Exclusive: The Insidious Duo, James Wan and Leigh Whannell

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The makers of Saw tackle the haunted house genre

Roughly seven years ago, a low-budget indie horror film from Australia debuted at the Sundance Film Festival where it really made waves and less than a year later, the first Saw was an enormous hit that would kick-off one of the biggest horror franchises of the ‘00s. It also got the filmmakers, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell a lot of attention in Hollywood, allowing them to make the gothic horror film Dead Silence (which was released in the U.S. exactly four years ago this week!)

When the duo brought their latest collaboration Insidious to “Midnight Madness” at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, few knew what to expect other than it being their take on a haunted house film. What it is though is one of the coolest takes on the genre in a long time with nods to classics like Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

Insidious stars Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne as a married couple who have moved their family into a new home when strange things start happening, but when their son (Ty Simpkins) falls into a deep coma-like sleep, those strange things get even worse with all sorts of entities invading their house and no end in sight.

ShockTillYouDrop had a chance to sit down with the fast-talking Australian duo last September. The movie had premiered the night before and the guys were excited after hearing word the movie had been picked up by Sony, and as the guys enthusiastically answered questions, this writer was reminded of the first time he interviewed them for the original Saw and was surprised that they seemed to have even more energy seven years later.

After having a good laugh at how the publicist was trying to prep the duo on how to answer questions about the film’s sale the night before, we got right into it.

ShockTillYouDrop.com: I guess I haven’t talked to you since “Death Sentence,” James, and one of the “Saw” movies for you Leigh, but last night at the premiere, you said that you wanted the movie to be this generation’s “Poltergeist”—it actually lives up to it, but those were daring words.

James Wan:
Yeah, daring words to say.

Leigh Whannell: Well, James and I, we talk a lot about different horror ideas. Obviously, we love the genre, but after “Saw,” when we made “Dead Silence,” we didn’t feel like that film turned out the way we wanted it, for a lot of different reasons. There was a lot of things that happened during that film…

Wan: Which we wouldn’t need to go into.

Whannell We’re not going to go into specifics, but one of the things that we can mention was that tragically, Greg Hoffman, producer of the first and second “Saw” film, who was producing “Dead Silence,” he died, and it was just a bad time. We felt like basically, to sum it up, “Dead Silence” did not turn out… It wasn’t the definitive horror film that we knew we could make, and James went and made “Death Sentence,” an action film, and I wrote a kids’ movie. One day, James and I came together, I was just hanging out at James’ house, and James said, “We still haven’t made that definitive horror film that is just scary as f*ck.” We always saw “Saw” as more of a thriller.

Wan: A thriller yeah, and I always say that “Saw” was a thriller that was shot like a horror film and marketed like a horror film, but it was never an outright horror film. All of the sequels eventually became very horrific in imagery and stuff like that. But when we go back to that first film and watch it, it’s really more of a locker room thriller, it has little flashes, but it’s not the film James and I would make if we sat down and said, “Our aim is to make a really scary horror film.” “Saw” is not what we’d make, we’d make something like “Insidious.”

Whannell So James said that to me, and I was like, “He’s right, we haven’t done it, and it would be great to go back and do it.” We’ve always talked about astral projection.

Wan: Yeah, Lee and I have always been huge fans of haunted house (movies). I mean, “Poltergeist” is the film that scarred me for life, “Poltergeist” scarred a lot of our generation.

Whannell For me, it’s “The Shining” that scared me.

Wan: Which is a haunted house film! So we thought, “Let’s get together and let’s make a really cool haunted house film that people haven’t really seen before, but let’s find a twist.” That’s the thing that Leigh and I work so well is that we’re always taking an established conviction and turning it on its head. You know, why rehash something that we’ve seen before? Let’s make it more unique, make it different. That’s what we tried to do with “Insidious.” And we found this angle that made it different. I guess we really shouldn’t be giving that away.

Whannell Yeah, without giving away too many plot twists, as James was saying, we feel that we found a way to freshen up this genre that is such a rigid genre.

Wan: It’s like slasher films, it’s so established.

Whannell There is a template that you need to follow. You need to start with small things like cups moving around and then it builds and builds and we were like, “We can take that template and just twist it around, snap it in half, and give it our little… ”

Wan: Our Wan-Whannell spin on it. Like my goodness, when the character Leigh played, Specs and Tucker show up with their contraptions and their gadgets and their mask and all that, that’s vintage “Saw” stuff. That’s the stuff that we love. We love our steampunk, cyberpunk weird equipment.

Whannell The gasmask.

Shock: People last night just flipped out at the sight gags like when Tucker pulls out the giant flashlight.

Whannell
We just can’t help it, putting in those gadgets, if you look at “Saw.”

Wan: I think what we did with “Insidious,” it’s always dangerous to make a horror movie that’s kind of humorous but not really a horror-comedy, because it’s not a horror-comedy. It has comedic relief moments, it’s finding that balance…

Whannell It’s like finding that balance to throw some humor in there. Maybe I’m misquoting Alfred Hitchock, but James and I always say, “If you don’t give the audience a place to laugh, they’ll find their own place.” They’ll laugh at something you never want to laugh at, and they need that tension release.

Shock: Both “Poltergeist” and “The Shining” had really great laughs in them even during some of the scariest moments.

Whannell
I mean, that bar scene with Jack Nicholson where he’s like (puts on a Jack Nicholson voice) “I like you Lloyd, I always have.” I mean, it’s great and “Poltergeist” is the same. I think we’ve lost some of that, and I think some of the films that came out post-“Saw” took themselves really seriously and we wanted to make it a fun rollercoaster ride.

Shock: But even “Saw” and “Dead Silence” are pretty serious, and one of the big differences with “Dead Silence” is you made this one independently. Was that really important to allow you to do all this crazy stuff you may not have been able to in a studio horror film?

Wan:
Yes, that’s exactly it! We wanted to make a scary movie again, and we felt the only way to do it was write a scary movie that’s not too expensive, that we can do it as an independent film and just make it our way. We found the producers that were willing to back us up. We find Alliance, a great company that believes in us and let us do what we wanted to do and here we are. You saw how well it played last night, so we’re happy that we actually took the independent route instead of going down the studio path.

Whannell Yeah, creative freedom equals a good horror film ‘cause I think the genre as a whole at this moment in time has gotten itself into a little bit of a rut.

Wan: Can I interject for a second? One of the things Lee and I are most proud of with “Insidious” is it’s not a frickin’ remake, it’s not a rehash based on something or a sequel. It is something new and original, and I think fans crave that. They want something fresh and original. This is not the “Friday the 13th” remake or a “Nightmare on Elm Street” remake, it’s not that.

Whannell Yeah, horror film fans like you and us are starved for quality. You know what it’s like. I know that you do this without asking you. I know that you troll the internet, troll Netflix, the video store, looking for that one gem amongst all the crap, right? You’re searching for it. Is it going to come from Spain this time? Is it going to come from Japan? Maybe it’ll come from the States, but you spend your whole life, and every few years, there’s a “Blair Witch Project,” there’s a “Paranormal Activity.” But you’re starved. We want to provide that for horror fans, we want to provide something that… as a horror fan, you may have gone to see “Friday the 13th ” the remake, but I don’t know if you were excited about it.

Shock: Well, I was excited but I was disappointed.

Whannell
Yeah, and we were hoping to give someone like you and people like you to sink your teeth into, so to speak, and be, “Alright, cool, this is at least something I haven’t seen.” It isn’t based on an existing property, it’s a reboot, it’s just straight-up independent horror.

Shock: How do you get people like Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne on board? Did they get the full script and they understood all the crazy stuff you were trying to do?

Whannell
Yeah, I think a lot of it was based on the script. It was funny, the greatest thing about it was the first actors we went out to we got. Usually, you go through this long process of, “Hey, we submitted the script to such and such actor, we’re waiting to hear from them.” You wait two weeks, you wait three weeks, and then finally it comes back that they passed and then you do all that second guessing where you’re like, “Maybe they didn’t even read it, maybe their agent just said they passed.” With this film, we heard straight-away that they read it and they were into it.

Wan: It was really a great testament to the script Leigh wrote. Great concept that we came up with together, but Leigh definitely did write these really great characters, real human characters that Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne really took to. The agents read it and go, “Oh my God, this is a really scary script,” so they pass it onto their clients. This has never happened to me before as a director that the very first actor and actress that I went out to wanted to do it. They were my first choices and I can’t believe I got it, and even my producer Jason Blum was like, “In the twenty years I’ve been in this business, that has never happened before!” To get the people you want immediately, right off the bat, straightaway, and it’s because of the characters. They read it and go, “This is scary,” but then they saw beyond it, and saw the characters and character arcs and all that. As Patrick said on stage last night, he loved that the film starts out as a Rose Byrne film but then becomes more about his character. It all comes full circle and it’s about the family, and Patrick is such a big fan of “Poltergeist” as well that we were all on the same page.

Shock: I’m glad you were able to get this out before the “Poltergeist” remake they were planning. It was a pretty decent script, but this is more in the feel of the original movie then that would have been.

Wan:
Yeah, but I refer it to it as, “It’s not a Poltergeist remake, it’s this generation’s, our love and take of what ‘Poltergeist’ would be if ‘Poltergeist’ was made today” which has a little bit of that “Saw” sensibility that Leigh and do.

Whannell Yeah, the kookiness we want to inject.

Shock: I want to ask about casting Barbara Hershey because she’s having this amazing resurrection between this and “Black Swan.”

Wan:
Yeah, I’m so happy for her, but Barbara Hershey… I had such a great cast and Barbara, she’s just so lovely.

Shock: But how did you think of her because she doesn’t seem like the first person you might think of to do a horror movie.

Wan:
Really? But see she was in “The Entity”! She’s been in one of these supernatural movies and apparently, she’s very spiritual and she loves these sorts of plot and story themes and when this came across her desk, she was like, “Yeah I want to do this.”

Whannell Again, James’ first suggestion, because he’s such a big fan of “The Entity” was Barbara Hershey, so we had just gotten Patrick and Rose, we went out to Barbara and she said “Yes” as well, so it was like every time we gave the script to someone, they would say “Yes” and we were just waiting to hear a “No.”

Wan: As I like to say to Leigh, it kind of reminded me a lot of “Saw” in that this movie had its own synergy.

Whannell When I read the script, I was the only actor who had to think about it for a few days. I didn’t say “yes” straightaway. I had to call my agent and talk about it, because I didn’t know if I wanted to do it or not.

(After thinking about this for a second, we start laughing realize Leigh is taking the piss.)

Wan: I’m glad you laughed because Leigh likes to joke with a straight face and a lot of times people don’t get that. (laughs)

Shock: I was curious about the astral projection stuff in the movie. Was that based on real research you guys did into that?

Whannell
Well, James and I have always been interested in astral projection and we’ve always thought that something was there. No one has done a horror film with elements of that before.

Wan: Or taken it seriously, an outright serious take on that, you know? This is an anecdote that I like to tell, can I tell that? When Leigh and I were cooking up “Saw,” we came up with three concepts. Concept #1 was about two guys stuck in a room and there’s a serial killer messing with them, that became “Saw.” Concept #2 that we had was about a guy who wakes up with scratches on himself and he doesn’t know what’s happening to him at night so he sets up cameras to film himself while he’s sleeping.

Whannell To videotape himself while he’s sleeping… hm…

Wan: “Paranormal Activity” and then the third idea we had back then was astral projection, so when Leigh and I wanted to make a haunted house film, we were like “Remember that idea we came up with back when we were thinking (about making a movie)? Let’s go back that, let’s not let that go!”

Whannell Because it was such a cool concept and we did do tons of research. We always used to get on the internet and read about the Akashic records and all this stuff to do with astral projection. It’s actually a fascinating area and when I was interviewing a psychic, doing research for the script, I asked him about astral projection and before I even finished the question, he was like, “Oh, that’s real. That is 100% real. I have experiences with astral projection that are mindblowing that will stay with me forever.”

Wan: I grew up with a very Christian family on one half and another Buddhist family on the other side, so on the Buddha side, I grew up with all these really spiritual astral projecting and out of body experiences, things like that.

Shock: I don’t know if you guys expected “Saw” to go as far as it did, but do you expect that there’s more to this story or another story in this vein or do you think this should be a standalone?

Wan:
I don’t want to talk about that too much, but Leigh and I actually think you can do anything. With “Saw,” we were just happy that we made the movie, but with this, we actually do think that there’s potential. There’s a potential for a different storyline.

Whannell The best you can be is proud of the film…

Wan: Just make the film for what it is. Forget about what could come after that, just make a good standalone movie and if something naturally grows out of it, fantastic!

Whannell It sounds like a little bit of a soundbyte, a cliché, to say “I didn’t really think about whether our film is going to be successful, I just want it to be good,” but the truth is that if you worry about whether it’s going to be successful, you’re going to go crazy because you can’t control that. It’s like getting frustrated by the weather, because you can’t control the weather, because the weather is going to do what it’s going to do. The only thing that’s up to you is the film itself, how much time you put into the script and how proud of it you are. I know that both James and I are both proud of the first film and we’re quietly hoping there’s other people out there that who think that it’s a great addition to the horror film genre.

Wan: Yeah, I just hope people get to see this film and enjoy it.

Shock: James, what else is going on with you? I know you’ve been circling a couple vampire movies and a couple franchise adaptations (like “Castlevania”), so do you have any idea what you’re going to do next?

Wan:
I just got a bunch of stuff cooking away, just a bunch of stuff burning away and whichever one happens first I’ll do that. A lot of these projects, they’re still works in progress, like I’m working on the script and stuff like that so it’s still early on. Leigh and I have got other stuff we’re cooking away at as well.

Insidious opens nationwide on April 1.

Source: Edward Douglas