Yesterday we brought you Part 1 of our report from the set of The Conjuring 2, and today we catch up with producers Rob Cowan and Peter Safran. As a bonus, we have a behind-the-scenes snapshot of star Patrick Wilson with director James Wan to share.
Cowan also produced the original The Conjuring and in between worked on Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy and The Boss plus Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s San Andreas. And he knows a thing or two about films based on true stories…
Dread Central: I did a quick scan of your credits and noticed that at least one other thing is based on a real person, the Rocky Marciano TV movie. I’m wondering, as a producer, what responsibility you feel when fictionalizing real people.
Rob Cowan: You know, it’s hard, and it’s interesting that you bring up that Rocky Marciano thing because it was based on an article that was written for Sports Illustrated and talked a little bit about the good side… you know, he was obviously a great boxer, but then there were some tougher sides to him as well, too, and so we tried to represent what we got out of that as much as we could. He passed away, obviously, so it’s tricky with the family. but in some ways, with this as well, you want to walk that balance of respecting the real people who you’ve met and you know – and they’ve come out here to meet us and everything, particularly Janet and Margaret – but also tell something that’s still compelling and has maybe flawed characters. You know, nobody wants to see-–especially living people—themselves as flawed characters. It’s a real fine line to walk when you’re doing it.
We did it in the first one, obviously, as well with the Perron family. The one thing that we pitched to them when we were doing the movie was, “We’ll try and get everything right that you guys have told us, [but] we’re also making a movie and it’s got to be entertaining,” but we also wanted to try and make sure that the movie was telling the essence of who they were and what they went through, which means some creative license, obviously, at times. And to James’ credit, when we did show the Perrons, finally, the movie, that was the first thing they said, that this is exactly how we felt when it was going on, even though there was stuff that was a little tougher on the mom and the family and all that kind of thing so it’s the same with this. And we talked to Janet and Margaret about this, that we want to tell all the stories you’ve told us, which we’re trying to put as many in as we can, and even just little moments that they tell us, we’re trying to keep it as authentic as we can. But there’s also certain license we have to take, but we’re trying to build off who they are and tell a movie but still kind of represent them so that they’re happy as well with the way it goes. It was a little tricky with Marciano because he had passed away, so it was a little bit tougher telling the story, but particularly with living people, it’s an interesting line to walk.
DC: I’m wondering with Lorraine if you ever preemptively got her to sign off on something that you both knew wasn’t exactly true but fit the story.
RC: Not necessarily, but Lorraine was involved, particularly in the first one and even a little bit in this one… very involved in a lot of the storytelling. The Perron story was a little less known story than the Enfield story, and a lot of the events that we’re using have been out there for quite a while. But Lorraine was really helpful in, again, setting a tone and telling us either events or the way things felt to her that we try to represent in a certain way. But I can’t think necessarily of if we ever brought her a big creative idea and said, “What do you think about this?” because it’s always a little nervous making that they go, “Oh, that didn’t really happen that way.”
But similarly, when we brought her on the first movie and on this one, more even so on this one, when we took her to the house, she was like, “This is how it felt; this is what it looked like,” and particularly this one when we brought her here, and the family as well, they felt we recreated the house really well, that it brought them back. Actually, Margaret and Janet were brought to tears when they were walking around the house because we’ve mimicked some of the things off of photos exactly and I think it took them back, and I think it also became very cathartic for them too to go through that and to see Lorraine, who they hadn’t seen in 35 years, and it was kind of a nice thing for them to feel they were having their story told the way they want it told and to also kind of be brought back. You think, if we were brought back to our childhood homes and shown them, and it’s going to be in a movie…. it’s pretty emotional for them, so it was fun to have them here.
DC: What was it about Enfield that made it not only a good sequel but differentiated it enough to also stand out in a genre, the “haunting” genre, that’s become more and more popular?
RC: Well, you know, it was hard because there’s so many stories that the Warrens have and all kinds of different involvements on many different levels, which is great about who they are in that when we ideally go down the line, if we’re lucky enough to make more of them, there’s all kinds of different olive branches to go on. But that one in particular, we knew from the first one we wanted to open it up a little more. The first one took place in a farmhouse and was very isolated, and we wanted to open it up more but also add a different flavor to it. We felt that if we went to another American story, it might just feel like, “Well, okay, we’ve seen that already,” and this really took us into a different world, particularly with the period of London at that time in the 70s and pre-Thatcher, the look of it, and the whole idea of these council homes, which was quite different than what we had with it being a farmhouse.
