Malaysian-born director James Wan's horror films are influenced by Asian ghost stories he heard as a kid

The director enjoying durian in KL. Photo: James Wan/Instagram

What is Hollywood director James Wan looking forward to, the most, in 2024?

“Personally, I’m looking to sleep (laughs). To find the time to kind of just relax and do nothing,” said Wan, when he met with Malaysian press in Kuala Lumpur in December.

He was in town to promote his latest feature, Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom, which opened at cinemas nationwide on Dec 21.

“My family is coming from Australia to visit me in Los Angeles. I cannot wait to just hang out with them into the new year,” added Wan, who is married to Romanian actress Ingrid Bisu.

The Malaysian-born filmmaker – who grew up in Australia and is now based in Los Angeles, California – started our interview by saying that he’s jetlagged, and was a little sleepy.

Before flying to KL, he made promotional stops at Sao Paulo, London, Beijing and Shanghai with his film’s leading man Jason Momoa. For KL, Wan came alone.

Although tired, Wan exuded a lively personality during the press meet at The Exchange TRX on Dec 15, 2023.

He shared that he was glad to be back in Malaysia and that, soon after landing in KL, he had indulged in his favourite Malaysian food (laksa, chicken rice, durian).

Hollywood director James Wan attempts to make roti canai at a restaurant in KL. Photo: HandoutHollywood director James Wan attempts to make roti canai at a restaurant in KL. Photo: Handout

The last time he came to Malaysia was in 2015, when he visited his hometown, Kuching, Sarawak.

Even after talking to journalists from around the region the whole day, the 46-year-old director-producer sounded excited to chat further about his work during our 10-minute roundtable slot.

Our interview was one of the last ones before he was scheduled to fly back to the United States that night.

“The main thing for me, for 2024 really is, I want to focus on my production company, Atomic Monster. That’s what I really want,” said Wan, who juggles directing and producing simultaneously.

While directing the new Aquaman movie, Wan also produced The Nun II, Insidious: The Red Door, M3GAN and There’s Someone Inside Your House.

“I want to kind of really spend time (on that). When I’m directing, and I’m producing (other projects) as well, it’s very hard to be producing the same time, because directing just takes up so much of my time.

“Now that I’m finished directing, I can kind of focus on that. We have a lot of projects in development that I want to produce through Atomic Monster.”

James Wan (left) and Ingrid Bisu attend DC's 'Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom' Fan Screening at The Grove on December 18, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: HandoutJames Wan (left) and Ingrid Bisu attend DC's 'Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom' Fan Screening at The Grove on December 18, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Handout

Making the superhero sequel to the 2018 blockbuster turned out to be a drawn-out process.

Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom began filming in June 2021 with all the stars from the DC’s most commercially successful movie returning including Momoa, Nicole Kidman, Patrick Wilson, Amber Heard and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II.

It was initially set to arrive in theatres in December 2022 but was postponed to a year later as the film reportedly underwent multiple cuts and reshoots.

There was also the Amber Heard vs Johnny Depp trial in 2022 which put the film in murky water temporarily, especially when Heard alleged that her scenes in the film were cut due to the high-profile legal battle.

All these must have obviously taken a toll on Wan, which could be why he wants a break from directing for now.

In an interview with an American magazine, Wan said that “every movie kills me as a director ... If a movie doesn’t kill you as a director, you’re not doing your job right enough”.

The new DC film sees Aquaman (Momoa) teaming up with his brother Orm (Wilson) to protect Atlantis that’s under threat from the villain Black Manta, out for revenge.

Director/Producer James Wan and Jason Momoa attend CCXP 2023 in Sao Paulo, Brazil for 'Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom'. Photo: HandoutDirector/Producer James Wan and Jason Momoa attend CCXP 2023 in Sao Paulo, Brazil for 'Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom'. Photo: Handout

While the film got a mixed review, as of Dec 31, Aquaman 2 had earned over US$250mil (RM1.1bil) at the box office globally, already beating The Marvels which collected a total of US$199mil (RM914.3mil).

Wan – who’s also helmed multiple hit films like Fast & Furious 7, The Conjuring 1 & 2 as well as Insidious 1 & 2 – told the Malaysian press that the challenge of doing a sequel is trying to live up to people’s expectation of the first film.

“It’s great to have a first movie that is successful and beloved. But then, that makes the sequel, you know, have a lot more pressure on it.

“But, it was important for me to just sort of put my head down and just focus on making the film and telling the story I wanted to tell,” he said.

Wan established himself as a storyteller from the very first film he directed, the low-budget Saw.

The 2004 horror, which he co-wrote with Leigh Whannell, became a global box office hit and put Wan on the road to Hollywood.

Although he didn’t direct other Saw films after the first one, Wan serves as the franchise producer and is the executive producer of the upcoming Saw XI, scheduled to hit cinemas this year.

No wonder Wan names Saw as the film that has had the biggest impact on his life

“I feel like all the films have had an impact on me at different points in my career. But, of course, I can’t go past Saw. It’s my first movie. It’s my first film out the gate and the one that allows me to continue as a filmmaker.”

With the continued successes of his later horror releases – namely Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013) – Wan soon became known as the new king of the genre.

His fresh visual and storytelling styles would in turn shape other horror filmmakers that came after him.

On where he draws the most inspiration for his horror works, Wan credited it to hearing ghost stories from his relatives as a child.

“I do find myself to be quite heavily inspired by sort of the Asian culture and Asian ghost stories that I grew up with, hearing them from my grandparents, aunties and uncles.

“They inform me a fair bit when I make my scary films and the key for me is trying to find out the best way to kind of convey the feeling I get when I hear these stories because they scare me.

“It’s like, how do I make it scary for an audience watching it? It’s a mixture of the Asian flavour that meets that Hollywood style of filmmaking. It’s about finding that balance.”

Jason Momoa in a scene from 'Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom'. Photo: HandoutJason Momoa in a scene from 'Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom'. Photo: Handout

Besides having a keen ability to scare his audience, Wan also has a knack for finding the perfect actor for a role.

Would The Conjuring work just as well without Vera Farmiga and Wilson playing the paranormal investigators Lorraine and Ed Warren? Or Wilson and Rose Byrne as the desperate parents fighting off evil spirits that’s after their child in Insidious? Probably not.

Undoubtedly, no one can play Aquaman quite like Momoa.

On his casting choices, Wan said he looks for actors who can ground their characters, making them relatable to the audience.

He also likes to cast someone who share a bit of the character’s personality as this would allow the actor “to bring themselves into the role”.

“Jason has a larger than life quality about him. And he’s playing this character that is so larger than life, but there’s still something very real about him.

“Obviously that’s what people kind of really love, his personality.

“Definitely, with Patrick and Vera, and all these actors, they’re very good at taking their characters and giving them a foundation that feels real.

“I think that is very important, because then I can take (these actors) and put them into whatever kind of situations that they’re in – and it doesn’t matter how crazy the situation is. And because they feel grounded, you, as an audience, watching it will feel grounded to them.”

James Wan with Patrick Wilson on the set of 'Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom'. Photo: HandoutJames Wan with Patrick Wilson on the set of 'Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom'. Photo: Handout

Finding things that feel real and that people can relate to, also extends to filmmaking, said Wan, which would explain how he shifts comfortably from one genre to the next.

“I always say that it doesn’t matter if I’m making a movie in the horror genre or a big action fantasy film, the spirit of storytelling is the same.

“But, of course, on the surface, visually, I have more toys to play with on a bigger budget (film). I can create set pieces that are more fantastical. And so that, to me, is the big difference. But in terms of the process of storytelling, they’re very similar.”

As it turned out, Wan is eager to try his hand on another genre – other than horror, action and superhero film, that is.

“I know I joke about this but I would love to make a romantic comedy one day. I feel like in my action-adventure movies, I do touch on those themes a little bit.

“But it’d be nice to do something that’s just an old-school romantic movie, you know. I’d love to do that, maybe one day. But I just have to find the right project to do that.”

Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom is showing at cinemas nationwide.

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