After a forty minute shuttle ride from Los Angeles, a gaggle of journalists find themselves in one of the many shooting locations for The Conjuring 2, James Wan’s follow-up to his wildly successful tale of Connecticut-based psychic investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Of the many unexplained phenomena the Warrens investigated, the case chosen for this second installment of the rapidly expanding franchise is one often referred to as the “British Amityville” – The Enfield Poltergeist. According to reports, single mother Peggy Hodgson and her children claimed to be plagued by ghosts, demons and other paranormal whathaveyou. Although some investigators found the Hodgsons unconvincing, the Warrens concluded the haunting to be real, and helped the family rid their dwelling of the troublesome specters. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are back as the Warrens, with Frances O’Connor (A.I. Artificial Intelligence), joining them as Peggy Hodgson.
The reason for this trek into the sunny California mountains is the special nature of the scenes to be shot, and the soundstage required. Today the cellar of the Hodgson house will be flooded with water and haunted by at least one groovy ghoulie. Constructed specifically for scenes like this, the facility has a deep hole in the floor, which allows the production to flood a fake cellar without having to build the entire set on top of an above-ground water tank.
When we arrive, there are actually two crews working at the same time. One in and around the soon-to-be water-filled cellar, the other shooting underwater inserts involving a middle-aged man who is definitely past his expiration date. Ladies and gentlemen, meet “Old Bill.” To get the effect of Old Bill underwater without having to cut away for silly things like breathing, the production built what looks like a large fish tank with a glass bottom. The tank, filled with murky water, is elevated to about waist height, with the camera mounted directly above, pointed straight down. The actor playing Old Bill lies underneath the tank, someone taps the sides, the water sloshes, and now you have a guy underwater that doesn’t have to hold his breath. Hollywood magic!
After we settle into our fancy journalists’ digs (a folding table at the far edge of the soundstage), our studio contact invites us to take a look inside the Hodgson cellar set. In pairs we walk down a short flight of stairs and boom–some true Hollywood magic is at work. The set is so realistic it’s eerie—your mind tells you you’re in a warehouse in Valencia, CA, but your eyes tell you you’re in a damp cellar in a British council flat circa 1977. Even the smallest props (all glued down for flooding purposes) are period specific.
After the tour, and before the action really starts, producer Rob Cowan chats us up. Cowan worked with Wan on The Conjuring, and previously produced another bio-pic, Rocky Marciano, about the late famed, undefeated boxer. I asked Cowan about the challenges of bringing a real person’s life story to the screen while they, or their family, are still alive.
“You know, it’s hard, and it’s interesting that you bring up that Rocky Marciano thing, because it was based on an article that was written for Sports Illustrated and talked a little bit about, you know, he was obviously a great boxer, about the good side. But then there were some tougher sides to him as well, too.”
Cowan indicates the process was even more difficult with the Hodgson’s, as the children were definitively proven to have made up certain aspects of the haunting. “You want to walk that balance of respecting the real people…particularly [the children] Janet and Margaret, but also tell something that’s still compelling and maybe [show] flawed characters. You know, nobody wants to see themselves—especially living people—as flawed characters. It’s a real fine line to walk when you’re doing it…. We talked to Janet and Margaret about this, that we want to tell all the stories [they’ve] told us, [and] we’re trying to keep it as authentic as we can. But there’s also certain license we have to take… we’re trying to build off who they are and tell a movie, but still kind of represent them so that they’re happy as well [with] the way it goes.”
Moving on to what we’re going to see shot today, Cowan explains, “This is a sequence that’s a little over halfway through the movie. It actually kicks a big climatic moment into gear where they’re downstairs and all hell breaks loose upstairs with the little girl…. I think you must have seen the guy coming up out of the water–” (I immediately think, “Yes! Fish tank guy!”) “–so it’s a sequence where that character that Janet has been channeling throughout the movie is sort of now starting to manifest itself and it’s kind of heating up.”
Now that we’d loosened up his lips about plot points, we pressed a little further. Could that coy, throwaway line at the end of The Conjuring about the “case in Long Island” be about…? “The movie starts in Amityville,” Cowan confirms. “When we shot the original Conjuring, they said, ‘We just got a call about a case in London,’ and when we were just doing the final post, we had them loop it and change it to ‘Long Island,’ which was a little easier to do than saying Amityville when they said London… At that time we had already started talking about Enfield and at that point it was one movie, so we just thought well, if you want to give everybody a little fun thing, it’s better to have done Amityville.”
At this point the other producer, Peter Safran, stops by, and we immediately grill him for some dirt on the future of the franchise, specifically what other case files might be opened up for a third installment.
“We haven’t decided yet. We’ve talked about what might happen in the world of the Warrens. We spun off Annabelle which will also get a sequel.”
“In terms of what a third Conjuring would be, we haven’t delved into that yet,” Safran continues. “It all depends on where inspiration strikes and it’ll be driven somewhat by James. We’ll figure it out. The Warrens are a great resource, but there aren’t that many unique cases. You have to make sure you come up with something that’s worthy of the Conjuring franchise.”
We want to talk about the Annabelle sequel, of course, but we’re also curious if there’s another character in this Conjuring worthy of a spinoff. Cowan confirms, “Yeah, there is.”
“There’s a character that we just had finished shooting some of, and I can’t say much about him, and again, the movie’s got to come out, we’ve got to see how the response is, but it’s a character that we love and we hope eventually, like Annabelle, that it could spin off into its own story.”
(This reporter is pretty sure he’s referring to Old Bill, the character we just watched shoot under a fish tank, but neither producer would confirm who the lucky guy or gal will be.)
We ask Wilson about whether or not he believes in the paranormal stuff to which the Warrens dedicated their lives, and whether or not an actor’s personal beliefs need to line up with the character they’re playing.
“[I] think about the biggest difference between me and Ed is he was very much into demonology and the dark side… That’s a big difference. [But] when I’m him, I’m in it hook, line and sinker, and I believe because I have to think like him on a lot of things…You know what I mean? There’s no sense of, ‘What? Come on guys…’ You can’t do that when you play these guys… otherwise you couldn’t pull off holding a cross and telling someone to go back to Hell.”
Although well known in England, the Hodgsons are relatively unknown to American audiences (save for possibly readers of websites like WH), so we asked O’Connor to give us the 411 on her character.
“She’s a single mom who’s got four kids, and her husband left her for another woman. She’s trying to raise these kids. It’s quite a stressful situation. She really has just given up everything to keep her kids happy and keep it all on the rails, in this suburban London place. She’s got quite a tough life.”
And the location? “It actually was a council house in real life, which they were kind of assigned to. They’re very poor, so when there’s activity, they can’t afford to move. They just have to make the most of it, and that’s what really happened.” Before being offered the role, O’Connor was absolutely aware of the true-life events. “For me, I always found it a terrifying case. When you look at some of the images of the kids levitating…they have documented pictures, whether you believe them or not is another matter. It’s slightly daunting playing a real person, but playing a real person with someone involved in something so scary also makes it terrifying.”
Which begs the question—did you meet your real life counterpart? Did you visit the house?
“Before I came out here from London, I actually went up to Enfield and went up to the house just to have a look at the house and that whole neighborhood. That was good to be there, to be on the actual street and stand next to the house and look up and go, ‘Wow, this is real, this existed.’ I walked around the neighborhood of that area and just listened to people talking and just sat in a cafe to get a feel of how people talked and the vibe. It’s changed a lot.” But she stopped short of actually entering the real house. “I didn’t want to, and actually the real Janet and Margaret came on set and they asked if I would like to meet them. I just felt weird meeting them since I’m playing their mom. So I didn’t meet them but I will once I’m finished filming. I also had a busy day when I was on set, too. I didn’t want to meet them at this point but I will after and they can tell me if I got it right.”
It’s time to roll camera again, and Wilson and O’Connor make their way to the now full cellar set. Take after take of them wading through dirty, waist-deep water, seeing scary stuff, falling down, general panic, and finding… something in the water. Over and over again, and as on most film sets, after you’ve seen them do it a few times, your mind wanders. But the actors make it fresh each and every time.
At one point Wan decides to shoot from another angle, and an entire wall is removed to allow for a gorgeous tracking shot. While this change is taking place Wan rushes over to say hello. It takes me a moment to realize who is talking to us, as I’ve never met James in person. He doesn’t have time for a formal interview, but his excitement about the film is palpable. And so is his devotion to the fans—he certainly didn’t have to take time out of his day to say hello and make sure we were getting what we needed, but he did just that.
After another hour or so of wet antics, O’Connor is finally wrapped for the day, and the it’s time for some more intense watery sturm und drang on set. Wilson’s Ed will be trapped in the cellar, while Vera Farmiga’s Lorraine will be stuck outside in the pouring rain. Ed is battling… something, but before he does there is a bit of dialogue at the door separating the couple.
Farmiga arrives on set, and before cameras roll the producers play footage from her half of the scene for us for reference. Shot on a Warner Brothers soundstage in Burbank days earlier, we see Lorraine getting drenched outside the door, and trust me—it’s pouring on the actress. We learn Farmiga isn’t appearing on camera today. Unlike many sets, where an assistant director will read off-camera characters’ lines while the on-camera actor reacts, Farmiga is present for her half of this very wet conversation. After several takes, she’s done for the evening and sits down to talk with us. We ask her why she felt it was important to be here tonight.
“It helps the actor. I know it certainly did for me. It always does. I had him come in the other day just for a brief eye-line. He was supposed to be… I don’t know how much I’m supposed to divulge about certain things, but anyway… I needed him as an eye-line. There’s something that happens when I look at him. You know, we’re very good friends. I’m very good friends with his wife. Our families are very close. There’s something so different about looking at him, and there’s something effortless that happens. So there I am looking at my close up. We try to do that for each other. And when you can’t, you can’t; you just have to work harder.”
Speaking of working harder, we ask her about Lorraine, the toll her work has taken on her over the years, and how that manifests in this second film.
“I think the older she got, I think, the more depleted she became. It’s spiritual warfare we’re talking about, you know? It takes a toll on you physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually… it’s draining, and we continue with this thing that she saw and explore what that is. It still plagues her, so yeah, you will see an un-ravelment with Lorraine. It never got easier with her. This kind of work never gets easier. Her instrument’s fine-tuned, but it takes a beating. She needs these tune-ups, and just a break, and obviously she never got one. Lorraine [is] so plagued. Even to this day, when I go to her house, she won’t go downstairs. She won’t go to the artifact room. I mean, why have it in your house to begin with is my question, but she won’t. She’s very haunted by all of this–and, I think, her daughter even more so. Her daughter’s very skittish when it comes to this kind of stuff. You will see that. It will continue to be an emotional rollercoaster for Lorraine, because that’s just the nature of her business.”
And with that, the visibly exhausted actress is ushered away, and the set is wrapped at the end of a twelve-hour day. The journos headed back to the shuttle, stocking up on free snacks from the craft service table before starting the long journey home…