Our Emilia McKay chatted with then debuting director Leigh Whannell, about his work on the prequel INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3. Whannell previously collaborated on story and scripting duties for the first two films in the franchise, as well as the first three films in the Saw franchise.
So, what was behind the decision to direct?
Leigh Whannell: I’d had always wanted to direct something. I went to film school to direct, so that was where I met James [Wan, director of Insidious Chapters 1 and 2]. I didn’t go to film school to meet someone else to work with, I went to film school thinking, “I’m going to be a director!” And then I met James and when we finished film school, it just made sense to team up. And next thing you know, in a blink of an eye, ten years have gone by, as life happens to all of us, you sort of wake up one day and you’re like “Where did ten years go?”
James went off to do Furious 7 and I was thinking “This is probably a good time to direct something.” And then right at that time is when I got the job of writing Insidious 3. So it all sort of happened at the same time, but even if I hadn’t directed Insidious 3, I think I would have directed something in the next year or so, probably something I just wrote myself, but it might not have been an easy of a ride as it was with Insidious 3.
Does that mean you have plans to direct again?
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, I mean, I really got the bug, I really enjoyed it more than I thought I would, you know. I went into it with a lot of trepidation; I definitely want to do it again.
Did you feel any competition with James, taking over the directing?
Leigh Whannell: I didn’t feel competition with him, but I definitely felt an expectation from the fans of the previous Insidious movies. Before you’ve actually started working on the film, before I had even written a word, you’re purely thinking in hypotheticals, which is a dangerous time when it’s a blank page because I very quickly go to the worst case scenario so I’m like “Whoa, what if it doesn’t turn out as good?”. And then everybody says clearly James was the talent and I’m just a hack! All those thoughts just run through your mind. So that was definitely, sitting on my shoulder throughout the shoot, the little demon guy was sitting there going “You’re going to screw this up!” and then this guy on this other shoulder was like “You’re doing great!” And you’ve got to try and listen to him more than you listen to him. [Points to each shoulder]
Is there anything that you’ve been itching to do whilst James has been directing the first two?
Leigh Whannell: It wasn’t as if there was things I was itching to do, because I felt like James did a really good job with the other two films and they were successful, so history proved his decisions right. I wouldn’t want to go back in time and change anything, it’s like that theory about if you go back in time and turn even a rock over you’ll come back and everybody is part lizard, you’ve changed the entire time continuum for humanity, so I wouldn’t want to go back in time and alter anything for Insidious, but when I started thinking about this movie, I was thinking “What would I do differently?”
I had to separate James and myself, because what I didn’t want to do is the dire James Wan, like, come in and be like “Hey guys, you know, Christopher Walken isn’t here tonight, but I’ve a really great impression for you!” I thought that the movie had to remain in the Insidious world, but I wanted it to feel different. You guys would be better qualified to tell me whether I achieved that, as I’m so close to the film, but my hope is that it feels different to what James did.
It’s a good balance between it feeling like it fits in with the others, but it still feels like you’ve done your own thing.
Well that’s good!
Is that why you went the prequel route, to break it away from what James did before?
Leigh Whannell: I essentially went the prequel way of doing things because of Lin Shaye. I always start off with any movie with a notepad. I always like writing in a blank notepad, I don’t like starting on a computer, there’s too much pressure, and the cursor is too accusatory. It seems to demand that you write something good; whereas a notepad you can just scribble any old crap and rip it out. And so I was sitting there with a blank notebook, and I’m looking at it and I’m thinking “Okay, what is this movie? Where do we even start?” And one of the things I wrote down was “No Lambert family”. So, move away from that original family. You know, Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne did an awesome job in the first two movies and it was great working with them, but I just felt they had been enough, this family have been bashed about enough, so it’s time to leave them alone. And the good thing about the concept of Insidious, is this world of The Further, you can plug anyone into it, it’s not like it’s only concentrating on this one family.
So, after I wrote that, I started thinking “If we’re not focusing on the Lambert family, what makes it an Insidious movie?” And the most obvious answer was Elise, Lin Shaye’s character. I thought, why not build the film around her, and then I realized we killed her in the first movie, we killed her off, so the only way to tell her story, or focus on her, was to go back in time. It was really a logistical decision, driven by the pure realities of our story in the first film. If we hadn’t have killed her off in the first movie, this probably wouldn’t be a prequel. It would just pick some other time in your life. But given that we did unfortunately, we went back in time and then as I was writing it I started to see that it was a real blessing, I was like “This is cool to go back in time before the first movie!” To show who this person is.
So it was more enjoyable to write for her, as we see her go from a hermit state to kick-ass demon slayer?
Leigh Whannell: [Laughs] Yeah, that was awesome. I started to think of the film in really classic terms, there are certain classic stories, if you read enough books about screen writing; you keep coming across these theories. Like the hero’s journey, the classic Star Wars story of the hero rescuing somebody, and I started to look at this film in those terms. I was like okay, we have the retired gunslinger that hung their spurs up and isn’t doing it any more, being dragged back in it reluctantly. That’s a story that’s been told many times, whether it’s Westerns or Mad Max films. It hasn’t been told with a five foot three elderly woman. So I suddenly became excited about the idea of someone like Lin, who’s not usually playing the hero in movies, playing a bad-ass, rescuing much younger people, yeah, that’s her!
Do you enjoy scaring people?
Leigh Whannell: Yes!
And do you want to stick with horror? Or do you want to branch out and do some other genres?
Leigh Whannell: In answer to question ‘A’, yes I do. As a child I unhealthily enjoyed scaring people, it made me laugh. It doesn’t make any one else laugh; they don’t find it funny at all. But yes, I was the child sneaking up on my cousins wearing a pig mask or something. It was one of my favourite activities.
Cinematically it’s awesome, that’s even better than scaring, if you hide behind the door and scare your brother there’s a two second “hahaha!” When you’re in a movie theatre, listening to a room full of people scream at something you created, it’s like a drug, and it’s like the best drug in the world. It’s really quite addictive, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m so driven towards the horror genre, to get that audible reaction. I mean I can’t imagine what it’s like to direct a drama, and just sit there at the back of a room watching a silent bunch of people.
Comedy though, has the same sorts of path as horror, a room full of people laughing?
Leigh Whannell: Exactly, I mean, I really feel that comedy and horror are very close cousins in the movie world. They are the only genres that are designed to elicit an involuntary vocal reaction, and it’s an instant barometer as to how you’re doing. If they’re laughing their heads off at a movie, hopefully you’ve made a comedy. If you’ve made a horror film and they’re laughing their heads off, that’s not so cool. [Laughs]
Laughter can be cathartic in a horror film, though?
Leigh Whannell: I’m sure it could be equally disconcerting to make a comedy and hear a bunch of people screaming, what have I done? But, it is such an addictive drug; I keep going back to that world. But having said that, I would like to do other genres. I think it’s hard for me to keep pulling from the same bag of tricks. Like with the Saw movies, I wrote 3 of them, and they were really keen for me to write more. They were like “Okay, three more!” And I just started thinking “Well, why did I come to L.A., why did I move over here?” Did I want to be a factory worker, you know, pushing out the same stuff that feels like work? I actually wanted a job in the film industry to run away from work. So I stopped writing those movies, because I felt like I was repeating myself. So with the horror genre, if I keep doing this, I will feel the same way, I think. I need to do something completely different.
So what scares you? What have your biggest horror influences been?
Leigh Whannell: I’m scared by everything. I think that’s the reason why I’m able to tap into fear so easily. You name it, everything from the usual stock list like spiders, sharks – being Australian I have a healthy fear of spiders, sharks, deep water, heights, and noises when you’re home alone at night and you hear something outside and all of a sudden my imagination goes to the absolute worst place. I’m kind of a wuss, but I think that means when I sit down and start writing, I can instantly imagine a scenario where I’d be terrified.
There’s so many, Jaws was probably the first film that I saw that scared me on a deep, deep level. I saw that when I was quite young, and I guess my dad thought it was fine. It was a very popular movie, so I guess he thought it was like Raiders of the Lost Ark. “Yeah, sure, watch this!” And that had a really lasting effect that is still resonating to this day. But films like The Exorcist and The Shining. Being a horror fan is hard, you’re starved for quality. There seems to be a lot of people in the horror community, I’m guessing here in the UK and certainly in the US who they fixate on the lesser films, they become obsessed with movies that aren’t great movies. I can’t even pull out a name or I’ll get crucified, but a film like The Toxic Avenger or Basket Case aren’t going to win any Oscars, but they have a lot of fans and I think you can count on maybe two hands the number of truly artful, great horror films, like The Shining, The Exorcist, films that you could comfortably put next to The Godfather.
There are not many horror films you could put on that shelf. I don’t think anyone would snicker at you if you put The Exorcist on the same shelf as The Godfather. But when was that made, that was in the mid seventies? It’s becoming a once a decade situation when there are really great, artful horror movie that can measure up to films in other genres come out. So you become, as a horror fan a real cherry picker. It almost means, because you’re not getting these films as frequently, and when you do, you kind of latch on to them. So I guess my favourite horror films would be those ones that have lasted, The Shining, The Exorcist, The Others, the Japanese version of The Ring [Ringu].
Is that why there is an irony behind a lot of horror movies, like the sci-fi channel, you’ve got Sharknado, crazy films like that, and then you have post-modern films like Scream, but they twist the genre, like Cabin in the Woods. Do you think that’s why there is that lack of quality in horror?
Leigh Whannell: I think horror is a very malleable genre; you can mold it the way you see fit. You can marry it to other genres, and make a horror-comedy; I always liken it to heavy metal music, it’s music, and it’s a marginalized genre. I think some time in the 80’s in the VHS era horror really became ghettoized. I think through various reasons that the quality of the films went down a little bit. A lot of them were made cheaply and released on VHS and that was a badge of dishonor for a while, a straight to video movie, the video nasty’s thing happened here in the UK. It felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy where these social critics would say horror films were bad, and film makers responded accordingly with “Oh yeah, you wanna see gory?!”
There was a time in the 70s where these great film makers were making horror films, if you think about things like Exorcist and Omen, they weren’t really designed to be on the back shelf of the video store, they were like marquee films, and somewhere along the way they got lost, somewhere around Nightmare on Elm Street Part 5. So there are still gems in there, there are still great horror films. And I love Nightmare on Elm Street as much as anyone, of course like many, I love the first one, and as the sequels go on, it diminishes in quality a little bit.
But I do think filmmakers react to that horror marginalization in those ways. I also think that’s why it’s a great genre for people who perceive themselves as outsiders. If you’re the kid at school who’s not talking to anyone else, it’s a great genre, because you feel the genre is an outsider with you.
What do you see as the future of horror cinema?
Leigh Whannell: I don’t know I wish I could answer that, because if I knew the answer to it, I would write that movie. That would be the first to be like, “I’m the future!”
I’m waiting for some kid to go and shoot a film on his iPhone that changes the genre. It seems like every once in a while that there is a new boundary that gets broken. I wish I knew what it was.
As a horror fan I am just as excited to see that movie just as I am jealous of whoever makes it. “Why didn’t I think of that?” Has been a phrase that rings through my head a lot of times, and I’m kind of waiting for someone to do that. I really don’t know, and I’ve thought about that question a lot, what’s next, where do people want to go?
I was thinking about American Horror Story on TV as well, and horrors are seemingly taking a turn in that direction, too?
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, I think it gets taken on a case by case basis, so a lot of people say that horror is just a bad genre, horror movies are no good, and then a great one comes along and they say “Well that one is great!”. People don’t seem to do that with comedies, nobody says, “Finally, a great comedy!” People just take it for granted that there will be some bad ones and some good ones. No other genre seems as marginalized and picked on as horror is. Except for maybe porn, but you know, everyone says that’s functional! And that has a purpose. Horror is pushed off to the side, and I think it’s up to the filmmakers to actually reverse that. The more frequent the great ones become, the more the critics who comment on this stuff will start turning their opinion around.
Are you keen to work with James again?
