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A Visit to the Set of James Wan’s ‘Insidious’ Part I

After a departure from the horror genre with 2007′s Death Sentence, director James Wan has re-teamed with Saw and Dead Silence partner Leigh Wannell for the supernatural horror/thriller Insidious, premiering next month in the Toronto Film Festival’s “Midnight Madness” category. Back in May B-D’s Chris Eggertsen had the opportunity to visit the set in downtown Los Angeles to check out some of the filming and talk to star Patrick Wilson, production designer Aaron Sims, and special makeup effects artist Justin Raleigh. Later on, he sat down with director James Wan at his Hollywood Hills home to pick his brain on the project. Read inside for all the details!
It’s always so funny, you know, when you know a guy’s work and you meet them…and here he is, just this [imitating Wan's Australian/East Asian accent] happy, very cheerful Australian, you know? And you’re like, `you directed Saw?’ Which I love, you know? That’s always fascinating to me.” – Actor Patrick Wilson on first meeting James Wan over the phone

I arrive at the Herald-Examiner building in downtown Los Angeles (which once served as the headquarters of the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner newspaper until it folded in 1989) a bit confused. Though I was told to come to a particular gate on the north side of the building to be let inside, there was no one there and neither line producer Jeannette Brill nor director James Wan’s assistant are answering their cell phones. After 20 minutes or so of walking back and forth along the perimeter of the building to see if I might be able to find my own way of getting in, I finally receive a call and someone is sent out to let me inside.

I’d never seen the interior of the historic building before (construction was completed in 1914), but it’s a popular location for film shoots, with various stock sets – a hospital, police station, school classroom, etc. – contained within its four walls. I was led inside by Wan’s perky assistant, who showed me to the “video village” area (the place where the monitors for film shoots are set up and where the director normally when the cameras are rolling), telling me they were running a little behind that day, their second-to-last day of filming.

I could definitely sense the urgency crackling through the air – most notably in the form of Wan, a man I’d obviously much heard about but never actually seen in person. Running back and forth from the set to the monitors with a lithe, jittery quickness and shouting out orders in his combination Australian/East Asian accent, he came off as a passionate, compact dynamo in possession of a shrill, intensely focused work ethic.

The lobby of the building was the focus of all the frenzied activity on this day; the architecturally stunning space, featuring high ceilings, large chandeliers, archways and a grand staircase leading to the upper floors, had been transformed into a sort of enormous demonic lair, complete with eerie red lighting and rather macabre details – stone altar, candelabras, gargoyles, scattered rose petals, brass rocking horse, etc. – to complete the effect.

In the center of it all were stars Patrick Wilson and Ty Simpkins, the eight-year-old actor playing Wilson’s son who in the film falls into a mysterious coma right around the time the family home begins experiencing poltergeist-like phenomena – doors creaking open on their own, inexplicable scratching sounds, etc. The scene they were preparing to shoot when I arrived was one in which Wilson’s character comes upon his son in the lair and attempts to free him from restraints shackling him to the floor. And that’s when the demon comes…

And then Simpkins begins to cry – for real. Cut!

Apparently, though Simpkins is a seasoned child actor (he also played Wilson’s son in the amazing 2006 Todd Field film Little Children) who, according to his IMDB page, has been working steadily in film and television since he was…um, three weeks old, is extremely frightened by the sight of the demonic entity in the scene, stalking out of the shadows and covered in ghoulish makeup while hissing like a rearing cobra. And who can blame him? He’s fucking eight.

“Every time [the actor playing the demon] walks on set – even though Ty knows him, Ty talks to him, Ty watches him go into makeup, all that stuff – as soon as he gets up there and he starts growling, Ty starts crying”, star Patrick Wilson, still in rather intense acting mode, told me later on about filming the scene. “And it’s very sad, but there’s something very visceral about this guy.”

Later, I asked special effects makeup designer Justin Raleigh if he got some sick satisfaction out of Simpkins’ terrified reaction to the fruits of his labor.

“No”, he laughed slightly, before admitting, “To a certain degree. Obviously you know the makeup’s effective and you’ve done your job…but it’s interesting, because I’ve even had him come in and help do the makeup with me, and still the moment [the actor playing the demon] gets into the whole character and he’s breathing and he has this presence when he walks on stage, [Simpkins] just becomes an eight-year-old kid and cries. [Laughs]…it’s a combination of the smoke and all the ambiance that he’s surrounded by.”

Though it is this use of practical effects (the film will feature very little CG) that will likely contribute to continuing nightmares for the young actor, it’s also not a surprise given Wan’s well-known preference for keeping things old school as far as the visuals are concerned. Wilson put it best when I mentioned it must make it easier for him as an actor when everything is right there in front of him.

“What would you rather see?” he asked rhetorically. “The cantina scene in `Star Wars’ and see all the actual makeup, or do you wanna see Jar Jar Binks in CGI?”

Wilson, who has never before starred in a full-fledged horror movie (Hard Candy is probably the closest he’s come), also described his excited reaction upon reading the script – written by Saw I-III and Dead Silence scribe Leigh Wannell – for the first time.

“This is one of the few things, when I read the script and I wasn’t even to the really good stuff yet, I called my agent and I was like, `Tony, have you read this yet?’”, the actor told me. “And he said, `no’. And I said `this is awesome, put it on the top of your pile.’ And he read it that day…and he called me and he was like, `this is awesome, this is the best horror script I’ve ever read.’

