This long interview with director/writer/actor Leigh Whannell, mostly about Insidious 3, was for the Empire website, but was another one that was lost when we migrated to a new site. Here’s the whole thing.
Screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannell and director James Wan first worked together on the original Saw, and continued their collaborative relationship with Dead Silence, Death Sentence and the first two Insidious films. With Wan busy making Furious 7, Whannell stepped up to make his directing debut for Insidious Chapter 3, as well as writing and reprising his role of supernatural investigator Specs. With the film released this Friday, we got him to talk us through the latest trip to the Further…
So we just had the first screening with a ‘real’ audience. How did you feel it went?
I actually don’t know! I only stayed for about the first 15 minutes and it seemed to be going okay. You could probably tell me better. I used to review films years ago – I was the film critic on a TV show – and I’ve been to screenings with critics and they never really react. There’s just this quiet in the room. You can be watching a comedy and it’s just dead silent! I did hear one scream though, where someone yelled out, ‘Oh Jesus!’ So if you can get a room full of critics screaming… it’s like the law of averages says that if a room full of critics screams a little bit, that means a room full of normal people will scream their heads off. You can probably extrapolate it about ten or twenty times.
One woman left after 20 minutes. She couldn’t take it! Is that a win?
Nice! Ah well though, I wonder if she left because she couldn’t take it or because she was bored. If she left because she couldn’t handle it, that’s a win [laughs]. I remember the first time we screened Saw for anybody was at Sundance, and I was more nervous than I’d ever been in my life. It was the first film I’d ever been involved in, and there we are showing it to a bunch of people. I was pacing around in the lobby; I just couldn’t be in the theatre. And at one stage, about half way through, this woman came charging out. I was like, ‘Great, our first walkout. She’s bored.’ I was so distraught, I actually said to her, ‘Getting bored are we?’ And she was like, ‘No, I have to leave or I’ll puke.’ So that was alright. That was totally fine. It’s an interesting thing with horror, trying to make an audience look away from the screen.
That’s my trick. I don’t exactly shut my eyes but I find myself looking slightly off to the side if I can feel a jump coming…
Yeah! I remember when I went to see Gremlins as a youngster for the first time in the theatre, it was the first time I figured out that you didn’t have to look at the screen. It was as if I didn’t know that before, like I thought you had to be eyes-front or you were finished. I remember just having this tangible thought, like, ‘Wait a minute: I could just put my hands over my eyes!’ It was that bit when Billy is searching through the medicine cabinet and the Gremlins are lurking. I remember just having this 2001, ape-discovering-the-monolith epiphany. I can thank Gremlins for teaching me you don’t have to watch.
There are plenty of those moments in Insidious 3. But why did you decide to go backwards? Why do a prequel?
Well, it actually was really based around Lin Shaye’s character. The first decision I made was to not include the Lambert family. I loved working with Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson on the first two films, and they loved working on them, but I just felt like they’d taken enough of a beating. It would have been a bit ridiculous to be haunting them a third time. It’s like John McClane: how many times can this shit happen to the same people? So it was like, okay, if we’re not dealing with the Lamberts, who are we dealing with? Who’s left that connects this film to the other Insidious films? And the obvious choice was Lin Shaye’s character, Elise. Not only is she a medium, meaning that she can be involved in other hauntings, but she’s a character the audience really loved. We found that in the first two films: audiences clapped when she arrived on screen, especially in the second film. So that kind of made James Wan and I think. So I decided to make the third movie about her, but unfortunately we’d killed her off! She’s dead! So I had two choices: I could either make a linear film and set Chapter 3 after Chapter 2, in which case I’d be dealing with her character as a ghost, or I could go back in time and deal with her as a real human being. And just knowing Lin… she’s a livewire. She’s really full of life, and so I wanted the living version of her: I didn’t want the sombre, ethereal version. And the more I worked on it, the more I got excited about that origin story aspect of it: finding out who she was years before the first movie. Now when I look at the completed film, I feel like this is the best story we could possibly have told.
Is Lin surprised to suddenly have a horror franchise at this point in her career? You kind of did this with Tobin Bell too.
