How was the transition from a student and amateur filmmaker to a global Hollywood director?
Sometimes I still feel like an amateur filmmaker! It’s surreal, you know. I did not know any better when I made the first Saw film.
The vision I had in my head, I couldn’t really achieve it with the budget I had for the film and so it was very tough. I had big plans for Saw, I was planning to make my greatest Hitchcock movie and then what came out was nothing like that!
What came out was a movie that was very down and dirty and in some really weird way that added to why the movie was so successful because people appreciated how raw the film felt and I think it really added to the subject matter of the film. It’s just one of those things, you know, things just pan out in the universe, sometimes you don’t ask for it, you just get it.
What was your experience at RMIT like?
I look back at my times at RMIT and I think how useful it was and how it shaped me as the technician I think I’ve become. When I went to school back then, I studied Media Arts and the course was focused on video production, film theory, animation and sound design.
They were really important classes and they taught me a lot about the filmmaking process I wanted to get into. Granted, I knew what I wanted to do and so I always ploughed forward and made the things I wanted to make.
At the time the structure of the classes and the professors that were there were very supportive and they pretty much let me do what I wanted to do and I cannot thank them enough for that.
As a Malaysian-born Australian, is there any cultural significance to the horror genre – do people respond differently around the world?
Yeah, I think a lot of horror stories we hear tend to be regional. In Western culture we have the boogeyman that hides underneath your bed and we are afraid as kids to dangle your feet over the edge because the monster will pull you down.
That kind of thinking doesn’t apply to Japan because they sleep on the floor. These sorts of things made me realise that the part of the world where you’re from really does shape the stories and the mythology you hear.
Naturally, I grew up with a lot of classic, vicious Asian ghost stories and then growing up in Australia I heard a lot of local legends. I think a lot of those things have shaped me and affected the movies I make.
The Saw franchise became the highest grossing horror franchise in the world. Why is Saw so popular and could you ever have predicted its success?
No of course not, I thought it was just going to go straight to video! We were lucky that people even took it seriously and the fact that it connected with the public zeitgeist was the incredible thing. I think it was just the era the movie was made in. It was a time period where a film like that just connected with the public. It really took Leigh Whannell and me by surprise, for sure.
How have your horror films and directing style developed since Saw?
I like to think that I grow as a filmmaker with each film I make. The first Saw film was 13 or 14 years ago now and a lot has happened for me since then. My filmmaking has definitely matured since that first movie.
I made it at such a young age and it was my first movie so I look back at Saw now and I see a movie that is very rough around the edges and very uncouth in a lot of ways but you know, the film is what it is.
It was a different time and it’s cool the way it has been received all these years. The Conjuring 1 and 2 definitely represents a more adult approach to my filmmaking. I think it shows growth – not that you’d know that from watching Fast and Furious 7 [laughs]!
Are you interested in home grown Australian horror films?
Yeah of course, a good movie is a good movie, right? It doesn’t matter where it comes from. If they come from Australia there is that extra pride, you think – ‘oh yeah look at this! This is great. This is going to be good for the industry.’
It’s the same with Wolf Creek as well and anything that’s genre and a bit different to the kind of movies Australia makes, I’m all for it. The irony is I never really had a career in Australia until I made my first movie. It just so happened that my first movie was in Hollywood.
Having said that, I keep up with a lot of my old friends I knew from back then and so I hear about things and get kept in the loop that way.
What scares you?
Oh jeez, a lot of things scare me that happen in the real world, I’ll tell you that much!
In America, some of the stuff that has gone in this year’s election is kind of frightening! I always say, stuff that happens in the real world is far more terrifying than anything I can cook up in my films.
James Wan graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Media) in 1998. His first feature film Saw is part of one of the biggest horror movie franchises of all time. His other films include Insidious, The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2 and Fast and Furious 7.