Beloved by audiences and studios alike, well-made and original horror and suspense films have always provided great opportunities for neophyte directors like Leigh Whannell. After co-writing and acting in the Saw and
Insidious films, two of the most successful horror franchises of the last decade, the Aussie multi-hyphenate threat (he also produces) has now made the transition to directing with I
nsidious: Chapter 3, taking over from directing partner James Wan, who was tapped to helm the blockbuster
Fast & Furious 7. Starring Dermot Mulroney, Stefanie Scott — and Whannell as Specs — the movie prequel gleefully explores a new twisted tale of terror for the poor Lambert family, who are forced to once again deal with terrifying demons.
Here, in an exclusive interview, the director talks about the timeless appeal of horror, making the film, dealing with all the effects, and his love of editing and post.
When you were offered the chance to direct Insidious Chapter 3 by series producer Jason Blum and his highly successful and profitable Blumhouse Productions, were you scared, exhilarated, or both?
“Bit of both. Instead of making a few shorts and music videos to warm up, it was like diving off Niagara Falls and learning to swim all at once. And it’s not just a big feature film, but one that has a big audience all anticipating it, so that was pretty scary. There was a lot of pressure to deliver, but I just went for it.”
Did you always want to direct? And how big a transition was it going from being a screenwriter and actor in the Saw and Insidious films to this?
“Deep down I always wanted to direct, but I was scared and I avoided it for a long time. I was very happy being a screenwriter and acting. But it was always there in the back of my mind, and when James left to do Furious 7, and I was offered the chance to direct Insidious Chapter 3 by series producer Jason Blum and Blumhouse Productions, it just felt like the right time. And I loved it. Yes, it’s as hard and stressful as everyone warned me, but I found it to be far more of an intimate experience than I expected, and really like an extension of writing, as you don’t just write about a doorway — you now get to choose the door’s color and deal with every last detail. I hadn’t expected all that.”
What did you learn from writing those horror films that served you well on this?
“Being the writer of the series really helped. I didn’t really know many directors, and the best advice I got was from David Michod, who directed Animal Kingdom. He said, ‘You don’t have to know every single piece of gear on the set — you just need to know the story and characters better than anyone else.’ And that’s very true.”
Why do audiences love to be scared?
“It’s that primeval rush of adrenalin and why people love roller coasters. Fear of the unknown is hovering over us the whole time, even if we’re unaware of it, and people like to experience that but in a safe, simulated environment. You can dip your toe into the pool of terror with a movie, without actually having to live through it. So watching someone being stalked may make you anxious and your palms sweat, but it’s a very different feeling from the actual reality. I was held up at gun-point once by a mugger, and it was a surreal experience — almost like a movie and a cliché. He actually said, “Give me all your money!” Time does slow down and it’s like you’re watching yourself go through this.”
What sort of film did you set out to make?
“Obviously I couldn’t divert too much from the universe we’ve created, and there are certain looks that had been established, but I tried to do subtle things and give it a different feel and look. I told DP Brian Pearson that I loved the look of David Fincher’s Seven — and even though we had just a 30-day schedule, I think he really succeeded. James was quite flamboyant with a garish aesthetic in the others, and he loved Dario Argento and all the outlandish European horror guys, so he had all these bright, primary colors flashing through windows, and the demons were very Victorian in dress and so on. But I wanted a dirtier aesthetic, more grungy, and one of the first things I told the production designer was, ‘No white Victorian dresses!’”
How tough was the prep and shoot?
“I really enjoyed the prep, as there’s not that awful clicking-meter pressure of the shoot. I tried to be super-organized so that the shoot would go smoothly. And it did, but it was nerve-wracking too.”
How early did you have to integrate post into the shoot?
“Right from the start. Matt Lynn from Legion was on-set, supervising all the VFX, and we’d watch shots and construct them together. He was a big part of it.”
Do you like the post process?
“I really love it, and it’s by far my favorite part of the process. Everyone told me, it’s where you really make and shape your film, and it’s true. It’s where you see exactly what you have and how to tell the story, and I loved the editing, where you can change and swap scenes and shots all day long if you want. The shoot is finite, but I loved the infinite possibilities of editing. For me, it’s by far the most creative part of filmmaking.”
Where did you do the post?
“We shot in LA and then edited at Blumhouse on Avid.”
The film was edited by Timothy Alverson, who cut Orphan. How did that work?
“We got on really well, which is very important when you’re spending so much time together in a dark room. He worked with Joel Silver for many years, so he’s been through the fire and is very experienced and very calm and unflappable — maybe he learned those skills working with Joel. He came on the set a bit, and we talked a lot before the shoot, and he began cutting while I was shooting, so he could show me certain sequences already cut. I really used him as a barometer for whether we had the shots we needed, and a couple of times he told me I needed to get a shot to tell the story properly, and he was always right.”
Talk about the visual effects shots in the film. How many are there?
“Hundreds and hundreds, although most of them were little things, like painting out wires or someone’s mic pack that’s in the shot. I’m not a big fan of CGI that calls attention to itself, and a lot of CG films just look like high-end animation in the end, or videogames, whereas I love tactile things that look real. But VFX are amazing when you use them along with in-camera effects, and I try to keep it all looking as realistic as possible. Legion did all of the VFX, and they were very subtle, which I liked. Then, Greenhaus GFX did the main title sequences, which I was very happy with.”
Can you talk about music and sound?
“It’s at least half the medium — and especially so in this type of film. The sound is what sells the scares, so I love going into the narrative behind every sound. So instead of just going, ‘OK, we need a door sound here when she opens the door,’ maybe the sound should be heavier if she’s feeling depressed, or maybe the A/C should be on to add another layer. The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, my film school in Australia, where I first met James, was very big on sound, so it’s always been hugely important to me. We did all the sound at Technicolor on the Paramount lot, and I was so thrilled to be working there. Every day I drove onto the lot, the film geek inside me got so excited, and I’d actually hang out and wander around after we finished the sessions. And what was also very exciting was that Craig Mann, our sound re-recording mixer, won the Oscar — along with Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley — for Whiplash while he was doing this. It’s also very important to me that sound doesn’t get short-changed, and that you have plenty of time to get it right in post.”
Where did you do the DI?
“At Fotokem in Burbank, and the DP was there with colorist Walter Volpatto — and it was awesome! It was such a lesson in learning about colors and hues I didn’t even know existed. We were really stringent about the look, and the DI's like putting the icing on the cake, assuming you have the cake. Like editing, I just love all the possibilities you have in the DI.”
Did the film turn out as you had hoped?
“It did. I’m very happy with it, and now I can’t wait to direct again. I realize that starting with Insidious Chapter 3 and such an established franchise gave me a very cushioned debut as a director, and now I’d like to create whole new worlds and move into different genres. I’ve got to make up for lost time now, as I really feel I’ve discovered — if fairly late — what I really want to do.”
“I’m anxious to broaden my horizons beyond horror, and I already have several varied projects lined up. I co-wrote the upcoming Lionsgate horror-comedy Cooties with a friend of mine, Glee co-creator Ian Brennan. It premiered at Sundance and will be out in September, and it’s as much a comedy as a horror film. Then I also wrote a sci-fi project called Stem, which I hope will start shooting this year, but not with me directing. Right now I’m writing a sci-fi thriller, which I hope to direct. I think it’s important for me to direct an original piece next, not another sequel with a built-in fan base.”