Leigh Whannell interview: Insidious, Saw, Star Wars

The co-creator of Saw and Insidious chats to us about homages, mistakes, and the Luke/Leia/Vader relationship...

James Wan’s longtime collaborator Leigh Whannell was the co-creator and co-writer of the Saw and Insidious series. For the third chapter of Insidious, Whannell has personally picked up the director’s megaphone for the very first time.

We met up last week to speak about his newly-forged processes as a writer-director, his ambitions, the lessons he learned from this film, and lots more besides, from Poltergeist to The Shining and, at three separate talking points, the Star Wars saga.

I think would-be filmmakers and students of the medium will find some of his answers particularly intriguing, but be warned, there are spoilers for The Others, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Going back to the beginning, the first Insidious was regularly compared to Poltergeist. Did it start out as a Poltergeist homage, or were those elements you introduced as you went along?

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The first one really came about because we wanted to do a story which involves astral projection. We were chatting about ideas one night and we realised that no-one had really made a horror film that involves astral projection. Usually, if it’s talked about at all it’s in these new agey terms in the same category as yoga and your spirit animal, but it’s such an obvious horror film element. You’re talking about somebody asleep and their soul leaves their body.

We thought it would be really interesting to tell a story about somebody whose soul left their body and never came back, leaving an empty vessel. In those terms, it’s not very Poltergeist, and we thought that element of it was very original. But then, I guess, once we got into the real of being a haunted house film, and you had the medium come to visit and help rescue a young child, then you start getting the comparisons to Poltergeist. It wasn’t intentional, but maybe subconsciously…? I love the original Poltergeist, so maybe I was drawing on that unconsciously.

Other people would point it out and we’d go “Oh yeah, there are some very Poltergeist-y elements,” but the biggest thing for us was the astral projection element.

Conversely, though, The Shining references in this third one must be deliberate nods?

Yeah. The door to the room, the long corridor with the elevator… The Shining is my favourite horror film, so a lot of the references were not so much plot points but stylistic references. Maybe this was my way of keeping The Shining alive on our set. There’s more: there’s that book she’s reading, Clockwork Orange.

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I really liked that documentary Room 237

Yeah, ‘documentary.’

Yeah, definitely. It talks about all of the, ridiculous or not, hidden meanings of The Shining. Maybe I was trying to inject a little of that into this film.

I was half expecting a steadicam shot following the wheelchair up one of the corridors.

No, we never did that. We were definitely confined by the realities of the set. A lot of the time, my shots were dictated by “What can we do within this small space?”

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Horror fans do know the genre so well that little similarities and shared tropes can be something that gets discussed a lot. What do you think you gain from including an homage? Do you ever worry that it’s a distraction?

I don’t worry. Not really. If I felt that a movie was wholesale ripping off or borrowing from another film in its storyline… for instance, if I was making a film like The Others, set back in the 1900s on an English estate and it turned out that the woman didn’t know she was dead… I wouldn’t make that film. What would be the most concerning thing is if I did.

When it’s things like “this corridor really reminds me of The Shining,” then I don’t worry about it being a distraction. Only the really attentive fans will notice it, people like yourself, the horror fans, but I don’t think the general audience will see it. In a way it’s kind of flattering if a horror fan says to me “I noticed that shot of the door was very much like The Shining,” you know that they were really paying attention.

But I try to make the plotlines and the scares as original as I can.

Moving to the second film for a moment. You injected a lot of new rules in that one, and a lot of information about how the situation works. When you are coming up with these rules… well, if I were in your position, I’d worry about them becoming a bit much, a bit thick. How did you balance it? And did you ever cheat your own rules?

It does get confusing. The good thing with Insidious and The Further is that it’s so nebulous, this supernatural world, that it allows you to bend things. There’s a lot of room, it’s very malleable, like how in the second film we had a lot of time travel. I feel like it’s a very freeing world to operate in, whereas the Saw movies, happening supposedly in the real world, keeping track of the mythology was quite difficult. In this movie, the supernatural element affords quite a lot of freedom. I try to stick to a basic set of general rules and not over-complicate it.

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One of the things this third thing does is pay-off a lot of plot points that were probably never meant to have pay-offs in the first place. That’s a good trick. And it does now feel like the series, structurally, is quite wrapped up. Do you feel so?

I did have a lot of fun playing with Elise’s visions of the future in this third film. They add an extra dimension of heroism to her character. I remember thinking that it adds depth and meaning to her character if we learn that when she turns up at the Lambert house in the first movie, she knows she is going to die. If you see the third film you’ll realise that, in the first film, as soon as she saw that room, she knew this is where she was going to die.

Those things are really fun, tying up loose ends and looking into the future.

Do you think it’s quite honest? If I go back and look at the first film again, and I haven’t had a chance since seeing the third last night, do you think it actually fits fairly?

I think it does. I went back and watched the first film. For me, she doesn’t walk into that room 100% sure. There’s a funny look she gives when she looks around the living room and I realised that she could, maybe, be recognising this room. She’s maybe visited that room before, and realises it now. So, at the end of the first movie, the look of dread on her face means “This is it, this is the moment I die.” I made sure by going back and watching the first film that things would play.

