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How I Made It: 'Conjuring' and 'Fast & Furious 7' Director James Wan

FILM: James Wan
Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images
James Wan

He turned a five-minute short into an $873 million global phenomenon with "Saw." Now this 36-year-old filmmaker is playing in the big leagues, taking over Universal's blockbuster street-racing franchise.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Ask the director of horror hits Saw, Insidious and now The Conjuring what his top recent film is, and you might be surprised by his response. “It’s Tangled,” says James Wan. “It’s one of my favorites of all time.” That Disney’s Rapunzel reboot is loved by the guy who dreamed up Jigsaw is just one of the refreshing contradictions about a filmmaker who was born to Chinese parents in Malaysia and immigrated to Australia when he was 7. At 17, he met future collaborator Leigh Whannell in his freshman year of college, and the two later concocted a diabolical script set in a basement bathroom.

VIDEO: 'The Conjuring' Director James Wan on Indie vs. Studio Films 

Saw found its way into the hands of Ken Greenblatt, then a Paradigm agent, who liked what he read. The duo followed up by shooting a scene and dropping it in the mail. “Ken thought, ‘What the hell is this?’” Wan laughs. “He had never seen anything so bizarre before and it really piqued his interest. He met up with me and Leigh and sent the script out along with the five-minute short, and the rest is history.” The film, which Lionsgate picked up at Sundance in 2004, spawned six sequels that have generated more than $873 million at the global box office and made the two creators more than $10 million each.

More importantly, it launched Wan’s directing career. New Line has big hopes for his Conjuring (July 19), a rare horror film that's been embraced by critics. He recently wrapped Insidious: Chapter 2 and is neck-deep in preproduction on Fast & Furious 7, taking over the franchise from Justin Lin. Wan’s $1.75 million fee for Fast 7 could rise significantly if Universal picks up options for Fast 8 and Fast 9.

FILM REVIEW: The Conjuring

Wan is taking the pressure in stride: “Even though it’s a massive, massive movie compared to what I’m used to, I’m not daunted,” he says. “It all comes down to storytelling.”

VITAL STATS: 

NAME: James Wan, 36

REPS: Scott Henderson (Paradigm), manager Stacey Testro, attorney David Fox (Myman Greenspan)

BIG BREAK: His directorial debut, 2004's Saw, opened to $18 million.

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The Hollywood Reporter: What are your earliest movie memories?

James Wan: Growing up, I have my mother to thank. She was a big fan of movies, so she introduced me to cinema at a very young age. The very first movie that I ever saw in a theater was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And I have early memories of Poltergeist. As trippy as Snow White is, it has a very dark side to it. So from a very young age I was somewhat subjected to movies with a darker streak. Ever since then, I've loved scary movies.

THR: Being traumatized by Snow White's witch has become something of a childhood rite of passage.

Wan: I think a lot of the Disney cartoons are scary when you watch them at a young age. I think it’s really cool that there’s a balance between that. Light and darkness, that’s what good storytelling is. The other movie that affected me from a very young age was Jaws

THR: What was your childhood like?

Wan: I was born in Malaysia and grew up in Australia. I moved there when I was about 7. Language-wise, my mom and dad’s dialect, they’re pretty obscure. It’s Chinese, but not your traditional Chinese, like Cantonese or Mandarin. It wasn’t something that I got to use very much growing up. We eventually just spoke English around the house. 

THR: And when did you first meet your frequent collaborator, Leigh Whannell?

Wan: I met Leigh when I was about 17 years old when we started [at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology]. We hit it off and became very good friends. We shared the same interest in movies and we wanted to make the same kind of movies as well. And we thought, "Hey, you know, you’re a writer, I’m a director, let’s collaborate." And that’s exactly what we did. We wrote a few scripts early on that are hidden away, that no one should ever see, but the first movie that we ever did anything with was Saw. Saw was really the film that put us on the map, so to speak. We spent like two years crafting that script and then an agent in Hollywood, through our manager in Australia, read the script, loved the script, and wanted to meet with Leigh and myself. 

Leigh and I talked about it and thought, "Why don’t we show these guys that we’re not just writers but I have aspirations to direct and he has aspirations to act?" So we picked a scene from the Saw script, we shot it and that basically became our five-minute calling card and we gave that to Ken. And he thought, "What the hell is this?" (Laughs.) He had never seen anything so bizarre before and it really piqued his interest. He met up with me and Leigh and he sent the script out along with the five-minute short that we made out around town and Hollywood. And the rest is history. 

THR: Were you surprised by Saw's success?

Wan: Yeah, it definitely [far exceeded my expectations]. When we made the movie, it was a low-budget film. We shot it in 18 days. So my expectations weren’t very high at all because I didn’t really get what I wanted to do with the film and it was a real struggle. I had never made a movie before. I did not know that 18 days wasn’t enough for me to achieve what I wanted to do. I had to cut so many corners. And despite all of that, it went on to become what it became. It is pretty mind-blowing. 

THR: You have directed Patrick Wilson in three films now. What keeps you coming back?

Wan: First of all, the world will catch up to what I see: that Patrick Wilson is a movie star in the making; he is a leading man that is just waiting for his shot to break out there. He’s an amazing, talented actor, a great looking guy, very charming, everyone loves him and he's so brilliant at what he does. On top of that, he’s an awesome guy, too. It is a really great collaboration; he trusts me and I trust him to do his stuff. I think it ends up working really well.

THR: You've begun work now on Fast & Furious 7, by far the biggest film of your career in terms of scale and budget. How scary is that?

Wan: Believe it or not, even though it’s a massive, massive movie compared to what I’m used to in the past, I’m not daunted by how big the movie is. Because to me, it’s just filmmaking -- it’s just longer and you have much bigger set pieces to design. If anything, it’s better for me because I have a lot of people at my disposal that I can use. I have real people -- top, high-end people -- to help me out with that. In a lot of ways, it’s actually a lot easier. 

THR: You must feel like a kid in a candy store. What kind of toys did you want first?

Wan: You know what’s funny, that even though it’s so much bigger, you always think, “That’s not enough! I need more money to make this work!” (Laughs.) It’s pretty crazy how that works. I just try to look at it and remind myself that it isn’t about how big a film is or how small a movie is, but that it all comes down to storytelling and what it is that people want to see. What I like about the Fast franchise is the characters. They are cool, they’re funny, they do fun things and they get to live out fantasies. And those are the things that I have to bear in mind when I’m making my film. 

THR: What other genres might you like to try next?

Wan: I’m a lover of cinema, of all kinds of cinema. Science fiction is a big, big love of mine. I would love to get into that at some point. I love romantic comedies, and people always think I’m joking when I say that, but I’m not. I truly love the romantic comedy genre. I can tell you this: My favorite movie of the last three years is Tangled. I love that film. People always think I make dark, scary, disturbing movies. People are always surprised when they talk to me or meet me that I am nothing like the movies I make. Which is a good thing because I always say that I do not want to live in the world of my films. I don’t know, it’s filmmaking, man. It’s all make believe.