Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Interview: Leigh Whannell on Directing Insidious Chapter 3

by Patrick Bromley
This was very cool!

Everyone knows Leigh Whannell: he made a name for himself as the writer and co-star of Saw, a low-budget horror film he made with his friend James Wan that became a huge hit and caused the single biggest tidal change for the entire horror genre in the 2000s. He wrote the next two sequels, collaborated with Wan again on Dead Silence and then launched another hugely successful franchise with Insidious in 2010. In addition to writing the upcoming Insidious Chapter 3, Whannell stepped up to direct for the first time. I was lucky enough to talk to him about a little.

I can't stress enough what a nice and down to earth guy Whannell is, not only taking the time to talk to our site but for being so good-natured and genuine about every question he was asked. He had been doing this all day but never let on if he was tired or disinterested, and was never in "press" mode. We just got to have a conversation. It was a lot of fun.

Here's Leigh Whannell on making his first movie, changing up the Insidious series for his entry and his approach to writing sequels.

FTM: Congratulations on the film! It is so much fun. Really, I feel like I should be congratulating all of Australia this weekend between you and Fury Road.

Leigh Whannell: Man, I think Fury Road's gonna go bananas. I haven't heard anyone that doesn't love it.

FTM: So when you decided "Ok, I'm going to write Insidious 3," was the reasoning for doing a prequel so that you could go back and tell more of Lin Shaye's story or was there another reason for going back and doing a prequel?

Leigh Whannell: Well, when I first took on the job of writing it I didn't have an idea. I really had a blank slate. I didn't know where the series would go -- and, in fact, all the producers were asking me incessantly "What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do?" And so I would go on these long walks and I would sort of ponder where the series could go, and I realized I wanted Lin Shaye to be the central character. The problem is we killed off Lin Shaye's character in the first movie! She was strangled to death by a possessed man. So that left me with few options but to go back in time. I really wanted to delve into who she was as a person, and I wanted to do it with the living version of her. So that's really what drove it to be a prequel was Lin Shaye. Blame her.

FTM: I think you deserve credit for turning Lin Shaye into an action hero.

Leigh Whannell: Yeah, that's what I wanted! I'm so glad to hear you say that. I remember saying to her on set "Listen, you need to be a badass in this film. You need to be Jason Bourne. When you're throwing someone across the room, I don't want it looking like the little old lady across the street, you know, mustering up the strength. I need you to look like Rambo. So she really got into it, man. She loved being an action hero.
FTM: That's so awesome. How conscious were you when doing a prequel to kind of seeding or making reference to later elements...because there are those moments throughout the film, kind of references to things we know from the first two films...without making it, like, you know..."Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi!"

Leigh Whannell: Let's see Darth Vader as a little kid! What? A little kid?

Yeah, I was conscious of connecting this film to the first two films -- I think that's fun for the fans, to see those connections -- but it also made story sense because I thought it would be interesting to have Lin Shaye's character have some insight into these future events. I mean, that's the benefit of writing a character who's a psychic -- she can actually see things that haven't happened yet. So that allowed me to include narrative threads from the first movie in this movie. And I was really excited about the way it played out. I hope that fans of the film respond to that, you know?

FTM: Definitely. When [the producers] first said "Hey, we want to do Insidious 3," did they say "And we want YOU to direct!" or did that happen later?

Leigh Whannell: They asked me to write and direct, and I said "Well, you know, let me write the script first and I'll see where I end up." So I took on the job, and as I was writing I started falling in love with it. I became very possessive of it and I realized I didn't want someone else making these decisions. You know, I had very firm ideas about the characters and how they would sound and look. Eventually you become so possessive of these characters that you do want to be the one making these decisions. And also I realized it would be a great first film. I mean, it's a comfortable world to exist in; I know the world, I know the actors, I know the producers so well that there would be a comfort element there...and last but not least, you know, it's a great opportunity to make a film that's guaranteed to be released in theaters! Few films these days are guaranteed to be released in theaters. It's getting to the point where only tentpole blockbusters are released in theaters and everything else is sauntered off to VOD. So that opportunity was too good to pass up. I want the experience of making a film that gets seen in cinemas.

FTM: And I think these films in particular, in terms of the current horror crop, benefit from being seen in a big theater, really loud with a big crowd.

Leigh Whannell: Oh, absolutely. Horror films are the last great communal experience in terms of moviegoing. You know, you want to see this film in a room full of people screaming. And that just doesn't happen either. I mean, a lot of horror films go straight to VOD so I feel really privileged to make a film that's going to be accessible in theaters.
FTM: So now when you're approaching this installment...obviously you were around for the first two and they originated with you, you're on set as a writer, as a producer, as an actor...what kind of choices are you making? Is it like, "Here's how I want this to obviously fit into this universe and connect together to the other two films, but I also want it to stand off on its own and be my movie and not just my copy of James (Wan's) movies."

Leigh Whannell: Right! That's exactly what I was thinking -- everything you just said you could just write down and run it on, like, a CNN ticker through my head 24 hours a day. I was always thinking...what was it you said? I need to quote you do I make this film connect to the others whilst also being my own film? And it's a little bit of magic how you get there. It's not an exact science; there was no formula I could follow to do that. I just knew that if I kept the film scary and connected to the other films in terms of The Further and some of the concepts that the first films brought up but shot it in my own way, then I would be ok. And that's really what I tried to do: combine my own shooting style and my own filmmaking style with this world that's already been created. Even The Further -- this black void that was touched upon in the first two films -- I approached that in subtly different ways than the others. People may not notice those subtle differences, but they're there.

FTM: I feel like this movie out of the three is sort of the most grounded in reality more than the other two. Obviously it's dealing with some big supernatural concepts and stuff, but it felt to me more "real world." Was that something that you did consciously?

Leigh Wannell: Yeah! I mean I'm glad to hear you say that. I really did want to ground these characters in the real world. I tried to separate the threads of the story and on the one hand make a horror film but on the other hand make a family drama -- you know, and indie drama that you might see at Sundance about a young girl who's lost her mother. And so when you do that, you can approach each element of the story at face value. I really wanted really great, credible actors, which I got. I'm so happy with the actors and the performances they gave. And I wanted it to be emotional. I wanted the ending of the film to be really cathartic, you know? Without giving anything away, I wanted the ending to be an emotional experience. I was thinking to myself "What if I made a horror film that also made people cry," you know? That was a goal of mine, so I definitely gave equal weight to that side of things.

FTM: Yeah, and again without spoiling anything, I thought Lin Shaye's arc and where we see her at the end was particularly moving, almost made more so by virtue of the fact that it is a prequel and we kind of know what's coming. And that's really rare, I think, for the third movie in a series to be a prequel but then to be so informed by what comes before...I'm not making sense...

Leigh Whannell: No, no, you're totally making sense! I'm glad to hear you say that. I do like her arc as well. I really love what Lin brought to the character -- at this point, she knows as much about Elise as I do as the writer.  She's played that role three times now and really lives in the skin of that character.
You know, I don't know that there's been any "great" Part Threes in any genre. Not even The Godfather Part III was great, so that was a challenge in and of itself. I read an interview with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller -- the Lego Movie guys -- and they had this great quote where they said they went in and pitched themselves for the job of 21 Jump Street and the exec said "So what's your angle? What's your gimmick?" And they said "What if the gimmick is that it's really good?" And I love that quote, because, you know, no one would expect 21 Jump Street to be good, so you kind of take people surprise. That's what I wanted to do with this film. I don't know if people walk into the third installment of a horror franchise expecting a great film or a film that resonates emotionally, so I wanted to take them by surprise. My greatest achievement would be people walking out of the theater saying "Wow, that was a really great film that really affected me emotionally. I never expected that."

FTM: And I think it's the kind of movie that almost stands on its own -- obviously I think you get more out of certain moments and you understand certain things if you've seen the other two, but you could almost see it without having seen 1 and 2 and I think it works on its own.

Leigh Whannell: Yeah, that's great to hear! I wanted that as well. I mean, everything you're saying is all things that I wanted -- that I had on my Christmas wish list for this movie. I wanted the film to be emotional, I wanted it to be scary, I wanted it to have my own visual stamp and not be a carbon copy of what James did. And I wanted it stand on its own. I wanted it to be a movie that fans of the first two would get a kick out of, seeing those threads and those connections, but I wanted the neophyte audience members to come in and enjoy themselves. Sometimes sequels get so entangled with their own mythology that if you haven't got a graduate degree in the mythology of this movie, you're completely lost.

You know, that happened with the Saw movies. I stopped writing them after Part III, but I remember some time around Part V it got so complicated that you needed to write a thesis on the evolution of the world to keep up. With this movie I didn't want that. I wanted to strip away all that baggage and kind of strip it down to its essential core elements and keep it very simple. That's the best way, I think, to make it an enjoyable experience for a new set of eyes is to keep it simple.

FTM: So now that you're responsible for writing and now directing what I think are the two biggest horror franchises of the 2000s, and you've kind of created a mythology for both -- even though you were not writing Saw after Part III, but you did sequelize three Saws and build a mythology there -- so what's different about how you build the mythology or approach sequelizing the Insidious films versus the Saw films?

Leigh Whannell: Well, it is a very different world. You know, the Saw movies, I don't think, were built to have many sequels. They ended up having them and a lot of people loved them, but they weren't engineered that way. There was a lot of finality for James Wan and I at the end of the first movie. When Jigsaw shuts the door at the end of the movie, we were like, "Wow, that's a really definitive ending." It's the literal shutting of the door. There's no leaving the door open for a sequel. We shut the door on it. But, of course, the film was successful and, you know, the business side of filmmaking demands sequels. So we did that. But it feels a little more organic with the Insidious movies because the world that you're dealing with lends itself to other families and other stories. So there seems to be a little more elbow room on the Insidious movies, which I enjoy.
I've had to reverse engineer a lot of the mythology. It's not something I plan out beforehand, because I never assume that anything I do is going to be a success. If somebody tells you that they're writing a movie and they're already planning the sequel, the subtext of what they're telling you is "I'm writing a film that's gonna be a great big hit." They're assuming success, which I never do. I'm the pessimist at the dinner table. I assume failure at all times. So a lot of the time when I'm writing these sequels, I'm reverse engineering. The trick is in making it look like it was always intended. I have a lot of people saying to me "Well, obviously you planned this all out," because it fits well. Actually, the opposite is true. I had to think it all up in retrospect. I guess if I've done my job well, it looks very natural and looks like it was always meant to be.

FTM: Definitely. Some of the sequelizing...when people set out to write, you know, like "I'm writing a trilogy!" or when it's just a Part 1 of a two-part movie (like Hunger Games), what happens is you only end up getting a part of a story instead of a complete story. So it's nice that each of these [Insidious] films is its own story. Again, they work as part 1, 2 and 3 and you can watch them all together, but you can also just take one and it has a beginning, a middle and an end. That's so refreshing these days.

Leigh Whannell: I agree! I do get frustrated by these modern blockbusters that feel like ending on a cliffhanger is the way to go, because you feel like you're seeing like you're seeing an installment. It feels like you're watching a big-budget episode of television. But the problem is that television can deliver you the next installment a week later. These films leave you hanging for a year or more! It's quite frustrating. I, like you, like to see a beginning, a middle and an end, not a beginning and a middle. So if you feel like the Insidious films work as standalones, that's great because as a writer, writing the ending is one of the best things about writing a film. I always want the ending to be impactful and final in some way.

FTM: Obviously I would hope that you plan to continue directing. Will you still write stuff that you maybe don't direct, or are you hoping to just start writing and directing your own stuff?

Leigh Whannell: I think a bit of both. If I direct another film, which I hope to do, I want to write it myself. So I need to take the time to do that. But I also want to keep writing for other people! There's a few things I still haven't done yet, as a writer, that I would love to do. I've written a few films in different genres over the years that I would love to see get made. I'd love to write an animated film. I don't necessarily want to direct an animated film, but I would love to write one. That's a dream of mine. So I think I'll keep doing both. Yeah.

FTM: Before we go, I just want to add really quickly that I love The Mule.

Leigh Whannell: Oh, thank you so much. I love hearing from people who've seen The Mule. It feels more personal than someone saying "Oh, I love Saw!" You know, The Mule is a real pet project of mind, so thank you.

FTM: It is the Citizen Kane of "trying-not-to-shit" movies.

Leigh Whannell: Where were you when we were writing quotes for the poster?

Insidious Chapter 3 hits theaters this weekend (review coming this week) and his next movie, Cooties (which he wrote and in which he stars) is due out September 18 from Lionsgate.


  1. After reading this interview I have even more respect for him as a writer knowing he doesn't plan for a sequel. One of the things I loved about Chapter 2 was how so many scenes fit seamlessly together with the first movie like a jigsaw puzzle. It almost felt like some of it was not only planned ahead of time, but possibly filmed at the same time and just saved for the sequel. Can't wait to see what he does with this 3rd installment.

  2. This interview made me really excited to see this (especially Lin Shaye as an action hero) so now I'm super bummed cause it's not out here for another three weeks. Boo.

  3. Nice interview man, makes me want to see the movie even more now.

  4. GREAT interview - Leigh seems awesome and I love his answers and enthusiasm, but - and maybe I'm biased because we're kinda friends - I don't think I've ever seen the interviewer kill it so hard! Even Leigh seemed impressed with the insight that went along with the questions and lead to some great answers. Really, really good job, man.

    1. That was awesome, I guess one film buff can recognise another and Leigh probably opened up even more with such a good interview. Great work Patrick, and ive heard good things about Cooties, im looking forward to that one
      The only good 3 I can think of from the top of my head is Toy Story
      We need a Lin Shaye action figure ;)