I interviewed James Wan back in 2007. He was, to put it simply, a delight, a one-person redefinition of his generation's lousier instincts when it comes to grindhouse cinema, free of poison irony, or undue idol worship, or just plain being the sort of dick who would feel comfortable at Kim's video.
I was at the time interviewing many more 'important' filmakers but Wan was the one who was just so much fucking fun to talk to. Plus--great pull-quote from the guy who was inaccurately credited with starting the torture porn blight at the peak of the Bush years.
In my review of SAW I noted that it was not just the defining horror film of the Bush years, but the defining film of the Bush years, period.
As more and more sickening details of Cheney's beyond-monstrous torture for torture's sake program become public, and the public is more comfortable bitching about HOSTEL than men forced to defecate on themselves while dogs attack and are waterboarded in dank rooms from David Finchers private nightmare file. I'd say SAW is the softcore defining film of those noxious 8 years.
Despite an awful virus that delayed his interview for an hour for a doctor consult, horror kingpin James Wan is more than happy, in a sneezy way, to talk in a mild Aussie lilt about horror. The reason goes beyond the need to perform promo duties for his long-delayed ghost story, Dead Silence, and have everything to do with who he is. “I am an extreme geek,” he declares. “A horror nerd. Big time. And proud of it.”
Keeping in mind how crazy-busy he’s been for the last three years, the fact that Wan’s immune system has finally succumbed comes as no surprise.
First, of course, there’s the storybook success of Saw, a short film that became a feature whose paltry $1 million budget led to a staggering gross of more than $102 million, which begat a blockbuster franchise with two sequels already released and another in the planning stages and of which Wan had a story or producing involvement in.
Then there’s Dead Silence, once known by the more curt Silence, a neo-Hammer horror that Wan directed and that sat on the shelf for a good year for reasons he’ll explain in just a minute. And finally, there’s his Kevin Bacon-starring genre segue into classic revenge film, Death Sentence, now in post production.
Directing conversation with the hyper-fecund auteur is delightfully near-impossible: We tried string things off by focusing on Dead Silence--which, like the Saw films, features a dummy prominently, this time a mysterious ventriloquist’s dummy. Instead, Wan wanted to know if New York--where he got his cold--still hadn’t gotten any snow. We said, no, and he snapped, “Man, that is strange! The ice caps are melting! It’s like the opening sequence of The Arrival!”
And there’s Wan’s charm--and passion--an in a nutshell: You can’t talk to him about anything without movies coming into it. And dummies. Dummies, like the creepy one in Saw, feature prominently in his films.
“I’ve always had a strange fixation with dummies and dolls. I was scared by Poltergeist at a very young age...There’s that creepy clown doll that attacks the kid? That stuck with me ever since, and I’ve ever since been on the lookout for scary doll or scary dummy films.
On a roll, he qualifies, “I’m not so much into killer doll films--I find the creepy factor far scarier than the killer doll thing. One of my favorite horror films of all time is the British film, Dead of Night. The scene with the ventriloquist dummy is one of my favorite sequences--ever.”
In the autuer's own words, his creepy dummy movie “opens with a young couple [True Blood’s Ryan Kwanten and Judith Roberts] getting a package. They open the package and inside is a ventriloquist dummy. And they’re like, “What the hell is this? Where the hell did it come from?” There’s no return address on it. And then something bad happens.
Another head of steam as he elaborates that “basically, the rest of the film has our lead protagonists trying to find out who sent the dummy and what kind of malevolent evil it holds.
“And that leads them back to the small hometown where he and his wife grew up. The story goes back to the legend of an old ventriloquist, a ghost ventriloquist. The legend goes that if you scream in the presence of this ghost, he takes your tongue and the last thing you hear before you die is the sound of your own voice talking back to you.”
He finally pauses to take a breath. “And that’s what it’s about.”
While the idea of the hearing your own voice mocking you just before you die is an eerie idea worthy of shuddery consideration, I couldn’t help but stress out how this will actually manifest on film.
As in: CG revenants pace the newer, awful The Haunting? “I used some visual effects, but it’s more about mood and atmosphere.
“A big part of my influence for this film was I really wanted a tribute to the Hammer horror films I grew up loving. This film truly has a Hammer horror feel to it but with a contemporary edge.”
So can we expect a shift from the acidic, David Fincher-y color palette of the Saw films to something more akin to Hammer’s trademark saturated Technicolor? “To some degree. I love bright colors, but I also love cold, neutered color.
“But there are moments in Silence--a big part of the film takes place in an old theater, in flashbacks...in the 1930s. So that’s very colorful, very theatrical and it has that edge to it, but in modern day, it’s a ghost town, very cold, very removed from reality. It has a very fantasy edge to it.” (And it won’t be like Richard Attenborough’s surface-similar Magic, due to the fact that Wan “never got around to seeing Magic. I did not want to be influenced by it. I kept my influences to Dead of Night and the classic gothic Hammer horror films.)
Meanwhile, in the back of my mind, I can’t help but note the similarity in the mysterious mannequin delivery here and the mysterious videotape delivery used in Lost Highway. “I guess it is [like Lost Highway]. To some degree, yeah. It’s not just an outright horror film, it’s a mystery about what the hell is going on.”
“But having said that--it’s very different from David Lynch. I would never dare to put myself in the same category as David Lynch. Because Lynch to me is King. I’m not worthy of being mentioned in the same breathe as David Lynch.”
His humility is charming. It’s real, breathlessly sincere.
But when I ask why the film has been sitting on Universal’s shelf for a year, real life tragedy tampers his exuberance.
It’s about the sudden death of Saw co-producer and close friend, Gregg Hoffman, 42, on December 4, 2005. Hoffman’s passing during Dead Silence’s post-production turned the film into “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
“He became such a good friend, a mentor, a father figure, that when that happened it really effected me in a big way. He was just such a cool guy and a very good friend. For lack of a better term, we were pretty fucked up by that.”
“The studio was kind enough to give me some time off, because it was such a shock for me. He passed away just after I’d shot the film--this was in post [production].
You can almost hear him trying to shrug off the grief. “And so, in taking some time off, I missed an opening [release wise]. Horror films really play best in two slots of the year...early in the year and Halloween, and I missed those two slots completely.”
The reason for the title change from the original Silence to the current modified version is less traumatic: explaining it offers Wan a chance to emotionally regroup.
“It was really simple. Initially it was called Silence. But there’s a not-very-well-known filmmaker named Martin Scorsese--he had that title locked up from a while ago, so we couldn’t use it.
“It does make it sound a bit more, um, ‘B’, but I actually don’t mind! Especially since the films I’ve been inspired by--films that are called, like, Dead of Night”--he chuckles--”So Leigh and I were never offended by that.”
One constant in Wan’s tumultuous career is his relationship with fellow Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology attendee/actor/coconspirator Leigh Whannell. Their working style on Dead Silence was typical of their unique creative relationship. “The way Leigh and I work is we cook up a story together, whether he initiates it or I initiate it. Once we like the overall story, I pretty much leave him to go and write the screenplay. Then he’ll come back to me and go, “Hey James, what about this?” and then I’ll add or subtract to it.”
The constant back-and-forth process has an amusing result. “People will ask who came up with what and we’re not quite sure--it’s really a mishmash of our ideas together.”
This particular mishmash is a departure from the total creativity control Wan enjoyed with the indie Saw. I try to be tactful about possible artistic compromises, but Wan will have nothing of it.
“You mean, ‘What’s it like working on a low budget as opposed to studio film?’ It has its ups and downs. It’s the classic story you’ve heard many times before and which I’m not going to get into because you’ve heard it many times before. It has it’s good sides and its, um, more challenging sides. I know that’s very PC of me to say, but it’s the truth.” (Still, he promises that, next time he visits New York, “over a glass of beer, I’ll let it all loose!”)
Meanwhile, his decision not to direct the Saw sequels leads to very interesting territory, some having to do with Wan’s career direction, his sense of his place in movies in general, and his disquiet with the direction horror films and the world they flicker in have been going in of late.
Wan avoided helming Saw II and III because “I did not want to repeat myself. I wanted to try something different. Leigh and I just felt like we wanted to go off and try a ghost story.
“The funny thing, after Saw came out, even though I hadn’t made any other films, I was immediately pigeonholed as this sick director who makes gory violent films.
“It wasn’t like I was taken aback by that--I felt a lot of people missed the point of the first Saw film. Which wasn’t just about sick traps and a nihilistic way of killing people. Leigh and I spent so much time coming up with a story, plotting it, doing other things people missed.”
In a similar sense, he doesn’t seem to feel particularly allied with the new breed of ultra-violence merchants such as Alexandre Aja, Neil Marshall, Eli Roth, and Rob Zombie and even less in sync with horrors’ devolution into a sort of torture cinema.
