FANGORIA attended a virtual press conference for the latest CONJURING film. What did we learn?

By Todd Gilchrist · @mtgilchrist · May 21, 2021, 7:50 AM PDT
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Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson in THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT.

Watching The Conjuring films evolve into a tentpole-tier franchise, in some ways, is a betrayal of the scrappy charms of horror as a genre – and yet, they work so well that it’s impossible to ignore the elements that resonate not just with diehard fans but casual viewers experiencing them as a funhouse alternative to, say, the action or comedy that they might typically choose. The biggest and possibly most important of those elements is Ed and Lorraine Warren themselves – cinematic proxies for the real pair of paranormal investigators, whose relationship becomes a cornerstone and counterpoint to the mysterious, malevolent forces threatening and manipulating the world of the living. A rare example of heroes that a horror series follows instead of its meanie or monster, Ed and Lorraine supply the love and positivity that make it possible for viewers to get through now three installments without collapsing from terror.

Like its predecessors, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It builds on the details of a real case from the Warrens’ files, this time examining the details of a 1981 murder by Arne Johnson following the possession of 11-year-old David Glatzel. Also like those earlier films, producers James Wan and Peter Safran build a unique and original narrative from there, working with director Michael Chaves (The Curse of La Llorona) and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (The Conjuring 2, Orphan) to transform the foundations of the case into an incredible journey for, and challenge to, the love and unity of Ed and Lorraine.

FANGORIA recently joined other members of the press for a conversation with the cast and filmmakers, including Wan, Safran, Chaves, stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, and newcomer Ruairi O’Connor, who plays Arne Johnson. In addition to talking about the appeal of this particular case, the filmmakers discussed the challenges of telling a story that took the Warrens outside of the haunted houses that made them famous, while the actors reflected on the enduring qualities of these characters that offer so many creative opportunities while delivering a nonstop roller coaster of terrifying moments.


Why was this the story that had to be told in The Conjuring 3?

Michael Chaves: From the very beginning, I spoke with James, I spoke with Peter and the studio, and I think that for any franchise to seem fresh or be fresh, there needs to be invention and reinvention – and we wanted to tell a Conjuring story, but in a way that we haven't seen before. This is, in a lot of ways, more a supernatural thriller. We're taking the Warrens on the road. You said it's one of their darkest cases; these are always marketed as the darkest Conjuring film, and I think in so many ways, this really is. When you really look at the case, it's one of their most controversial cases. And the whole thing is just so fascinating.


Why do you consider this the darkest movie of the trilogy?

Peter Safran: Well, I think predominantly because it's a true story that involves a murder. There's a real victim in this case, that is not just a family being terrorized by something unholy. In this case, there was a real murder and a real victim, and I think inherently that makes this the darkest of the movies. And I think what Patrick referred to earlier, it almost requires the most love from Ed and Lorraine to counteract and to balance that real darkness that exists in the real Arne Johnson case. And we were always very sensitive about the fact that there was a real victim in this actually many victims, but there was really one murder victim in this. And so we were always very sensitive to it. And I think that's probably why it's the darkest, but also has the most love in it.


What made Michael the right choice for this film?

James Wan: Michael and I had worked together on [The Curse Of La Llorona] and I saw Michael's filmmaking on that film and saw how much he grew through the course of that film. And the other really important thing for myself is we wanted a filmmaker that would respect what Peter, Patrick, Vera and myself did on the first film. And we knew we wanted a filmmaker that has a vision to take it in a new direction, but yet really respect the world that we had created.


Patrick Wilson: I think that's spot on. And it's a tough requirement, right? Because you want someone to have their own vision and put their own stamp on it, but in a selfless act; you don't want a director to come in there and say, ‘I'm going to do it so different because it needs to be different.’ [But] we never heard those words and that that's not how Michael operates. The beauty of it was, not that these words were said, but [he communicated], ‘I have a tremendous amount of respect for the franchise, tremendous amount of respect for what you guys have done, but because of the way this story is so different and it really lends itself to more of a thriller aspect, with, of course, the horror being the overwhelming theme, it took it into a new place.’ So of course, to have a new director and a new vision I think helped it because obviously this was born from James from years ago, of James having this idea of this story.

