From the Set: A Report from Our Trip to The Conjuring

I’d like to bet a number of you at least wonder whether or not paranormal activities really go down. No? Are you a total nonbeliever? Perhaps you should look into the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a husband-wife team of paranormal investigators who’ve logged some incredible, out-of-this-world happenings including the infamous Amityville Horror.

With loads of supposedly true experiences ripe for a big screen adaptation, the Warrens’ files are a Hollywood goldmine and Warner Bros knows it. The studio now has The Conjuring on the way, a film that tells the true story of the Perrons, a family of seven living in Rhode Island that suffers at the hands of sinister spirits in their own home in the 1970s. Lili Taylor stars as the matriarch, Carolyn Perron, and Ron Livingston as her husband, Roger. Desperate to keep their children safe, Carolyn and Ron call in Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) to investigate.

Just as The Conjuring was about to wrap, Warner Bros let experience the haunting and pass judgment for ourselves by inviting us to the film’s EUE/Screen Gems Studios set in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Early on, the studio bounced back and forth between calling the film “The Conjuring” and “The Warren Files,” with the latter seemingly perfect to support a franchise – begin with “The Warren Files” and follow it up with “The Warren Files: Story A,” “The Warren Files: Story B,” and so on. Even though the studio ended up running with The Conjuring, considering the film’s sky-high test screening results, there’s a good chance Ed and Lorraine Warren might still end up with their very own series of films.

But that still begs the question, why start with the Perrons’ story? Why not a different case? The Conjuring producer Tony DeRosa-Grund noted that it was actually the real Ed Warren himself who was adamant about making the movie about this specific investigation. DeRosa-Grund recalled, “[Ed] sat down with me and he played a tape for me of his original interview with Carolyn Perron when he went to the farmhouse for the first time, and it was absolutely chilling. It was either black or white. Either this woman had severe mental problems, which she didn’t, or she was literally scared to death, which she was.” 

Of course, it’s impossible for anyone but the Perrons and the Warrens to know what really went down in that farmhouse.

On Set – The Basement

The first stop was the day’s hot set, the basement. When the Perrons move into their new home, they notice that the previous owners had boarded up the fireplaces and the basement, and for good reason, too. Producer Rob Cowan explained, “When they opened up the fireplaces and the cellar, that’s when everything started up.”

The film version of the cellar resembled an actual basement down to every corner and crevice, with no concern for large lighting and camera equipment. On top of the size and structure of the room being rather cramped, it was also tough to move around because, like most basements, this one was packed with storage items. The room also included a set of stairs that led up to a second story consisting of a small section of the house’s first floor.

However, we entered on the ground floor, the cellar level, and that area was as dark and creepy as haunted basements come. When the Perrons buy the house, they don’t even know it has a basement. It isn’t until their young girls play a game called “hide and clap” that they conjure the witch, she comes through a closet, loosens a board and reveals the basement stairs.

The furnishings and construction of the room certainly reflect the 1970s time period, and likely well before, looking more like a dank cellar than a room in a family home. A jar full of old plastic farm animals added a creepy touch, as did a bedspring shoved up against the wall. While not as modern, the basement was equipped with a water heater that, should it come to life, might behave like the Home Alone furnace. Cowan pointed out that great care was placed in designing every single room of the home, “We’d spent a lot of time going through each room and what it needed, and so when we were shooting, it had all those great little angles and movements to it.”

Production designer Julie Berghoff focused on the basement, explaining that she was very particular when it came to selecting her construction materials. “I just really think about it, like where would they have gotten those beams? They would have been telephone poles or old trees that they would have probably cut down in their yard and planed and made themselves.” The same thought even went into the paint, a task Berghoff handed off to Paul Oliver and his crew with this direction: “I want it to be textured but have a purpose, like mold and a patch job.”

Before leaving the set for some interviews, unit publicist Pat Story offered a brief description of the shooting schedule for the day. “They’re down here and the witch has taken over Carolyn and she is down here being tossed around.” And yes, Taylor really is being tossed around, or at least her stunt double is. But before we get to that, it’s off to a nearby conference room to talk to the cast and crew.

Interview: Tony DeRosa-Grund, Rob Cowan, and Peter Safran (Producers)

First up was The Conjuring producing trio, Tony DeRosa-Grund, Rob Cowan, and Peter Safran. DeRosa-Grund is a relative newcomer having produced Josie and the Pussycats back in 2001, but he was the one working to secure all the necessary rights early on in the process, as he was the one who actually had a relationship with the Warrens and the Perrons. From there, the film went to New Line and Peter Safran joined the effort after which the script made its way to James Wan, he delivered his own draft, and then in came Rob Cowan to round out the producing team. Check out what the gang had to say about possibly rousing the real witch by making this movie and their plan for subsequent films in the Interview Highlights section of this set visit report.

Interview: Julie Berghoff (Production Designer)

Having served as production designer on Saw and Dead Silence, James Wan knew exactly what he was getting into by picking up Julie Berghoff for The Conjuring. Based on the basement location, her attention to detail and the thought she puts into the practicality of each and every element of her work is absolutely impeccable and, thus far, seems as though it’ll successfully sell the film’s 1970s setting. But beyond the home itself, there’s a specific element of the story that she needed to nail because it’s deeply rooted (no pun intended) to the Perrons’ source of suffering. Read about the tree that Berghoff likens to the eyes of the Amityville house in the Interview Highlights section.

Interview: Patrick Wilson (Ed Warren)

Patrick Wilson and James Wan are one for one courtesy of Insidious, and hopefully they’ll be three for three after this and Insidious Chapter 2 hit theaters later this year. But naturally, after such a successful experience making Insidious, joining The Conjuring was a no-brainer for Wilson. He explained, “Insidious, we knocked it out pretty quickly and it was a wonderful experience, so I knew going into it that James and I really worked well together.” However, he also dubbed The Conjuring “a totally different animal,” and that was largely due to the fact that Wilson was portraying a real person. Check out what Wilson had to say about embodying Ed Warren, including a curious instance involving the resurrection of a very particular ring in this set visit’s Interview Highlights section.

Interview: Chad and Carey Hayes (Writers)

If not for screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes, The Conjuring might have followed a similar path to the large majority of haunted house movies out there, telling the story from the homeowners’ perspective. But, after reading a treatment and doing a little research, they pinpointed the element that could set The Conjuring apart from the lot – the Warrens. Read all about the genesis of this script and the Hayes brothers’ hopes for subsequent Warren file films in the Interview Highlights section.

Interview: Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston (Carolyn and Roger Perron)

Lili Taylor’s got it rough compared to her on-screen spouse, Ron Livingston. Livingston himself even pointed out that he heard the Warrens say, “A lot of times the wives are targeted because … they were the ones who were home all day, often by themselves.” And so it goes for poor Carolyn Perron. While Roger Perron is out of town for work or just going about his business, his wife is literally being whipped around their basement by an evil witch. Read what Taylor had to say about the different stages of Carolyn’s possession and what Livingston told us about Roger’s understanding of his wife’s condition in this set visit’s Interview Highlights section.

Interview: James Wan (Director)

With Saw, Dead Silence, and Insidious to his name, James Wan is in prime position to bring The Conjuring to life. After six other films, it might be tough to remember, but Saw was once an incredibly intimate, contained, and effective concept. And in Insidious, Wan proved he’s got the family dynamics down and is capable of creating a chilling, haunting scenario. Dead Silence may not be for everyone, but we can still call that a plus for offering studio level filmmaking experience. Ultimately, Wan is just ready for something like The Conjuring. In fact, he’s so prepared that this marks his first solo endeavor without his long time collaborator Leigh Whannell – and also his first film without an appearance by Billy from Saw, too. Read about his tactics to ensure the audience strikes a connection with Ed and Lorraine Warren, why he was steadfast about honoring his source material, and what he’s got in store in terms of the film’s score in the Interview Highlights.

On Set – Filming in The Basement

We returned to the basement set two more times during the day. The primary focus was Carolyn’s “tossing,” but before the action went down, the crew needed to check off a rather simple shot – Carolyn on the stairs lighting a match, the footage at the 2:15 mark in the film’s first trailer. The shot was from behind, so we never got a look at Taylor’s face. The frame and the camera movement drew your eye to the blackness at the bottom of the stairs, something that proves to be quite effective in that trailer when it turns out, there’s actually someone behind Carolyn, not in front.

However, ultimately it’s down in that basement that the horror not only comes for Taylor’s character, but literally takes control. A short while after the match shot, the wirework was readied for Taylor’s stunt double. The wire was rigged about halfway across the basement ceiling and, when ready, would fling the double back and forth rather violently. For the rehearsals a mattress was used to lessen the blows and, as she flew from one end of the room to the next, Wilson, Livingston and Farmiga would run down the stairs to her rescue. When the team was ready to shoot, the padding came off and the scene played out much like it will on the big screen, with that poor stunt double being hurled into a wooden dresser and crashing to the floor.

Later that afternoon, Farmiga was front and center. While readying for her shot, a few previously shot scenes were played on the monitor. As explained by Story, at one point, Lorraine goes into a closet and falls through a hole and down two stories into the cellar. The footage we saw shows Lorraine down in that cellar inspecting her surroundings, which include a wonderfully creepy prop – a dirty old jack-in-the-box. But it was later on that we got to see the true horror that Lorraine encounters while in the basement. While crouched underneath some sort of wooden structure rather close to the ground, Lorraine checks to ensure that the coast is clear, scanning the room with a flashlight. However, just before crawling out and making it to safety, the witch herself drops from a noose just above her. As Lorraine dashes out, Wan holds the camera on the witch, giving her (who is actually a him and the film’s composer, Joseph Bishara), just enough time to spin around and give the camera a long look at her in all her near-dead glory.

Chad Hayes noted, “Lorraine Warren is a clairvoyant so she sees things other people don’t see.” He added, “We switch to her POV all the time, and it’s awesome because everyone else is looking around, like, ‘What’d she see?.'” Perhaps this very shot could be an instance of just that.

The Real Perrons & Cast and Crew Ghost Encounters

The Conjuring is for our own amusement to a point, but to the Perron family, it’s no joke, and the cast and crew could certainly sense that when the real Perrons came to visit the set. Sadly our set visit didn’t overlap with theirs, but Cowan recalled, “One of them actually had quite a reaction when she saw the witch that we have, the character that they were supposedly haunted by.” It was in the middle of the day and the set was packed with people, but just before they started shooting, Cowan continued, “All of a sudden, one of them bolted over to Pat. I just look up at the top of the hill and [Pat] was just hugging this woman.” That woman was Cindy Perron, the second youngest child in the family. Cowan added, “It’s funny because we’ve been dealing with eight-year-olds and she’s 50 or whatever. But she really had a bad reaction to it.” And shortly after that, Chad Hayes recalled one of the Perron girls telling him, “Something really bad is going to happen out here today.” He continued, “And then you know what happened? Their mother, Carolyn, fell and broke her hip.” Fortunately that incident didn’t occur on set, as Carey Hayes added, “She was the only one not there, but they all had to leave. It was pretty nutty.”

And it turns out, the Perrons weren’t the only ones feeling the ominous presence surrounding the project. Perhaps it was just because they had witches and spirits on the brain, but a good percentage of the cast and crew are convinced they had run-ins with paranormal entities. Wan explained, “Vera’s said that the moment she came on to make this film, she’d always wake up between the period of 3 to 4.” Making the scenario even stranger, he pointed out, “In the movie, there’s a very specific period where the witch character died in that period between 3 and 4.”

Cowan also brought up the Warrens’ special artifact room. When the Warrens would track down an item that might be possessed, that’s where it went, and the filmmakers recreated that very room for this movie. Cowan noted a couple of strange instances that happened on that set, but pinpointed a certain pig as the most frequent culprit. “There’s a wooden pig that we had in there. They had all manner of things – masks and little religious artifacts and things like that. But there was a pig that everyone attests would move around the room. It would be there and they’d come back and it would have moved over to there.”

The Outlook

Despite repeatedly being told the films are quite different, if you like Insidious, The Conjuring will likely be a film for you, but not just because they’re both essentially haunted house movies. Much like Insidious, The Conjuring appears to base its horror in the sheer terror of the situation and the connection to the characters rather than gore.

Another major plus here is the franchise potential. Ghost stories can be a blast on the big screen and the Warrens’ history is full of them, and full of ones that can be even creepier by branding them “based on true events.” And that’s something every single person on this set was very much in-tune with. Having the actual Perron family on set wasn’t just a cute experience, letting them see some movie magic; it was a time that made the horror feel as real as ever for everyone involved.

Again, it comes down to whether you believe or not, but for the Perrons and the Warrens, what goes down in this film is as real as it comes, and that’s something that could make The Conjuring stand out within the genre.

Click here to read more interviews from the set >>

The Conjuring opens on July 19th.

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