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Malignant Director James Wan on the Art of Crafting Scares

James Wan is one of the most influential directors of his generation. Wan rose to prominence after launching two horror mega-franchises, Saw and The Conjuring. The Saw and The Conjuring series revitalized the horror genre, inspired countless imitators, and inflicted night terrors upon legions of moviegoers.

After leaving his mark on the horror industry, Wan transitioned into the world of blockbuster filmmaking. He stepped behind the camera to direct Furious 7 before doing the unthinkable and turning Aquaman into a billion-dollar franchise.

Wan has continued levelling up his skills and his production budgets throughout his career. So when news broke Wan was working on a “smaller-scale” horror flick in the downtime between his Aquaman movies, horror fans rejoiced.

Malignant

I’m just going to come right out and say it: Malignant delivers the goods. Wan has crafted an insanely entertaining horror thrill ride arriving just in time for spooky season.

Malignant’s story centres on a woman named Madison (Annabelle Wallis) who is haunted by visions of gruesome murders. It turns out these waking nightmares are more than visions; Madison is somehow catching glimpses of an actual killing spree. To share any more details is to spoil Malignant’s many twists and turns. Rest assured, the movie hits all the chilling beats you want from a James Wan horror flick.

Malignant is the ultimate popcorn movie, directed by a masterful filmmaker at the height of his powers. That Shelf caught up with the horror auteur to discuss his latest title. The conversation covers Malignant’s low-budget influences and what goes into crafting the perfect scare.

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James Wan Interview:

VICTOR STIFF: Malignant feels like a love letter to the pulpy, deliciously lowbrow films we grew up on as kids. How does Malignant pay respect to those movies without being a slave to them?

JAMES WAN: It’s funny that you said that. When people ask me, “how would you describe Malignant (and not just the story),” I would describe it best as the kind of movie, if we were living in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, we would go to the local video store, go down to the back [of the store] to the very end where the horror section or the science-fiction would be. And then we would go even deeper into the very bad shelves. We would pick up some movie that we would have never heard of before, but it would have the coolest poster art on it. It would be called Evil 666 or something. And then that would be the movie that you can go, “Oh, this is cool. Let me take it back and see what this is.” Right? And that’s how I would describe Malignant, as if it came out in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s.

But of course, I would want to try and elevate it beyond the sort of exploitational, lurid level of those films and actually try and class it up a bit. I love those films. Those movies on the back of the shelves, that are not famous at all, that are unpopular… those were the films that really inspired me the most growing up. Those are the films that really fought my imagination the most. And so, in a lot of ways, it really is a tribute to those back shelf movies you found at the horror section at your local video stores, but doing it at the level that I’ve been making my movies at, really.

VS: Crafting a great scare is a lot like crafting a great joke, in that it’s a complicated process, but you’re evoking a real basic, visceral emotion. I’m wondering about how you pack your films with so many scares. How do you come up with them? Is it a very complicated and technical process, or do you just chase your gut?

JW: It’s a combination of both, really. You can learn as much as you can from watching movies, reading books, comics, or whatever, right. But at the end of the day, you gotta have “it.” It has to be innately inside of you. You’ve got to have that understanding of what scares people on a primal level and what scares people on a more subtle level, on a human level.

If you have that as a beginning foundation, then you can start learning how to craft them, how to design them. And how to go, okay, people are conditioned by a lot of stuff that they’ve seen that are more “this,” that head in “this” direction. So what can I do to set it up… twist it on its head and shift it back to “this” direction?

A lot of times it’s all about knowing what people know and then twisting that around. Now having said that, one of the things I no longer wanted to do, that I did not want to do with Malignant was make a jump scare movie. I’m not taking anything away from jump scares because great jump scares are really hard to pull off. I just don’t think people out there understand it enough, and people don’t give it enough credit because a great jump scare is really hard to design. It is as hard as making any kind of film. But people equate jump scares with cheap scares, and they’re not the same at all.

Great jump scares are difficult to pull off and to do them well. To be able to do it with a very cynical audience today is an amazing achievement if you ask me. But having said that, I feel like people have started to equate me with that kind of filmmaking. And one of the things I really wanted to do is pull away from that with this film. And even though I have very shocking moments and very visceral moments in Malignant, I didn’t really want to create things that I had already done.

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VS: You are an artist who doesn’t like to repeat themselves, and you’re always seeking new challenges. What aspect of Malignant are you the proudest of now that it’s completed?

JW: Wow, that’s a good question. I like a lot of things about it, and listen, I have no idea how people are going to take to this film, I think it’s going to be very jarring for a lot of people. I think they’re going to come in expecting another Conjuring film, another scary ghost story, and that’s not what it is. They’re going to come and go. And even the movie, to some degree, starts off that way, starts off kind of going, playing with people’s expectations of me, going oh, wait, is it a ghostly movie again?

Is it a ghost story? Is it a demonic possession story? But then, oh, no, it’s this other thing, this whole other entity instead. I wouldn’t say proud necessarily… I’m happy that I got the chance to start the film one way and then shift it to another kind of… another kind of villain, if you will.

I’m also proud of, or happy, I should say, of the sisterly theme. I always loved that [kind of] story, watching movies where it’s a sibling relationship like Phantasm. The movie is about this brotherly sort of connection. And I loved the film for that. I thought that just brought a lot of humanity to those movies. And I guess I want to do almost a version of that, but with these two sisters. I loved that aspect of it as well. And I know for Akela Cooper who wrote the screenplay, for Ingrid Bisu, who came up with this initial concept, and then for Annabelle Wallis playing this role, I think that they’re most drawn to that idea.

Here is this woman who comes from a domestic abuse home.  She is married to a horrible husband. And throughout her whole life, ***SPOILERS*** she’s been oppressed by this thing, this guy that is inside of her head. And here is this woman that is trying to claim back what is hers.

We’re a bit on the nose there when we had her say, “it’s my body, I want to take it back.” But that is something that was very important for all of us behind the scenes. So that is another theme that was very important for us to pull off.

Malignant arrives in theatres on September 10th, 2021.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

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