Warner Bros.’ The Conjuring, which is based on a true story, hits theaters on July 19th. In April of 2012 I visited the film’s set in Wilmington, North Carolina and was mightily impressed with what I saw.
It seemed at the time that they were making a smart, well-paced haunted house film that could play to adults as well as younger audiences. Guess what? They succeeded. The Conjuring is the best supernatural horror film in YEARS (I thoroughly agree with Brad’s review). The film “tells the horrifying tale of how world-renowned paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren were called upon to help a family terrorized by a dark presence in a secluded farmhouse. Forced to confront a powerful demonic entity, the Warrens find themselves caught in the most terrifying case of their lives.”
From James Wan, director of Saw, Insidious and Dead Silence, the film stars Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor, Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver and Sterling Jerins.
“People say, “do you believe in this? Or do you believe in that?” “Yes I do.” Or, “no I don’t.” Everybody has a couple of different opinions that come out at different times. There’s how you feel about it at 330AM in the dark, and then there’s how you feel about it in the light of the day reading Scientific American.” ~ Ron Livingston
Lili Taylor, sitting in a darkened stairwell, strikes a match. Its light affords her a few seconds of illumination before the flame descends too close to her fingers. She drops it and tries again. And again. Until it’s right.
Myself and a few other journalists are crowded around a monitor watching. The cameras keep rolling, director James Wan patiently guides her through a steady stream of matchsticks without calling “cut.” It’s a simple, effective image that perfectly encapsulates the old fashioned pleasures of The Conjuring, a ghost story that takes its time and knows that a whisper can be just as unsettling as a scream (though there will be plenty of screaming – a scene we see later is radically different in terms of complexity and staging).
We’re on a set in Wilmington, North Carolina. It’s actually a fairly sizable backlot housing several productions on vast sound stages. Iron Man 3 is shooting 50 years away, a mural of “Dawson’s Creek” adorns one of the main buildings. Lots of films have set up here to take advantage of the state’s tax incentives and The Conjuring, which is being put together on a fraction of the budget of some of these tentpoles, is no exception.
While the production means are frugal when compared to most other studio films, it’s still roughly 7 times more expensive than Wan’s prior outing, Insidious. But he’s clearly in his element, calm relaxed and jovial as he monitors Taylor’s progress with that book of matches. Someone asks how this film compares with Insidious and Wan is quick to point out its differences. “It’s not as quirky as ‘Insidious.’ ‘Insidious’ is independent. It’s like the ‘Clerks’ of horror films, you know? It’s supernatural, but it’s kind of in that vein. It embraces its strangeness, and that’s what we were going for. This definitely isn’t in that world, but I think this lives in a much more realistic world.”
This is definitely clear from our surroundings (and from having seen the film over a year later), if there’s anything in Insidious that The Conjuring evokes, it’s the first act. We’re about as far from “The Further” as you can get. Wan elaborates, “this is definitely a bit more serious… just the nature of what this film is, and the fact that it’s based on people’s stories, I want to honor that as much as I possibly can and ground it in reality as much as I possibly could. And also, it’s a period film as well, and I want to stay true to all of that.”
That’s not to say that the film is completely stripped of Wan’s signature visual aesthetic, or his slightly eccentric flair for various props and dolls. Later, we observe the filming of a scene in which Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine Warren is dusting herself off after taking a nasty fall into a musty, creepy, crawlspace. The mise en scene is classic, and period. Farmiga is wearing a 70’s outfit. The basement, while dark and dusty, fits the vibe. Then, Farmiga picks up… an object. I’m not going to say what it is, but it is distinctively Wan and proves that he has no problem migrating his personality onto whatever property he’s working on in a way that works.
