Leigh Whannell Interview

The Invisible Man is the latest movie from Australian director Leigh Whannell (Insidious: Chapter 3, Upgrade).  He was recently in Sydney as part of a publicity tour and I had a chance to chat with him for 10 minute about the project…

Matt:  You’ve been writing movies for a long time with your good friend James Wan.  How have you found the transition to directing over the last few years with Insidious: Chapter 3, Upgrade and now The Invisible Man?

Leigh:  I’ve loved it but I was terrified about directing for a while.  In hindsight, I’ve now released that directors deliberately tell their worst war stories to discourage people from taking up directing so they don’t have as much competition (laughs).  Director friends would tell me how hard and stressful it was.  When I finally did direct, I found it stressful at times but it’s also really fun and I’d love to keep going with it.

Matt:  You have a lot of experience in the horror-thriller genre and for me, it’s one of the toughest to create movies that feel original and don’t rely too heavily on clichés.  Do you have a secret that you apply?

Leigh:  There’s no real secret.  If there was, it’d be too easy.  It’s more abstract.  The only rule… if I have one at all… is to just follow my gut.  You have these creative instincts and sometimes you distrust them.  You’ll have a good idea and then you’ll agonise for days thinking you can make it better.  I often find that the first ideas I have are the ones I come back to.   

Matt:  Correct me if I’m wrong but is the first movie where you’ve adapted a source material as opposed to coming up with something original.  How was that challenge?

Leigh:  Yeah, it is.  It’s been an interesting movie because while it’s based on the classic character, I diverted a lot from the original novel so it still feels new.  I wanted to modernize the character and make a film that was unpleasant and suffocating to watch.  Something that would make the audience so tense that they’d want to leave the theatre.  That was my goal for the film.

Matt:  I often wonder how directors settle on a first scene.  Do you ease audiences into the movie or do you go with a big start?  The first scene here is incredibly tense and tells us this isn’t going to be a goofy, lightweight monster movie.  How’d you settle on that approach?

Leigh:  I decided to drop the audience right in the middle of the story.  As you said, films will often spend time establishing characters but for this particular film, I wanted the audience to be tense without necessarily knowing why they were tense.  Horror films often have a couple of scenes that are scary and the filmmakers will let you off the hook for a little while.  I didn’t want to do that.  I wanted every scene to be relentlessly suffocating in some way.  I’m not sure if I achieved it but that’s what I was going for.

Matt:  One thing that’s obvious with The Invisible Man is the great use of sound… or perhaps the lack thereof.  When are you making those decisions?  Is it while you’re shooting or is something refined with sound effects in the editing room?

Leigh:  I think it’s all of the above.  When I decide to write a screenplay, I spend a lot of time just coming up with ideas.  It’s my favourite part of screenwriting – the part when you’re not writing and you spend a couple of months just jotting down ideas, going for walks, and watching other movies for inspiration.  You build a collage of what the film should be.  During that time, it’s usually when I decide what I want the film to sound like and look like.

As you make the film and bring in talented crew members, you start to refine that.  I was working here with a sound mixer named Will Files.  He’s worked on countless Hollywood blockbusters and I found he was very receptive to doing something different and outside the box.  I’m glad you noticed the sound design of the film.

Matt:  Another interesting element here is the visual effects – you have a character being hit and thrown around by someone who is completely invisible.  How do you pull that off?  Is it stunts, special effects, great acting?

Leigh:  It’s a little mixture of everything.  I’m a real fan of practical effects where you do something on the set with a real object.  I’m not big on green screen and CGI.  Yes, I use computer driven effects when needed and they’re a great tool but I don’t want everything to be like that.  I want to use real locations, real people and real props whenever I can.

We had a stunt man wearing a green suit who was fighting with Elisabeth Moss and we then had the difficult task of removing him from the shot.  In amongst that, we’ve got really old school practical effects from 100 years ago like using rope to pull objects out of frame.  When you mix it all together, the end result is effective.

Matt:  Elisabeth Moss is outstanding in the lead role.  She’s a very credible character.  How do you create that as a director?  Is there a lot of instruction that you provide or is something that an actress like Elisabeth instinctively gets?

Leigh:  It stars with the screenplay.  I’m alone in a room and I have to be able to imagine this person.  I often use someone I know in my real life as a base for the character.  It makes it easier than creating someone out of thin air.  When I met Elisabeth, she had lots of ideas and thoughts which I was welcoming of.  I took the approach of collaborating with her.  She’s a producer on The Handmaid’s Tale and so she’s used to having her input heard.  Between the two of us, we created this flesh and blood human and hopefully when people see the movie, they feel like they know the person.  You used the word “credible” and that’s about as big a compliment as I can get.

Matt:  I don’t want to give too much away but the door has been left open for more movies in this franchise.  Is it something you might be involved with?

Leigh:  I’m not really sure.  I’m very superstitious when it comes to filmmaking.  So much of it is gambling.  You can try to pretend you have control but at the end of the day, it’s totally up to the universe as to whether it’s a success.  I have no control over whether people go and see it.  I try not to think about a sequel because I’m worried about jinxing it.  I guess we’ll just see what happens when the film comes out.

Matt:  I’ll finish up by asking what you’re working on at the moment.  What will we see from you next?

Leigh:  I’ve had my name attached to a few projects but there’s nothing locked in for now.  I’m looking forward to taking a break and spending time with the family.  I like to let films hit me.  It’s when you’re in the shower or sitting in the back yard… it’s the moments you least expect when an idea comes along.  You’ve got to make time for that.  If I want to be sitting on a beach somewhere and letting a movie idea hit me… then I’ve got to make time to sit on a beach.  I’m looking forward to the break.