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Original Saw Director James Wan on His Horror-Movie Comeback

James Wan launched the Saw franchise, then watched his next two non-Saw movies bomb at the box office. But his low-budget haunted-house movie, Insidious, which was shot in 22 days, just received a riotous reception at the Toronto International Film Festival's Midnight Madness program. Following an all-night bidding war it sold to Sony Pictures Worldwide in a seven-figure deal. We spoke with Wan the day after the sale about his comeback.

Were you relieved with the crowd's reaction?
As opposed to throwing up, which I thought I was going to do? Yeah, it went pretty damn well. I don't know what to expect at these things because when you play to such hard-core genre fans, you run the risk that they've seen so many of these movies and have become so desensitized to the genre that nothing really gets to them anymore and they'll just laugh at everything.

And you just sold the film.
I was talking to my producer until five or six in the morning. I'm still running on adrenaline. I think Insidious is one of the first films so far in this financial climate to play and sell in the same night. The deal was closed four hours after the film was shown, and I'm super-proud. I'm not allowed to talk about the budget, as always, but it's not a big movie at all.

Why did you make this movie independently?
After Saw, I was the toast of the town and then I had a tricky time making my second movie [Dead Silence]. And unfortunately while I think my third one [Death Sentence] was my most accomplished, no one saw it. And so I just took a break for two or three years. I was so tired and it was affecting my health, and I just wanted to chill. I decided that if I came back I wanted to come back not with a film that's going to stress the hell out of me, but to have complete creative control. And I wanted to come back with a scary movie that didn't have an ounce of blood in it, to counteract what I've become known for with Saw.

What was riding on this film for you? You've got money.
As weird as this sounds: artistic integrity. People are going to snicker at that, but let it be. I've always said that making a great scary movie is one of the hardest filmmaking accomplishments. The Exorcist is one of the finest movies ever made and it just so happens to be a scary movie. There aren't many films that get it right, actually. The Shining got it right, The Exorcist was nominated for Best Picture, Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture, but you can count on one hand how many movies got the genre right.

What's up with you and dolls? There are dolls and puppets in almost every single one of your films, including Insidious. What did a doll ever do to you?
Poltergeist
was the film that scarred me for life. I saw it at such a young age — 5 or 6 years old — and it has one of the creepiest doll sequences with the clown, and ever since then I've just been fascinated by dolls. Actually, I should say I'm fascinated with ventriloquist dummies and that whole psychosis that goes along with ventriloquism.

What's the difference between a doll and a ventriloquist dummy?
A doll just sits there. A ventriloquist's dummy has a ventriloquist behind it giving it life, and I love the whole psychological aspect of who's really in control. That's what makes it scary for me, and that's why I had a ventriloquist puppet and a puppet master in the first Saw film and why my second movie was all about ventriloquism. Something that isn't supposed to have life seems to have life.

Have you ever tried to do ventriloquism?
No, I think I'd suck at it. But I really respect it.

Your ventriloquist movie, Dead Silence, didn't do well.
It did okay on DVD and ancillary, but it definitely wasn't Saw. I think I should have made Dead Silence as an independent movie. I mean, the fact that Insidious was not being run by a committee really afforded me the luxury to make a film with lots of creepy, bizarre moments that a studio might not "get."

How involved are you with the Saw franchise these days?
They run things by me, but the producers on the Saw films have it down to a T. They do such a great job.

Which are your favorite Saw installments?
I say the first one's the best one [laughs]. I'm also a big fan of six and two.

How'd you come up with the title of your new movie? Insidious isn't a word a lot of people know.
Don't be surprised if they say, "We need to come up with a simple title," and call it something like Darkness or something easier. Which I understand, because "insidious" is not a word that a lot of people use, unfortunately, even though it's such a cool word.

A lot of directors with a lot less pull than you would hit the roof if someone wanted to re-title their film.
Well, I'm definitely not an art-house director, and all the movies I really love are commercial films, so I embrace it. If they come up with a much better title than Insidious, then I'm all for it. But if they don't, I'll stand up for it and say, "Guys, that is one crappy title."

Photo: Matt Carr/Getty Images