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

In Part 2 of B-D’s Insidious coverage, reporter Chris Eggertsen travels to James Wan’s Hollywood Hills home for an extended interview with the director and is the first (outside of those involved with the production) to view a Wan-produced teaser for the film. Read inside for all the details, including the intriguing story on Wan and partner Leigh Wannell’s pre-Saw Paranormal Activity connection.
Someone awhile ago saw the film and referred to it as…’Poltergeist’ meets ‘The Exorcist’ on acid.” – James Wan on comparisons to other horror movies

“This is the house that ‘Saw’ bought”, said director James Wan as he showed me around his impressive modern abode. I couldn’t help but be envious (as I’m wont to be in high-priced hillside homes) as I took in all the cushy details: the stunning (if hazy, given the layer of summer smog) view of the city; the shimmering swimming pool spread out near the edge of the patio; the Zen-like landscaping; the interior/exterior glass wall that can be opened up to temporarily make the living room a part of the backyard (in the event that Wan hosts a bitchin’ Hollywood party).

Inside, the house had been transformed into a kind of post-production studio, with a cord trailing down the long hallway between two banks of editing monitors and equipment. At one of them, an assistant editor sat toiling away with a pair of headphones.

“I think it’s kinda cool that we’re doing it outside of the studio system, and that I’m literally making the movie in my house, in my garage at one point, and just really getting down to that grass roots of indie filmmaking, which Leigh and I really love”, Wan said excitedly, before showing me into another room where he played a two-minute teaser of the film that he’d put together.

“Could you turn that off?” he politely asked as he pointed to my tape recorder before playing it, lest I capture any audio. I did turn it off, but he needn’t have worried – the undeniably impressive teaser was nothing but footage and music, a blue/gray-tinged succession of narratively context-free images – an old-style metronome ticking away; young Ty Simpkins’ character lying comatose in a bed; actress Lin Shaye placing a freakish-looking gas mask over her head; the lower half of the demon’s face as he applies what appears to be lipstick (?). The sumptuous, mysterious images build and build before cutting to text of the intriguing title: “Insidious”. And the teaser was insidious, in that it made me want to see more though I knew it probably wouldn’t be good for me (that’s a compliment, by the way).

Later on, as we sat talking at a picnic table in Wan’s backyard, I asked if he could tell me how exactly the title related to the film itself, while also noting that at different times it’s also been known as both The Astral and The Further.

“There were a few titles at the start that I purposely had just because I didn’t want people to know what film I was working on”, he told me with a twinkle in his eye. “I realized that was part of me wanting to control this film. So I just had a bunch of faux titles out there. It would be very ironic if eventually…whoever buys the film, the distributors, get a hold of the film [and say], ‘you know what, we love one of the faux titles you came up with!’…but right now, the root title that we’ve always gone for is ‘Insidious’. Because I think it’s such a cool word.

“For people who actually know the word ‘Insidious’, I think the word is very relevant to what the film is”, he went on. “It starts off as sort of a slow, brooding, creeping film that slowly [gets] under your skin, lays an egg of suspense and eeriness, and hopefully just gets inside you. And I feel like that title really reflects that. When people ask me to describe the film I say, ‘it’s a movie with a very INSIDIOUS tone’.”

This comment unleashed a torrent of laughter from Wan, and it was a laugh I heard pretty frequently. Frankly, I hadn’t been quite sure what to expect after seeing him frantically rushing around the set and barking orders a few months ago, but once I sat down to talk with him outside the second-to-second madness of physical production I found him a genuinely warm and endearing person, made all the more so by that strangely charming hybrid Australian/East Asian accent.

Though I tried digging for more plot details of the closely guarded production, Wan for the most part held back. Here’s what I was able to gather: it merges the tropes of the haunted house movie with the concept of astral projection; the film takes place in two dimensions – “the Further” (hence the alternate title) and the real world; there are several entities in the film, including numerous “lost souls” and one demon; the ghoulish old woman wearing a bridal veil and holding a candle featured in the image released by Midnight Madness is a key malevolent entity in the film tied in with the past of Patrick Wilson’s character (ok, that last bit I gathered from Wilson himself during my set visit); and in one scene, a medium (Lin Shaye) is called in to perform a séance and weird shit goes down.

