Wan was born in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia, and is of Malaysian Chinese descent. He attended Lake Tuggeranong College in Canberra, before moving to Perth as an adult. Wan relocated from Perth to Melbourne, where he attended RMIT University.
Before his success in the mainstream film industry, he made his first feature-length film, Stygian, with Shannon Young, which won "Best Guerrilla Film" at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF) in 2000.
Prior to 2003, Wan and his friend, screenwriter Leigh Whannell, had begun writing a script based for a horror film, citing inspiration from their dreams and fears. Upon completing the script, Leigh and James had wanted to select an excerpt from their script, later to be known as Saw, and film it to pitch their film to studios. With the help of Charlie Clouser, who had composed the score for the film, and a few stand-in actors, Leigh and James shot the film with relatively no budget. Leigh had decided to star in the film as well.
After the release of the full-length Saw, the film was met with overwhelming success in the box office both domestically and internationally. The film ended up grossing $55 million in America, and $48 million in other countries, totaling over US$103 million worldwide. This was over $100 million profit, over 80 times the production budget. This led the studio to greenlight the sequel Saw II, and later the rest of the Saw franchise based on the yearly success of the previous installment. Since its inception, Saw has become the highest grossing horror franchise of all time worldwide in unadjusted dollars. In the United States only, Saw is the second highest grossing horror franchise, behind only the Friday the 13th films by a margin of $10 million.
Since creating the franchise, Wan and Leigh Whannell have served as executive producers to the sequels Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV, Saw V, Saw VI and Saw 3D: The Final Chapter.
The release of Saw 3D, complete with its subtitle, was to signify the completion of the franchise; however, Costas Mandylor, an actor in the seventh installment, revealed that multiple endings to the film had been shot and the series could continue depending on which was used. The sixth sequel continued the profit margin performance of the original film and earned USD136 million in the global market, against a production budget of USD20 million.
In August 2012, various online horror publications stated that a source at Lionsgate, the franchise's production company, had revealed intentions for an eighth Saw sequel, but it was at a "tinkering" stage at the time of the disclosure.
In 2007, Wan directed two feature films. The first was the horror film Dead Silence, which was the result of advice from Wan and Whannell's agent at the time; Whannell has since stated that the film was a negative experience for him:
It all started when James and I returned from the Sundance Film Festival, where we had screened 'Saw' to much success. Our 'representatives' promptly told us that we should get another deal for a film stitched up before it was released. It was presented as a kind of insurance – if 'Saw' was a flop, we had another film to fall back on. Seems logical. There was only one problem – I didn't have any ideas for a new film. I had barely been able to catch my breath throughout the whole 'Saw' experience, let alone dream up another film idea. Instead of telling our representatives that they had to wait until I came up with an idea I really liked though, I locked myself in the bedroom of the crappy apartment we had rented in Hollywood and tried to force an idea out like a particularly stubborn hangover shit. It was creativity at gunpoint. If I could go back in time, I would politely tell everyone to go fuck themselves, but back then....no. I paced and paced and even took up smoking for a while, so stressed out was I.
Dead Silence featured Australian actor Ryan Kwanten (True Blood television series), and is based on the premise of a legend, whereby the ghost of a ventriloquist, Mary Shaw, removes the tongue of any person who screams in its presence. Rather than a gore movie, Wan described the film as "a creepy doll movie. It's in the spirit of those old Twilight Zone episodes or Hammer Horror Films. Very old-school."
Wan's second directorial film of 2007 was Death Sentence, a film adapted from the Brian Garfield novel of the same name that was written as the sequel to Death Wish. The film's protagonist is played by Kevin Bacon and has no connection to the horror genre—instead, Bacon stars as a father who seeks revenge for his murdered son, who is killed by a local gang. Whannell features as a minor character in the film, playing one of the gang members who is eventually killed by Bacon's character. Wan described the film as "a raw and gritty, 70s styled revenge thriller ... It's my arthouse movie with guns."
Having worked on his previous three films continuously, Wan told CraveOnline that he was ready for "a bit of time off just to chill... but at the same time I'm using this opportunity to write again" following the completion of Death Sentence.
In 2008, Wan directed a trailer for the survival horror video game Dead Space.
Next, Wan directed the horror film Insidious, which premiered at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival as part of the "Midnight Madness" program and was sold to Sony Pictures Worldwide for a seven-figure sum within four hours of the premiere's conclusion. The film began its American theatrical release in the first weekend of April 2011 and achieved third place at the box office, with an estimated USD13.5 million in ticket sales.
Starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne and Barbara Hershey, the film was made independently, as Wan sought complete creative control and also wanted to make a film that was markedly different from the gore that he had become synonymous with due to Saw. Wan stated in an interview, "the fact that Insidious was not being run by a committee really afforded me the luxury to make a film with lots of creepy, bizarre moments that a studio might not 'get.'" Both Wan and Whannel stated that they wanted to use techniques such as restraint and silence to create a horror film, similar to The Sixth Sense, The Others and David Lynch's films.
Following the release of Insidious, Wan revealed in an interview, in regard to his career beyond the film: "I definitely do want to experiment in other genres, or make films in other genres because I love, Leigh and I have, we're not just horror fans. We're film fans. I love action films. I want to do action films. I want to do romantic comedies. I love all this stuff. So, if I find the good material, I'll do it."
The horror film news website Bloody Disgusting confirmed Wan's directorial involvement with a film entitled The Warren Files. The film, later retitled The Conjuring, centred on the real life exploits of Ed and Lorraine Warren, a married couple that investigated paranormal events. The film focused on the couple's most famous case second to the Amityville haunting, in which they investigated a witch's curse on a Rhode Island family farm. In his second collaboration with the pair, Patrick Wilson featured in the film, and he and actress Vera Farmiga played paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren, respectively. Filming commenced in North Carolina, United States, in late February 2012, and New Line Cinema, together with Warner Bros. Pictures, had initially slated the film for a release on 25 January 2013. A test screening of the film occurred in October 2012 at the New York Comic Con event, where it screened in the IGN Theater, and the audience feedback was overwhelmingly positive. At that stage, Wan had several more weeks before the film was completed. The film was released in July 2013, and has received acclaim from critics and audiences alike.
After work on The Conjuring was complete, Wan directed a sequel to 2010's Insidious. The film was once again written by Wan's longtime collaborator and close friend, Whannel, and the cast of the original film returned. Filming for the sequel commenced in January 2013, and the film was released on 13 September 2013. The budget for the film had been described as "shoestring" by one media outlet. Oren Peli, the creator of the Paranormal Activity franchise, returned as an executive producer. Film District distributed Insidious: Chapter 2.
Wan stated in an interview following a test screening of The Conjuring:
I think the sequel to 'Insidious' is kind of my reaction to Saw, where for my own reason I wasn't as involved in the sequels, and so I felt with Insidious, I think it would be good to shepherd it and keep it more in track to the version I had when I made the first film so that it doesn't detour too far. So yeah, I'm kind of working with Leigh [Whannell] on the story and the script.Insidious
In early 2013, Wan entered into negotiations with Universal Pictures to direct the seventh installment of the Fast and Furious action franchise after Justin Lin, who directed the previous four sequels, confirmed that he would not continue as director in January 2013. Wan was part of a directorial shortlist alongside Jeff Wadlow, Baltasar Kormákur and Harald Zwart.
A final confirmation that Wan would direct was revealed in April 2013, with Lin being quoted: "It's time for me to move on to other things and I'm thrilled that Universal and Neal have selected James Wan to lead the franchise into its new chapter." The film, Furious 7, was released in April 2015. It became the most successful film in terms of box office revenues and critics reviews in the Fast and Furious franchise.
On 20 October 2014, Gary Maddox of The Sydney Morning Herald announced that Wan had agreed to direct The Conjuring 2 as part of a significant long-term deal with New Line Cinema. Head of New Line, Toby Emmerich, explained that Wan is the sole director that the studio signed a deal with, as New Line considers Wan to be "a class of one". The film was released on 10 June 2016. In June 2015, it was announced that Wan will direct both upcoming films Aquaman and Robotech.
On 7 August 2015, it was reported that Wan had signed-on to produce New Line Cinema's Mortal Kombat reboot.
It was announced that an adaptation of the graphic novel Nightfall was to be Wan's next film after Death Sentence. The plot involves the events that take place after a criminal is sent to a Texas prison run by vampires. However, nothing materialized and Wan lost the rights to the film.
In 2009, a Whannel–Wan collaborative project, called "X Ray", was announced and was described as a new "film noir/action project", with producer Robbie Brenner also attached to the project; however, as of December 2012, no further developments were reported.
On October 21, 2014, Wan had launched Atomic Monster over at New Line Cinema, which he will develop and produce budget films in the science fiction, horror, and comedy genres. The films include Annabelle, The Conjuring 2, Lights Out, and Annabelle: Creation.
Wan produced Demonic, a Dimension Films horror movie that was scheduled for a December 2014 release, alongside Lee Clay. Wan conceived of the idea for the film, which is directed by Will Canon and features Maria Bello in the lead acting role. Max La Bella penned the script.
Wan then served as a producer on Annabelle, a spin-off of The Conjuring that served as a prequel to the 2013 film. The spin-off was profitable for the New Line film production company, as it was made for a cost of $6.5 million and had grossed over $256 million worldwide since it was publicly launched on October 3 2014. On 7 August 2015, it was reported that Wan had signed-on to produce the Mortal Kombat reboot.
On 13 November 2012, news emerged of Wan's ongoing negotiations to direct an adaption of the 1980s television series MacGyver. Wan posted on his Twitter account: "People are surprised?? You guys never saw shades of MacG in Jigsaw??", in response to public comments regarding the news. The screenplay is complete and the series' creator, Lee Zlotoff, is also involved.
As of 2012, Disney is reported to be developing a remake of The Rocketeer, and Wan has talked about directing the film.
The film media announced in June 2014 that 20th Century Fox acquired the rights to Wan's 2011 graphic novel Malignant Man. According to reports, Wan will develop the concept with a view to directing and producing the film. As of the time of the announcement, comic book label Boom! Studios is slated for a production role alongside co-producers Stephen Christy, Ross Richie and Adam Yoelin. Wan has also been slated to direct the film adaptation of the DC comic book Aquaman. The movie is slated to come out in 2018 and will be part of the DC Extended Universe. He was also at one point attached to the director role for a live action Robotech film for Sony, but was replaced by Andy Muschietti in July 2017.
Throughout his directorial career, Wan has cast certain actors repeatedly: