Malignant is the latest creation from Conjuring universe architect James Wan, who is regarded as one of the most creative filmmakers working today.
Directing from a screenplay by Akela Cooper and story by Wan & Ingrid Bisu and Cooper, the films centers Madison, who is paralyzed by shocking visions of grisly murders, and her torment worsens as she discovers that these waking dreams are in fact terrifying realities.
Q & A with James Wan
After establishing major franchises like the “Conjuring” Universe, what made you go back to your roots with an indie-style horror film?
I love the gritty horror-thriller genre, and after many years away from it, I felt it was time to return to my indie roots, to the harder-hitting horror-thrillers of Saw and Death Sentence. After Aquaman and between the Conjuring Universe movies and the Insidious films, I felt like I needed to cleanse my palate and step outside of the superhero and ghostly arenas to try something different. This was very important for me. To do something original. Something bold.
Malignant is very much inspired by the kind of movies that I grew up loving. One that is a loving throwback to the ’80s and early ’90s style of horror-thrillers like the kinds made by the great horror-maestros Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, Wes Craven, David Cronenberg. But do it my way. And to take this opportunity to try stuff that I haven’t done before, like exploring new themes and stories while experimenting with different aesthetic. Who knows when I’ll get the chance to try something like this again?
You managed to keep details about this film a secret for a long time, which is no easy feat! It’s a huge mystery, nobody knows anything about it. What are you ready to reveal now that the release is imminent?
The story is a “genre-blender”; the correct term is genre-bender, but it is also a genre blender in that it mixes a bunch of different genres that I love, from psychological thriller to the Italian Giallo horror to shades of science fiction.
The story is about a woman, Madison, played by Annabelle Wallis. Madison’s husband is killed in their home by an intruder and she’s left for dead. She’s pregnant and she loses her baby in that incident. She experiences major traumatic emotion from the incident and ends up developing a psychic connection to her attacker. She starts having visions of the attacker and his murderous deeds. Now she’s trying to help the police capture this killer whilst trying to unravel the mystery of why she is connected to the killer and at the same time, trying to not get herself killed in the process. It is my take on the “seeing through the eye of the killer” sub-genre.
For your fans who don’t know what that is, can you describe what the Giallo style is and how that influences the film?
Giallo is literally Italian for Yellow, and is used to describe a type of lurid detective/crime novel that has become a genre of its own. A style of murder mystery made popular in movies by Italian filmmakers such as Mario Bava, Dario Argento and many others, who took a well-worn style and reinvented it through their own filmmaking sensibility. You can see shades of my love for this in “Saw,” and “Malignant” is basically my take on the Giallo genre.
The inspiration for the story came from co-writer/executive producer Ingrid Bisu.
Yeah. Ingrid had this… [LAUGHS] I’m trying to think what’s the best way to talk about this without giving it away! Ingrid basically pitched me something that became the genesis of the villain, which I don’t want to talk about. When she would tell me these stories, I’d look at them immediately from a horror filmmaker’s point of view and think, “Ooh, that could make for a really cool and crazy, messed up thriller!” And so, Ingrid and I started developing the idea and then it just took on a life of its own. At first, we were just having fun working together, then it became a full-blown story. We had never worked together to that capacity before, so it was really great to cook up crazy ideas and set-pieces together.
How did you develop it and also with fellow writer Akela Cooper?
We just started plotting it and writing characters down. I started writing potential set-pieces and potential special effects moments, just exploring it. Then eventually, at some point, we approached Akela to help us take it to the next level. Akela had just written a script for us at Atomic Monster called “M3GAN,” which I loved, and I thought she did a terrific job. She clearly enjoys the darker aspect of horror, she isn’t afraid to go there, to dig into the dark corners of the human psyche, if you will, and I felt like that’s what this story wanted, someone who’s not afraid to venture into the deeper end of things. Of course, I have that side to me as well, and you know what? People are surprised when they meet me and they actually see that I’m a very cheerful kind of person, but because I’m able to exorcize my demons in my scary movies I don’t have to be scary or dark at all in real life!
Talk about Annabelle Wallis. This is not the first time that she’s ventured into the world of James Wan, she starred in “Annabelle.” What made her right for Madison?
Having worked with her as her producer on the first “Annabelle” film, I got to really like her a lot. I think she’s the sweetest, loveliest person, who’s also very talented. I knew, going into “Malignant,” that I wanted to work with friends, work with people that I love, and Annabelle is one of those people at the top of my list. We got her the script and she loved it and the character. We talked about it from the perspective of how – because the initial idea came from Ingrid and the screenplay was written by Akela – it has a very feminine quality to it.
Even though the movie is very aggressive, I do think that the film looks at things from a female perspective and I think that was what drew Annabelle to it. She loved the idea of potentially playing a mother, playing the loss of motherhood… It’s also a sisterly story as well, between Annabelle Wallis’s character and the character Sydney, played by Maddie Hasson.
To me it really is a story of two sisters and their relationship. I think Annabelle was really attracted to that, just getting the chance to play all those different things and play different shades of this character, someone who’s vulnerable and scared but at the same time, needs to find the strength to try and stay alive and stay ahead of this killer. Annabelle has such a can-do attitude for anything and everything. And believe me, I would get her to do some of the craziest stuff and she would have fun playing along. She was such a trooper and such a joy to work with.
You released an image back in January on your social channels. A first image is always so important in setting the tone and perhaps even more so when, at the same time, you have to keep details about a film so quiet. Can you talk about what we see in that image and why you chose that as the first thing to share?
I released that first image—shot of a gloved hand in a trench coat holding a bladed weapon—because I wanted to say, without actually saying it, to the horror fans out there that know what the Giallo genre is and would see the iconography of that image and immediately make the connection. And for people that are not familiar with it, that’s okay, they can slowly discover it as they did with the trailer recently. But that first image was my way of saying that I’m harking back to the kind of gritty, visceral horror/thrillers I started out my career with and made this movie for the hardcore horror fans.
Can you talk a little bit about the creating the look and the feel of this movie and the team that helped you create it, why you picked those artisans?
I have been making movies for a while now and I have worked with a lot of talented people. What you end up doing is you collect a stable of great artists and just good people that you want to work with again and again. Luckily for me, these people are also such great artists, such great crafts men and women in their areas of expertise, and it really was about collaborating with them to help me bring my vision to life. From Lisa’s fantastic costume design to Desma’s amazing production designing, and then seeing it through the lens of Michael Burgess—all whom I think are rising talents with very bright futures ahead of them. A lot of team were people that had worked with me in the past to some capacity. Michael Burgess had camera operated for me on my other movies, and then it was on “La Llorona” that we elevated him to cinematographer. This was Desma’s first movie production designing. She had spent many years being an art director. Naturally they all want to step up and I felt like “Malignant” was a great platform for a lot of these artists to take their craft to the next level. I’m very honored that I could give them that opportunity and they could come onto the film and do such an amazing job for us.
I wanted to challenge myself to go back and do something that’s not based on any existing IPs, like I had done with “Saw”, “Dead Silence” and “Insidious.” It was important for me to craft an original story that would allow me to play with old school special effects and makeup effects. I got the opportunity to work closely with the fantastic artists at Fractured FX and Spectral Motion. It was such a joy to play with gore effects again and dabble in complex animatronics.
With this film I also needed clever visual effects to bring the set-pieces to life. ILM did such terrific work in crafting Madison’s hallucinogenic visions and helping to shape the “killer.” Between the amazing work of ILM and the practical effects team, we were able to combine the best of both worlds and tell the best possible story.
One of the things that fans love about you as a filmmaker is that simplification, that distillation of fear, exploring what creates and causes fear. In a James Wan movie, it’s not complicated, but, it’s effective, those little details.
It’s always the small things. That’s why I think my supernatural ghost movies have worked because I think I understand the simple, primal things that scare us, like the creaking of a door, a chair that moves on its own. That’s all you need to do to send chills down someone’s spine. It doesn’t have to get up and start chasing you with a knife, even though that’s a different kind of scare. I feel I recognize the different degrees of scares, from my bloodier more shocking movies like “Saw,” to the creepier ones of the “Insidious” and “Conjuring” films. Part of the fun is to traverse between these levels of frights, and the key is to present them in a fresh and unique way. That’s what I tried to do with “Malignant”—lull them in with a familiar structure, and then hit them with something weird, unique, crazy, and wonderful.
James Wan directed the critically acclaimed The Conjuring (2013) and The Conjuring 2, and produced The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It was produced by James Wan and Peter Safran, who have collaborated on all the Conjuring Universe films. Recently, the global box office for the entire “Conjuring” Universe crossed $2 billion.
Wan’s production company, Atomic Monster, launched its slate with Annabelle (2015) and followed with Lights Out (2016), Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2019), Annabelle Comes Home (2019), Mortal Kombat (2021) and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021). All included Wan as producer. He also has a story by credit on The Nun. Upcoming for Atomic Monster beyond Malignant is There’s Someone Inside Your House for Netflix, and M3GAN, which is currently in post-production. Wan serves as producer on both.
Atomic Monster’s television slate kicked off with “MacGyver,” a re-imagining of the classic television series, which premiered on CBS in the Fall of 2016. The company’s second series was “Swamp Thing,” which streamed on DC Universe in May 2019 and premiered on the CW in 2020. Wan was an executive producer on the project. Atomic Monster is currently in production on “Archive 81,” based on the podcast, for Netflix and “I Know What You Did Last Summer” for Amazon. Wan serves as executive producer on both.
Co-creator of the popular “Insidious” franchise, Wan served as producer on the latest installment, “Insidious: The Last Key,” which was released in January 2018. He also produced “Insidious: Chapter 3,” which was released in June 2015. Wan directed “Insidious” (2010)and “Insidious: Chapter 2” (2013). He also had a story by credit on “Insidious: Chapter 2.” The next chapter is currently in development with Patrick Wilson directing.
Wan is also the co-creator of the “Saw”franchise. In addition to directing the first “Saw” film, which premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Wan served as executive producer for the entire franchise. The latest installment, entitled “Spiral: From the Book of Saw,” was released on May 13, 2021.
A member of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Wan is the recipient of the Australians in Film 2016 Fox Studios Australia International Award and most recently directed Aquaman.
Akela cooper (Screenplay by/Story by) wrote the movie “M3GAN,” recently green lit at Universal/Blumhouse with James Wan/Atomic Monster producing and Gerard Johnstone directing. Additionally, she is writing “The Nun 2” for New Line/Atomic Monster and The Safran Company.
On the TV side, Cooper was a co-executive producer on the latest “Star Trek” series for CBS All Access and previously wrote on Netflix’s “Magic Order” for Atomic Monster. Previously, she worked on Steve DeKnight’s Netflix series “Jupiter’s Legacy,” based on a comic book series by Mark Millar. Cooper also worked on Netflix/Marvel drama series “Luke Cage,” the Ryan Murphy FX series “American Horror Story,” as well as “The Hundred,” “The Witches of East End,” “Grimm” and “V.”
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