“What do they call it? ‘The Splat-pack?” He chuckles. “Don't get me wrong, it’s a really cool title, but I never asked for it. If anyone knows Leigh and myself, they’d know that we are the happiest guys in town. To be branded as part of a group of guys who created this torture film is really strange to me.”
He does agree with the suggestion that the new torture film genre wouldn’t exist or be profitable were it not for the context of the real life charnel house of the Iraq misadventure and the atrocities of Abu Gharib. “I actually believe that. You look back at horror movie history, you look at all the George Romero films, right? They’re a reflection of the times they were made in.
“And a lot of the time these horror films are made at the height of a war that was going on and I do believe that the way America--and a lot of other countries--are taking to these torture horror films is in big part due to all the crap going on in the world right now. I honestly do believe that. If we were living in SmurfLand right now, I don’t think there’d be so much hype around torture films. You wouldn’t have [the popularity of] films like Hostel--or Saw.”
So is he taking the opportunity of his latest film, currently in post production, the Kevin Bacon-starring neo-vigilante movie Death Sentence, as an opportunity to move himself away from the Splat Pack and the genre he loves and made his name?
An uncharacteristic pause, then, “I should be very careful how I say this. I guess I wanted to show that I wasn’t “just” a “horror film maker” [You hear quote marks in his tone.] “That I could do drama as well.
“And despite it’s title, Death Sentence is not a torture movie! It was a natural progression for me to move from horror film to an area that was somewhat similar. I mean, let’s face it, nobody’s going to give me a romantic comedy to do next.
“My progression had to make sense. I’d always been a fan of revenge movies. When the script came along and I really liked it, I was like, “You know, I should give this a shot.”
Considering that Ian Jeffers’ script is based on a book by Brian Garfield--he of the 70s mother of all urban action revengers, Death Wish--should we be expecting something along the lines of that, or perhaps something more like Chan-wook Park’s slick and stylized revenge films?
“This is not Oldboy,” Wan states, “this is Rolling Thunder! This one is 70s revenge. This is old school. It’s like a father goes up against a scary street gang and ends up fighting a cat and mouse game with them.
The designated vengeful Dad in question is played by Kevin Bacon about whom Wan is glad to gush. “I love Kevin! I’m not just saying that. He’s such a professional...He comes to set prepared every day...He’s such a great actor, he’s just so...good! He has so many stories, I love to just prod these stories out of him--he doesn't do it willingly! I love to hear stories about all these great films he’s been in--Stir of Echoes to Apollo 13 to you-name-it. He’s done everything.
“I’ve been very fortunate with Death Sentence, I have to say. In terms of all my actors, with Garrett Hedlund [Eragon] who plays the main badguy, really scary.”
Also featured is John Goodman, whose performance Wan promises will cause folks to see the actor “in a very different light. People are used to seeing him as this nice, jolly, charming fellow. They’re going to be very surprised. I tried to make John as scary in this film as I could--and I think he’s pretty scary.”
In the continuing spirit of being too-busy-for-words, Wan and Whannell are hatching the fourth Saw sequel. But with Jigsaw highly expired in the last installment, where will he go with that? “I was thinking, Jigsaw--The Wonder Years. We watch him grow up as a kid and enter preschool. No--I’m kidding! I have a rough idea; I can’t say what; I’m sorry. They’ll shoot me. Greater powers than us are pushing that thing and talking about it early on is one of those things they’d rather have us not do.”
After polishing his Death Sentence and hammering out the Saw IV details, Wan is looking forward to a deserved period of “chilling out” and regrouping. But even that may entail more creation. “We think we have a noir/sci-fi film in us and we’re working on it right now. But Leigh and I want to go back to our roots to how we came up with Saw. To just sit back and come up with a movie where we’re not pressured and come up with something we just think is fucking cool.”
But we’d probably best not look forward to Wan creating some big dollar gosh-wow extravaganza “because I would love control [over this project]. I never realized how much I respected control until I didn’t actually have it. We want a high concept storyline that doesn’t necessarily cost the Earth, you know what I mean?”
Meanwhile, as an out and proud extreme horror nerd who “grew up with Fangoria” and other devoted horror mags, Wan still can’t still can’t get over the fact of his near-instant transmogrification from fanboy to icon-creator.
“I still wake up every morning going, “How did this happen?” I didn't set out to create that. All Leigh and I wanted to do was make a movie! To write a good script, make it with our own money and if some people saw it, great. I mean, believe me, getting a franchise out of it was the last thing on my mind.” A last, long gleeful laugh. “And it’s great! I can’t lie--it’s a great feeling!”