Yeah, it’s interesting. Tobin was really a bit player in that first Saw movie, and he became the new millennium’s version of Freddy Krueger! He must have wondering where the hell that came from. Essentially all we asked him to do in the first Saw was lie on the floor! I think Lin was a little bit the same. She turned up in the first Insidious as a kind of supporting player, she did her part, and little did she know that a few years later she’d be playing the lead and running it all. I think she’s pleased! As you know, Hollywood isn’t exactly casting older women as leads in movies. It’s relatively rare. I think she’s pretty chuffed. And we’re lucky to have her. She’s a great asset on a film set. She’s totally invested: doesn’t have time for any bullshit.
It’s a tricky thing to pull off a prequel that really does function as a Chapter One, but this really does it well. Do you want to people to watch Insidious 3 first of the three, going forward?
It’s funny: I actually think this film resonates better if you’ve seen the other two movies already, because I think all the Easter eggs and resonances to the other films are richer if you know what’s coming later. The benefit that I had was that I’m dealing with a psychic character, so she can have visions of the future. That took care of the problem of how to bridge this film to the others. Without spoiling anything for your readers, here’s a character who can have premonitions of her own death. You probably noticed a lot of foreshadowing going on, and I though all that stuff was really fun.
I noticed on the cast list for the first time that the Bride In Black is actually a 73-year-old man (theatre actor Tom Fitzpatrick)!
[Laughs] Yeah, we loved doing that. And he’s really up for it too! He loves playing the Bride In Black. He takes it very seriously! He gets his costume on… It’s pretty great to see someone totally embracing this monstrous character, wearing this decrepit dress! It’s interesting… James decided on the first film that it would just be creepier if a man played her. There’s a technique they use sometimes in horror films for ghosts and demons where they’ll get the actor to walk backwards, and then you run it forwards and it just gives it this tiny bit of unnaturalness. I think that’s kind of what you’re going for when you cast a man as a woman: something’s just a little bit off. You need everything you can get to make things feel weird, so all those little tricks kind of make people go, ‘Something’s wrong here…’
Tell me about the smiling woman in the Further. I found her maybe the most unnerving thing in the whole film.
Oh really? I like the fact that in the Further there are all these spirits that refuse to look at you and really live in their own world. They seem to be cursed to repeat something over and over, whether it’s their own death or maybe just a phrase. I like the idea that there could be a ghost just wandering around this infinite black void repeating the same sentence on a loop for all eternity. It’s the ultimate Purgatory. So she fits into that: just this person sitting there kind of smiling to herself. I’m glad that works for people! I like that scene. It’s all fun to shoot, but you never know how it’s going to come off. I really like the Man Who Can’t Breathe too.
Yes! And he’s Sloth from Seven (Michael Reid McKay)!
He is! I said to the casting agent, ‘I want someone like that guy from Seven.’ And she said, ‘Why don’t we just get the guy from Seven?’ He’s a super nice guy. He’s still incredibly skinny and lean, and I thought he was kind of a unique villain for this world. A lot of the villains James did were quite garish and flamboyant, and I decided to go more David Fincher-like. He was quite a soiled, dirty, sick character.
This film does feel like it’s not quite as mental as the other two. The first film has a red-faced demon with hooves, sitting at a dressing table making puppets while listening to Tiny Tim! Were you consciously pulling back from things like that?
[Laughs] Yeah it’s just batshit! Ummmm, it’s not like I was doing that in opposition to the other films, because that obviously worked for those films. If I was hedging my bets I’d almost have hewn more closely to that vibe because I didn’t want to change the formula. But I didn’t want to copy James. I didn’t want people to watch this movie and think I’d tried my best impression of James Wan. I wanted it to reflect my personality more, and my personality and my filmmaking style is slightly more subdued than James. I’m less inclined to have the puppet guy; I’m more inclined to go for monsters who look really sick and cancerous. I think you’re right about the difference, but I hope it still feels like an Insidious movie. But I also hope it feels like someone else made it, y’know?
I noticed you got James in there, in a cameo. When the hell did he have time to do that?
I have no idea! That was one of those things that you didn’t know if it was going to happen until the morning it was happening. All of a sudden it was, ‘James is here!’ and I was like, ‘Right! Get him in make-up! Sit him down!’ He probably had nothing to do with it. Some assistant just probably told him he was doing it. I remember when he sat down, he’d obviously never read the pages. He said, ‘This… is a lot of lines…’ I said, ‘Did you not read them?’ He was like, ‘No, I didn’t even know I was doing this until this morning!’ I just had to yell his lines at him. But I thought he did well!
