Malignant: James Wan Teases the Horror Film’s Format

Writer and director James Wan has a rich film history, especially in regard to horror movies. For instance, he kick-started two major film franchises as the director of Saw and The Conjuring. After a five-year hiatus from horror, and focusing on directing the more action-oriented Aquaman, Wan has yet another scary movie coming to theaters soon, Malignant.

In a press conference attended by CBR and other outlets, Wan shared how he’s been wanting to return to what started his filmmaking career and teased Malignant‘s intimate structure. “I just wanted to go back and do another movie that was in the spirit of what I used to make — what I started out my career with,” Wan said. “Whenever I’m making one of my big-budget films, like Aquaman or whatever, all I want to do is just go back to make a smaller, more intimate film. And that was what happened when I was in the midst of making Aquaman and spending two years making that film and a whole year doing post-production on it. All I wanted to do was go back and do something unique. Something that harkened back to the start of it… Then, it became a case of finding a story that would fit that aspiration, if you will.”

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While Wan wanted to go back to what he got his start in, that didn’t necessarily mean that he wanted to tell the same story again. “I know people kind of know me as the ghostly supernatural guy in recent years,” Wan said. “Part of the reason why I made Malignant was to really break that expectation, was to kind of start the movie going, ‘Oh, you think this is what you’re getting from James Wan? No, you’re getting this instead.’ It makes you ask these questions at the start, like, ‘Is it a supernatural being? Is it a ghost? Or is it a demonic possession movie?'”

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Keeping audiences guessing is another challenge Wan faces. As mentioned, he wants to subvert expectations; however, nowadays, audiences are rather good at picking apart clues and theorizing even before a movie is released, which poses a unique obstacle for marketing a movie with plenty of twists and turns.

“In the case of Malignant, it is a very windy story,” Wan continued. “A lot of it is just me hiding, holding the cards, trying not to show it, and just trying to find degrees of how much we show and how much we don’t show. It’s difficult because today’s audiences are very savvy; they’re very clever. They look at trailers, and they can kind of look at posters, and they can kind of put things together, right? So the key is how do I stay ahead of audiences today that are so savvy, but at the same time still come up with things that people haven’t quite seen before.”

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Warner Bros., New Line Cinema and James Wan's Malignant

One thing that’s been a major help in handling this is starting his films out with a strong structure, one that is familiar but not too restrictive. Finding that balance allows Wan to play more with expectations in a way that is unique and worth the payoff. “I like to start with a story structure that is somewhat familiar,” Wan said. “It gives me a strong foundation to begin with, so people can come, watch like a Malignant and go,  ‘Okay, I can kind of follow this because it’s like a murder mystery, and it’s also like a detective thriller.'”

“And we’ve seen many of those, we can understand the structure of it, right?” Wan added. “But within that, that’s where I fuck things up. That’s when I start to pull this away, and I start to take you on this electrifying journey, and it’s that aspect that makes it fun for me. And it’s not just my horror films. I tried to do that even in Fast and Furious 7, and to some degree in Aquaman, but definitely more so in Aquaman 2. There are more complexities in Aquaman 2 than in the first movie. This is just stuff that I learned along the way, and it’s what I find intriguing as a filmmaker, and I try to take everything that I’ve learned from each film, and carry them with me to my next movie.”

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With each film, Wan has not only developed more of reputation, but he has also increased and improved his filmmaking skills. Thanks to this, he is able to pull from his past work to create something new. “I think [Malignant’s] my 10th movie,” Wan shared. “I now have a lot of knowledge and experience behind me that I bring to this film. So it’s obviously not at the amateurish level that Saw was made, but having said that, I still wanted to retain that youthful optimism that I had when I made Saw, where I didn’t really care what people thought. I just wanted to make an all-out, balls-out movie, really for myself and for the hardcore horror fans. I’m prepared in my head that there will be people that will really hate this movie because I know it’s going be a very polarizing film, but it is what it is, and I made the movie for us.”

This wouldn’t be the first time Wan made a polarizing film. Saw, for instance, was labeled as torture porn by some, even when Wan didn’t see the movie in the same light. Meanwhile, Malignant, as Wan points out, might be his most violent film. How that is received, especially after working a lot with the supernatural in recent years, could be divisive amongst audiences. “When I made the first Saw film… They started labeling us with that torture porn label,” Wan shared. “I had become the guru of blood and gore and torture and all that stuff.”

“At the time, I felt it was very unwarranted because I didn’t think Saw was as hardcore as everyone thought it was,” he added. “So, coming into Malignant, I actually think is easily my most violent and most gory film. I know that part of it is going to turn some people off — the people that love my Insidious and Conjuring films, especially the more mainstream public and the mainstream critics that like the lower key and not so blood and guts in your face kind of horror filmmaking; but that wasn’t the movie I wanted to make with Malignant. I’ve done that version. I’ve done my Conjuring. I’ve done my Insidious. I don’t want to repeat myself. I wanted to do something that wasn’t a jumpscare horror film. At the same time, it also has a lot of visceral shock to it. The whole movie is a build-up to this big revelation at the end, and it’s not just, ‘Oh, it’s this person.’ It’s more about how I showcase it, so people can either go along the way for how outrageous I could get or people can be turned off by it, at least that’s how I feel… I’m going into this accepting that people will either love it or hate it.”

Malignant, directed by James Wan, will hit theaters and HBO Max on Sept. 10.

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