How Leigh Whannell Made The Invisible Man Scary Again

The Invisible Man director Leigh Whannell on reinventing a classic character for a modern audience.

The Invisible Man: Leigh Whannell
Photo: Universal Pictures/Blumhouse

HG Wells’ sci-fi horror The Invisible Man was first published, serialized, in 1897 and it’s been adapted multiple times since, most memorably by James Whale and starring Claude Rains in 1933. It’s a great story but it’s been around a long time.

Despite recent attempts to bring Universal monsters back to the big screen resulting in flops Dracula Untold and The Mummy, now Upgrade director Leigh Whannell under Blumhouse Productions has taken a different tack – to abandon the big budget expanded universe model and make The Invisible Man truly scary again. His angle was to focus the movie not on The Invisible Man himself but on his victim. 

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“If you make him the central character, you demystify him in a way,” says Whannell, talking exclusively to Den of Geek. “If you make it about his victim, suddenly the audience is in the shoes of the victim. Suddenly the audience is wondering where this person is. Is he in the room with our hero?”

The Handmaid’s Tale star Elisabeth Moss plays Cecilia, a woman who manages to escape from her abusive husband only to find herself terrified by an elusive entity who she suspects is the ex-partner everyone now believes is dead.

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It’s a smart set up with clear real world resonance that also allows Whannell to pull out some effective shock scares that audiences won’t see coming. It’s an approach that Whannell hopes will encourage viewers to visit cinemas for the shared horror experience – a feat that’s become increasingly difficult in this world of streaming services.

“I wanted to make a film that just demands to be seen with an audience,” he says “something that just slays the audience and leaves them all gasping.” 

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We sat down with Whannell to discuss reinventing a classic, tech paranoia and whether we might see a sequel to Upgrade

Leigh Whannell

What was your original pitch for The Invisible Man?

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I didn’t actually have a pitch! It was pitched to me. I was not thinking of making an invisible man movie. It’s a character I’m very aware of, obviously, his character is an iconic one and has a place in the history of horror but I just finished Upgrade and I had been bitten by the action movie bug so I was really looking forward to crashing some cars and blowing up some buildings and I had a meeting with some of the Blumhouse executives, and the Universal executives and the title of the Invisible Man was floated to me, it wasn’t so much a pre-worked out story it was more than this title was interesting to them and they wanted to know what I thought.  As soon as they said that I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I really saw an opportunity to modernize the character. 

Jason Blum said he tried to get you to do a number of different universal monsters, what were the other ones?

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He would occasionally mention them while I was making Upgrade. He would pull me into his office and say “what do you think about Dracula, buddy?” He would ask me about these characters and I guess until someone mentioned the Invisible Man to me I couldn’t really find my way in. It wasn’t something that struck a chord with me. I mean, I’m a big fan of Dracula. But I’d rather watch a Dracula film than direct it myself. The Invisible Man was the first character where I could see an opportunity for me to be really interested in it. 

It’s so interesting that you decided to make a female story about domestic abuse. Where did that come from?

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Well, it grew organically out of writing the screenplay. I started with this character – the character is an iconic one, and it’s iconic for a reason. HG Wells is so masterful at creating these stories that have lasted. The War of the WorldsThe Time Machine these stories still resonate. I wanted to pay tribute to that character, but what’s the best way to exploit this character for a modern audience? I realised that the story should really be about the victim of the Invisible Man. It shouldn’t be about him. If you make him the central character, you demystify him in a way. If you make it about his victim, suddenly the audience is in the shoes of the victim. Suddenly the audience is wondering where this person is. Is he in the room with our hero? 

To me, that just seemed obvious. There might be people who disagree. Someone reading this interview may think that it would have been a much better film if we’d stuck to the original text and maybe they’re a big fan of that. But for me, the main goal was to make this character scary. And the only way I could do that is to make him mysterious. That’s really how the whole story of a woman escaping an abusive partner came about. It really came out of answering that question. How do I make this character terrifying again, after so many years?

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Your approach has afforded you several shock scares where the audience has no idea what’s going to happen. Were there any others that didn’t make the cut?

There were a couple. Usually you have to kill some darlings making a film. I think the marquee ones happen pretty early on. There’s one particular scene I’m thinking of where I thought, ‘This scene has to be in the movie. This is gonna be one of the biggest scenes in the whole film in terms of shock’. As soon as I had that idea, I was like, ‘if I get this, right, this is going to be a scene that slays the audience.’ It’s going to be a face-ripper, as I call it. 

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You’ve got to have those scenes in a movie. We’re going through a weird time with movies where it’s getting harder and harder to get people into movie theatres. You can’t take it for granted like you used to that people will go and see a film in the theatre, because they have access to such great content in their homes and in their living rooms. I wanted to make a film that just demands to be seen with an audience, something that just slays the audience and leaves them all gasping. 

The Invisible Man

You said that you had been hankering to do some more action. But of course, the Invisible Man has got some amazing action scenes. It slightly felt like a companion piece to Upgrade in the sense that it was people not in control of their own bodies.

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It’s interesting you say that because I really feel that too. Maybe not even so much when I was writing the film, I couldn’t see the parallels, but I really see it as a companion piece to Upgrade in so many ways and not just in terms of the fight scenes and the way we shot the action. But as you said, the idea that someone’s out of control of their own body or being puppeteered. And then there’s the idea that a piece of tech was being used to terrorize people. It comes back to that tech anxiety that was prevalent in Upgrade. There are a lot of parallels. 

You obviously have a real knack for that kind of action. Can you tell us a bit about how that corridor set-piece worked?

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We found this guy, this great stunt coordinator in Australia, Harry Dakanalis is his name, and it just so happened that the stunt coordinator owned his own motion control rig, which is like basically a robot that controls the camera. And usually those are two different specialties. You have a stunt person, and then if you want a motion control camera, you get the motion control people. We found the best two for one deal in the world! 

This stunt guy had this camera and he was like this tech boffin, but also from the world of stunts. So what we could do is we could organize stunt scenes around the motion control camera, and actually integrate them. I really feel like when you make films they become organisms unto themselves. It’s not something you’re controlling anymore. It’s like a child. It’s like, you may have given birth to the child, but it’s its own person. This film had a real charmed life, like there was good luck that happened with the making of this film. What are the chances we find a stunt coordinator with a motion control robot? 

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That corridor scene you’re talking about was really the result of Harry and myself and Stefan Duscio, the cinematographer, working it out weeks in advance – the whole dance of the scene – and we built a mini set at Harry’s studio. We built that corridor with cardboard boxes and we played out the whole scene. We did a sort of an iPhone version of the scene where we Stefan would use his phone to shoot it. So by the time we got to the set, everything was so dialed in, and we knew what we were doing. All shot with a motion control robot, which gives it that kind of strange, almost too perfect look.

Elisabeth Moss is amazing, and she does quite a lot of action too. How did you get her on board and what was it like working with her?

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It was great working with her! She’s such a phenomenally talented actress that she sells the movie for you. When you’re making a movie with someone falling off the cliff of sanity and losing their mind, it’s really easy to fall into histrionics and maybe the acting goes over the top. If you’re not careful it can slide into camp. 

Elisabeth is one of those actors who can do it authentically, she never seems campy or over the top, she hits that perfect spot where you just 100% believe that she’s feeling everything. So I loved working with her and she came on board after reading the script, it was actually as easy as these things go. I’ve been involved in a lot of films that had difficulty casting and you have to go through this painful process of submitting scripts to some actor and waiting for them to get back to you. Sometimes it takes months and it’s just so painful. This was one of the ones where everything fell into place pretty easily. Once again, it comes back to the slightly charmed life of this movie, at least during the shoot. She read it. She called me. And then the next thing I knew I was sitting with her in Sydney.

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Upgrade

You’ve been involved in various big franchises as well as these standalone films. Would you consider a sequel to this? 

I mean, I haven’t let it into my mind right now because I’m superstitious about movies. We’re a week or two out from the movie being released [at the time of interview], and I’m on tenterhooks about it, it’s always a nerve-wracking time in that last two weeks before a movie hits the theatres. So any talk of a sequel, I just put it out of my mind. But if the movie resonated with people and there was a public desire to see a movie, I would definitely think about maybe revisiting the story. When you have a good time shooting a film it’s really easy to go back to that world. 

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If you have a bad time making a movie and someone talks about a sequel you just shiver. You’re like, ‘oh God, the thought of being back there with those people in that place trying to do this all again,’ it’s just not good, but I really had a good time making this film. So I don’t think it would be a painful process if it happened.

What about Upgrade, because I think there very much is an appetite for a sequel to that? 

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Is there? I dunno! You tell me!

That’s the one thing my editor in chief said to me, he said, if you talk to Leigh Whannell demand that he make a sequel to Upgrade!

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It really makes me happy that people out there would want a sequel to Upgrade because it really felt like the Little Engine That Could, that movie. It was the scrappy little movie that we put together with spit and glue down in Australia and the crew and myself, we were basically like the kids having a party while their parents are in Hawaii. We’re way down there at the end of the world in Australia far away from the prying eyes of Hollywood types. We felt like we were getting away with something. 

Then the movie came out and we didn’t have a huge marketing budget. To hear people say I’d like to see a sequel, it’s like, I think victories always feel better when it’s an underdog victory. When the team no one was counting on, that no one believed in wins the Premiership, that’s always the best feeling and Upgrade is like that. Let me put it this way: if this whisper of demand for a sequel became a roar. I would have a lot of fun making another one. 

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Talking of underdog stories that became enormous successes, it’s been 16 years since the original Saw came out.  What you would have said back then if someone told you that Chris Rock was going to be rebooting it in 16 years’ time?

Oh my god! Not only would I not have been able to guess that and thought that you were daft, I would have… James Wan and I were merely hoping that we could get our film to video stores. I mean, in 2003 video stores were still a thing, Netflix didn’t exist yet so our big goal for Saw was to make a straight to video film. You know, those movies that would just bypass theatres and go right to the video shelves. There’ll be some good ones, it wasn’t a mark of badness, it was oftentimes just an economic decision. You would find these hidden gems in the video store and that was our big goal for Saw. I feel like reality kept exceeding our own goals for that movie and continues to do so.