Leigh Whannell: Yes, if I could get him on the phone! We’re texting all the time, I’ll text him that I’m over here, and he’ll text that he’s in Dubai, or something about that he’s about to push a car out of an airplane, and I’ll be like ‘Great!’ So we haven’t had a lot of time to hang out in the same room, although we’re always emailing and texting. I think our other films came about pretty organically; it’s usually the result of us hanging out and talking about some movie, and the conversation flows where an idea comes out of it. It’s not like we sit down go “Right, let’s think up a movie!” And then stare at a wall. It’s usually an organic thing.
So I think we will work together again, I think we just need to hang out for a while. I think it will happen.
Have you got plans for Insidious 4?
Leigh Whannell: No, I’m very superstitious and more so than ever with this movie. I feel I have more ownership about this movie than I ever have having directed it. So my normal neurosis and superstition has gone into overdrive with this one. Usually I have James there to lean on, so in the back of my mind I’m like “If it’s crap, it’s his fault!” This time I’m like “It’s all me!” There’s no one else to blame it on, so I’m feeling anxious in a good way about the release of the film. It’s like waiting for Christmas; I just can’t wait for June 5th [the film’s theatrical release date] to happen. And I don’t think there’s any room in my brain to think about the next one. If this one came out and did well, then after about a month, once the dust has settled, then I will probably start thinking if there was any story left to tell. Or, if there was anything worthy to say.
The thing you don’t want to do, and this is hard especially in Los Angeles, it is a creative industry but it’s so commerce driven, it’s hard to make a film because it needs to be made. I think a lot of times sequels get made just for economic reasons. “Well, that one did well, time to get working on the next one!” I really wouldn’t want to do another one unless I was like ‘Yeah, that story is interesting!’.
If they did want to do another prequel with Lin, Angus and yourself, even if you weren’t writing or directing it, would you still appear?
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, I can’t get away; I’m roped in there! I mean, I haven’t thought about it, it could be something that I write and don’t direct, or maybe I love it and I direct it, it’s a strange little dance you do with yourself. It’s almost like you’re pretending you don’t want to do it and then during the writing process you start to fall in love with it. Now that I have the directing bug, I’m keen to do something else; I’m keen to prove that I’m not just the sequel guy. We’ll see what happens; I would like to do something in another genre.
What’s your perception now of the impact of both Saw and Insidious movies on modern horror?
Leigh Whannell: It’s hard for me to have anything but good associations with it. These trends come and go, we see it all the time in all different genres, all of a sudden robot movies will be the thing for a year, then it’ll burn out, then it’s asteroid movies, and these trends seem to fire up and burn out quickly and replaced. So with horror, we see an ebb and flow, and when I look back at that, I can see a time where Saw influenced films to be more graphic or more extreme. But it feels like that time is kind of over, at least it feels like that moment in time where those films were popular in a mainstream way. They’ll always make gory movies, but they won’t necessarily be top of the box office. They seem to be a five year period where gory movies were real money makers, which is weird, because gory movies have been made since the 70s, but they were never mainstream. It was always a driving thing, a grindhouse thing, and our little secret. Then all of a sudden, every kid is going to see this movie. So I look back on it as a moment in time. Not necessarily something that had a definitive lasting impact, but it is hard to have anything but good associations with it, because when I look back, I see myself moving to LA, and essentially my hobby became my job.
When you think of Saw, you might think of the first time you saw it, or you might think of a friend of yours “I can’t watch this, this is making me sick!”. When I think of Saw, I think of getting my first flat in Los Angeles and where I was living, and then all my memories of Saw are all the extra-curricular things that happened around the movie, like meeting my wife, getting an apartment, the first time my dad came to visit me. It seems strange to think of Saw and have that trigger a memory of my dad visiting me, but I wouldn’t have been in LA with my dad visiting me if that film hadn’t have happened. It changed my life for the better; it was a really good thing.
A lot of people would say to me “Do you have any negative thoughts about torture porn?” And I’m like “No, it’s not ideal!”. But, torture porn is the reason I get to work in the film industry. I will always be thankful to that movie. They say if you love your job, you’ll never have to work another day in your life, so that’s how I feel right now. I feel that every morning, I bound out of bed and run to the computer, and I’m excited about stories. And hopefully, I’ll keep doing that for as long as possible.