SXSW: Interview with Insidious writer Leigh Whannell

INSIDIOUS is set for release this Friday April 1. The film was one of the opening night midnight features of SXSW 2011. While I was in Austin for SXSW, and the morning after the midnight showing of the film at the festival I had a chance to catch up with the writer, and one of the co-stars of Insidious Leigh Whannell. Whannell is perhaps best known for being the writer of 2004’s horror genre-redefining Saw. Saw ended up being the film which brought the Australian along with friend and director of both Saw and Insidious James Wan to the mainstream.  The interesting thing about Insidious is that it marks the first film from the producing group which counts Oren Peli director of 2007’s Paranormal Activity as a member. Peli along with with his producing partners from Paranormal Activity Jason Blum and Steven Schneider have set out to work with creative teams like Insidious director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell to produce low budget independent horror films. Their goal by using smaller budgets, thus producing the films independent of studio financing, gives the producers the chance to give the writer and director total creative control over their films and their vision.

In this interview Whannell discusses how he came about coming up with the story for Insidious, his thoughts on getting pigeonholed into the horror genre, writing a comedy and a kids flick and how the march of time lurks like a demon in Insidious.

Can you talk about how you created the story? James (Director James Wan) had mentioned that you were inspired by stories friends had told you? Were there other inspirations for you?

Yeah, for sure I mean this whole film came about in an interesting way. Years ago when we were trying to think of the idea for Saw we had just gotten out of film school and we had been out for a couple of years and we had worked in a few crappy jobs and we suddenly realized if were going to make a film were going to have to save up five thousand dollars buy a camera and shoot it like The Blair Witch Project. That was our big plan. So then we asked ourselves what movie can be shot for five thousand dollars? Blair Witch had already been done but we wanted something with a hook like that as we thought that the Blair Witch was such a genius use of low budget, it actually made the low budget down and dirty nature an aesthetic of the film.

It was the very conceit of it so we spent months and months trying to think of ideas and one of the ideas we came up with was central conceit of Insidious of the boy’s talent…. that we really don’t want to talk about and give away but that was the first one sentence idea we had. Was the boy’s ability, then we had the idea about the guys in the toilet and we went with that and that was Saw. So as you do with ideas you have you just file it away. We didn’t think about it again for years, I mean we were caught up in Saw and we were concentrating on that and then at the end of 2009 the producers of Paranormal Activity came to us and said we want to make a film with you guys, we want to make it low budget, but you’ll have total creative control. James and I both looked at each other and said we should pull out that idea from back then, and that was how it all started.

So that was really everything and then when I sat down to write it I was inspired by the stories that people had told us over the years as James said and also in terms of the tone of the film I was really inspired by The Exorcist and The Omen these horror films from the seventies that were made when horror was a respectable genre. When home video came in it created this cottage industry of B horror films that tainted that genre forever. I mean its going to take a long time to work that label off as horror is this second cousin to “real” movies. I mean in the seventies you had A list directors like Friedkin and you know these great directors making horror films that were totally serious and I mean if you look at The Exorcist (Or The Shining) yeah or The Shining even, Stanley Kubrick, its amazing If Martin Scorsese made an out and out horror film you can imagine how great it would be. So that is what I used as the template. I remember watching The Exorcist and actually not studying the scare scenes but really watching that opening few scenes where they are just establishing who she (Regan, the role immortalized by a young Linda Blair) is. And there is a lot of stuff in there that if that film was made today you can just imagine the studio saying “well why do we need to know that the mother of the girl is an actress, and is working on a film in Washington, DC? We could cut that scene” but obviously back then you were allowed to take your time into things and it was such great character setup that I was really inspired by that. I wanted to try and get to know the family in Insidious before the scares started happening, just spend a few scenes chatting with them and figuring out who they are.

Do you have fun when you write horror stories?

Thats Whannell as Specs on the left with Insidious co-star Lin Shaye as Elise

Yeah it is kind of fun. I’ve always enjoyed scaring people. I like telling ghost stories and scaring people and seeing the look on someone’s face if I’m telling a ghost story someones told me. So it is kind of fun and you get to be very spare, I try and write, like if I’m trying to setup a scene where everything is quiet in the house I’d write on a piece of paper a very sort of spare like quiet, stop, next line a sound, full stop. I’m trying to be aware of how people read, even though that stuff isn’t going to end up on screen necessarily but its important when someone is reading the script that they can put themselves in the movie through the words.

James seems leery about getting pigeonholed into the horror genre do you feel the same way?

Yeah, I mean its not a bad tag, I love horror so much that I wouldn’t care if somebody said you’re the horror guy! I’d be like, great! If someone said to me do you like oranges? I’d say sure oranges are great! I don’t have a problem with it. I’m not rejecting the label but I know in my heart of hearts that I’m interested to try other genres. Like you guys haven’t seen them yet, hopefully you will one day, but over the past couple of years I’ve written several scripts not in the horror genre. I’ve written a script with the guy that plays Tucker (Angus Sampson) in the movie the other “ghostbuster” that looks kind of Amish with the beard. He is a friend of mine from Australia and he and I have written a script that is an Australian crime drama, a Trainspotting type script if I had to describe it, about a drug mule. I’ve also written a kids movie, a children’s film so that is fascinating to work on and then I did a comedy with a friend of mine. So its cool because I’m here talking to you about this horror film that you guys have just seen and I’m wrapped up in this world of horror but my entire last year has been focused on these other genres so I don’t feel like I’m burnt out on it actually, I feel like I’m coming back to this cool thing.

Its interesting you say that because age seems to be referenced often in the film. And I find it interesting that nearly ten years on from the first Saw there is a certain sense of maturity that you and James have gone through from that film to this. Was that intentional or has it come via age having started there and now having been through Hollywood, studios and all the sequels from Saw?

I think its really interesting that you say that because not too many people have picked up on that. That theme in the film for me “the march of time.” A guy wrote a great interview for Film Comment with (director) James Wan and he really picked up on it well. To me the clock ticking in the house is the march of time, were all getting older. Every single day we wake up is another day closer to our death. Which sounds super morbid but that’s just the way it is. That is kind of the great question that hangs over everyone, no one can escape it. Its the great democracy, everyone’s gonna die no matter what their situation in life. So that stuff is in there in the start, like he is putting on the anti aging cream or his crows feet and pulling grey hairs, or when she is looking at the wedding photos. There is this thing of getting older, its this strange thing, like having kids and sort of going down this dark corridor that is there. I’m kind of obsessed with it but not in a morbid way…like I’m obsessed with death but not in a sit there and listen to Sisters of Mercy wearing a black trench coat type way. I’m obsessed with death in a really curious, I read this book called “Nothing to be Frightened of” and its by this English guy (Julian Barnes) and the whole book is him talking about death and his fear of death but in a light-hearted way.

Its like I’m just glad that people are noticing that theme, to me of aging. And I think your right there its a maturity for James. We were 26 years old when Saw happened and we had this totally different world view about everything. We had that invincibility thing that you have when you’re in your twenties but also we were straight off the boat so we were so new to Hollywood. We didn’t know what was going on, which way was up. So we would just take advice from people, you know its like ten years, later or getting there, Saw came out in 2004 so seven years later we’ve learned so much about the industry, Hollywood, I hate using that word cause as you know Hollywood is just a grimy suburb in LA. But using it as a phrase for the industry in the states we’ve navigated that now.

My dad came to visit me recently in LA and when someone comes to LA you have to babysit the shit out of them because they can’t just walk out the door, you have to drive them places. It’s not like New York where if someone comes to visit you, you go “uh yeah just walk out the door and walk until you hit something iconic.” In LA its a full time job, its the only time in my family I get to be the alpha male with my brother and dad, because they are sitting there in the car asking “where are we going today?” and I’m like “buckle up kids!”, and you have to take them everywhere. So anyway, I’m getting really long winded here…so my dad was in LA recently and he’s been over a few times now, but at the end of the trip on the way to the airport he said “I just wanted to say I wasn’t eaves dropping but I was listening to you doing your phone calls with producers and there is a real, I’m really proud of you because there is a real maturity there in the way you talk to these people, I lie awake back home in Australia thinking Leigh is getting ripped off by these Hollywood sharks, and they’re tearing him apart he doesn’t know what’s going on, he’s an innocent minnow in a piranha tank. And he no longer has that worry, one great gift of the visit was that he was going back to Australia and sleeping easy because he’d seen now that I can handle myself on the phone, when I talk I know what I’m doing, one time we were driving in the car and the guy I was talking to was on speaker phone so he even got to hear the other side of the conversation and so I guess that is a really long winded way of saying we are older now and those things will come in there, hopefully, but we’re still trying to stay true to these genre themes so were saying hey! here is a little bit of thematic stuff about aging, and here is a demon! (laughs) any one can make a film that is just a drama about aging that doesn’t have demons in it….

Could you talk about about the comedy elements in the film? The “ghostbusters” Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson).

Insidious Star Rose Byrne, Co-Star Angus Sampson, and Star Patrick Wilson

Yeah, Angus and I’s character, I played one of the ghostbusters with the glasses some people have been like “really?” That was something that I didn’t go into the writing of the script knowing that those two characters would be comedic. I thought that there would be these paranormal investigators and I was like, well I’ll play one of them and Angus will play the other. I was trying to help get my friend in the movie because we’ve always wanted to do something together. I’m like we’ve been writing this freaking Australian movie for so long let’s have some fun and go shoot a haunted house film. But because he and I have got such a report, we used to live together in Melbourne, we’ve known each other for years and our report is pretty much what you see on screen. Its this kind of sarcastic one-upmanship, where its like “well I’ve got a better phone than that” and so when I started writing knowing that he was going to play one and I was going to play one I do that thing that film writers often do where you start writing in the voice of that person. If you know Al Pacino is playing the cop in the movie you start writing Al Pacino lines (mimicking Al Pacino) “Get out of here!” So I started writing Angus and I and then I gave the script out to people and they were like whats with the comedy? My response was, that’s Angus and I. So we actually had to scale it back from the first draft of the script that I handed in. It was literally like the Men in Black show up and start tossing out zingers. A line that was cut out of the film, was when they first arrive on screen and my character goes (in a Dracula like accent ) “Were here to solve your problems” I’m just kidding with the voice…and like literally everyone was like I don’t know if we should open with the Dracula voice. But its such a great line and the follow up line is going to be a huge laugh in the theater and Jason (Producer Jason Blum) took me aside and was like “I’m not sure that you know this but were not making a comedy” and I was like I know, and he suggested just opening with “I’m Specks, this is Tucker” and then James had this great idea of lets just open with a silent shot of them standing there. I thought that’s not going to be funny! Sure enough when we show the movie, because of the line from Barbra Hershey before we arrive is “I know someone that can help you” and then cut to these Mormons and everyone cracks up in the theater, well depending upon the cynicism levels of the audience when you show the film in Kentucky they crack up, when you show it in New York….(laughs)

Ahhhh come on….(laughs)

I felt the levity there was a good break from the intensity that was running up to that point in the film.

Yeah, if you watch Hitchcock films they are filled with these gag lines. He’s always throwing in this humor and its not always subtle black Hitchcock humor. Its like this totally overt funny stuff. Then all the sudden he’ll be like (mimics the classic Psycho string/shower murder scene score) he loves it, it’s interesting, not that I’m comparing us to Hitchcock. I know if he was here (Director James Wan) right now thats what he’d be saying, so I’m kind of channeling him, but to me I think its great. I don’t think it upsets the tone of the film personally but if some one thinks it doesn’t belong in the movie I’d be like okay cool, but I just wanted to try it. I’m definitely chomping at the bit to do a comedy.

Think you’ll get to do that anytime soon?

Make a comedy?

Yeah, I mean Insidious was done totally independent…

Yeah, I would like to do this comedy that I’ve written with a friend of mine and I’d like to do it fairly independently like Insidious.

Because like Insidious you would have more creative control?

Yeah you do, its a comedy horror, I think it’d play really great at SXSW. I think it behooves a film like that to be made independently so you can just keep throwing mud at the wall and not have someone over your shoulder going “do you want to try a different kind of mud?” or maybe a different wall? Or we know that this works so use this. The great joke about studio executives, “How many studio exces does it take to change a light bulb? one, but does it have to be a light bulb? or the reverse where its how many screen writers does it take to change a light bulb? Change it? the light bulb is the best scene!

Would you want to go shoot the comedy in Australia?

The comedy? that one is made here, but its set in the states. Where the film I wrote with Angus Sampson, Tucker in the film, that is definitely set in Australia and very Australian and could possibly need subtitles here.

Did you see Animal Kingdom?

Yeah actually a friend of mine directed that….I love Animal Kingdom, David Michod, He is a very talented man.

Would you ever be interested in directing?

The early years for Insidious Writer Whannell and Director James Wan on the set of the film that started it all for them Saw

Yeah for sure, I’m kind of scared of it in that I’m not that responsible, like could I be a Director? You have to take care of things, but its one of those things that’s always hanging in front of your face when you’re a screenwriter. I’m not sure if you guys have written any scripts but there is also this idea of like, you’re half way there, you draw up the blue prints of the house and then you hand them off and watch these other builders build the house and your like Uh, wait, ahh….eventually it gets to the point where if you love the stuff you write, it gets to the point where you want to be the one building the house. So you can say no, kitchen goes here, bathroom goes here, but I think it’d take me a while, I’d have to write something really manageable and small, and not that I’d be able to make anything bigger I’d want to write something I feel super safe with.

Thanks for your time, continued success

Yeah mate enjoy the film!

by John Coovert

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