Exclusive: 'Saw' creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell Talk 'Insidious'


James Wan and Leigh Whannell are the masterminds behind the immensely popular Saw franchise, as well as Dead Silence and the Death Sentence remake. Now, Wan and Whannell are teaming up with the producers of Paranormal Activity for their latest foray, a frightening haunted house tale that finds a family terrorized by malevolent spirits intent on possessing the son's body. Yesterday at the Toronto Film Festival, the enthusiastic duo sat down with me to discuss returning to top form with their sudden critical hit Insidious. Check out our conversation after the jump.

Saw originally gained some huge momentum after the Toronto Film Festival. How was it premiering Insidious here?

James: This was the perfect audience to see it with. I was so nervous before it played. I took a hiatus from making movies after Death Sentence. I was nervous to come back with an indie low-budget film and to play it to such a genre-loving crowd. Who knows this genre better than the people that were there last night attending Midnight Madness? It's good and bad. It's great because this is what they love. It's bad because they are so desensitized. On top of that, I was nervous because the Midnight Madness crowd tends to be a really rowdy crowd. I wasn't sure if my film would play well because it's a lot more low-key. It's a creepy chiller. I was very relieved because I thought I was going to throw up.

Initially, Dead Silence was supposed to be your ode to haunted house movies. Why return to the genre with Insidious?

Leigh: Dead Silence was more of an ode to "House of Usher" chillers. It didn't turn out the way I wanted it to. There was a lot of trouble making that film for me personally. It was never the definitive horror film we wanted, so we had to make Insidious. Not that we're saying goodbye to the horror genre, but we wanted something that was us.

It must be different when you haven't been picked up by a big studio yet and it's 100 percent your vision.

Leigh: Absolutely. Any film that goes through Universal's system, they put their fingers all over it, and they want to see it done their way. That's fine, but it's a tough system to go through if you're not prepared for butting heads. With this film, the producers couldn't have been more collaborative and filmmaker friendly. I would make any movie again with them. I can see why people like the Cohen Brothers don't want to enter this huge arena of studio money because they are doing it their own way, and why change it?

How did you get involved with the producers of Paranormal Activity for Insidious?

Leigh: They had a meeting with us. Obviously, they were doing a victory lap around town post Paranormal Activity. They had a lot of calluses on their hands from all the high-fiving. They had a meeting with us and said, "We're in the position now with some money to make five independent horror films. We'd like to work with you. Do you have any ideas?" It so happened we did. It came together so quickly after that. As soon as we had that meeting with them, we were off to the races. I went back to Australia for Christmas and wrote this film at my Mom's house. I'm sitting in the back bedroom, ducking out to say "Merry Christmas," and then back in. It wasn't great timing but somehow I managed to squeeze in the first draft. By the time I came back to Los Angeles in late January, they were in pre-production. They were already location scouting.

This is much more than a haunted house romp. How would you describe it?

James:  It's a tricky one to pitch without giving the twist away. I know when they market the film, the twist is going to be in there because that's what makes it unique. Otherwise, if you were just to market the first half, it's just a haunted house movie. You have to bring something different to the audience. I had to take it an extra step further with astral projection. I think we did find a great way to tie a haunted house movie with astral projection.

What makes astral projection frightening then?

James:  I don't necessarily find that scary as opposed to finding it fascinating. It's the same as any of those paranormal phenomena like telekinesis, psychic, or pyrokinesis.  There's out-of-body experience, which is what astral projection is. They say Nostradamus was a very accomplished astral projector. Supposedly, he could astral project into the past or future which is how he could see what happens. This topic was ripe picking for a horror movie, or at least an intellectual sci-fi movie. We wanted to take that haunted house convention and twist it on its head. What Leigh and I always do is take something that people are familiar with and make it unexpected.  

Where did you come up with the unconventional idea to explore astral projection?

Leigh: In talking to other people, astral projection seems to be seen as Eastern philosophy, Buddhism, and meditation. It's not something people put in horror, which is surprising because when James and I talked about it, all we saw was horror potential. We didn't think of it in terms of some yoga instructor who changed their name from Debbie to Moonbeam. We saw the potential of an astral body, which is essentially a ghost, floating around the room. We hope we've done something people haven't seen before. But it was something James and I had come up with back when we were doing Saw. We actually discussed a horror film based on astral projection. We had three ideas and one of them involved two guys waking up in a bathroom with a dead guy on the floor, which is obviously the one we picked. Another idea was about an astral projector; and you never throw away your ideas. You have this little mental filing cabinet, and I put that stuff in. I even save little scraps of ideas that are not fully formed. Late last year, we pulled that filing cabinet open and thought this astral projection had something. We fused this idea of astral projection with our overwhelming desire to make our definitive horror. With this film, there's no one to blame. If someone doesn't like this film, it's not because anyone else screwed up.

What does the title Insidious refer to?

James:  When people usually ask me to describe the film, I start describing the tone. I always say the movie has a very insidious tone. Eventually it stuck because it's such a cool word. That's not to say whoever is distributing this down the track won't change it to something more commercial because that's always a possibility. Right now, it's just a cool title.

There's these quiet, sublime shocks in the film and then you have those big in-your-face scares. What do you find more effective?

Leigh: Horror is tricky. It's like making someone else laugh: there's no exact science. You just throw this stuff out there and you get better at it. I've always thought comedy and horror were close cousins. This sort of genre is based on a gut reaction or a sound. A laugh or a scream are basically the same sound, only inverted. Speaking to that, because making someone scream is also not an exact science, you never really know what's going to do it. The only barometer you have is yourself. When I write, I try and scare myself. I method write. I write horror films late at night, on my own, in a creaking house. If I'm creeping myself out, I know it's cool. We put it all in there and wore our hearts on our sleeves. As you saw, we have some pretty outlandish stuff in there. We wanted to get our gadgets and gizmos in there like the mask. That's our jaw trap for this film. We can't help but do stuff like that; we just need to. We need to stick some kind of steampunk device in the middle of the film.

James: For me, it's the quiet moments. That was what I was leaning more towards in Insidious because I've done the in-your-face stuff. Saw is so in-your-face and so was Death Sentence. I get that we live in a commercial world where today's kids love that. Today's generation grew up on the Saw films so I kind of need to give them that as well. But then, I basically want to have my cake and eat it too.  The trick for me as a director is to find a balance, and it seems people thought the balance was found.

You seemed to inject more humor in Insidious than your previous ventures.

Leigh: Yeah, there's more deliberate humor. My friend Angus Sampson plays the other ghost hunter and we've wanted to do something together that was kind of funny, but I didn't want to offset the tone of the film. Trying to strike that balance was tough so I wrote the parts for myself and him to be the guys. I knew what our repartee was since I lived with him in Melbourne, Australia. Over our many years of friendship, we have established this little routine, so I just put that on film. That's really how Angus and I talk to each other. It's good to have humor. I feel like Hitchcock knew that. He knew humor helped release tension and is an important element for suspense and horror.

From Jigsaw to Mary Shaw, your protagonists have always been visually striking. What were you aiming for with the lipstick-faced demon?

Leigh: We love creature films. I look at Pan's Labyrinth and can't believe the sheer inventiveness of the creatures. Obviously, Guillermo del Toro is a genius when it comes to this. Part of our personality wanted to have a ghoulishly striking entity that would be lauding over this boy. We also wanted some scary faces that you recognize, just human beings, but we thought our top-of-the-chain bad guy should be scary. James wanted to go for a very made-up look. There's something creepy about that make-up. Obviously, they did it brilliantly in The Dark Knight with Heath Ledger. We wanted something like that, where this grotesque make-up was self implied by this male creature. Hopefully, it worked.

How do you feel about tying up loose ends in a nice neat bow?

James: We never do that because we're setting things up for a sequel. [Laughs] When you watch scary movies, it has a stronger impact if the end of the movie isn't tied up neatly in little bows. It leaves you walking out of the cinema going, "Oh my God! What's going to happen to so-and-so? What's next?" Then you as an audience member start thinking of all these different possibilities. I think that's a great thing, which is why I love David Lynch. He never explains his films and it's up to you to interpret what he's created for you.

Are you happy with Saw VII and the 3-D process applied?

Leigh: I am very happy with it. I'm really blown away with the 3-D. They used a camera I don't think has ever been used before. They were able to shoot a Saw film like a Saw film and it looks amazing. I do believe that if any film was made for 3-D, it's Saw. I really do. The machinations of these devices and traps really speaks to 3-D. I think it's going to be great. I'm super excited about how the fans are going to take it. Seriously. I think it's a great way to go out.

If this is the last instalment.

Leigh: [Laughs] We all remember Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. I've spoken to producer Mark Burg and he says this is it for a while. They are hanging up their hats. These guys have worked their asses off. They are putting one out per year, which is unheard of in this industry. They deserve a well earned break.