Leigh Whannell has long been a favourite of many a genre fan. From modern-day classic horror franchises such as Saw and Insidious, to horror comedy Cooties, to stunning sci-fi actioner Upgrade, Whannell has impressed as an actor, a writer, and as a director. And in a writing and directing capacity, up next for the hugely talented Australian is a fresh new take on The Invisible Man. As that hotly anticipated reinvention of an iconic property gears up to hit the silver screen, we caught up with Leigh to discuss making this character once again a terrifying proposition, how he himself has grown as a filmmaker, whether he’d be interested in tackling any other of Universal’s famed monsters, and much, much more.
STARBURST: Having seen so many different incarnations of classic Universal monsters over the decades, it can be said that these characters have long lost the ability to truly scare. With The Invisible Man, you’ve managed to bring back a sense of genuine terror for audiences. How was it to tackle that challenge of making the property frightening again?
Leigh Whannell: That was the main thing that attracted me to doing it. I certainly wasn’t hankering to make an Invisible Man movie. I love the character of the Invisible Man, the same way that I love the other classic monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, or any of these monsters based on older literary works. I love them all, they’re part of horror history. I’m a horror fan and a student of horror, and so as a student I respect and revere these characters. But they certainly weren’t at the forefront of my mind. After I finished Upgrade, I had been well and truly bitten by the action bug. What I was excited to do next was something with a bit more action, maybe a bit of a bigger budget. Shooting things like car chases and fight scenes, it’s very addictive. Once you do it once, you want to do it again. So that’s where my mind was at. Then Universal Pictures were the ones who floated the idea of The Invisible Man – or at least put the name in my mind. The thing that diverted me away from making another action film and going back to horror was the idea of making this character scary. As you said, some of these characters are really old and there’s been a lot of adaptations of their work. They’re not modern monsters - they’re written in a different time and framed in a different era – and so dragging it into the modern world was what excited me about it.
From the footage seen so far, the reaction has been hugely positive across the board – and that’s a rarity these days! How nervous were you before that trailer went out, and how’s it been to see such a positive response?
Yeah, whenever you unleash something into the world that’s been your own secret for a long time, it’s nerve-wrecking. For me it is, anyway. Making a film is like working behind closed doors for a long, long time, toiling on something, and then you rip away the curtain to reveal the portrait. The moment that you unleash it onto the public, it feels very naked. You’re so exposed because you’ve had all this time to toil behind closed doors and now the outside world controls it. So it was very nerve-wracking, but I loved the response. In the current age we live in, you know that you are going to get negative opinions, but you just hope the positive opinions outweigh them. That’s the best you can hope for. You can’t avoid negative opinions in the era of Twitter. You know as well as I do, the best you can hope for is percentage points – let’s hope the pie chart is more favourable than unfavourable.
The last time we spoke, you said you were initially open to the idea of doing The Invisible Man because there hadn’t really been a great Invisible Man movie since that first 1933 film. As well as going back and watching the old movies or reading the original novel, was there anything else you particularly revisited as inspiration for this picture?
Whenever I’m writing a film, the first thing that happens is I’m just working with a notepad and pen for quite a while. I’m sort of stringing together different fragments of the idea, and the hope is that after a few months of working like that you’ve assembled a general vision and outline for the whole movie. It starts in a very fragmented way. It starts, for me, with jotting down images and coming to a head. When I sit down on the couch and think about this movie, what are the very first things that pop into my head? It’s important for me to jot down those instinctive thoughts. I’m definitely somebody who’s very suspicious of the first idea – if it’s something I’ve thought of, it mustn’t be any good – but what I’ve found happening when I’ve been making films, is that the very first thoughts that you have are the best ones. It’s kind of like a musician recording a song in one take and then going, “Look, this is how it is, this is raw, this is it in its purest, most raw form and I don’t want to labour on it too long.” The other thing I do is I put together music, and it’s really just kind of a real cornucopia of different things – music, sound, images. Part of that is thinking about films that are in the vein of what I’m thinking about. For this movie, I was watching films like Gone Girl, Fatal Attraction, Rosemary’s Baby. The reason I’m watching those films might not be obvious. For instance, if I say to you and your readers that I watched Gone Girl, they might think, “Well, clearly there’s something Gone Girl-esque about this film.” Really, I might be watching Gone Girl purely for the way that it was shot. It doesn’t have anything to do with the plot, but something about the way that film was photographed speaks to what I want to do with this film. It’s a very random, fragmented process that goes on. It’s actually the most fun part of screenwriting for me. The hard part is when you actually have to sit down at a desk and put your fingers to keys and actually type something. Yeah, the part where I’m making a collage of the ideas and music and images is really the fun part.
This is the third movie that you’ve directed. Without making this too much of a heavy, loaded question, what do you think you’ve learned from this particular movie that maybe you didn’t know when you were helming Insidious: Chapter 3 or Upgrade?
Oh wow, that’s a really interesting question. There’s so many things. And I think a lot of the things I learned, I think I’ve already forgotten. Sometimes they just disappear into the ether. One of the things I learned on this film is just really do your homework on people. I had great crew, I had a great cast, but I think on this movie I really learned that going forward I want to sit down with each and every person. Not just the stars of the movie, but the supporting actors. Not just the key members of the crew, but the supporting crew members and the people who are further down the call sheet. I want to be sitting down with the assistant to the make-up artist. Every single person, I want to sit with and I want to tell them my mission statement. You can never, ever be clear enough as a director about your mission statement. When I say mission statement, I’m talking about everything. Not just what you want to achieve with the tone of the film, but how you want the set to run, how you want people to behave, what is important to you. All of that stuff really has to be clear from the outset. That was something that I really learned on The Invisible Man. I had a great time shooting the film, and I had a very talented cast and crew, but I found at times that I was scrambling to remind people what the mission was. So that is something I’m going to do going forward, is just overcommunicate. I’m a bit of an overcommunicator on set, I like to labour the point because you only get one shot at something. I’ll tell someone the same thing four, five, six times.
While you’re eager to do more action, Universal obviously has a complete library of classic characters at their disposal. The Dark Universe concept has seemingly been dropped, but would you be keen to tackle any other famed monsters should the offer come your way?
It really depends on what the project was. I judge movies on a case-by-case basis. I have a vague plan in my head of where I want to be as a director in 20 years, 30 years, but I’ve found that you can plan as much as you want but just still end up making the universe laugh. Often at times, things find you. The Invisible Man is a perfect example. I had no desire or passion to make an Invisible Man movie until someone presented the idea to me. This is a character that crashed into my life – I wasn’t seeking it! It’s been such a gratifying and fulfilling experience making this film. Another thing I’ve learnt from this experience – going back to your last question – is I should be more open to things. Don’t be too rigid in your plans as a filmmaker. You’ve got to let things find you and be open to them. I don’t want to be closed off to opportunities. I’m really, really picky when it comes to what I make as a filmmaker, and any filmmaker should be. I’m no different to anyone else, but I’m so picky because it has to mean everything to me. I never make a movie for strategic purposes. For example, I’d never say, “Well, I’m not too interested in making this sequel to Cutthroat Island, but it’s a Disney movie and I really want to work with them.” I never want to make strategic business decisions, and for me it’s entirely based on what’s going to make me excited for the next year of my life. Sometimes the people around you – agents, managers, producers – they can think in a more strategic way. They’re seeing everything on paper and saying, “This would be a great opportunity for you. You should do this!” My response to that is that I just don’t care whether it’s a great opportunity. I just want to know whether this will keep me awake at night because I’m so excited about it that I cannot sleep. That’s the level I want to be at when I’m making a film. In answer to your question, it would have to be something that excited me that much for me to do it. I certainly wouldn’t direct something just because it made business sense.
Your name’s attached to Chris Rock’s new Saw movie as an executive producer, but we’re guessing you’ve got no direct involvement on that project. What can you tell us about any upcoming projects that you might have in the pipeline?
I haven’t been involved directly with the Saw movies for a long time. Of course, I’m friendly with a lot of the people who are involved in those films still, but I don’t have anything to do with them. I actually don’t have anything coming up. It’s kind of freeing to have that open road in front of you. It’s exciting for me. If I’m being honest, the thing that excites me the most is still original stories. Sitting down and creating a world out of thin air is really the most exciting thing to me. You know better than I do that we’re living in a time when original stories are becoming rarer and rarer. It’s a strange time for cinema. Obviously streaming has crashed the party and taken a bit of the power away from the movie theater business, and that’s okay. Things change. I have Netflix at home, I have Apple TV, and I love them. I love being able to watch movies in 4K in my house – it’s great! But as someone who wants to make films for movie theaters, it does make you think about what type of film will attract people to theaters. There are a lot of franchises and sequels that are getting made because they’re getting people off the couch and into a theater. I’m going to see the new Star Wars film along with everyone else, but as a creator it’s not necessarily what interests me. Adding to the canon of some other universe isn’t really what excites me. When a film like Knives Out comes out and it’s a hit and gets people’s attention, it’s truly exciting because I think it prolongs the lifespan of original films for a couple more years. It’s like, “Phew, it looks like we get another couple of years thanks to Knives Out. It looks like the life support is going to carry on thanks to Baby Driver.” It’s really up to filmmakers to just keep pushing. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I think I would love to do an original film and get it out into the world and get people to see it in theaters.
The Invisible Man was largely filmed in Sydney, which is where you shot your small role in The Matrix: Reloaded so many years ago. What was it like to go almost full circle, from a minor acting role to now returning to the same place as the director of such a major movie?
It was incredible. My last film, Upgrade, I shot that in Melbourne, which is my hometown. That was a really great experience to be back in my hometown. There was a real full circle moment there, because there was a big, empty building in a city area of Melbourne that we used as a mini-backlot. I think we shot four or five different locations in this abandoned school. It had been a school for 100 years, and now it was lying empty and decrepit and probably filled to the brim with asbestos. We used it as a backlot for many of the scenes, and it just so happens that this building was next-door to this old pub that had been open for a long time. It’s kind of famous for its live music, it’s kind of a rock ‘n’ roll pub, kind of the CBGBs of Melbourne, and it was where I shot a student film. It was the world’s worst student film, but it was my student film. If somebody said that they’d made the worst student film ever made, I would say to them, “I give you my student film!” When I showed that to them, they would admit defeat and walk away. It was far and away the worst pile of shit that’s ever been put in front of a camera. It’s really interesting, as one day I got to the set early and I went to the pub for a drink. I was just sitting there thinking, “My god, 20 years ago – almost to the year – I was in this pub, making the worst student of all-time. Now I’m in the building next-door shooting my sci-fi feature film.” It was kind of a misty-eyed moment of me going full circle. And I had the same sort of moment on The Invisible Man. This time I was in Sydney – which is not a city I was familiar with before this film, but it’s a city I fell in love with on this film – and when I was in my 20s I had a very small role in The Matrix Reloaded. I had three lines, which I think was cut down to just one line, but it was just incredible to be at Fox Studios in Sydney and to see these sets. Just the sheer amount of money they had spent and “Oh, there’s Keanu Reeves in the corner, practicing martial arts movies.” It just blew my head off. So to be shooting this film in that same studio, it was very similar to that moment back in Melbourne. Obviously our sets were not as good as they used in The Matrix, but it was still a full circle moment that kind of struck me hard.
The Invisible Man is in cinemas now.