House of horror

Kuching-born James Wan would not look out of place sitting at your neighbourhood kopitiam. And the kopitiam uncles would never imagine that the 36-year-old Chinese Australian is actually a hotshot Hollywood director - the man entrusted with no less than The Fast & The Furious 7, the next instalment in the billion-dollar movie franchise that is due out next year.

It is a big departure for Wan, whose bread and butter has thus far been low-budget horror films.

But he has been "wanting to break out of the genre" almost as long as he has been directing, he reveals.

Wan, who was raised in Perth, found fame directing Saw, the 2004 feature film about a sadistic serial killer who makes his victims do violent things to themselves and the others.

Written by his frequent collaborator and Saw star Leigh Whannell, it led to six sequels and total box-office takings of more than US$800 million worldwide for the franchise, which also popularised the notion of "torture porn".

Still, director Wan seemed to grow weary of it.

Although he and Whannell had a hand in the first three follow-ups, their involvement gradually tapered off and the director yearned to branch out and do something different.

"It's taken me 10 years to do it," he says as he prepares to begin work on Fast 7 this month.

Before he moves on, however, he has teed up one final scare - The Conjuring - about a family tormented by an evil spirit in their new home.

The movie, which opened in Singapore on Thursday, will be his last horror flick, promises the director, who spoke to Life! and a group of other reporters at a recent press event for the film in San Francisco.

Based on the experiences of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, it has been a hit in the United States, where it opened at No. 1 last month with US$41.9 million (S$53.1 million).

Since then, it has earned more than US$107 million - against its relatively modest budget of US$20 million - and defied conventional wisdom that such films do not do well at this time of the year. A sequel is in the works.

Wan was "very nervous" about the decision to release the film in the US last month "because horror movies don't usually play that well in the summer when it is hard to compete with these massive CGI-driven movies".

The idea was to "counterprogramme": The studio bet "that people may want a change from the massive car chases and explosions, and watch a more intimate movie".

The gamble paid off. The Conjuring has won rave reviews from both fans and critics for its finely calibrated scare tactics - in the process also beating Red 2 and R.I.P.D., two big movies with A-list names filled with car chases and explosions.

Wan says he deliberately toned down the fear factor so that it could be enjoyed by a broader audience. But the film classification body in the US ended up giving it a stricter rating that requires viewers under 17 years to be accompanied by a parent.

"I actually set out to make a PG13 movie but, as it turns out, it's too scary," he says with glee.

"From a content standpoint, there's so little violence in the film, and next to no blood and gore, and no swearing," he says. "Yet they gave it an R-rating because the overall movie is too scary."

He says this was also his approach with the first Saw movie - in which two men wake up to find themselves chained to pipes, with the only means of escape a hacksaw that can cut through flesh - and Insidious (2010), about a child possessed by evil spirits.

"It wasn't that gory - just enough to make people think that it was that messed up and that intense."

The Conjuring, which stars Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston, recycles motifs from Insidious as well as classic haunting and possession-themed films such as Poltergeist (1982) and The Exorcist (1973).

But it does not appear to have suffered from the repetition: The screening in San Francisco left a roomful of film critics and reporters cowering in their seats.

It probably helps that the director himself believes in the supernatural.

In other interviews, he has said that the ghost stories and superstitions he heard as a child growing up in an Asian household are always at the back of his mind.

"I'm not a sceptic. I'd like to think I'm somewhat open-minded to things around me, and that just because I cannot see them doesn't mean I don't believe," says Wan, a fan of Japanese horror films such as the 1998 movie Ringu (The Ring) by Hideo Nakata.

He was especially creeped out when he began researching the story behind The Conjuring. It is based on an account by the Warrens, who were called in to help the Perrons exorcise a malevolent spirit from their home.

Wan says: "I wasn't scared when I was shooting the film, but I was scared when I was prepping it. It did get into my psyche and the subject matter did affect me, especially when I was designing scenes late at night.

"That wasn't fun. I lived in this head space for a very long time... and it's good to be finally out of it."

On the set, he made it a point to keep things light whenever the camera stopped rolling, largely for the sake of younger cast members such as Mackenzie Foy, 12, and Joey King, 14, who play two of the children haunted by the spirit.

"I ran a happy movie set because the subject matter of the movie is so dark and depressing... Thankfully, the kids were able to tell the difference between that and real life."

Pressed on whether there were any supernatural occurrences on set, he offers an apologetic "no".

"I would love to tell you a million scary stories just for marketing purposes, like they did on The Exorcist, but, no, it was kind of boring."

When filming began, the sheer mechanics of the task also drowned out any supernatural vibes he might have had.

It was a challenging shoot.

Difficulties included the relatively small budget and his insistence on high production values, such as the construction of an entire two- storey house inside a soundstage, so that the camera would have an unobstructed 360-degree view of the Perron home.

Then there was the large ensemble cast to direct, especially the younger actors, whose legally limited work hours proved to be a scheduling nightmare.

"It was difficult because kids can work only a finite amount of time, and the younger the kid is, the less time he has on set," he says.

"Let's say I have five hours to work with: one hour is for schooling, another hour is playtime, another hour is for lunch - you're left with two to shoot. It's like, how am I going to make this movie?"

Of course, he may look back on those days with fondness once Fast 7 gets under way. The action caper, which will see stars Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and Michelle Rodriguez reprising their roles, is going to be more difficult than anything Wan has done before, and with a budget probably in excess of US$160 million (S$203 million), the cost of the last one.

Wan has big ambitions for the film, which he is modelling after Akira Kurosawa's classic period piece, Seven Samurai (1954). The complexity of key scenes has forced him to "storyboard" - or map out the action in a series of illustrations to show the crew - a process he says he hates and normally does not need.

When that is all over, he plans to change gears again: He hopes to eventually direct a comedy like the indie movie Swingers (1996), about a group of wannabe actors in Hollywood.

If this sounds odd coming from a director with his resume, Wan points out that horror is not as far off as comedy as one might think.

"They both rely on timing - setting up a joke or a scare, stringing you along and then paying it off with a punchline or a scare. As the audience, if something is funny, you laugh at it.

If it's scary, you get freaked out or scream. Both get reactions that are so primal and immediate."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.