Interview: Insidious (and Saw) creators James Wan & Leigh Whannell

by | Mar 31st, 2011 | 7:15AM | Filed under: Interviews, Movies

In 2004, Australian film-school colleagues Leigh Whannell and James Wan made a small, disturbing thriller called Saw and launched what would become an $850-million, seven-film franchise. Now Wan and Whannell are back with a flat-out, old-fashioned, and (very) scary haunted-house movie: Insidious.

Insidious is a delightful little horror film, full of creepiness and scares as well as the thrilling, roller-coaster fun too often missing from modern scary movies. (You’ll wonder why you never noticed the unnerving chills of Tiny Tim’s “Tip-toe Through the Tulips.”)

Produced by Jason Blum, Oren Peli and Steven Schneider of Paranormal Activity fame, Insidious draws on Wan and Whannell’s love of films like The Shining and Poltergeist. It follows a happy family as they move into a new home, including Dad Patrick Wilson (Morning Glory, The Switch), Mom Rose Byrne (Get Him to the Greek, Knowing), and their two young sons.

Of course something goes horribly wrong and soon various ghosts and demons are trying to possess their oldest (Ty Simpkins). Eventually Wilson’s mother (Barbara Hershey, Black Swan) calls in a psychic (Something About Mary‘s Lin Shaye) to help save the boy.

Earlier this month in Chicago I sat down to talk about Insidious with writer Whannell and director Wan. The old film-school pals are obvious showmen, class clowns who bounce and tag-team off each other with giddy excitement.


Why a haunted house film?

Leigh Whannell: James and I have always thought it was the scariest of the horror sub-genres. There are not many great haunted house films, but over the years we’ve been cherry picking the little nuggets of gold amongst all the crap.

We had the idea for Insidious around the time that we came up with Saw. We ended up making the film about the two guys locked in the toilet and it worked out okay for us, but this idea was always in the filing cabinet.

Then a couple years ago the guys who produced Paranormal Activity came to us and said, “Listen we just got a ton of money to make low-budget horror films with total creative film freedom, and we want great film makers to make them.”

James Wan: “But instead we came to you guys.” [Laughs]

After Saw I wanted to show that Leigh and I can make a movie that doesn’t require a single drop of blood or gore to scare an audience. I think you do that by using suspense and creating really chilling, atmospheric eeriness.

Whannell: We both felt like we hadn’t made our definitive horror statement.

Wan: To us, Saw was a thriller.

What’s your definition of a thriller versus a horror film?

Whannell: A lot of people will say to me, “I don’t like horror films,” and I’ll say, “Why not?”  And they’ll say, “Well, they’re too gory.” I’ll say, “What about horror films that aren’t gory, like The Others, or The Sixth Sense?  And they’ll say, “Those are thrillers,” and I’ll say “No, they’re horror films.”

Wan: When I’m pitching to studios and production companies, they’ll say a horror film is defined by blood and guts, but if it’s supernatural it’s not a horror film, it’s a “supernatural thriller.” That blows my mind. We’re proud Insidious is a horror film. The Exorcist and The Shining are great horror films. David Lynch makes horror movies. Lost Highway is a scary movie, Twin Peaks is a frightening scary TV series. It’s possible to make great horror films.

Whannell: We should try it one day. [Laughs]

I love the use of creepy sounds and images in Insidious.

Wan: I’ve always said it’s easy to shock with blood and gore, it’s harder to do scary, and it’s even harder to do creepy. When someone walks down a dark corridor and in the background or in a dark corner is a figure, a face, we the audience see it, but the character doesn’t see it and just walks past—that’s creepy.

And the sound design in a horror movie is scarier than the visuals. The original Haunting, Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch Project—in those movies all you see is the sound.

You work with practical, not digital effects, and you show your demon and ghosts, unlike the Paranormal Activity movies where they’re all in the viewers’ imagination.

Wan: Leigh and I are a big fans of the Paranormal Activity films, but younger kids say, “Oh, nothing happens in the movie, we don’t see anything.” So I try to balance it so the first half of the film where you don’t see a lot of stuff, but you build up so there is a point at the end of the movie where you kind of want it to pay off. The perfect example is Jaws. For the first two thirds of the film you don’t see the shark much at all, but by the end you see it slamming into the boat.

Whannell: That was our approach with Insidious. We’ve teased them long enough, now we’re gonna show ‘em the shark.

Insidious opens everywhere this Friday, April 1.


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3 Responses to “Interview: Insidious (and Saw) creators James Wan & Leigh Whannell”

  1. Fiirvoen
    Posted on March 31, 2011 at 9:57 am

    Isn’t that the exact same plot from that possession movie that took place in a home that used to be a funeral parlor that you hated so much?

  2. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on March 31, 2011 at 11:15 am

    By definition ALL haunted-house/possession movies have pretty much the same plot — family moves in, spirits or demons go after a young, vulnerable member of the family, an expert psychic/exorcist/ghostbuster is called in to help. Poltergeist, The Shining, The Exorcist, etc.

    When it comes to any kind of genre film, be it horror or action or mystery, the idea is that the basic plot, characters, and tropes are going to be familiar — what counts is how the film makers handle those things. And I feel Wan and Whannell handled the haunted house story with plenty of entertaining creepiness, scares, and humor. Whereas The Haunting in Connecticut did not.

    (One other reason I didn’t like Haunting in Connecticut wasn’t the funeral-home setting, but that it played off the whole “true story” angle, something I REALLY dislike in horror films–I love scary movies as entertainment, but tend to reject anything that promotes a real belief in the supernatural.)

  3. Fiirvoen
    Posted on April 4, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    Ah. That makes sense. I don’t do much horror/thriller stuff because I don’t understand the reason people would enjoy being scared. However, I’m still interested in it from an intellectual perspective. What makes that particular genre so reliant upon a limited set of tropes and story lines? Is it that difficult to try (or even come up with) something new? Perhaps it is because as a genre, it is based heavily on nostalgia and fears from our youth, or is it just laziness?