So it really felt like it still had the basic bones of the original movie, which we don’t want to get rid of… you know, the kind of structure and the characters and the way they go and the storytelling style, but we wanted to try something, make the audience feel like they’re seeing something new and fresh again, so it was an easy one that way, that it took place in London and still was in the period, is a period movie, and it kind of jumped out really quickly once everyone started looking at all the different ideas. That was one that just really jumped out well.
DC: As a producer, were you surprised by how much the original movie made? I mean, everyone loved The Conjuring. It did well both here and overseas, and to be coming back for a sequel, has that success been surprising to you?
RC: It was. I mean, surprising in a way. Look, you always go in not necessarily saying, “This could make $350 million,” but you want to make a good movie, right? And you want to make something entertaining, and James had a great vision, as he does for this one, for the original film. So when we were making it, you really think you’re making something at the time that is good and will hopefully be scary and exciting. They’re a lot of work, as we all know, and a lot of time in post to try and get it all right, and it was our first preview when – it was interesting because halfway through the screening, all the lights went off completely and went completely into dark, and I think everyone thought we pulled that off. And then you think, “Well, this is going to affect the movie,” right? But it tested so well; I mean, all of us were kind of looking at each other and just surprised at how the response was and not just, “Oh, it was really scary!” But that people loved it as a movie, just as a movie.
And it wasn’t really until the night it opened that we thought this is something that we never thought would happen. And when Twitter took off, and it was just crazy watching the way that people were responding to it. James was in Atlanta on Fast 7 when it opened on Friday night, and Peter Safran and I were just sitting in a bar together watching the numbers come in, and we called him and said, “You’ve got to come back for the weekend.” So he flew back and we all went out for dinner, and at that point, you know, everything is Friday night for horror movies, right? And when it started to take off on Saturday night as well, it was a real surprise. And then it just had its legs and kept going. But we thought [it was] a good movie, and you hope you make a good movie; we never imagined it to take off the way it did. And even Annabelle for that matter; it’s just a little movie that didn’t cost very much, but I think it helped the studio realize that there’s a real franchise here, that people love the world that this all takes place in, and we really feel like we’ve topped it with the way we are on this movie. We’re two thirds of the way though the movie right now, but it’s bigger in feel to it… and the themes are bigger, and right from the beginning it’s a much scarier movie so we have high hopes for this one as well.
DC: It’s been two years since the first one came out so obviously this wasn’t a horror sequel that was rushed into development. Was it a matter of waiting for James’ schedule or getting the script right or all different factors?
RC: Yeah, you know it was a little of both. James’ schedule, or James, goes hand-in-hand with getting the script right as well as his availability. We’ve got really good writers who’ve been working on it, and the creative team all around with the studio and everybody are great and have great ideas, but at the end of the day it comes down to James being able to put his imprint on it. And with Fast 7, that was the biggest problem. Unfortunately, with the death of Paul Walker, that pushed that movie off so far, almost a year; otherwise, we would have been kicked into gear a lot earlier. But there was always the structure and the basic idea of the script was down, but it really took James to finish on that movie because it was so hard on many levels, particularly the Paul thing, with him having to deal with that, and then we had to wait for him to finish, and then once he finished, then the thing just kind of really started to churn. But then we were also up against Vera Farmiga, who goes on to “Bates Motel” after this so we had a very finite time we had to get the movie shot. And James is, on many levels, always really good on his feet, so I think sometimes he’s better when we say we’re going to shoot, let’s get the script, because his ideas come really quickly, and it’s fun to watch because he is really good on his feet and coming up with new ideas. So I think once we knew we had a schedule and we had to start and the script was in really good shape, then he really took a big pass at it, which really made a big difference and put it in really good shape. We weren’t rushing in, “Oh, we’ll fix it in post,” kind of thing. We really feel strongly about the script we have. We’ve made tweaks along the way, but we’ve changed very little from the draft we started in production on. It feels like we were in a good place when we started.