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The audience’s ability to project onto the mental state of an actor who is just looking at something is the greatest gift for filmmakers.

I know, isn’t it! I’ve seen movies do it so well. I remember that the second Bourne Identity film ended with Joan Allen telling Jason Bourne what you thought was his birthdate, so they reverse engineered it in the third movie and said “No, she was actually giving him an address.” I thought that was brilliant, but they restructured it. “No, no, she’s a CIA person, and she knew that he would understand.”

It’s much more convincing than Luke is Leia’s sister, Darth Vader is their Dad. I’ve never bought that.

You never bought that? You think that was something they came up with later?

I reckon George Lucas made up Vader being Luke’s Dad after the first film was done, and Leia being his sister maybe even after the second one.

It’s funny that if you watch it in the context of the first film, where there’s this sexual tension of the hero rescuing the princess, holds her and swings across the chasm…

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If George Lucas really had planned ahead, then the man comes off like a pervert.

I think he must have come up with it during Empire. He’s trying to push Leia and Han, them being in love with each other. I do think that line where she says “I love you” and Han Solo says “I know” was written by Harrison Ford. Maybe it’s untrue, but I heard he came up with that on the fly.

I’d happily believe it was written by Leigh Brackett, who used to write noir stuff and was so good with those sort of lines.

She wrote The Long Goodbye and there’s a lot of brilliant lines in that too.

But who knows. You’re not here to talk about Star Wars. So, let’s talk about your style. What tells you that you’ve put your camera in the right place?

It’s a mixture of things. Firstly, when you’re writing the scene, you see a version of it in your head. You sort of direct the film, and what will usually happen when you write a movie is that you direct it in your head, you hand it off to someone else and they go and do something completely different. The good thing about directing a screenplay that you’ve written is that you see the film in your head as you’re writing it and then you see those decisions through to the end.

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Usually what happens is that you’ll talk through those decisions with the camera guy and say “Scene twelve, we come into the room on a steadicam, we find the interviewer…” but then he’ll say “I don’t think we’ll fit the steadicam through this door, so how about we start over here.” It’s a wonderful mixture of creativity butting heads with the practical realities of filmmaking. It’s about architecture and space, and I had countless conversations on this film where I was told “We won’t be able to put the camera on the roof like you wanted, but we can give you this instead…” It’s a sort of push and pull. A lot of shots in the film are exactly as I envisioned them when I was writing, then a lot of it is me compromising, basically, and moving the camera around.

I think it’s always good when you write a script to be able to see the whole film. Before I started shooting, I would sit down in a chair, close my eyes and watch the movie. And I’d watch it in real time. For ninety minutes I’d be in a movie theatre in my mind, picturing each scene. Your brain unconsciously puts the camera where you’d most want it to be when you do this.

So you trust yourself on this?

You trust your gut instincts. It’s just that sometimes they don’t mesh with the practical realities of filmmaking. But sometimes they do, I’ll watch a scene in a film and think “Wow, that’s exactly what I had in my head.” And that’s fun.

I think Robert Rodriguez describes in his book Rebel Without A Crew how he’d find a white wall, imagine it was a screen and look at that.

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It’s really helpful. I think that if you’re going to direct a film, whether you’ve written that film or not, you should be able to sit down and watch that whole movie in your head.

Then how about schemas and organising ideas, like “I’m going to shoot this scene from this eye-level so it means this,” or “I’m going to show only this character from this angle because that means this”, or even something as basic as the line of action?

Some of it’s just what you’re seeing in your head, sure, but I definitely went through the script with a pen asking “What’s the best way to depict this?” So, for example, she’s in bed at night and she’s feeling all alone, so I started thinking about the best way to depict her feeling alone. So I made a big wide shot and she was small in the frame, it felt like she was vulnerable and lonely.

Did you pull away from your instinct with a lot of that stuff?

What’s funny is that a more technical deconstruction of the scene matches up with what you saw in your mind. Your unconscious mind already knows that if, for example, the character is meant to feel lonely, you should be way back here. It’s funny how it correlates.

This is perhaps why films work, why we can all watch them together and understand them. The language is innate.

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Someone was telling me the other day how Walter Murch, the editor of Apocalypse Now, would put a camera on the audience when he was editing a movie and count their blinks.

Yes, there’s a lot about it in his book In The Blink Of An Eye.

He says that audiences subconsciously edit, and so he’d count these blinks. That’s fascinating to me. Further proof that the unconscious mind constructs these films in a much better way.

Almost based upon what it needs.

Exactly. So I did a bit of both. Some subconscious drifty, let’s see where this takes me, and then I actually sat there with the fine tooth comb and the pen and went through. It was surprising to me how much they matched up.

How is your next film going to be better?

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I’d like to think that I can talk to the crew a little better. You learn the language of a film crew, and a lot of times on this film I struggled to keep up with their language. I’d like to think I can now better hone in on emotions.

When you’re editing a film, you discover what you should have done. It’s sort of the autopsy.

And, for a long time at least, it was literally cutting the thing apart with a scalpel.

You open up the corpse and looking at the gizzards. You discover in the edit room why things didn’t work. On the set there’s no time to think of why it isn’t working because you don’t know what you have yet. During the autopsy you learn “The reason this scene didn’t feel as emotionally powerful as it should have is because I never got that close up.”

I’d like to think the next film will be better because I’ll take all those lessons in, and I’ll probably literally have a notepad, with these things written down. “If you’re shooting a scene that’s meant to emotionally resonate, make sure you get in close.” And if you don’t have the notebook with the rule written down, you’ll probably forget it again.

I think there’s an accumulation of things that you learn. That was a real life example.

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So, what did you do? Did we just end up with the medium shot in the film and that was the best you were able to do this time?

A lot of the film I’m happy with but there’s a couple of scenes… we were able to punch in a little bit, thanks to technology we can get a little bit closer. Sometimes we’ve ended up with a compromised version, but I think that goes for every film. You can be sat there watching The Godfather thinking “What a masterpiece!” little knowing that Francis Copolla is sitting behind you going “Man, if only I’d got a shot of that cat.”

When you’re an audience member you don’t know what you’re missing. Speaking of George Lucas, again, he said “Everybody loves Star Wars but when I watch it, all I see are the mistakes.” I guess that’s the curse of being the inside man.

Must be worse when you didn’t direct your own screenplay and somebody else took it on.

Yeah, when you’re a screenwriter there’s definitely times when you think “Oh, man, really? That’s the way you went?” But you also have the Get Out of Jail Free card, you can slap it down on the table and say “Not my problem.”

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I’ve had people come up to me in the past and say “Why did you do that in Saw?” or “Why did you do that in Insidious 2?” and I’d say “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t direct it.” Insidious 3 is the first movie that I’ve been involved in where all the decisions, good and bad, rest with me.

All of them?

Yeah. That’s the thing about working with Blumhouse. They don’t give you much money and they don’t give you much of a schedule, you have 25 days to shoot an entire movie and that’s stressful, but the one thing they do give you is total creative freedom. I know there are horror stories about executives leaning over the director’s shoulder and saying “I don’t think this shot’s working” but on a Blumhouse film, that really doesn’t happen. It can actually be a curse, and if things don’t work, you have to fall on that sword, you have to take responsibility for your mistakes. Certainly on the film set, you’re left to your own devices, for good or ill.

I’m obliged to ask what it is you’re working on now, and I’m interested in what your ambitions are.

I’m working on a few different things. I’ve had a couple of sci-fi scripts, one’s in a real early stage and one is in a more finished stage; I seem to have been going through a real sci-fi obsession over the last year. I’m going back to films I love from the VHS era, films like The Thing and The Terminator, and Alien.

Sci-fi thrillers, really?

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It’s funny how all of those films are sci-fi married to another genre. Sci-fi horror, sci-fi action. That’s one of the great things about science fiction; it’s really a production design thing. Science fiction is the world, and the story that fits into that world could be anything. It could be an action story, it could be a meditative, talky thriller. That’s what interests me about science fiction, whereas in other genres, the genre itself dictates the pace of the script. If you’re making a horror film it needs to be scary, but sci-fi… well, you could make a political drama set in the future and people would call it a sci-fi film. You can make a haunted house movie in space.

Well, Ridley Scott did.

Ridley Scott did. And I love that malleability and I’m drawn to that, to the idea that you can bring another genre to this other world, whether that’s the future, or space, or whatever.

In terms of ambition, well, I really like writer-directors. I like people who are solely responsible for worlds. James Wan is somebody who doesn’t have any problem coming in and directing somebody else’s script, he’ll be the director for hire and he has his own style and he loves that. I’m much more comfortable having ownership of the material, so I look at people like Rian Johnson.

I love what he’s done. He started with Brick, a very low budget film, then did The Brothers Bloom, this quirky comedy, then Looper of course. If you look at Looper it’s a very inventive sci-fi movie, but it’s a world completely created by him.

All of those were, but now…

…yeah, it’s interesting that the Star Wars universe has brought him into the fold. That’s such a rule-driven, closed-off club. I guess that’s a real vote of confidence in him, to allow somebody who is such a creator to come in and do his thing.

I hope that’s what they’re doing anyway.

Yes, I love that Hollywood attitude of “Love what you do, very creative, now come over here and do what you’re told.” It never seems to work to take somebody who is a bit of an auteur and then try to shoehorn them into a box. It’s much better to say “Hey, we’re buying into your brand. Do your thing.” They did that with Chris Nolan, saying “Give us the Chris Nolan version of Batman.” That is what I aspire to. To be someone who is a creator of worlds, who writes the script then comes in and creates the world, rather than trying to add my two cents to somebody else’s world.

I’m not sure I’d be any good at Batman. I’d probably fuck it up. I’d rather create Ratman, my own hero, and then no-one can tell you that you’re wrong.

Well, someone will. Someone always will.

Oh… exactly.

Thanks again for your time, Leigh.

Insidious 3 hits UK cinemas today.