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Filmmakers Chat: Leigh Whannell on Insidious Chapter 3 and the future of horror films

June 4, 2015

Film + EntertainmentInterview | by Francesco Cerniglia


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Stepping out of James Wan’s shadow might not be quite the right words to describe Leigh Whannell’s move from script writing duties into the director’s chair, given the genre he has made his home.

But when his long time collaborator was handed the reigns to the monstrous Fast and Furious franchise’s seventh outing, Whannell was given the opportunity to take control of the world he had spent so much time writing and building.

Whilst Whannell has an unenviable list of writing credits already to his name, directing had been his original goal when he ventured into film school. “I went to film school to direct and that’s where I met James. I didn’t go to film school to find someone else to work with, I went to film school thinking ‘I’m going to be a director’ but then I met James and it made sense to kind of team up, then next thing you know 10 years have gone by.

It’s certainly been a long road for Whannell to get his opportunity to take up the seat at the head of the table. After his and Wan’s short film Saw was finally given the funding it needed to become a feature length (released in 2004), it quickly rose to a horror box-office behemoth to rival A Nightmare On Elm Street. Taking over $100 million on a budget of $1.2 million, it spawned six sequels, two of which were written by Whannell (released in 2005 and 2006).

It’s hard for me to keep pulling from the same bag of tricks, like with the Saw movies I wrote 3 of them and then they asked me to write 3 more. Then I thought ‘why did I come to LA, to be a factory worker just pushing out the same stuff?’ That feels like work, and I wanted a job in the film industry to run away from work. So I stopped writing those movies because I felt like I was repeating myself.

Leaving Saw behind didn’t mean a departure from the horror genre yet though, Whannell and Wan reunited for the less financially successful Dead Silence, but quickly found success again with the inception of another hit franchise. With Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson and Lin Shaye in starring roles, Insidious (2010) injected a whole new life into the classic ghost tale and Whannell created a world (The Further) with immense possibilities for future stories.

The good thing about Insidious and this concept of The Further is you can plug anyone into it, it’s not only concentrating on this one family.” And this was where Whannell had to begin with, when it came to writing the third film in the franchise, before he had even taken on the role of director.

I always start off writing with just using the blank notepad. I don’t like starting off on the computer because there’s too much pressure, that cursor is too accusatory and it seems to demand you write something good but a notepad you can just scribble any old crap and then rip it out. And when I sat there with this blank notepad, one of the first things I wrote down was ‘no Lambert family’. Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson did a fantastic job in the first two movies and it was great working with them, but I just thought they’d been through enough.

By process of elimination Whannell was only left with one of his main characters from the first two movies (sort of). “The most obvious choice then was Elise, Lin Shaye’s character. Why not build a film around her? Then I remembered we’d killed her off in the first movie so the only way to tell a story about her was to go back in time.

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Elise seems to typify Whannell’s approach to the horror genre. Taking a classical story, something that has been done before and then throwing something completely different and unconventional to the forefront. “If you read enough books about screenwriting, you come across things like The Hero’s Journey, with the hero rescuing somebody. You’ve got the retired gunslinger who has hung up her spurs but is then dragged back into it reluctantly, and that’s a story that’s been told many times, either in westerns or a Mad Max film, but it hasn’t been told with a 5 foot 3″ elderly woman. So suddenly I became excited by the idea of someone like Lin, who isn’t usually playing the hero in movies, playing a badass.

Fans of the franchise can certainly attest to Elise’s credentials as a hero, having managed to save the Lambert family whilst dead in Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013) but there’s a whole new side to her to be found in Chapter 3.

When a filmmaker is so heavily rooted in one genre, so synonymous with one particular type of film, there’s always the question of “why?”. What makes them gravitate so strongly towards certain types of stories? “Cinematically it’s awesome, when you’re in a movie theatre and hear people scream to something you created, it’s like a drug, it’s really addictive… Can’t imagine what it’s like to direct a drama, and just sit there at the back of the room watching a bunch of silent people.

Much like comedies, horror films elicit a particular reaction in audiences that you very rarely find with other types of films but also create a greater pressure on the filmmaker to draw that reaction. “That sound you hear in the back of the theater, or maybe lack of it, it’s an instant barometer to how you’re doing.

This is why horror is perhaps the most challenging of genres to get right. It’s a genre littered with an endless tirade of cheap, straight-to-video sequels that inspire more bouts of laughter than screams of terror.

Being a horror fan you’re starved of quality. There seems to be a lot of people in the horror community, who fixate on the lesser films, they become obsessed with the movies that aren’t great movies. No one is going to say The Toxic Avenger (1984) or Basketcase (1982) are going to win any Oscars, but they have a lot of fans. You can count on maybe two hands to amount of truly artful horror films like The Shining (1980) or The Exorcist (1973), films you could comfortably put next to The Godfather (1972). There aren’t a lot of horrors you could put on that shelf. It’s becoming a once a decade thing when a great horror movie that can measure up to films in other genres comes out. And so you’re not getting these films as frequently and when you do, you latch onto them.

It seems that Whannell himself realises the problem that the genre he has invested so much of his creativity and imagination in suffers from, and is keen to do his part to readdress that imbalance. Saw and Insidious aren’t The Exorcist or The Shining of course, but in terms of modern cinema, they are as close as any other films in the genre have been.

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Despite giving horror cinema its much needed injection of adrenaline (twice), Whannell is a little less sure on where the future of the genre lies and whether or not he’ll have a part to play in it. “If I knew the answer, then I would write that movie. I’m waiting for some kid to shoot a film on his iPhone that changes the genre. Every so often it seems like there’s a new boundary that’s broken, and as a horror fan I’m excited to see that movie, as well as being jealous of whoever makes it. ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ has been a phrase reverberating around my head a few times.

And as for Whannell himself and the future of the Insidious frachise? He’s playing it cautious on the prospect of a fourth film in the series but doesn’t rule it out. “I’m very superstitious, and more so with this movie. I guess I feel more ownership about this movie than I ever have, and so my normal superstitions and neurosis have gone into overdrive. Usually I have James to lean on and just say ‘well if it’s crap, it’s his fault.’ If this one came out and did well then after a month or so I’d probably sit down and think if this story has anywhere else to go or something worthy to say.

With Whannell’s current track record, you can almost guarantee Insidious Chapter 3 will be greeted with more success, and a fourth film is sure to follow… but perhaps without him at the helm as he confesses “now that I’ve got the directing bug, I’m keen to prove I’m not just ‘the sequel guy’.

Insidious Chapter 3 is released in UK cinemas on June 5th

Thomas Eldred