“There is something so evocative of the darkness. It’s a universal fear. The Conjuring films have always leaned into that,” says Michael Chaves, director of the latest film in the Conjuring saga, The Nun 2 “Also, the religious iconography is not just a visual but one of the themes of the films. These are stories of faith, and they always have elements of religion within them.”

In The Nun, we learned that the powerful demon who first plagued the Warrens in The Conjuring 2 is named Valak. In the new film, we learn Valak isn’t done tormenting Sister Irene, played by Taissa Farmiga. This time, though, Sister Irene has some help from Sister Debra (Storm Reid), who’s struggling with her faith.

Chaves, 38, is quickly establishing himself as one of the most in-demand horror directors, whose films include The Curse of La Llorona and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It. He spoke with us about the most fun and grueling aspects of shooting across the Atlantic, and how horror is kind of the opposite of advertising.

How The Nun 2 Director Michael Chaves Broke In

Sonya Alexander: When did you start directing?

Michael Chaves: I started as a kid. I was directing, making little shorts with my friends on the family movie camera. I grew up watching horror movies. Whenever I got the chance, I would make scary movies. If I had a report due in school, I’d convince the teacher to let me do a video report. First, because I was terrified of getting in front of the class.

Then I knew I could edit it and put music to it. Then I went to school at the Art Center College of Design, a school in Pasadena that has a commercial filmmaking bend. Zack Snyder and Michael Bay went there. Those guys were my idols, so I wanted to go to the school they went to. They had a very strong advertising program. Some of my other favorites, like David Fincher and Ridley Scott, were commercial directors first, so I thought I’d cut my teeth doing commercials. 

I did a bunch of spec commercials at Art Center. I was lucky to have some of them win awards. That got me noticed. I graduated and worked tables. Then I signed with a production company and was doing commercials. That was a great way to start my career. 

Michael Chaves directs a scene in The Nun 2. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Sonya Alexander: What do you think are your strengths as a director?

Michael Chaves: I think one of my strengths is scares. I’ve done three horror movies. I think that that’s one of the things that people always talk about. I enjoy the thrill ride of being scared in a movie theater, so I love bringing an audience along on that journey. I also love working with actors. One of the things that makes scares work is when you’re connecting to the actor, connecting to the character. Giving the actor the room to do their best work is essential. It’s easy to think about scares from the mechanical standpoint of filmmaking and building tension. What really makes these movies are the characters. That’s what you really get invested in. 

Sonya Alexander: What do you enjoy about directing horror?

Michael Chaves: I love the whole experience. I love designing the scares. With commercial directing, you need to make things that feel safe and reassuring, not scary or disturbing. The great thing about horror movies is you can be daring and weird and do things that are subversive and unsettling. It’s such a great playground. It’s a great freedom.

Sonya Alexander: You directed the third Conjuring film. Did that affect the way you approached this?

Michael Chaves: I used a different muscle for this one. They’re both scary movies within the same universe. With The Conjuring 3, we wanted to make it more of an investigation. The Warrens had such an incredible range of cases, and they weren’t always haunted houses. James and the studio wanted to take it out of the haunted house and make it a more unique case that has an element of investigation to it. 

The idea of the occult and the idea of witchcraft…what happens when you have a serial killer who has the power of the devil behind her was an intriguing idea. It was a left turn from La Llorona, which was an old-fashioned haunted house movie. It was a very different film, which I’m still very proud of.  

Also Read: The Conjuring and Insidious Star Patrick Wilson Is At His Best When He’s A Little Scared

With this…there’s an element of the investigation that Irene has to do, she has to go on this manhunt as she tracks Maurice across Europe. There’s also that good old-fashioned haunted house quality. I’m a big fan of Diabolique, it’s one of my top 20 horror movies, supernatural thrillers. I took inspiration from it for La Llorona and this. I loved that it was set in France. 

Setting The Nun 2 in 1950s France

Sonya Alexander: Did you have to do a lot of research on the locations?

Michael Chaves: Oh, yes! Because it was set in the ’50s… I wasn’t alive in the ’50s and not many of the people I was working with were. Also, I didn’t grow up in Europe. We really wanted to get these things right. We did a lot of research. A lot of it was just digging through old photos. Some of them were street photography. Movies are time travel. Whether they’re period movies or shot today, you’re still seeing a slice of time that you’re transported to. I thought it was great that with this we get to take people to Europe and into the ’50s. 

Sonya Alexander: You’ve done several films set in the past. Do you have a favorite time period?

Michael Chaves: I think the ’50s is my favorite. I’ve had a blast doing it. With the’70s and ’80s, there are some things that are different to today, like cellphones, but it’s not that different. The ’50s was such a leap back. You could feel it in the wardrobe and the cars. 

Sonya Alexander: Did you have to alter the demon nun’s veil? 

Michael Chaves: We didn’t want to change too much because you don’t mess with an icon. A lot of the tweaks were more production and functional.

Sonya Alexander: What was your most difficult day of shooting?

Michael Chaves: After our night shoots in Tarascon [in France]. Night shoots are the worst. They’re exhausting. We had a few nights shoots with this. Some of them we were able to tent our locations, shooting during the day.  Tarascon is where the newsstand sequence plays out. Tarascon is right next to this paper factory. Paper factories give off a rancid smell. I didn’t know that. 

Sonya Alexander: How would you describe the aesthetic of The Nun 2?

Michael Chaves: Terrifying! Beyond that, I wanted it to feel like a classic old school movie. I wanted it to have a great traditional feel to it that would stand the test of time. 

The Nun 2 arrives in theaters Friday from Warner Bros.

Main image: The Nun 2, courtesy of Warner Bros.