Interview: ‘Insidious’ Director James Wan!

One of the most exciting horror movies in years was unleashed at TIFF 2010′s Midnight Madness program. That little film was Insidious (review), the latest effort by the creators of the even smaller picture, Saw which happened to spawn this generation’s most defining horror franchise. After dwelling in the mainstream with Dead Silence and Death Sentence, director, James Wan and writer/actor, Leigh Whannell go back to basics. Insidious could (and should) be the film that puts Wan right up there with the very best of modern horror.
BLOODY DISGUSTING: What was your approach to the look of Insidious? It’s got a subdued, more classical look than anything you’ve done before.

JAMES WAN: Yah that was the whole idea. I set out to do a classic horror film in the vein of like The Haunting, The Innocents and The Exorcist. The Exorcist isn’t really shot in a very fancy way, if any thing, it was shot like a documentary. That’s what made it really scary. I really wanted the film to really start like that; have shades of the docu-style filmmaking but at the same time be very controlled. I’m a big fan of The Others. I think shooting controlled-looking movies with the photography, the set dressing and the scares; they’re really hard to do. It’s so much harder than just shooting a gritty looking film where you can fast cut. If something doesn’t work, cut out of it, cut to another angle. That’s how you can fix around things that aren’t quite there. To get the energy going when it’s a just a slow, creeping shot towards a door; that is hard to get right. You have to make sure that the camera moves right, there’s no bump in it, the door creeks at just the right amount, you don’t want to push too much. Considering the short amount of time we had to shoot this film, man, I don’t know how we pulled it off but we did.

Q: Did you use a wide angle lens often? There were a lot of surreal, larger than life images in the film.

JW: I love my wide-angle lenses. The film is shot in real houses. All of the locations are real locations, they’re not sets. When you are in these confined places, they’re actually very small. To open it up, you need to throw in a wider lens to see it. One of the things I wanted to do stylistically is to have the camera be front of the corner, have action going on in one set of the room, yet you’re able to look into another room, a door that’s open so you can see and then you can go; is there something in there. For my camerawork to my production design to my sound design and the script on top of that, I just wanted to create a really creepy chiller that just permeates throughout the entire film. Set that creepy tone that when we get into those boo scares, you’re already in the edge of your seat because you’re so creeped out by it. When one of the boo scares come, it just throws you off even more as opposed to a lot of today’s horror films that are made by the numbers.

Q: You cut this film yourself. What did you take on that task?

JW: I love editing. I’m very involved in editing. You can ask any of my editors to the point where I’m like so in their face that they hate me (James laughs). I usually cut most of the short films I do or the music videos I used to do in the past. I thought I would love to cut one of my own movies because I feel like I can really put my stamp on it. To be honest, in the short amount of time we had to shoot the film, me, being the editor really helps me to know what I need to shoot. I knew exactly what I was going to shoot because I already knew in my head how I was going to cut it. I think that’s really cool because that really says it has my stamp, my fingerprint all over it, not from just the directing but down to the way that shots are composed and the way it’s edited and all that. If the film fails, I have no one to blame but myself.

Q: Horror, comedy and melodrama aren’t displayed subtly in your work. Most often these emotions are audaciously blended together and pushed to the extreme, taking the film to the brink of collapse but somehow never letting it happen. This style of filmmaking is practically non-existent in horror today. Your use of melodrama kind of reminds me of Val Lewton’s stuff.

JW: You’re right; it is a fine line. You push it too far, you cross that line into absurdity. Leigh and I love the over the top. We love crazy stuff. We love coming up with bizarre things but we want to take it just far enough for people to go; “what the hell is that? What is a reverse bear-trap?” That’s really out there but we try to house it in such a context that it can be real. With Insidious, it starts off as a classic, conventional haunted house movie that half way into it; it takes a complete left turn into a completely different. I would almost say genre style of movie but the key is to find a tone that still ties it together, that still keeps it rhythmically even. Visually, esthetically it still needs to feel like the same film. In Insidious, people were saying it was ballsy of us to bring these two characters out of the blue that are so comical but I say that’s great. You need the audience to have their laughter. You need that relief. If they don’t have something to laugh at, as Leigh would point out, they’ll just laugh at something else in the film that they shouldn’t be laughing at.

Q: I think it makes it scarier because you, the viewer can’t ever trust the tone of the picture or where it’ll go next. The moment the audience is having fun is precisely when you hit them with a scare next.

JW: Yeah, that’s the thing I really always want to capture. I really want to keep my audience on their toes and that’s what makes watching movies fun. If it’s so formulaic and you know exactly what’s going to happen next, that’s not fun. Whether Leigh and I achieve it or not, at least we strive to be original. We pay homage to the films we love because as they say; there’s only a fine amount of story that exists out there so it’s all about finding new ways to tell these stories.

Q: I really appreciate the film’s lack of CGI effects.

JW: There was very little. Everything in this was practical, just about. I use CG very sparsingly because I don’t think CG is scary. It isn’t scary at all. That’s why I think movies like The Others and The Sixth Sense works so well because they weren’t CGI heavy movies. They were more emotional, character-based films. The ghost in The Sixth Sense is just an actor standing there, painted up, turn around and go ERRR!

Q: My last question is unrelated to Insidious. I’ve heard before that you mentioned Saw was kind of only 30% of what you originally intended it to be. What would have the other 70% looked like?

JW: Here’s the irony; if I had shot Saw exactly how I wanted to shoot it, I wonder if it would have been as successful as it is today. I would have shot Saw more like how I shot Insidious which is very controlled, very methodically throughout because I think that’s the kind of filmmaker I ultimately am. I admire Danny Boyle because to me, Danny Boyle is someone who can do the really controlled stuff but then let loose and be very kinetic and just free for all. He is one of those filmmakers who can hit both strides. I strive to be that guy. I think if I would ever get a crack at another Saw film, it would probably be more in tone and in line with what I did with Insidious.