Insidious' James Wan on (haunted) house tours and pushing visuals, ahem, Further

James Wan
James Wan

Halloween is the one holiday with no shortage of good movie recommendations. Unlike Christmas, there are more than, like, five good options and plenty of variations within the horror genre to fit the viewer’s needs. But when someone needs a down-and-dirty movie with plenty of scares, no blood, and the most terrifying use of Tiny Tim since, well, Tiny Tim, accept no substitutes for Insidious.

James Wan’s film headlocks the viewer with smart direction, believable characters, and creature designs that evoke an ancient, unspeakable horror. Wan drags us (sometimes kicking and screaming because his movie is so scary) through his suburban nightmare, using our own horror movie expertise against us, and coming out of nowhere with the perfect scare.

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More so than with one of their other franchises, particularly Saw, Wan and co-writer Leigh Wannell announced themselves not as extreme horror auteurs but connoisseurs of horror history. And where better to show off your prowess than the most classic of horror movies, the haunted house? Taking a break from filming Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom, Wan spoke to The A.V. Club about making the first two Insidious films, updating his visual style, and how, in order to scare people, they must first understand the space.

The A.V. Club: What do you remember about looking for the two houses for Insidious?

James Wan: We wanted it to feel like a very traditional, sort of suburban house in a neighborhood that people can associate with. That is always the best way to put the audience in the shoes of the characters. They go, “Oh, that looks like the place that I live in.” You know, as opposed to, like, a big, huge mansion. That was important to find something that was easily relatable.

AVC: What challenges did you face filming in a relatable house?

JW: Well, I didn’t build the sets. These are all real houses that we shot in, so it’s the reality of shooting on location, shooting in a neighborhood. Just the practicality of where to park your film truck, where you keep catering, and where you keep the equipment. With The Conjuring films, I have a bigger budget. I would build my interior set on a soundstage so I can really control the look of it, the lighting, and the general stuff that goes on during a film shoot.

In the first movie, they move into an even smaller house, and that makes it even trickier. You’re in a smaller house, and you have all the infrastructure of filmmaking that goes into like shooting a shot, right? And you don’t really have space for all the equipment, for the lighting, for the crew at all. It got a bit snug in that second house.

Insidious (2010) Official Trailer #1 - James Wan Movie HD

AVC: One of my favorite parts about your films are the “house tours.” You guide the camera through the space. What effect does that give?

JW: That is something that I do a lot in my films. Whether it’s a haunted house movie or an action film, I like to let the audience know the world they are inhabiting. If you can let the audience understand the layout of the space, it’s much easier to craft things to happen because you can do shorthand things because they have a good understanding of the space.

In the case of a haunted house movie, very early on, I give a house tour of how the rooms flow from one into another so that way there’s no confusion when I create my set pieces later.

AVC: There’s a lot of mythology and world-building in the design of the first two movies, particularly surrounding the Further, which implies much more story. Since then, you’ve become synonymous with a number of horror mythologies. Is this you testing out building a larger universe?

JW: A lot of this really is from my personal taste, my personal aesthetic. I like the things that are just a little bit quirky, just left or right of center. I’m a pretty visual person, so I tend to want to lean into visuals that either a) you haven’t seen before or b) are just a bit heightened.

When I’m building the world of the Further, that world really allows me the opportunity to create a visual look that can be a little bit grander and to take the aesthetic a bit higher than what it looks like in the real world. The Conjuring films take place more in a grounded world, so I keep the aesthetic of the time period that the story is set in. But with the Insidious films, I can have a bit more fun coming up with more quirky looks.

AVC: How set is that mythology when you’re writing the script?

JW: The most important thing for me and for Leigh [Whannell] is to get the movie that we’re making right, and make it the way that we want to make it. But always in the back of my mind, I have bigger stories. In the same way an actor does research into their characters to understand where the characters come from so that they know where they’re going, [it’s the] same with me. If I know in my head what the world is like, even though I’m shooting a microcosm of this world, it allows me to tell the story better. Ultimately, what that does is, if we’re lucky enough to get to the future sequels and spin-offs and all that, I already have the world roughly shaped out in my head and I kind of know where we could go with future stories. So that is something that’s important to me, even if I don’t necessarily touch on it in the first film.

