Shock Q&A: Insidious: Chapter 3’s Leigh Whannell Looks to the Past and the Future

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A little over ten years ago, Australian filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell arrived in the U.S. with a disturbing twist on the serial killer thriller called Saw, a movie that led to annual Halloween franchise for almost seven years. Following several projects, the pair returned in a major way with haunter hit Insidious, the rousing Toronto premiere of which was followed by a very successful theatrical release and sequel Insidious: Chapter 2. Now, with Wan off on major blockbusters—you may have heard of Furious 7—Whannell takes the directorial reins on this June’s Insidious Chapter 3, alongside writing and playing the role of paranormal investigator “Specs.” 

Lin Shaye is also back as Elise Rainier, the psychic medium called upon by a teenaged Quinn (Stefanie Scott), who’s been experiencing strange occurrences that may be connected to her recently-deceased mother. The film reveals the first case that brought Elise together with the paranormal investigators of Spectral Sightings, Whannell’s Specs and Angus Sampson’s Tucker. 

Fans of the previous movies will be thrilled by how the movie connects to the others as a prequel, but it’s also a strong stand-alone ghost story that’s even scarier than the other films, even if some of the notable weirdness has been dampened.

Since I’ve known Leigh for such a long time, going all the way back to the original Saw, our talk is a fairly free-flowing conversation touching on both past and future, as well as other non-Insidious topics, like those persistent rumors that Saw might return. 

Note: There are some minor spoilers in this interview about the previous “Insidious” installments, particularly the fate of one character who plays a key role in Insidious: Chapter 3.

Shock Till You Drop: You went a different route with this. After the last movie, I half-expected Lin Shaye’s Elise to continue on as a ghost.

Leigh Whannell: I didn’t want to feature her as a ghost. I wanted the living version of Lin Shaye, so that really dictated the decision to make it a prequel, just needing her to be alive. Unfortunately, we killed her off in the first movie, so there’s no living Lin Shaye to deal with, unless you go back in time.

Shock: Did you know very early on in the series that Elise would become the central focus, or was that more while making the second movie?

Whannell: It was very organic. These things happen over time. Maybe there’s a lot of filmmakers out there telling journalists such as yourself that they pre-plan everything and perpetuating this myth of long-form storytelling and pre-planned universes, but I really don’t think it’s like that. I think the majority of people concentrate on one film and then the audience organically takes hold of the things they love and rejects the things they don’t like. We had no idea that Lin Shaye would become this beloved character within the franchise. We just thought she’s a great actress, she’s great for this role, and it sort of grows organically.

Shock: You’ve set it up so that we see Elise’s first session with Specs and Tucker. Chapter 4-through-whatever can now take place between this and the first movie.

Whannell: Absolutely, which I wasn’t trying to do but in hindsight, having directed the film, when I look at it, I think that if they are to make any more films, they should take place between this film and the first one. So yeah, I just liked it as a compact story; I liked the beginning, middle and ending of this particular story.

Shock: You mentioned that while making the first movie, you hadn’t been thinking of other things but when you did the second one, was it more obvious where it should go?

Whannell: I really didn’t have an idea of where I would go until I was offered the job of writing Insidious 3 and that’s when I decided I wanted to deal with Lin Shaye as the primary character of the film. Of course, her presence dictates going back in time, so all of a sudden I get to create a whole new family. It really was like wiping the slate clean and starting with a whole new bunch of people that we’d never met, a whole new family.

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Shock: You said that you were “offered the job.” I would think that after the last movie did well, if you had an idea, you’d just be able to do it. I didn’t think they’d actually have to hire to write it.

Whannell: As soon as a film does well, you almost expect that phone call like, “Okay, what are we doing next?” I tried to come to the decision on my own time. It was almost like I put out a little fake resistance, as if I’m rejecting the idea of continuing the story and I had to talk myself into it. But I actually came to the decision to direct this film while I was writing it. As I was writing it, I was really falling in love with the characters.

Shock: You’d been working with James Wan for so long. Had you determined whether you wanted to work in a similar way or take a different approach? Lin mentioned that it was different because you’re the writer and an actor yourself.

Whannell: I really tried to treat this as my first movie, not as an Insidious sequel. I really took that seriously, that job of introducing myself as a director to the world. I definitely wasn’t thinking about copying someone else or thinking, “What would James have done here?” I think that that would have been in opposition to my intention. As soon as I started thinking “What would James do here?” I’m defeating the purpose of making my own film. I need to think about “What would I do here? What would my approach be?” so while the film still feels like an Insidious movie, I think it has differences. I don’t know if you noticed them while you were watching the film.

Shock: Sure. It’s scarier, but also not as weird. While I loved both previous movies, I think people who went to see them hoped to be scared, but with all that weird crazy stuff going on, they go, “Oh…”

Whannell: Yeah, it puts them off! [laughs] That’s interesting that you found that. There is something more grounded. There was something a little bit more flamboyant about James’ style, with the Insidious films in particular, and I think that he knew he was making an independent film for not much money, and so he enjoyed the room to experiment, to put weird things in there. With this one, I wanted the film to almost have an indie drama quality to it, where the family drama felt very real—the loss of a mother. It wasn’t an afterthought, nor was it something that felt as fantastical as the demons. Obviously, there’s a lot of things that happen in this film that are quite outlandish and fantastical, you know, demons and ghosts, but the family drama stuff, my intention was that when you’re watching that, it felt like you were just watching a drama.

Shock: I think that was the case with the other movies as well, with the stuff between Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, but when those went into the Further, it was complete insanity.

Whannell: Complete chaos, yes, exactly.

Shock: One of the weird elephants in the room, which I’m not sure has been brought up yet is that you have a Poltergeist movie coming out two weeks before this. What’s weird is that I don’t think that movie would ever have happened if your movies hadn’t done well.

Whannell: It’s almost like this weird loop that’s happening. This weird feedback loop of the original Poltergeist inspiring us, but what’s really funny is that a friend of mine is directing that film. Gil [Kenan] directed that film, so we chat about it all the time. I’m really happy for him that he’s made this film, and I hope it does well for him and I know he hopes the same for me. Because I know him, there’s a feeling of inclusion. If I didn’t know anyone involved with that film, I might be looking at it like, “Oh, God, there’s this other haunted house movie coming out two weeks before us.” Because I know him so well, it’s hard to feel suspicious of it.

Shock: That Poltergeist remake took eight years or more to get made. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but are you and James going to go see it opening night?

Whannell: Yeah, I would love to see it. I’m really intrigued by the idea of how he used 3D so I’m happy for Gil that he’s made something. He spent a lot of years after City of Ember trying to get films made, as we all do, and it’s a battle, so I’m just happy for him that he’s made one.

Shock: 3D and horror have gone together really well over the years, but there’s a niche for a really intense horror movie to be in 3D.

Whannell: There is, especially with haunted house films. They really lend themselves to an immersive format, because the ghost can come from anywhere. I hope that in ten years’ time, every kid in America is wearing a pair of those goggles and is just locked into some haunted house experience that goes on and on for days.

Shock: As far as the direction of Insidious: Do you look at how Saw evolved and try to  approach this one differently in some ways?

Whannell: Maybe. I mean, there’s some lessons to be learned there. I think Saw was interesting in that each film was linked so tightly to the other. You almost had to have seen all the other films to really get what was happening in the later sequels. I wrote three Saw movies and I really look at that first trilogy as a self-contained trilogy, which had an ending to it. I think if anything, I’ve learned that franchises that keep going on and on, for me, the ones that really work are the ones where a central character can exist in different situations. For example, James Bond. I think the reason that’s the longest running franchise in history is because this character, he doesn’t really change but the villain always changes it. There’s always a new situation for him to tackle, and that allows you to keep going. When I apply that to Insidious, I think is Elise the James Bond of this franchise and can she keep tackling different villains in each film?

Shock: But if it gets to the point where Lin no longer wants to do it, do you just say, “Okay, we’re done?”

Whannell: Maybe. Lin is so integral to the films that I think if she said she didn’t want to be involved, I don’t know if I would want to be.

Shock: She mentioned that she had done so many horror films, but she feels like she’s reached the pinnacle with Insidious, and doesn’t feel like she has to do other horror movies.

Whannell: Yeah, and she really plays a badass in this latest Insidious film, she’s kind of a superhero.

Shock: But you also talk about the drama and she’s an amazing dramatic actor who also brings a lot out of Stefanie Scott.

Whannell: Yes, she does, she really does. She really carries the weight of this film on her shoulders and I think she does a great job.

Shock: Speaking of “Saw,” there are always these rumors that Lionsgate wants to relaunch it or reboot it. Is that something you’re involved with at all and is that something you’d have to be involved with if it happens?

Whannell: I don’t have to be involved. I guess it would be up to me, but I have not heard of any script in the works, and I know they would tell me. Jason Constantine at Lionsgate, who helped shepherd the Saw franchise, he is a good friend of mine and he would definitely be the first to call me if they had something in development. So I don’t know where these rumors are coming from but some deep dark corner of the internet.

Shock: I’m guessing there are people who want to see more…

Whannell: Exactly. It’s almost if you spread the rumor, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in their eyes.

Shock: And when it comes true, they’re angry that they’re rebooting it.

Whannell: [laughs] “What a waste! What a bunch of sell-outs!” I have not heard anything concrete at all.

Shock: How about you as a director? With this under your hat, do you feel like you want to keep directing or branch away from horror?

Whannell: I definitely would love to keep directing and maybe branch away from horror, maybe make something in the sci-fi genre, something that’s not miles [away]. I’m not going to go make a musical in Russian, but I might make a sci-fi film. I’ve been telling everybody I’m having this real love affair right now with the original Terminator film. I’m just rediscovering it. It’s a film that I’ve always loved but now that I’ve directed, I’m really just seeing how great that film is. If I could manage to conjure up something like that, I’d be really happy.

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Shock: Did you get a chance to see Angus Sampson (who plays Tucker to Whannell’s Specs) in Mad Max yet?

Whannell: Oh, yeah, I did. I actually went to the premiere. He couldn’t make it, so I went to the premiere in his stead, and I was just assaulted. It was just a ride as a movie. I’m really happy. I actually watched the first two Mad Max films back-to-back last night just for fun. Having seen the latest one, I just wanted to watch the first two. They’re incredible. They are incredible. The second one especially is just a genius, classic film.

Shock: Do you have to wait now to see how this movie does before figuring out your own next movie?

Whannell: Yeah, I want to think about it, but I am giving a lot of thought to what I’m going to direct next. You sort of have to let it bubble into your conscious mind at its own pace. You can’t force ideas. They seem to appear in my conscious mind in my own time. They’re sort of buried in my subconscious, and I can’t produce them on demand. If I could have one superpower, it would be to produce ideas on demand, but I don’t know where these ideas come from and I don’t know why they suddenly appear at the time they do in my mind.

It’s always at the weirdest unexpected moments. It’s when you’re in the shower or when you’re driving when [snaps fingers] something hits you. When I’m sitting at home with a notepad and a pen, nothing comes. I’ve got nothing. Hours! I’ve spent days, weeks even, literally staring at the wall waiting for an idea, and then when I give up and I think it’s all over and I don’t have anything and I go walk the dog, all of a sudden, you have that idea. It’s a very frustrating process and very mysterious, too. I think I need to give the next idea—whatever film I direct next—I need to give it a big chunk of time, because it’s going to require time.

Shock: Do you remember where you and James were when you first came up with the ideas for Saw or Insidious? 

Whannell: It’s funny, because you know what’s weird about that is: I was at home and I sketched in my diary the word “Saw,” dripping blood. I sketched it and I was staring at it. It didn’t mean anything. To me, it was just the title of a film and it was dripping blood, and then all of a sudden, a few hours later, the phone rings and James pitches me the skeleton of Saw. “It’s two guys, wake up in a room…” and I thought about it, and I hung up the phone and all of a sudden they just connected. I was like, “One of those guys is going to cut off his foot,” and it all just appeared. I ran back and called James and I said, “That idea you pitched me, that’s the one we’re going to write. I’m going to write it, you’re going to direct it, and it’s going to be called Saw.”

In hindsight, it gives you clarity, because now, I can look back and it seems so amazing that it all connected like that, but at the time when you’re in it, you’re not thinking, “This is crazy and mysterious” because you don’t know where it’s leading. For all I knew, it was just some crazy film that I would half-finish and then put in a drawer. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I really do think there is something to this whole idea of a zeitgeist, a cloud above us that creates all these ideas. It’s why there is two asteroid movies released. All of a sudden, something’s in the water. Don’t you feel that? I don’t think it’s because people are copying each other. I really think it’s because something’s in the air and people just tap into it.

Shock: Kind of like “The Further.” It’s interesting to talk about it now because I remember when you first made Saw, it was really something you guys were doing in hopes people would hire you to direct and act. Then it goes Sundance and things domino from there.

Whannell: Yeah, and in retrospect, you can piece together all these little pieces. I don’t know where I’m going to be in ten years but hopefully you and I are having a conversation in a few years time looking back at this moment going, “Wasn’t it funny that you never knew you were going to do this?” Hopefully whatever film I write next, it connects with people in some way, but I don’t know what it is yet. Give me a crystal ball!

Insidious: Chapter 3 hits theaters on Friday, June 5 with previews on Thursday night. Look for Shock’s interview with Lin Shaye and more coming soon. For Shock’s video interview with Whannell and report on the Into the Further 4D Experience, see here.


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