Leigh Whannell and James Wan are best known as the co-creators of Saw, which they co-wrote and produced, and Wan directed. Having become known for a gory, gruesome franchise, those going to see their latest film, Insidious, which was co-produced with the team behind Paranormal Activity, may be in for a little surprise.
Insidious is the story of a couple played by Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson who appear to become the occupiers of a haunted house after their young son falls into a coma. But what initially seems like a fairly generic Amityville Horror style chiller soon turns into something markedly different, yet all the while retaining a stripped back, spooky feel, light on gore but heavy on atmosphere. The pair seem eager to speak about what seems like a new direction.
Why did you want to make this film?
LW: I think it was the exact right moment to make it. James and I had been working on various projects, together and separately, that were moving very slowly for various reasons. And we started talking about going back and making a completely independent film with a video camera. James was talking to me about it, and I started really warming to the idea of, just going out and shooting something. Why do you need someone’s money, just shoot it! And right at that moment the producers of Paranormal Activity came to James and said ‘we’d love to do a very low budget film with you guys’, and it was just perfect timing. That started the whole thing.
You say it’s a very conscious step away from the sort of work you are known for, and about being frustrated. Was Insidious an antidote to Saw?
JW: I think the very nature of a haunted house movie is that it doesn’t need to be a blood and guts movie like Saw. I think I wanted to show people that it’s possible to make a scary movie without relying on all that stuff, the blood and guts, and that was part of the reason. But we’re also just big fans of those movies, and of supernatural stories, and we wanted to make a really scary haunted house film, but one with a new twist that we would bring to it.
You talk about the influence of haunted house films that you love, which you can spot whist watching it. Are those nods intentional?
JW: Yes and no. Story wise we were very much influenced by ghost stories we’ve heard over the years from family and friends. Visually I went back to make a very old fashioned looking haunted house film, so I went back to classic films like The Haunting by Robert Wise, The Innocents, classic old fashioned haunted house movies.
LW: But also using that weird David Lynch sense as well.
There is definitely a bit of Twin Peaks in the scene where Barbara Hershey [who plays the mother of Patrick Wilson’s character] is talking about her dreams
In unison: Yes!
LW: Right, right, we love that…
JW: That sequence is actually based on a particular story that happened to my grandmother. Someone told me they had had a really scary dream that involved her, and I though ‘Oh my God this is scary stuff’, so we found a way to put it into the story. But it definitely has a very Lynchian sensibility to it.
You have generally worked together. Is there something about the relationship that you think is particularly fruitful?
LW: I think we have similar sensibilities. The types of films that James wants to see are the same types that I want to see. So when we get excited about an idea it’s great, partly because we’re really tough on ourselves and because we don’t want to put all the effort into making a film unless we really think it’s special.
Going back to the influences, did you ever feel burdened by them? Did you ever feel worried that what you were doing was going to be seem too much as a genre piece?
JW: I think that’s part of the fun, knowing the conventions in these kinds of films and knowing what to break and what to embrace. One of the things that Leigh and I really hate fake scares, the shot in the mirror when there’s somebody standing behind them. We’re not big fans of that. If I’m creating a suspense sequence, we want it to be real. We want it to be because there’s a ghost or a demon about to break through. So it allowed me to stay away from things that I think are cliché, but at the same time take a cliché and subvert it and spin it around. For instance, the couple in this film do something that most couples in haunted house movies of this type don’t usually do. But I won’t say any more!
You have several different supernatural elements operating within the house. What was it about that mixture that appealed to you?
LW: We felt that the different elements of this film is what made it interesting. We’re not really into making films as an exercise, like making our version of a straight western. We would need to have a twist on the western that we thought no one had seen before, and that’s how it was with Insidious. Haunted house films are very rigid. It’s a very ‘over done’ genre and we wanted to bring something different to it. I don’t think we could have done it without all these different elements.
How did you come up with the different ghouls?
LW: Different stories that we’d heard
JW: Also coming back to wanting to make a movie that harked back to old school style of filmmaking, movies that take place in the Victorian era have ghosts in the corner in a Victorian gown. This movie has entities that are from another period, and I would say and it adds another little layer to this film. And it’s what makes it fun for me, because i get to design the way they dress, the way they put their makeup on and the way their hair is done. That’s what actually sets it apart from other haunted house films
So it’s a toy box, where you pick the elements you like.
JW: Yes, but hopefully it still feels organic to some extent and doesn’t feel too out of the box. It still has this umbrella over the whole thing.
Not to give too much away, but what about the casting, especially of the creepy old lady ghost. Was that hard to do, to find the right people?
JW: Well that comes back to wanting my ghosts to be a bit more quirky. I knew I wanted a boy ghost, but I didn’t want it played by a little kid. And I knew I wanted a creepy old woman ghost, but I did not want it played by an old woman. I’ll just leave it at that!
What’s next for you both?
LW: We’ve been talking about a sci-fi film, and we’ve mentioned it so much we’re going to have to make it. I better whip something up quick! It will actually be a musical comedy but it will be set in 2028.
Could there be a sequel to Insidious?
LW: We never really think about stuff like that. It seems strange coming from the Saw guys because that is seen as this huge franchise. But on the original Saw film we weren’t thinking of sequels at all. We thought it had a really hard, clear ending, and we think the same with this film. But who knows what the future holds.
Insidious is out now.