“The setup is a very real tragedy”, he continued. “And I always feel like if your base is a very realistic setting, then you can go as far off in the neverland as you want…because it’s a very real experience, you know? It’s the kind of horror movies that I dig. I’ve had a few thrown my way in the past few years and it’s just never felt right. It never has. And I’m so glad that this was the one that chose me and I chose to do. I really do believe that.”

Though on-screen wife Rose Byrne wasn’t on set that day, Wilson sung her praises when I mentioned she’s starred in several artistically-inclined genre projects (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, Alex Proyas’ Knowing) in the past.

“She has…which I hadn’t seen any of those”, he said. “It’s very funny. My wife and all these other people around me were like, `oh, she’s awesome’. And I hadn’t seen those movies, just for whatever [reason]. But she’s unbelievable. I can’t say enough good things about her. She just brings it every single take.”

The actor also talked to me about meeting Wan over the phone for the first time, joking that the director’s persona didn’t at all match up with the hardcore, doom-and-gloom expectations he had for the “torture porn” trendsetter going into the conversation.

“It’s always so funny, you know, when you know a guy’s work and you meet them”, Wilson laughed. “And here he is, just this [imitating Wan's accent] happy, very cheerful Australian, you know? And you’re like, `you directed Saw?’ Which I love, you know? That’s always fascinating to me.”

Wilson additionally spoke to the super-low-budget constraints of the project, which is being shot for even less money than Saw (a $1.2 million film),

“I think it’s a lot easier when you’re given tons and tons of time, and `we’ll do this angle, and I’ll put it together in the editing room.’ But we really can’t afford to do that here”, he said. “So you’re shooting what you need…you have to know exactly what you want, and exactly the right way to tell the story, and every penny on this movie is spent on the screen. And it doesn’t really do it justice to say it’s low-budget…’low budget horror flick’ to me sounds like a B-movie.”

Needless to say, the actor likely took a sizable pay cut when he signed on for the project.

“I mean look, everybody would love to have a huge payday…everybody in this room”, he said candidly. “But the sacrifices that you make for doing quality work, you know…that’s why you’re getting an unbelievable crew, an unbelievable D.P. [David M. Brewer], and you’re getting actors that don’t normally work for this kind of budget…I’m not just saying that for an article, it’s reality. I live in New York. I wouldn’t be out here and bring my family out here [if I didn't believe in the project]…it was just really important to say `you know what, if I’m ever to be in a horror flick, this is the right one to be in right now.’ This just made perfect sense for me.”

Also on set that day was Aaron Sims, the former protégé of both Stan Winston and Rick Baker who now owns his own design firm (the Aaron Sims Company) and has done concept work and effects for a multitude of recent high-profile films including The Mist, I Am Legend, and Clash of the Titans. His work will next be showcased in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, on which he did the visual effects design.

On Insidious, Sims’ primary role is production designer, a job he took on after working with Wan previously on Dead Silence – a project he was brought onto in post production to help rework some of the visual effects design – and Castlevania (the long-in-development video game adaptation), on which he did some preliminary design work before it was relegated to financing limbo. He went on to offer up that big-studio project as a point of comparison with Insidious, a truly independent (and much more low budget) production.

“What’s great about a project like this is that it’s a small budget and the team just kind of comes together and actually makes it happen. There’s not this whole [other] layer that you have to go through [as opposed to a larger studio project like `Castlevania']“, he said. “I’m sure that James is really enjoying the process because it’s allowed him to have total freedom. And with me it’s been great because he gives me some ideas on what he wants, as far as the characters, cause I’m not only designing the look of the lair and all that we’re shooting today but also the demon itself.”

Ah yes, the demon. Back at video village, I watch during filming as he slowly emerges from the darkness, done up in elaborate red-and-black makeup, hissing with eerie abandon as he descends upon Wilson and Simpkins…and then falls. Like, the actor falls. For real. Cut!

There’s a nervous edge to Wan’s fit of laughter following the “demon’s” unfortunate tumble, a tumble resulting from a combination of walking on nine-inch “stilts” to make the fearsome creature appear taller and an oil slick produced by a nearby smoke machine that made the tile surface he was walking on extremely slippery. The director’s reaction was a perfectly normal one when you consider that the sight of a grown man bailing hard is a tough one not to laugh at, but the director’s anxiousness at being under the gun to get the shot rode the waves of his guffaws. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time the poor actor would take a spill that day; by my count, he fell a total of three times before finally managing to stay upright for the duration of the take.

According to Sims, the red-and-black makeup of the demon is mostly due to Wan’s preference for that particular color scheme in the production design.

“He had some parameters that he wanted it to be [within], and his theme a lot of times is black and red…so it’s working that into the theme of the look of the film, the production design, but also the character of the demon”, he told me.

Added Raleigh, “James really had a specific vision of what he wanted to do when I came in, and he and Aaron had already been working on a concept. We passed around what was practical, what could really happen based on the budget…so Aaron put together design[s] we had another meeting, and went from there. Then picked the actor [to play the demon], did life-casting, figured out what was gonna be prosthetic, what wasn’t gonna be prosthetic and actually minimized a lot of it and went with body paint just to get a lot more movement out of the actor. He still wears prosthetics on his face, though.”

With all the talk of Wan it was unfortunate that I didn’t get the chance to speak with him for more than a couple of minutes the day I was there, but luckily, after much back-and-forth emailing over the next couple months (he went into post-production madness almost directly following the completion of principal photography), I finally had the opportunity to sit down with him at his Hollywood Hills home to get his take on the project.

Check out Part 2 for B-D’s interview with Wan!

James Wan Insidious