Breaking The Mold: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick On THE CONJURING 3

The screenwriter behind the CONJURING sequels, ORPHAN and AQUAMAN opens up.

By Todd Gilchrist · @mtgilchrist · June 4, 2021, 12:18 PM PDT
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THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT (2021)

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It marks the third chapter in the “official” Conjuring franchise, but after eight films inspired by or spun off from Ed and Lorraine Warren’s paranormal case files, what’s the difference? Along with producer James Wan, only screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick knows – although by his own admission, he had to write two of them to figure it out. After launching his career with the cult film Orphan, Johnson-McGoldrick became one of Wan’s go-to collaborators starting with The Conjuring 2, building scares on the page that the virtuoso horror filmmaker turned into frightening set pieces while more fully developing the relationship between the genre’s premier heroes, the Warrens.

The Devil Made Me Do It completes a Conjuring trilogy, but doesn’t necessarily conclude it; Johnson-McGoldrick recently spoke to FANGORIA about the process of developing a story that would build on the events of its predecessors without duplicating them, nudging the series and its characters in a new and exciting direction. Additionally, the screenwriter offered some insights about the forthcoming prequel film to OrphanOrphan: First Kill – and spoke briefly about a project he worked on early in his career for the SyFy channel, a sequel miniseries to The Thing that he calls “fan fiction” — but thinks would be more possible to make today when the lines between television and film are more blurred than ever.

I don't know if this is meant to be the final installment in the dedicated Conjuring franchise, but what sort of mandate was there to pull out all the stops for The Devil Made Me Do It?

The biggest thing was really trying to decide what the franchise was going to be. Because the first movie had a haunted house and we had a second movie and it was a haunted house and now we're moving on to a third, and people are excited to see a third, but do we want to do that again? We definitely weren't going into this thinking we had to end it. It was really more like, 'Maybe we're just starting this. If there is a demand for a fourth one, what does the shape of the franchise look like?' So we definitely were pulling out all the stops a bit, but it was mostly in pursuit of finding what the franchise identity was going to be moving forward – and if it wasn't a haunted house, what is it?

This movie really throws the kitchen sink in there when it comes to the threats. There's chainsaw danger. There's of course the exorcism, but there's also ghosts, reanimated corpses, Satanists. How much of a playground was this for creating gags that served as homages to other films and other inspirations, and how much were you just trying to pack it with as many gags as possible?

Because we're sort of breaking from the mold of the previous two films, there was a pressure, to me at least, in coming up with the story to show that this new avenue is as interesting as the haunted house, that we're not doing what we did before, but you're still going to get all of the same stuff you came for. It's just going to be wrapped up a little bit differently. But going into it, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the fact that James wasn't there this time, and a lot of people came to Conjuring 1 and 2 because they're big James Wan fans. So the idea is James helping craft this story and we're starting with his premise and his inspirations, but now we're on our own and we've got to deliver. So as much as possible, we wanted to up everything, to give people what they came for, as much as possible.

This is the rare horror franchise that’s more about the heroes of the franchise than a monster. As you’re determining what this franchise is going to be, what are you inheriting?

It being about the heroes was really the formative lightning bolt for the third installment, because we really did go back and go, 'Okay, what was special about these two movies? What did people respond to? What makes them unique?' And it was [that] they've got happy endings, and they're about the heroes. There are the spinoff movies, which are sort of about what happens to you if the Warrens don't show up; those are all about the villains, The Nun and Annabelle, and everything ends poorly. But when Ed and Lorraine show up, they're the heroes. And the difference is, with a lot of horror movies you're rooting for the bad guy. You're waiting for Freddy or Jason to show up — you're there to see the evil, and you're kind of anxious for it to win a little bit, [and] you're exorcising those sorts of personal demons while you're watching those movies. Whereas this one was sort of interesting because you support the Warrens; you watch these movies and you back the heroes and you don't want the [bad guys] to win. You care for this family and you don't want them to be menaced at the end. And so we realized that was really more what this franchise wanted to be. I used to joke that it was The X-Files with two Mulders and no Scully. We're in a paranormal investigation franchise as opposed to necessarily a haunted house franchise.

Both stars, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, draw a pretty strong distinction between the characters in the script and who Ed and Lorraine Warren actually were. But what is sort of the north star for writing the Warrens? Where do you draw the line in taking enough creative license not to sort of betray the details of those real events in their case files, and also deliver the kind of scares that audiences expect from this franchise?

The thing that, to me, has been really important, the two times that I've done it, was meeting the people involved. I got to sit down with Debbie [Glatzel] and Arne [Johnson] and talk to them. I got to talk to Janet Hodgson and hear their story from them. And the experience I had on the second one was [deciding] that if they felt like their story had been told, that was enough. They were obviously aware that we had to take creative license, that life doesn't come in three acts and we had to come up with an ending for a story that didn't end — because they're still around. And the impression I got from talking to Janet after she saw Conjuring 2 was that she felt heard, and if the movie wasn't necessarily [to] the letter of everything that happened, it was emotionally authentic to her experience. So if there's a north star, then it's [ensuring that] if it's not necessarily faithful to the fact of the incident, then it's faithful to the emotional experience of the person who went through it. So it's not literally the exact same thing that happened, but it's what it felt like for them. So it's gratifying to me to have Janet say, 'I feel like people heard me or heard my story.' Because she in particular had been really ostracized after the real-life events of that story and had kind of a hard time, and everywhere she went, she was the 'ghost girl.' And so to have the story treated respectfully was really important to her, and I think that was sort of the main thing here, too — especially because this is a very complicated case and we want to be respectful of the fact that this all really happened, and to be respectful of all the people involved as much as possible.

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Having embarked on writing this film with the sense of determining what the franchise could become, what did you feel like you arrived at? What are the key elements? How much are the Warrens of this franchise more fictional characters than real people?

We've started treating them with the same approach that we've treated the stories that [the films are] based on, which is to take structural elements of those true stories, and then hang our fictional story on that. Like for instance, the real Ed and Lorraine met in a movie theater. He was really an usher. The elements of their story and how they came together, how they got their start, their backstory, the little hints that they give of their history, are all based on the real Ed and Lorraine. We want to take those true-life pieces and build on them.

And in terms of how we treat them as characters, we've really tried to follow the audience's lead on that somewhat. Because one of the things that I got the sense of after 1 and 2 was that Ed and Lorraine have this sort of fantasy relationship. And people liked that fantasy relationship; they love that they don't fight. One of the things I asked when I got to Conjuring 3 was, 'These people just always get along. What are we going to do with them?' Because they never fight, and the truth was I don't want to make them fight. There were definitely versions when we first started where we were like, 'Can there be something where they don't get along? When you get to number three, usually in a franchise it's the one where it looks like things aren't gonna work out, but then they do. But we're never going to be able to have Iron Man and Captain America not get along in this franchise, because what people like is that Ed and Lorraine always get along.

So that was the first thing. And where we wound up was Ed's real-life health crisis. He did have a heart attack during an exorcism, though it was actually the exorcism that was depicted in Conjuring 1 where it actually happened. But it wasn't depicted there, so we were like, 'Okay, let's plug that in here.' And by putting him in a health crisis, one of the things that we were able to then do was create conflict, but the conflict was more, 'Which one of them is going to be nicer to the other?' Ed in the first two films is very physical; he doesn't have psychic abilities, so he's going to fix the sink or play a song or fix your car. In this one, he can't even do that. He's been sidelined. And now when there's something physical to do, like go underneath the house and find the totem, he can't do it. And there's this idea of her having to step into the physical role that he's had to abandon, to try and create some sort of tension between them — because that's really the only kind of tension we want to see from them, rather than fighting. You want to go home and be like, 'I want their relationship. I want someone that looks at me the way Ed looks at Lorraine.' That's the fantasy of the movie that I think people really respond to.

This story obviously has a bittersweet real ending. What did you take away from the conversations with Arne Johnson that emboldened you to take the creative license that you did?

With regards to creative license, this story allowed us to do a little bit more composite storytelling. Like we have Arne's story and David and the Glatzels through act one and early act two to the beginning of the investigation. But then we had a lot of stories of Lorraine helping police, but not one big case that she worked on. So what we were able to do was combine these things together. We could start off with Arne's story, and then we moved into composite territory where we were plucking stories of her investigations and folding them into this story. And that gave us a little bit of license in terms of coming up with things that were not necessarily from Arne's story, but were still based on their case files. Tying it into Arne's story was the creative license, but those stories were still coming from the case files of Lorraine directing the cop to the crime scene.

But in terms of the ending, the thing that was really important, right from the start, was to not let the fact that this was a real person who died escape us. Like, we can't like turn Arne into a hero. This happened. The person who is dead does not deserve to be dead. We changed his name to try to provide as little trauma to the real-life people as possible, but at the end of the day, this idea that this happened and Arne paid for [it] was very important to us. And that's part of the true story when we started talking to Arne that was really interesting, and we wanted to capture, too, was that Arne went to jail and he did his time, and he came out and nothing ever happened again. He was not a menace to society. He changed his life when he came out of prison. So the idea that he paid his debt and moved on was something we very much wanted in there from the get-go. Kind of where we started was, 'How do we this,' because of that.

Working with James Wan, if it's at his production company Atomic Monster or just with him as a filmmaker, what sort of house style has developed that you have to deliver or know these movies might need?

It's tricky to not fall into rhythms. And one of the things that was helpful was that, at this point I think this is Conjuring 7, technically. But James laid down the foundation with the first movie and built on it with number 2 but since then we've had numerous other directors come in and put their footprint on it and shift that dynamic a little bit, which is good. Like [The Devil Made Me Do It director Michael] Chaves coming in has kept it fresh. It isn't going to hit all the same rhythms that it did before, because it's a different person, a different director [and] creative vision behind it. And I think that has kept it fresh, but those first two movies set, sort of, where our out-of-bounds are, which is basically this is going to be an R-rated movie, but it's not going to be super violent. We actually have more violence in this movie than we've had in either of the previous two films, but we were conscious of the fact that this was more than we've had before and tried to make sure we didn't go too far because the flagship installments of the franchise skew very scary in their own right, but they're also a little bit like gateway drugs for people that aren't necessarily into horror, because we do follow the heroes and it does work out in the end. We do have a happy ending and we have these families that had their problems solved. So that, at the end of the day, was really where we felt this movie needs to be. We can't get too dark. We're not going to resolve this in a way that's unsatisfying for the audience. The heroes have to succeed. And what I think that has done, too, is that people who maybe aren't necessarily into horror go see these movies and then they start to explore a little bit, because they're kind of curious about this Annabelle thing and they're curious about this other thing. So what I liked about that first Conjuring movie was how user-friendly it was to people who wouldn't necessarily normally go see a scary movie and we wanted to preserve that moving forward.

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Was there a sequence that was the most difficult for you to pull off?

The whole thing was a little tricky because the other thing that was new about this one, also, was the fact that we had a human antagonist. We never had a human antagonist before. It's always been a spirit, and spirits go away, and figuring out how to balance the fact that there is a supernatural horror that's going to scare us in haunted house ways, like the first two movies, but then there's also a scary person with a knife walking around. We kind of have two different genres happening at the same time. So that was a little bit tricky to juggle. But also it lent itself in ways that we didn't necessarily expect; for instance, James, from the beginning, did go, 'The first thing is this is a procedural. We want to make a murder mystery. How do we put Ed and Lorraine Warren in a murder mystery?' At the beginning, that seems crazy. How are we going to do that? That's going to be a really big challenge. Then, realizing as we get into it, how much that story lent itself to these characters. We had in Conjuring 2 the Amityville sequence where she witnesses the murders, and she goes into the mind of the killer. And we were like, 'Oh my God, wait a minute. We are potentially in Eyes of Laura Mars territory here.' We have what was a teaser in Conjuring 2 as kind of a premise for Conjuring 3, the fact that she has this ability and she could help police and she could be involved in a story like that. So we immediately went back and watched Eyes of Laura Mars and approached it that way. And once we broke through that, the idea of the procedural really gave us these themes where she's going to be investigating murder scenes. That's going to be scary. They're going to go to a morgue. Oh my God, we're going to get the Warrens in a morgue! If this was a haunted house movie, they'd never be in a morgue. So it just lent itself to these scary scenarios in a way that was a surprise while writing.

As a writer whose career really blew up because of a horror film, what have you learned that needs to happen on the page that makes a scene frightening or suspenseful?

Well, it's funny in terms of writing it, because without the movie existing, before the movie is made, it's sometimes difficult to get that across on the page. And the very first drafts of the script are sometimes way more descriptive of some of those scenes, because you have to suck a reader who has no idea what any of this is going to look like into this moment and make them scared while reading it. It's almost like writing horror fiction or a novel a bit, because you've got to convince an executive with a stack of scripts next to him that the thing that he's reading is scary. It helps when you know that James Wan is directing it, because you've seen what that will look like. But when you're moving forward, you definitely need to take the moment and the pages to evoke that mood. James definitely has his rhythms that we, in the very first draft, I think, try to emulate somewhat. His scares very much trade on suspense — we don't typically go crazy until the end, but we started big in this one, but typically, it's about the quiet moments and it's about, you know, the weird sound. And one of the things that I learned from James working on the first one, or what I observed happening, is I think James sometimes wakes up at night and scares himself in his house. He walks around his house and he's like, 'This is fucking scary,' and figures out the things that scare him and puts them in the movie. And that's one of the things that's really effective about horror as a genre, is that we have these universal experiences of being at home and it's dark and we're alone and what scares us. And finding the things that scare me when I'm at home alone and putting those in the film are more effective than monsters and demons and scary things chasing you a lot of times. So every time we've done one of these, we sort of start in those quiet moments, and on the second one I did a lot of writing at night to sort of put myself in that space of being in the quiet house all alone, which I think is what James does so well.

With Orphan 2 on the way, what have you learned as a storyteller since the first film that you've been able to implement more effectively in your career?

I've wound up writing a lot of sequels. On Wrath of the Titans and Conjuring 2, I was coming in on the number two of it. So going into First Kill, obviously I was involved at least in the first one. But having done Wrath and done Conjuring 2, I learned a lot about sequels. And the biggest challenge when doing them is that the audience mandate is, 'We want everything we saw the first time, but it can't be all the same old shit.' And so it's finding that perfect balance of giving you the same experience, but in a completely different way. And a lot of times, that doesn't happen. You just have the same experience again and it doesn't take you to new places. And my favorite sequels are the ones that give me a bit of what I came expecting, and then take me someplace different, and so that's what I've tried, at least, to do with the sequels that I've worked on. And we were talking about an Orphan prequel for years and years and years before we came up with our story for this. And the reason we waited for so long was every version we thought of was, 'This is the same movie. We're telling the same movie over again. How can we tell this story differently?' And it wasn't until we finally figured out the way to deliver the expected and the unexpected at the same time that we finally realized we had a film, and it's great. I'm really happy. I can't wait for people to see that when it comes out. It was a lot of fun.

I understand you wrote a script for a sequel miniseries to The Thing. How much have you talked about this in the past?

It was the early 2000s, around the time the Sci Fi [now styled SyFy] Channel was having a lot of success with [doing] four-hour miniseries backdoor pilots. Like Invisible Man and Battlestar Galactica, that was the idea. It was a four-hour miniseries that was meant to be a backdoor pilot for the Sci Fi Channel, and what happened was, at the time when everybody was looking at their horror IP and remaking everything — The Texas Chain Saw remake, The Hills Have Eyes remake – and Universal said, 'You know what? We're taking this away from you, Sci Fi channel, and we're remaking it.' And that's how we wound up with the Thing prequel that Eric Heisserer wrote, which was a lot of fun. But since then, I've always been saying, like, 'They did a prequel, we did sequel, we can do both. They can exist in the same universe and we can do that.' So we'll see if that ever happens, but it was a lot of fun to write that as a fan. And even if it turns out to just have been fan fiction, it was a blast.

Since it sounds like there were many changes on that project driven by market forces more than by creative instincts, what lessons have you learned since then about sequels or screenwriting in general that might be a reason that it couldn't have been made then, but might be able to get made now?

The script I wrote when I wrote it, I think, was probably always destined to be fan fiction just because it's such a cinematic film. It has such scope and it's simultaneously epic and contained at the same time with these huge vistas of Antarctica and all of that. I was trying to capture that at a time when that really wasn't what was happening on television. So it would be way more possible these days where that line between cinema and TV is so blurred. But what I learned was probably that I shouldn't have written that. But I'm glad I did, because I wrote the version that I wanted to see. But had I known then what I know now, I probably would have scaled it down a little bit. I think it was a little bit ambitious for the time. And I think that's also another reason that we never got it off the ground.