Exclusive Set Report: James Wan Talks Insidious

A new haunted house film from the Saw, Paranormal Activity team

James Wan didn’t want us on the set of his latest production Insidious. He didn’t want to let the prying eyes of any press outlets getting a look at his latest chiller, for that matter. For the director, however, it was hard to turn away the curiosity reaching critical levels and surrounding this production which brings together the creators of Saw and Paranormal Activity.

In the realm of contemporary horror, that’s a power couple right there. But just because each of those films respectively made impressive box office bucks, don’t expect Insidious to swagger onto the scene with a big budget. Wan is going back to his roots, strapping on his independent cap – with producers Jason Blum, Steven Schneider and Oren Peli at his back – and getting creative with the means he has to work with.

“The project went from zero to 90 in the span of three weeks,” Wan says with an incredulous grin on a Tuesday morning in early May, succumbing to Shock’s request to stop by the set. He’s got one more day of shooting before he calls it a wrap here in the cold, commanding Herald Examiner building in downtown Los Angeles.

Wan, who is re-teaming with fellow Saw writer/actor Leigh Whannell (reprising similar duties here), set aside a number of projects he had in development, including the big budget adaptation of the popular video game Castlevania, to direct Insidious. This decision is a testament to Wan’s awareness that the horror genre is presently emaciated and hungry for something, anything original. Insidious, he hopes, is a fitting nourishment. An injection of old school frights that befall cast members Rose Byrne (28 Weeks Later), Patrick Wilson (Watchmen), Ty Simpkins (Little Children) and Barbara Hershey (The Entity).

“Movies today are scary by way of violence,” Wan believes. “That doesn’t equal scary. Scary to me is the white faced man in ‘Lost Highway.'”

The director takes Shock on a humorous Spinal Tap-esque journey through the Herald Examiner building where we make a few false turns getting to the set before his assistant steers us on the right path. A crimson glow welcomes us when we finally arrive at our destination and this writer marvels at the ornate production design. Unfortunately, because this set factors into the finale of the film, we can’t say a thing about it. So, Wan pulls us aside to sit on a nearby stairwell, under the sentient eyes of cherubic stone statues to learn more about the film.

James Wan: What you’re seeing today is a small portion of the film. It’s in tone with The Others and The Sixth Sense, and it has fantastical touches that Leigh and I love.

Shock: What spurred you and Leigh to return to the genre?

Wan: Leigh and I have always been pretty pissed with what happened to Dead Silence. We felt that was never really our film and we set out to make something really scary, but we didn’t quite get there for many reasons. [Insidious] is us saying we still have that film in us. After Death Sentence I took some time off to recuperate. I wanted to come back with a movie that’s down to the grassroots. Small and intimate. And the best way to do that, with a scary movie, is to make it as a small film. Not a studio film. When I met Jason Blum and Steve Schneider, I told them this was the perfect movie for that.

Shock: And it’s a haunted house picture, correct?

Wan: It is a haunted house film, but Leigh and I didn’t want to do the same old shit we’ve seen a hundred times. I think we found an angle.

Shock: The logline is ambiguous as hell.

Wan: It’s hard to give a proper logline without giving the film away. The whole movie takes place in two houses. And the film has a frightening demon. It’s one of the scariest creature/ghost designs I’ve seen.

Shock: Going back to what you were saying about scaling down the budget, that seems to be the way to go to pull off a successful horror film these days.

Wan: If you want to make a scary film, you need to go back to that world and have complete creative control. If this film sucks, I have no one to blame but myself. I have so many things in this film that are a real horror fan boy’s wet dream. It starts off as one movie and becomes something else. The general concept is a young family moves into a house. Their son falls into a coma and once that happens, bad things begin to happen. Rose Byrne, our mother, begins to experience small things that keep building and getting scarier. You know how in most haunted house movies, they stay in the house? Well, they move to a another house in this film. And the haunting continues…

[Writer’s note: Wan elaborated on the plot but divulging too much here would give all of the fun away.]

Shock: You’ve got an impressive cast in Byrne and Patrick Wilson.

Wan: Everyone loved the script, that’s how we got them. This is the first time I’ve experienced this, the first batch of actors we went out to, they all said yes. That never happens. Leigh did such a great job and wrote it so quick for me. But the actors responded to it and it plays like a genre film, but it’s a family drama, too. The beginning gives him time with the family which you never get these days. A studio horror film? Bam! You slam into the action, you care about no one.

Shock: Poltergeist is a terrific example of family set-up. You love the Freeling family and all of their idiosyncrasies.

Wan: Exactly. They’re real people. That’s what Leigh and I wanted to do. Eighty percent of the movie, it’s grounded. I took inspiration from The Exorcist which is such an over-the-top – when you look at it from a fantastic angle – film about demon possession. Her head is spinning. Crazy shit is happening, but William Friedkin shot it like documentary. So I’m trying to go from a real angle – Others, Sixth Sense, like I said. Where those movies don’t show you that much, I’m going to take you a bit further, a bit more. I have to find a balance because today’s generation wants to see crazy stuff. My main prerogative, there is no blood and gore in this film. Not a single drop.

Shock: How does that make you feel as the guy who kicked off Saw?

Wan: I’m more than embracing it. When I set out to do this with Leigh, I said if we’re going to do another horror movie, I don’t want to do a blood and guts film. I’m not a big fan of the label “Splat Pack.” You don’t need blood and guts to make a genuinely scary movie. Poltergeist was PG-13, and so were the other films I’ve mentioned. I think the greatest challenge is to make films scary without showing you much. That’s a big challenge. This film didn’t really warrant all of that stuff anyway. I’ve done enough blood-letting, I don’t need any of that in this.

Shock: Is Leigh in the film as well?

Wan: He is and he’s f**kin’ fantastic. I’ve also got Barbara Hershey and Lin Shaye. And that’s the other thing, it’s not your typical genre cast.

Shock: Well, with Hershey you immediately recall…

Wan: The Entity! That scared the shit out of me as a kid. Barbara loved the script and she loves the supernatural. I haven’t spoken to her much about that film though. And as much as I want to talk to her about Beaches, one of my favorite films growing up. [laughs] Rose and Patrick are amazing as well and we have Ty Simpkins, their son. He was Wilson’s son in Little Children, too. Which has helped the working dynamic. Leigh has a role that he’s appropriate for him. He’s really funny in this film. He, Shaye and Angus Sampson play the paranormal investigators. The film is a bit quirky. I’ve heard people describe the film as Poltergeist meets David Lynch.

Shock: Bizarre and abstract.

Wan: Yeah, there’s something abstract about it. An ambiguity to it. But we don’t want to be too abstract.

Shock: How involved has Oren Peli been?

Wan: The Paranormal Activity (pictured) guys have been awesome. Oren has been by a few times and he’s a really nice guy. He’s busy on his own movie, Area 51.

Shock: Does the film have distribution yet?

Wan: No. Once this is done, I want to hit the festival circuit, build the word of mouth. Get people excited.

Shock: When do you anticipate that happening?

Wan: Gosh, I’m cutting the film myself. Joe Bishara, who’s playing my demon, is composing the music. This is the first time I’ve worked with him on that capacity. Getting Joe to play the part, he has a great insight into the film and he was the natural guy to go to. Joe is so good and so terrifying, he scares Ty Simpkins, our little boy. This movie has a very home made, indie spirit I’m embracing. I love editing and I’ll never be allowed to cut the bigger films, but at least with the small films I can. I’m hoping I can get this movie cut in time for the Toronto Film Festival.

Shock: I’ll tell you, being on the set, seeing some of the stuff you’ve shown me, it feels refreshing.

Wan: It’s not a f**kin’ remake, man. We’re coming up with original stuff. We’ve been approached for a lot of remakes, but I don’t want to remake classics. That’s silly to me. Remake a shitty film with a great concept. Leigh is such a stickler for original material, but that’s not to say we’re not fans of some of the films, but this film is all about our love for the genre and all of the elements that fall into that.

Source: Ryan Turek, Managing Editor


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