For paranormal fans, the Enfield Poltergeist is one of the most famous and well-documented haunting cases in history, with plenty of evidence on both sides. Obsessive fans can Google and pour over at any point. The producers saw this almost side story as a real challenge. “There’s always skepticism about these events,” said producer Rob Cowan. “There’s skepticism about Amityville, there’s skepticism about the Warrens, there’s skepticism about Janet and what went on and what didn’t go on. And there was even times when Janet admitted that she had made up some things. So we really wanted to play that into the movie.”
Working the elements of skepticism into the movie was easy compared to getting the biggest piece: director James Wan himself. Several years ago, Wan directed the first Conjuring and then went off to make Furious 7 with a plan was to do Conjuring 2 right after. Then everything changed. Furious 7 became one of the most difficult film productions of all time, in large part because of the tragic loss of lead actor Paul Walker. It then became one of the biggest hits in film history, grossing almost $1.5 billion. The success made Wan one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, with his choice of any film out there. With those kind of options, would he really want to come back to make a sequel to a small horror movie?
For sure, said the co-creator of Saw and Insidious, but with a few conditions. Producers had to push the start back, give him a vacation, and shoot in Los Angeles. “He also said he’d only come back if he felt he could make a movie that was worthy of being the successor to the first one,” said producer Peter Safran. “If he could make a character-driven movie that was also the scariest movie you’ve ever seen. So when he read the screenplay he said ‘Yeah there are things in it that spoke to me from a character perspective.’ Not because he came in and put most of the scares in.”
You read that right. Wan put almost all the film’s scares in himself. It was the same on the first film, and after several years away from the genre, he was jumping at the bit, filled with ideas. “It had been two years since he’s unleashed these scares and he had so many great, crazy things [in his head],” Safran said. “We’re like ‘Where did you come up with that?’ He’d say ‘[It’s just] something that I thought of when I was sitting at my home. Then he’d put it in the script and it was just a great, great scare beat.”
“It’s such a luxury to have the guy who is working at the absolute top of his game doing exactly what he does best,” Safran added. “It’s really rare. We were so lucky to have him on the first one, we never thought we’d have him back for the second one.”
That was more than evident while we watched Wan work through a crucial piece from the middle of the movie. Ed Warren (Wilson) and Peggy Hodgson (O’Connor) are going into her basement. There’s some kind of leak and Ed is trying to fix it. He sees the problem in the back of the room and starts to tread through about a foot of water to find it. Just then, Peggy sees something. A spirit we’ll learn is named Old Bill. Something grabs Peggy and tries to drag her into the water. Ed assists and notices she’s been bitten. They then hear a plunk. Ed digs into the water and finds an old set of broken dentures. Dentures that perfectly fit the bite Peggy just got. Finally, there’s a crash and they have to run upstairs.
While on set, we got to see Wan shoot coverage for this entire scene. Between shots he’s on set, interacting with the actors, incredibly full of energy. During takes, he’s on a megaphone shouting out the stage directions himself. He wears a Back to the Future T-shirt and after one shot, talks about how Steven Spielberg shot some of the water stuff in Jaws using a handheld camera. It gives him an idea: the aforementioned Anaconda shot, in which the camera slowly moves along the water, half in and half out, pushing in on Ed as he looks for the dentures. It’s a beautiful shot, and just one of the many Wan attempts with the camera moving around.
Later, the basement set—which is fully realized in 360 degrees complete with rusted over props, scary looking wood beams, and varying levels of water for more flooding—will have its walls removed. The camera will then be placed on a small crane, and the crane placed on a dolly. This set up will allow Wan to shoot a master take of the entire scene with an eerie floating feeling, making the viewer feel like a fly on the wall. Wan takes his time analyzing every take, from the timing of the action, to the back of the frame. And the longer he works on each element, the more it comes together and becomes scary.
“It’s just masterful, what he’s doing,” Farmiga said “He knows the script, and to see how it tweaks it and how he puts his spin on it is just wonderful. It’s just a good fit. The three of us are a very good fit. I’m thrilled.”
That chemistry between Wan, Farmiga and Wilson helped turn the first Conjuring into a surprise hit, grossing over $300 million worldwide. It also spawned a spin-off film, Annabelle, and if things go well, the producers are hoping The Conjuring 2 isn’t the end of the series. The Conjuring 3 is a possibility, and they already have a few ideas for side characters from this sequel, who could have their own spinoffs, ostensibly starting a shared Conjuring universe. And while James Wan isn’t likely to be back as a director (He’s next schedule to direct Aquaman) everything is riding on this one. “What we had before was just one, really outstanding movie, but that’s Blair Witch.” said Safran. “It’s the second one that makes the franchise. And that’s what we have with this group we brought back.”
Which sounds like a lot of pressure to put on a movie featuring a shot inspired by Anaconda.