Interview: James Wan and Leigh Whannell – Insidious

Saw is a horror classic. It is up there with Friday the 13th, Last House on the Left, Halloween, all of them. James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the two people behind the gore-fest that is Saw are now releasing their new passion project, Insidious. PG-13 rated directors cut, this film will scare the crap out of you and do it without any blood.

Wan and Whanell were nice enough to answer a lot of the questions we’ve been dying to ask since we first heard that creepy doll laugh. Insidious comes out in theaters nationwide April 1st. Wear a diaper. “Let the games… Begin…”

Can you talk about your experience out of college with film?

James Wan – My first job out of college was on a vegetarian cooking show. It was a cooking show about a Harry Krishna chef. That was a fun job out of college to be working on, and at the end of the day you get to eat the food. Leigh… LEIGH was a film critic during his college days.

Leigh Whannell– Well I wasn’t really seriously doing it. I was 19. I was on this TV show on Australia called Recovery which was a youth program, a variety show for teenagers but it was on the ABC which is the government station in Australia.

James Wan – It’s Australia’s equivalent to the BBC. You can YouTube Leigh on YouTube, he looked a lot like the second Hanson brothers. Right?

Leigh Whannell – Yeah my hair was a lot longer then.

James Wan – Yeah he had really long hair, I used to make fun of him. He did look like one of the Hanson’s

Leigh Whannell – Yeah, but I cut it off in the second season.

James Wan – Eh.. No.. (Laughs)

Leigh Whannell – That was a stunning day in Australian teen television

James Wan – I actually downloaded “Mmmbop” two weeks ago out of nostalgia. It was great. I heard it at the supermarket.

Leigh Whannell – Most people are burning their copies of that

I burnt mine. How did you guys meet? How did you team up?

James Wan – Met Leigh in college straight out of high school. We were what? 17? 18? It was at art school where Leigh and I specialized on the film side of the art classes.

Leigh Whannell – They taught sort of photography, sound, animation, computer design, and film was just one of the strings you could focus on. And so we met there. It was interesting because it was a very art focused school, or at least the course we were taking was super artsy. We were like these kids from the suburbs, everyone else was interested in making these really artsy films using like Black and White Super 8 films and guitars and we were interested in Zombie films and stuff like that. So our interest in mainstream films made us outsiders, it was an inverse appropriation of the Real World.

Saw is much more all over the place, Insidious is the complete opposite. Can you speak to the cinematography in each film comparatively?

James Wan – Yeah. Insidious is really Leigh and my way of harking back to the classic haunted house films, or classic ghost stories that we grew up with. Like the Haunting, the Innocent, all of these black and white films that I love. That you are up late at night when you should be sleeping and you catch some old Black and white chiller on TV. I would remember those movies would scare the crap out of me because they are so creepy. And because they were so low budget in the way they were made it added to the creepiness of the aesthetic of the film. I really wanted to capture that tone but at the same time I wanted to give it a very classic cinema style of film-making like The Sixth Sense, like The Others, and because Saw was made in this very hyper-stylized way. And part of the reason I made it that way was because it was such a low budget film, and the best way to hide the low budget nature was to shake the crap out of the camera and cut it really fast so no one can see anything, so we did it out of necessity. But with Insidious, the subject matter and the script led itself to a very different style of film-making.

Leigh Whannell – I think that the jittery camera work in Saw is a result of the low budget. If the camera is moving than no one will be able to really focus in and see that the sets are so flimsy.

James Wan – There’s this great shot where Carie Elwors leans against this huge metal pipe that’s supposed to be so solid and as he leans against it the whole thing goes whommmp. (laughs)

Leigh Whannell – There’s me hitting the wall and and you see the entire wall shake. The wall made out of thin wood is supposed to be this rock solid room.

James Wan – We had so little coverage on the first Saw film where we ended up using a lot of the photography that the onset photographer would take. And I would go, “I don’t have enough shots to make up this sequence” So I would take his still photography and I would make a photography montage to tie it up. And obviously a musical score to those photography montage in such a way so when people watch the film they are like “oh wow that’s stylistically cool isn’t it?” But the irony is, is that it’s become such a staple of the first Saw film that all the sequels started making, the sequel had a LOT more money than the first one had, but they kept the same visual aesthetic that I had on the first one out of pure necessity. So it’s kind of ironic. In Insidious we wanted to make a very classical old school but scary film.

Throughout the film there is very little CGI.

James Wan – (Interrupting) Yeah, I hate CGI monsters in movies. They just never work. For them to work it needs to be practical effects. And that’s part of the reason we wanted to make Insidious for as low as we did. I thought it would tie my hands with how much effects I could play with the film. If you cannot play with effects than you have to play with the film-making, with the design of the camerawork, through the way you block the scene and how you would shoot it and the music and the sound-scape you would use or have the actors would interact. And a lot of times what makes scary movies really effective is that you don’t see anything. You think you see something but you don’t. I was very conscious going into this film that I wanted this film to feel this way. The first half of the film to build up to something so that when you eventually do see it, it’s like woah….

Are you afraid of puppets?

James Wan – I would say it’s a fetish as opposed to a fear… I find dolls creepy as hell. Who doesn’t find dolls creepy? If you walk into your bedroom at night and there is a pretty big giant doll sitting on your bed staring at you, trust me, you’d be shitting yourself.

Do you have the puppet from Saw on the bicycle?

James Wann – I have it in the guest room. When my mom and family came to visit, she hated going to bed with the doll in the chair staring at her so I had to move it. It’s now in the closet. I love creepy scary dolls. It came from, I was scared from Poltergeist, remember that creepy clown doll? Poltergeist scared me with dolls and clowns.

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