DC: What can you tell us about the stuff we’ve already seen shot today, and we’re gonna see shoot today, how it fits into the movie, the significance of the basement, etc.?
RC: This is a sequence that’s a little over halfway through the movie. It actually kicks a big climatic moment into gear where they’re downstairs and all hell breaks loose upstairs with the little girl. There’s an element of the story which I like a lot in the movie where… there’s so many times in these movies, especially if they’re based on a true story, everybody just goes in and they buy it all, and it’s real and it’s horror and it’s scary and that’s it. But there’s always skepticism about these events – there’s skepticism about Amityville, there’s skepticism about the Warrens and Amityville, there’s skepticism about Janet and what went on and what didn’t go on. And there were even times when Janet admitted that she had made up some things. So we really wanted to play that into the movie. So this starts off a sequence where – I think you must have seen the guy coming up out of the water – so it’s a sequence where that character that Janet has been channeling throughout the movie is sort of now starting to manifest itself, and it’s kind of heating up. The end of this sequence – depending on how long you guys stay – there’ll be an off-camera scream and they’ll run out, and what’s happened is Janet is upstairs locked in the kitchen and the place is being trashed with furniture flying around the room, and plates and all that kind of thing, and sort of all these telekinetic things going on.
So it builds up to this big kind of event at the end of the second act, and then after that we get propelled into the third act. So it’s a fun sequence that starts with them down in the water. It’s a little – we like to play off the idea of that Ed Warren was a guy who likes to fix things, so it starts with him trying to help, and then he realizes that there’s somebody in the water with them. And then at the end of the movie they come back in the water, which sets up a whole other situation at the end.
DC: With horror so much of the scare is about not knowing, and this is a pretty high-profile case. And in the age of spoilers and Google – did you feel nervous at all taking on a more high-profile case to tell in this story? And how do you keep it fresh and keep it scary or surprising or suspenseful when people can find out this information so easily?
RC: You’re right; it was a little nervous because there’s so much out there and so much speculation back and forth about what went on, but certain events are fairly famous. And so it’s a tricky thing because we feel like you want to show them because people know that they happened – I mean, if anyone has seen the little documentary, the police talk about seeing a chair lift up off the floor. So we have to put that in the movie. But I think really no matter how much you may know about certain scares, or whatever that happened with them, or certain events that happened with them, I think it really comes down to the storytelling and particularly how James shoots it. If you saw the first one, he’s very good about misleading the audience and setting up a certain level of tension where you think something is going to happen and it doesn’t, or you don’t think something is going to happen and it does. It was always fun for us watching the audience with the movie, particularly that night that it opened — on Saturday night we all went to the theater and just watched people; we didn’t watch the movie, and you’d be watching twenty minutes of a period of time when we know nothing’s happening, and people are like curled up in balls in the thing because James is so good about setting up this sort of pall over the movie that you just cannot relax because you’ll always think something is gonna go on – even to the very last beat of our first movie where we went to black when you think, “Something’s gonna happen, something’s gonna happen…”
So I think it’s really that’s where the freshness comes in, is that it’s really just James’ and everybody’s storytelling of a way of keeping you off-guard, and when you think something’s going to happen it doesn’t, and sort of surprising you just with when the scares happen. And his thing always is not trying to go for cheap jump scares just to do a jump scare, that it’s really out of the story. But it’s really just finding ways, from the very beginning – and that’s where I think the Amityville thing helps at the beginning – because right from the very beginning, more than the first one, you’re kind of set unease, and so you never know what’s around the next corner.
DC: Very few horror directors have ever birthed a franchise, let alone three. So I’m just curious, from a producer’s standpoint, what do you see in James that makes him such a next level talent that he’s proven himself to be over the last twelve years or so?
