Director James Wan pushes for ethnic diversity in his films

James Wan, who helmed last year's Furious 7, says its global success was due in part to its ethnically diverse cast.
James Wan, who helmed last year's Furious 7, says its global success was due in part to its ethnically diverse cast.PHOTO: WARNER BROS SINGAPORE

But James Wan also believes directors need to be able to hire the best actors for the job, regardless of race

It is easy to point at a career like James Wan's and argue that Asians are doing pretty well in Hollywood.

But it says something when one of the industry's top Asian directors says he does not believe Asians have fared much better in recent years, apart from a few high-profile successes. And he reveals that some in the business still fail to appreciate that the global success of Furious 7, which he directed last year, was due in part to its ethnically diverse cast.

In a one-on-one chat with The Straits Times while promoting The Conjuring 2 - the sequel to his 2013 horror hit - the Australian film-maker, who is of MalaysianChinese descent, says he is acutely aware of the need to cast non-white actors now that he is in a position of power, and will do so with the 2018 Aquaman superhero movie he is directing.

But he also has sympathy for those caught up in some of the recent "whitewashing" controversies, where film-makers have been criticised for putting Caucasian actors in roles originally intended for Asians. This is because he believes directors need to be able to hire the best actors for the job, regardless of race.

Asked if Asian representation in Hollywood has improved during the course of his career in the United States - which took off when his 2004 horror flick Saw became a breakout success - he ruefully shakes his head.

"I wouldn't say it's improved that much. I mean, you may see one or two faces on TV or whatever, and that's really it."

When it comes to Asian actors on the big screen, things are not all that different from when he was a child, says the 39-year-old, who was born in Sarawak and raised in Perth, Australia.

"Growing up, I never had a male Asian movie star to look up to in Hollywood. The only guy I can think of is Bruce Lee and think how many years ago that was. It's kind of embarrassing in that respect."

But he gives credit to those now pushing for greater Asian representation on screen. "I think it's good that they're trying to find more faces in the media that reflect that group, especially in America - that's not really the case in the rest of the world. But America is a very diverse country and I think that's what makes it amazing."

Wan's success in the US makes him one of the few Asian filmmakers to have conquered the film industry here.

Apart from the Saw movies (2004 to 2010), he directed, executiveproduced or co-wrote the Insidious (2010 to 2015) and Annabelle (2014) horror films and helmed last year's Furious 7 - the latest instalment in The Fast And The Furious action franchise.

Now he has been put in charge of a major superhero movie - the longawaited Aquaman comic-book adaptation, due in 2018. And he plans to use his clout to ensure the film has an ethnically diverse cast.

"I'm now in a position of power when it comes to being able to pick actors, so I'm a lot more mindful of that and try to push it more in that direction."

Wan could not do this with The Conjuring 2, which opens in Singapore tomorrow, because that story is based on events from the lives of real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.

"It's a bit hard when I do movies like The Conjuring, because they're based on real people, and the Warrens were from a very white, New England, Anglo-Saxon world."

But when movies do not face such constraints, directors have a chance to cast non-whites and Wan thinks they should grab it with both hands.

Furious 7 is "the perfect example of a franchise where that works so well - you can just put different faces in it".

"And it kind of surprises me when people go, 'Wow, how come The Fast And The Furious is so popular around the world?' I'm like, 'Duh, look at it - it's filled with faces from all around the world'. It's kind of silly to not work that out."

This will be Wan's approach when he fills out the cast of Aquaman, in which the title character is being played by Game Of Thrones star Jason Momoa, a Hawaiian of Polynesian descent.

"Aquaman is a story that takes place in all these different kingdoms from around the world, so it's the perfect place to have different flavours (of people)."

And, he adds, populating a movie with diverse faces is not the same as half-heartedly throwing in an Asian face or two to improve a film's chances in the China market, as some recent movies have done.

"Now you get more of this sort of lip service and pandering because they want money from that country," he says.

Yet he admits to being torn when it comes to the whitewashing of Asian roles in certain films, including Scarlett Johansson's part in the upcoming Ghost In The Shell, an adaptation of a manga series of the same name.

"I'm of two minds: I want to do something about (increasing diversity) but, at the same time, I also want to cast and work with people who are the best for the job and not just because of their race."

He says he understands when studios argue that they have to cast major white stars to boost a movie's marketability.

"But I think it's a fine balance. If it's a role that can possibly go to someone where it could mean something on a social level, then I think you should take that chance.

"Because you never know - you might discover a great actor. And that's something I'm trying to keep in mind and I think that will dictate my casting decisions."

As for his own future, Wan plans to take an indefinite break from directing horror films, though he will continue to executive-produce movies such as Lights Out, which opens in Singapore next month and is about a woman haunted by a creature when the lights are turned off.

A part of him is still fretting over whether The Conjuring 2 can do as well as the original, a sleeper hit that remains one of the highestgrossing horror movies of all time, earning US$318 million against its US$20-million budget.

He believes the popularity of that story - which followed the Warrens as they solved an earlier case in the 1970s - was a case of "the right place, right time and right product". "It was a story and characters that people liked, the scares and set pieces worked well, and it possibly came along when people were sick of found-footage movies," he says, referring to films made in the style of 1999's The Blair Witch Project.

But The Conjuring's success was "a cloud over me as I made The Conjuring 2", he reveals. "I've felt the burden of the love for the first movie, which is now the modernday Hollywood horror movie that people measure others against.

"Before that, the movie that people often compared others with was The Ring in 2002, because that also made a lot of money and was loved critically.

"It took so long for something like The Conjuring to come along and take over that mantle, so I have a lot of anxiety about making a sequel that lives up to the first film."

Wan does not rule out returning to this genre eventually.

"I tried to move on from horror with Furious 7, but I came back to it with this," he says, smiling. "So I don't want to say I'm done with the genre, because that might be like telling a lie twice."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2016, with the headline 'Pushing for ethnic diversity'. Print Edition | Subscribe