Interview with Leigh Whannell, Writer of Insidious and Saw

We sit down with Leigh Whannell, an Australian screenwriter with the unique perspective of having penned the screenplays that launched two mega horror franchises. We discuss both, as well as his acting in both in anticipation for Insidious: Chapter 2.

Leigh Whannell is in the unique position of having co-created two of the most enduring horror franchises of the 21st century. Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Whannell was always unapologetically enthused by commercial filmmaking when he first worked with his creative partner James Wan. Developing the relationship of Whannell writing the screenplay and Wan directing the picture, their first feature film Saw became one of the most enduring horror icons of the 2000s, even if Whannell only wrote the first two of SIX sequels while Wan directed none of them. After the Australian duo’s next horror film, Dead Silence (2007) failed to live up to expectations, each pursued other creative avenues before reuniting, refreshed and hungry, for Insidious (2011). As the most profitable film of 2011, Insidious vitalized an entire studio, Film District, on its own accord and unlike the Saw sequels, lured its original creators back for the much-hyped sequel. It may also help that Whannell, also an actor, played the character of Specs in Insidious, a personality that faired better than his protagonist Adam did in Saw. In promotion of Insidious: Chapter 2, Whannell was nice enough to chat with Den of Geek about that rollercoaster ride in Hollywood, the destiny of both franchises and what interests him as a writer and an actor. Den of Geek: When you first wrote Insidious did you already have a sequel in mind? Leigh Whannell: No. When I first wrote Insidious, James and I were both in a very particular place. We were stuck in a rut, I think. We’d just come out with Saw and everybody was congratulating us. It was this big success. I mean I had welts on my back from people patting me on the back. When the whole Saw thing died down, I feel like I had praise withdrawals. I had never been congratulated so much on something in my life. So, it was a really amazing whirlwind when Saw came out. Then we did Dead Silence and got our asses kicked out on that film, and it didn’t turn out to be the film we wanted it to be. And then we spent a few years just in a rut. James went off and did Death Sentence, and I was writing scripts that weren’t getting made. I think all the stories you read about Hollywood and development hell, we kind of experienced it first hand. By the time 2010 rolled around, we hadn’t made a film in a few years and we were really desperate to do something. We basically decided to go back and do Saw all over again. We wanted to go back to our roots and make an indie film just like Saw, but we didn’t want to go back and just remake Saw, so we decided to do a supernatural horror. And that’s where Insidious came from. So when I was writing the film, not only was I not thinking about a sequel, I wasn’t thinking beyond the page. I was obsessed with us reestablishing who we were. I just felt like we had lost something. It had been a few years and we had all this momentum out of Saw that we had kind of lost. So, I’m really happy that Insidious did well, because it basically feels like “Saw: Take Two.” DoG: Did the direction of the Saw franchise inspire James and yourself to assert more creative control over the Insidious franchise? Whannell: Perhaps with James. I wrote two Saw sequels, I did [Saw II and Saw III] and then I stepped away and some new people came in. They made some decisions that I wouldn’t have made, but I guess that’s obvious when new people take over: the new guy who moves into your house, he is going to decorate it differently. So, that was interesting. I think for James, he was influenced by what you’re talking about. I think he watched a new team of people take something he had directed and remake it in their own vision and paint their own colors on it, and I think he did want to have a little more control. So, I think you’re probably right in that respect. For me, because I wrote two of the Saw sequels, I didn’t necessarily feel the urgency to hang onto Insidious, but I’m glad that James did.  DoG: One more question on Saw then: Are you happy with the direction Dr. Gordon went? Whannell: [Laughs]. Difficult stuff to talk about, because I’m still friends with people who are involved in the Saw films. I’ll say this: There’s definitely things that I wouldn’t have done, but I felt very divorced from it. I’ll tell you about an interesting experience that happened to me with Saw. I was driving, as you often do in LA, down Sunset, and I was pulled up at a stoplight and I was sitting there, and I looked up and there was this giant billboard for Saw V. I was looking at this billboard, and I had this really palpable feeling. I was looking at this billboard and I was thinking, “My God, that franchise, that character, that title was invented in the suburbs of Melbourne on the other side of the world.” And now it’s grown into this behemoth on a billboard on Sunset Blvd., and I had nothing to do with it. So, I had this curious mixture of attachment that I created this thing and detachment that I was completely divorced from it. I didn’t visit the set; I didn’t know what the film was like. It was a really interesting feeling. I didn’t feel any malice towards it; it was just a really curious feeling of detachment from something that I created. So maybe, with Insidious there is a reluctance to step away. DoG: Moving onto Insidious, it always seemed to me that you enjoy played with timelines and nonlinear timelines, especially in the Saw sequels you wrote. But now in Insidious 2, you can actually have your characters, your travelers, play around in time and space. How was that? Whannell: That was awesome! [Laughs]. Yeah, you’re very right. Supernatural films allow you to bend the rules of time and space that’s really fun, especially for screenwriters who often get shot down for logic reasons. When you’re writing a supernatural film, you can always be like, “Hey, it’s supernatural.” I really enjoy the aspects of Insidious 2 where we visited the first film. I think that’s the sort of thing that fans of the first film will really love. I think they love seeing those loops that loop the films together. I think true connectivity is something that is rare in sequels. I mean I love the first Die Hard film; you won’t find a bigger Die Hard fan than me. But I feel like with the sequels, they’re just taking that character and dropping him in different scenarios. There’s no real connective tissue.  What we tried to do on Saw and what we tried to do on Insidious is try to have the films play out like they really are connected like a serial. I mean if you edited Insidious 2 against the end of Insidious 1, it’d play almost like a big movie. It’d be like a four-hour movie. So yeah, I like that.  DoG: Well, this Insidious is “Chapter 2,” which picks up right where the last one left off. Do you think that if there is a third one, it’d be “Chapter 3?” Whannell: I don’t know. That’s an interesting question because I don’t know if we’d continue with the Lambert family. I think they’ve been hammered enough. If we were to do a sequel, I mean I haven’t really discussed it with the producer, but I almost feel like if we do another sequel to Insidious that we almost should tell a different story. I feel like this world of the Further is ripe for many different stories. So, I guess you could use that world as the basis for some other family’s story. DoG: Speaking of the Further, I really love this astral plane mythology introduced in these films. Did you research that or are there are a lot of people for whom this is their spiritual belief? Whannell: Yeah! I totally did a little bit of reading into it, and James and I had been talking about doing an astral projection horror film for years, even before Saw. That was actually one of the ideas we wanted to do, but we ended up doing Saw…But I remember we used to talk a lot about how astral projection hadn’t really been utilized in a horror film yet, and it’s a subject so ripe for horror films: the idea of your spirit leaving your body. And we did a bit of reading and research into it, and we found that there is this other plane that astral travelers can actually visit that sort of lives on top of our world, and it’s something that we can’t see. In your astral body you can explore this world. Then when it came time to write Insidious, I interviewed a few psychics, and they really echoed a lot of the stuff I featured in the film. One guy I was talking to…he’s a psychic and medium in LA, he was telling me about the personal experiences he had had astral projecting into this other plane and what it looked like. So that was really cool to have someone echo my own ideas back to me after the fact. I’d already written the film and then I talked to him, and he really reiterated these ideas. …You can do a bit of reading online. Even if you just go to the Wikipedia page on this stuff, there’s an astral plane and there’s a thing called the Akashic Records. I think it’s called the Akashic Records, but apparently it’s a book of everything that’s happened in the world and everything that’s going to happen. Astral projectors believe if you travel far enough, you can read this book, and in fact, according to myth, Nostradamus could astral project and the reason he made all those predictions was because he was reading this book. DoG: What I thought was an interesting choice in this film was the demon, which I really like you get to SEE the demon in the first movie and it was part of the marketing of that one. Here, you don’t see him in this movie, but you do hear him at the end… Whannell: Right, we definitely got little references to him in there, but I think we wanted to concentrate on the old woman ghost, and explore more the character of Josh, who Patrick Wilson plays, and who he was haunted by. I think there’s really so many ghostly figures in this world of the Further, I think you can pick and choose. DoG: To go further into that, you play Specs who had an expanded role in this as a bit of a ghostbuster. Any chance that he and Elise and the whole team will be going forward in the future? Whannell: I think so. If we were to do a sequel, if we were to move onto another family, I think you could have those characters be the connective tissue. I think it’d also be an interesting film to do a prequel based on Elise and how she was first introduced to this world of the Further before Specs and Tucker come along. DoG: Could you talk a little bit about playing Specs in these movies? Whannell: Yeah, I have real fun playing Specs, and I treat it like fun. [Angus Sampson] is a good friend of mine and we basically have our schtick. I just did another film with him in Australia called The Mule, which is a film Angus and I wrote, and we shot it in Australia. We have Hugo Weaving, and it’s very different. It’s kind of a drama, almost Fargo-esque crime thriller about a drug mule. It was really interesting to act in that film, because it was so different from doing Specs and Tucker. I really felt like an actor, I was working out how this character walked and talked and smoked. I do have fun playing Specs, but weirdly enough, shooting this film in Australia has really made me want to throw myself into acting more and see where that takes me.  DoG: Can you talk a little about what you’re working on now? Whannell: I just shot a film called Cooties that wasn’t actually my idea. I was talking to a friend of mine and he said to me, “I’ve got this friend, and he’s got an idea for a film. He wants to produce it. He’s not a writer, but it’s called Cooties. It’s about a virus that breaks out in an elementary school and turns all the kids into killer zombies.” And it was like a diamond bullet to paraphrase Apocalypse Now. I was like “I want to write that film. Who’s your friend? Call him up!” So he calls up his friend and we went out to dinner, and I’m like, “That movie? I want to write that film.” And he actually said to me, “Yeah, I mean I think it could be really scary.” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m thinking of doing it as a comedy.” And he was like, “I was thinking it was more horror.” And I was like, “It’s called Cooties. Nobody is going to take it seriously! You either have to change the title and make it a serious horror film or you stick with Cooties and it has to be a comedy. And we can’t lose the title that’s one of the best things. Everyone knows what cooties are.” And I eventually convinced him, and we just wrapped shooting that on [two days ago]. Is there any chance James could ask you to work on The Conjuring 2? Whannell: Maybe, I don’t know. I loved The Conjuring so much. It’s really scary.  I think he took everything he learned from Insidious and really put it into that film, and it’s so scary. As a horror fan, I’m thankful for that film. I don’t know. If he asked me to do it, I’d definitely be honored. DoG: Well, thanks for being able to do this today. Whannell: Thank you so much. Cheers, mate. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing.