SXSW: Interview with Insidious Director James Wan

INSIDIOUS is set for release this Friday April 1. The film was one of the opening night midnight features of SXSW 2011. While I was in Austin for SXSW, and the morning after the midnight showing of the film at the festival I had a chance to catch up with Insidious director James Wan. Wan is perhaps best known for being the director of 2004’s horror genre-redefining Saw, though as you’ll find in the interview its a credit he is eager to shake. Saw ended up being the film which brought the friend and writer of both Saw and Insidious Leigh Whannell to the mainstream.  The interesting thing about Insidious is that it marks the first film from the producing group which counts Oren Peli director of 2007’s Paranormal Activity as a member. Peli along with with his producing partners from Paranormal Activity Jason Blum and Steven Schneider have set out to work with creative teams like Insidious director Wan and writer Leigh Whannell to produce low budget independent horror films. Their goal by using smaller budgets, thus producing the films independent of studio financing, gives the producers the chance to give the writer and director total creative control over their films and their vision.

Read on to find out how Insidious came to be, Wan’s confessed love of Hugh Grant films, The love/hate relationship of creating one of the biggest horror franchises of the last decade, and how much it sucks when that leads to getting pigeonholed, blamed and more for creating Saw. I hope you enjoy reading it and check out Insidious in theaters on April 1.

Welcome and thanks for taking the time.

Thank you, likewise.

Did you sit in the screening last night? How did it go?

I’m always kind of in and out. I can not sit through the screening of any of my films.

Really?

Yeah I can’t do it.

And how did the people react?

It was pretty cool from what I can see from when I stuck my head in. I screened the movie at quite a few places. I’ve screened it in a lot of cities and coming now to Austin. So I’ve seen it now with a wide spectrum of audiences from really stiff upper lip film critics to the general public and so I’ve seen the extremist reactions. I think Austin fell somewhere in between there which is cool. It was a pretty respectful crowd actually.

Insidious Director James Wan

Can you talk about how you went from shooting the Saw films to this one? How did you transition?

Well I only made one of them. I only made the first one, and I stayed away from the rest. I think it was a pretty conscious decision to kind of want to do something a bit different, that was very different to Saw. I really, for better or worse, Saw spun a whole bunch of sequels and spun a whole bunch of imitators with it as well with it’s success. The fans, the kids who really loved it but other people really hate the fact that and really blame me for it and I guess I am partially to blame because I created the first one. But its not really my fault. It’s called capitalism guys. That’s what it’s all about. It’s the American way. If you’re against that you’re un-American. So I think with Insidious this it is really me wanting to try to do something that was outside. I was really conscious of not wanting to do something that was violent or gory and Insidious kind of held back in that respect. And there is really no blood or guts in it at all and just kind of relied more on a creepy atmosphere and that’s what I love. I actually love that kind of film making more. You know, trying to go for more stuff like suspense and build-up with payoffs and stuff like that as opposed to shocking you outright with blood and guts. Which I think has a place if you’re watching films like Evil Dead or zombie films or whatever you want to see that kind of stuff which is fine. That’s fun stuff, but if you see a movie like The Sixth Sense or The Others they don’t belong.

It was interesting that you bring that up because you kind of invented, arguably, torture porn, as it is sometimes labeled or I think you have been called a member of the Splat Pack. I don’t know if you like that or not and then Oren Peli, the producer of the film came along with Paranormal Activity a couple of years ago and kind of seemingly shifted the horror genre on it’s head from being a Saw dominating October to the you know atmospheric type work. How did you come about working with him and did he come along with the process in between the writing and the production?

It was actually more through Oren’s other two producers (Jason Blum & Steven Schneider). It was through those guys I met Oren. Actually when they said they wanted to work with us I really admire what Oren did with Paranormal. Because I actually think the crop of horror films in the last few years that’s truly one that’s actually effective and works. So I want to work with people who get how to make those films and also I want to go in that direction as well. I want to make more atmospheric scary driven movies and if I went with other kinds of producers who did not understand the horror genre that, well they will probably just look at the Saw films and just go, ‘well no we want you to just do the same thing’. We don’t want you to be outside of the box, but knowing that Oren has made that specific type of film meant that when I work with them I can very easily say “Hey you guys didn’t make a gory movie to be effective you made it a certain way which is how I think this film should be. So it was very collective, I’m sorry it was very…whats the right word here.

Collaborative, maybe?

Yes, definitely that and Lee (Writer Leigh Whannell) and I specifically almost like picking them. Knowing they weren’t going to fuck with us (laughs) and they were so supportive it was great. They were really supportive guys.

I was going to say it was probably tough being pigeonholed like that having that association with Saw because you know had the whole story.

I have such a love/hate relationship with the whole thing. I’m really grateful for what it’s given to me but I fucking hate being pigeonholed like that.

I can imagine.

I can not stand it, because I felt in a lot of ways, I get really unwarranted hate (laughs) in ways. I’m being blamed for something I didn’t really set out to do. But Leigh and I are super grateful for what it has given us. I mean it gave us a chance to do what we really want to do.

I think Insidious is a good step toward showing the level of talent you and Leigh have. I have to thank you I jumped in the theater several times which I’ve not done in years…

(laughs) cool, people also tend to forget that the first Saw movie that I actually directed wasn’t like this gore fest, its like people always try to throw that in my face. But the first one that I made was a pretty low key, it was a very visceral film but also more psychological, so I always try and point that out.

Thats fair, as its very true…

This one is surprisingly PG-13, was that something you were targeting in the beging?

Wan wanted Dead Silence to be PG-13...the studio had other plans

After what I felt like, with the success of Saw and the brand that it kind of put me in to I’ve been wanting to do a PG-13 film since my second movie. My second movie which not to many people saw Dead Silence is really kind of like a loving tribute and homage to Mario Bava, and old school Hammer horror films which I love and I should have known better than to make a movie that homages obscure Italian movies from the fifties and sixties (laughs) the ones no one gets. So I set out to make something kind of creepy atmospheric sort of fun but ironically since Saw had been such a huge success the studio actually imposed that I make an R rated film, which is kind of the opposite of the mentality of today, so I’d wanted to make a PG-13 film since my second movie. But the studio wanted the blood and guts stuff so I kind of had to put in the gory stuff that I didn’t really want to do. So yes coming around to Insidious I finally said I’m going to make that fucking PG-13 film whether they like it or not I don’t give a fuck…(laughs) but of course the film comes first and the rating ultimately kind of follows it. The way the (rating) system works, is that its kind of like a hit list. Like if you have blood, guts and adult themes that cross the line. I don’t think that Insidious really crosses any of those lines. Though I’ve heard many say this is the most frightening PG-13 film. So that’s the plan to scare a whole generation of thirteen year old kids.

(laughs all around)

Do you only want to do horror movies?

No. I think it’s pretty obvious (laughs), no I’m a film fan. I love horror films, but I’m a film fan so whatever stories I feel like telling. If I want to tell a romantic comedy, which I really do because that’s my favorite genre to watch believe it or not.

Really?

Yes, I was watching before I started this whole press tour I was just watching Music and Lyrics again which I really love. I’m a big Hugh Grant fan.

Do you think after Insidious it is going to be easier to do something else?

No, not really this will probably pigeonhole me even more. (laughs) You look at people like John Carpenter, its pretty much his whole career that’s all he’s pretty much made just genre films and when he did kind of branch out and try something different people were not very receptive. When he tried to go off and do Starman which is his ET people did not want that. When he tried to branch off and do Memoirs of an Invisible Man people we’re kind of taken aback by that so its tricky.

So this film and I apologize for not researching it before, did it get picked up? Did you make it independently or was it already picked up before you even started production?

I mean my god this is a very independent film. This is even more lower budget than Saw and so it was a small film. (whispers) They usually don’t like me to say this, but we shot it for like $80,000. Super low budget.

So did you find that you had some more creative freedom?

That’s exactly the reason why, when they told me how much money I had to work with I’m like “really?” I can go and make a studio film and have more to play with but it’s because when Leigh and I came up with the concept of Insidious and we wrote it we really wanted the creative freedom to write the movie and I wanted the creative freedom to direct the film I wanted to direct. From the sound design to the actors that I cast and even to the fact that I wanted to edit the film myself. If I went through the studio system I would not get that chance so that’s why I was willing to make the film for a very small by film standards, tiny by film standards, micro budget by film standards, these days, but the reason I was willing to do that is because they said “guys, we’ve got the money but you guys can do whatever you want we won’t get in the way.” So that was really cool of them.

I wanted to ask about your influences. I noticed some from maybe like Poltergeist and The Shining maybe. Did you watch films while you were writing and directing?

I know Leigh did not, I know he definitely did not do that while he was writing and I am sure he will speak to you guys and give you his perspective. But Leigh and I were very much inspired by ghost stories. We had heard from family and friends. We love hearing ghost stories from real people and I actually I think that is much more frightening and I think some of the scariest things in the film were things we had heard from families and friends. Like when, I am going to try and reference this without giving too much away, but when Rose Bryne wakes up in the middle of the night and she looks out the window and she sees someone pacing back and forth and bam, he’s right in the room. That had actually happened to friend of ours that we know or so he says and when he was telling us one night that really happened, he’s a guy, this Japanese guy, and he says that he sees when he first saw The Sixth Sense it was the closest to portraying people that can see ghosts and he says that ever since he was young he could kind of like see ghosts. It was one of those things he hated growing up but he kind of got used to it and so Leigh and I we weren’t quite sure on how to take this when your friend says they can see ghosts throughout their life. So one of the stories he told us we were literally in his, we were hanging out with him in his really big bedroom hanging around. And he goes, “So I was lying on the bed here when I got home from work I look out the window” and it was on the bottom floor and he says he looked out on to the patio of the balcony outside and he saw a guy pacing back and forth smoking a cigarette and he knew that wasn’t any one so he closed his eyes and tried to will it away and he opens his eyes and the guy was pacing inside his room.

Oh my god, oh wow

So Leigh and I were very much inspired by that when he wrote this story and a long time ago when we were trying to cook up an idea to for a really low budget film and that was when we came up with Saw and we also came up with a movie about ultimately the conceit, the twist of what Insidious becomes. Insidious starts out as a haunted house film and then takes it in a different direction. It makes you think you are watching a haunted house film which it ultimately is a haunted house film because it’s set in a house and there’s hauntings around but the reason for the haunting isn’t your typical dead spirit that have died in the house. So that talent the boy has in the film was an idea that Leigh and I have had since we cooked up the concept for Saw. And so it was a while ago and we wanted to finally put it in a movie.

Can you talk about the visual style that was introduced to the film?

I really wanted to give the film…I felt like this is a slow brooding film. You know it’s a slow brooding movie so I felt that visual, camera work and the production design, needed to fit that and the other thing to is that I kept wanting to make a much more restrained film even though it is intense and the way it builds up to a very intense last third, a pretty other wordly last third. I wanted to ground the other two-thirds of the movie to be as realistic as I possibly could I so I did not want to go for too crazy a style of film making. A very controlled film making.

So you made the first Saw and then you moved on from that and they made 37 more of them or something I can only assume this one is going to be very successful.

You assume it’s going to be very successful? Why would you  assume that? Come on guys it’s going up against Source Code why would you assume that?

(laughs)

Would you consider a sequel to this or are you not interested in sequels once you are done?

I definitely can not be accused, that’s the one thing, I can not be accused of being a guy who is just willing to do sequels because their willing to pay lots of money, but whatever right? If I don’t feel like that’s the story to tell I don’t want to do it. Having said that my take on remakes as well if I believe I can bring something new to it and I have an interesting story to tell then yes I would consider it. If I don’t I’m not interested. Thank you so much for your time.

I enjoyed the film.

Thank you so much.

Thank you.

by John Coovert

Transcription by Mendie Murray

John Coovert

About John Coovert

John was fortunate enough to be born in one of the most magical times of cinema: the eighties. Having an ultra cool aunt that introduced him to awesome sci-fi (Alien, Aliens, Terminator, Predator) and horror (Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Jaws) on VHS, and a cool mom that took him to the theater to see films like Back to the Future, Return of the Jedi, and Goonies, it's no wonder he fell in love with one of the finest forms of escapist entertainment, film. John continues to appreciate all forms of film, actively seeking out information and discussing it with all who will listen.

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