James Wan, a young lad from Melbourne, Australia, came to prominence with his little known horror film Saw became a cultural phenomenon and would ultimately spawn two sequels. Now Wan is one of Hollywood’s most in-demand directors, first with Dead Silence, once again co-written by fellow Australian Leigh Whannell, and the revenge thriller Death Sentence, starring Kevin Bacon. In this exclusive interview, Wan spoke to Paul Fischer.
Question: The day that I met you in Toronto with the first Saw, did you ever expect that you would be where you are, are you kind of surprised?
Wan: Yeah, of course. Fuck yeah. Surprised as hell. You know, Leigh and I came up with that story in my apartment like in Melbourne. So the last thing we expected was for this film to go on a) as successful as it is in America and then it’s so big everywhere around world. So, you know, like we’re pretty shocked. And every now and then it’ll hit us. Like we’ll forget about it for a while and then we’ll see something and we’ll go ‘Oh my God. Look at that. That’s from our film! Holy smoke!’ (laughs) So it’s pretty cool. It’s not a bad thing.
Question: I’ve talked to Leigh about Dead Silence a couple of times and he’s been mentioning to me that the idea of doing a kind of a horror film with a ventriloquist’s dummy came about even at the time you were putting the finishing touches on Saw. Is that about right?
Wan: Yes, that’s about right. Like Leigh and I – I shouldn’t blame Leigh actually. This is more me. I’ve always had a fetish for ventriloquist dummies or dolls. I’ve always been so fascinated by them, like I found them really beautiful but in a creepy, eerie way. Do you know what I mean? So I said to Leigh, ‘Dude we should make a horror film about this, man!’ ‘And see what happens’, you know. I was scarred by Poltergeist since I was like seven years old, so, you know, it’s my turn now to scar some poor kid for life with Dead Silence.
Question: How much pressure is there when you’re making a film for a bigger corporation as you had to do with this one?
Wan: Oh it definitely has its own logistics and it’s a completely different process. Like on Saw, it was a film that we made for like $700,000. We used this money that we put in, right, so like I had no one to answer to – except for the producers. And even the producers who put that in, they were, like, pretty cool. They just let us do whatever the heck we wanted so then to go from that to a big corporation, it is a different world. And not that there’s anything wrong with that but is a different environment and process, and in our case kind of like, get used to it and you get accustomed to it and you kind of like, you understand how to work within the system so to speak.
Question: Horror films have become a lot more respectable over the last few years …
Wan: Really? (laughs)
Question: Well I mean they seem to attract a variety of people to act in them.
Wan: Listen, the horror films that I’m doing are not winning any Oscars so …
Question: Well maybe not an Oscar but it seems there’s certainly a lot of them being made. I mean, how do you try and stand out from the crowd?
Wan: Well listen let me tell you why I think they’re getting respect. The reason they’re getting respect is because of money. Horror films have always been very commercial, you know. Like there’s always a small crowd of fans that just love horror movies, you know? People that just love to be scared. And I think in recent years, a recent bunch of films – and I’m very glad to be part of that bunch and people are seeing how commercially successful horror movies can be. And yes, you’re right. They are making a lot of horror films. I mean Saw really did kick off a train of horror films that I find really interesting to think that Saw kind of helped kick that off. So what Leigh and I tried to do is we tried to not repeat ourselves. With Dead Silence it was more about making a ghost story, but couch it in a way that we’ve never seen before and that thing is creepy dummies and dolls, you know. And we tried to find a way to tell something that familiar but tell it in a different way and that’s what we tried to do with Dead Silence anyway.
Question: Are you a bit concerned – unfortunately for some peculiar reason, the studio doesn’t want us to see the movie before interviewing you guys and I find that a little bit odd. Do you think that marketing genre films like this is very tough? The studios just don’t want a lot of unnecessary reviews, or what do you think the reason is behind that?
