James WanFeb 26, 1977, Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia
Born in Malaysia of ethnic Chinese parents, Wan's family moved to Australia when he was seven. He credits his mother for cultivating his early love of movies as well as Disney and viewings of horror films like "Poltergeist" (1982) for instilling a sense of darkness into his formative cinematic experiences. At 17, attending the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, he and Leigh Whannell met and bonded over a love of horror cinema that set them apart from their more experimental-film-minded classmates. Inspired by the independence of filmmakers like Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez, they tossed ideas for a low-budget back and forth for several years before settling on the concept of two men locked in a room with a gun between them while being manipulated by a mysterious figure known only as Jigsaw. In the meantime, Wan shot his first feature-length film, "Stygian" (2000) and won the "Best Guerrilla Film" award at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival. However, this wasn't the mainstream success Wan craved. He and Whannell initially intended to shoot a feature themselves for a few thousand dollars based on their idea, but their manager encouraged them to get the film funded in the United States. The two shot a short, "Saw" (2003), in hopes of showcasing their skills and ensuring that they would be able to work on the film they'd written. Their strategy paid off, and they chose a small company, Twisted Pictures, to fund the film with a budget of under $1 million. While the final cut of "Saw" was noted for its gritty production values, that was not a deliberate choice on Wan's part; he had hoped for a "a very Hitchcockian style of filmmaking" but ended up with something quite different. Ultimately, the raw, low-budget look of "Saw" ended up being the aesthetic for the film." Lionsgate had picked up the film for distribution prior to its Sundance premiere but intended a direct-to-video release. However, due to the overwhelmingly positive reception from audiences at the festival, it was released in cinemas instead. While critical reactions on the film's release were mixed, it became the second highest-grossing horror movie at the time after "Scream" (1996) and was a huge success for Lionsgate. Neither Wan nor Whannell intended for the film to launch a series, let alone herald a new aesthetic for the horror genre. Yet "Saw" is often cited as one of the first in a wave of violent "torture porn" movies despite the fact that unlike its successors, it contains very little onscreen violence and is structured more like a thriller than a horror film. Wan served as executive producer on six sequels but turned his directing talents toward a more old-fashioned approach to horror filmmaking. He collaborated with Whannell again for their second feature, "Dead Silence" (2007), a horror movie about a ventriloquist doll that drew on the films of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava and Britain's Hammer Horror classics for inspiration. However, "Dead Silence" was a critical and box office disappointment. The revenge thriller "Death Sentence" (2007) met a similar fate, and working in tandem, Wan and Whannell did not hit their stride again until "Insidious," an old-fashioned haunted house/possession story. Buoyed by positive reviews, the low-budget film - it was made for around $1 million - raked in $100 million at the box office. Wan worked without Whannell for his next horror project, "The Conjuring," which was also a hit with audiences and critics. Wan's successful streak continued as he reunited with Whannell for "Insidious: Chapter 2," another box office hit, even as critical response was mixed. Shortly after the release of "Insidious: Chapter 2," Wan announced that he was leaving the horror genre and would turn to directing other types of films.