Writer, actor and now director Leigh Whannell probably never imagined he’d become a major force in horror when he was going to film school in his native Australia. But that’s exactly what happened after he and his schoolmate — and eventual filmmaking partner — James Wan created two of the biggest genre franchises of the past 15 years: Saw and Insidious.
The first Insidious, written by Whannell and directed by Wan, came out in 2011 and was a gigantic success (earning $97 million against a budget of less than $2 million). The pair followed it up in 2013 with Insidious: Chapter 2, but then Wan went off to do a little movie called Furious 7. With Insidious: Chapter 3 slated to go, Whannell not only wrote the movie but made it his directorial debut.
A prequel, Chapter 3 centers on psychic investigator Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) in the time before she met and tried to help the haunted Lambert family of the first two movies. Attempting to recover from her own personal tragedy, she becomes entangled in the vicious haunting of a young girl (Stefanie Scott) and her widowed father (Dermot Mulroney). We sat down recently with Whannell to talk about directing for the first time, avoiding the prequel trap and why he has a leg up on other directors.
Den Of Geek: I’m going to give you a multiple choice question. Was directing this yourself a) an opportunity that you were personally looking for, b) a chance to protect your mythology, c) a matter of convenience, or d) all the above?
Leigh Whannell: I would say in relation to a), I knew I wanted to direct a film, but I didn’t know it was going to be that film. There was a period there where I thought, “Well, I’ll write Insidious 3, but I’ll direct something that is original; that’s not a sequel, that’s not part of a franchise. It doesn’t belong to any other world. I’ll start from scratch. That way I’ll feel like I’m doing what James did 10 years ago with Saw — busting out of the gates with a whole new product.”
What happened what it was during the writing that I started to become very possessive of the characters. When I’m writing something I get so into it and get so wrapped up in the world of the script, if I’m not handing it off to someone I really trust, like James, I get very possessive of it. So that was when I made the decision to direct it.
But it wasn’t really to protect the mythology. I think I’ve had a lot of experience with watching other people shepherd my ideas with the Saw films. They made four Saw movies without me. I never really had a protective or fierce policy towards that. I let it go. I think it was mainly that the script kinda spoke to me. That’s really what led to it.
So it was a natural evolution that you wanted to direct at some point?
Yeah. I mean I met James Wan at film school. That’s where we met. I didn’t go to film school to find someone else to work with. I was thinking I would go and learn to direct and go and be a director like everyone else at school. Life gets in the way and we ended up doing what we did, which is great, which I’m thankful for. But I think directing this movie was a reminder that this is what I wanted to do.
So I feel like it was something I was going to get to one day. I just didn’t know what the product was going to be, what the script was going to be. In hindsight, I think this was the perfect first film to make for me, because there was so much familiarity built into it. A lot of the fear about being a first-time director is just starting with a completely blank slate and thinking: “Is this going to connect with anybody?”
I had the luxury and the cushioning of knowing that this franchise had already connected with people. So all I had to do was not fuck it up totally. But I also took it very seriously. I didn’t treat it like, “Well, I just have to get it in focus and go sit down.” I really tried to treat it like it was a standalone film.
What did you learn about yourself as a director and about the craft of directing? Obviously you know your way around a film set and you’ve been there enough to know how it works. But what did you learn actually stepping into that role for the first time?
I learned that it really is an extension of writing. When you sit down to write a film, you direct it in your head. If you are writing a scene, you are watching the scene. And maybe it’s different when you are writing a novel because you are thinking of it in terms of being read. But films are only consumed one way — through the eyes and the ears. So when I write, I very much direct. What I have to do when I’ve finished writing is then cut off that instinct and let someone else take over. Otherwise, it would become very frustrating. A lot of screenwriters talk about how frustrating it is to watch someone else make these decisions.
So what I’ve found about directing is how much the decision making, the day-to-day decision making of directing is all to do with the screenplay and the writing. When somebody comes to you and says, “Hey, what color is her dress,” they are talking about the scene. If you go back to the script and you look at what you were feeling at the time, you can make the decision about the color of the dress. It can either be arbitrary, like, “Eenie, meenie, miney, red,” or it can be really tied into the emotion. Of the top of my head, I can say something like, “Well, she’s feeling very down in this scene. She’s really low. Let’s not have her in any bright colors. Let’s have her in something really dark.”
And the costume designers really respond to that. They want to be told what the emotion of the scene is. I was really surprised by that. I gotta say, I had envisioned directing being much more technical, almost more mathematical in a way. I feel like it’s much more creative and much more left-brained than that.
Were you concerned about navigating the challenges of doing a prequel? Because the problem is always that we know what is going to happen at some point.
Exactly. I was concerned about it in the sense that it was a blank slate, new family. I had to approach it as if none of these events had happened before. If you are making a film that is in continuity with the others, you have the luxury of standing on their shoulders. You can start the film as if you were saying, “Last time on Insidious, here’s what happened. And now here’s where we are this week, kids.” When you are doing a prequel, you don’t have that. You are building from the ground up. So that was a little nerve racking. But what’s freeing about it is you aren’t constrained by anything. So if you suddenly have a hair-brained idea to do this or that, you are not hemmed in.
If you are telling the story of James Bond’s childhood, you are not hemmed in by his adult qualities. Whereas, if you are making a James Bond film that fits in with the timeline of the movies they make, everybody is coming at you saying, “Well, James Bond wouldn’t do that.” At least if you are making a prequel you can say, “Well, he’s no James Bond yet. He’s just a teenager.” There’s your idea for the next franchise: James Bond as a teenager (laughs). That is quite freeing, I think. That is quite freeing to not be constrained by that. So it’s kind of a give and take.
Were you surprised at how much Elise sort of jumped out and become the lead character? You and James had the experience in Saw with Tobin Bell as Jigsaw and people really responding to him just getting up off the floor in that first movie. Did Elise leap at you the same way when you first created the character? And how much did Lin help in giving her life?
I really liked the character on the page. But when I was writing the first film, I thought of her as a supporting character and it was very much the story of his family. What happened on set is Lin came and she brought her Lin Shaye energy. She’s such an effervescent person. She brought this energy. And it’s a real example of how when you make a film and you finish it, it’s no longer yours. It’s like this balloon that you just let go and it floats off and you never know where it’s going to land. It’s one of the great things about filmmaking, is the fact that other people take ownership of it. Look at Star Wars fans. In their minds, they are now the bosses of that franchise.
So I actually find it flattering when people take ownership of something that I’ve created, because it ultimately means that it’s connected with them. So, in the Insidious world, I found the fans of the film connected with Elise despite us. We weren’t intending for her to be the star of the franchise, but something just clicked. I think it’s just the result of this….it’s Lin Shaye’s energy meets the character, meets the situation. Once I got to this third film, I realized if we weren’t going to deal with the Lamberts, she should really be the star. And I’m so grateful to her for her input into the character.
Being an actor yourself (he once again plays the paranormal investigator Specs in the new film), do you feel like you have an advantage as a director working with the actors?
I think you do in a way, because you don’t view actors as some sort of annoying roadblock between you and a great movie. I think there are some directors who are so controlling that they see actors as warm props. The actor is in the same category as this coffee table that the production designer picked out.
Care to name names?
(Laughs) Exactly! I think Alfred Hitchcock has a quote about the actors being treated like cattle. I think that is something that’s indicative of a very controlling director with a real Svengali complex about puppeteering everything on the set from the costumes to the humans. Whereas, when you’ve acted before, you know exactly how an actor approaches a film set. When they sit down, where they are at, their mindset, the insecurities, the fears, the hopes.
So, if anything, it allowed me to approach it in a different way and try to cajole them to meet me halfway. I wasn’t trying to puppeteer them to give me exactly what I wanted. I wanted contribution. The trick was giving them a trigger word that would trigger their contribution. Rather than saying, “Say it like this,” which is the death for any actor. I mean any actor hates line readings. I would give them a song. I would say to Dermot Mulroney, “Can you listen to this song for a scene?” I wasn’t sure what he was going to react to. And I wouldn’t ask him what he thought of the song. I just wanted him to go into the scene with something to grab onto. I think that was probably the best benefit of being an actor.
Your next project may be a science fiction film you’ve written called Stem?
Yeah. I have written a film called Stem. I wrote it a couple of years ago. I’m not sure it will be a film I’ll direct. But I really love the idea. I actually wrote it a few years ago and wasn’t even thinking of directing it. But it’s been one of those scripts that floats around. So yeah, I’m excited. I’m going through a real sci-fi phase, especially contained sci-fi. I mean I love big bang sci-fi as much as the next guy, but I really love low budget science fiction movies. You can say they are low budget movies with big ideas, like the original Terminator. I’d love to make something in that vein.
Insidious: Chapter 3 is out in theaters this Friday (June 5).