Creating a cultural phenomenon sounds great in theory, but, as Saw creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell have learned, such a lofty accomplishment is really a double-edged sword.
In January 2004, their inconspicuous little horror film called premiered to heavy buzz at the Sundance Film Festival, catching both the film community and its makers off guard. Written by Australian newcomer Whannell and directed by his film school friend Wan, Saw generated months of pre-release anticipation via slick trailers and strong word-of-mouth. Once it hit theaters in October ’04, Wan and Whannell’s independently made gore flick registered an $18 million opening weekend on its way to $103 million in box office receipts, six sequels, and worldwide ubiquity.
Throughout the series, Wan and Whannell stayed credited as producers, but they were mostly hands-off. Looking to establish themselves as something other than one-trick ponies, they returned with their second original horror project, Dead Silence, in 2007. With major studio interference and hokey scares, the supernatural puppet film underwhelmed genre heads and dissipated financially. For all intents and purposes, they were still the Saw guys.
But not anymore. Back in an independent mind state, Wan and Whannell have returned with a vengeance in the form of Insidious, a creepy-as-hell yet surprisingly bloodless chiller that opens this Friday. Typically non-horror stars Patrick Wilson (Watchmen) and Rose Byrne (Get Him To The Greek) play the concerned parents of a comatose boy whose body is inhabited by evil spirits. Though it’s being sold as a haunted house pic, Insidious is something more—it’s a wild funhouse ride of a movie, as able to quietly discomfort with mood as it is to loudly shock with ill visuals.
Most importantly, Insidious is completely different from Saw, as well as better all around. Here, Complex talks shop with Wan and Whannell about overcoming the Saw burden, learning from past mistakes, and why happy endings are for pussies.
Complex: Congratulations! I’ve been watching horror movies all of my life, and very little genuinely creeps me out anymore, but Insidious really got me.
Leigh Whannell: [Laughs.] Nice! That’s awesome to hear, man!
James Wan: Yeah, that’s pretty much what we really wanted to do. We wanted to make a movie that would creep the hell out of the most seasoned horror film watchers. But it’s hard to pull things like that off. So it’s really cool to hear you say that. Thank you.
Is this an idea you guys have had since before Saw, or did Insidious all come into fruition after Saw blew up?
Leigh Whannell: Well, we actually came up with the core idea for this film back when we were cooking up Saw. We had three different ideas that we were trying to choose between; luckily we went with the one about two guys who wake up in a bathroom. [Laughs.]
But one of the ideas was essentially the core story of Insidious, but we never did anything with it. We put it away into the little mental filing cabinets in the backs of our brains, and when the producers of Paranormal Activity came to us and said, “Listen, we’d love to make a film with you guys,” the first thing we thought was, We should pull out that idea we had all those years ago. We still think there’s something there; we haven’t seen that movie yet from anyone else. So we went from there.
Do you guys still feel like you have something to prove, even though Saw is easily the biggest and perhaps most important horror property of the last decade?
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, I think that might just be our personalities. We have a slight underdog complex. [Laughs.] We like to revel in that. I think a certain degree of that can be healthy, because it keeps you trying and you don’t rest on your laurels.
But also I think that Saw definitely locked us into a “thing.” We’re known as the “kings of torture porn,” as it were, or members of the “Splat Pack.” So there is something there to be proven for James and I. Not only that we can make different types of horror films that don’t rely on blood, but also different types of films altogether. We can’t wait to make different types of films in other genres.
Is it true that you guys don’t even consider Saw to be a horror film?
James Wan: Yeah, Saw, to me, was more like a dark thriller. It was more like a mystery thriller with a whodunit element to it. But I think, in a lot of ways, I shot it like a horror film, so ultimately it was sold as a horror film. I guess kudos to Lionsgate for selling it as a horror film, because it obviously worked really well, and it got out to a lot of people and people really like it.
Leigh and I always feel like, if we’re making a scary movie, it really doesn’t matter what kind of subgenre it’s in, as long as it’s scary. And Leigh and I have always been such big fans of the haunted house genre, so we decided that we wanted to give that a shot, except, typical us, we wanted to put our own spin to it. Take the haunted house convention and basically twist it on its head, so that when you watch it, though familiar, it has a different feel to it. And I think that’s important. Nowadays, people don’t really try, and I think credit should be given to whoever at least tries to make an effort to do something a bit unique.