Wan: Well I can tell you this, man. And honestly, this has been told to me right? Maybe I’m fucking wrong, and if I’m wrong I stand corrected. You look at all the genre films that come out, right, and they don’t really attend a lot of these horror films just purely because, using our Sony Screen Gems as an example – they don’t test any of the horror films. They’re just clever with marketing it right? And they’d market it and their films do well. I’m not a marketing guy so I don’t know if there’s a right way or a wrong way to do things but I can tell you that’s definitely one of the ways things have been done.
Question: I mean do you care what the critics have to say?
Wan: I did with Saw (laughs).
Question: But the critics were kind to Saw. I mean the first Saw got very good reviews, right?
Wan: Well it really got sort of strong reviews both ways. People either really hated it or really loved it. I think more older critics will like Dead Silence because it’s more like the Twilight Zone or the old hammer horror films because these were the films that I kind of moulded Dead Silence on. To me Dead Silence is true, like it’s just like a big episode of the Twilight Zone, which has a quirky setup, kind of like a strange story line and then you follow the journey and at the end – boom, you know. Like a fun ending and then the film is done. So I think strangely enough the older film reviewers would actually like it. The younger ones – I don’t know, they might look at it and go ‘Oh that’s stupid’ but I think the older ones would actually enjoy it – I think. I could be wrong.
Question: Were you kind of happy not to have much to do with the remainder of the Saw franchise and leave it alone?
Wan: No, I mean I still kind of like keep my finger I there and make sure that no one screws it up and stuff like that, you know, it’s still true to the Saw. But I’m kind of busy directing my own movies. I’m happy that I’ve created this franchise and it lives on its own. There are people shepherding it, people that I trust. And I’m fine, you know. Like I made the first one and I’m happy that I made the first one. It’s given me so much. It’s allowed me to make my second movie and it’s allowed me to make my third movie. So I’m happy for it and I just wanted to continue, you know, kind of grow as a filmmaker.
Question: So you’ve got Dead Silence this week and then Death Sentence at the end of the year. So you have two films with ‘DS’ in the title and both dealing with death.
Wan: I’ve got a third one coming out called Deep Shit.
Question: Well, lets talk about Death Sentence. This is vastly different from your first two movies. Is that correct?
Wan: Yeah. I mean genre wise it definitely is. Like I said, I want to grow as a filmmaker. I don’t want to be typecast as just a horror director, you know. Not that there’s anything wrong with making horror films but I think if you get typecast which, you know, Hollywood loves to do that, it can be so limiting. And I don’t want to be – I’m a film fan. I’m not just a horror fan. I’ve got so many stories to tell. I might want to do fricken romantic comedies one day. Leigh and I have got so many comedies. I like to think that Leigh and I are pretty funny, fun guys. So we’ve got a lot of funny stories we want to tell and one way to do that is not to keep repeating itself and with my third movie, I wanted to make a film that told a very simple story, but like so it was good acting, good drama and do something a bit different, you know. Do action. I’ve never really done action before either. So Death Sentence is an action drama/revenge drama. And I got the chance to work with Kevin Bacon which was an amazing experience.
Question: Were you surprised when that movie came your way. I mean, given the fact that you haven’t done a film like this before?
Wan: You mean that they would offer it?
Wan: Not really. Because I made it pretty clear to my agent in messages with’ Stop sending me horror scripts’ and send me stuff, something a bit more different. And I was really pretty clear with that. I wanted to do an action film and I think Death Sentence was the right film to come along and I guess I convinced the right people that I was the right guy for this film and they gave it to me.
Question: And do you know what you’re going to do after that or are you still looking around for stuff?
Wan: I’m going to sleep after that. I’ve been making these three movies pretty much back to back without any break and I’m really tired. But I’m going to take some time off and I think Leigh and I have an idea that we really want to do – a thriller. And we want to go back to writing a movie. We want to go back to working together and writing a movie that excites us like how we were excited in the first Saw film.
Question: Do you want to make any movies in Australia?
Wan: Hell yeah, I’d love to. I definitely would love to. I’m just looking for the right film basically.