A Conversation with the ‘Malignant’ Mr. Wan

This Friday marks the release of the next highly anticipated horror classic from director James Wan — the man who brought you Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring! The movie not only represents a return to horror for Wan, who has been crushing the action game with Aquaman and Furious 7, but also a return to smaller, original titles as well. To commemorate this, Wan was able to meet with members of the press, including The Nerds of Color, to discuss his triumphant return to horror as well as his general love for the genre, and the chilling inspirations behind Malignant!

Here’s what he had to say:

What inspired the story?

WAN: My wife Ingrid Bisu, she came to me with research she had done… and we delved deeper into it, and I thought it was so fascinating! It would make for a really interesting story, or a cool messed up movie. And we started from there, and did more research, and realized we could come up with a unique villain we haven’t quite seen before. And thus the idea of Gabriel… was born from that.

Did this have a higher budget than some of your past horror movies?

It really came from… 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…Whenever I make a big budget film, like Aquaman, I just want to go back and make a smaller budget movie after. That’s what happened in the midst of making Aquaman… all I wanted to do was go back and do something unique that hearkened to the start of it. And really it was that. It came from the desire to do that. And then it became the case of finding a story that supported that.

There’s a character in the movie with the last name of “Shaw.” Is that a reference to Dead Silence? And are there other Easter eggs in the movie?

They’re just some names or words that I like to re-use again. They’re not necessarily in the same universe. But I like that you made the connection to Mary Shaw!

Can you talk about the prison fight scene and how you brought that to life?

It is a combination of lots of people involved… From Annabelle’s performance… Then we switched to Marina, who is a physical contortionist/dancer… she played many scenes. But that precinct holding cell sequence really was incredible what she did. She was able to fight backwards, run backwards, move backwards… we did not cheat at all. She worked weeks and days on the choreography on the sequence… at the end of the day I really wanted to create a villain that we haven’t quite seen before, and do the concept justice.

This is inherently a very “James Wan” movie stylistically and visually. It’s got your signature stamp. But there were a lot of really good throwbacks to Raimi, and Cronenberg with the body-horror factors. Did their works inspire the visual gore or gags you see in the movie?

I’d be lying if I said no. But I would go even further. When people ask me how to describe this film, it’s a genre-bender. But then the more correct way of describing it is a “genre blender.” And the blender is my head. And all the stuff that I’ve filtered over the years growing up — all the filmmakers I loved — and this is the output of that blending. So yes, Raimi is in there, Cronenberg, Argento, and de Palma as well obviously… It’s a combination of things. It’s hard for me to pin point to one person per se, because it is a combination of things. It is all these things I grew up learning. When people ask me what is the feel of the film, or how do I describe it without describing the story, I would say it’s the kind of movie — when I was growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s — when I would go to the video store, we’d travel all the way to the back of the store to the horror section, and we’ll go even deeper than that to the back shelves of the horror section.

And the movie we’d pull out would be a film we’ve never seen before, but it had a cool cover, but we’ve never heard of it. And I want Malignant to be that movie. That was my inspiration. That wasn’t how I saw Annabelle Wallis on the concept. But for me, deep down that was my aspiration. I wanted to make that movie, but in an elevated level. I think this is my 10th movie. So I now have a lot of knowledge and experience behind me that I bring to this film. So it’s not at the amateurish level that Saw was made at. But I still wanted to retain that youthful optimism I had when I made Saw, where I didn’t care what people thought. I just wanted to make an all out, balls out movie for myself and the hardcore horror fans. I’m prepared in my head that there will be people that will really hate this movie just because I know it’s going to be a very polarizing film. But it is what it is, and I made the movie for us.

I saw in the credits there’s a lot of great Asian names. Was there any Asian inspiration from Sadako [from Ringu] in the design of Gabriel?

I’m heavily inspired by and influenced by Asian stories that I grew up hearing my whole life in Malaysia. And exposed to great supernatural stories from around the world. And a lot of times, even if they don’t outright inspire me from the get-go it’s always in the back of my mind. The tricky thing is to create Gabriel and not have everyone outright say “oh it’s a Sadako copy.”

What gets you into the horror mindset versus when you’re working on Aquaman?

In the case of Malignant… It’s me holding the cards and trying not to show it. And just trying to find degrees of how much we show and how much we don’t show. And it’s difficult because today’s audiences are very savvy and very clever. They look at trailers and posters and they kind of put things together. So the key is, how do I stay ahead of audiences today that are savvy, but still come up with things no one’s seen before? And I start with a story structure that’s familiar. So it gives me a strong foundation to begin with. And they can follow it because it’s a murder-mystery and a detective thriller. And we understand those, and have seen the structure of it. But within that, that’s when I f**k things up. That’s when I pull things away, and go on this labyrinthian journey. And it’s that aspect of it that makes it fun for me. And it’s not just in my horror films. I tried to do that in even Fast and Furious 7 and to some degree in Aquaman 1. But moreso in Aquaman 2. There’s more complexities in Aquaman 2 than the first movie. And so this is just stuff I learn along the way. And it’s what I find intriguing as a filmmaker, and I try to take everything I’ve learned from each film and carry them with me to my next movie.

Why do you think the film will be polarizing? And did you try to make it less polarizing while making it?

In a weird way after making the first Saw film, I was labeled with the torture porn label… And at the time I felt it was very unwarranted because I didn’t think Saw was as hardcore as everyone thought it was. Coming into Malignant, I actually think Malignant is easily my most violent and most gory film. So I know that part of it is really going to turn some people off. The people that love my Insidious and Conjuring films, especially the more mainstream audiences and critics, that don’t like the lower key and not so much blood and guts in your face filmmaking. But that isn’t the movie I wanted to make with Malignant. I’ve done my Conjuring. I’ve done my Insidious. And I didn’t want to repeat myself ther. And I wanted to do something that wasn’t a jump-scare horror film, but had a visceral shock to it… So people can either go along with how outrageous it can get, or people can get turned off by it… Now did it influence the filmmaking for me during shooting and post-production? No. I hit my goal. I hit my objective, and I tried to stick to it and be true to myself. I had to live and die by the sword. I am going into this accepting that people will either love it or hate it and it is what it is.

And that, in essence, is the epitome of what a true filmmaker and artist does! Keep on living by the sword, Malignant Mr. Wan!

Malignant hits theaters and HBO Max on Friday, September 10! Look out for our future review on the site!

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