James Wan: The Fantastic Voyage Of Aquaman

December 24, 2018
With Aquaman currently riding a tidal wave of success, we take an in-depth look at the career of its Australian director, James Wan.

“I grew up loving George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron movies,” James Wan tells FilmInk in Los Angeles. “Deep down, I’ve always wished that I could make those kind of movies, and that has always been my goal. But horror is definitely the best way to break into the industry. I just became somewhat synonymous with it, and people had a harder time seeing me for anything else outside of horror. I want to prove that I’m not just a horror filmmaker. I’m a filmmaker, period.”

If 2015’s Fast & Furious 7 wasn’t enough proof that James Wan – the director behind the Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring series – was a man for all cinematic seasons, and not just the dark winter of the horror genre, then Aquaman should promptly quash any lingering doubts. A big, ahem, splashy superhero epic of the first order, the film is bright, colourful, poppy, and unquestionably family friendly, much more so than any previous Marvel or DC films. Jason Momoa is the eponymous underwater action man, who was memorably introduced in 2017’s Justice League. He anchors this whole delirious affair beautifully, and Aquaman is big screen entertainment in its purest form, echoing Wan’s aforementioned cinematic touchstones. “Whenever I make one of these big movies, I reminisce about the good old days of making a low budget little horror film,” Wan laughs.

Outside of the film’s enormous budget, and the hit-making pressure attached to it (not to mention the faltering fortunes of Warners’ DC superhero movies), there was another challenge attached to the project for Wan. “Let’s face it,” he sighs. “He’s the superhero that everyone makes fun of [laughs]. They love to make fun of this guy. So there were reservations at the start about whether or not I should pursue this character. But I’ve always loved being the underdog. Coming from the horror genre, you’re always the underdog. You’re the bastard stepchild that no one has any respect for! So, I got used to that mentality. And then I thought, ‘you know what? Aquaman could be that guy. I get to make him really cool. How awesome would that be if I’m the one that made Aquaman supercool?’”

James Wan on the set of Aquaman.

So, how did James Wan pitch his approach to the material when it came to his big meeting with Warners? “I just pitched the overall story of how I wanted it to be,” he replies. “I wanted it to be a throwback to the movies that I grew up with…like I said, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, George Lucas. I wanted a classic hero’s journey. A guy who starts out one way, and then goes another. In the case of this movie, he’s a reluctant hero. He doesn’t want to be a hero. He doesn’t care about any of that stuff, like we saw in Justice League. But then he goes on this journey on the way to become the hero that he’s supposed to be…very classic storytelling. I pitched that and I pitched the visual world. How I wanted it to be a real big ‘world creation’ film, like Star Wars and The Lord Of The Rings, but uniquely my take on that. They loved the idea of that. And I said, ‘I’ve got to have monsters in there. You guys okay about monsters in there?’ Let’s have monsters! [Laughs] But I didn’t just make stuff up. It’s already inherently built into the mythology of the comic book.”

The aforementioned hero’s journey of Aquaman involves Momoa’s Arthur Curry – the illegitimate son of Nicole Kidman’s undersea Atlantean queen and Temuera Morrison’s nice guy lighthouse keeper – taking his rightful place on the throne of his underwater kingdom, and preventing a worldwide apocalypse in the process. Needless to say, this Aquaman is no joke. “With Jason, it takes it to such a whole different level,” Wan says. “Jason has a very strong opinion. [Laughs] And he’s a big guy. [Laughs] I had to make sure that I wasn’t intimidated by how big he is. But we just mutually respect each other. Jason just really trusted me when we were filming it. We really talked about his character and how we wanted to approach it. I want him at the end to embrace what he’s supposed to be. I want him to embrace what his comic book character ultimately becomes, which is the hero that he’s supposed to be. But you know, I’ve directed The Rock and Vin Diesel…so I can take on Jason. He’s easy!”

James Wan on set.

Born in Malaysia in 1977, Wan was raised in Perth from a young age. Hooked on films from his very early teens, Wan started to take his passion more seriously when he was accepted into the prestigious Royal Melbourne Institute Of Technology (RMIT), where he would eventually meet his good friend and future collaborator, actor and writer, Leigh Whannell. “Guys were making films about sand,” Whannell laughed to FilmInk in 2004 of the somewhat stuffy institution, “and James would get up and show his films, and they’d be about zombies. I knew that he was going to be something big.” After directing the still-unreleased 72-minute feature, Stygian, in 2000, and the ten-minute initial short film version of Saw in 2003, Wan stuck with Whannell for the film that would send them right over the top. After they failed to create any interest in a feature-length version of Saw in Australia, Wan and Whannell headed to Hollywood. “We were broke and I honestly just didn’t think that anything would come of it,” Whannell told FilmInk in 2004.