Even if that property doesn’t involve longtime collaborator Leigh Whannell, “ I love having Leigh around. It’s just cool because we’re such good friends and we pretty much think the same. Sometimes if I like something, I’ll ask him what he thinks and he’ll give me his opinion. If I’m not sure about something, I’d go to him and he’d validate it for me, as well. I don’t have that, but I think it’s kind of cool at the same time to do it on my own. Up until now, I’ve always had Billy from ‘Saw’ make a guest appearance. This also will be my first film where I don’t do that.” He laughs, “I’m growing up and moving on.”
During a break from filming we talk to Ron Livingston (he plays Roger Perron, the beleagured husband to Lili Taylor’s Carolyn), who seemingly hasn’t aged a day since Office Space. He’s the first performer we’ve spoken to and, from his hairstyle alone, you know they’re keeping the 70’s alive and well. Wan is also shooting the movie in chronological order, which Livingston finds helpful, “Tremendously. You forget how much easier it is to do it this way because you’re used to working the other way. We can kind of figure it out as we go and if there’s gaps we can plug them. It also I think helps with the tone, because if there’s a slow build it’s easier to tell where you are on that. “Okay yesterday we were here, so we’re coming off of that.” As opposed to, “where were we in March?” ”
Patrick Wilson (whom in character as Ed Warren manages to outdo Livingston’s 70’s factor with some severely impressive sideburns) responds to the pressure of portraying a real person, “I tread lightly because having met Lorraine and Judy, Ed passed away in ’06 I think it was, they’re very open people and excited about this. It’s a strange world to go into – not only are we gonna tell your story or at least a piece of your story, but we’re gonna do it in a horror genre and make a horror movie out of it. You don’t really get stories like that a lot. You’re constantly trying to figure out what’s real and biographical and what we’re doing to, like any movie, focus it into a dramatic picture.”
He also feels strongly about working with Wan, for different reasons. “ A large selling point of wanting to work with him again is because we had such a great experience on ‘Insidious’ and the crew as well and the camera department. 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. And that being said, this is a totally different animal and a different kind of movie, I think a little more character driven.”
It’s true, we keep coming back to the characters again and again, most of the day’s conversations center around them. Not only the manner in which the film fleshes them out, but the fact that everyone here is playing a real person. Ed and Lorraine Warren investigated so many notorious hauntings and possessions during their heyday that they’re practically synonymous with supernatural horror. Of course, their connection to the investigation of the Amityville haunting is their most famous calling card – but that shouldn’t serve to de-legitimize the struggle of the Perron family.
If anything, the Perrons (as depicted on set and in the film), are much more relatable than the Lutzes. There’s a warmth to them that’s undeniable, you really buy that these people care for each other and you care about them because of it. All of this was a major factor for Lili Taylor when considering the role, “Yeah. You know, the relationship feels really nice, considering they have five kids, you could have a couple who has no sex life, who are exhausted and who have no kind of, you know, are just kind of, you know, bickering or I don’t care kind of thing, and what you have is you have two people who still have some energy, have a sex life and are like, I think they like parenting together. I think they enjoy it. They got lucky. They have good kids. I mean, you know, not good kids, easy kids. So, they’re a nice couple. They have a nice relationship, which has been nice to play, because it’s just kind of a drag when you have to play someone who is just bickering with their partner. You know, it’s a toxic kind of thing.”
We walk through a long hallway in the offices onset containing countless props, drawings, conceptual art and costume designs. Not only has a lot of attention been put into the period detail of the film, an equal amount of energy is being spent on scaring the crap out of you. Production Designer Julie Berghoff guides us through the materials, explaining that she wanted the house to feel somewhat decrepit, but not unrealistically so. You have to buy that a reasonable family, under some financial duress, would move into this house. “I like horror movies… I mean I made the first ‘Saw’ with James and… yeah I definitely immerse myself into the house. Like the bathroom of ‘Saw,’ the house, like what would it be like? What would scare me if I lived in this house, for sure? Big doors, dark walls in certain areas [that] fall off to darkness. Not a lot of lighting, just practical as creating moods.”
