An Interview with Writer-Director of Insidious 3, Leigh Whannell

With his fellow collaborator on the Saw franchise and Insidious films James Wan busy directing Fast and Furious 7, Leigh Whannell has taken over the helm with his directorial debut Insidious 3. In the form of a prequel, this impressive next step in the franchise focuses on the demonic interest on a teenage girl after she attempts to connect with her dead mother. By drawing on the world of The Further established in the previous installments and bringing Lin Shaye’s character back into the narrative, Whannell’s first stint at directing is successful in its handling of its source material, but also in developing his own style of filmmaking. With a relatable family driven plot that is likely to connect with its audiences and its subtle handing of slow burning sequences that are designed to suddenly shock and terrify, Insidious 3 is a bold and notable debut. We spoke to Leigh about his reasons behind his transition from writing to directing, horror and his influences.

What was behind your decision to direct?
I’d always wanted to direct something, I went to film school to direct. That’s where I met James. I didn’t go to film school to meet someone else to work with, I went to film school thinking ‘I’m going to be a director!’ And then I met James and we finished film school and it just made sense to kind of team up. Next thing you know in the blink of an eye ten years have gone by and as life happens to all of us you wake up one day and you’re like ‘Shit where did the last ten years go’. James went off to do Furious 7 so I was thinking this would be a really good time to direct something and right at that time is when I got the job of writing Insidious 3. It all sort of happened at the same time but even if I hadn’t directed Insidious 3, I think I would have directed something in the next year or so. Probably something that I just wrote myself, but it might not have been as easy as a ride as it was with Insidious 3.

Does this mean that you are hoping to direct again?
Yeah! I mean I’ve really got the bug. I really enjoyed it, more than I thought I would. I went into it with a lot of trepidation and I definitely want to do it again.

Was there any competition with James with you taking over directing?
I didn’t feel competition with him, but I definitely felt an expectation from the fans of the previous Insidious movies. Before you’ve actually started working on the film, before I’d even written a word, you’re purely thinking in hypotheticals which is a dangerous time when it’s a blank page because I very quickly go to the worst case scenario so I’m like ‘Well what if it doesn’t turn out very good and then everybody says well clearly James was the talent and I’m just a hag.’ All those thoughts just run through your mind so that was definitely sitting on my shoulder throughout the shoot, this little demon guy sitting there going ‘You’re going to fuck this up’. And this guy on my other shoulder was like ‘You’re doing great’, you’ve just got to try to listen to him more.

Is there anything that you’ve been itching to do while James had been directing the first two Insidious films? Was there anything that you were thinking of doing if you had the chance?
It wasn’t as if there were things I was itching to do because I felt like James did a really good job on the first two films and they were successful so history proved his decisions right. I wouldn’t want to go back in time and change anything. I like that theory where if you go back in time and turn even a rock over you come back and everyone is part lizard, you’ve changed the entire time continuum for humanity, so I wouldn’t want to go back in time and alter anything for Insidious. But when I started thinking about this movie, I was thinking what would I do differently? I had to separate James and myself because what I didn’t want to do is come in and be like ‘Hey guys, Christopher Walken isn’t here tonight but I’ve got a really great impression for you’. I thought that the movie had to remain in the Insidious world but I wanted it to feel different. You guys would be far more qualified than me to tell me if I’ve achieved that, I’m so close to the film. My hope is that it feels different to what James did.