As well as the script, the duo shot a scene as extra ammo to help convince studios of what they could do. “Initially, the idea was just to sell the script,” Wan told FilmInk in 2004. “But then we thought that if we were going to go all the way, we might as well take the extra step and showcase to these guys that we’re not just writers, we’re filmmakers.” The Americans were blown away by what they saw and read, and the offers rolled in. “We had offers to buy the script outright,” laughs Wan, “and some of them weren’t too bad either.” Wan and Whannell, however, stood firm, and chose to remain the creators of their own destiny, and were only prepared to let their script go if they were installed as director and star as part of the deal. Eventually, Lionsgate took a gamble on the young Aussies, and bankrolled them to the tune of around a million dollars.

With Whannell writing and starring, and Wan directing, Saw was the cruel and canny tale of the sadistic killer, Jigsaw, who puts a collection of intriguingly flawed characters through a grim wringer of richly inventive torture scenarios. Squeezing every cent out of his slim budget, Wan mined horror brilliance from Whannell’s drum-tight script, crafting a nail-grindingly suspenseful film with well-drawn characters, splashes of black humour, and lashings of gore. It’s an intense, edgy film that keeps you guessing right up to its deliciously macabre ending. “I wanted people to be utterly shattered,” Wan laughed to FilmInk upon Saw’s release. Lionsgate were so impressed with what they witnessed in early screenings that they greenlit a sequel before Saw even hit cinemas. The gamble paid off: the film was a big hit, making instant cult heroes of Wan and Whannell, and revitalising the then-moribund horror genre in the process.

When FilmInk asked Wan in 2013 if he thought that he would have the career that he does today if he hadn’t moved to the states, the fast-talking filmmaker slowed down momentarily, and paused for thought. “That’s a tricky one to summarise,” Wan replied. “Here’s my thing: with today’s filmmaking, you have really good technology at the tip of your fingers. You can do so much with so little, and you can make things look so good. If you make a good product – whether it’s a short or a feature – then you’ll find your audience. I’m speaking from my own experience, of course, but we made short films, and it helped us kick down doors. When you get to the next little door, it can then be a tough thing to keep on going. So many other young filmmakers fail at that point because it’s hard to stay relevant. It’s a good problem to have, but you have to remind yourself why you love what you do.”

Though Whannell stuck around to script Saw II and Saw III, Wan lit out after the first movie. “I had very little to do with the Saw franchise after the first one,” the director told FilmInk in 2010. “I could walk away from it, because Leigh was still very much involved. I knew that one of us was still there overlooking it, so that it wouldn’t get completely bastardised too early, too quickly.”

James Wan with Cary Elwes on the set of Saw.

By Saw IV (which would be followed by two more sequels), Whannell was out too, with screenwriters, Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, brought in to expand the films’ increasingly loopy mythology. How does Wan feel about the direction that the Saw franchise took after the third installment? “It’s really strange,” he replies thoughtfully. “I’m somewhat removed from it, and I’m removed from it emotionally as well. I give a lot of credit to Lionsgate for giving the fans what they wanted. A lot of people said that it went kind of nutty, but a lot of the fans hung in there. To be honest with you, I myself had no idea where else the story could go. So for that alone, I give them a lot of credit for doing what they did to continue with it. It’s a weird thing for me though, because people definitely associate me with it, and because of that, I’ve found it limiting with the type of movies that I can make. People say, ‘Here’s that Saw guy! He only makes gruesome, violent movies!’ It’s hard for me to say, ‘I didn’t have anything to do with the sequels!’”

Wan collaborated again with Whannell on 2007’s Dead Silence, another imaginative slab of horror, this time driven by a haunted ventriloquist’s dummy. When talking to FilmInk upon the DVD release of Saw, Wan called the then-in-development Dead Silence “a real horror movie. Saw was spun as a horror film, but we saw it as more of a dark thriller. A lot of people say that it was pretty gory, but I don’t feel like it was. This time, we’re making our first true, scary horror movie.” Starring Aussie actor, Ryan Kwanten, and proving once again that Wan had an almost innate ability to work up on-screen tension and create genuine scares, Dead Silence unfortunately failed to have the same cultural impact as Saw, and the film quickly dipped from view.

