James Wan is one of the most adaptive directorial personalities in modern genre filmmaking, but his career didn’t always seem like it would turn out this way. Wan’s Saw was an indie mega-hit, spawning the most extensive horror franchise of the 21st century thus far. But Wan quickly distanced himself from the films, attempting to establish himself as a genre auteur of diverse skill sets. With his underwhelming one-two punch of Dead Silence and Death Sentence in 2007, he failed to develop a reputation away from the franchise that found continued success beyond him.
But with Insidious and The Conjuring (this summer’s sleeper hit and one of the few pieces of Hollywood entertainment that actually entertained in the past few months), Wan found himself the modern master of the supernatural haunted house thriller, a horror sensibility miles away from the “torture porn” craze Wan’s franchise inception became associated with. This weekend sees the successful director helming his first sequel, Insidious Chapter 2, and Wan has signed on to make the next entry in the recently revived Fast/Furious franchise. Point being, Wan has proven himself against the limitations of the subgenre constraints he helped create, showing that he is a filmmaker interested in appealing to mass audiences through a variety of popular genres.
So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the director who forces us to ask how creepy dolls will fit into a movie about race cars and muscle-y bald men.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from James Wan
1. Real Horror Lies in the Sound, Not the Image
This doesn’t sound like something that the person who allegedly helped popularize “torture porn” would say. We might not have thought about Wan as a filmmaker who mastered the terror of the soundscape in 2004, but Insidious and The Conjuring are nothing without their use of horrific sounds to fill the mind’s gaps. The image has the power to display and depict horrific, disturbing acts, but it’s sound that allows abject terror to enter the audience’s psyche beyond any gruesomeness (or lack thereof) displayed onscreen.
Wan’s point speaks to that old Hitchcock adage about letting audience imagination do the extra work: suspense lies in the anticipation, not the reveal, and the reveal is best built through sound rather than a solitary reliance on the image.
2. Be Sincere About Your Scares
Wan and his longtime writing partner Leigh Wannell explain in this interview how they’re not fans of “false scares,” of creating arbitrary moments of suspense that don’t serve the overall arc of the horror story. This is a particularly instructive lesson for movies ‐ too many false scares reveals the inherent falseness of being scared in a movie theater, of being affected by what amounts to a series of flickering images of staged events projected onscreen.
Maintaining the stakes of the film through calculated, worthwhile scares allows the audience to continue investing in the story of the film, and thus become more affected by its moments of fear. False scares are gimmicks, and the audience and filmmakers know it. So, if you can’t be sincere about your scares, you aren’t sincere about your movie, and your audience won’t treat it seriously in turn.
3. Independent Filmmaking Has Serious Constraints
Wan and Whannell are admirably candid here about their lack of experience in making their 2004 breakthrough film Saw, and how that (in their eyes and those of others) impacted the finished film negatively. I for one still think that the first Saw, despite many of its sequels, is an interesting post-Seven thriller executed by people with a strong sense of the genre’s history. But that said, it’s refreshing to hear filmmakers so ready to admit that making movies, especially first movies, is a learning process that the audience is, in effect, witnessing.
Wan has spoken numerous times about how Saw would have benefitted if the inventively sparse $1M budget had been elevated to something similarly modest, like $3-$5M. He isn’t disowning his own property, or claiming an entitlement to a film with higher production values. Wan is simply explicating that, while independent filmmaking does allow certain freedoms, it has notable constrictions in terms of resources available, constrictions that may cause the filmmaker to compromise their vision.
This testimony is a helpful reminder that filmmaking exists within a pragmatic economic space in which one is capable of realizing certain things and not others; even when you have a hit like Saw, it can be a profound artistic disappointment according to the standards of a filmmaker lacking in experience and resources.
4. Don’t Give In to Creativity at Gunpoint
“It all started when James and I returned from the Sundance Film Festival, where we had screened Saw to much success. Our ‘representatives’ promptly told us that we should get another deal for a film stitched up before it was released. It was presented as a kind of insurance ‐ if Saw was a flop, we had another film to fall back on. Seems logical. There was only one problem ‐ I didn’t have any ideas for a new film. I had barely been able to catch my breath throughout the whole Saw experience, let alone dream up another film idea. Instead of telling our representatives that they had to wait until I came up with an idea I really liked though, I locked myself in the bedroom of the crappy apartment we had rented in Hollywood and tried to force an idea out like a particularly stubborn hangover shit. It was creativity at gunpoint. If I could go back in time, I would politely tell everyone to go fuck themselves, but back then….no. I paced and paced and even took up smoking for a while, so stressed out was I.”
Just as Wan attests to the limitations of independent filmmaking, Whannell witnesses the ways in which commercial filmmaking has its limitations as well, forcing the filmmaker to pursue a product that is, once again, not up to their personal standards. Realizing a personal vision within these constraints, no matter what industry (or lack thereof) one works in, is a notably difficult task.
5. Be Aware of How People See Your Work, Even When It’s Not Your Work
“The flack I got for Saw is why I wanted to direct Insidious 2. I didn’t direct any of the Saw sequels, but people thought I did. When Insidious 2 came along, I said, ‘If anyone’s going to fuck up my franchise, it might as well be me.’ [Laughs.] The Saw sequels went in a direction I wouldn’t have gone in. With Insidious 2, I wanted to push a potential franchise in the direction I thought it should go in.”
Wan here talks about taking a hold of one’s filmmaking brand, knowing that the films one becomes associated with through advertising, promotion, and discourse are not the same thing as the films one actually directs. While admittedly not a passion project, Insidious Chapter 2 attempts to remedy the sin Wan sees in the Saw sequels: the gap between his brand association and his lack of contributive vision. No matter how the sequel to Insidious is received, he can at least rightfully claim that his creative property was executed in his own terms.
Wan also shared this frustration further in this 2010 interview:
“Here’s the irony: I’ve made two other films ‐ not including the recent one Leigh and I just shot [Insidious] ‐ that are way more polished and definitely more accomplished for me as a director. But because those movies do not hit in the same way that Saw hit, people definitely recognize me for my first film. That’s kind of tricky for me as a director, because in this town, you’re as good as your last movie… I felt people ended up concentrating on certain things that were not necessarily, for us, what the film was about, like the blood and guts of the trap.”
Wan here wrestles with the fact that one can grow as a filmmaker with subsequent works whether or not those subsequent works are received or seen as constitutive of a filmmaker’s identity. Death Sentence may have been a more polished directorial effort for Wan, but he was more closely associated with Saw. It wasn’t until the success of Insidious that other people saw him how he saw himself: as a filmmaker genuinely and thoroughly interested in mastering stylistic tools to build suspense, not creating cheap shocks for audiences with gore.
6. Have a Good Time
One might not always think of the set of a horror film as one that should be amicable and light, but a sense of trust and enjoyment could help build a filmmaking community that gives their all. Also, this B-roll footage of Insidious is just too damn cute, so I couldn’t resist including it.
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
Wan might be the most learned young working filmmaker we’ve surveyed in this series: he’s made independent films and studio films, sleeper hits and conspicuous flops, he’s about to make his mark on one of Hollywood’s biggest franchises, and he was even tagged to a franchise that he had little to do with after its initial entry.
Wan’s career is, in many ways, an index for the trials and travails of working in both independent and studio filmmaking. But the good thing is that his tale is also a success story demonstrating that true talent (i.e., being able to scare the bejeezus out of people) can prevail over the aforementioned constraints. Wan is certainly a filmmaker who has learned a great many of his own lessons over his career, and we’re the ones who benefit from that knowledge.