For awhile it looked like Aussie/Malaysian filmmaker James Wan was a one trick pony. The blistering global success of “Saw” was behind him and his next two projects (“Dead Silence” and “Death Sentence”) failed to capture anywhere near the same attention.
Then came two of the franchises that would convince studios all over again that horror was where it was at, “Insidious” and “The Conjuring”, the latter costing $20m, earning back $318m worldwide and spring-boarding Wan to the big leagues of the “Fast and the Furious” franchise, “Aquaman” and beyond.
After “The Conjuring” came spinoff “Annabelle”, a direct sequel and a further spinoff about with a scary nun character coming soon, Wan is suddenly at the helm of a horror universe that’s raking in Marvel-sized profits with a fraction of the budget.
And as “Annabelle: Creation” producer Peter Safran tells Moviehole.net from the Los Angeles set, the sky’s the limit.
Was the “Conjuring” universe always planned to the extent it’s come about?
I was always a huge fan of genre movies but I hadn’t made one before the “Conjuring” just because I hadn’t found a great story to tell. And then when I heard about the life rights situation [with real life ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, subjects of the film] I just thought it was one that was really exciting. I put that together and the subsequently just the whole “Conjuring” universe that spawned out of it is kind of a natural progression.
So you’re going to stick with it as long as it goes on?
As long as we have good stories to tell. I mean we weren’t even going to do a sequel to “The Conjuring” unless we felt like we could do one that was a worthy successor to a much beloved movie. We’ll keep making movies in that universe as long as we have good stories to tell.
How did you decide to go to an origin story this time instead of a direct sequel?
A lot of people who saw the first “Annabelle” – certainly when they saw “The Conjuring” – were fascinated as to where Annabelle came from. It was kind of a natural question that kept coming up, so we thought it was a great opportunity to answer it.
So the group of James Wan and [writer] Gary Dauberman and the guys over at New Line, as we batted around ideas, this is the one that took hold and we thought would be most satisfying for the fans.
What made David F. Sandberg the right director?
That was very easy. I saw “Lights Out” very early. New Line had made that movie and they were incredibly happy with it, James had worked with him on “Lights Out” and thought he was terrific. And once I saw the movie it was evident that he’s a guy that was truly steeped in crafting intelligent scare sequences. He was the only guy we went to about it.
Is it hard to find child actors that have that kind of dramatic talent?
We’ve gotten so used to working with kids because the original “Conjuring” had a bunch of kids in it, “Conjuring 2” had kids in it, so it wasn’t that daunting other than from the natural production perspective – your hours are shorter, you’re limited in the way you can schedule things.
And as far as casting, we always just seem to find good kids. If you give yourself enough time and you spread the net wide enough, you really are able to come up with great kids.
How do you know when you’ve found that magic in a child performer?
It’s remarkably evident from the auditions. You watch hundreds of auditions and you think ‘maybe there’s just nothing on the page and that’s why there’s nothing good’. Then you’ll suddenly see someone who stands out and all ten people that have a voice in the casting go, ‘This is it. This is what we were waiting for.’ You have to be patient with it, but it’s really clear. Talitha [Bateman, who plays Janice] was actually the runner up for “The Conjuring 2”, it was between here and Madison Wolfe for that role, so she was very much on our radar.
“The Conjuring” movies and “Annabelle” were scary but not particularly bloody. Do you set out with a particular rating in mind?
We never plan with these movies a specific rating. We thought “The Conjuring” would be PG-13 because there was no blood, nobody dies, there were no language issues, no nudity, but it came back with an R rating just for intensity, which is a very unusual result. I don’t think anybody expected that, but we ended up with the same thing on “Conjuring 2”. So we’ll see. We make the best movie we can make without an eye towards whether it’s R or PG 13, whatever it is, it will be.
Is it a similar thing with the tone on a movie like this, do you let the tone show itself to you organically?
I think we have a sense of where the tone should be. “Annabelle Creation” has more death than perhaps the others, but it’s not “The Purge”, it’s not an inherently violent film. So it could easily be a PG 13, we just go into it trying to create the best sequences, the best scares that we can based on really well drawn characters.
