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TR Interview: Insidious‘ Leigh Whannell on Directing, Saw, Schwarzenegger, Slayer and Much More

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Leigh Whannell’s Facebook

Contrary to the appearance most people are familiar with – that of a panicked, worn-out victim cuffed to a dirty bathroom wall along with Cary Elwes in Saw – Leigh Whannell is one of the liveliest interview subjects I’ve ever encountered. Some people just go through the motions, while others have such short responses you find yourself at a loss for words too early, but with Whannell, who makes his directorial debut with the horror prequel Insidious Chapter 3, opening Friday, the conversation can go anywhere.

In a discussion that touched on both the Saw and Insidious franchises he cocreated with James Wan, as well as several tangential topics like what Arnold Schwarzenegger’s doing lately, Clint Eastwood vs. Ben Affleck, and whether Dolph Lundgren was any good as He-Man, he proved to be up for anything, whether or not it was relevant to the movie at hand. I’d blame myself, but he was at least as responsible for the digressions as I. The best interviews are always the ones that go wherever you let them, anyway.

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Luke Y. Thompson: I was wondering when I saw Insidious Chapter 3, since it’s a prequel, did you have a particular year in mind? At first I saw Stefanie Scott’s Pixies shirt, and I thought, “OK, maybe this is the ’90s.”

Leigh Whannell: No, it’s sort of – I’m thinking, like, 2008 is when it’s set. But I think [the lead character is]just really into the music that her mother’s into. She’s really into the Pixies and PJ Harvey and stuff like that. Yeah, I put her in a lot of stuff that I liked, and I realized how out of time it is.

LYT: Well, I know music has always informed your stuff a lot. We talked [in a previous interview]about how Saw is so influenced by the industrial music culture. You’ve got Slayer’s Dave Lombardo drumming on this…

LW: Oh, yes! Did you like the drums on the soundtrack?

LYT: Yeah! And I think you also said it psyched your actors up by using death metal.

LW: Oh, yeah. I really do. I feel like music is such a short cut to the subconscious. When you can’t express something in words, music can often do it. So for me, when I’m writing a script, I’ll compile a soundtrack. So I’ll put the soundtrack together. When I was writing Saw, it was a lot of industrial music – a lot of Nine Inch Nails and Einst?rzende Neubauten, and music like this, that sounded like what I was writing.

And then when I was writing Insidious, the first film, I had a lot of crazy, experimental orchestral music, like Kronos Quartet and George Crumb – all this really crazy stuff. So with this film, I really worked with Joe to kind of have a unique score, and I think the score is really – it’s different to the other two films. It has its own flavor.

LYT: In both cases did you ever think you were actually going to get Charlie Clouser, or you were actually going to get Dave Lombardo?

LW: No, never. I mean, never – of course not! When I was writing Saw, I didn’t think I would be able to get my next door neighbor to do the score. I thought that we’d be shooting it in a garage somewhere, and Dave Lombardo was amazing. I’m such a Slayer fan, so to be in the recording studio, watching him put down those drums – you know, I made them really noticeable in the film. When we were mixing, I wanted the drums to be up front, to be able to hear them.

LYT: Another similarity between the two series is that you’re now the go-to guy for getting an older character actor, killing them off, and then bringing them back in flashbacks. [In this case it’s psychic Elise Rainier, played by Lin Shaye, who is proving to be the heart of the series.]

LW: [laughing]I know! James and I, we always kill people off! That was the mistake we made – we killed off Lin Shaye, and she’s such a beloved character. As soon as I made the decision to make her the focus of this third movie, I had to go back in time, because there’s not much story to tell – she’s dead.

LYT: Well, dead people aren’t banned from being in these movies.

LW: Right, but then – although, then you’re dealing with a ghost. You can’t exactly have a ghost sitting around talking. There’s such a somber, ethereal aspect to ghosts. With Lin Shaye, she’s such an effervescent person that you want that life force. You want her alive.

LYT: Assuming that the series moves forward, which is probably a pretty safe assumption; do you want to keep including her via flash backs, or keep it in the prequels?

LW: I think if they continue to make sequels, I kind of think it would work in this prequel era. Like, sequels in the future would take place between this movie and the first movie. I think there’s a lot of road to cover there. Because then at least you’d get Lin alive, and she can deal with different cases.

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LYT: Would you ever plan to tell us a little more about the Darth Maul-looking demons?

LW: Umm – the Darth Maul demons, as they’re affectionately known. [chuckles]You know, I don’t know. I think these demons are better the more mysterious they are. That demon is one that James created, and now I finally have the chance to create my own guy, so I had the man who can’t breathe.

