Leigh Whannell has made himself one of the most popular figures in horror over the last decade or so, having been a vital cog in both the Saw and Insidious franchises, including popping his directorial cherry with this year’s Insidious: Chapter 3. We’ve had the pleasure of chatting to him over the years about various projects, with the nugget of an idea called Cooties first coming up a couple of years ago – a movie that he co-wrote and stars in. Well that film, which is a horror-comedy focussed on infected kids terrorising a school, is now set to arrive in the UK. We caught up with Leigh to get the low down on Cooties, discuss his differing experiences as a writer and director, the possibilities of working in the increasingly-popular environment of horror TV, whether Saw VIII is on its way any time soon, and a whole lot more.
STARBURST: Now for anybody wondering what to expect from Cooties, how would you describe it to them?
Leigh Whannell: If I had a really short time, I’d say it’s a zom-com. If I had a longer time, I’d say it’s a horror-comedy about a substitute teacher who just happens to work at an elementary school on the day that his students, all the kids in the school, are infected by a virus that only affects pre-pubescents. It’s basically Dawn of the Dead meets Kindergarten Cop.
You put the film’s script together with Ian Brennan, who also plays the role of the school’s vice-principal and somebody who was great in the film but sadly doesn’t last all that long…
Yeah, he’s a really good friend. And I know, he should’ve lasted a lot longer. That would have been a lot of fun. Actually, his Glee schedule conflicted with the shooting of the film, so he only had time for just that role. But he did such a good with the role and was so funny that it kinda stands out in people’s minds. He’s been a friend of mine for a long time, and then when the idea for Cooties was pitched to me I said I wanna write that. Then I roped him into it, phoned him up one day and said, “Listen, I’ve decided I wanna write this film Cooties about this virus that affects kids, and I want you to write it with me.” And he was in. It was so fun. Because he was already a friend of mine we just had such an easy rapport – you know, we’d spend most of our times just hanging out, trying to make each other laugh. So we just translated that into a screenplay. We’d sit around and just try to crack each other up. And it was really one of the most fun times I’ve had writing. Writing is such a lonely profession, as you know. You’re just sitting there by yourself, tapping away… I had never really known how great it could be working with someone else, when you’re actually in the same room kicking around ideas. So I definitely wanna do more stuff with him, for sure.
Where did the initial concept for Cooties come from then?
It came from one of the producers, Josh Waller. He’d just started a production company with Elijah Wood and Daniel Noah. The three of them were called The Woodshed at the time, and now they’re called SpectreVision. They essentially wanted to produce quality horror films. They love the genre, they took it really seriously, and they wanted to make original, thought-provoking horror movies. They had a few ideas of their own that they wanna farm out to writers and directors, and one of those was Cooties. I had a mutual friend of Elijah – I didn’t know Elijah myself, but this friend of mine did. I was sitting chatting with him one day and he said, “Yeah, Elijah’s just formed this production company and he has this idea called Cooties.” He basically threw out the one-sentence idea and didn’t think much of it. I just remember it just hit me in the face like a bag of wet laundry; I just stopped what I was doing and knew that I had to write it. In a weird way it’s kind of fate. These things happen to you in your life and you look back and are like “Wow!” I’m just as surprised as you – you said you interviewed me and you heard about the film, then now you’ve seen it. For me, I have a similar experience of thinking how I was talking to Ryan one day and he just threw out this idea that his friend had, and the next thing I know I’m sitting here talking to you about it. It’s pretty crazy the way life works. I said to Ryan, “Can you set up a meeting with those guys so that I can meet them?” So we all went to a restaurant together and I said, “I want to write this film, Cooties.” And it was really fun. I’m glad it happened – the shoot of the film was one of the most fun times that I’ve had on a film set.
When you came on board, was the plan always to have the movie focus on infected kids and was it always going to be set in the very natural setting of a school?
Yeah, the idea that was pitched to us was really just the one sentence. It was that there was a virus that affected the kids and it broke out in an elementary school. So what Ian and I had to do was break it down and say, “OK, where’d the virus come from? What’s the school? Who are the teachers? What are the characters?” So we spent a lot of time planning it out. We’d meet up in Ian’s office, which was at the Paramount lot at the time, where he made Glee. So I would sit in his office often thinking that he should’ve been working on Glee. But we would sit around and we’d have a white board on the wall of his office, then we’d sort of spitball ideas on the characters. We decided to have seven main characters, then we’d break it down. It was really a fun part of the writing process because you’re taking one sentence and trying to turn it into a movie. It’s not like we were presented with a detailed treatment that we’d follow. We basically had to construct an entire word, and we’d be like “What state are we in? OK, we’re in Illinois. So what sort of town is it? It’s one of those towns that focusses on chickens, a poultry farming town.” And it was great.
We here at STARBURST get to watch a lot of stuff, some good, some bad, but Cooties is certainly one of the best horror-comedies of recent memory. Were there any films that stood out to you as a direct influence when you were writing the film?
I think we wanted to be this really acidic comedy that reflected our views on the way teachers were treated in the US and the way that the kids are fed drugs. It’s within the framework of a comedy, so we wanted to bury it in there. We were very influenced by a lot of these television comedies that have sprung up in the last 10 years, the ones that I think have really shaken up the way comedy is presented on television. For a long time you had these sitcoms, which is not my favourite formula with the laugh track. I loved Seinfeld, and there have been some gems of sitcoms, but for the most part it’s been this genre that spoon-feeds its audience on when to laugh. Then all of a sudden The Office came along, the original Office, and I think in a way that changed everything. I wanna say that came along at the turn of the century, right around 2000. I feel like The Office had a pretty seismic influence on television comedy. It was presented very dryly, no laugh tracks, sometimes you didn’t know where to laugh. It was sudden, it was real, and you see that reflected in comedy now – everything from Parks and Recreation to Louie to Community, those comedies that take that on. We were really interested in that, we loved that, and so I would say we were very influenced by that, and then we wanted it to also be genuinely scary at times. So I guess that when you say influences, I would say we wanted it to feel like The Office was invaded by zombies. Imagine David Brent sitting back and suddenly one of his staff members sat up and tried to eat one of his fellow office workers. You know, how do you deal with that? That’s how we wanted it to feel as oppose to looking at horror-comedies like Zombieland. We wanted it to feel very character-driven and very dialogue-driven. A lot of comedies are kind of set piece-drive, kind of slapstick with a huge gag involving somebody who’s unable to get up some stairs because they’re too drunk or whatever. We wanted the comedy of the film to be more driven by the dialogue, then when something physical happens, like a zombie kid attacks, that would almost be more horrific.
Considering you’re massively known for your work in the horror field, how did you find it trying to keep the right balance between horror and comedy?
I think it was good to have Ian there. I think if I’d have written it on my own then I might have been a little lost and might have wondered if it was funny. When you write on your own you work in an echo chamber. You send it out into the world and you don’t know what it is. You wait for the outside world to tell you. But because I had Ian as a sounding board, we were cracking up. So we took the approach of if we think it’s funny then other people will. And the script got a really good response; every cast member we were going for – Rainn Wilson, Jack McBrayer, Alison Pill, Nasim Pedrad – all of them read the script and told us that they died laughing reading the script. I remember several of the actors saying they’d never laughed out loud reading a script before. So we were really proud of that. That was our job, you know. There’s a lot of stuff on a film set that’s not your responsibility, it’s such a collaborative medium and maybe the last collaborative art form – you sit there and all these technicians are there and these writers. We didn’t direct Cooties, so ultimately we’re not the ones driving the finished movie, but in terms of the screenplay I was really proud of what we did. That was our part, that was what we had to contribute, and from what people told us we did a really good job when they were cracking up laughing. So yeah, I didn’t find it intimidating or anything because I had Ian there.
You’ve been writing stuff for years now, so with Elijah Wood’s Clint character, himself a struggling writer, did you pull on any of your past experiences when writing that role?
Yeah, I did. I sympathise with him. Writing is so thankless and there’s so many people doing it. How do you get your voice heard? How do you get read? It’s a complete oxymoronic system that operates, whether it’s screenwriting or novel writing. I mean, you can’t get an agent without having written something but yet you can’t get work without an agent. So you’re stuck in this world of trying to find an agent but the agent saying that he doesn’t want to represent you because you’re not a working writer. Essentially what you have to do when you’re beginning as a writer, in this instance I’m talking about screenwriting, you have to write screenplays and mail them off to agents in the hope that they say, “Hey, I read the screenplays that arrived – I’ll represent you.” And then there’s so many gates you have to get through. That’s the first gate, getting an agent. Then you have to get through the second gate of your agent sending out the script, getting people interested. It’s so tough. So with Clint there’s a lot of sympathy there that maybe he’s what I would’ve been if I had no success with Saw or if I’d have sent that out and nobody would’ve read it or cared. I probably would’ve been a substitute teacher somewhere, still writing, still hoping. It’s a really tough, cutthroat world, so I certainly sympathise with that. It’s certainly a cavalier, flippant response that people give you when you write something, especially in the world of screenwriting. You know, agents and producers, I don’t think they know how brutal they’re being. You sweat blood when you write a script – I don’t care whether it’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night or Police Academy 4. It takes work to write a screenplay, it’s really hard. Then you send it off to people, like an agent or a producer, and they’re so flippant when they criticise it. This is a pet peeve that really drives me nuts, which is when I turn in the first draft of my screenplay the producers will call me and they won’t even spare a minute or even 30 seconds saying what’s good about it. There’s no like, “Hey, I loved what you did there.” They just cut straight to the nose, and it’s one of my little pet peeves because they’ll pick up the phone and go, “OK, great job. Listen, Page 38, I don’t know… I’ve got a few concerns.” Like, just humour me with 2 minutes of what’s good about it! And so I guess that scene with the mother, where she starts criticising him, is really Ian and mine’s comment on the way agents and producers treat screenwriters in Hollywood. She’s the substitute for those people.
As mentioned, you worked with Ian Brennan on the script for Cooties, and he’s currently involved in the Scream Queens TV show. Horror shows are all the rage at the moment, with stuff like The Walking Dead, Bates Motel, Hannibal, American Horror Story, etc. Do you ever see yourself maybe moving towards horror TV at some point?
Maybe. I love making films, and certainly I recognise that a lot of the best writing is happening in TV right now and I’ve got plenty of TV shows that I love. It’s not that I don’t like TV, it’s just that I’m so attracted to the world of film. I still love the smell of popcorn, and there’s such nostalgia attached to movies for me that it’s hard to me to pull myself away from it. But I wouldn’t rule it out. Essentially, everything for me is about the idea. It comes down to what is the idea, and that idea then has to sustain you for a long time, for a year or however long it takes to write a film you’ve got to be passionate. If I woke up one day with an idea for a TV show, I’d go out and I’d start pitching it. For me that’s like putting the horse before the cart. I guess what I’m saying is I wouldn’t just go out into the world of TV and say, “Hey, I want to do a TV show. I don’t know what it is yet, but I want to do something in TV so let’s talk.” That to me would be the wrong way to go about it. The way I operate, I would have to go out into the world and go, “Hey TV world, look at this idea that I have. Do you wanna make it?” At least then everything is driven by this idea that you’re passionate about. I see a lot of directors and people I work with doing it the other way, like they’ll just walk into someone’s office without an idea and say, “Hey, I really wanna get into TV. Do you have anything? Let’s talk.” And that’s fine, people do that all the time - in fact, my own agent hassles me to do that – and a lot of business is done in Hollywood that way. It’s two people, they get together, they don’t know what the idea is yet but they know they want to work together. And I’m fine with that, I’m fine with them doing that, but I can’t work that way. I find it like an arranged marriage, like “Hi, nice to meet you. How do you do?” and then you spend the next year getting to know this person that you’ve just married. I’d prefer the traditional route of coming to someone with a finished product and saying “Do you like this?” And they either say yes or no, then you get closure and can move on.
