Interview – Leigh Whannell and James Wan
– by Shawn Conner
Insidious, which opens April 1, is a haunted house story low on gore and high on moody atmospherics. Maybe not what you’d expect from Leigh Whannell and James Wan, the Australian writing/directing team that gave the world the Saw franchise.
We met with the two while they were passing through Vancouver on a promotional tour for the movie. We wanted to know if this is their attempt at a more mainstream kind of film, why marketing departments have to give away plot points, and who’s on Whannell’s T-shirt.
Leigh Whannell: So what’s your site about? Things that lie in the gutter, like punk music and horror films?
Shawn Conner: We like stuff that lies in the margins, but some mainstream stuff too – especially where the two intersect.
LW: Well this film is as independent as you can get. We’re not bullshitting you about that.
SC: What does “independent” mean for you guys?
James Wan: Doing it outside of the studio system. I literally cut this film myself, in my bedroom, on my little Mac computer.
LW: Creative control.
JW: And making the film with a very indie spirit.
LW: And shooting the whole thing in 22 days.
JW: Eight hundred thousand dollars.
LW: So interesting that the one film we made for the least amount of money looks slickest.
SC: Well you guys know what you’re doing now, more so than before obviously.
LW: I think James – I said before, I’ve seen a maturity in James. Not that he didn’t do a good job on Saw [which he pronounces ‘Sawr’], but he was so new to it. It was like Indiana Jones, all these boulders rolling down the hill while you duck out of the way so they don’t flatten you. On this film, he was just calmly ducking away from the boulders, letting them roll to the side.
SC: I was watching Saw, the first one, today. One thing I noticed, I don’t think you could have made Insidious back then – so much of the frights in it are in the editing.
JW: Definitely. I really went into it with a very strong vision, part of that vision was me telling the producers I have to cut it myself. Because I know how I want to construct the scare scenes, I want to hold a beat on this or a beat longer on that or a beat shorter on this. I don’t want to have to relay that to an editor. And because the film was shot so quickly, I felt I needed to cut this movie because I don’t have a lot of time to shoot it, so I need to shoot it knowing exactly how I’m going to cut it.
SC: [To Leigh] How much of your script is on the screen?
LW: All of it.
SC: How closely do you work together?
JW: We cook up a concept together. We know straightaway we want to make a particular type of movie, we want it to have a particular kind of story, and we throw ideas back and forth. Then once we think we roughly have an idea of the direction of the story I leave Leigh to himself, he starts pumping away on the script. During the process, because I roughly know where the script is at, I might call him up and say hey bro, I thought of something. I’ll try to pitch some scary sequences and he’ll say let me see if I can work that in, or he’ll take my idea and find another way to add to it. He’ll pitch it back to me and we’ll go back and forth. By the end, we don’t know who came up with the original concept.
SC: [to Wannell] Who’s on your T-shirt?
SC: I thought I recognized those angry faces. Is this a more mainstream film for you guys? There’s no blood, it can maybe appeal to a different kind of Cineplex audience…
JW: Leigh and I love traditional Hollywood storytelling. What we like to do is take conventional Hollywood storytelling, in this case a haunted house movie, then bring our own sensibility to it, like with Saw - where we took a classic serial killer story and flipped it around and showed it from the point of view of the victims. We want people to go into this film thinking they’re seeing something they think they’re familiar with, and then we turn things around.
In that respect, it’s not very mainstream. It has really quirky strange elements within a mainstream umbrella. Leigh and I are big admirers of David Lynch, and we’ve always joked we’d like to be the commercial version of David Lynch. We think he makes some of the scariest films.
SC: Now here’s something I have a problem with, though it’s more from a marketing standpoint. In the poster for the movie it says, “It’s not the house that’s haunted.” So they’re basically giving away one of the main hooks of the movie – something that the movie builds up to dramatically. When you go into the movie knowing the kid’s haunted – doesn’t that defeat the purpose a little bit?
LW: The marketing departments of studios operate independently, you’ve got them saying “You guys have done your work, now we need to sell the film.” It’s of more interest to them for people to see the movie because that tagline intrigues them than have a few people disappointed.
SC: Sure. But you guys spend all this time building up to this moment that is on the movie poster going into the movie.
LW: But we also want people to see the film too. [Wan laughs] I still feel like there are still things in the movie the tagline doesn’t give away.
JW: It never tells you where the haunting comes from. That’s a whole other layer to it.
SC: Can you talk about one of my favourite scenes, where the demon is sharpening his nails? All those details, like with Tiny Tim singing… Was it always going to be Tiny Tim?
JW: I think the song is extra creepy when you know who Tiny Tim is as well. It gives you goosebumps. That scene, it’s what Leigh and I bring to it – we may be telling a mainstream story that involves a particular demon, but when do you see a demon on some kind of sawing machine?