In 2004 an independent horror film called Saw hit theaters, kicking off a major horror franchise and a particularly grisly sub-genre in the process. The Australian team behind the movie, writer and actor Leigh Whannell and director James Wan, did it again in 2010 with Insidious, an atmospheric ghost story that helped steer horror away from blood and bones and toward spookier scares.
The work paid off: Wan went on to direct Furious 7 (and just closed a deal to helm Aquaman), while Whannell — who wrote and co-starred in the first two Insidious films — is now making his directorial debut with Insidious: Chapter 3. Despite the title, the film is actually a prequel, catching up with the medium played by Lin Shaye as she helps a young woman (Stefanie Scott) who is haunted by visions of a ghastly, wheezing figure in a breathing mask. I sat down with Whannell to talk about his jump into the director’s chair, the challenge of keeping a long-running franchise interesting, and his biggest passion project of all: a fantasy movie for kids.
Bryan Bishop: Let’s start with the obvious question: you’ve been acting, writing, and producing for more than a decade. What made now the right time to jump to directing?
Leigh Whannell: I think it was a meeting point of different circumstances. I think James Wan was going off and doing his own thing; he was working on Furious 7, and I knew that once he entered that world of big tentpole movies he wasn’t coming back — he’s not going to come back and do a million-dollar, quickie horror film. So I had to really reassess what I wanted to do; for so long I’d been working as a team with James. And so I decided I wanted to direct, and then the first thought I had was, well, I’ll direct an original film. I’ll write a script, and I’ll go back and basically do Saw all over again. And right at that same moment I was given the job of writing Insidious 3.
When I started, I was thinking that I’ll just write this, and someone else will direct it. If it’s not James, it’ll be someone else. And during the writing I just became very possessive of it. I didn’t want to see someone else make those decisions. As I was writing it, I was directing the film in my head — which I usually do, but when I hand the script off to James I’m very trusting of him as a director, so there’s no sense of jealousy or possessiveness. Because I’m all, “Great, it’s in good hands.” But the thought of somebody else that I didn’t know very well coming in and making all these decisions about how the film should look and sound, it was killing me. So eventually I just put my hand up and said I wanted to do it.
That makes sense, because so much of what you need to do to deliver on those scares is camerawork and sound; the nuts-and-bolts, physical filmmaking. When you’re writing, how much of that do you have laid out on the page?
I do try and keep my scripts quite economical. I’ve learned over the years to just pare them down to these basic beats. I try to say a lot with one sentence, economically. So the music and the sound and all these different elements of filmmaking, I think that that stuff I’m keeping in my book. I’ve got a book that I’ve got just copious amounts of notes in, but I keep it to myself. But I knew that I wanted a very specific sound design for the film; I wanted the sound to be a character in the film. So it’s kind of exciting, because what happens when you’re a director is you have all these great technicians at your disposal. I mean, these are experts in their craft, essentially enacting your vision, your idea.
And how do you go about bringing your own imprint to it, stylistically and directorially, while also making it fit inside the framework of the larger series?
Well that’s the big challenge, isn’t it? I had to do both. It did have to be connected to the other films, but I didn’t want it to be a carbon copy of what James had done. And so, in terms of the stylistics of the film, I just tried to think, “Okay, who am I as a filmmaker and a storyteller? What is it that I like? Because I have films that I love that James isn’t as into; I have my own tastes. We’re very similar in a lot of ways, but we’re also quite different. James had quite a flamboyant approach with the other Insidious films, you know, these ghosts in Victorian dresses, and these bright primary colors. He had a lot of Italian influences with those other films, like Dario Argento.
I decided to go a bit more gritty. I was influenced by people like David Fincher and William Friedkin, and these directors who kinda paint their films with these dark shades. That’s what I was trying to do, and still have it be very rich, you know?
"I was influenced by people like David Fincher and William Friedkin."
The challenge has to be even greater because you’re doing this and it’s the third movie. How do you keep a franchise fresh?
It’s tough! I think you need to ask yourself the questions that you’re asking me now. You need to be as tough on yourself as a journalist or a critic would be, and you have the time to do that. The writing process is the time where nothing’s been set in stone. It’s a blank slate, or a blank page. And I would just take long walks around my neighborhood. I remember walking around Los Feliz where I live, and I would just think to myself, “Okay, what can I bring to it that’s new?” I’d be really hard on it. And sometimes I would have ideas and scrap that. If I were to show you my notebook that I kept during the writing of that film, there’s a lot of lines through things, where I would scratch it out. And so a lot of the iconography in the film, like the footprints or the breathing, they were all things I felt like we hadn’t seen before in the other Insidious films.
The trick is you can do something different, but I can’t show up at the studio and say, “Okay, it’s all in black and white, and it’s set in Poland!” Like, they’re going to throw me out of the room. So the trick is to say, yes it’s still an Insidious movie, but we are not going to go down that same path. No baby monitors, no Victorian dresses; I want a different world. And hopefully I achieved that.
You mentioned the breathing [of the main villain]. Where did that character come from? It called back to so many things that creeped me out from my childhood.
I started with that blank page, and I thought what can be visually or aurally iconic about this guy? And I started thinking about great villains, and how there’s always pieces of iconography that signify their presence without them having to be in the room. If you think of Freddy Krueger, the glove is probably the biggest piece of iconography. But that glove gives you so much scope, because you just need to hear it dragging on the wall, and instantly, Freddy is around. Or I guess the most famous one of all time is that Jaws theme.
My daughter is two years old, and she sits in the bath going “duhn-dun, duhn-dun” with her toy shark! How does she know that theme? It’s like we’re born with this built-in love and knowledge of the Jaws theme. And so I remember writing in my notebook, “I want that Jaws theme,” and that led to the breathing. I felt like the breathing was a good way to signify that this guy was nearby without having to show him, because as soon as you show somebody, you’re diluting the power of their presence in a way. It’s the threat of their presence that’s truly scary. So when I thought about somebody sitting alone in bed at night and suddenly hearing [mimes breathing], I was, “That’s great!” and that led me to the breathing mask.
What about other genres for you? Do you want to step outside horror?
Definitely. What’s funny is that since I wrote the first Saw movie I’ve written so many films in other genres — they are just not the films that have been made. I’ve actually written a children’s film called The Myth, which you could say is like a big Harry Potter-esque fantasy for kids, and that’s a film I would love to see get made. That’s a dream project of mine. It’s not something anyone would expect I would write. But because it hasn’t been produced yet, nobody knows it exists. So I feel like there’s a disconnect between what I’ve written over the last few years and how the world perceives me. So I think what I need to do is take care of that myself.