Whannell later revealed on his own blog that his script for the film was the unsatisfying result of pressure to follow up Saw combined with a raw desperation to please major studio, Universal, who had backed Dead Silence. “I locked myself in the bedroom of the crappy apartment that we had rented in Hollywood, and tried to force an idea out like a particularly stubborn hangover shit,” he said. “It was creativity at gunpoint.” Wan, however, has stated that Dead Silence was also something of a nostalgic piece. “We wanted to make a second movie that was fun…a ghost story that we like,” the director told IGN. “We ended up blending two elements that we love, which are female ghosts and creepy dolls. We just cooked up a story about a creepy female ghost who used to be a ventriloquist. We loved the idea that a ventriloquist is still puppeteering, so to speak, from beyond the grave. But it’s not a killer doll movie. Our doll does not walk around with a knife in its hand trying to chase after you. It’s more about why I find ventriloquist dolls creepy. They can just sit there and look at you and give you the creeps. Dead Silence was inspired by The Twilight Zone and old Hammer horror films.”

After Dead Silence, Wan shifted gears violently with the grim, full tilt 2007 vigilante thriller, Death Sentence, which saw the young director breaking from regular collaborator, Whannell, who was involved only by way of a minor acting role. This confronting low budgeter stars Kevin Bacon as Nick Hume, a happily married family man whose life crashes in a heap when his young son is killed as part of an initiation rite for a gang of street punks. The sadly out-of-his-depth Hume tries to get a little payback, kick-starting a course of retribution that leads to more murder and mayhem. Asking plenty of moral questions among the battering shootouts and stunning set pieces (including a superb chase through a city street which ends in a deserted multi-level car park), Death Sentence reaped major benefits from James Wan’s aggressive, energised directing style, and is relentlessly, unapologetically in-your-face from go-to-blood-soaked-whoa.

Kevin Bacon and James Wan on the set of Death Sentence.

Though a major break from his previous films, Wan revealed to movies.about.com that Death Sentence was actually part of a gritty sub-genre that he’d long admired. “I’m a big fan of revenge movies,” he said. “It’s so classical, and I’ve always harboured this desire to make a revenge film. After Saw and Dead Silence, it was a great natural progression to move out of the horror genre and into something else. I like to think that I’m a filmmaker that can make other stuff too. I felt like it was a great segue for me to move into something that is different, but yet the fans that love the kind of films that I make will still take to. I like to think that they will.” Wan certainly proved that he could work effectively in another genre, but Death Sentence fared even worse than Dead Silence in box office terms, failing to make a mark in the states, and heading straight to DVD in Australia. The young director also proved that even amongst the jolts and kill-scenes, he was still focused on his characters. “This is not a wall-to-wall action film,” Wan told movies.about.com. “It’s a character-driven film, and it’s a really intense emotional drama.” Indeed, Kevin Bacon’s painful, grief-loaded downward spiral echoes much louder and longer than the film’s artillery-level barrage of gun-shots.

After the urban warfare of Death Sentence, Wan returned to the horror genre in 2010 with Insidious. Shot on a typically low budget of just $800,000 under the auspices of Paranormal Activity producer, Oren Peli, the film also saw Wan reunite with Leigh Whannell, who wrote the screenplay and features in a supporting role. A tense, bone-chilling horror flick in the traditional mould, Insidious swirls around happily married couple, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne), who move into a new home with their two young sons and baby daughter. As Renai spends long, lonely hours there while Josh is at work, she starts to feel that there’s just something not right about the house. There are strange noises, objects end up in different places to where she’s left them, and the whole place seems to be struggling for breath under a thick cloud of unease. When their son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), falls into a coma for no discernible medical reason, Josh and Renai’s lives take a bleak, desperate turn for the worse. They call in veteran psychic medium, Elise Reiner (Lin Shaye), to investigate, and the key to the family’s horrors is slowly revealed.

James Wan on the set of Insidious.

Unlike most horror films, Insidious was built on a framework of mood and atmosphere, as opposed to one of imaginatively piled guts and gore. There’s barely a drop of blood spilled in the film, yet it remains abjectly terrifying. “The very nature of ghost stories and haunted house films, which is what I wanted to do with Insidious, is that they’re more low key,” Wan told FilmInk upon the film’s release. “They’re not about people getting their limbs chopped off, or being set up in a cruel trap that they have to try and get out of. What makes these films frightening and effective is the slightest thing, like the creaking of a door, or a character walking down the hallway and thinking that someone walks past them in their peripheral vision. That’s what I really wanted to capture with Insidious. It’s a slow-burn film, and I wanted to slowly creep my way toward an intense climax. At the end of the movie, I wanted it to be a fun haunted house thrill ride. A lot of people have compared it to Poltergeist, which was a big budget studio film. This is the lo-fi indie version.”

Considering its minimal budget, the film’s eventual $50 million-plus box office haul in the US made Insidious a major per-capita hit, resulting in three sequels, only the first of which Wan directed. The director stuck with the horror genre for The Conjuring, another film about a haunted family calling on paranormal investigators for help. “My writers and I went pretty in-depth with it,” he said of the script, which was penned by Chad and Carey Hayes (The Reaping, Whiteout, House Of Wax). “The movie is really about two families coming together. It’s about the psychology and the mindset of the family who are haunted, and the Warrens, who come and help them out. It was a big undertaking with a lot of players, but at every step along the way, I had to stay true to the truth of the characters.”

James Wan and Vin Diesel on the set of Fast & Furious 7.

Wan’s next move was a monumental one, with the young filmmaker tapped to take control of the massive vehicle that was Fast & Furious 7. “I love this series,” Wan told FilmInk while in the very early stages of pre-production. “They’re constantly reshaping the franchise, and with Fast & Furious 6 being so successful, I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have big shoes to fill. I’m relishing the challenge though. That said, I’ve always felt that going from horror to sci-fi and action makes sense because they all belong to the same family. I’m such a big action fan – it’s my number one love in terms of filmmaking. I guess that because I’ve fortunately been so successful in the horror genre – which is a blessing and a curse; I got my start there – it has limited me with what I can do. It’s taken me ten years to get to the point where I’m allowed to do something else.”

According to Fast & Furious producer, Neal Moritz, James Wan was always on the shortlist as a replacement for director, Justin Lin, who successfully helmed the previous four films in the franchise. “I can just tell you,” Moritz told FilmInk, “that when James came in and told us what his vision was, we all looked at each other and said, ‘That’s our director!’” Though the film turned out to be a source of much pain and anguish for Wan and his entire cast and crew – with much loved leading man, Paul Walker, tragically passing away during production – the resulting blockbuster was a surprisingly moving and emotional one. With Wan successfully navigating such difficult terrain, both in terms of shifting the film’s narrative and personally dealing with such a tragedy, Fast & Furious 7 represented a massive sense of growth for the filmmaker.

The shoot for Aquaman was happily free of any such heartbreak, and to make matters even brighter, the film was ironically Wan’s first to be shot in his homeland of Australia. “It was super important for me,” he says of shooting here. “I’ve been in the US making movies for over a decade now, and I just haven’t had the chance to bring a film back home. I always have family that wants to come visit me on set, but it’s hard when I’m shooting in Canada and other places. Plus, I want to give back too, and so this was my chance to do it on a big level. We shot it in Queensland, but so many people came up from Sydney and Melbourne and all around Australia. I’m just so impressed at how great the filmmaking talent is down there. I feel very fortunate that not only could I shoot this movie back home, but that I didn’t even have to fly that many people in.”

The Aquaman team on the promotional trail.

While the shoot was a happy one, the film is now out there for the fans to love…or hate. “It’s good and bad, you know? It’s good that the fans are so excited about stuff like this. But then there are…what do they refer to them now as? What is it? The toxic fan, that’s it. Where they’re just so negative that they’ve become the bully now. It’s flipped around. But I try to be mindful of that. I try to focus on the positive, especially on social media. It’s very present. I just try to focus on the positive stuff, and have fun with them. Whether I’m having fun with the cool people or with the bullies, you just can’t take yourself too seriously.”

And with Aquaman already a smash hit, what is Wan’s take on the current popularity of superhero movies? “People just love comic book characters,” he replies. “It’s what you grow up wishing you are, right? Superheroes represent the best of who we wish we can be…we wish that we had the ability to fly, to swing from building to building, and then to do heroic things, like saving people and stopping super villains. It appeals to the wonderment side of us, and what we can aspire to be. We can aspire to be a better human being. These movies also take us out of the harsh reality sometimes.”

That sense of escapism, by the way, is not just for genre fans. “You don’t have to have known the comic book,” Wan says. “You don’t have to have seen Justice League to enjoy this film. This movie is classic. It’s like Indiana Jones. It’s Romancing The Stone. You follow these characters as they bumble their way through their journey. It’s a hero’s journey, and along the way, the movie happens. It’s very much a timeless story.”

Aquaman is released in cinemas on December 26. Click here for our review.

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