And so we knew it was coming the Arne Johnson case, even before Chavez was brought on, but Chaves was such an amazing fit because not only did he have this technical prowess, but honestly, and this should not be taken lightly, but the positivity that comes from this guy and from James in their filmmaking is something that we all respond to as actors and same with Peter as a producer. So we need a group that is working towards the same goal, but honestly, because it all gets so dark in these films, you want someone that is gonna lean into the love, because love wins in these movies, so lean into the positivity. And I think that's something, that as dark as this film gets, there's a whole other lightness to it that Chaves brought…


The most fun that we have on these movies is when we're welcoming, in this case, a new director, new actors, you've got Ruairi and these other amazing cast members. We want that. I want people to come in and… bring all of their passion and energy and their A-game and dive in deep, because we don't like to half-ass it on these movies. We whole-ass it. So you've got to go full bore. So again, I speak to his passion and reverence for the series, but also his ability to swing a big stick, honestly, to make some choices; whether they work or not, we don't know yet. But this is where it's coming from – it's always coming from an organic place of wanting to scare the audience, wanting to make the audience feel something, back to the emotional throughline that they were speaking of. And also that ability to pivot and go, ‘That's not working. Let's try this.’ That takes as much strength, I would say moreso, just to not kind of double down out of fear. It was, again, leading with love and not fear, which is a good lesson for us all.

Vera Farmiga: I second that. From the moment I met Chaves, I knew exactly why he was picked. I knew why he was hand chosen for us. Because it's also the crew. A lot of us have been working together for a long time now. He had to fit in that and I can see why, even aside from his technical savvy and his honoring the vision of the movies before him, I also think his just absolutely adorable, energetic personality fits so beautifully into the mix.


Ruairi O'Connor: I am obviously working for the first time on the Conjuring films. It's definitely intimidating coming into [the Conjuring universe]. It's such a good series. I didn't want to ruin it. Michael was really a champion of me, which is incredible. He's new to this universe and he got me in there and I'm obviously incredibly thankful for that, but he was with me every step of the way. He's the only person on set that at the end of 12 hours of shooting is still clapping and hollering when you do a take well. And as much as I'm delving into dark places and trying to torture myself, having Michael be behind the camera and making me feel assured was essential. Otherwise, I would have crumbled for sure.

Michael, what's the key to your energy?

Michael Chaves: You know, we work really long days. It's really stressful and you're always pushing yourself to the limits, but I always just try and remember what a privilege this is, no matter how tired we're getting. I grew up loving movies, and honestly being a part of this has just been such a pure pleasure, and I just never want to forget that. And I think it's important for everybody to be reminded, especially during this crazy year that we're coming out of, any issues that we have are really first-world problems. I mean, we're so lucky to be doing this.


Ed and Lorraine Warren always remained the heart of the Conjuring movies. What do you think it is about the couple that people find so fascinating?

Vera Farmiga: Well, I know what I find fascinating. They are the personification of love. For me, it's more of a love story than it is a horror story to me, and that's what makes it so unique and successful – and that's why I enjoy coming back. I think that message of love – not only the Warrens' for each other, but for the work that they do and for the people that they help, that selflessness, that compassion, that embodiment of love is really, really something holy and special, and that makes it digestible and beautiful.


Patrick Wilson: I always have to go back to the first film and those conversations, James, that you and I had early on about the way that the structure of these films is going to be built following these different cases and these different families, but really centered around the Warrens. They become the throughline between all these films. And that's something, one, that sets us apart from other horror franchises is that you're following the good guys throughout, instead of the villain. But, two, the fact that I think James' conversations that we had early on in the first one where you knew you'd get to the scare, but you knew you had to build the character and the relationships, whether it was a guy and a guy or a guy and a girl, whatever it was going to be. So we already were leaning into character and relationship and love and partnership in these movies. And when you have that, when you know that you can center around love – and it's our version of Ed and Lorraine. We don't know how they were behind closed doors. It's our version of what Ed and Lorraine are. But when you know you can center around that, then I think in some way, it frees you up to go as dark as you want in the other aspects, because you really get to balance it out.

Because I would say that this film probably has some of the darkest moments of any in the [Conjuring] universe. But like you had with the Elvis moment in the second one, or us dancing at the end of the second one, you have those moments in this of just this deep profound romance, because we don't go halfway with either, you know what I mean? If you're going to have these terrifying scares, then we want to have the most full-of-love moments that you can, because it does become very operatic.


Ruairi, you’re playing a possessed person. What references did you draw upon to know how to contour your body or perform in that way?

