By MICHAEL GINGOLD
With Annabelle the doll having received a pair of screen showcases, it’s now the turn of the demonic woman of the cloth who provided some of THE CONJURING 2’s biggest creeps. THE NUN (opening Friday), the latest entry in the CONJURING universe, goes back to 1952 to reveal the character’s origins, and gives director Corin Hardy his first major-studio showcase.
Hardy first demonstrated his chops at immersive horror atmosphere with 2015’s THE HALLOW, which took its cues from Celtic folklore, and now takes a deep dive into corrupted Catholicism. Scripted by Gary Dauberman from a story by Dauberman and CONJURING overlord James Wan, THE NUN is set in an eerie abbey in the wilds of Romania, where a priest (Demián Bichir) and a young novitiate (Taissa Farmiga) arrive to investigate the bizarre suicide of one of the sisters. More deaths and other frightening situations follow, tied to a supernatural presence that manifests as the titular character, played once again by Bonnie Aarons. Hardy spoke exclusively to RUE MORGUE about THE NUN’s classic inspirations, casting and more…
How closely does THE NUN’s story tie in to the other CONJURING films, and how bound were you to set things up as they’re seen in those movies?
Well, I don’t want to give any surprises away, but it does tie in and is obviously a sort of prequel in the sense that the nun will eventually be part of the events in THE CONJURING 2. But I was aware I was making a movie that’s part of James Wan’s CONJURING universe, and wanted to make sure it honored what has come before, while also bringing something fresh to this story and the world it takes place in. It was exciting to see, when I read the script, that the story was taken in a slightly different direction than the other CONJURING-universe films so far, in that it had more of an adventurous feel to it. It’s not the usual sort of haunted house/family possession movie. It’s more of a mystery unfolding in a world of castles and graveyards and the abbey.
Did you do any work on the script once you came on board?
As much as time allowed. The script was in good shape when I read it, and there was a lot of momentum behind the movie, so it was pretty much a case of diving in. We went quite rapidly into preproduction and then production. There were some story aspects that we addressed, and we were always collaborating throughout the process.
How sacrilegious is the film’s treatment of the religious themes?
We didn’t want to upset anyone in that sense. In my mind, it’s a mystery/adventure story; there’s something of INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM about it. It obviously has religious aspects, but we were careful not to make anything that would offend someone, but to play up the tension and what we could find that was scary in that world.
After delving into Celtic mythology in THE HALLOW, did you similarly look into Catholicism for THE NUN?
It was quite different, because THE HALLOW was something I had developed myself for eight years, conceiving it and writing it and rewriting it, and THE NUN was a fully formed story when I came aboard. I approached everything visually, and worked from the story off the page. I wanted to make sure we were being as accurate as possible, but I didn’t spend years delving into Catholicism; I didn’t have a chance.
The movie’s atmosphere is reminiscent of the horror films of the ’60s and ’70s; was that a conscious stylistic approach?
That was definitely conscious. The film is set in 1952, and there was certainly a sense of a classic horror film in the script. Whenever I put together a movie or a movie pitch, I put together a list of films and also make a visual bible, a visual document, to take the crew through to get a feel for the look I’m after. The bible I created for THE NUN had imagery from movies like Coppola’s DRACULA, THE NAME OF THE ROSE, BLACK NARCISSUS, THE EXORCIST and THE EXORCIST III as well, which never gets talked about much but I think is a terrific movie, and a lot of Italian horror as well, like Dario Argento’s films. I didn’t want to ape anything too overtly, but definitely aimed to create as thick a sense of atmosphere as possible in the lights and darks, the contrasts, the textures. A lot of the movie is lit by gaslight or candlelight, stained glass, so there’s a different type of color palette here, with the moonlight and fog.
Did you take any cues from the European nunsploitation films?
[Laughs] I can’t say I did! I haven’t seen a great deal of them, to be honest, so maybe I’ll do that next. It’s funny, though; when I became part of this movie, the minute it started being talked about on-line, almost every other comment was a nun pun. They made some good ones [laughs]; they tended to revolve around “bad habits,” “nun more black” or “nun more evil,” that sort of thing.
You’ve mentioned that Taissa Farmiga’s casting had nothing to do with Vera Farmiga’s presence in the CONJURING movies, so what was it about her that made her right for this part?
Genuinely, I watched…I can’t remember exactly how many, a good hundred or so auditions for that role. We were intending to cast a European actress, maybe an English one. I saw a lot of good people, and we had a list, but when I watched Taissa, she was unique in a way that you look for when you’re casting a movie. She had something in her eyes that translates perfectly to this kind of movie and to this character, who has visions. She and Vera have a similar characteristic that is slightly otherworldly, and in Taissa’s audition, it was as if she could see something behind the camera that wasn’t there, but it felt like you could see it in her eyes. So once I saw that, it was immediately clear there was no one else as good as her for this role.
The only reason we were maybe a little resistant, in fact, was because maybe people would feel we hadn’t auditioned anyone, and had just said, “Let’s get Taissa Farmiga, she’ll do it because Vera did!” or whatever. But they’re both super-talented and have a particular skill for this type of movie.
How did you work with Bonnie Aarons to create the character of the nun?
Bonnie has a real unique presence. I’m a fan of iconic horror stars, when you get these unique actors, whether it’s Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee or Robert Englund, and they own a character so purely. I didn’t know who Bonnie Aarons was when I saw CONJURING 2, but her quality in that role is the reason it was such a scary character and so successful in the movie. So once I got the job of directing THE NUN, I immediately said, “I hope we’ve made sure that the actress who originally played her is available.” I didn’t want to think of casting anyone else.
I also found out that she was responsible for me having a near heart attack in MULHOLLAND DR., the David Lynch movie. She plays the vagrant at the end of the alley, and she’s on screen for about two seconds, but she terrified me. It’s like, you don’t have to put her in a lot of makeup or prosthetics, she just has this feeling about her. She’s lovely in real life, and she’s nicely bonkers—and she wouldn’t mind me saying that! She’s unique, so I didn’t want to change too much. It was more technical guidance than anything.
TO BE CONTINUED