Perhaps even more important is the tree, it’s a big, beautifully ugly thing on the edge the property by a lake, and when you see the film you’ll further understand its’ significance. For Berghoff it’s, “ kind of like the eyes in Amityville in the house. The tree for me is probably the [most] iconic part of the film.” She continues, “if you look at it, it kind of looks like a hand coming out of the earth and with the fingers all messed up and twisting. I painted it kind of more of on the darker side. Like it representing death so to speak.”
As we walk back towards the soundstage, we spot composer Joe Bishara – briefly. But he’s not looking quite like himself, instead he looks like a Witch. He’s headed from the stage to a trailer and we’re quickly ushered out of view, but the makeup job – which you’ve no doubt seen in the trailers for the film – is quite remarkable.
Wan comments on the Witch’s presence in the movie, and how it will be kept to a minimum, “ For these films to be effective, you want to pick and choose your moments. You want to have those moments where [the audience] goes, “Did I just see that? Did that just happen?” Which is the kind of filmmaking that I love. The kind of films that I love have a character walking down a hallway and you’re like, “Did I just see someone behind the drapes?” I love that. I love the idea of playing with the audience, and being able to build on that. Sure enough, you think you see something later on, or you don’t see something and then … it’s just trying to find that balance.”
The final shot we bear witness to is the polar opposite of the first. Whereas our day started out simply and quietly, it ends with a long, complicated bang. Lili Taylor, whom we initially met perched in the stairwell lighting matches, is now literally flying through the air on wires in the basement (okay, so perhaps some of this was done by her stunt double). She SLAMS into a pile of furniture and falls to the ground. The camera tracks Ron Livingston and Patrick Wilson scrambling down the stairs to help. It’s a complicated shot with lots of motion, not only on behalf of the performers, but the camera as well – and it takes a few tries to get right. Not that I’m complaining, it’s entertaining as hell.
So, what the hell is happening in that basement? Livingston explains, “this is a sequence in the 3rd act where the house kind of house some various spirits that are attached to it that haven’t left, basically. One of them in particular has taken possession of Lili [Taylor] at this point. And it has actually followed us. You know there’s the question in haunted house movies, “why don’t they just leave?” And in this one we do leave and one of the things kind of attaches to her and brings her back So we kind of run screaming in from the motel and try to get her out and take her away to the priest to perform the exorcism. But the spirit won’t let her leave the house and at that point it starts to get kinetic. She goes flying down the hallway, spins around and gets dragged down the stairs. And we run down to find her flying around and banging into things. So, pacing wise, if the movie has some build and then all hell breaks loose… you’re looking at one of the moments where all hell breaks loose. ”
Wilson explains that this is also a pivotal moment for his character, “my guy, Ed, up till this point, does not give exorcisms. He’s not a priest and that’s certainly reserved for priests. And this is the point in the movie where he has to decide; there’s really no time to wait for the word from the Vatican to assign someone to come give the exorcisms and, at this point, we come down there and she’s been thrown around the room and really is being taken hold of by this entity so then I’ve gotta give the exorcism myself.”
Much has been made of the film’s intensity and how it garnered an “R” rating without much gore, nudity or even profanity. Even on set pretty much everyone we speak to claims to be aiming for a PG-13. But, with moments like this, it’s easy to see where the “R” came from.
On the whole everything we see is stately, classically framed… and scary. While The Conjuring seems to be very much its own movie, it also smartly acknowledges the more artistically successful predecessors in the genre. In addition to Poltergeist Taylor explains, “ I think in some ways he is using ‘The Exorcist ‘ as a template. What I love about the exorcist was, you know, you can actually have depth and meaning, good acting, and interesting cinematography, and have a genre, you know, and what James is doing is it’s looking beautiful – John Leonetti, the DP is brilliant – and it’s looking gorgeous, it actually has a very ‘70s feeling.”
Having been on set proves that their aim and intentions in this regard are true. Having seen The Conjuring, one of my favorite films of the year, I can tell you without a doubt that they pulled it off.