Ruairi O'Connor: It was a huge challenge for me because I'm very scientifically minded and very cynical. I remember talking to Vera on set a lot, and she has this really kind of warm openness to there maybe being some kind of paranormal or something beyond, she just is kind of playful with it. And we'd be talking about little spooky things that happened throughout the filming of Conjuring and the other films as well, and I was just wishing that I would get some kind of spooky event… but unfortunately [I] didn't. So I worked with my acting coach a lot to dredge up personal demons, stuff like dying of an illness and that kind of thing to, to really rail against and ground it. But then when I watched the film, I was like a 14-year-old kid watching a movie I shouldn't be watching. It was just a horror film and all of that kind of boring actor work that I put into it, I couldn't see the mechanics of, and I got to enjoy it like the audience and pry my girlfriend's hands away from her face so she was forced to watch it, Clockwork Orange-style.


Was there any apprehension about moving into the 1980s, since this decade has kind of become a cornerstone for movies and TV in the past five years?

James Wan: I remember when we were filming in the streets of London, doing the raining shot for the ending of Conjuring 2, and during a break in photography, I remember going to Patrick and Vera and saying, ‘You know what, you guys? The next one has to be in the eighties.’ And I remember Vera said to me, 'Yes! I want big earrings.’ So it just felt like the natural progression, because we had spent a lot of time in the seventies and Ed and Lorraine Warren, their cases and their careers went from the sixties, seventies, eighties, and into the nineties, and it just felt like the natural progression for us to kind of move into. And aesthetically, it just felt like it was the right thing to do. We'd exhausted the seventies look, and the eighties was the natural way to go. And sure, I mean, now there's a lot of TV shows and movies that are taking place in the eighties, but it was naturally where the story and the characters and just the period of the story wanted to take us into.


Peter Safran: We were also driven by the real-life case. So we tried to figure out the story that we wanted to tell and then set it in the appropriate era. And we don't in our films hit it on the head what the era is like; the movies that we did, they were set in the seventies, but it wasn't the disco seventies. So the change for Ed and Lorraine between the seventies and eighties is not so dramatic for us. So for us, it really was just a question of being true to the story. I don't think we really were too concerned about what else was going on in terms of film or television creation in that era.

Michael Chaves: Just like the guys said, it was really based on the real life case and it took place in 1981. I think the idea of going into a new decade is almost like you're turning a page into a new chapter and I think it was a new chapter in the careers of the Warrens. Definitely, we're opening new doors in the franchise of The Conjuring and just exploring different things. Lorraine during the eighties would work with detectives and police departments, and that was something that we haven't been able to explore before. Actually, it was a time that, people forget, but there were actually a lot of psychics and clairvoyants working with police departments – so much so that the Department of Justice actually issued a handbook in 1989 because so many departments were working with psychics that they were like, we need to actually formalize some kind of working rules of working with psychics. The other thing in the eighties is this is the dawn of the 'Satanic Panic,' and I think there was a lot of cool textural things that play a backdrop in this movie and it's fodder for something that could be explored in future cases.


There are some standout images of descending throughout the film – either down stairs or into darkness itself. Can you talk about the meaning of that for you, and finding the film’s style?

Michael Chaves: In terms of the descent, I wanted to send the Warrens to hell and I loved the idea that there would be this kind of feeling of descent through the movie, and even the idea of Orpheus as Ed goes to save Lorraine at the end, and without giving anything away, the story of Orpheus and just the idea that you have someone descending into the underworld to get their love back. I just thought that that was really fun, this continual descent through the movie. And I think that the Conjuring movies, from the very beginning, they're love letters to the genre. The first Conjuring stands on its own, it's just an amazing horror movie, but then you can see its inspirations, you can see The Changeling in it, you can see other movies that are kind of rooted in it. And I kind of shamelessly wanted to throw out nods to The Exorcist, and there's a couple of Psycho nods in there as well. And I think it's important, just like you'd have Easter eggs within a franchise and nods to other movies, I think it's also just a conversation with the genre itself, because I think The Conjuring has so much become, honestly, the definitive horror franchise.


Did the shooting leave room for improv in horror sequences?

Vera Farmiga: Well, where I find the most room in Conjuring is in between the lines, the stuff that's unspoken. But I also can tell you that this is some of the biggest stuff I've ever had to play in my career – like operatic. It's epic, the emotional scope of this character. I have never had to consider a character's spiritual prowess, and when you're denouncing demons, this stuff is huge – and I don't necessarily rehearse it. There is so much improvisation that happens within these moments because I'm just kind of grasping at straws in these moments, and these bigger emotional moments, they simultaneously delight me and they scare the crap out of me having to execute them – and execute them with earnestness. [But] I don't think we actually ever veer off book too much. The scripts are always quite succinct, but I find that within the framework of these scenes, and especially the way that they've written Ed and Lorraine, I think there is so much room for adding nuance. And for me, those moments are largely unspoken, but yeah, sure.


Ruairi O'Connor: From my point of view, I thought with Patrick and Vera, just seeing the other films, that there must be loads of moments that they're probably improving in because it's so natural and sincere in their relationship. And then watching the film and seeing all the scenes I wasn't involved, that's pretty much read exactly off the page. And it's always scary having to deliver lines if they're gonna feel uncomfortable in your mouth or whatever, but it feels very real, their relationship, and that's why I assumed there must be improv there. And just from my own personal position on improv, in this one, I agree with Vera that most of the improv takes place in the physical acting of what you're going through, and thinking of what cool lines you might be able to say probably takes a bit of a backseat.

Patrick Wilson: Maybe it's also, you start out being a theater animal and you're used to having scripts where the writer has been dead for 500 years, so you don't think about changing lines, so there's still a little bit of that in me. Like, with respect to Michael and James, Peter and [David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick], who's written these scripts, the last thing you want to do is go like, ‘All right, you guys have been doing this for a year and a half, but I figured out something over the weekend that you've never thought about.’ That rarely comes into play. Usually it's trying to figure out if you're missing a moment – like, maybe I could say this like this, or a lot of times it's just little grammatical things. But I like to stick to the script because that gives me a fence to play in, you know? And then like Vera and Ruairi said, everything else in between we can figure out – figure out blocking on the day and all that kind of stuff, or action, something to do, something to play against. But I like the script to be dead on.


Also just from a technical standpoint, it just gets a big mess if you start ad-libbing something in the wide, and then you've got to stick to it, and it's not great. So if I'm changing something on purpose, I'll usually tell the script supervisor even before I tell the director, ‘Hey, just so you know, I'm going to try this,’ so they know what's going on. Because it's not like a comedy where it's like, let's do 15 different versions of this joke and see what lands at a test screening. This is incredibly technical. We do our work, then they take it and then they've got to make it. Making a horror movie is so much more technical than a drama, and I say that as someone that hasn't even directed one yet. But I know that from my years with these guys, it is so well thought out that it's our job to think of things, overthink things and make it look so effortless and easy that [people say], ‘Oh, they must've just come up with that on the day.’ Not true.

James, you have created two iconic horror film franchises already, probably with more on the way. Is there a secret ingredient or something that you specifically look for when building a potential horror franchise?

James Wan: I don't think there's a secret ingredient. I just want to tell the stories I want to tell. I want to tell the stories I want to watch as an audience. And if I have to put my finger on something, it's telling stories with characters that people can relate to. So I believe that's why, whether it's Insidious or The Conjuring world with Ed and Lorraine, it's creating these characters that are really beloved – they're real people. I mean, definitely in the case of Ed and Lorraine they're based on real people. And so the more grounded you can make it, the more the horror scenes or the kind of scares you put these characters into play more fearfully. And so I think that is the most important ingredient is to let the audience be able to be in the shoes of these characters. Then you can take them on the craziest scariest ride.


These films are obviously dramatizations of the Warrens' case files. Is there a north star for staying true to Ed and Lorraine and their work while also delivering the scares and intensity that contemporary audiences expect? Are there any examples throughout the series where you decided to pull back or not do a gag because it went too far from their truth?

Peter Safran: Listen, I mean, obviously we're making movies. So we base them in the real case files and then we dramatize them as we see fit to make the best possible experience for the audience, to tell the best story. But it's very important to us to stay true to, in particular, the relationship between Ed and Lorraine, to make sure that it's grounded in that love. And then in terms of the scare sequences, we can go to places that were not necessarily based in truth, but are just great original sequences that audiences are gonna get excited by. So I think we've never pulled back on a scare sequence because we said it didn't fit within the fact pattern of what actually happened in the case, but we are always conscious of that relationship between Ed and Lorraine. So we make sure that we would never write anything that Ed and Lorraine wouldn't do.


Michael Chaves: Yeah, I think with all of it you're trying to find what, because some people say we live in a post-truth society, with these stories, I try and just anchor it in what the emotional truth is. Our movie opens with this exorcism and we have a recording of it that actually ends the movie, it plays over the end credits. And that recording is, you know, maybe you're a total skeptic, maybe you don't believe in demons or God or any of that. But you can't listen to that tape and say that something powerful was not going on there. You can't listen to it and not connect to the emotion in that and connect to the real terror that that family was going through. And so with all of these things, you know, I was raised Catholic. I am always a skeptic, but always someone who wants to believe. And so I always go back and forth. And James always talks about finding the emotion and really delivering the emotion. I think that's honestly, if I was going to say a secret to his success and the success of his franchises, it's in really anchoring it in just pure, powerful emotion. I can say back for the exorcism, there was a lot of interviews, and a lot of people described David Glatzel as levitating off that table, and that's a very powerful image. That's a very specific example of something that we actually we've seen a lot of times; we saw it in The Exorcist, so I think that it was something where we actually deviated because we wanted to do something that was more unnerving and something that we haven't seen before. So even there, there's a lot of really powerful accounts so we weren't fictionalizing it, but we just chose to kind of go into a different direction, because like Peter said, we're making a movie.

