Steampunk Horror: An Interview with Leigh Whannell and James Wan

<i>Saw</i> creators <b>James Wan</b> and <b>Leigh Whannell</b> swap grisly torture porn for chilling horror in their latest collaboration <i>Insidious</i>

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 12 Sep 2011

As I make my way down the spiral staircase of Glasgow’s Malmaison Hotel, I'm apprehensive about the two men I'm about to meet. These are the sick, twisted minds that created the aughts’ most pervasive and gruesome film sub-genre: torture porn. Aussie filmmakers Leigh Whannell and James Wan, respectively the writer and director of Saw, are in town promoting the release of their latest collaboration, Insidious, a rather terrifying haunted house movie featuring a cloven hoofed demon who’s part Darth Maul and part Keith Flint, and a séance where a Miss Marple-like medium appears to be strapped up to Darth Vader’s respirator.

Like their little-seen sophomore film, Dead Silence, a nutty tale about a murderous ventriloquist's dummy, Insidious is a throwback to an earlier age when horror filmmakers preferred to freak-out their audience rather than gross them out, as became de rigueur after Saw’s phenomenal success. In person, Whannell and Wan are charming and gregarious and perhaps a little ashamed of the monster that the Saw franchise has become. We chat about their new film, their earliest collaborations and their future move into sci-fi.

Insidious is your third feature together. How did your filmmaking partnership develop?

James Wan: Leigh and I met at university when we were barely out of high school – we must have been about 17 at the time. We were good friends but Leigh had his projects and I had mine. We would help each other out but we didn’t really collaborate on any real projects till we left film-school and started to have jobs in the ‘real world’.

Leigh Whannell: There was one particular short film that we made together just after film-school that was a kind of foreshadow to Insidious. It was a ghost story, and it’s interesting when people ask us about this fusion in our films of reality and this more heightened style, this Grand Guignol sensibility – that short film had that. It was this story of these guys staying in this hotel and it was supposed to be all realistic and they are just there hanging out, but then we cut to the exterior shot of the hotel and it’s like Dracula’s castle – we had bats flying everywhere and we’d built this spooky miniature model.

JW: I loved that model, man [laughs].

LW: So looking back, even then we were fusing this Tim Burton-weird production design quality with something that’s supposed to be realistic. It’s a dangerous territory to tread if you don’t want people to kill themselves laughing at your film.

Now that you’ve made a few films together there are definitely some recurring motifs that can be seen running throughout your work – for example, the obsession with scary dolls. Who can we attribute that to?

JW: Well the visual motifs are usually from me. Leigh has his own motifs, but they’re much more intellectual [Laughs].

LW: We definitely share a love for these kind of steampunky devices...

JW: the traps in the Saw films, and now in Insidious these ghost hunting detective devices and the rubber gas masks. I’m the one who’s attracted to doll-like things – things that are very theatrical.

LW: I’ve always loved that about James’ work, he even had it back in film-school – I love that theatrical quality. We were big fans of The Crow and films like that back then. If you think about The Crow it has this heightened quality – he paints his face and wears this gothic outfit – and James and I always loved that aspect. We share similar tastes so I guess that’s why our sensibilities work so well together.

It’s not just the style of your films that are harking back to, say, the likes of Mario Bava, but also the filmmaking techniques — these films could have been made forty or fifty years ago. Instead of going straight to CGI you seem to prefer in-camera effects.

JW: Definitely, even the second movie Leigh and I made, Dead Silence, that was really a throwback to the old-school style of horror filmmaking. Insidious is really about us wanting to make a classic haunted house film like they used to make — like The Haunting, The Innocents and more recently films like The Others — but we wanted to take that aesthetic and give it our own spin, and Insidious’ sensibility is very uniquely us.

Like you say, horror today is very different, and I guess, in part, that is down to you guys. When Saw became a hit there followed this avalanche of what we now call torture porn. Is that a hard cross to bear and is that why you’ve moved away from that genre?

JW: I think in some way it was somewhat of a pendulum reaction. I really wanted to prove to people that I can direct a movie that isn’t bloody and gory yet can be suspenseful and hopefully scary at the same time. I’m a big fan of creepy films – creepy is the hardest thing to do on film. Shocking audiences with blood and guts is easy; making something scary is very hard. But creating a creepy atmosphere that permeates through the whole movie, that is super hard. And I really wanted to make a movie that was creepy from the outset.

LW: I think it would have been a dumb move for us to make a really gory horror film at this point because then we really would have been branded that way for the rest of our careers. I wouldn’t say it was strategic, we never sat down and had a business meeting about it and drew up a pie chart and said ‘this is the type of film that we’re going to make’, but I do think that it would have been dumb to do a gory film and actually I think the next film I would like James and I to make would be something outside the horror genre.

What kind of film are you thinking?

LW: We’ve been talking about a sci-fi film. It’s not a huge leap away or anything — it’s not like a musical-comedy — but it’s far enough removed from horror that people will start to see us in a different light. I know we can do it, it’s just a matter of proving it.

There’s a great lineage of genre films from Australia, from the likes of Mad Max and The Long Weekend right up to Wolf Creek. Do you see yourself as part of that tradition?

LW: I think we do. We love that Australian filmmakers are now considered some of the leaders in the horror genre. That’s just awesome.

JW: And not to toot our own horn too much, but Saw in many ways helped pave that way because it really made the film industry in Australia think to itself, ‘Why did James and Leigh have to go overseas to Los Angeles to make their movie?’ because we spent a whole year in Australia trying to get Saw financed and we couldn’t get it off the ground. So when we made it in Hollywood and it ended up being a successful movie, it really made people back home take stock and go, ‘maybe we should try and change some things’. Then along came films like Wolf Creek and Lake Mungo and the Spierig brothers [Daybreakers] and people like that.

I was looking back over the notes I took while watching Insidious and they say things like, ‘Oh fuck, that chimney sweep kid’s creepy!’ and ‘Shit, red faced goth guy's back!’. Did you have fun coming up with all the different ghosts and scares?

JW: Definitely. When you’re making a ghost movie the ghosts have to be scary, right? The design of our set pieces, knowing how we would manipulate the sequence and subvert what an audience would think may happen was a really rewarding part of making Insidious.

LW: I love writing this stuff because I know James is going to do something really inventive with it — when you know you’re in good hands it really gives you the freedom to think up these wild scenarios. Even just something like the baby monitor stuff, I was just thinking, ‘Oh man, James is going to make this such a great scene’. I still remember the moment I first saw Sadako crawl out of the television in Ringu, and it was like the entire theatre just shrank back in their seats and that’s what you’ve got to live up to. We want to create cinema as indelible as that moment.

Insidious is released on DVD and Blu-ray 12 Sep