What’s the secret to making one successful horror movie after another?
We have a very special secret called James Wan. He’s our secret sauce. Also I think we don’t rush into making them, we’re not chasing a release date. It was three years between the first “Conjuring” and the second “Conjuring”. We all believe we’re not going to make a movie unless we think we can do something special with it, at least going in. So maybe that’s part of it, we’re not overloading the system with having to do a certain number a year.
James creates the overall vision and tone of ‘let’s not do something unless we feel like it’s got a point of differentiation from what’s come before.’ And we use a lot of the same team from the original “Conjuring”.
You’re like the Marvel of ghosts and demons.
New Line is steeped in horror movies going way back when, and when they bought “The Conjuring” and then we brought James into it and had a script, there was definitely an intent and a vision to use this team and build out not just a franchise but potentially a universe. We took it one step at a time to make sure we were doing it right, and it’s worked out well.
Why don’t horror films get more critical love? When will horror films win Oscars?
I have that question frequently. The second “Conjuring” got good reviews but the first “Conjuring” got great reviews. It is surprising that it never gets the attention from a critical perspective.
Look at Kathy Bates in “Misery”, which is a genre movie and she won the Oscar for it, which is incredible. You have to go back to the way people thought of Kubrick and Hitchcock. They were awards worthy. Today it’s kind of fallen out of people’s mindsets, but with movies like “It Follows” or “The Babadook”… they stand toe to toe with movies from any other genre that are getting respected.
Look at Madison Wolfe, from “The Conjuring 2”. The fact that Madison is a 12 year old all American girl from Louisiana playing a girl living in a lower-socio economic class council house possessed by a girl in 1977 Britain and doing it beautifully. Even in England nobody said ‘her accent’s not working’… That’s an incredible performance, but you know it’s a bit of the nature of the beast that these movies tend not to get the critical respect they deserve and merit.
Everyone these days goes out of town to make movies, but you guys stayed here. Any reason why?
Well I mean I think that on “Conjuring 2”, the reason was James Wan wanted to shoot in LA. So it was a very simple discussion. And we got the incentive, the California incentive. So it was great.
You know the same thing here. You know we got the incentive for Annabelle 2. So it made sense to stay here. You put together a super deep crew base here. Great actor base. You know I mean it makes sense to do it here if you can get the incentives.
So you know we were fortunate enough to do it.
Stage space is at an incredible premium in Los Angeles now. It’s almost impossible to find anything. So we were looking… I mean there was a good chance we were going to have to leave and then this stage opened up kind of at the very last minute. I think it was on hold for a pilot that didn’t go forward. So we grabbed it.
And I think Warner Bros and New Line look at… You know, we’ve had a certain success building our houses – “Conjuring 2” or the first “Conjuring” you know where we built it in Wilmington. But it really made sense to do it here if we could get the right stage and situation and we did.
And also you know truthfully, being here gives us far more access to James Wan than if we were in Louisiana or anywhere else. So it really makes sense from that perspective too. You know his office is 10 paces from here and we can really bring him in to look as we’re laying out the floor plan for the house, as we’re building the staircase… It just gives us more access so that’s worth a lot.
Did a point come where you guys realized you had a cinematic universe, or was it always the intention?
You know in the first “Conjuring” we added Annabelle, that cold open of Annabelle specifically as a character to spin off. So I think we always though that there was a way to do that. And then the debate was, once “The Conjuring” was a big success, how to do it. And if we’re going to do it, what will that look like? Will it dilute “The Conjuring” franchise if you do a spinoff, more modestly budgeted version? Is that a problem?
And so I think the studio felt, let’s make it for a price, which we did, and that we can judge, does it merit the 3,000 print release or not? And think when we did our first test of it, it was evident that it did. Despite being made for probably a fifth of the next smallest movie that New Line or Warner Bros had ever made. It just made sense to put it out there. And I think it really established the ability to make movies for a price at the studio and still have them be really big commercial successes.
Where did you keep the Annabelle doll between productions, or is there a new one each time?
We had kept them, we keep them at Warner Bros because none of us want it in our house. We had the option to take them home but I don’t want it in my house.