Insidious: Chapter 3 is out on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK this month, and that film marked your directorial debut. Did you find that you took praise and criticism of the film more personally because you were directing this time?
I very much think that I took it a lot more personally, the criticisms, because I directed. With Saw and with the first Insidious films, I was certainly invested in the reviews but there was a shared responsibility. James was the director, so I felt there was a strength in that partnership. Essentially directors, for better or worse, they’re the ones who get saddled with the blame or praise when a film does well. It’s a common gripe of screenwriters that if a movie does well and is loved by critics, all the credit is handed to the director and the screenwriter’s sitting back there going “What about me, I wrote the film?” That’s very much a common gripe. I was happy to have James there because if somebody didn’t like what we did then I felt that we’re a team, he made choices, I made my thing, and we could just kind of shake it off. But when you’re working on your own, like I did with Insidious 3, you’re so naked, for lack of a better word. Every arrow that was thrown this film’s way was only directed at me – I couldn’t pass it off to James. It was all me, and I’ve never felt so naked. The weekend the film came out in the US I was very nervous about it, and actually the film got good reviews, but it’s funny how the reviews that criticised it really hurt. I didn’t try to read them, I wouldn’t torture myself by reading a really bad review – maybe I’d glance at them. I remember there was one review where the post-production supervisor on Insidious 3 said to me, “Did you read the review in Variety?” I said, “No”, and then she said, “Don’t!” So then obviously I have to look at it. I didn’t read the whole thing, I kind of read the first paragraph through squinted eyes, and I remember the first sentence of the review said something like “a lazy, tossed-off effort”. I just remembering thinking that you can hate the film or not like it but it couldn’t be less thrown away, tossed-off, lazy. It couldn’t be less lazy – I treated that film like it was Citizen Kane. I cared so much, I didn’t sleep, I went to bed every night thinking about every detail of that movie. I’m not saying that this guy had to like the film, but it was so funny that he thought it was just lazy and rushed. It could not have been less of that. It was so important to me. It might have well have been Citizen Kane to me, that’s how I treated it. So that was interesting to see the gap between what a critic thinks of it and how it was actually put together, and that was really interesting for me. I guess the more films you make, maybe the more thick your skin gets and you care less. But definitely that first time, I cared a lot.
And we have to ask – what about Saw VIII? Is that any closer to happening yet?
In reference to Saw VIII, I have not heard anything. I know Jason Constantine very well, who has been the executive at Lionsgate that deals with the Saw movies. I’ve known him a long time, since the first Saw movie, so if they were making a film then they’d tell me about it or if they were developing a script then they’d tell me about it. And they’ve not told me anything about it. I think if Saw VIII comes it’s not going to be any time in the near future. Maybe next year they’ll start working on something.
There were some interesting quotes attributed to producer Oren Koules late last year that suggested you and James were comfortable with returning to the franchise and putting your mark back on it with a 2016 movie…
It’s so strange how this stuff gets out there! It’s so funny, especially when they don’t even have a script. A lot of people ask me about it, and it’s flattering because obviously there’s a lot of people who Saw means a lot to – they’re enthusiastic about it, and that’s a cool thing to be a part of. In our own small way we created a horror version of something like Star Wars where everyone celebrates it, like “When’s the next Star Wars film?” The Internet devotion to the new Star Wars film is insane, for good reason. And I feel that James has a little, mini diet version of that in the horror world because every single day, ten, twenty times a day I get tweets from kids around the world asking where’s Saw VIII and what’s happening with that. And for it’s an indication that even after all these years there’s still a real fanbase and desire to see more, which is cool.
Both Cooties and Insidious: Chapter 3 are released on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK on Monday, October 12th.SHARE YOUR COMMENTS BELOW OR ON TWITTER @STARBURST_MAG
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