There’s a good balance between it feeling like it fits in with the others and that you’ve done your own thing. Is that why you went the prequel route, to break away from what James did before?
I essentially went the prequel way of doing things because of Lin Shaye. I always start off any movie with a notepad, a blank one. I don’t like starting on a computer, there’s too much pressure- the cursor is too accusatory. It seems to demand that you write something good where as in the notepad you can just scribble any old crap down. I was sitting there with a blank notebook, I like a new one for each film. It’s a tradition so I have a stack of them in my house, one for each film that I’ve written. So I’m sitting there with this blank notebook and I’m looking at it and I’m thinking ‘OK what is this movie? Where do we even start?’ One of the first things I wrote down was no Lambert family. So move away from that original family. Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne did an awesome job in the first two movies, it was great working with them but I just felt that they’d been through enough. This family has been bashed around enough; it’s time to leave them alone. The good thing about the concept of Insidious is this world of The Further, you can plug anyone into it, it’s not like it’s only concentrated on this one family. So after I wrote that I started thinking about well if we’re not focusing on the Lamberts, what makes this an Insidious movie? The most obvious way is to focus on Elise, Lin Shaye’s character. I thought why not build a film around her. And then I realised that we’d killed her off in the first movie so the only way to tell her story was to go back in time. This was a really logistical decision driven by the pure reality of our story in the first film. If we hadn’t have killed her off in the first film this probably wouldn’t have been a prequel, we would have just picked up at some other time in her life. But given that we did unfortunately we had to go back in time. As I was writing it I started to see it as a real blessing to go back in time before the first movie to show who this person is.

So it was more enjoyable to write for her as we see her going from a hermit state to kick ass demon slayer?
Yeah that was awesome! I started to think of the film in really classic terms. There are certain classic stories, if you read enough books about screenwriting, you keep coming across these theories like the hero’s journey, of the hero rescuing somebody. I started to look at this film in those terms. We’ve got the retired gunslinger that has hung up this burden and isn’t doing it anymore being dragged back into it reluctantly. That’s a story that has been told many times whether it’s a western or in Mad Max films. It hasn’t been told with a 5 ft 3 elderly woman. I suddenly became excited about the idea of someone like Lin who is not usually playing the hero in movies playing a badass rescuing much younger people.

Do you enjoy scaring people? Do you want to stick with horror or branch out into other genres?
In answer to question a, yes I do! As a child I enjoyed scaring people, it made me laugh. It doesn’t make anyone else laugh, they don’t find it funny at all. Sneaking up on my cousins wearing a pig mask or something was one of my favourite activities. Cinematically, it’s awesome. That’s even better. If you stand behind your door and scare your brother for the two seconds of ‘ha ha’, being in a movie theatre and hearing the screams that you’ve created is like a drug. It’s like the best drug in the world. It’s really quite addictive. I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m so driven towards the horror genre, to get that audible reaction. I can’t imagine what it’s like to direct a drama and just sit at the back of the room watching a silent bunch of people.

A comedy has that same kind of buzz of people laughing?
Exactly! I really feel like comedy and horror are very close cousins in the movie world. They’re the only genres that are designed to illicit an involuntary vocal reaction and it’s an instant barometer as to how you’re doing. If they’re laughing their heads off in the movie, hopefully you’ve made a comedy. If you’ve made a horror film and they’re laughing their heads off, that’s not so cool.

Do you think laughter can be cathartic in a horror film?
Yes I’m sure it would be equally disconcerting to make a comedy and hear a bunch of people screaming. It’s just such an addictive drug and I want to keep going back to that world. Having said that, I would like to do other genres. I think it’s hard for me to keep pulling from the same bag of tricks. Like with the Saw movies, I wrote three of them and they were really keen for me to write more. They were like ‘hey, three more!’ And I just kept thinking why did I come to LA? Why did I move over here? Did I want to be a factory worker just pushing out the same stuff as that’s what it felt like, it felt like work. I actually got a job in the film industry to run away from work. So I stopped writing those movies as I felt like I was repeating myself. So with the horror genre, if I keep doing this I’ll feel the same way. I need to begin to do something completely different.

So what scares you?
I’m scared by everything and I think that’s the reason why I’m able to tap into fear so easily. You name it, everything from the usual stock list- spiders, sharks- I mean, being Australian I have a healthy fear of spiders and sharks and deep water and heights and noises when you’re home alone at night and you hear something outside and all of a sudden my imagination goes to the worst place. I’m kind of a wus but that means when I sit down and start writing I can instantly imagine a scenario where I’d be terrified.

What have been your biggest horror influences?
There are so many. Jaws was probably the first film I saw that scared me on a deep, deep level. I saw that when I was quite young, I guess my dad thought it was fine. It was a very popular movie so I guess he thought it was like Raiders of the Lost Ark or something. That had a really lasting effect on me and it’s still resonating to this day. The Exorcist, The Shining, you know, being a horror fan is kind of hard as you’re starved for quality. There seems to be a lot of people in the horror community, I guess here in the UK is similar to the US, who fixate on the lesser films. They become obsessed with movies that aren’t great movies, like ‘Oh man! You know’- God I can’t even pull out a name can I I’ll get crucified. No one is going to say a film like The Toxic Avenger or Basketcase are going to win any Oscars yet they have a lot of fans and I think you can count on two hands the number of truly artful, great horror films, like The Shining, The Exorcist. Films you can put next to The Godfather. There aren’t many horror films you could put on that shelf. I don’t think anyone would snigger at you if you put The Exorcist on the same shelf as The Godfather, but that was made in the mid 70s. It’s becoming a once in a decade situation where a really great, artful horror movie can measure up to films in other genres when it comes out. As a horror fan you become a real cherry picker. It almost means that because you’re not getting these films as frequently, when you do you latch onto them. So I guess my favourite horror films would be those ones that have lasted; The Shining, The Exorcist, The Omen, the Japanese version of The Ring.

So do you think there’s a kind of irony behind violent horror, with crazy films like Sharknado and people being obsessed with postmodern horror like Scream, where films twist the genre, like The Cabin in the Woods? Do you think this is due to the lack of quality?
Horror is a very malleable genre. You can mould it any way you see fit and marry it to other genres, like make a horror comedy. I always liken it to heavy metal music, being this kind of marginalised genre. If we go back to the 80s, in the VHS era, horror became ghettoised through various reasons. The quality of the films went down a little bit, a lot of them were made cheaply and released on VHS which was a badge of dishonour for a while- a straight to video movie. The video nasties thing happened here in the UK. It almost seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy for social critics to say horror films were bad so filmmakers responded accordingly. There was a time in the 70s where great filmmakers were making horror films, like if you think about The Exorcist and The Omen those films weren’t really designed to be at the back shelf of the video store, they were market films. Somewhere along the way that got lost, somewhere around Nightmare on Elm Street Part 5. There’s still gems in there, there’s still great horror films. I love Nightmare on Elm Street as much as anyone but as the sequels go on it diminishes in quality. I do think that filmmakers react to that horror marginalisation in those ways. I also think that’s why it’s a great genre for people who perceive themselves as outsiders, like the kid at school who’s not talking to anyone else, as it’s a great genre to be an outsider with you.

What do you think is the future for horror cinema?
I don’t know! I wish I could answer that because if I knew I’d write that movie, I’d be the first. I’m waiting for some kid to go and shoot a film on his iPhone that just changes the genre. It’s things that every once in a while happen where a new boundary gets broken and I wish I knew what it was. As a horror fan I’m just as excited to see that movie as I am jealous of whoever makes it. ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ is a phrase that rings throughout my head all the time and I’m kind of waiting for someone to do that. I really don’t know, I’ve actually thought about that question a lot. What comes next? Where do people want to go?

I was thinking about American Horror Story on TV, do you think it could be taking a turn in that direction too?
Yeah, I think it gets taken on a case by case basis. A lot of people say horror movies are no good and then a great one comes along and they say ‘oh well that one’s great’. People don’t tend to do that with comedies. No one says ‘finally a great comedy!’ People just take it for granted that there are going to be some bad ones and some good ones. No other genre seems to be as marginalised or picked on as horror, except for maybe porn. Still everyone’s like ‘well that’s functional. That has a purpose!’ Horror is just pushed off to the side. It’s up to the filmmakers to actually reverse that. The more frequent the great ones become the more critics and people who comment on this sort of stuff can start turning their opinion around.

Would you care to work with James again? When was the last time you guys spoke?
Yes if I can get him on the phone! We’re texting all the time. I’ll text him that I’m over here and he’ll text me saying he’s in Dubai about to push a car out of an aeroplane and I’ll be like ‘great!’ So we haven’t had a lot of time to hang out in the same room, we’re always emailing and texting. But I think our other films came about pretty organically, it’s usually just a result of us hanging out, talking about some movie and conversation just flows and an idea comes out of it. It’s not like we sit down and go ‘right, let’s make up a movie!’ and just stare at the wall. It’s normally this organic thing so I think we will work together again but we just need to hang out for a while and it will happen.

Any plans for Insidious 4?
No I’m very superstitious and more so than ever with this movie. I feel more ownership than I ever have with this movie having directed it so my normal neurosis and superstition has gone into overdrive mode with this one. Usually I have James there to lean on so in the back of my mind I can think well if it’s crap it’s his fault. This time it’s all me, there’s no one else to blame it on. I keep feeling anxious in a good way about the release of the film like waiting for Christmas, I just can’t wait till June the 5th for it to be out there. I don’t think there’s any room in my brain to think about the next one. If this one came out and did well then after about a month and all the dust has settled I’d start thinking about whether there was any story left. Being in Los Angeles with the creative industry being so commerce driven, it means that it’s hard to make a film because it needs to be made. A lot of times sequels get made just for economic reasons. I really wouldn’t want to do another one unless the story is interesting.

If you wanted to do another one, a prequel or continuation with yourself and the gang, even if you weren’t writing or directing, would you still appear?
Yeah that’s the thing I can’t get away. I’m roped in there. I haven’t really thought about it but it could be something that I just write and don’t direct or maybe I love it and I direct it. It’s a strange little dance that you do with yourself. It’s almost like you’re pretending you don’t want to do it and then during the writing process you start to fall in love with it. Now that I’ve got the directing bug, I’m really keen to do something else. I’m keen to prove that I’m not just the sequel guy so we’ll see what happens. I would like to do something in another genre.

What’s your perception now on the influence of Saw and the Insidious movies on horror in general?
It’s hard for me to have anything but good associations with it. These trends they come and go, we see it all the time in all different genres, like robot movies will be a thing for a year and then that’ll burn out and it’s asteroid movies. These trends just seem to fire up and then burn out quickly and are replaced. So with horror we’ve seen this ebb and flow and when I look back at that I can see a time when Saw influenced films to be more graphic and more extreme but it feels like that time is kind of over, at least it feels like that moment of time is in the past when those films were popular and mainstream. They’ll always make gory movies but they won’t necessarily be top of the box office. It seemed to be a kind of five year period where gory horror movies were a real money maker which is weird because gory movies have been made since the 70s but were never mainstream. It was always a drive in, grind house thing, like our little secret. Then all of a sudden every kid is going to see this movie. So I look back at it as a moment in time, not something that had a definitive lasting impact but it is hard to have anything but good associations with it. When I look back at that time I think of myself moving to LA, especially as my hobby became my job. When you think of Saw you might think of the first time you saw it or of a friend of yours saying they can’t watch it, it’s making me sick. When I think of Saw, I think of getting my first flat in Los Angeles, where I was living. All my memories of Saw are related to things that happened around the movie like meeting my wife and getting an apartment and living in LA. The first time my dad came to visit me seems strange as thinking of Saw is a trigger for that memory. I wouldn’t have been in Los Angeles with my dad coming to visit me if that film hadn’t have happened, that changed my life for the better. It was a really good thing. A lot of people will say to me ‘do you have any negative thoughts about torture porn?’ and I’m always like ‘no, I mean, it’s not ideal’. But torture porn is the reason I get to work in the film industry. I’ll always be thankful to that movie. They say if you love your job you’ll never have to work another day in your life so that’s how I feel right now. Every morning I bound out of bed and run to the computer and I’m excited about stories and I can hopefully keep doing that for as long as possible.

Insidious 3 is in cinemas now.