I liked that Elise’s dog is called Warren…
Yeah, that’s a little Conjuring joke for James. There’s a lot of that stuff in there. That’s part of the fun of making a film.
When you did your introduction at the screening, you said you’d wanted to make sure that Insidious Chapter 3 was as good as the first one. That slightly implies that you don’t like the second one. Was that just the jetlag talking?
I would say, personally, that I like the first film better. I felt a little bit rushed on the second one. There were a couple of things I wasn’t entirely happy with about my own screenplay. But I think you do that anyway. I think any screenwriter or filmmaker would be lying if they told you they love all their films equally. I’ve been very vocal about not liking Dead Silence very much over the years. I’ve written blog posts about it. So I definitely prefer the first film, and when I sat down to write this film, one of the first mandates I had for myself was to go back to the spirit of that first film. I’d be the first to admit that the second film is nuts, and what I liked about the first film was, while it eventually gets to hooved demons, in the beginning it felt like a very real family, and I honed in on that for this. This new family that I created with Stefanie Scott and Dermot Mulroney… I tried to give them the same amount of attention and space that the family in the first film had. Hopefully this film starts out that way and doesn’t deviate too far off the tracks. I’m really happy with it.
It must be hard to juggle that balance of the terrifying and the quite light-hearted. These films all have a real sense of complete dread about them, but there are also proper, deliberate laughs.
I don’t even know how that works! A lot of the time it’s really not an exact science and you don’t know if it’s going to play. It’s a gamble where you throw the dice and hope for the best. But I do know that the films I grew up loving… I’m a real child of the VHS era, and the horror films I enjoyed from that period like Poltergeist or The Gate or vintage John Carpenter, always had a sense of humour. It wasn’t so verboten in the ‘80s. I think humour got subtracted from the equation somewhere. Horror was kind of dour for a while – maybe because of the Saw films and all those things. Maybe it’s my fault! But I think haunted house movies are inherently fun. It’s hard to get rib-ticklers into Saw. Maybe you could say you laugh for the wrong reasons in those films! But with a ghost movie, I do want it to be fun. The Insidious films are only PG-13 in the States. You’re only allowed one ‘fuck’. You have to use it wisely. It’s like having one chip in a casino. You’ve got to make the right bet.
How do you feel about the Saw films, now that we’re a few years out of them? You wrote the first three. How involved were you with the later ones?
Yeah, I wrote the first three and then after that I wasn’t really involved anymore. I was involved as an Executive Producer in the sense that my name was on them, but they all shot in Toronto, so they felt like they were happening a world away from me. It was a strange thing to step away from something I’d created and then watch it live on without me. It must be the same for parents when their kids go off to college. It felt weird to look up and see billboards for Saw movies I had nothing to do with. Inevitably I’d get invites to the premieres, and that would be my first experience of them. But I definitely look back on them fondly, because they’re the films that gave me the life I have now. I always dreamed when I was a kid of working in the film industry, and the little pessimist guy in the back of my mind was like, ‘Everybody wants to do that. You’re not going to make it.’ It seemed impossible. I’m as surprised as anyone that the Saw movies took off and resonated with people and now I get to do this for a living, and I can go off and try my hand at comedy or whatever. But I can only do that because of Saw. My favourite one is the original, of course. Some of the sequels I don’t think were as good.
You left Saw III open in ways that the next team were clearly intended to explore, but they actually ended up finding weird ways around what you’d left them with. Was that frustrating at all?
But then in a way, my three are also a closed trilogy, because Jigsaw dies at the end! [Laughs] In my mind, I thought if I was only going to write three, they were going to have an ending, much to the producer’s chagrin! And for the next four films they had to deal with the fact that their big villain was dead. They must have twisted themselves in knots, and I was just like, ‘Not my problem!’ I really do look at the first three Saw films as a standalone trilogy, and then the next four as their own ‘quadrilogy’. That was kind of nice. I remember they released a Saw Trilogy box set at my local Amoeba Records in Los Angeles. That felt like closure. There’s the three. That’s the three that count! But God love ‘em, they kept making more and I guess it became like this generation’s Friday The 13th. I grew up watching Freddy and Jason and Michael Myers, and now kids come up to me and they talk about Jigsaw in the same way. That’s crazy. That’s kind of cool. I enjoy that.
And is Insidious a closed trilogy now?
I don’t know yet. It might not be. Ask me after this film comes out!