Leigh Whannell and his collaborator and friend, James Wan, have dominated the horror movie landscape ever since hacking their way onto the scene in 2004 with the out-of-nowhere Saw. Whatever you may think of the subgenre it begat — the now mostly defunct “torture porn” craze — Saw itself remains an original and propulsive piece of horror filmmaking. After a couple of non-starters for bigger studios, Wan and Whannell returned to their indie roots with Insidious, a thoroughly creepy supernatural shocker that introduced a new mythology: the eerie afterlife known as the Further.
Wan went on to direct The Conjuring and oversee the building of a new horror universe around that, while Whannell has become the main architect of the Insidious franchise. After Wan directed the first two, Whannell directed Insidious: Chapter 3 and has written all four, including the new Insidious: The Last Key (the director is Adam Robitel). In this film (the second chronologically in the series if you’re keeping track at home), the story centers at last on paranormal investigator Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye), who has gradually become the linchpin of the entire saga. This time, Elise returns to her own childhood home — with loyal assistants Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) in tow — ostensibly to help the current owner get rid of a spirit but also to confront demons from her own dark past.
We sat with Whannell not long ago in Los Angeles to discuss the evolution of Insidious, the great luck of having Lin Shaye in all four movies, and his long-developing sci-fi movie that he’s just finishing up now.
Den of Geek: I enjoyed this, which is unusual for the fourth entry in a series.
Leigh Whannell: Yeah. By the time you get the fourth installment of pretty much anything…
What’s interesting is that this series has gone from the inside-out, because the original is third in the series now, chronologically.
Yeah. Exactly. It’s really a happy accident. None of it is by design. There’s was no grand plan for the Insidious world, or the Insidious universe to use the parlance of our times. It was all reverse engineered. James and I made the first Insidious film really out of quiet desperation. We had made Saw, which had been successful. We did our little victory lap around town that you do. We go and have a bunch of meetings. People pat you on the back and tell you how great you’ve done. We were young and naive enough to believe them when they told us we were geniuses.
Then we went off and made a couple of films with the studios that we didn’t have a great experience with: Dead Silence and Death Sentence for James. We had to gather ourselves and lick our wounds a little bit, let the dust settle. When we regrouped and talked about what we wanted to do, it was like, “We really need to get back to what we love. Stop trying to make a film with the studio, make a film that a studio would love. Let’s go back essentially and do Saw all over again.” That’s what Insidious was. It’s the same budget as Saw. It was a very similar shooting schedule.
In a way, it felt like a repeat. Like, “Here we are again. I’m back at the starting line.” But we had a great experience. We certainly weren’t thinking of it as a franchise. We were thinking of it as this shot in the dark to get our creative mojo back. When the sequel came around, we really had to approach it after the fact. There was nothing pre-planned out. The same went for the third movie and the fourth movie. Each one has been glued to the end of the last one in this complicated Tetris lineage of them that you say, “The first movie is the third one if we’re doing it chronologically.”
What’s helped is the consistency: James directing the first two, you writing all of them and directing the third one. Has it been easy or difficult to generate ideas within this little framework that you do have?
That’s probably the biggest challenge of writing these films. You’ve hit upon the one thing that makes them difficult is that you’re operating within a box. It’s a sequel so I can’t go to [producer] Jason Blum and say, “It’s gonna be set in Poland in 1932 and all black and white. We’re gonna tell the story of a shoemaker.” He’s gonna look at me and say, “Sounds like a great movie, but it’s not Insidious.”
You are operating within a box. You have a certain set of characters. You have audience expectations. Those audience expectations are the borders of your creative space. To find the areas of creativity within the lines of that box is where the difficulty lies. Nothing is easy to write, but this presents that extra challenge. That was the toughest thing about writing this film ’cause it’s the fourth one. You’re not seeing many horror franchises that have a lot of things left to say by the fourth film. A lot of them are treading water, running over the same ideas, so I really pushed myself, and it was quite hard to find just a different area to explore, just a different little sandbox to play in.
The gift you did give yourself was the character of Elise and the actress playing her. That seems very organic, the way she stepped forward gradually over the course of your films.
Yeah. In the first movie she was really the quirky, supporting character that comes in to save the day. You had these movie stars, Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, playing the lead roles. They were these very defined spaces for each character. We could’ve cast someone else. We could’ve cast someone less talented than Lin. In hindsight, it was a real happy accident that she played that role because she can step up and carry the film. She’s interesting enough, and audiences love her enough that, in my opinion, you can base a whole film around her. She can carry it.
Was there ever the idea to delve into her backstory before this?
Not really. I remember with the third movie, we did a little bit of that. We explored Elise further. She was the co-leader of the film with Stefanie Scott. I just didn’t know if there was even gonna be a fourth one, but it seems like a really obvious idea now looking back at it to explore Elise’s backstory. I don’t know why it took me so long to hit upon that idea.
When I was writing the film, I had a lot of struggles. I had a lot of trouble hitting upon that idea even though it seems so natural. It’s right there. It took me a while to get to that place where I realized that was the story — to go back to her childhood home.
You’ve gotten to the point where people really care about her, and to me the reason why the horror films that you and James make are successful is because they start with the characters and our relationships to them, or their relationships to each other.
For me, these films, they’re important to me. I want people to be involved with the characters. I think Lin does a great job of doing that. I want Elise to be a part of the audience’s lives. I want them to relate to her. James and I definitely do that. We don’t wanna just layer a bunch of stunts together. We want the audience to feel invested in these people. I still get tweets from kids about Adam from Saw. It’s good to see that this character connected with people enough that they still talk about it. It is really important to do that because that’s what’ll make the stories last.
If you think about a TV show, it’s not the plot of the show people return for. It’s the characters. You want to know what Tony Soprano is up to. Films don’t seem to do as good a job these days as television in terms of those really deep characters.
Did you think about directing this one yourself after the last one?
I didn’t. I wanted to write it ’cause I felt like I still wanted that creative hand in it, but I felt like I had done that with Insidious 3. I was really keen to direct this sci-fi movie in Melbourne in Australia that I had. Obviously, directing a film takes up so much time. I didn’t want to put this sci-fi movie to the back of the queue. Yeah. I really wanted to hand over the reins to someone else.
That sci-fi movie is Stem, right?
Yeah. Stem. It’s Blumhouse as well.
Tell us a little bit about it.
It’s something I’m so excited about. It’s set in the near future. It’s about a man, a self-confessed technophobe, who lives in a world completely controlled by computers, who is shot. He and his wife are shot. She dies. He’s a quadriplegic. He has this operation to have a chip installed in his neck that will control his limbs and essentially cure his quadriplegia, but the chip starts talking to him and helping him track down these guys who shot his wife and shot him.
It’s kind of a revenge story set in the future. It’s hard to describe. I’m really excited about it. I’m still in the stages of finishing it; sound mix and all the rest of it. But, hopefully, you’ll see it next year.
Insidious: The Last Key is out in theaters on Friday (January 5).