LYT: He’s Darth Vader.

LW: Yeah, he’s Darth Vader – he’s the breathing guy. Yeah, I don’t know. I think the less you know about them, the more scary they are. I don’t know if I’d want to illustrate any – “Well, he grew up in Wisconsin, and went to high school at JFK.” Uh – I think it’s just best to keep them as these mysterious kind of symbols.

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LYT: There’s such a celestial-level mythology going on here. Do you ever feel like it would be great to do a really big budget one, where you have an Orpheus-style storyline, where you go into heaven?

LW: That might be interesting. Yeah, you are dealing with this kind of infinite void where essentially anything can happen, so you could have a forty-foot-tall monster. Why not? So that would be interesting, to see what would happen. The only thing from the film making side that I think it would kill is the low-budget spirit of the Insidious films. The way Blumhouse makes them, and the way we approach them, is to kind of keep them contained and to keep them low budget.

As soon as you introduce money into anything, even if it means that suddenly you have this big paintbrush creatively, it restricts you in the story. You’ll start getting notes. Money equals notes.

LYT: Ah!

LW: You know.

LYT: But on the other hand, they did put more money into the first sequel and expanded that mythology.

LW: Yeah, I guess a little bit, but they didn’t take it into $100 million territory. They kept it – for Blumhouse, it was bigger, but I think you need to walk that tightrope of bigger, but within the range of independent.

LYT: So how does it feel being a director now? Is that something long-awaited? Is it long overdue, or is this the right time to suddenly step up?

LW: I think it’s a long-awaited thing in the sense that it’s been something I’ve wanted to do for years. I mean, I met James at film school. I didn’t go to film school to meet James Wan; I went to film school to learn to be a director. That’s what I went in with the full intention of doing. I made a student film – a really great student film about a punk band that kills the people who come and see their shows; you’ll love it!

And then when film school finished, I ended up working with James. We sort of organically ended up becoming this team where we worked together. It wasn’t until he went off to do Fast and Furious 7 that I was kind of left on my own. It was just the sound of a cold wind blowing through the hallway – wooo. I was alone and I was thinking “OK, what do I do now?”

And I think that it was the right time for me to direct something. I don’t know if I would have been ready before. So I guess it’s both. It’s long-awaited in the sense that I’ve wanted to do it for years, but I think it’s the right time in the sense that if I had directed a film any earlier than this, I don’t think I would have been as prepared, you know?

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LYT: And now that you are directing, how is it to act in the film as well?

LW: It’s bizarre. It’s such a split personality thing. I don’t know how people do it. You know what I really am amazed by? People who direct films and play the lead! Where the whole film rests on their shoulders as an actor, and then the entire film rests on their shoulders as a film maker. I mean, that is a monumental feat of multitasking. I have such respect for somebody like Ben Affleck. I mean, there have been a lot of actor-directors, from Clint Eastwood to Robert Redford over the years, but I just have this new-found respect for that much responsibility.

LYT: I feel like a lot of the people who do that are either complete amateurs who are terrible, or they are just so up on the A-list level that they can have complete faith in their acting and directing.

LW: Right! No one’s going to say “Hey, Clint Eastwood – you’re doing Clint Eastwood wrong! That’s not how Clint Eastwood would do it.” [laughing]But it’s still – the thing that gets me is that both of those jobs would require 100% of you – more than that. You don’t have enough to give to directing. So it astounds me that somebody can then step across the camera and shoulder that burden. It’s one thing to play a supporting role, but when you’re the lead – and then to finish with a great movie?

If we think about a film like Unforgiven – there’s a great film! I could watch Unforgiven again and again. I’ve watched it countless times. It’s probably my favorite Western. I’m sure that there’s a lot of people out there that would say that’s sacrilege, but it’s my favorite Western. He directed that and he plays that role so beautifully. How is it even humanly possible to do that? I mean, you make a good point: It’s Clint Eastwood, he’s doing Clint Eastwood, but still – if you think about the burden that he has to carry to be the lead in that film, it’s pretty monumental.

LYT: I guess that means we won’t be getting any movies that focus on the two ghostbusters [recurring franchise characters Specs and Tucker, played by Whannell and Angus Sampson]?

LW: I don’t know if I’d be up for it. You know, I really did get the directing bug on this film. I can’t wait to direct another film. But I actually don’t think I want to act in it. I think I just want to direct it and stay behind the camera. That would be my plan. I’d love to write something in a different genre, like sci-fi or a hybrid genre, like a sci-fi/horror film.

LYT: Or a movie about ‘fast and furious’ cars?

LW: Yeah, maybe I’ll just do that. “Hey James, you done with that sandwich? I’ll take that too.” [laughing]

LYT: His cameo was great. [Wan appears briefly onscreen as a theater director auditioning potential students for drama school.]

LW: Yeah, it comes naturally to him to play the director. It was fun to sort of abuse him. I was constantly calling “Cut” in the middle of his takes and saying “What are you doing? That’s not acting! Acting is reacting!” But it was a fun day.

LYT: One of the amazing things in the press screening for this movie, it was one of the only press screenings I think I’ve ever been to where an entire audience which I think was mostly critics and their guests, they were going “Don’t go in there! No, don’t do that! NO!”

LW: [laughing]That’s great! They were reacting like a Times Square midnight audience. That’s great! I mean, the great thing about horror films is their still communal. I hear this mantra a lot these days, that cinema is dead. It’s a weird time for movies. Television is in a golden age. Gaming is obviously through the roof. So the idea of driving to a movie theater and buying popcorn and sitting in a dark room seems really archaic. It really is a weird time for films, as you know.

I feel like horror movies, it’s one of the last genres left where it’s supposed to be seen in that environment. You’re supposed to watch it surrounded by other people. So if I can get a room full of critics to participate, I’m happy.

LYT: I feel like the exception to that sometimes is the found footage films, because they can play way better on video.

LW: Yeah, there are exceptions to the rule. Maybe found footage is a more intimate genre, because you’re supposed to feel like you’re watching someone’s home video. But for straight-up horror like Insidious, you want that communal – certainly as the director, as someone involved in the film, the most fun thing to do during this whole process is to watch an audience watch the movie. So their eyes are on the screen and I’m watching them.

The things people do in the dark, when they don’t think – when they’ve turned their brain off and they’re connected with a movie – the faces they make, it’s unbelievable. It’s one of the most fun things to do.

LYT: Do you have a night vision camera?

LW: Oh, yeah! I’ve actually watched a screening of the movie where the film was just a small window in the bottom right-hand corner, and it was just the night vision shot of the audience. I sat there for ninety-something minutes watching the audience, and it was incredible! Great learning experience, really educational. But also, one guy started punching – when Lin was being attacked by the demon, he started punching the air. That was crazy.

LYT: With the Saw series, we’ve talked about this before, how the first three are a perfect trilogy, really, with complete closure. Did you learn from that in this one that you have to keep them more open-ended, so that they don’t have to bend over backwards so much in future installments?

LW: I don’t know that I did, because I wrote the first three Saw movies, and I’m really happy to hear you say that you felt like the first three was a perfect trilogy that closed and finished, because I can tell you now, that’s what I was intending. You know, Jigsaw dies, it finishes. I really see that film as almost two trilogies, the first one, and I really didn’t care that they had to bend over backwards. If I had been the writer of those future Saw movies, I might have been mad at myself, but because it was someone else, I didn’t care.

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I actually intended it for those first three Saw movies – and so, with Insidious, I think that I’m not as keen to close it off, or I think that it might work better being a little more open-ended, even if someone was to take over and to write the next Insidious film, I still would want them to keep it open-ended. I just feel that this particular series lends itself to that format.

It’s almost like the X-Files – you had your two main characters, and each week it was a different thing they were investigating. Well, if the Insidious films went on, I could almost slipping into that format, where each film is Lin Shaye and her bumbling assistants investigating a new situation. I guess they could – the very idea of that leaves it open ended, you know.

LYT: Were the Casper jacket and the He-Man shirt [worn by Specs and Tucker onscreen]part of your own collection, or did you have to seek them out?

LW: I wasn’t allowed to use shirts from my own collection. Yeah, they had to be – you actually get presented with a sheet – it’s quite funny – and they say “Here’s what we have clearance for.” When I asked for Masters of the Universe, I meant the animated Masters of the Universe! I didn’t know Dolph Lundgren – you know, even as a kid I was disappointed with that Dolph Lundgren Masters of the Universe. The biggest problem with it? They came to Earth! They should have stayed on Eternia.

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LYT: I actually was less disappointed with the movie as a kid than I thought I would be.

LW: [chuckling]Oh really?

LYT: I thought it was going to be completely unfaithful, and then I thought Skeletor was way better than I imagined.

LW: Oh, yeah. Frank Langella playing Skeletor.

LYT: I had the toys for two years before there was a cartoon, and then on the cartoon he was kind of whiny, and I thought “This is the scary guy with the skull face?”