James Wan: Yes, I really wanted to give Insidious a very classic sort of feel to it. Those were the films I grew up with and really loved, whether it’s Poltergeist or The Haunting, the older one directed by Robert Wise and not that mess of a remake. [Laughs.]
I really wanted to capture that old-school feel. But knowing the brand that Leigh and I have kind of grown to have now, I wanted, at the same time, to bring an old-school quality to a very contemporary film, if that makes sense. Make it feel like a modern-day movie, but one with a lot of inspirations from the olden days.
The makeup on some of the spirits, and the climax inside the house, really bring to mind the old great and underrated Carnival Of Souls. You’re a fan of that film, right? It shows.
James Wan: Yes. Carnival Of Souls is one of those movies I caught late at night one time, at midnight, and it scared the crap out of me. The low-budget nature really lent itself to the creepy vibe. They didn’t have a lot of money, the makeup is slightly off. The wardrobe and hair are all slightly off. Everything has these slightly off-kilter elements that really add to the creepiness, and that’s what I wanted to bring to Insidious.
Part of the reason why we made it so low-budget, as well, was so we could have as much creative control as we wanted. I can’t bring elements like this to a studio film. [Laughs.] Can you imagine sitting in a studio meeting and referencing Carnival Of Souls? They'd be like, “What?” [Laughs.]
I can imagine. The scares in Insidious are really well timed. There’s a scene early on where the house alarm goes off, Patrick Wilson runs downstairs to check on it, and Rose Byrne hears her baby crying. I won’t give away what happens, but you take a really slow, natural approach to the camerawork in that sequence that makes the payoff all the more unexpected. But then once you get to the later séance scene, your camerawork becomes more erratic as all hell breaks loose.
James Wan: Yeah, I would say that Insidious is probably my best film. I mean, I really haven’t directed that many films; this is only my fourth movie. But, from both a director’s standpoint and my own personal standpoint, Insidious is my best-crafted film, because I got exactly the things I wanted to get.
To me, I really wanted to give Insidious lots of different levels. I wanted it to be a very slow, brooding movie, I wanted it to be very creepy. I wanted it to have great “Boo!” shock scares, but at the same time I wanted to contradict that with scenes where you may see a ghost, or some kind of vision, but the music doesn’t necessarily sting it. So the character doesn’t acknowledge it, the filmmaker doesn’t acknowledge it, but you as an audience member go, “Did I just see something?” But the filmmakers aren’t telling you that you saw something, and I think that brings a level of anxiety.
With Insidious, there was a lot of thought that went into it for me as a director. Crafting the scare scenes is as important to me as crafting the script was for Leigh.
Speaking of which, Leigh, there are some pretty wild ideas and bugged-out imagery throughout the movie, especially during the parts inside “The Further.” What sorts of crazy things were going through your mind during the script stage?
Leigh Whannell: I guess the inspirations for it come from all of the stuff that James and I love. This is something that’s sort of been cooking in our brains for a long time, at least in our subconscious. Because we had the initial idea so long ago, all of those years ago, it’s been cooking away. So when it came to write it, I just wanted to make sure that everything was different.
Using the séance scene as an example, I think that’s a scene that’s so well-trodden. It’s something you’ve seen so many times before in horror movies. I wanted to make sure it was done in a way that felt new, so hence the whole gas mask element. [Laughs.] That was something I came up with to try and make the whole scene feel new. James and I just love the same outlandish stuff, and I think the end of the film and scenes like that are examples of our style.
Up until when Drag Me To Hell came out in 2009, séances were kind of tired, but then Sam Raimi delivered a really memorable one. I think the one you guys have in Insidious might actually top that, at least in terms of craziness.
James Wan: That says a lot about the stuff that Leigh and I like to do, which is take things that you think you’ve seen before, but then really twist it. Make it unique. We applied that mentality throughout the overall movie, whether it’s in the premise of a haunted house movie that isn’t necessarily about a haunted house, and then ultimately having two slightly funny comic relief characters in the film to help break the tension.
Everyone is saying the film has a serious tone, but then we introduce an element into it to make it a bit more fun. These kinds of films are like rollercoaster rides; you go up and down and you really need to bring the audience back down so you can push them back up there and back onto the edges of their seats.
The big climax at the end when all of the souls converge within the house reminded me a lot of that movie from the ’70s The Sentinel, the one that ends with all of Hell’s demons bumrushing the apartment building and looking like insane hobos.
James Wan: [Laughs.] Oh yeah! I love The Sentinel, except I didn’t do what Michael Winner [the director] did; his casting choices were very controversial back then, which I think would still be very controversial right now, as well. [Laughs.]
Your previous foray into the supernatural, Dead Silence, had some cool elements but felt off altogether. Insidious seems to be that film’s potential realized, if that makes sense. Would you agree?
Leigh Whannell: Absolutely. Dead Silence was not the film we wanted it to be. It was a missed opportunity for both of us, and it was really our Hollywood trial by fire. That’s where we learned all of our lessons about how Hollywood really looks at its core.
I think we had a dream run with our first movie. A lot of people point out to us that our experience with Saw wasn’t really the reality of Hollywood, or how it works with filmmaking. And we learned all of those lessons at once on Dead Silence. We did it with Universal, and it was just a bad experience. It was such a tough time for both James and I.
All of the nightmare stories you hear about studio filmmaking, from rewrites to reshoots and endless notes, we experienced. It just never achieved what we wanted it to be, and the end result isn’t the film that we originally set out to make at all. It made us really gun-shy about working with major studios after working with Universal on that.
Hearing you say that makes me wish I could see the version of Dead Silence you guys intended to make, because there’s such great potential in a movie about creepy ventriloquist dolls.
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, the original idea, as naïve as we were, we thought we could just go and make a film that was a tribute to Mario Bava and old episodes of The Twilight Zone with a studio. Unfortunately, they’re like, “Uhhh, Mario Bava? Yeah, we’re not quite sure about that. How about Mario Lopez?” [Laughs.]
They just don’t get it, and it was just so tough. It was physically tough. I remember it making me sick; I had headaches every day from just the stress of dealing with the studio. It was not good. I think that Insidious is us doing it our way, atoning for all of the mistakes that were forced on us with Dead Silence, the bullshit that we had to put up with.
It’s cool that, even though you guys did this one on your own and without any big studio help, you got two quite credible actors for the lead roles. Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson definitely give Insidious a sense of credibility as all of the insane stuff starts happening. How key you do you think they are in selling the movie?
James Wan: Exactly. I think part of the reason they came on board was because they read Leigh’s script and just thought it was fantastic. I’d say that Patrick Wilson paid Leigh the biggest compliment when he said that the script read like a great drama that just so happens to have a ton of scary moments in it. [Laughs.] Besides the fact that they’re really good actors, top actors in their field, they’re really good people and understood what we were trying to do.
I really needed to have actors that the audience could believe in, because, otherwise, when the family starts going through the hell they go through, weak actors will take the audience out of the movie. I was very fortunate to have actors like Rose, Patrick, Barbara Hershey, and Lin Shaye.
When I did the final end credit with all of the cast and crew, I actually realized how small the cast was. [Laughs.] There were under like ten actors in the whole movie.
One thing I’ve noticed about all of your movies is that you guys love bleak, downers of endings, as do I, so I’m all for them. But you guys must hate happy endings. Many horror movies have that last “Gotcha!” scene, but you guys handle those much better than most others.
Leigh Whannell: Happy endings suck! [Laughs.] No, we’re just fans of endings that are appropriate for the journey you’ve just put your audience through, I think. For me, it’s pretty funny because Leigh was telling me that he thought the film should have a last shot that would recapture that same last second gut-punch of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, the one made in the ’70s. There’s that last shot with Donald Sutherland pointing and screaming into the camera, right? That is such a long-lasting image, and I knew I wanted to do something like that and capture that mood, even though our ending isn’t the same.
When I look back at it now, the last shot of Insidious really reminds of a last shot that Dario Argento or Mario Bava would’ve had in their early Italian films. A lot of people have told me that Insidious has given them nightmares, which I love. [Laughs.]
That’s the best compliment you could receive, right?
James Wan: Yeah! You don’t want to hear that if you made a comedy. [Laughs.] But it’s good when you’ve made a scary movie.
Do you guys know what you’re going to do next? Another horror movie?
Leigh Whannell: Well, yeah. We actually have been planning and talking about a sci-fi film, something that’s a little bit outside the genre we’re known for, but not so far that people are like, “What, they did a musical?” [Laughs.] Though, I still think Saw: The Musical is such a great idea. I’d pay to see that on Broadway. But, yeah, we’ve been talking about a sci-film. That’s probably the next thing we’ve been talking about the most.
Are you going to remain independent at this point?
Leigh Whannell: Yeah! Yeah, for sure. It’s so much better this way.