Battling an evil force seems easier than making a horror movie. In horror, the audience goes in expecting to be frightened so, at every moment, they’re trying to stay ahead of the filmmaker. Plus, they’ve seen hundreds of horror movies beforehand. Keeping things fresh seems impossible. Unless you’re one of the best.
James Wan is one of the best. Though he truly hit the mainstream directing Furious 7, Wan’s first film was Saw, a groundbreaking horror film that spawned six sequels. He then directed Insidious (two sequels and counting), a few smaller movies, and The Conjuring. This week, the sequel to that movie, The Conjuring 2 is out and we talked to Wan about how he continues to instill fear into his audiences.
“The key is to constantly keep the audience surprised,” Wan told io9. “If they feel like something is going to happen, or they think from an educational standpoint that something is about to happen because of all the moving parts, it is your job to break that expectation and show the audience something different.”
That’s especially true in a sequel like The Conjuring 2, where the audience not only knows the characters (Lorraine and Ed Warren, played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), they know the general idea of the movie (the Warrens battle an evil spirit). For Wan, that means he’s thinking about the scares like they’re a character in the movie—he’s considering them from the very earliest moments.
“There are many shades toward crafting [a scare] and it’s just knowing how to balance it out,” Wan said. “[I start] first on the script pages and then thinking about how I would shoot it. Then when I’m on set, I feel it out. I just let my instincts take over. I may have a battle plan on how I want to approach it, but I really let the emotion of the scene that I’m crafting take over once I bring my camera on set.”
Wan prides himself on making a movie with all kinds of terror —not just the traditional jump scares, but suspense, unease, twists and more. He feels, if you get a uniquely tuned balance of all of it, each emotion enhances the others. “The jump scare moments are fun for the audience watching it, because they want to scream and yell at the screen, but all the other stuff goes towards making it work as well,” Wan said. “If you don’t do the suspense correctly then your jump scares are not going to work.”
He also believes the best thrills keep things very, very simple. The more relatable and smaller the idea, the better. “I use myself as the barometer to gauge what is scary,” he says. “I like to think if something scares me then there’s a very good chance an audience will feel the same way. The key is creating scenarios that people can relate to.”
In The Conjuring 2, he says two of his favorite moments in the film are the simplest ones. Without spoiling it, there’s one where a girl stands in a hallway and says, “Mom, who’s that?” And a second is when the main character, Janet, puts a chair against a door to barricade it, but that doesn’t quite work.
“I love those moments,” Wan said. “They’re very simple, but they take a fair bit of thinking and getting the timing right and crafting [to pull] it off. Those are the really effective ones for me.”
Another thing that’s very effective is that, in The Conjuring 2, the daytime is not a safe haven. There are scares in the light, the demons are omnipresent and, well, it’s just always creepy. Wan cites the work of David Lynch for inspiring its all-encompassing tone.
“I think crafting a new, effective horror movie is not just about when night falls and things get scary,” Wan said. “It’s about setting a tone and mood that permeates throughout the entire movie. So even during the daytime things are never quite safe-feeling. This is a filmmaking technique that I’ve learned from great filmmakers like David Lynch. Lynch makes the best, scary non-horror films. His stuff resonates in such a way that you could be in the most mundane setting and it’s really unsettling. And so that is something that I hold really dear and it’s all about the mood and tone of the film.”
Basically, making a horror movie is incredibly difficult and yet Wan has a pretty great handle on it. “The formula is ‘There is no formula,’” Wan explained. “And I know it’s such a smart ass thing to say, but it really is true. If people start to feel that there’s a mathematical formula to what you do, then that’s when your scares no longer work.”
The Conjuring 2 opens June 10.