RC: It’s interesting. I don’t know that he could even identify why he’s been able to – Saw, Insidious, and this – he’s just a really smart filmmaker, and he really understands filmmaking. He studies whatever genre it is he works in – he’s not necessarily like a horror geek, that that’s the only world he lives in; he obviously did Fast 7, and there are other movies he wants to make – but he really studies the genre and watches all manner of horror or ghost movies. He’ll send me like these little Italian things to watch, and I don’t even know where they come from, like forty-year-old Italian movies. But he really understands it filmically, not just as sort being like, “Oh, it’s really cool the way they did that…” But he’s a guy, and rare in directors, being one of the better directors I think I’ve ever worked with, in that, if you make a suggestion to him, he’ll have an answer right away. And a lot of directors just go, “No.” “What if we…” “Nope.” They wanna be the guy that…
But James will always answer with a concise reason why he wants to do something, that he’s thought it through, and nothing is by random. And so I think as a result, he becomes a good filmmaker. It’s like a Spielberg or whatever, where they just know how to move the camera, know where to put it. Because they’re doing it for reasons, they’re setting up something, or they’ve got a bigger plan down the road than just, “This would be cool if we could make the camera move like that.” So it’s fun to watch him because he is sort of a guy who’s thinking ahead and isn’t just being reactive. We don’t go into a scene and just block and go, “Okay, let’s put the camera over here.” I think most people on the crew would say we can never guess which way he wants to put the camera because it’s always something different and fresh and a new idea. The answer is I think he’s just a good filmmaker. And as a result his movies have just kind of had the ability to spin off. I mean, you think about something like Saw, where would that be an idea where, “Oh, let’s make six of those…” or how many they made? And even Insidious is one, too.
DC: This is a true story, but you also have to make an entertaining movie. How far off book do you have to go with the Warrens’ actual involvement in the case to up the drama?
RC: Well, a little bit, but again it’s… their involvement, and there were a lot of people that were involved in this story,… so we can only take from their point of view. And so the best we could do was just listen to Lorraine in what their involvement was. And again, what I said earlier on… a lot of it is more taking the emotional involvement that we actually even learned from Janet and Margaret when they were here, even more so about how they emotionally were connected to the Warrens. And so then with any license that we took, we tried to base it purely on that emotional quality as opposed to, “Oh, it would be fun if the building blew up.” It’s like trying to find a way that says, “Okay, this is how they felt, and this was what was going on, and this is where they [Janet and Margaret] both felt the Warrens helped save them.” So we have to find a way to manifest that, in a fun way for the movie obviously, but still keep it true to what in essence the story was that we were told.
Again, what we were saying earlier on, it’s a very fine line to walk. And certainly you’ll see events in the movie where you go, “That probably just didn’t happen that way,” but at the end of the day hopefully it kinda comes across as that’s how they felt it was happening, and that’s what they really believed – whether they actually saw something in the room, it doesn’t have to be there to be still scary to them, and what they were emotionally feeling and how troubled they were. I think Janet had to go to a doctor, a psychiatrist, after all these events, something like that, and then was found to be cured. So I think it’s sort of just trying to find a way to play that out in a more filmic way.
DC: Can you talk about finding and working with the kids?
RC: That’s always a challenge. We feel we got really lucky on the last one. And all those kids have gone off to do really well. The character of Janet is a much bigger role than any of the kids had in the other one, and we were always saying to ourselves we need to find another Joey King because she was so amazing, particularly in that scene where she says, “There’s someone behind the door…” They don’t come around all that often, so we were really fearful we wouldn’t get the kids. So we read a lot of kids, particularly for Janet, and kind whittled it down to two, and then James and I met them, literally back to back, and talked to them and kind of got a sense of them and their families, and who they were and where they came from, and settled on Madison Wolfe. And it wasn’t until we were about three weeks into shooting we realized that she’d read, and she’d done auditions, but we’d never had her do anything scary. As James said, that’s where you get the fear. If it’s not in their face, you’re not going to feel it. And for a kid to really come across as terrified is hard. And we came up on a scene, and we turned (to each other and) said, “I hope she can do it.” She reads lines well, and she shows emotions well… and she just nailed it. And really it kicked up our admiration for her a huge amount because you realize she knows exactly what she’s doing, and she’s knows how to put it across.
And the same for the other kids, too. Two of the boys are from London and had barely done anything at all. One of them is a championship ballroom dancer at 12. And they won’t stop talking. But they’re both great. They’re all great. And they’ve all done their bits and pieces. But it was really more than anything Madison the one that we really need to be able to pull it out, and she did it really well and really went toe-to-toe with all the adult actors as well. But it’s a long process. It could be the first kid you read, and it may be the 100th kid you read that you really find somebody… Luckily we actually ended up with two that we liked.