LW: Yeah, he’s like “AAAaaaa!!” [excellent Skeletor impression]

LYT: And then Frank Langella freakin’ owns it, and is the most evil guy.

LW: Yeah, is that one of those films that you’re just hoping that they remake?

LYT: Oh, yeah!

LW: Like, a full-on He-Man set in Eternia?

LYT: Oh, yeah. There are talks of it all the time. Jon Chu was supposed to do it for a while.

LW: Wow.

LYT: He chose to do Jem instead.

LW: They haven’t quite captured Conan. The remake for me just never quite got there, so maybe He-Man can be the mid-’80s sword-and-sorcery remake we really want.

LYT: Arnold says he’s going to do a King Conan now.

LW: Oh, really?

LYT: Yeah.

LW: Wow. That’s kind of interesting, if Arnie gets back in there. He’d really have to do it as the aging king, wouldn’t he? But I’d be up for that.

LYT: He’s in the new Terminator.

LW: Yeah. Man, I should write a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’d love to work with him.

LYT: Absolutely!

LW: I’ve got to do that.

LYT: He’s not only up for remakes. He just did a zombie movie.

LW: That’s right – which I hear is really good. Kind of different for him. Yeah, I’m excited to see it. There’s so much good will for Arnie because of the films that we loved when we were growing up.

LYT: So with James doing the Fast and Furious stuff, are you calling him up to try and get on the set?

LW: Ha! You know, I had a chance to go on the set and I couldn’t because I was busy making Insidious 3, which I’m really bummed about. It’s at another level. It’s so chaotic and crazy. I mean, they’re dropping cars out of planes, so I wish I had got there, even just to see a Tony Jaa fight scene. That would have been incredible!

LYT: Do you have much say on the live Insidious interactive experience that we got outside of here?

LW: Umm, a little bit. A lot of that stuff is promotional, so it sort of happens outside of the actual film, but I definitely had a say in it, and I love the idea that they’re using the Oculus Rift. Did you like it, the Oculus Rift stuff?

LYT: No, I haven’t done it yet. I’m looking forward to it.

LW: OK, great. I look forward to it.

LYT: I did the Oculus Rift for Interstellar, which was cool.

LW: This is pretty interactive. They’re utilizing it for a more haunted house experience, which I think is going to be a great way to utilize that technology right now.

LYT: I just saw a Kickstarter for a game that’s entirely augmented on your smartphone. You just have to turn off all the lights in your house and turn your smartphone on and it maps your house and plots ghosts in them.

LW: Oh, wow! This is amazing. I mean, if we could just look into a crystal ball – twenty years from now, can you imagine the gaming we’d see?

LYT: Oh, yeah.

LW: We’d be seeing kids just wearing a full sensor-suit with the goggles on just plugged into a whole different universe.

LYT: We’ll see. It seems like in fiction they still have ideas about what it’s going to get to.

LW: Right, right.

LYT: I’m not sure we ever quite will.

LW: You don’t think we’ll go full Matrix?

LYT: I don’t know that we’ll ever actually get to the point that we can’t tell the difference.

LW: No. I think that there’ll always be that barrier, but I do think that we’ll get to a point where it’s complete wrap around immersion.

LYT: Yeah, the Oculus Rift is close

LW: Yeah, you wait until you try this. It’s great.

LYT: So I know last time you said that for Insidious 1 there wasn’t really a mythology, and that the stuff for 2 came when that happened. Now, are you writing out a bible of stuff for the whole thing?

LW: Not really. I mean, we did have to reverse-engineer the second film. A lot of people tell us that it must have been pre-planned out because it fit so well. I’m not really writing a bible, though. I’m too superstitious. I’m so focused on the release of this third film that I can’t even focus on what’s happening next until I get to it. But, you know, if I do end up writing another Insidious film, I’m sure I’ll just immerse myself in that universe, and maybe build out kind of a mythology, you know, for that world.

LYT: Final question: is your next project set yet? Is it going to be another horror, another Insidious, if they ask, or is there something else lined up?

LW: Nothing’s lined up, nothing’s about to happen. I have a couple of scripts that I’ve already written. One of them I wrote a couple of years ago, actually, that I wouldn’t mind directing. I’m really searching for an original film. I’m really obsessed at the moment with the original Terminator. I just love that film so much – it’s such a perfect movie, and I guess I’m trying to find my Terminator, in the sense of an original, contained sci-fi story that can be done for a price. So if and when I come up with it, I’ll let you know!

Insidious Chapter 3 opens Friday, and we have an interview with producer Jason Blum coming tomorrow. You’ve already read the controversial part about Jem – wait till you read the rest of it!

About Author

Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.) Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist