‘Insidious’ writer and star Leigh Whannell: ‘My Twitter feed scares me’
Leigh Whannell walked to our table with a bottle of water in one hand and soda in the other. “See, health, not health,” he said.
“Balance,” we tell him.
“Exactly. Balance in the Force,” he said.
The Australian writer, actor and director was on tour to promote “Insidious: The Last Key,” flying from Brazil to Hong Kong to receive the 2017 Franchise Achievement Award for “Insidious” at CineAsia for him and James Wan.
“It’s great. It’s just great to be here in Hong Kong. One of the best things about filmmaking is the travel during the press tour. I read a lot of interviews with actors and filmmakers who seem to hate doing press. I can’t understand that. I’ve traveled around the world because of promoting movies. I enjoy it.”
“Insidious” isn’t the only franchise Leigh has co-created—he and James, whom he met while studying at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, created the “Saw” films which he also starred in. “I never go into a film thinking it’s going to be a big franchise. I’m way too superstitious for that. I love it, I’m confident in my ability to execute the film, to get the script done, I believe in the story, but I never know what’s going to happen once it’s finished. The audience really decides whether they like it or not… When I started ‘Insidious,’ I was like, I think I like this, I hope other people like it. I could never have guessed that I’d be sitting here talking to you right now about the fourth movie.”
Leigh said the process of writing the script for “The Last Key” was “very creepy.” He holed up in an old house in the middle of nowhere in Spain for a couple of months to work on it. “It just had this energy about it. It was cavernous. It was a beautiful home but when you walk in the front door, there was a statue in the shape of a person right in the entrance way. It didn’t have a face or arms or legs. The funniest thing is my wife, I tell her, ‘That thing is scary,’ she’s like, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got a solution.’ She gets a white sheet and drapes it over… I’m like, ‘You just made it 10 times worse.’ There was even a well at the back. I was leaning over and I just kept picturing someone looking up at me. It’s pretty crazy. My imagination runs wild in a place like that.”
Their daughter Sabine, who was three at the time, wasn’t creeped out at all. “We asked our daughter to come into bed with us to make us less scared. We would say, ‘Hey Sabine, you want to come and sleep with us?’ And she was like, ‘No, I’m fine.’”
Sabine will have to wait until she’s 11 before she can watch her dad’s films. “Eleven seems like a good age to watch ‘Insidious’ and then she can work her way up to ‘Saw’ when she’s 15 or 16,” said Leigh.
Writing “The Last Key” was tough for Leigh not just because of the creepy house. Having written the three previous “Insidious” films, Leigh faced the challenge of keeping the story fresh. “To use an old expression, there’s only so many ways to skin the cat, there’s only so many ways to scare someone in a ghost movie before you feel tapped out of ideas. And I felt like the well was dry. It took me a long time… I was frustrated and I think some of that frustration, some of that fear that I wouldn’t have any new ideas drove the story of the script. If you look at the story, it’s very anxious… I think some of that rage and emotion in the script came from my own difficulty writing.”
The result is a film that’s quite different from the first three—a lot more textured, layered and emotional.
Leigh had also directed “Insidious: Chapter 3.” But he chose not to direct the fourth film. “I just felt that I had done that, I had made an ‘Insidious’ film. I feel like I’m making up for lost time as a director. I met James Wan when he was 18 years old and the first thing he said to me was, ‘I want to be a director.’ And I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at that time. I was almost envious of his certainty. He had one goal and he was always moving toward that one goal whereas I was more scattered. I feel like I’m behind. I’m just getting started. As much as I love the ‘Insidious’ films, I felt like directing a fourth one would kind of be treading water a little bit, like spinning my wheels. I don’t have the time to spin my wheels. I need to go out there and make the films I really wanna make because films take such a long time, it ends up taking a year of your life… I wanted for it to be taken up by an original script. I love directing so much that I need to make up for lost time. I need to get cracking.”
Leigh also stars in the “Insidious” films as Specs, one of Dr. Elise Rainier’s spirit-hunting sidekicks. In “The Last Key,” Specs got more action and romance than usual. “He’s really a hero in this one. It was fun, it was different, I wanted to do something different with those guys, they’re always just being the idiots and providing comic relief. I thought with this one maybe if they got to be a bit more involved and not such fools.”
But with him wanting to focus on directing, it looks like acting might be taking the backseat. “I just directed a sci-fi film in Australia and I didn’t want to act in it at all. It was maybe a role I could have played but I just wanted to concentrate on directing. And I think going forward, if I’m directing, I’d rather not be in it. I’d rather not split my brain that way.”
It must be great to have that choice, we tell him. “I’m the only one giving me work, I’m the only director hiring me and I’m not hiring me anymore,” he said, laughing.
He’s also writing something new. “I’m trying to talk about some of the things that women have gone through that is on the news right now… Probably a female director or writer is the best person to talk about those themes. I’m not trying to make a definitive statement about this issue. It’s just something that’s coming out in my writing.”
When asked if he’s had weird fan encounters, Leigh said, “I really love the fans of these movies. I haven’t had any weird fan experiences… We’ve had some interesting tattoos. People would come up with Jigsaw’s face and I’m like, ‘Great decision-making, go for it!’ That’s been an interesting one. Or they build the props… they build the puppet on the trike or they have the Bride in Black from ‘Insidious’ on their arm. But it’s dedication. I’m thankful to those people. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be sitting here.”
Leigh is good at scaring movie audiences but what scares him? “Oh man. I think the world today sometimes scares me. My Twitter feed scares me. This past year has been a constant parade of bad news all over the world… It’s really reaching a boiling point and if you look back at history, the world has come to these boiling points before and it’s usually led to a world war. So it’s scary for the first time in my lifetime to be living in a really tumultuous chaotic time with a lot of hate and a lot of anger. Especially for my kids, my children who are too young to understand the world. I don’t want them to be born into chaos. There were things that I had forgotten about that I thought were only threats in movies, like nuclear weapons. All of a sudden for the first time in my lifetime, I’m worried about a nuclear war. It’s something I never thought of before. I’d taken for granted that it was never going to happen.”
He added, “When the world is bad, when it’s going through a horrific phase, usually horror films are good. I think that horror films are a good way to express our anxiety on screen, our real-life anxieties. So I’m looking at a new wave of horror films that are kind of based around our current political climate.”
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