Wrapping things up for us is another of the film’s producers, Peter Safran, whose credits date back to the 90’s and include Scary Movie, Slither, Buried, the Martyrs remake, and of course The Conjuring.
Dread Central: We saw one of your ghosts, Old Bill, during the filming; is he going to be the central villain, or are there others?
Peter Safran: No, there are a variety of bad guys, and he’s one of them.
DC: One thing we heard a lot about is how you wanted to preserve what everyone loved about the first film while also trying to be different. What is it that you think people responded to in the original?
PS: Good question… I think it was really important to James [Wan] if he were to come back and direct it that this would be a worthy successor to the first one. The first one was so well received by both fans and critics. I think what worked in it was character development and really spending the time to get to know the Warrens and their subjects; and when they come together, it creates something real. We actually cared about them. So in this one, in the development of the script, it was incredibly important to all of us that we build the true family relationships that existed. We spent a lot of time talking to the family and understanding what they went through in 1977, and that brings a lot of authenticity to it, which is what we did in the first film. We also spent a lot of time talking to Lorraine Warren, who tells us all these stories of how it was working with Ed on these cases, and the writers can weave into [that].
DC: Speaking of Lorraine, in the first film, she and Ed allude to Lorraine having a very traumatic experience that she almost didn’t make it out of, but we didn’t learn that much about that. Will we in the sequel?
PS: We will learn more about that for sure, but all the questions won’t be answered yet.
DC: We heard a little bit about how the skepticism from the public around this case in particular plays a part in this movie; can you tell us more about that?
PS: Sure. It’s a very Googleable case, so in the screenplay we wanted to address a lot of the things that came up in a search, just like the first movie. Having the right number of family members, for example. In this case, whether it was a hoax was a very prevalent opinion at the time so you can’t hide from that. So we definitely address that.
DC: In the first Conjuring we saw what played out if it had “really” happened; is that the same approach you took here?
PS: Absolutely. There’s no doubt at all in Janet’s or Margaret’s mind that this took place. And Lorraine never tries to persuade you over to her point of view. It’s as simple as [knocks on table] this is a table; that’s just what it is. We just address it from that perspective. For those involved, it was very real.
DC: We talked a little about the press hearing about this on a police scanner in the real happenings; does the press skeptic allegory play a big part in this film?
PS: It does in the sense that Ed and Lorraine have to deal with skeptics all the time in the field they are in, as well as being called charlatans. That was something that would be called out in the press so we address it in that manner because it was really relevant to this case. This was really the first headline-grabbing front page [supernatural] case ever. No one wants to be called a charlatan, so that was always in the back of Ed’s and Lorraine’s minds, and they’d be careful of not involving themselves in things that could be hoaxes.
DC: What are some of the things you have to avoid? Not only because you’ve already made a first Conjuring, but this is a genre where demonic possession happens so frequently.
PS: There are a lot of things you have to avoid because people have seen so many possession movies. In the first movie, for example, they drape a sheet over Lily for her exorcism. That wasn’t something that had been seen during an exorcism; because that’s your typical third act of a possession movie, we wanted to do something a little different and avoid the typical. I believe in this film we’ve again found a worthy successor to that climax, but I obviously can’t spoil it too much. I can say it’s not your typical hold up a cross, sprinkle holy water around, and say, “Demons, be gone!” type of thing.
DC: What will your London shooting days look like?
PS: We will be going to London for exteriors, but there are also some interior shots. But we built an entire house on set in L.A., along with a neighboring house as well as a driveway for exteriors. It in no way feels like it’s on a soundstage; it’s fantastic. The production designer and special effects are unbelievable. It feels like London in 1977 in the rain; it’s a testament to our special effects team, our DP, and how they put it together.
We’ll all be able to check out the effects, the cinematography, and more when The Conjuring 2 premieres on June 10, 2016 (it hits the UK on June 17th). For more info in the meantime, visit The Conjuring on Facebook, The Conjuring on Twitter, and The Conjuring on Instagram.
The supernatural thriller brings to the screen another real case from the files of renowned demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, who, in one of their most terrifying paranormal investigations, travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits.