The Conjuring Universe has grossed $2 billion, and dollar for dollar, it’s the most successful cinematic universe that doesn’t involve superheroes. Surprisingly, the highest grossing chapter in the James Wan and Peter Safran-produced horror franchise is 2018’s The Nun ($366 million), and now, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It director Michael Chaves is back with its follow-up, The Nun II.
The Taissa Farmiga-led film is Chaves’ second go-round in the Conjuring franchise, as the official count does not include his feature directorial debut, The Curse of La Llorona (2019), despite New Line and Wan’s involvement, as well as a character and footage from 2014’s Annabelle. (The point of contention for Chaves is that franchise co-producer Peter Safran did not shepherd La Llorona with Wan.)
Written by Akela Cooper, Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing, The Nun II picks up in 1956, four years after Sister Irene (Farmiga) and Maurice (Jonas Bloquet) banished the universe’s big bad, Valak, in the form of the Demon Nun. The two friends and survivors are now leading their own lives in different corners of France until a trail of bodies across Europe puts them on a collision course.
The Nun II, which has already garnered strong first reactions that note its substantial improvement over the first entry, took inspiration from films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Diabolique (1955), but Chaves relied most heavily on French street photography from the 1950s.
“I really wanted to get the ‘50s right. I really wanted it to feel like you’re time traveling. So we just went through treasure troves of old photographs,” Chaves tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And a lot of it had this playfulness and visual trickery to it. So that idea of visual trickery … became a part of the language of The Nun II.”
In general, Chaves hopes to continue referencing old photography, especially since film references have become a common practice throughout every step of the process, be it the initial pitch meeting or the eventual promotion of the film.
“I just thought, ‘I’m going to stop referencing movies all the time. I’m going to start referencing photographs,’” Chaves says. “It’s so easy [to reference movies]. We’re all movie fans. We’ve all seen a million movies and they’re all at our fingertips. But very few people are just looking at old photographs, so you get these gems of inspiration that you wouldn’t have gotten if you were just watching movies.”
Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Chaves (pronounced ‘Shahvz’) also cryptically teases a fleeting moment in The Nun II (in theaters Friday) that hints at a major implication for the greater Conjuring Universe, so keep your eyes peeled.
Well, outside of Marvel, the Conjuring Universe is, pound for pound and dollar for dollar, the most successful cinematic universe. What do you think has been the key to all this?
The movies are always scary, and they always deliver on that core experience. The other things that really make them work is that there’s a lot of heart in them. There are characters that you really love, and there’s also the element of faith. Faith is always an element that runs through these films — and sometimes more directly than others — but it’s the combination of those three things that’s the Holy Trinity of the universe.
The films, while connected, don’t necessarily hinge on those connections. They’re satisfying in their own right. Have you approached your three Conjuring films — or two films as you might still prefer to say — as basically standalone movies?
It’s interesting. Whenever someone says, “All three of your movies are in the Conjuring-verse,” it’s easy to think that it’s a kind of rinse and repeat, but making movies is like raising kids. Each one has their own personality and they become their own person, and that’s so true with movies. They just naturally do that. I’m such a fan of this series, and I’m such a fan of the universe that I actually like those connections. I like feeling that this really is part of a bigger story, and I like feeling the weight of that. It actually feels like something that is both building off of something and then building to something, so I always love having those little connections. So even though they do become their own movies — and I think that they are just naturally — I’m usually the one who’s trying to bring those connections back in.
From what I can glean in our past interviews, Taissa and Vera Farmiga have wildly different personalities. But now that you’ve worked with both sisters, are they markedly different performers as well?
They’re very similar in so many respects, but obviously, if you put them side by side, they’re totally different. They’re both awesome performers. They’re great people. They’re great to have on set. They’re so good to the crew. Being a great actor is not just the performance that you give on camera; it’s also the vibe that you have on set. It’s the energy that you’re putting out, and they’re both so wonderful on set. They send out such positive vibes. From Conjuring 3 with Vera to this, there’s actually so many parallels. Vera, in so many ways, is very much like Taissa, but I also feel like there’s this parallel between Jonas [Bloquet] and Patrick [Wilson]. They’re both very serious actors, and they totally can deliver. They’re also very fun, and they don’t take themselves too seriously. They even kind of look similar. So if you look at the two of them, they’re almost mirror images of each other. It’s kind of amazing.
With James Wan spinning many plates at the same time, how do you pick your spots with regard to feedback? When do you involve him as a sounding board?
We have check-ins throughout the process. James has produced all my movies, and yeah, he’s always juggling a lot of things. He’s a director in his own right, and he’s finishing up Aquaman 2, so he’s obviously super busy. But he always makes time for his team and for the people working with him. Sometimes, he’s just a great cheerleader. Sometimes, he’s just really supportive. If I’m wondering if I should do something, he’ll be like, “That’s great! We’ve never seen that in the universe before. Go for it.” So it’s very freeing to hear that from him, and it’s what you want in a partner and a producer.
The newsstand sequence is really special, and the marketing team wisely leaned into it. Is that sequence practical until the intensity picks up?
Yeah, it was practical for 70 percent of it, I’d say, and then there became pieces that were just impossible to line up. Some of it was just wind blowing paper, and then it was handed off into some mechanical page flipping, which worked pretty nicely. Whenever you get into any mechanical rigs, things always go wrong, and so there was a little bit of cleanup throughout the sequence. At the very end, the last couple shots are a CG wall of pages as they’re kind of assembling, but a lot of it was in-camera. I want to do everything in-camera. I just thought, “That’s going to be the old-school, proper way of doing it, and I’ll get so many points off of doing that.” So if you can always start with that approach, it’s better.
We also started that way with one of our monsters, this goat demon. It’s largely practical. We actually moved his eyes a little bit to the side, and then we had these extensions for his claws because it became unsafe, basically. We couldn’t do what we wanted to do because it would’ve put him in danger, but beyond that, all of the fur and prosthetics are [practical]. [The performer] was in there for hours. So all of those in-camera efforts really pay off, and audiences respond to them. The other actors also respond to them. When you’re actually seeing these things, it sucks you into the moment, and that can be really effective.
Se7en was a reference point for you on The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. What were you jumping off of this time?
Se7en. Again. (Laughs.)
It never gets old.
Yeah, I’m just going to keep on going with Se7en. Honestly, one of the movie references that I would point to a lot is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I love that, and it feels like it’s in the DNA of The Nun, even in the original one. There’s something cool and theatrical about it that is very unique. Diabolique was another one. I love French boarding schools in the ‘50s, so I always come back to that movie. It’s a favorite of mine. I also love how it’s always shifting the genre. It’s a crime movie. It’s a supernatural movie.
And then beyond that, we did a bunch of photo research. I really wanted to get the ‘50s right. I really wanted it to feel like you’re time traveling. I really wanted to feel the texture of the ‘50s, and so we went back to the photography. I worked with an incredible French production designer Stéphane Cressend, and he was also really big about that. So we just went through treasure troves of old photographs, and René Maltête, this French photographer during the ‘40s and ‘50s, did all of this street photography in France. And a lot of it had this playfulness and visual trickery to it. So that idea of visual trickery was really inspiring, and it became a part of the language of The Nun II.
And it’s funny because after doing that, I just thought, “I’m going to stop referencing movies all the time. I’m going to start referencing photographs.” It’s so easy [to reference movies]. We’re all movie fans. We’ve all seen a million movies and they’re all at our fingertips. But very few people are just looking at old photographs, so you get these gems of inspiration that you wouldn’t have gotten if you were just watching movies.
Well, they’re giving me the wrap before I can ask about a pair of eyes that flash on the screen at a key moment in the movie …
I’m so glad you were about to ask about that. I was wondering, “Did anyone notice that?” I’m so glad you caught that. Seriously, that made my day.
Does that mean what people are going to think it means?
If you see what it is, the answer is there.
The Nun II opens in theaters September 8th. This interview was edited for length and clarity.