AVC: Each movie has three parts. The first jumps from a haunted house movie to a possession movie, and finally, this astral projection movie. Insidious: Chapter 2 goes in a different way, jumping from a Shining riff to this Back The Future: Part 2 perspective, and also a classic haunted house story. Was there an effort to match the structure of the first movie?

JW: We created this world with the Further that allows us to sort of experiment and lean a little bit more into the fantastical. That’s very fun for me. And because we’re doing a little bit more in the fantasy aspect of it, it allows me to sort of play, with a bit of time traveling, a little bit of the monstrous creatures, Lucio Fulci-style creature, zombie designs, but it still takes place inside a house, so it has the trappings of a classic haunted house story, except the story itself isn’t traditionally a haunted house. It’s a bit more fantasy. It allows us to branch out.

I didn’t want to make the same movie that I did with the first film. I felt that would be a wasted opportunity. We’ve created this world, and it would be a shame not to explore this heightened world more and try different things. For me to come back to do any sequels, I have to have something new to do or to say otherwise, there’s no reason for me to come back. I’ll pass it along to other people like I did with the Saw franchise.

AVC: There’s a rumor online that the house in Insidious 2 is the same house as Malignant. Was the same house used in both?

JW: No. I’m trying to remember. I’ve shot in a lot of houses over the years. They are of the same period. I think they are both Victorian designs, and so they have a lot of architectural similarities. But they are not the same houses. They’re actually quite far apart in L.A.

AVC: Chapter 2 has a very different look than the first movie, perhaps because it had a bigger budget. What do you remember about updating the visual look from the first movie to the second one?

JW: The second movie actually doesn’t have that much more budget than the first one.

AVC: It looks more like a Conjuring movie or Malignant with these splashier colors and more elaborate setups.

JW: There were days on Insidious 2 where I’m like, “Oh, I just don’t have enough time to shoot it properly.” It still felt like a very low-budget film for me. But thank you.

With the movies I’ve made, I know the tricks of how to make things look better and more polished. And I think we definitely have a better camera in Insidious 2. And that might actually be the reason why Insidious 2 has a slicker look to it.

But in terms of similarities of it looking like my latest film, that sort of like theatrical, stylized photography and color, I’ve been doing that all the way back to Dead Silence, my second movie. Even in even in my first Saw movie, there were moments when the room would be bathed in red, and there would be strong blues and greens. I think I have a palette that has kind of been ringing pretty true through all the movies that I’ve made. Even in the Aquaman films.

Insidious: Chapter 2 Official Trailer #1 (2013) - Patrick Wilson Movie HD

AVC: The first Insidious movie just has such a grounded look. It’s more unassuming at the beginning than in Chapter 2, which starts at a higher pitch. What did you learn between the two movies to do to make that leap?

JW: Funny enough, in between those two films, I went up to make The Conjuring. With my DP, John Leonetti, we worked together very closely in that period of my career. John has since moved on to directing, but back when he was a DP, he worked a lot with me. We would talk about the stuff that we like. The color scheme that I wanted to bring back into Insidious 2 because The Conjuring was more like a real loving throwback to the ’70s aesthetic, with a lot of zooming cameras and gritty quality to it. But also having spent time creating a film that is “more grounded looking,” I wanted to go back and have fun with Insidious. And so I think that’s why I lean into the operatic, theatrical lighting and color scheme for Insidious 2.

I react to the last movie I made. I want to go and do something different for the next one. Whether it’s a different story, a different genre, or just a different way of shooting the film.

AVC: Speaking of reacting to your last movie, will there be a Malignant 2?

JW: This is what I would say for Malignant 2. If the fans want it, I want them to make a big noise with the studio. And that’s how you did it. #RestoreTheMalignantUniverse. That’s what needs to be done for a Malignant 2 to happen.

This interview was edited for clarity.

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