Ever since he wrote and starred in a short film about a man who had a reverse bear trap stuck on his head, Leigh Whannell has been in horror movie heaven. After adapting that short film into the feature film Saw along with his collaborator, director James Wan, Whannell went on to write the next two sequels, the evil doll movie Dead Silence and the ethereal haunted kid movie Insidious, in which he also co-starred. Whannell is back with Wan and ghostly goings-on for Insidious: Chapter 2.
We spoke to the scribe of scary about the writing process, the building up of tension, the serialized nature of this franchise, and the movies that scared him the most.
NERDIST: Insidious: Chapter 2 is not a typical sequel in that it starts immediately after the first film ends; is that something you guys talked about, that if you were to do a sequel you’d want it to just pick up and go?
LEIGH WHANNELL: I don’t think that was our first and only instinct. I think we kind of approached it as a really blank slate. We had many conversations about what it could be. At one stage it was going to be a prequel, you know, because if you remember from the first film, that whole story about young Josh was set up — Patrick Wilson’s character — when he was a boy and he was haunted, and so there was a whole discussion about, well, should we tell that story, should this be the story of young Josh, and maybe we see his journey and that could be really scary.
The thing with haunted house movies is that a lot of the fear in watching those films comes from experiencing them through the characters’ eyes, and the characters in haunted house films are always asking themselves, “What the fuck’s going on?” They move into a house or an apartment and then, slowly, little innocuous things start happening, like maybe a cup moves across the kitchen, and then all of a sudden the chairs are stacking themselves, and then it slowly builds, and then someone gets pushed down the stairs, and then you build in intensity. And that was definitely the structure we used for the first Insidious film; the problem that was presented with the sequel was that if we used the same characters, Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson’s characters, well, they had already been through all that horror, so you wouldn’t be able to start from that place of “What the fuck’s going on?” They know what the fuck’s going on, they just went through it. And so that was the reason we thought, maybe we should do a prequel. Because then we could go back to that model of “what the fuck’s going on?”
When we decided to go with the family from the original film to answer the question of what happened to them, it kind of put the film on rails, in a sense, because there’s only one story to tell; everyone who’s seen the first movie is going to want to know what happened to Patrick Wilson and what happened to his wife, and so I wouldn’t say it made the writing of the script easier. It was still tough, but it certainly meant that the story laid itself out.
N: You obviously play Specks in this and the first film, and you and the character of Tucker (Angus Sampson) had great chemistry, which is why it was cool to see more of you in this film. They sort of go off and have a detective story to themselves while the other stuff is happening with the family. What do you like about writing those characters, besides the fact that you are one?
LW: I think they were, given that Elise was dead at the end of the first film, I think they were good conduits for the mystery. This is what they do, these guys, they get out there and investigate this stuff. And so if we want to learn about what happened to the family and why they were haunted, they were great drivers of that. And so it sort of felt natural to have them off on their own story investigating what happened. And it was fun to be back; one of the most fun things about making this film is that literally everyone was back from the first movie, not just the cast, but the crew! All the same grips and gaffers and PAs. When I went to the set on the very first day, the first face that greeted me was a production assistant from the first movie. So it was kind of a strong sense of deja vu, and it was great in that sense.
N: Did it feel like that throughout the shoot? Like you were just back making more Insidious versus making ANOTHER Insidious?
LW: Definitely. I think you’re right, I think you’ve sort of articulated something that I felt making the film, which is that it didn’t feel like we were making a sequel. It felt like we made half of a film. Then took a big break for a couple of years then went back and shot the second half of the movie. That’s really what it felt like! Because we were continuing the story. James and I always say that if you took the two films and edited them together, it would play like one big 3 ½ hour movie. And maybe we’ll do that one day for a special edition DVD. It was just really cool.
N: How much fun is it for you to sit down at the computer or whatever and write ways to scare the crap out of people?
JW: I wouldn’t call writing fun to me. The actual process of sitting down at the computer and typing is kind of tortuous. For me, writing is like going to the gym. Walking to the gym sucks, walking out feels great! When you walk out of the gym you feel like you’ve accomplished something, it’s finished. Walking in, for me at least, is a real drag. I just plod in there, I’m like, “Oh fuck, here we go.” That’s kind of how I feel about writing. The best part of writing for me is watching the pages spit out of a printer. Like, having written is fun! The other good part of writing for me is the stage before you actually put fingers to keys, when you’re sitting around with a notepad, just letting the ideas come, I love that stage. Especially if you have an idea you’re excited about. And so in the context of horror films, it is really fun to sit down with a note pad and dream up ways to terrify people. When it gets to the stage when you actually have to open Final Draft and type… that’s kind of a bummer.
N: Pacing for a horror movie is very important. How do you decide what scare comes where and when it’ll be a fake-out and when it’ll be a blood-curdler?
LW: I think it’s more instinctual than anything. I don’t think I ever look at a white board or a chart and sort of map it out mathematically, like, “Okay, it’s been five minutes, we should have a scare here and then we should do this.” I think it’s more, with both James and I, an instinctual understanding of horror movies. We’ve watched so many of them, it’s kind of in our bone marrow to sort of know at what point to do this… and although it’s evolving, too. What you saw, the finished film, is not exactly what was in the script. It kind of evolves in the editing; sometimes James will realize that a scare that I’ve placed in the script has been placed too early, and though the editing of the film, he kind of pushes it back a little. It’s all about manipulating fraction by fraction, inch by inch until you’ve got the film that’s right. It’s definitely not something that’s mapped out consciously. I think you just have to sort of go with your gut.
N: What are some of the horror movies that inspired you, not just for Insidious, but just in general?
LW: The original film that scared the shit out of me is Jaws. Psychologically, it scarred me; I couldn’t even get in a bathtub without feeling that Jaws was gonna bite my legs off. That definitely stayed with me. In terms of horror films, The Shining, to me, is such a great horror film, so beautiful and so terrifying. It feels like such a relic from a different time because when you watch it there are no big BOO scares, there’s no screaming orchestra trying to get you to jump. It’s all just very eerie and yet somehow completely terrifying; so I definitely use that as a model. Even when I’m utilizing very modern horror film techniques, like big boo scares, I’m still using The Shining as inspiration.
N: You put a lot of moments of levity in your scripts, and I seem to remember an old adage that laughter and screaming are closely linked; do you subscribe to that theory?
JW: I think it’s an important aspect of it. I remember a Hitchcock quote where he said that you need levity if you’re going to scare the shit out of people because you need to give the audience room to breathe so you can reel them back in rather than hammering them over the head with the same emotion. And I’m somebody that really likes being funny. I spent my whole high school years trying to make everyone laugh. That was definitely my identity all through high school; I wasn’t the guy who was like this footballer or the biggest kid who could beat the shit out of anyone. So I basically survived in my high school by doing impressions of Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy. It’s definitely a part of my personality.
I feel like maybe subconsciously I’ve always wanted to do comedy. Finally, I just did one, I just wrapped a comedy called Cooties that I wrote with a friend of mine. I’m super excited about it, it was really fun to make because on the set I really felt like I was learning from the best like the other cast members in the film were people like Rainn Wilson, and Jack McBrayer, and Nasim Pedrad from SNL. Just people who are comedically gifted, and watching them and learning from them was awesome. I feel like maybe the next few films I make might be leaning more in the comedy direction.
N: Laughs and screams, I’m tellin’ ya.
JW: They are very close cousins, they are the only two genres that elicit an audible, vocal reaction from an audience. A laugh and a scream are very similar! Often times people will say, “Wow, you’ve written a comedy? That’s such a weird thing to do for a horror guy,” and I think actually not; it seems the natural progression because you get addicted to that audible sound. I can’t imagine what it’d be like to direct a drama and then stand in the back of a theater and watch the audience watching your movie because you wouldn’t know what the hell they were thinking. I’d be saying, “Oh shit, they’re hating it, they’re hating it, I can tell!”
You can get ready to let out an auditory expression of fear when you go see Insidious: Chapter 2 in theaters right now.