James Wan: I would say that my north star for what makes scary movies scary ultimately is, or in the case of The Conjuring, is people have to be scared. That's the bottom line. The reason why these movies work as well as they do is people want to be scared. It's like comedy – people want to go see a company to laugh. People want to go see a scary film to scream and cry and then laugh. And I think what works for the Conjuring films, at least for me, and I know it is for Michael as well, is start with something that is real. So like Michael was saying, he's basing some of these scares off reports that people have talked about. If you start with that, then you can kind of embellish on it, but you always keep coming back to that foundation where it was grounded and real to begin with. And I think people can tell the difference between things that are based on quote-unquote reality and something that is just outlandishly made up.


How did the film's procedural element transform the nature of the horror that we see in this film?

Michael Chaves: I think that what it did is it just took the Warrens, we've seen them in two haunted house movies before, probably two of the best haunted house films that we've seen. And I think that the great thing about a procedural is you are on the road, you're going into different environments. You're working with different people. It's taking you outside of what really is a comfortable setting. And at this point in their careers and our experience with the Warrens, the haunted house has now become a comfortable setting. So I think it gives us an opportunity to take them into places that we haven't seen, and what I'm so excited about is there's scenes, there's sequences in the movie that haven't even been in the trailers but everybody loves them when they see them — and it's because it is so out of the experience of what we're used to I'm so excited and I'm honestly so thrilled that they weren't put in the trailer, because there's a lot of cool wild stuff in store for fans of this.


The Conjuring films stand as a testament to the loving marriage of Ed and Lorraine. Did being able to fully dig into that aspect in this chapter enhance your understanding of them and their life's work, and did it lead you to any new discoveries?

Patrick Wilson: With all due respect to the real Ed and Lorraine, I see their relationship through, I hate to sound so callous, but I see their relationship through the eyes of what we need in the film, meaning I love their unbridled love. I love their devotion to each other, to themselves, to their religion. I love Ed's steadfast strength. So the progression that we see is I think because of the previous films, and we kind of demand it now: we want to see what happens to a couple that just loves each other? What can we do to these guys? You know? So I didn't really dig into any understanding of how Ed and Lorraine were; look, both Vera and I are happily married with kids and families, so playing a married couple is not the hard part. But what's again so wonderful about this Ed and Lorraine that we've created, I'll say, is that we're able to just, it sounds so romantic, but to really let it fly, let it go with their love for each other. And there's so many romantic sequences in this movie that you just wouldn't have – I'd say in any other movie, but you'd have them in a Conjuring movie because James did it in the other one! And it's so wonderful to be a part of that, to find that possibly the most romantic moments that I've had on screen are with Vera in a horror movie.


James Wan: Those romantic comedies had less romance, huh Patrick?

Patrick Wilson: That's what I'm saying. Because then you're trying to find the edge. Is it funny? Is it this, is it that? And we have this baseline of deep horror, right? I mean, when the first film came out and Peter would tell you all of the statistics of testing, and it taking Chris Nolan's spot in the summer, and now it's a summer tentpole, and it's all of these things because it transcended the genre, it transcended the horror genre. And so as we get to come back to these guys and really embrace their love, we feel like we can just keep going with that, because we know we have this baseline of real horror. So playing the opposites is always – it's always fascinating and thrilling.


Vera Farmiga: Yeah, and for me, if there were any new discoveries for me in this third one, I think it would be that Lorraine loves Ed, not only for who he is, but who she is when she's with him. And I think that discovery came about because we delve deeper into her gifts and her abilities as a psychic, this time around, the nature of their detective work and seeing what they did as demonologists, her ability gets put to the test, her clairvoyance gets put to the test, and we get to see other aspects of her clairvoyancy; different types of cognition. Precognition, retrocognition, remote viewing, not only the telepathy and clairvoyance, but there's other aspects and facets – and she's able to do what she does because she has his support. So diving deeper into her abilities for me, part of that love is her loving who she is when she's with him.