Australian director James Wan and actor-screenwriter Leigh Whannell hit it huge with their debut feature “Saw” in 2004 but their latest collaboration, “Insidious,” a haunted house story about a family visited by some very unusual ghosts, stays away from the torturous gore in favor of supernatural thrills. The film, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, hits theaters Friday, and Wan and Whannell spoke to Hero Complex contributor Patrick Kevin Day by phone recently about their new tale of terror. (Please note, some spoilers ahead.)
PKD: I’ve heard you say many of the spooky incidents depicted in the movie were taken from real life. How many?
LW: A lot actually. There’s a scene with Rose [Byrne] in the middle of the night where she sees an unwanted guest in her bedroom. That was taken from a story that a friend of mine told me. The scene where Barbara [Hershey] describes a dream she had is something James told me years ago had happened to his grandmother. It’s hard to go into too much detail without giving away scares but a lot of the big scare scenes were taken from real life.
JW: We think those kind of “real life stories” are so much more scary than anything we could cook up. And so we took that as the inspiration and that became our springboard into other scenarios. I think it’s always great to start from a place of realism. That way, your story, which may be very heightened and very stylized, at least starts from a place of reality and helps to ground it in a lot of ways.
PKD: You’ve talked about making this movie “Poltergeist” for this generation. Several scenes and themes in this movie specifically parallel that film. Was that your intent from the beginning or did it just develop as you were writing?
JW: I think it did develop as it went along. I know Leigh did have “Poltergeist” in the back of his head when he was writing this, but the main twist in the film, the conceit we came up with was what made it different. So even though this movie was a haunted house film, we felt that what we had different was that the haunting didn’t necessarily come from the house. With “Poltergeist,” the evil entity came from within the house. It came from the Indian burial ground the house was built on. For us, the haunting came from somewhere else. That’s what we thought was different enough that we were willing to jump in and make this film. Leigh and I have no interest in doing just another haunted house movie that you’ve seen many times before. Even though it’s in a world that’s very familiar and almost done to death, we wanted to bring something unique to it.
LW: We were also such fans of the haunted house subgenre, which is just one branch on this huge tree of horror. Over the years, we’ve just loved these films. There are several elements that are supposedly reminiscent of “Poltergeist”: the medium, the ghost hunting, the furniture moving around. They’re real staples of the haunted house genre. I think the reason people bring up “Poltergeist” is because they’re not as big a fan as James and I. That film is the one that’s most referenced because it’s the most popular. It’s the only one they’ve seen. James and I have seen dozens and dozens, if not hundreds of haunted house films. It’s hard to get around the medium in a haunted house movie.
JW: If anything, we wanted to infuse this classic haunted house film with what is very popular these days: paranormal investigators. If anything, it’s more relevant today than when “Poltergeist” first came out. Look at all the reality shows — “Paranormal State,” “Ghost Hunters” — where a bunch of scientists or ghost amateur hobbyists go out and look for ghosts. We wanted to put those characters in our movie.
PKD: Without spoiling anything, at what point did the elements of fantasy and fairy tale come into the development of the movie?
LW: The ending is what we had first. Years ago when we were trying to cook up an idea for a film, eventually we hit upon the idea for “Saw.” But during the period when we hadn’t birthed the idea yet, as it were, we were running through dozens of ideas. One of us would come up with something and breathlessly pitch it to the other. And inevitably, the other person would be like “No, that’s not good enough.” We really were being tough on ourselves trying to come up with an idea for a feature film. And I’m glad we were, because when we came up with the idea for “Saw,” I knew we had something really good. But during that period, one of the ideas we had was the central conceit of this film. That was really the thing we put away in a drawer to use later. We worked backwards from the ending. So all the stuff you see at the beginning was stuff that came up during the writing.
PKD: Would you describe it as a fairy tale?
LW: That’s an aesthetic that we really like. We like to have our cake and eat it. We want to have the realistic stuff with the family, living in the house, the slow building creeps. But we also love the outlandish stuff. We love Dario Argento films and Hammer horror films and films that are more heightened. We’re big fans of Tim Burton. He’s a guy who has a heightened production design, aesthetically. It’s hard not to want to put that in there. We put fantasy elements toward the end of the film because we felt like it gave us license to do that outlandish stuff. It becomes like a dark fairy tale or fantasy at the end. But this dark fantastical world is where our entities come from, as opposed to some religious place, like hell.
PKD: The world reminded me of the evil ogre’s castle.
LW: Guillermo del Toro really has that sensibility. He loves fairy tales. We love it too. We eventually want to be able to start the film grounded in reality with a slow-moving trajectory and end it with this phantasmagoria of bright colors and crazy contraptions.
PKD: There’s another scary old lady in this movie, just like in your earlier movie “Dead Silence.” Which of you has the issue with old ladies?
LW: That would be me. James has an issue with them as well. James is also the doll guy. James has always wanted to have creepy old women featured. I just find them scary in the same way I find clowns scary. I’m the only guy in the world who found “Golden Girls” terrifying.
JW: I did use scary old ladies in “Dead Silence” as well. But one of the things I wanted to do different this time was to take it to the next level. Instead of casting an old woman, I cast a man to play the old woman.
PKD: What was the reason?
JW: I wanted to give it a slightly off-kilter edge. By doing that and not acknowledging that it’s a man brings something different to it. The fact that it’s a guy playing a woman gives it an icky edge right off the bat.
PKD: What influence did the producers of “Paranormal Activity” have on the film? They have a lot of experience making scares on a low budget.
JW: This is really Leigh Whannell and James Wan’s film here.
LW: They were so great about letting us make the film we wanted to make. That was the whole sales pitch: creative freedom. So they couldn’t go back on it. That was the thing that hooked us. We weren’t going to have much of a budget or schedule to make the film, but we were going to have creative freedom. And they were true to their word. They let us make the film we wanted to make.
PKD: You wanted the creative freedom after “Dead Silence,” which you made for a studio and which you’ve said didn’t turn out how you wanted it. In what way did it not turn out how you wanted?
LW: In the classic way. Some things don’t turn out how you want them. There were rewrites and reshoots and things get changed. It’s more a death by a thousand cuts thing than huge swaths of it being chopped out. It’s more like a slow process that builds and builds and by the end the film is different from the one you set out to make. It was good to make “Insidious” with total creative freedom, because we knew there wouldn’t be too many cooks standing around saying, “Why don’t you try it this way or that way?”
JW: It’s just a different creative process. There’s really no right or wrong. Leigh and I have always said if we want to make a big budget action film, we want to do it through the studio system. Because that’s what they’re set up to do and do really well. If you want to do a smaller film, you do it the indie way. And “Insidious” falls into the indie camp. This film is actually much smaller than “Saw” was. People are shocked when they see this film and are shocked for how little we made it for. I take that as a compliment.
PKD: The “Saw” series was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records last summer as the most profitable film series ever. Were you there at the induction?
LW: We were there. We got sent this little plaque, which I jokingly show to people. It was a great feeling. That was a character that was created in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and now he’s an iconic villain for a new generation of kids. Like Freddy and Jason was for us. It’s awesome.
PKD: Did the success of “Saw” impact your creative choices moving forward? You haven’t tried to do anything like “Saw” again.
JW: Leigh and I are fans of all kinds of horror films. We feel like there are so many brands in the scary movie genre, we feel like there are other things we want to try…. As a director you get pigeonholed very easily. Leigh and I just want to come up with concepts and ideas that we love. And there may be a “Saw”-like film that we go back to if it’s an idea that we really love. It just so happened with “Dead Silence” and “Insidious,” they’re not blood and guts films. I don’t think you need blood and guts to make an effective haunted house film.
PKD: During the séance sequence, the ghost investigators make use of a gas mask. Was that a purely cinematic invention or did it come from research?
LW: That came from us wanting to do things a little differently. We’re working with a rigid genre here, the haunted house film. There’s got to be a house. And there’s a family there. And things go bump in the night. So when we got to the séance scene, James and I are usually trying to apply something the audience hasn’t seen before, even to a scene that’s a staple of the genre. So for me, the scene where you sit around the table holding hands had been seen a million times. I tried to come up with an instrument that could be used to make the whole séance something you hadn’t seen before. And James and I love our steampunk crazy devices. With “Saw,” those traps came out of that. That’s why we put it in there.
PKD: The audience I saw the movie with was very vocal, groaning with fear and laughing. What kind of sounds have you noticed coming from the audience?
LW: A lot of what you’re describing. It’s a very audible film in terms of the audience. We love to go into theaters when it’s screening and listen to the sounds the audience makes. There’s screaming and people use laughter as a defense, when they’re nervous or tense. My favorite moment is the ripple of fear that passes down someone’s spine and causes them to kind of gasp. I love the moment when Patrick Wilson is checking on the front door when the house alarm goes off. I don’t want to give it away, but I love the sounds the audience makes during that scene. We’ve seen the film with audiences in the U.S. and Canada and the sound is always the same. It’s a great audience participation film.
PKD: Did you learn anything from the laughter?
LW: We definitely learned that if you don’t give an audience a place to laugh, they’ll find their own place, especially if they’re tense. Then you’ll have a line that has people cracking up that wasn’t meant to be like that. That’s one of the reasons we created the characters of Specs and Tucker, to give the audience a place to laugh where it was intended. We wanted to be able to exercise that part of their emotions at the right time. It was all calibrated pretty finely as part of the audience manipulation.
PKD: How did you create the visual of the red-faced demon?
JW: Myself and my production designer Aaron Sims did a bunch of drawings back and forth. In a lot of weird ways I wanted the demon to have a classical feel to it, like something from the Bible or mythology — the classic demon with the hoof feet and the tail and the forked tongue. The only thing that was missing was a pitchfork. I wanted to take the mythology and twist it around and make it a yucky guy. And the reason why he has the red face — this is one scene that was cut from the film — he actually has makeup on his face. He’s credited in the movie as the Lipstick Face Demon. He’s a creature that paints its face to make itself more enticing to lure people out into its world to possess them. He’s basically a demonic clown.
PKD: What’s next?
LW: We’ve been talking about a few things. We each have our own separate stuff, but we’ve been talking about a sci-fi project. We’re really excited about one idea that has the potential to be really great. I’d love to work with James outside of the horror genre and utilize bigger effects. I’m excited about that.
— Patrick Kevin Day
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