“Basically, [Lin Shaye's character is] trying to communicate with the boy who’s in the coma state, who’s somewhere else [let's assume that 'somewhere else' is the Further]“, Wan told me when describing the séance scene. “So she’s trying to communicate with this boy, trying to find this boy’s soul, and she goes into…this really bizarre trance-like state where she speaks almost in gibberish. She speaks very quietly. And the only person that can understand her is her assistant. So she wears this bizarre-looking headgear, this gas mask that has a hose that comes out of the mouth area that ties into an earphone that the assistant hears. And so whatever weird gibberish she whispers…the assistant basically deciphers that and calls [it] out.”

The secrecy surrounding Insidious is certainly understandable (personally, I prefer not to know every single freakin’ detail of a movie before I see it), especially given the sneaky nature of the online film-geek world we live in today, where plot elements are routinely spilled before a movie is even released. But by Wan’s own admission, in Insidious‘ case this secrecy also appears to be an attempt at managing audience expectations.

Said the director, “The financiers and the producers and the publicity machine that have got on board for this…everyone wants this film, believe it or not, to be very low-key, everybody wants it to be really under-the-radar…we’re apprehensive about the possibility of having just too high an expectation. You know, ‘from the makers of Saw’, or ‘the makers of Paranormal [Activity]‘. We don’t want people to go, ‘oh is this the next Saw or the next Paranormal [Activity]?’ It’s not. It’s its own film. And I want people just to enjoy it for what it is and have no expectations.

“So that’s why we’ve been very quiet about it”, he continued. “And for such a small film, when you watch this it’s not going to be like ‘Batman’ or whatever, you know? It’s a little horror film. That’s what it is. And it should be seen and embraced by the horror community as a movie that is original and really wants to take that step to once again have horror films be scary. That’s the biggest problem I have with a lot of today’s scary films, is they’re not scary. They’re action/horror films…and I don’t get it. I’m like, you don’t cut scary films like action films, they’re different. They have a very different flow to them.”

He also seemed wary of portraying the film as if it were the next Saw…i.e. another gory, torture-heavy, hardcore piece of horror.

“With ‘Insidious’, I didn’t set out to make a bloody, disgusting movie, I set out to make a bloody, scary movie. A bloody, creepy movie. That was my goal”, he told me. “It’s not any of the ‘Saw’ sequels, per se. It’s just not that kind of a film. And if I tried to do that, it would feel like two different styles of films kind of clashing with each other. I just don’t think it would work. It would be like ‘The Others’, if ‘The Others’ had blood and guts in it. It would just feel wrong.”

That being said, you needn’t worry about the film ending up as another watered-down “horror” flick routinely churned out by the studios these days.

“Someone awhile ago saw the film and referred to it as…’Poltergeist’ meets ‘The Exorcist’ on acid”, said Wan, simultaneously breaking out into a hearty laugh.

“Because of my sensibility for the weird and wonderful, my ghost is not just a chair that moves on its own, or a door that creaks on its own. My malevolent entities have a certain look to them”, he told me. “They’re definitely much more heightened and more theatrical …yes, it’s a haunted house movie, but imagine if it’s a haunted house film where you start to see ghosts, but the ghosts are very WRONG.”

Insidious is being filmed as the first in a five-picture financing deal between Paranormal Activity producers Jason Blum, Steven Schneider and Oren Peli (Blum and Peli, incidentally, briefly came by to visit the set while I was there) and financier Alliance Films, in which each movie will be a “micro-budget” production helmed by an established genre director who takes no money up front but is given complete creative control.

“This is the first in that bunch for them, so knock on wood that it works out”, said Wan. “The good thing is, it’s such a small film…the film is [being made for] way less than ‘Saw’, and ‘Saw’ was the price of a Happy Meal. [Laughs]”

As for the Paranormal Activity connection, it turns out that before they hit the big time with Saw, Wan and Wannell came up with an idea that was extremely similar to the basic premise of Peli’s massive micro-budget hit.

“When we first cooked up ‘Saw’ we actually had three ideas”, said Wan. “One of them was an idea about two guys stuck in a room, and there’s a dead body lying on the floor…so that eventually became ‘Saw’. A second idea I had was about a guy who goes to bed at night, and wakes up in the morning to find that he has all these scratch marks on his body. And he doesn’t know what happened, and he starts to realize something’s happening to him at night when he sleeps. So he starts setting up all these cameras at night to film himself when he sleeps. Guess what movie that became?”

And the third idea? Insidious.

To borrow a phrase from the tagline of one of the later Saw sequels…sometimes things really do come full circle.

James Wan Insidious