“I’m a big movie fan, and I want to make movies in every genre. I want to make my romantic comedy one day.” – James Wan
Australian filmmaker and writer James Wan has established himself as one of the biggest names in the world of contemporary horror cinema. Known as one of the creators of the Saw and Insidious franchises, Wan has found mainstream success and gained immense popularity. His Conjuring series is the second highest-grossing horror franchise at $1.9 billion.
In an interview, Wan explained: “When I make a movie, I know exactly how I want to make it. Even though sometimes I storyboard, I’m not necessarily a big fan of doing storyboards, but I do it just for the crew and just so the producers feel comfortable. Yes, I can kind of share my vision with everyone else, but I generally go in knowing exactly where every shot is going to be, where to put the camera, and how to do these things. It’s just kind of what I do.”
He added, “This may sound like a cliché, but I’ll also speak about why it’s so important. I think creating characters and story are truly the two most important things. I know, like I said, that is a cliché thing to say, but it doesn’t matter what genre your work is in, whether it’s horror, science fiction, drama, or whatever. If you have characters that you care about, that is hands down the most important thing. You have to take time to tell their story before you just throw all these scary things at the audience. Otherwise, it just works on a very superficial, surface level.”
Here, on his 44th birthday, we explore James Wan’s filmography as a celebration of his contribution to the world of cinema.
All of James Wan’s feature films ranked:
9. Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)
The lacklustre sequel to Wan’s 2010 film, Insidious: Chapter 2 subjects the Lambert family to new terrors after the tragedies they encountered in the first instalment. Although the scares are technically effective, the sequel fails to bring anything new to the table and ends up disappearing in the shadow of the original.
“It’s funny because from a production standpoint it was a harder movie to make than the first one,” Wan revealed. “That’s how these films are made, and I think you want to keep it in that model; however, it was very hard shooting Insidious: Chapter 2, because even though it doesn’t seem bigger, it was a much more ambitious film.”
8. Dead Silence (2007)
An example of Wan’s early artistic sensibilities, Dead Silence tells the story of a widower who returns to his hometown in order to investigate the mysterious death of his wife. The gravity of the premise becomes hilarious when it is linked to the ghost of a murdered ventriloquist.
“It truly is an old school tribute to the old school ghost stories that Leigh and I love and to me, and the way I have been selling it, it is a feature film episode of The Twilight Zone,” Wan said. “I am not sure if the kids today will care about our loving tribute, but it really is a loving tribute to Edgar Allen Poe, The Twilight Zone and the old British Hammer Horror films which was a big inspiration as well.”
7. Aquaman (2018)
Based on the mythology of the DC comics, Wan’s ambitious cinematic rendition stars Jason Momoa as the title character. The film envisions the underwater kingdom of Atlantis and follows in the footsteps of formulaic superhero films, delivering well-intentioned action and adequate drama based on internal conflicts of the inadequate characters.
The filmmaker explained, “I really wanted the hero to see the different kingdoms that eventually he’ll be king of, right? So he needs to see his subjects, and he needs to see that there are all kind of races of people down there. And one of the races are the Trench people. Going into it I knew that I wanted Atlantis to be very vibrant, to be very sort of magical and wondrous, and all that. But I also wanted to portray, or rather to capture the tone and feel of the ocean to me.”
“The ocean is big and magical and all of that, but also we’re terrified of the ocean as well. I felt that moment allows me to lean back into my horror roots to do something like that. But ultimately it allows me to really showcase one of my signature shot designs of the film which is a cross-section of the ocean. And you get to see what’s above the surface and what’s below the surface.”
6. Furious 7 (2015)
The seventh instalment in the immensely popular Fast & Furious series, Wan’s 2007 action thriller features a star-studded cast including Paul Walker in what would be his final appearance. The film was a huge commercial success, earning more than $1.5 billion at the Box Office.
Wan said, “Furious 7 was an incredible experience for me, to have the opportunity to go off and play on such a huge canvas for the studio. Plus, to have a situation where the producers really trust in me to take over such a beloved franchise, and to trust me to not screw it up, is really great. But it was a whole different ballgame for me.”
5. Death Sentence (2007)
Death Sentence is an interesting addition to Wan’s filmography. It is the case study of Nick Hume (played by Kevin Bacon), who undergoes a transformation from a normal executive into a hardcore vigilante after his son is murdered by a gang.
The director revealed, “One of my influences was the action films of the 1970s. Today’s action movies, when the action scene kicks in, they’re so bombastic. I didn’t really want that. I wanted to create [something] realistic and gritty. I want the violence to be really shocking, really hellish in that it’s not supposed to be fun.”
4. The Conjuring 2 (2016)
A rare instance of a sequel living up to the expectations generated by the original, The Conjuring 2 takes the overused trope of the haunted house and manages to make it entertaining. The film turned out to be a huge commercial success and efficiently utilises scare tactics to unsettle the audience.
While speaking about his acting star Patrick Wilson, Wan was full of praise: “You know how Johnny Depp was to Tim Burton? Patrick Wilson is my Johnny Depp. I don’t know, I think the guy is such a cool guy and he, to me, in a lot of ways is the kind of embodiment of a leading actor for me as a director you know, he’s a great actor, he’s a very thoughtful thespian, always thinks about his characters.”
3. The Conjuring (2013)
One of the most popular horror films of the 21st century, The Conjuring stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as paranormal investigators who explore the bizarre events taking place in a farmhouse. It picked up several awards and nominations in the horror genre, earning a nomination for Best Horror film at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards.
The filmmaker said, “People ask me, ‘Why do you like haunted house films? They’re so done to death.’ And I say, ‘There’s a reason that they’re done to death. If you can make it work, it’s a very effective subgenre!’ We can all relate to it. We all live in houses or apartments, and we can all relate to having siblings or a mom and dad. Right off the bat, you have the shorthand of the characters going into it.”
2. Insidious (2010)
A supernatural horror film that becomes an exploration of religion and metaphysics, Insidious presents the unique case of a couple whose son mysteriously falls into a coma. They slowly find out that he is possessed by entities from another dimension, complicating their efforts to save him.
Wan elaborated, “We wanted a lot of the scare sequences to play really silent. But, what I like to do with the soundtrack is set you on edge with a really loud, sort of like, atonal scratchy violin score, mixing with some really weird piano bangs and take that away and all of a sudden, you’re like, ‘What just happened there?’ And then you’re following a character through a house and it’s just dead silent.”
1. Saw (2004)
Wan’s most beloved feature was this 2004 cult-classic which tells the disturbing story of two men who wake up chained in a bathroom. In order to save their respective families, they are ordered to kill each other. Made on a relatively low budget of $1million, Saw grossed over $100 million and showed the world that Wan could create magic with the horror genre.
Writer Leigh Whannell revealed, “There are a lot of things in Saw that were thrown together. It was a cheap film, and that was the point – to make a cheap film. But it’s hard for us now to watch it, though at least we’re laughing about the mistakes. And the success of the film has given us license to do that.”