Leigh Whannell is a screenwriter, producer and actor best known for his collaborations with director James Wan on the Saw franchise and writing the first two Insidious movies, where he also plays the supporting role of ghost-hunter Specs.
His latest film is Insidious 3, which marks his directorial debut. Whannell spoke to Matthew Turner about the impact of the Saw movies, the state of the horror genre, and what makes him tick.
Here, in his own words, are seven fascinating things he told us.
1. He’s scared of everything
“I think that’s probably the reason I’m able to tap into fear so easily. Being Australian I have a healthy fear of spiders and sharks and deep water and heights and noises.
“I’m kind of a wuss, but I think that means that when I sit down and start writing, I can instantly imagine a scenario where I’d be terrified.”
2. One of Saw’s most iconic scares has its roots in childhood pranks
“Sneaking up on my cousins wearing a pig mask was one of my favourite activities.
“If you hide behind the door and scare your brother, there’s a two second ha ha ha, but when you’re in a movie theater listening to a roomful of people scream at something you created, it’s like a drug. It’s like the best drug in the world.”
3. Horror is like heavy metal
“No other genre seems to be as marginalized and picked on as horror. Except for maybe porn. Horror’s just kind of pushed off to the side.
“I think filmmakers react to that horror marginalisation by saying: ‘Oh yeah? You want to see gory?’. I also I think that’s why it’s a great genre for people who perceive themselves as outsiders. You know, if you’re the kid at school who’s not talking to anyone else, it’s like a great genre, because you feel like the genre is an outsider with you.”
4. Horror and comedy are like cousins
“They’re the only genres that are designed to elicit an involuntary vocal reaction. And it’s an instant barometer as to how you’re doing.
“If they’re laughing their heads off in the movie, hopefully you’ve made a comedy. If you’ve made a horror film and they’re laughing their heads off, that’s not so cool.”
5. He’s inspired by the classics (and wishes there were more of them)
“Jaws was probably the first film that that really scared me on a deep, deep level. I saw that when I was quite young. It was a very popular movie, so I guess my dad thought it was like Raiders of the Lost Ark or something. But The Exorcist, The Shining – you know, being a horror fan is kind of hard, because you’re starved for quality. There seems to be a lot of people in the horror community who fixate on the lesser films.
“No one’s going to say The Toxic Avenger or Basket Case are going to win any Oscars, but they have a lot of fans and I think you can count on maybe two hands the number of truly artful, great horror films that you could comfortably put next to, like, The Godfather.”
6. He’s philosophical about his role in inspiring ‘torture-porn’
“When I look back I can see a time where Saw influenced films to be maybe more graphic or more extreme. There seemed to be sort of a five year period where gory movies were real money-makers, which is weird, because gory movies were never mainstream. It was always like this grindhouse thing. It was ‘our little secret’, and then all of a sudden every kid is going to see this movie.
“It’s hard for me to have anything but good associations. All my memories of Saw are actually all the extra-curricular things that happened around the movie, like meeting my wife and getting an apartment and living in L.A. and the first time my dad came to visit me. It kind of changed my life for the better.
“A lot of people will say to me, ‘Do you have any negative thoughts about torture porn?’ and I’m always, like, ‘No, I mean it’s not ideal, but torture porn is the reason I get to work in the film industry’. I’ll always be thankful to that movie.”
7. There comes a point where you need to move on
“With the Saw movies, I wrote three of them and they were really keen for me to write three more. And I just started thinking, well, why did I come to L.A? Why did I move over here? Did I want to be a factory worker, just sort of pushing out the same stuff? That feels like work. I actually wanted a job in the film industry to run away from work and so I stopped writing those movies because I felt like I was repeating myself.
“I think a lot of times sequels get made just for economic reasons, like, ‘Well, that one did well, time to get working on the next one’. I really wouldn’t want to do another Insidious unless I really was like, ‘Yeah, that story’s interesting’.”
Insidious 3 is in cinemas from June 5. Watch the trailer: