The Conjuring exploded into one of the most successful movie universes of the century. How?
I went to Catholic school, so you could say I have endured my share of graphic religious and horror iconography from a very young age, which is why I find it so frustrating that the Conjuring movies still scare the pants off me. There are lots of them, and they somehow keep getting new ways to expand the universe. They do it all with smart storytelling choices and terrifying villains.
I love this franchise, and I think there are lots of lessons for us to learn. They're lessons that I'm discovering as I dig into these movies myself, and if you think I missed any of them, please put them into the comments section!
But before all that, let's get back on track.
Today we're going to go through the world of The Conjuring, discuss its success, and learn a few lessons that can help you with your own ideas.
8 Great Filmmaking Lessons from The Conjuring Universe
1. What's Really Driving Them?
One of the secrets to writing any genre is to focus on what the characters are actually going through. In the first Conjuring movie, we meet a married couple who have sort of fallen into a routine of investigating the paranormal. They're devout Catholics who are actually trying to get people to believe.
When they show up to help the Perron family you see conversion driving them. They are battling forces many people do not believe exist.
So what's under the layers of your characters? What is really driving them?
Jumpscares have been around for a long time, and The Conjuring certainly did not invent them, but what James Wan did in the original movie was capitalize on them.
I mean, the laundry scene alone was a jump I had never seen before. We got new jumps, and new takes on when you could jump. I mean, it's light out, and when that sheet hits that body I still scream.
How can you reinvent old tropes and use them in new and exciting ways?
3. Shoot Chronologically
One of the ways Wan kept the actors into their roles was to shoot the film in chronological order, so they were in suspense about what was happening next and could use the emotions from the previous days' work to add up into something bigger.
This will not work for everyone, but I like the idea that the scares can build here, and it's fun to see actors go through that progression.
Can you do things like this to build your story?
4. Be Persistent with Your Passions (But Open to Notes)
It took 14 years for this movie to make it to the screen. The idea was originally written by producer Tony DeRosa-Grund, but never got any traction. Eventually, writers Chad and Carey Hayes were brought on. They were the ones who changed the story to go from the Perron point of view to the Warrens.
That eventually led to a bidding war and the most successful horror franchise of the 21st century.
Listen to notes, be brave enough to make a switch. But never let go of your great ideas.
Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJcJlD4BXeg
5. Spin It Off
Should you produce one good idea, find logical points for sequels. The Warrens had lots of adventures, so those sequels felt natural. But to build a universe, you have to include spinoffs. One of the coolest was taking the demon doll Anabelle and giving her a backstory. And what about The Nun and The Curse Of La Llorona? These are really smart ways to keep the franchise feeling fresh and not having to involve the Warrens.
Do you have ideas about how to expand your universe?
6. Truth Is Scarier than Fiction
One of the coolest things about a true story is that it provides its own intellectual property. It also can draw directors who want to tackle something new.
As Wan said, "When Insidious came out and was successful, the story about the Warrens came to me and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, this is really cool.' [...] But I didn't just want to make another ghost story or another supernatural film. One thing I had never explored was the chance to tell a story that's based on real-life characters, real-life people. So those were the things that led me to The Conjuring."
Can you add some truth to your story? Mine the stories in the headlines if you can!
7. Reinvent Old Tropes
We talked about this a little with the jumpscares, but one thing I think the Conjuring franchise does well is spin old tropes into something new. We have a haunted doll, but we give it an insane backstory. We have the religion, but this is about conversion and dogma, and at the heart of this story is a couple trying to figure it all out.
One of the ways it does this is by using the true story vibes to make everything feel factual. Many of the lessons we all learn work in tandem to give you something unique.
8. Let Your (Musical) Theme Shine
I am not an authority on music in general, but I wanted to highlight how great music is within this world.
One of the most important things for a filmmaker to do is work with the people putting music into your movie. It has to be something that fits but also builds the world. For The Conjuring, we get the 1970s stuff to build the world, but there's also mood here as well.
Communicate with your composer—find what they want to put into this world and see what jives with your view.
It can take your movie to the next level.
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