Published on April 1st, 2011 | by Biz Books

The Biz Interview: James Wan and Leigh Whannell of “Insidious”

Insidious is the latest horror effort from the horror genre’s most successful modern creative team of director James Wan and actor-writer Leigh Whannell. We were fortunate enough to spend a few minutes chatting with this engaging pair to learn about the creative process of putting together the film, the essential elements that make their cinematic partnerships strong, and what makes horror scenes and villains effective.

Can you walk us through the creative process for Insidious?

Leigh Whannell: This film started with an idea that James and I had back when we were just out of film school and we were trying to come up with an idea for a very cheap film we could make. Five thousand dollars. Something we should shoot ourselves. The core idea of Insidious was sort of born during that time, but we shelved it in favour of this other film about two guys stuck in a bathroom – Saw. So we made that and of course, it took us on this crazy journey where now we live in L.A. and we’re doing all this stuff, and we pretty much forgot about the idea until the guys who produced Paranormal Activity came to us and said “We would love to make a film with you guys. I mean really cheap and down and dirty.”

It sort of took us back to that same mindset we were in when we had just gotten out of film school, which reminded us of that project. We just thought it was the perfect opportunity to make a film that we could have complete control over. So many films take so long to get off the ground. Filmmaking is really just a waiting game as James will tell you, you’re waiting for a project to get up and it can take years. What was attractive about this was the immediacy of it.

James Wan: Leigh and I have been wanting to make a really scary movie for a while. We felt like we haven’t really made that film yet. Saw to us – it was a dark thriller with suspense… but we wanted to make a supernatural film cause we feel like supernatural ghost stories are the things that we love the most. If done right, it can be very frightening. We love ghost films and we felt like using the backdrop of a haunted house setting was a good one as a leaping off point that became a film that starts in one way but becomes something a bit different – a different beast – and that’s what we love. Leigh and I love to take something that has been established and kind of spin it around.

You guys have formed a successful creative partnership together that goes back several years. What has made that work and how is it advantageous for you as a filmmaker and writer to collaborate often?

Leigh Whannell: Several things have made it work. Number one would be that we’re friends. That’s always a good starting point for anything. If you start out as friends, there is a better understanding of who the other person is and how their mind works.

You know, we have a good time, we have a laugh, but also I think there’s strength in numbers. For myself, I don’t know that I could’ve gotten to the place I’m in without a partner in crime. You need that. It’s kind of a shark tank, as everyone will tell you about Hollywood – that world – and I think you need a gang around you. Even with James, he’s formed a gang. He uses the same cinematographer, the same A.D. because there’s strength in numbers and also you feel like you have their protection against all these other elements that are out to get you, as opposed to actually help you.

With Saw you created Jigsaw, who’s an iconic modern horror villain and with Insidious you have a lot of unsettling scenes. What are the keys to creating an effective horror scene and effective villain?

James Wan: I think whether it’s the scene or the character you’re creating, it needs to resonate. Firstly, it needs to work on screen and then when it works on screen, it starts to get into the public’s subconscious and it becomes a collective thing. If lots of people keep talking about one really scary moment that becomes really well-known, the movie becomes really well-known for that one scary moment. In the case of the Saw film, the people would talk about the doll and that becomes an iconic character – the face of the franchise – and the doll is tied in with the main villain who is the Jigsaw character and so he becomes this really iconic character. I think that’s what it is. I think it’s important to make movies that leave some kind of impression behind. If you leave some kind of impression behind and the film becomes successful, it ultimately finds its way into pop culture whether you like it or not.

Leigh Whannell: That’s an interesting point because if you don’t do anything that strives to be memorable in the film – if you don’t take a chance or creat something eye-catching, then the film still may be successful, but it probably doesn’t get [consumed] into pop culture.

James Wan: The best example is people would laugh at how silly or funny or almost goofy in the first saw film when the doll comes riding out on the tricycle. People would crack up or go, “What the hell is this?”

But now that image – the doll on the tricycle and the doll itself – is in the public consciousness. It’s become this pop culture element. Every Halloween you see kids – you see someone out there dressed as that doll riding a tricycle around. That says Saw more than anything else in the film.

Leigh Whannell: With something like Insidious we hope that the same thing happens where the more outlandish stuff over time becomes the stuff that people love about the film.

Insidious is in theatres April 1st, 2011.

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