BURBANK, Calif. - James Wan walked away from his first chance to make a sequel, for the "Saw" franchise he helped create. Now he can't seem to escape them.
The director has been splitting his days this summer between pre-production on the seventh "Fast & Furious" film and putting the finishing touches on his indie scare-fest "Insidious 2," due in September.
His other haunted house movie, "The Conjuring," has become the season's biggest low-budget hit. It's heading toward $100 million at the U.S. box office since its release last month, more than the mega-budget "Pacific Rim" and "The Lone Ranger."
No surprise here: The tale of a New England demonic possession leaves a creaky door flung wide open for more movies starring ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren, played by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.
"If there's a need for more stories, then so be it. That's a good thing," Wan said in an interview. "But I always set out to make the best film I can and let the people decide if it has a longer shelf life or not."
Born in Malaysia and raised in Australia, the 36-year-old director found his niche in Hollywood taking "genre" movies and bending them slightly askew. His "Insidious" sequel, for example, includes time travel.
"You don't see that much in mainstream haunted house scary movies," Wan said. "That's the kind of stuff that I've always loved, which is to take things that you think you're familiar with, and give it something a bit different."
After Wan's twisted "Saw" became a huge hit in 2004, the saga of serial killer Jigsaw and his victims became an annual Halloween tradition for many horror fans, with six sequels released in theaters. Wan says he became known, to his dismay, as "the serial killer guy."
"For some reason people felt that the success of the first film was just about the traps and the blood and gore and the torture. I would be the first to argue against that," he said. "It had cool characters, it had a really well thought out storyline, and at the end of the movie, it had a really big, super cool twist. . But at the end of the first movie when I slammed the door to black, that was my way of saying `Tah dah! Finished!' At least for me."
His career's latest twist is landing the sought-after gig with the "Fast & Furious" action franchise, beating out a dozen other directors with an enthusiastic pitch for a more grounded and gritty approach.
"Because the title says `Fast 7,' and the characters that are in the movies like Vin Diesel and Paul Walker and the gang, they felt like outlaws or like samurai in some ways. So I started thinking seven - `Seven Samurai,'" he said, referring to Akira Kurosawa's 1954 classic. "So that's kind of the spirit that I'm trying to bring to my version."
In person, Wan is visibly excited by the prospect of taking on the car-crazy franchise, his biggest budgeted film yet and second action movie after 2007's "Death Sentence," starring Kevin Bacon in vigilante mode.
"I love the action genre but I've just been so successful in the horror genre that I've never had the opportunity to go into action in a big way," Wan said. He smiles at the prospect of introducing British action star Jason Statham as a villain, teased in a mid-credits sequence in the sixth movie.
"I think everyone in the film is so cool as it is, but there's something kind of mythical about bringing Jason into this ... that adds an extra layer of fun-ness to it," Wan said.
Universal Pictures co-president of production Jeffrey Kirschenbaum said executives at other studios called to congratulate the studio for picking Wan.
And when "The Conjuring," made for $20 million and released by Warner Bros, topped the box office its opening weekend over much more expensive competition, "we weren't surprised," Kirschenbaum said.
"It's something that has happened time and again with James' movies. They've broken through the white noise," he said. "James understands how to craft accessible and identifiable characters. He puts them in extreme situations where he is subverting audience expectations."
"Fast 7" hasn't yet started shooting but is already slated for release next July, with the script being tweaked as Wan and others scout locations and plan the franchise's trademark elaborate set pieces. And there may be even more "Fast" in the future for Wan.
Justin Lin directed the last three "Fast" movies and though Wan has only been confirmed for one, "we talk about these in terms of long-term story arcs. Seven leads to 8 which leads to 9," Kirschenbaum said.