Monday, April 18, 2011

Insidious: Q&A with Leigh Whannell and James Wan

After a terrifying ninety minutes sitting through Insidious I wondered, as I always do, why is it that I can’t reason myself out of being scared in the cinema. As a seasoned cinema-goer and horror-lover I still find myself being extremely uncool in the cinema when it comes to scary films. Not all scary films, mind you. Just the ones where you sense from the first minute that the director knows horror films and intends to use and/or subvert every trick in the book to scare you. From that moment on I trust nothing. Every camera move is a potential lurking creature. If I spot a little too much space in the frame I worry that it is to allow space for the monster/killer/evil puppet to jump out.

From what I know of James Wan as a director, I know he is a huge fan of the genre and knows all the tricks and isn’t afraid to exploit them to scare the pants off an audience. Having said that, Insidious is a relatively slow-moving haunted house thriller with admirable restraint and for all my hiding behind my fingers, staring at the floor and taking off my glasses so the screen would be blurry, the actual scares were spread out nicely.

   When we first met Leigh and James they gave a brief introduction to the film and complain that the audiences they have seen the film with in the UK during this tour have not responded like the Americans do, with screaming and yelling. They ask us to be sure to let loose with the reactions (which we Irish are not capable of doing in the cinema). To egg us on Leigh stays behind for the opening credits to shout "Boo!" at us a few times. I think to myself that this sums up what these guys are about. They are filmmaking tricksters who scare people out of mischief and delight in their reactions.

The post-screening Q&A with the writer/director team behind the movie and also such films as Saw and Dead Silence was illuminating and confirmed my suspicion that these guys were intent on proving themselves capable of making something truly frightening, not dependent on blood and gore.

Leigh and James explain that when they first met at university, RMIT in Melbourne, they were outcasts, “everyone was into Wim Wenders and whatever film Yoko Ono had made and we were into Sam Raimi and Dario Argento”. They began working together in college and after they graduated they found themselves and going from job to job and writing together on the side. When asked why Saw was so successful Leigh admits, “we were surprised at how it connected with the public zeitgeist. It played at Sundance and in Toronto and was released at Halloween 2004 up against The Grudge which was huge but it connected with audiences and it turned out to be a great word of mouth movie.”

When it was pointed out that there really isn’t much violence in the first Saw movie, especially in comparison to its sequels, Leigh is in complete agreement. “There’s not much at all because the first movie was completely focussed on the main plot, the two guys trapped in the room, not the jigsaw traps. We loved the story and we loved the ending.” But how has the success of Saw and in particular it’s six (yes, SIX) sequels affected their careers? Is it difficult to avoid being typecase. James passionately exclaims that “I’m branded with a label I don’t really care for”, perhaps he is referring to the label of originator of the torture porn sub-genre and not just typecast as a horror director. Saw is often cited as the first film to popularise the torture porn film, which would become worryingly popular in the mid-late noughties. “I’m really proud of Saw but I’m not into gore, I just love scary films. With Insidious, as a director, I just wanted to prove to people that I can make an atmospheric film with no blood and guts.”

The discussion moved on to the process of making a scary film and how you make a film scary. Leigh insists that it is “instinctual” and goes on to explain that there are three phases of filmmaking and each one gives an opportunity to refine the scares. “There’s writing, shooting and editing. With each phase comes changes and new scares are added”. They tried to capture what they themselves found scary and much of the film comes from stories they heard growing up. The first idea was astral projection and then they worked from there.

When asked about the film’s obvious allusions to Poltergeist they denied there was any sort of homage happening. “We don’t approach films as homages. We were excited when we had an idea that nobody has seen before (astral projection) but we housed the film within a “haunted house” and that’s why it’s like Poltergeist. It’s a staple. Certain staples you need to do if you’re working within a genre. If you make a western you need a man with a gun. Otherwise it’s just a film about farmers.”

Insidious proudly avoids using special effects as much as possible. The film is all about atmosphere and lurking shadows and scary -looking people. They were asked if horror films get less scary as special effects get more advanced. The early Saw films were more simple but later it became about the traps. Leigh points out that “me and James believe that special effects are the antithesis of good horror”.

One thing that is essential in a haunted house story is a creepy kid. Insidious has no shortage of those. But is working with children a horror film unto itself? James explains, “I have worked with kids a lot in my movies but I have never them through this much. Ty (Simpkins, who plays the comatose son of Renais and Josh) was a lovely kid but he had a tough time doing scenes with the demon. He would cry, real tears, and I’d feel so sorry for him! He was eight years old and terrified of the dark. He just couldn’t get past the fact that it wasn’t real. We would bring him to the makeup trailer to see the actor who played the demon getting his makeup done. Over time he started to relax a little.”

Despite the Saw franchise being such a huge success, Leigh and James wanted to keep the budget for Insidious small in order to obtain complete creative control, a point that the guys agree is essential in order to make a good horror film. As a result of the restrictive budget, the shoot was a mere 22 days and it was shot entirely on the Red digital camera. James co-edited the film himself which he felt was a great help in shooting so quickly, “It was certainly challenging but I knew what I wanted and knew how I would edit as I went along. It was the first time I’d used the digital format and in post I could do a lot more.” The change in technology was symbolic of the style he was going for. “I was making an old-fashioned horror film but with a contemporary edge.”

Throughout the film, there’s an extremely frightening tune “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” by Tiny Tim. The sing is highly effective and undoubtedly would give anyone a case of the willies even were it not in any way connected to a scary film. A member of the audience was curious where the song had come from. It turns out it was as simple as James calling Leigh during the writing of the script and asking him if there’s any way we can fit this creepy song into the script. They exchange knowing looks and laugh; this has happened a number of times and Leigh tells the stories of Saw’s infamous jaw-trap. “James calls me up, explains the idea of the jaw, trap and how the victim has to find a key or this thing is gonna rip her head apart but they ket is in this guy’s stomach. I said “Great!” and he said “If you put a creepy doll in it this will be brilliant!” I asked “How are we gonna get a creepy doll in there?” and James said “He’ll just ride in on a bike”” and that’s exactly how the story ended up going. It seems James is to be held responsible for the creepy puppet imagery in their films (his Twitter handle is actually creepypuppet). 

As the Q&A is drawing to a close they are asking the obligatory “what are you doing next” question. Leigh explains that he is writing a sci-fi with James in mind to direct. They want to get away from the horror genre. Leigh is also working on an animated film, an Australian drama and a comedy. When asked if it is hard to sell other genres, James makes the fair point that it’s easier for Leigh as a writer because if he writes something they can physically see it and if they like it they’ll go with it but it’s harder for someone to take a chance on a director.

A final question asked how long the film took to edit. James explained that when he edits he eats, sleeps and edits. He had a rough cut finished in three weeks. It was important to him to edit the film and he insisted to the producers who were apparently pleased to hear that they wouldn’t have to use their limited funds to hire and editor.

 - Charlene Lydon

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