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James Wan Just Wants to Scare Himself

Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: Alliance Films; Getty Images; Universal

M3gan producer James Wan knows he’s doing something right when his ideas freak him out. “My goal is to scare myself,” he says. “If I can scare myself with my ideas and my concept, then you know there’s a very good chance that there’s a group of people out there that would feel the same way as I do.” So far, that’s been a winning formula for Wan, who has seen success after success from horror franchises like Saw, The Conjuring, and M3gan. The campy horror thriller about an AI doll with killer dance moves is a bigger hit than anyone had expected. It’s already queer canon. And it proves one of Into It host Sam Sanders’s pet theories: Horror consistently wins at the box office. Wan explains why he thinks horror pulls people to theaters, why it resonates with people from marginalized backgrounds, and what audiences might expect from a future M3gan sequel. Read an excerpt of that conversation below, or listen to the full episode of Into It wherever you get your podcasts.

Can I tell you, you made one of the only movies I’ve ever walked out of, because I was too scared. When I was at my Catholic college …
Which one?

University of the Incarnate Word. I want to say I was a junior. A student activity group organized an outing for the third Saw movie. I’d seen the first one and loved it, and I love horror, but I’ll never forget that viewing. I was there with 20 friends, and it starts and it’s just scary. I start muttering to myself, and then I’m praying, and then I just secretly walked out. I’ve never in my life left a movie. Later on I watched it on DVD and loved it. But all this to say, you’re very good at what you do, sir. 
When people ask me, “Do you have a trick? Do you have a formula?” I say no. There’s no such thing as a formula to make things scary. My goal is to scare myself. If I can scare myself with my ideas and my concept and all that, then there’s a very good chance there’s a group of people out there that would feel the same way.

Okay. So what always scares you? 
Well, fear of the unknown is obviously a big one, and that’s a very common trait in horror stories. Stephen King pointed out there are two kinds of fear: the fear of something external that’s going to hurt you, and the fear of the horror that comes from within you.

I like that. Let’s talk about M3GAN. I cannot stop thinking about this movie, cannot stop talking about it. I’ve got three or four group chats that are just M3GAN GIFs and memes. I love this movie so much. It is a big, big hit. Are you surprised by the runaway success? 
I knew there was going to be a group of people that would enjoy a film like this: one that loves horror films, and then specifically the scary-doll subgenre. So I knew there was a very particular niche that would dig it. But for it to blow up as big as it did, that definitely caught me pleasantly by surprise. When I first saw the rough cut I knew it played well, and it was very fun, and I knew that people would like it, and I hoped it would catch on. But no, never for the life of me did I think that would catch on as big as it did.

So why do you think it did? Was it just the doll factor? Was it the really amazing videos I’ve been seeing of this doll for months now? Was it Allison Williams? What was the secret sauce in your opinion?
A combination of all the things you mentioned. First and foremost, the movie works really well. So even without the marketing, without all the social-media hype, if people went in there not knowing anything about it, they would be pleasantly surprised. That’s because Gerard Johnstone made a great movie, the cast is brilliant, and the script by Akela [Cooper] was brilliant as well. Then you add the sort of visual and audio elements that really caught on, and the fact that Universal’s marketing leaned into the things that made it unique. The marketing of a film works best when there’s something they can latch onto. And obviously the dancing —

The dancing doll.
The dancing doll.

And not even just dancing. Body rolling, winding. Really, really dancing well. 
Yeah. That was something that obviously really caught on with social media. It got people talking and having fun with the M3GAN memes, which became a big awareness driver before the movie even came out. Then the trick was to deliver with the film, which we did.

I’m interested in the secret sauce of getting the look of M3GAN just right. I expected it to look very CGI-ish, but she didn’t. She felt human, but also always still felt like you were watching a robotic doll.

What can you reveal about how the look of M3GAN worked — how you kept that doll out of the uncanny valley she possibly could have ended up in?
Very early on, we all felt that M3GAN had to work because the whole movie’s built around this character. If we couldn’t get her being scary or have a threatening personality when she needed to be, or just be cheeky when she needs to be, none of that would work. Gerard wanted to lean M3GAN more realistic, and I reminded him that what makes a lot of creepy-doll movies creepy is the fact that they are still a doll. Between the two of us, we found medium ground where she, from a distance, looks real, and you think is a real person, but up close you clearly see that she’s animatronic. That’s what makes M3GAN creepy: She’s neither here nor there. But she still has a lot of personality.

I can’t tell you why, but the movie feels campy in a very queer-coded way that I find delightful. Was it purposeful? 
I don’t think that was the goal, but I love that there’s always a group of people that read into the movies I make or direct or produce in a much stronger way. You want your films to work on different levels: There are themes, and commentaries you want to make, and then there are certain things that are personal for you. But it’s even better when people latch onto it and make the film their own. The best thing you can ask of the stuff that you make is that people can relate to it, and I do think M3GAN has that relatability to her.

She’s a gay icon. You’ve heard this before, though.
She has become that.

People have said that Saw is queer too. You’ve heard this before, you must have.
Saw, Annabelle, and even Malignant, to some degree. I love it.

Is there perhaps a larger philosophical reason or spiritual reason why your kind of horror resonates so deeply with queer people? Have you thought about that? 
I haven’t analyzed it, but I’ve definitely seen the gay community embrace my horror films. I’m guessing a bit, but I think that community is a big fan of the genre because it explores themes that are very relevant for them. In that respect, it connects.

Oh yeah, horror explores themes of loss and grief, which many people who are queer deal with on a regular basis. That tracks. I want to go big-picture on horror, but one last question for you about M3GAN before we move on. What’s your favorite creepy doll?
I would say the creepy clown doll in the Tobe Hooper Poltergeist was the doll that scarred me at a very young age. Poltergeist was the movie that made me terrified of horror films and made me fall in love with horror films.

You kind of honored Poltergeist in some of your work, right?
Yeah, Insidious would be the closest to that in that they play with similar themes. I would say that Poltergeist probably had the biggest influence on me in general, but even more so with the creepy-doll aspect.

Mine is Chucky. Well, and now M3GAN, but that Chucky doll speaks to my childhood. My mother, it’s funny, she let my brother and I watch Child’s Play way too young. I saw the first one when I was like 8 or 9. And she knew it freaked us the hell out, so she got a doll that looked like Chuck and would hide it around the house, and we would just find it and lose our shit. So that doll will always speak to me.
Yeah, listen, there’s no doubt, Chucky is one of the grandfathers of scary dolls. He’s a classic killer doll. He actually gets up and walks around and kills people. But the kind of movies that I grew up with that I found scary were creepy dolls that work on more of a psychological level, like ventriloquism and the ventriloquist doll, where the ventriloquist himself would put life into this inanimate object and give it life. So I find those scary, but Chucky definitely is the grandfather of killer dolls.

In a three-way fight, who wins: the Poltergeist doll, M3GAN, or Chucky?
Well, here’s the thing: Chucky has the spirit of one serial killer in him, whereas M3GAN, because she’s AI, her body is just a vessel. She can put herself into multiple objects — she can put herself into multiple dolls and can infiltrate your smart car, house, into your Siri, whatever. She could be kind of omnipotent in that respect, whereas Chucky is just the one guy. So I would say M3GAN has a wider reach. But Chucky is almost unkillable.

I guess you were going to pick M3GAN, and that’s fine.
I kind of have to.

Was Poltergeist the film that set you on your path to horror? Was there a moment in your young life where you’re like, “Oh, horror is for me”?
Poltergeist gave me an appreciation. It terrified me and gave me a good perspective on the power of cinema, and then the power of the horror genre itself. The other film that scarred me was Jaws, another really terrifying movie.

Not nice to sharks in hindsight.
Steven has kind of apologized for that over the years; he felt bad about what the movie has done to the shark population … but he made a terrific movie, that’s the bottom line. It’s that fear of the unknown — you take us out of our place of comfort and drop us into the ocean where we have no control over the environment. So it was those films, and then as I got older, I started digging into more obscure horror films.

Over the last few years, as streaming and TV and movies have been in flux, horror always seems to win. Even in this totally strange and unpredictable movie environment, horror is reliably bankable at the box office. Why do you think horror is so consistently successful?
I think people love the experience of sitting in a big, dark theater with other strangers and going on this incredible, crazy roller-coaster ride of emotion, and the horror genre lets you do that. It plays really well in a group setting. I think a lot of that is primal. It takes us back to when our ancestors were sitting around the campfire telling each other stories in the dark about monsters and spirits out there that are going to come and get you. That’s entrenched in us, in our soul, in a deep, deep way.

And of course, the great thing with the horror genre is if you make a movie that works, you don’t need a big budget to pull it off — and when it hits, it brings big profit to the film. When that happens, it encourages more and more horror movies, and that’s a good thing as a fan of cinema and theater. Like you said, people aren’t going to the theaters as much as they used to, so something like this that still works on a big level is very important, and we should embrace it and protect it.

I agree. It’s funny hearing you talk about why horror works. I love being scared around strangers, for whatever reason. I don’t want to cry around strangers. I want to cry to a sad movie at home alone. But if I gotta be scared, I’m going to be scared with strangers. I remember how I felt going into the theater to see M3GAN, which is the same way I feel going into any horror movie: expecting and wanting those moments you get from any good horror film. I knew at some point I was going to tell some white woman onscreen to not go into that room and she was going to go into that room, and I wanted that feeling. And when I was in there watching M3GAN, we got to that moment where I was telling some white girl on the screen, “Don’t go in that room,” and someone three seats down whispered the same thing: “Don’t go into that room.” And you’re just like, “I need that.” 
Can I tell you: I’ve found myself in many moments in my everyday life, like at night, if I hear something or I go somewhere and I think that there may be someone out there, I actually go, “Hello, is someone there?” I’ve actually done that.

Do you ever tell yourself to not open that door?
I have opened the door. I have grabbed a baseball bat, whatever weapon I have nearby, and I’ve opened the door, stuck my head out to check. These are all classic horror-movie tropes that you should not do. I should know better.

I love to imagine the most successful horror-film creator of our times, sleeping with a baseball bat next to his bed because, you know, you got to.
You have to.

Can I tell you my theory about why horror always succeeds?
Please. I’d love to hear.

I think horror works because it allows us to think about grief. In the western world, and especially America, we don’t handle grief well. We avoid it or we wrap it in euphemism until it’s actually something shallow. But good horror deals with the same thing that we would deal with if we actually allowed ourselves to process grief. Good horror deals with what happens after we die. It asks the question, what is the line between life and death? It asks how our past and the dead linger on after they’re gone. Horror deals with all of that. I think we know that subconsciously, and we’re drawn to that because the real world outside of the movie theater is a world in which we don’t really allow ourselves to think about those things or feel those feelings. Am I wrong to think that?
I think that’s potentially a big part of it. And you’re right in the sense that horror movies deal with death in a big way. It touches on the idea that there may be life after death. That’s why people love scary supernatural movies with ghosts and the afterlife and demons and stuff. Even horror movies obviously lean into the scary parts of that, there’s also the more positive aspect, which is: Hey, there’s more to life than what we are living right now. That’s something horror movies let your mind expand into that you don’t really deal with in your everyday life.

The other thing I would say with horror is that it’s actually very topical. If you look back at history, through every decade, the horror films that connect the most with audiences or that have worked the best were ones that were a reflection of their society and the time period.

Oh yeah. Even M3GAN deals with the concept of AI, which scares the hell out of me right now.
That’s right. M3GAN deals with a very topical theme. Jordan Peele, with Get Out, dealt with a very topical theme. You look at Night of the Living Dead. That was George Romero dealing with the Vietnam War and all the atrocities and horrors that the Americans were seeing. He put that into his films. And you can just keep going through the decades and see how all these movies were a reflection of the time that they were made in. And ironically, horror films have played best when the world is in some kind of turmoil. It’s weird. When the world goes through a dark period, horror seems to flourish even more.

I believe that. We talked about how M3GAN feels very queer-coded, and when I think about it, horror seems to be this space within film that is very welcoming to people from marginalized backgrounds. M3GAN was co-written with a Black woman, Akela Cooper. I can think of the new slasher stars of our day, and a lot of them are not white. You have become a kingmaker in horror as an Asian creative. What do you think it is about horror that seems to make it resonate and work for people from marginalized backgrounds?
Well, for myself, I grew up culturally with a lot of great Chinese ghost stories. I love hearing ghost stories and superstitious stories from my grandparents, from my aunties and uncles in Malaysia. And I always try to fit them somehow into my movies. And I think we all have ghost stories from different parts of the world. To give you an example: In Japanese cultures, monsters or the bogeyman don’t live under your bed, like it is in western society. In Japanese society, the bed is generally on the floor and so there’s nothing underneath it. So culturally, it works a bit differently, but we’re all still human.

Is there a Chinese ghost story from your childhood that you have woven into your work that you can reference specifically?
I have. Definitely in the Insidious films. I grew up hearing stories about a Chinese ghost bride that was wronged, and then she took her own life, and so we have a little bit of that in Insidious. And it also came back a little bit in the Conjuring films, actually in Annabelle 3. So that was one aspect. And the demon character in the first Insidious is a bit of an amalgamation of different stories that I put together to create this entity: people waking up and seeing handprints on their walls, on their bedsheets, blood prints on their bedsheets, stories like that.

Yeah. I love it.
Coming back to what you’re saying about how horror resonates with marginalized groups of people, I really think it’s because when you grow up being marginalized, you look at these movies and a lot of times, the horror genre, for the longest time, was seen as the black sheep. Nowadays, I know, everyone will go, “Horror is the savior of cinema.” It’s the best. But back in the days when I was growing up, and I’m making myself sound very old here, people would talk about horror like it’s a dirty word, like it’s a dirty genre that we’re too afraid to be associated with.

And so if you look at the horror community, we still see ourselves as outcast, that we would never quite fit in with the mainstream. Alt became a bit of a club — marginalized people, whether you’re a horror nerd or a Goth or someone from a different racial background or different sort of a sexual background and sexual orientation. There’s something about the horror genre that has always been this icon for the people that don’t necessarily have a strong voice.

Horror deals with otherness. And if you know what it’s like to be othered in your life, I can see horror really speaking to you. 
The other, the strange, the supernatural. M3GAN falls into that in a big way. And also on top of that, she’s supercool. She dresses amazing. There are a lot of things about her — contextually, subtextually, and thematically — that make her who she is. I can see why she’s held up in a big way.

So a lot of M3GAN’s success is a narrative about how that kind of movie can get butts into seats at movie theaters, which everyone in the industry wants. And we talked about how watching a horror film in a movie theater is a good thing because it’s a communal experience. How connected are you to continuing to make movies for big theaters? Would you ever sign a bazillion-dollar deal for streaming? Do you believe in horror on a small screen as much as you do believe in it on a big screen?
I definitely do. I’m just a big fan of the genre. That’s the bottom line. And I think some stories play great in a theater, others maybe play better at home on streaming and others play better as long-form. Some stories are so dense and big that you want to be able to stretch them out into five episodes or eight episodes. It really just depends on whatever serves best to tell your story.
I’m a big believer of cinema. I think we should do whatever we can to get people out into theaters, and obviously first and foremost is to make a good movie that everyone wants to see. But I also believe that if it works great as a TV show or as a series, then I would also be happy to look into that.

Last question for you. Tell me everything you can tell me about the M3GAN sequel. There’s got to be one. What’s the new doll like? She could do or be anything. There’s like six available skin tones. I want you to tell me that the new M3GAN has box braids and an accent. Tell me anything you can about the next M3GAN.
What I’ll say right now is we feel like we’ve set a very high bar with the first one, so we don’t want to just cobble anything together. We want to take our time to think about the story, think about the world, and think about how to continue this story and do justice to the character that people love from this first film. So that’s first and foremost.
Secondly, we really believe we should dive deeper into the AI aspect of the world — open it up a bit more, see how AI factors not just into a doll but into other everyday things. We have ideas of a smart car, smart house …

Not the smart-car horror film. Do that. An evil Tesla trying to kill you. Oh my God. Whatever you do, my only request is an eight-minute choreo sequence. I need eight or nine dolls dancing for ten minutes. Promise me that, please.
Like a classic Bob Fosse opening sequence, right?

Yes. We need some Fosse doll up in here. You heard it here first.
That’s right.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Into It

James Wan Just Wants to Scare Himself