Creators of the original Saw, James Wan and Leigh Whannell are behind this new haunted house thriller, in cinemas this Friday
Director James Wan is most notorious for co-creating the now-legendary slasher franchise Saw with his writing partner/actor Leigh Whannell. Instead of going onto direct that first film's sequel, the Australian duo instead decided to do something very few breakout horror mavens ever attempt in their entire career. They jumped genres to co-write and direct the supernatural murder mystery Dead Silence, which was soon followed by the suspenseful revenge flick Death Sentence, starring Kevin Bacon.
This Friday, James Wan and Leigh Whannell return to their true horror roots with their first ever haunted house thriller Insidious, which is drawing swift comparisons to Poltergeist and The Exorcist. Insidious stars Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne as a married couple who come to believe their house is haunted after their son falls into a deep coma. After fleeing the seemingly ghost-infected dwelling with their lives in tact, they soon discover that it's not the house that is haunted.
Here is our conversation:
Right out of the gate, Insidious has been compared to Poltergeist. That movie is the ultimate haunted house classic. And it stands the test of time. Is it daunting to have your own studio comparing your work to such a great piece of cinema? And do you think that sets expectations a little too high?
James Wan: My movie is like the much cheaper, non-studio version of Poltergeist. If people want to make that comparison. People forget that a lot of the great horror films that came out back then came out of the studio system. Now, today, if you want to make a good scary movie, you have to do it outside of the studio system. I can't really remember a great scary movie that has come out of the studio system in the last ten years. All of the really great horror movies in recent years have been Indies. From Paranormal Activity, to Saw, to The Blair Witch Project. They were all done outside of the studio system. If people are making the comparison between Insidious and Poltergeist, that's great. But I definitely want people to know that we don't have the same type of budget that movie had back then. Plus, that was a Steven Spielberg production. There is no way of getting near that.
Poltergeist was not only one of the scariest movies of its time, it was truly funny on a lot of different levels. It was a fun movie. When your studio touts this as the next Poltergeist, I am assuming that Insidious is going to hit along those same lines...
James Wan: I wouldn't necessarily say that. People have said its funny. But I like to think that there are moments of levity in it. When the film gets really intense, like any good suspense movie, it needs to release the pressure valve. We did that by having three paranormal investigators come into the story. I think that is another reason why people are making comparisons to Poltergeist. But, Poltergeist, ironically, is not the first movie to have paranormal investigators, or a medium, or a psychic that goes and looks at a house. You had that in The Haunting. It's almost a staple of the haunted house sub-genre. To me, Poltergeist was a really great living tribute to all of the haunted house movies that came out before it.
In saying that, a lot of those movies that Poltergeist is paying tribute to didn't come out of the studio system either. They were Drive-In, second bill, B movies.
James Wan: I am talking about your really good, classic horror movies like The Shining and The Exorcist.A lot of those 70s films that you wouldn't think a studio would make, but they did. The Haunting. That was a studio film, wasn't it?
I am not up to speed on The Haunting.
James Wan: Robert Wise, to me, is a studio director. So I figure that back then, they all worked within the studio system. The Haunting and The Innocents are actually two films that I looked to for inspiration. When you talk about newer films, I would site my inspiration as being The Sixth Sense and The Others. The Others was a big inspiration, definitely.
It's funny that you mention those two films. For a while, horror fans were really crying about the PG-13 rating. They thought the films were suffering because the studios were trying to market these newer films to teenage girls. But Sam Raimi came in with Drag Me to Hell, and proved that you can definitely make a scary movie that is PG-13. And then, going back to a movie like Poltergeist, it was rated PG before they even had PG-13. Did you draw inspiration from that in making Insidious a PG-13 rated film?
James Wan: Yeah, some of those scary movies were rated PG. And aside from Drag Me to Hell, I can site some other really scary PG-13 rated movies that have come out. Drag Me to Hell definitely has Sam Raimi's stamp all over it. Fun horror. That is what he makes. Its fun, and its meant to be funny. But there are a few other ones that are more serious. And they are PG-13. Like The Ring. The Others. The Sixth Sense. They are all scary, suspense movies that are rated PG-13. There is a really strange misconception that the ratings system dictates the quality of a film. Especially a horror movie. Which is silly. If anything, I think that if you can make a scary movie with a PG-13 rating, its much harder to do, and more of a challenge. It was a challenge I really wanted to play with. To me, some of the scariest films are not R rated films. They are PG-13 or PG.
