Interview: ‘Insidious’ Writer and Star Leigh Whannell

This year at TIFF 2010 I not only had the honor of attending the premiere screening of Insidious (review), a film I consider to be one of the most exhilarating and cinematic horror films in ages, but I also got the opportunity to chat with its filmmakers, James Wan and Leigh Whannell. Even before I saw their latest, I was already excited to be chatting it up with the guys behind the original Saw, the iconic start of the torture porn movement. Whannell not only co-stars in every one of Wan’s films but actually wrote the screenplays for all but one (Death Sentence). Insidious is their return to their indie roots.
BLOODY DISGUSTING: What was the genesis of Insidious?

LEIGH WHANNELL: James and I, actually around the time we wrote Saw, were trying to come up with an idea that could be shot for very little money. We were going to shoot a film on a little handy-cam, two actors, very small. The three ideas we had was one about two guys who wake up in a bathroom with a dead guy on the floor. That was Saw. Then we had one film about a guy who wakes up in the morning with scratches on himself and videotapes himself sleeping and so, Paranormal Activity was filmed…just kidding. The other idea was about astral projection and we obviously went with Saw and that did okay. Years later, we were talking about making a horror film we always wanted to make because we felt we didn’t make our definitive, the horror film we would want to go and see. Both of us just looked at each other and we were like we should go back to that astral projection idea that we had years ago. I think there is something there. Haven’t seen that concept explored before and so that was the genesis of it. I went away and wrote the script. We shot it very quickly and now here we are.

Q: At the screening, you mentioned these rules you stood by while writing the script. What were they?

LW: Ah, I had these different commandments. One was no false scares. That was my main one. No cats jumping out of the closet or friends banging on the window to give you your car keys back. A scare had to be real, had to be earned. No sign-posting music. These horror films drenched in the score, the violins telling you how to feel. We wanted the score to be as jarring as the film and the subject matter itself. Don’t get the audience use to a rhythm or tell them when to be scared. Let silence play its part. That was a big commandment. Another one was having the ghosts be evil. Don’t have them be like people from another plain seeking help from humans. As much as I love films like The Changeling and stuff, the whole ghost really crying out for help…these films start off super scary and end kind of heartwarming. It turns out the guy didn’t want to hurt anyone; he just needed his story to be heard. Usually they go for the old; they needed their murder to be solved so they’re reaching out. We didn’t want that. We wanted our ghost to be fucking badass. I had the piece of paper stuck as I was writing. I was looking at this list of rules. Set up the family in a real life situation…take the time. The producers always want to cut back on this stuff but we wanted to set up the family as a real family. We were getting a lot of notes from various people with the first cut that it was too slow to start, get to the action.

Now, The Exorcist is slow by today’s standards. If you try and sit a bunch of teenagers down to watch The Exorcist, do you think it’ll play? In the 70′s when her head starts spinning, people were shocked and had to be carried out of theaters. Today, people start chuckling. It’s a different time. So we ignored any and all requests to at least not take the time to introduce our family because if you don’t do that, you’re not scared later because you’re not identifying with the people. If a bunch of teenagers are sitting around a campsite, it’s a bunch of stock archetypes we’ve seen before; when the killer comes out of the woods, you don’t give a shit. Just cut his head off! I want to see it! But if the killer comes out of the woods and the person sitting by the campfire is someone you really like or identify with, you’ll be like, oh shit dude, get the hell out of there. So, just a bunch of rules we wanted to stick to and I think we did.

Q: I find all of your work boldly blends extreme emotions. Horror, comedy and melodrama go hand in hand. Your films go to the brink of almost falling apart (Leigh lol) but it doesn’t. That’s when they reach that special place for me. Is that a self-conscious thing?

LW: You got to risk it. Why not, why not do it? Not everyone will like it. James and I have gotten used to the fact that our films will be polarizing. You might as well go for it. I mean in today’s climate you’re just drenched with media. Everybody has a TV in their pocket or a podcast in their ears. Billboards are in our faces every minute of every day trying to sell us everything from like aftershave to like 1-800-get whatever the fuck it is. You’re drenched in media and you really have to shout to be heard. This is going to sound strange and a bit lofty but I look at the films of P.T. Anderson and although he is at a different sphere, he is beloved by critics. I look at his films and he’s really going for it. He’s putting it all out there. He doesn’t care if he gets ridiculed. I don’t think there is anything to be gained by holding back. Risking ridicule or scorn shouldn’t be a big concern if you’re an artist. Then you’re not really creating from your heart, you’re second guessing yourself. But you know I really like that you said that because I do think it’s like on the edge, like disparate elements, like it’s going to tip over. For some people it does, for some people it holds on and for others it really works.

Q: To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of your stuff at first but after being compelled to watch them multiple times; I now find your films to be so alive and exciting. Traits most films this day and age are severely lacking. Insidious reminds me of the great works of Dario Argento. When you watch Suspiria, it’s an extravagant, larger than life experience. It’s devoid of subtlety but man, who cares, its cinema, for Christ’s sake. Your audience was having a great time.

LW: Shit yeah, dude. If you watch Suspiria today in any second-run film house, everybody is laughing… affectionately. They’re talking along with it. He’s an Italian, man. No subtlety. You and I know that Dario Argento considers his films to be masterpieces of art. James and I don’t necessarily think it (Insidious) is a masterpiece but we do wear our hearts on our sleeves and that always comes with a risk. It’s easier to be cynical and hold back. If you do that, it’s almost like you’re deflecting anything that comes your way. But if you wear your heart on your sleeve and go fuck it, let’s do a seance scene where she straps on gas mask and do it differently, it’s definitely going to invite some sort of “what the fuck”. I’m glad that people like yourself and people that are willing to let that in occasionally go “cool, great, fucking do it, its cinema.

Insidious was acquired by Sony for release in 2011.