For such a friendly guy, Leigh Whannell sure knows how to scare the living daylights out of you.
Whannell rose to prominence writing the twisted slaughterama Saw (which he also co-starred in) and, more recently, the spooktacular Insidious series (which, again, he also acts in). In between, Whanell also found the time to write Donnie Wahlberg starring puppet shocker Dead Silence and zombrat splatstick comedy Cooties (which he again acted in, this time stealing the entire movie with his performance as worrying weirdo Doug).
Having directed the third Insidious, Whannell is back to simply writing, producing and acting in the fourth film, Insidious: The Last Key (what a layabout!). Den Of Geek jumped at the chance to have a chat with him about the film back in November. Here’s how we got on.
Is the film done now? Is it finished?
Oh yeah, it’s done. It’s all finished and ready to go.
Have you seen it with an audience yet? I love talking to horror directors about seeing their movies with audiences.
Oh yes. The most fun part of making a horror movie is watching it with an audience. I always say that the horror genre and the comedy genre are close cousins because they are the two genres where you are attempting to elicit an involuntary vocal response from a crowd of people and you instantly know whether it’s working or not.
I did see this film with a test screening audience and they screamed in all the right places. So that made me smile.
That’s terrific news. And when you test something like this, it’s the fourth Insidious film so it’s for a specific audience, is it easy enough to get it in front of the right people?
Yeah, it is. When you’re testing a film you have these marketing companies that solely dedicated to organising a test screening and they cull the audience from a random group of people and sort them out by asking them which movies they’ve already seen and enjoyed. So, for instance, if you were test screening Insidious 4 you would ask the potential audience ‘Have you seen Paranormal Activity or Insidious or The Conjuring and did you enjoy it?’ So you’re going into it with an audience of genre friendly people. I don’t think there’s any point in screening Insidious for the bridge club of Yorkshire. I think it’s best to screen it for the right people.
So, when Insidious 3 came out you interviewed with one of my colleagues on the site, and you directed that one, and you said to him “what will usually happen when you write a movie is you direct it in your head and you hand it off to someone else and they go off and do something completely different”. Which didn’t happen on three, but now has happened again on four. How was it going back to not directing?
It was okay. I had written another film for myself to direct so I knew what I was going to be following up Insidious 3 with. I felt good about handing the directing reigns over to Adam Robitel. The producers initially asked me to direct Insidious 4 and keep the continuity of the franchise, but I declined because I was so focused on my sci-fi movie (Stem) which I shot earlier this year, and I thought that directing Insidious 4 might subtract attention from that film. So I was actually really fine with it.
And you know I produced Insidious 4, I was there every day on the set, I was there as an actor, I was there in post. In a way it ended up being the best of all worlds, because I got to make my sci-fi film in Australia and then I got to oversee Insidious 4. It’s probably the strongest producerial hand I’ve ever had in a film.
I really was there helping to guide Adam. He was a newcomer to the franchise, so he didn’t mind me helping to guide him. I also let him do his thing and let him direct the film. I certainly wasn’t trying to keep him on a leash or control him in any way, but I helped to steer the film in the direction that we all knew we wanted it to go in and I had a lot of fun doing it.
I wondered if I could pick your brain a little about writing the Insidious films. How long does it take to write one of these movies?
Hard question to answer. I guess it’s the very definition of a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question, in the sense that, oftentimes the length of time it takes you to write one of these movies is dictated by the difficulty level.
On Insidious 1, Insidious, it was quite a quick process because I had this idea in my head, I’d had it in my head for a long time. Over the years I’d talked to James Wan about it. Then all of a sudden we were gonna be making a film and it was gonna be made low budget and the whole thing was going to be shot quickly, the entire idea behind it was really to go back to that independent spirit we had on the first Saw film.
After Saw came out James and I went off and made a film called Dead Silence that not too many people saw, and then James did Death Sentence and so we had our little lap around the Hollywood studios and we made films with proper money, millions of dollars, and neither Dead Silence nor Death Sentence really worked out the way we wanted them to. So Insidious was really us saying ‘okay, let’s go back and make Saw all over again’, meaning let’s make something very independent, something that’s ours, we can have total creative control, there’ll be no fights or wrangling for the creative end, and in that spirit, I wrote the film very quickly. It’s almost like I wrote the film the way it was going to be shot.
I remember punching out the whole script in a few weeks. I was visiting my family in Australia, it was over the Christmas break, so I remember I would disappear into the bedroom, do a bit of writing, come out, have a bit of Christmas food, stuff my face, go back in and write some more.
Then the fourth film, this latest film, was a little bit different. You know, by the time you get to the fourth film in a franchise you’re really mining for something different. You’re really looking for a way to go about things that the audience hasn’t already seen. We’ve already had three goes around on this carousel, so how are we going to tell a story that connects to the other films that isn’t same old thing that the audience has already seen three times before?
I had a lot of difficulty with that on Insidious 4, it was really hard. It felt like I was going to the well for water and the well was empty. I remember it being very difficult and taking me probably six or seven months the write the script. So I guess it’s a long way of saying the process of writing is dictated by where your mind is at.
Are there deadlines imposing on you as you do that work?
The deadlines are very suggestive here in LA. I find that a lot. Because you’re working in this creative field nobody is imposing hard mathematical deadlines on you like saying ‘By June 21st!’ unless there’s some sort of production deadline, like ‘We shoot on this day so we need a script!’ Especially when it comes to these Insidious films, I just told the producers I needed more time.
Usually what happens is, the first cannonball that gets fired at you is a low-key email saying ‘Hey, how you going?’, which is basically the code word for ‘Have you finished that script yet?’ Usually, my shot back is ‘yeah, it’s going well’ and then another week goes by and you’ll get another email. So it ramps up very slowly. I remember it getting to the point where I said ‘look, I just need more time with this one, I’m having a bit more trouble’ and they were totally cool with that. It’s good to have that kind of freedom, because you may have to pull that card out when you need it. You never know.
That’s interesting. It sounds like a great system. In horror I think that’s rare because it seems to be the case, at least with the franchises, that you have to hit one a year.
What do you mean by that?
So the Saw movies, when they were coming out, it was Halloween every year they had a new Saw movie.
Ah, I see what you mean. With Insidious we don’t follow that model, but definitely with Saw there was a little more of a turnaround problem because they were making one film a year. And essentially that was one of the reasons why I stopped writing them. I did two of the sequels, I did two and three, and it was really a case where you finished writing a film on Friday and had to start writing the next one on Monday.
It was almost like planning Glastonbury or something. The Monday after the 2017 Glastonbury festival they have to start planning 2018, you know, booking bands, getting everything sorted. It’s a year long process and that’s what the Saw films felt like because of that annual turnaround time.
It is quite exhausting and I found it difficult to keep up, but we don’t really follow that model with the Insidious movies. I’d be very insistent about that because I think imposing this once a year thing on it, not only does it make life very stressful for filmmaking because that’s a very short time to make a film, but I think it restricts creativity. It doesn’t let you sit back and ponder where the franchise is at, what haven’t we seen, and what should we do. You’re too busy trying to meet the deadline. You’re too concerned about that to really examine the story you’re telling.
One of my favourite parts of the Insidious films is Lin Shaye. This isn’t so much a question but I wondered whether you’d like to heap some praise on her.
Well Lin is amazing. Just as a human being she’s fantastic, she’s so effervescent, she’s a ball of energy. I mean you really have no idea how old she is, she doesn’t look or act her age. She has the energy of a teenager who’s just booked their first role in a film. She’s running around, she’s laughing hysterically at everything, she’s crying. She’s a real gift to directors because she’s such a raw, open wound. Her emotions are very close to the surface.
You talk about people who are a bit closed off and who don’t emote very much and it really takes a long time to drill down to get to their core emotions, I’m sure you’ve got someone like that in your family, I can think of people in my family like that. They’re just very stoic people. Lin is the opposite of that. Lin can be brought to tears by just saying hello, and if she was on this phone call listening in she would be laughing right now. She would not be offended. She is just a very emotional person, whether laughing, crying or recollecting things, and she is able to access those emotions in any given scene.
So she’s a joy to be around when you’re not shooting and she’s a joy when you are shooting because you can get her exactly where you need her to go and she knows what she wants to do. And I just think it’s fantastic to have the lead of the film be a woman of Lin’s age. That’s just not something you see very often. It’s kind of a brutal reality of Hollywood in the film industry, but you just don’t see it very often. And I think Lin knows that and she’s so thankful, but I can’t see the franchise – or the Insidious films, I kind of hate that term franchise, it sounds like we’re talking about McDonald’s or something – but I can’t see these films existing without her. She is the heart and soul of the films.
That’s one thing I really enjoyed about this last Insidious film, The Last Key. In the other films, even in the film that I directed, Lin was definitely a strong part of it, but she was really sharing the lead of the film with Stefanie Scott. In this movie it really is all about her. She is number one on the call sheet, the story is about her, it’s about her past. I love that. You don’t see it often enough.
(Saw spoilers below. If you don’t want to see them go ahead and skip to the Stath question.)
I think I’m coming to the end of my time, but I wanted to hit you with a very quick question I have about the first Saw movie. So the way the movie works is you have yourself, Cary Elwes and ‘Jigsaw’ John Kramer – Tobin Bell – laying on the floor, he’s in the middle of the room, and he’s pretending to be dead in his t-shirt and his underwear. But why did he take his trousers off?
Well you know, the big trick with Saw, the sleight of hand that you have to pull off is that – spoiler alert – the bad guy, the antagonist, is right there in front of your face, literally. And so when I would talk about that with James Wan in the early stages of writing the film we would talk about ways to distract the audience. If you talk about a magician’s sleight of hand, it’s always about making the audience look away from where the trick is really happening. You do that with colour and movement and stage bluster and get everybody focused on the left hand side of the stage when the right hand side of the stage is where it’s actually happening.
So I think having this seemingly dead body lie there in their underpants, in a way it dehumanises it, or we hoped it would in the mind of the audience. You’d be less inclined to think it was an actual person, more inclined to think it was just a body. And it seemed to work, I mean, a lot of people were fooled by the ending. A lot of people were so shocked when he got up off the floor. So I think that was one little element to helping that along.
(last question warning – I thought this was my last question. There’s no way I would have asked about Jigsaw’s trousers if I’d known there was more interview to go)
What is your favourite Jason Statham film?
Favourite Jason Statham film? Goodness me. Alright listen, I’m gonna say for me it’s a tie between Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Fast 7, the one that James Wan directed. Because obviously I’m a big fan of James’ work and I remember being so excited for him, that he was directing this giant Hollywood tent pole movie, which is what he’s always wanted to do, is be in that game of directing these giant blockbusters. So I’m gonna put it as a tie between those two.
Thank you very much, Leigh Whanell!
Insidious: The Last Key is in UK cinemas from 5th January.