I think the problem comes in when some of the less suave horror fans believe that you are trying to make an R rated horror movie, and you are being limited by the system. They don't realize that this is the movie you set out to make from the forefront of this idea.
James Wan: Yes, that is a point I do want to get across. This is the movie I wanted to make. Ultimately, I got to make the movie I wanted to make, and it just so happens that there is no blood and guts, swearing, nor violence in there. It's just an old fashioned, creepy haunted house film. And within that, there is a lot you can get away with. Because it is supernatural. Which gets a PG-13. But that doesn't mean it's any less scary. I look at the Paranormal Activity movies, especially the first one. There is swearing in that. They say fuck a lot. But if you take that language out, it really becomes a PG-13 film. That was probably one of the last, truly affective movies that I have seen. The first one, especially. Not the second one. Because a baby is in danger. The kids are in danger. When that happens, you are placed into an R rated category. But that first one did not have that.
How soon did you see Paranormal Activity? Before the buzz surrounding it hit a fever pitch? Because for me, I felt the movie had been ruined by the hype.
James Wan: That happens. For people who were not paying attention to the horror genre, it came out of nowhere. But for people like you and me, it was around for a long time. And it was a very slow generating thing. It was nearly a year from when we first heard about it until it played in theaters. For me? Luckily, I had only heard rumblings about it here and there. If it's a movie I really want to see, I try to stay away from it as much as I can. I try not to read too much about it, and I don't like to see too much of the trailer. I like to go into it knowing as little as I can. Just enough to get my appetite intrigued. I actually saw it at home, alone. It works really well in that setting.
I saw Paranormal Activity after I saw the trailer that gave away all four of the film's biggest scares. With Insidious, I have seen hardly anything from it. There is still a mystery to it. It hasn't been completely ruined by the marketing materials.
James Wan: I think that is a great testament to FilmDistrict. They don't want to dilute the scares. They don't want to give too many of the scares away. In today's age, I can't tell if that is a good thing or a bad thing. The problem is, you get people going, "I have no idea what the fuck their film is about." They don't go see it. It's like a double edged sword these days. Today, to get an audience into the theater, they need to give a lot of things away. They need to get butts in those seats.
If you look at a movie like the Sixth Sense, no one knew what that was about until they walked out of the theater.
James Wan: Right. The one thing that is interesting is that they did play up the whole Haley Joel Osment seeing dead people aspect. They played that up a lot. That was the big marketing hook for them. That idea came in at the 40-ish minute mark. The thing that no one wanted to tell you about was the big twist ending. You had to go see this film because it had a really cool ending. That word of mouth got people into theaters, basically.
Let's talk about the end of your movie. Of course, I don't want you to give anything away, but in recent years, when there is a haunted house movie, it always ends with the malevolent force turning out to be a ghost who was wronged, and it is just looking to rest its soul. How did you look at that horror cliché, and turn its on its head for this?
James Wan: So, do you want me to talk about this? Or do you not want me to talk about this element? (laughs)}
Can you talk about it without giving it away? How you go about creating an ending that doesn't play to the same clichés we've seen too many times throughout the past few years?
James Wan: The one thing I will say is, yeah, the one thing you pointed out is the one thing that I really, really hate. (Laughs) You get put through this whole film. You get all of these scares. You are walking down this corridor, and something scary, a ghost or apparition appears...Then you get to the end of the movie. And you realize that whole time it was trying to communicate. To help find its dead body, or the person that killed it. To help them, so that soul can get put to rest. I really dislike that. Without giving too much away. One of the things Leigh Whannell and I wanted to do...As much as we love the tropes, the conventions in some ways, of the haunted house sub-genre, we also wanted to break a lot of them as well. We wanted to subvert a lot of them as well. One of the big things we are subverting here...And I am not giving this away because they have this one on the big marketing poster, is that it is a haunted house movie, but the haunting isn't necessarily coming from the house. You're never quite sure where it is coming from. Ultimately, I think that's what makes it cool for a lot of people. One of the things that can be polarizing about the things that Leigh Whannell and I do is, we want to do things a bit differently. We want to think outside the box. We want the audience to go in there and see something they think they are familiar with. Then halfway into the movie, you take it in a completely different direction that they don't want. That they never see coming. Because of that, you are polarizing to a lot of people. Or some people will embrace that. They think, "Wholly shit! I love that these guys were willing to take the chance and do something different." To stand out these days, you have to do something different.
Leigh Whannell: The thing with James and I is, we are true horror fans. We are not dipping our toes into this pool out of curiosity. We really do have a full understanding of horror. Because we see these films. We see a lot of them. When you do that, you have an instinctual sense about them. What works. What is overused. It's really valuable in knowing what not to do. Knowing what to do? If I knew that, I would write it down and bottle it. I am not sure what makes a film or a script work. But I am pretty sure about what can bring it to its knees. These are little things. When you've watched as many horror movies as James Wan and I have, you know that the false scare is boring and over used. You know that with a haunted house movie, the film starts out really frightening. Then, of course, the thing that has been disturbing the house and the occupants inside it, turns out to just be a wronged spirit who is trying to send a message. Even that can be annoying for James and I, I guess. With the very definition of horror, you need to have a protagonist. Someone who wants and means to do harm to the people within the story. I think that is why James and I really took to the Japanese horror films that came out in the last half of the past decade. The Ring. Especially The Grudge. The ghost in The Ring, both in the Japanese version and the American version, was really evil. She meant to do harm to these people. We treasure that. It's a horror film. Give me horror. This thing that you have pointed out is something James and I knew that we didn't want to do. That comes from watching so many horror movies, and seeing that plot point trotted out again and again.
In mentioning the Asian horror movies that have come out in the past fifteen years, especially the Japanese ones...Every one of those films has a really strong line of social commentary running through it. It's never about what we are actually seeing on screen, but what is going on in the country, with the youth, at that time. It's a reflection of the problems in their own lives as a country. How do you take something like that and place it in an American movie context? Is that right for our audiences here? Are they even receptive enough to that to make it a necessity in screenwriting?
Leigh Whannell: I think social commentary within horror films is a great thing. The trappings of a horror film are a great cloak for that. To send a message subliminally, there is no better cloak than a horror film. If you look at Dawn Of The Dead, very few people would look at that as a commentary on American consumerism. Mindless consumerism. They would think that it is just a zombie film. But huge fans of George A. Romero know that that's what the film is. It's a great genre for hiding your message. If you make Syriana, there is no hiding. People know what you are up to. They are like, "This is an anti about the oil industry." But image if you took Syriana, and you turned it into a monster movie. You could really burry the message in there. I don't strive for that sort of thing, particularly. Unless I felt that I really had something to say. Politically or socially. What I do think is essential for any type of film is a theme or point of view. Something larger, that you are speaking to. For me, most of the time the themes in my films have been personal, rather than political or social. It's something that has been close to my heart. Like with Saw, I was having anxiety attacks at the time. I was really concerned with sickness and being sick. This feeling of wanting to be well. To appreciate the time you have. I remember thinking at the time, "God, if you have your health, you have everything." It's trite unless you are sick. Talk to a sick person, and they say, "I would give anything to be well again." That was consuming me at that time. With Insidious, what was occupying my mind were thoughts of getting older. That is the theme to me. This march of time. As you get older, time gets shorter. It doesn't seem to go on forever, like it does when you are a kid. The years start to fly by. It is something I have thought about a lot. Getting older. Having kids. Within a horror context, I thought about these older entities trying to be young again. Trying to occupy the boy.
I am a fan of Death Sentence. That has one of those perfect ending. And some audience members hate the progression of that. Does this have a similar feel to it?
James Wan: I think, if anything, Insidious falls more in line with what we did in the first Saw film. Think about it, okay? Think about how strange the concept is, right? The concept of a ventriloquist puppet that comes riding out on a tricycle and starts talking to its victims. I remember when that first came out. That was so funny to people. They were like, "What the fuck is this shit?" People didn't quite get it. They didn't quite know what to make of it. But now? That has become the staple of the Saw franchise. That is the face of those movies. If we had not taken chances like that, I don't think it would have been as memorable as it is today. That's fine. People can have their own opinion. They can bitch about it. They can say, "Why does it start out this one way, and why does it become this other film? Years from now, they may forget about all the other haunted house movies that have come and gone. But they will continue to talk about the quirkiness that Insidious has.
Why did you personally want Lin Shaye in your horror movie?
James Wan: She is fucking fantastic. She is such a professional, and the loveliest person. I have known here quite a fare bit over the years. When Insidious came along, I thought, "I really want Lin Shaye to play this part. So many people have said that she steals the film. She is fantastic here. She comes from a background in comedy. And most people know her for the comedic stuff that she did with the Farrelly brothers. She is willing to do things most people are not willing to do. She is willing to go really crazy, and over the top. She loves making fun of herself. I wanted to show people that she can do serious drama. And that she is very comfortable doing that drama. But because of her background, she brings something really quirky to her character that she plays in this film. Lin Shaye is so brave. It's not just about the acting. Its about having fun. That's what she does. She gets up there and has fun. She is so cool to work with.
You and Leigh have always managed to secure such a great cast for your movies. Even Donnie Wahlberg in Dead Silence. He is great in that movie.
James Wan: Yes! I have been pigeon-holed as a genre filmmaker, yet the genre films I make do not have your typical genre casts. I have nothing against horror actors. It just fell that way. All of my movies...In Saw, you have Danny Glover and Cary Elwes, these are not genre actors. They all come from different backgrounds. As you pointed out, with Dead Silence, I have Donnie Wahlberg, Bob Gunton, and Amber Valletta...These are not genre actors either. Then with Death Sentence, we have Kevin Bacon and Garrett Hedlund. John Goodman. Now, with Insidious, we have Patrick Wilson, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye. For me, casting is extremely important. I try to think outside of the box with my writing. I try to do the same for casting as well. I always want to bring interesting actors to my projects. More than that, I want to bring great people into it, that I enjoy working with. Basically.
Leigh Whannell: James, in the audition process, would always say that we got such a great cast because of the script I wrote. Which is great coming from him. For him to say that, I felt like I had graduated. I knew that he was being sincere. He attributes the cast of Insidious to the script that I wrote, and their reaction to it. I love that. That is a big part of it. When you are doing a low budget film, you don't have much to attract the audience, other than the script. If you don't have a huge paycheck to wave in front of their face, then that is all you have, really. I know that Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, the reason they did the film, its because they really responded to this script. That is the thing I am most proud of myself with the writing. We have always been lucky. With Saw, it was made by a managing company who managed actors. They had access to a lot of people, and they managed to get us a great cast. You hope that continues.
What about Leigh? Did you get Leigh in this one?
Do we see his dead body in this one?
James Wan: I guess you will be pleasantly surprised.
Leigh, how much are you in the film?
Leigh Whannell: I think I am in pretty much half the film. Our characters come in at about the halfway point. We aren't the main characters in terms of what we are saying. Because it's such a small cast, it's easy to call yourself a supporting actor in the film.
Is that fun for you to do that? We first saw you in Saw. Do you like the acting side of this process more than the writing side of things?
Leigh Whannell: The question of which one I like more in terms of writing and acting is a tricky one. It all depends on which day you ask me. You'll get a different answer. Sometimes writing is the greatest thing in the world. Its torturous, its painful. There is nothing more ominous than a blinking cursor staring at you, waiting for you to fill the page with words. But I love the autonomy of writing. Unlike acting, I love that you don't need anybody else's permission to start. You just need a pad and a pen. You can just go for it. You can just sit and practice your craft. With acting, to practice your craft, you need everybody's permission. You need a jury of your peers to select you. It is just a tortuous process. The whole auditioning process. If you are an actor, and you are unable to book a role in something, how do you do it? You just start staging amateur productions of Hamlet in your front yard. When someone asks my advice about acting...I don't know why they would, they don't very often...But my advice to actors is what little I know about it. It's a mysterious process, an enigma. It's a strange thing to choose to do with your life. But the advice I would offer is that you have to make your own stuff. If you sit around as an actor, waiting for the big role, sure that works for some people. I know some very successful actors, and more power to them. But if you are sitting around waiting for that phone call, and it's not happening, the phone's not ringing, you have to take the power back. If you are not a writer, find a writer, and team up with them. That is essentially what Saw was about. James Wan and I were frustrated writers, and directors, and actors. Nobody was giving us a chance to act in anything. No one was giving James a chance to direct anything. He made a little demo reel. He would submit it to advertising agencies. He did all of those things you do when you are an aspiring film director. But it's tough. You are competing against thousands of other people who are also submitting their resumes. We got sick of it. We had to take the power back. That is when we wrote Saw. That is what I love about writing. There is a sense that you are really doing it. Whereas, acting, on other days, is very fun. Writing is very lonely. When you are acting, you are surrounded by people. You are on a set. It is just so much fun. So, I have always liked both. I want to do both. Even though it's unrealistic. Both of those jobs take out a lot of you. If you concentrate on just one of them, they are demeaning. It's hard to concentrate on both. The only solution is to keep writing stuff, and to keep putting myself in there, like I did with Insidious. That way I can have my cake and eat it. I can write and act.
What is interesting about you guys, is that you don't stay pegged to one particular genre. At least, that is what it feels like.
Leigh Whannell: Yeah. That's good of you to point out. We have done a lot of stuff in the horror genre, but I am happy with Insidious. It's a bit of a swan song. This is everything we felt we had to say with a scary film. I wouldn't say that we are never going to make another horror film. But we need to put this genre aside for a minute and stretch our wings a little bit. We want to try some different genres. In a few years time, when we have exercised those different types of films, we can come back to horror. That sounds good. Here I am laying out this plan. If you want to make the Universe laugh, map out a plan. I honestly don't know what is next for us yet. I would like to try some different genres.
I know you have been asked this question ten thousand times, but do you guys ever think you will come back to Saw? This last sequel was supposed to be the end of the franchise forever.
Leigh Whannell: Yeah. Sure. We don't sit around and play with ideas. We don't spend an afternoon chatting about where that could go. We are so busy working on other stuff. But we are definitely responsive to it. We are still friends with the producers, and they did such a great job taking care of the franchise. They really catered to the fans of the franchise that loved it. Its hard to have anything but affection for the Saw films, because that is the one that granted our life's wish. I would definitely be open to one day doing something else with the Saw films. Knowing James Wan and I, and how we work, I think it would have to be something totally fresh and new.
So you haven't been sitting on a notebook full of awesome traps that you've been saving throughout the years?
Leigh Whannell: No! Not at all. I think the last time I had a folder of traps was for Saw III. That was the last one I wrote. Once I was finished with that, I wanted to write something completely different. I wrote things that were the complete opposite of Saw. I wrote a children's film. It is a fantasy adventure type movie. It was good to try something that was at the opposite end of the spectrum. But the idea of coming back to Saw? I would be open to it. However many years time it takes, and the producers want to revisit it, we would definitely chat with them.
What is next for you guys?
Leigh Whannell: There is a project that James Wan and I are working on. I haven't done the full-on work for it yet. It could be something in a sci-fi context that could be ripe for larger social or political themes, as apposed to a more personal theme. I will have to wait for that. I have been writing a horror comedy on the commentary of the current state of political debate in America. The right verses left name calling. It is very childish, if you flip between screaming commentators on Fox News, or whatever. It is out of control. I am not sure if it gets worse from here, or if it peaks and comes back to a more reasonable time. I was watching Network the other night, and I was like, this guy nailed it years in advance. When that movie came out, I am sure it seemed crazy and unrealistic that a news anchorman would be able to just rant and rave. If you watch Glenn Beck, what is he but the character from Network? It's so valid and resonant today. More so than back then. The shows that it was predicting actually exist. So there is something to compare it to. That is something that I guess is a more social and political thing that I have cloaked in the genre of a horror comedy. We will see.