Exclusive: James Wan and Leigh Whannell Talk Insidious

In 2004 two young Australian filmmakers wowed audiences everywhere with their indie hit Saw. Though their low-budget film was an unexpected and huge box office success (which spawned many sequels), director and writer duo James Wan and Leigh Whannell had no idea the triumph of Saw would lead them down the path of being labeled as “the godfathers of torture porn.”

Since then the filmmakers have tried to make their definitive film together while living under the shadow of the dreaded “torture porn” curse, and although Dead Silence and Death Sentence were praised by horror fans for their astonishing set designs and elaborate and impressive camera work, sadly both films were panned by most mainstream critics, leading some to believe James and Leigh had pulled an “M. Night Shyamalan” with their original jaw-dropping (or jaw-trapping) hit.

Fortunately, after six years with life and film experience under their belts, Wan and Whannell chose to premiere their latest collaboration, Insidious (review here), to a fervent Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness crowd, and the screening went off without a hitch!

After their victorious comeback, Dread Central had the opportunity to talk to both filmmakers about their new film. Upon meeting James Wan for the first time, I was astonished at how friendly, humble and energetic he was despite how exhausted he must have been from the previous night’s screening. Beaming from the news of Sony buying Insidious a mere four hours after the screening, he fed his much needed caffeine fix with a swig of Coca-Cola and then proceeded to tell us about his level of excitement.


Exclusive: James Wan and Leigh Whannell talk Insidious

I’m very excited and very happy about it,” he explained. “I was up until 6 in the morning talking to my producers back in L.A. I’m exhausted right now.

Considering Insidious was such a departure from his previous films, Wan also took the time to explain how anxious he was about the screening.

I was so nervous leading up to the screening because of these rabid hardcore genre fans,” he admitted. “They really love the genre, but they’re still desensitized to it as well. It’s not like a wacky horror comedy which seems to do much better [at the box office]. We set out to make a realistic and more grounded horror film, but at the same time paying homage to the horror films that we grew up loving as well,” he added.

Viewers should know that unlike Wan’s other films, Insidious surprisingly lacks any blood and gore. Although I commented on a bloody handprint shown on a character’s bedsheets onscreen, Wan was quick to point out what the stained handprint really was: “Let me clarify that the handprint on the bed actually wasn’t blood. It was lipstick! The main villain in the movie is known as ‘the lipstick-faced demon.’ I don’t think many people caught that, but I didn’t really want a character to point out and say ‘Look, it’s lipstick on his bed!’” he joked.

Wan also explained how it was his true intention to prove to audiences that he could do more than terrorize the audience with blood, guts and sawed off feet.

Hell, yes, it was my intention! It is extremely ironic that I am known as the ‘granddaddy of torture porn’ even though the first Saw film really didn’t have much blood or guts in it and it was really a psychological thriller shot like a horror film. It was really the sequels afterwards that cemented that subgenre, and because mine was the first one, I got actively thrown back into it. Leigh Whannell and I started talking, and we were like, ‘Well, we love our blood and guts, but scary movies should not just be about this! Scary movies should be about SCARING you regardless if it’s a guy with a knife or if it’s that chair moving on its own over there,’” he added. “That would be freaky on its own, and that’s what we wanted to do with Insidious.

“I really wanted to punctuate a creepy atmosphere. I described this film as a ‘supernatural chiller.’”

Like Wan’s previous efforts, Insidious was also shot in a very short amount of time. The filmmakers admitted on stage at the premiere that it only took 22 days to shoot the film.

It was insane. I filmed Saw in 18 days and that was tough. For it to do what it did, I was shocked,” explained Wan. “People don’t realize if you make a movie [like Insidious] that’s more slow-bruting and slow-burning that it’s not easier to do. You’re holding on longer shots that need to be more perfect. You could scrutinize everything if something is not right and if your timing’s off, you’re screwed. Shooting a movie like Saw, you can cut around things easily, but making a film like The Others and Sixth Sense actually cost a lot of money to make. It’s the controlled films that are the hardest to pull off. I’m very thankful to a great cast and crew for helping pull it off,” he exclaimed.

What makes Insidious even more impressive than its shooting schedule is the film’s impressive cast. Up and comers Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne star in the film as well as great character actors Lin Shaye and Barbara Hershey (an actress who is no stranger to the supernatural).

When I pick actors that I work with, I picked them because I either hear they’re awesome people to work with and great actors. Barbara Hershey, Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson all came highly recommended. Patrick and Rose were the two people I wanted immediately,” Wan admitted. “I got my two top choices and that never happens! I have to give a special shout-out to Lin Shaye. Lin was amazing, and she was like my Zelda Rubenstein in this film. (laughs) I also have to talk about Ty Simpkins. I felt so bad for him. He was terrified of the demon character in the film. He shared a lot of scenes with the demon. The actor who played the demon, Joe Bishara, who happens to be the composer for the film as well, is the nicest guy; but when he got into make-up with the hooves and the eyes, Ty began crying a lot. He was so scared. When you see him crying in the movie, those are real tears. He’s adorable and I love him,” he exclaimed.

Despite the word of mouth from critics out there branding this film with a future PG-13 rating because of the lack of gore and cursing, James spoke up that the rumors may not be true.

I don’t think the classification board likes me very much. I don’t know at this point. I heard that the board had said the film was really scary and effective, and when movies are outright scary and effective, that usually gets you an R rating,” he pointed out.

Exclusive: James Wan and Leigh Whannell talk Insidious

One of the biggest questions horror fans have been wondering about is the duo’s disappearing act since Death Sentence and why it took so long for them to collaborate again. James had no problem answering what seemed to be such a sensitive question.

After Saw we were the toast of the town, and then we did the ‘classy’ thing of doing a studio movie [Dead Silence], which was really tough on me. Halfway through production my producer [Gregg Hoffman] passed away. It was a really trying experience, and then came Death Sentence, which I think is my most accomplished work as a director, but no one saw that film,” he joked. “After filming three films back-to-back, I took 2 to 3 years off. Saw had afforded me the ability to take the time off, and in that time Leigh and I cooked up Insidious. I was glad to come back with a movie like this as opposed to jumping into a movie where I had no creative control,” He admitted.

Before ending the interview, James also hinted to DC about his future directorial projects.

I have a bunch of projects that I’m cooking away right now. It’s kind of hard to talk about them, but only because they’re still stewing, so I don’t know which one is going to be the next one,” he said coyly.

After our talk with James, writer/actor Leigh Whannell came into the room full of energy, and after discussing at great length why nobody should make the mistake of eating nachos at five in the morning, (something he was suffering from), we discussed the script of Insidious and how it can to be.

It actually wasn’t deliberate that there wasn’t any gore in the film,” Whannell confessed. “My only template for when I was writing the script was to make the kind of horror film that I would want to see.

James and I always wanted to do a movie dealing with astral projection. We felt like that hasn’t been touched on before in a mainstream horror film. Not that I know of at least. Watch some filmmaker read this interview and be like, ‘What about my 1986 classic OUT OF BODY?,” he joked. “It’s a mysterious element of the supernatural that often gets tied in more with the Eastern philosophy than it does with spooky stuff like ghosts coming down your stairs at 3 o’clock in the morning. We wanted to pull into that realm because essentially what is an astral body? It’s a ghost leaving your body and floating around,” Whannell added.

We had a treatment, but we got really busy and we put it aside and made Saw. Late last year we were chatting about doing another independent horror film, the one that we always wanted to make. I hope that people see it,” he exclaimed.

Leigh also divulged some unique research he did to complete the script: “I hung out with a bunch of ghost hunters. We went to an abandoned mental asylum in the middle of the night with these little flashlights. It’s crazy. These people really do this! They have a website. They take it very seriously. I personally have not had a personal experience with ghosts. In a weird way I wish I would. To see a ghost for me would be a great affirmation that there is in fact life after death. James [Wan] has had experiences. I’m kind of jealous,” he joked.

Insidious also features another memorable acting role from the screenwriter himself. In the film Leigh plays Specs, a geeky ghost hunter who manages to steal the show. We asked Whannell how he felt acting alongside such prominent actors.

I really respect these guys as actors. I’ve been a fan of Rose’s [Byrne] for years because she was working in Australian film before she went to the States and became popular with Damages. I remember watching her in the film Two Hands and thinking she had such great screen presence. One of my favorite films is Little Children so having Patrick [Wilson] on board was amazing. It was a little intimidating working with them, but it did make me want to do better,” he admitted. “When you’re in contact with somebody or even better working with somebody who you actually look up to or aspire to be like, that’s an amazing feeling,” he added.

After comparing some similarities with Insidious and Dead Silence, Leigh had no problem talking about the problems with their sophomore effort.

Dead Silence was the film we made after Saw, and we were very young when we made Saw. Wwhen you come into Hollywood like that and you have that breakout success, everybody around you starts telling you the rules. ‘You guys don’t know the rules; you just got here.’ So you listen to them. These guys live here and have been in the business for years so we better do what they say. That’s not necessarily the case,” he divulged. “After the 5 to 6 years I’ve lived in LA, now I know there are no rules. I feel like we rushed into Dead Silence, and I don’t think that film turned out the way we wanted it to. It wasn’t our definitive horror film. Insidious is like us going back and making the film we actually wanted to see, and with Dead Silence there were some great ideas, but you only get to see the final product, I know about the original idea. I know what Dead Silence could have been. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out. Now I’m just glad to be able to come back full circle,” he explained.

After going on a hilariously long tangent about how Specs deserves his own film and he’s more handsome than James Bond and stronger than Indiana Jones and how there were action figures in the works (nice try Leigh! :P), Whannell informed DC about his future writing projects.

I am writing three different films right now actually. I have one that’s going to take place in Australia with one of my best friends, Angus, who plays Tucker in Insidious. He’s actually a well-known comic actor in Australia, too. I have an animated children’s film I’m also working on. I have a lot of different genres I’m working, and I feel comfortable putting Insidious out there because even though James and I are known for horror, I have all these other projects that are really different and I can’t wait to show them,” Whannell exclaimed.

After seeing both Insidious and the charming filmmaking duo in person, I am happy to say that Insidious is the definitive film that James and Leigh were hoping it would be. Congrats to both filmmakers for a job well done!

Serena Whitney

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Serena Whitney