Interview: James Wan, Leigh Whannell Talk 'Insidious' & Classic Horror

Interview with writer/director of Insidious

Last week, I had the opportunity to see Insidious, the new horror film from director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, the creative team behind Saw. Going into the film, I didn't have too many expectations, knowing only that it was a traditional haunted house movie with plenty of jump scares and other time-tested tricks for making the audience pee their pants. I figured it would be no big deal for a tough, pragmatic guy like me.

Walking out of the theater two hours later, I couldn't have been happier to see the sunny city streets of Chicago. Not only did Insidious scare me, it terrified me. I don't know if others will have the same reaction, but I hope they do, because it was an awesome experience.

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to talk with Wan and Whannell during a press tour in support of the film. During our interview, I talked to the pair about the old-school style of Insidious, what they thought about horror movie remakes, and why they may be done with the horror genre for a while. Check out our interview below.


SR: First off, let me just say congratulations, because Insidious scared the crap out of me. So, my hat’s off to you guys.

JW: You have to write the review for the film then!

SR: As I was watching the movie, I was reminded of Poltergeist. I know that that was an inspiration, and, James, that you even said you wanted this to be the Poltergeist of this generation. Why do you single that film out as inspiration?

JW: For me, it was the first horror film I’ve ever seen, and I think it scarred me for life. It’s one movie - because I saw it at a very young age - which had a huge impact on me. I remember seeing the film in the theater - and I was really young - maybe five, six, or seven - and cowering behind the seat in front of me during the sequence when the clown doll is sitting on the chair and the little boy was trying to throw his coat over it. That just freaked the heck out of me, and ever since then I’ve had this really freakish obsession with creepy clown dolls. And so, the doll found its way into Saw, and I’ve always been terrified of the haunted house genre because of that movie.

So, in a lot of ways, this is kind of me harking back to that, but I would actually say I kind of harked back further than that because 'Poltergeist' itself was influenced by all the other great haunted house movies that came before it like 'The Haunting', 'The Innocent', and all the great movies like that.

LW: Yeah, 'The Changeling'.

JW: 'The Changeling', yeah.

first clip from James Wan and Leigh Whannell's Insidious

SR: Insidious is an original script, which is refreshing, because there are a lot of remakes now - especially remakes of slasher films. What’s your take on remakes in general?

LW: I hate them.

JW: Leigh and I have different points of view. Similar, but different.

LW: Yeah, I mean, some of my favorite films are remakes: 'The Thing', 'The Fly'. But, I think we’re talking about two different things when we talk about those films and the remakes of today, the remakes of films like 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' and 'Friday the 13th' and 'Nightmare on Elm Street'.

I think that, if you look at 'The Thing', 'The Fly', 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers', the remakes of those films were all taking something that was done so long ago… I mean, they didn’t even have color when they made [the original] 'The Fly' and 'The Thing'. And so, there was so much new that they could do with it that they are radically different films. You can’t compare David Cronenberg’s 'The Fly' to the older version. I think that in those cases, a remake is justified. So, I won’t say that I just blanket hate them, or the very word 'remake,' I think that this current glut of horror remakes is kind of pointless because the films aren’t bringing anything new to it.

It’s fine for them to make it. It’s not hurting me, but I certainly wouldn’t want to write one of those remakes or be involved with one. After 'Saw', we got offered every horror remake under the sun, and I was just always thinking, “I don’t see how this could be interesting for me.”

JW: Yeah, I do agree with Leigh there. I don’t feel so strongly against remakes, but if I don’t like it, I guess I just don’t do it. It is what it is, you know? Hollywood is driven by the financial system, so if they think that it has a brand and people are going to go see it because it’s a recognizable property, they’re going to remake it, right?

And you know what, it’s a losing battle. There’s no point getting upset over it. The key thing for Leigh and I is to make the movies that we want to make, and we want to make original films. Our movies have bits of homage to certain films, but we still want it to have our own take. So, you know, I may one day want to do a remake, but, if I were to do it, I want to be able to bring my own stamp to it. I want to make it different and fresh and do something that we haven’t already seen.

There’s really no reason to rehash something that you’ve already seen, and that’s part of the reason why I never directed any of those 'Saw' sequels, because I felt like, “I already did it with the first one,” and I didn’t want to repeat myself there unless I could have brought something different to it.

Writer Leigh Whannel also acts in Insidious

SR: With Saw, you guys were the creative force behind the most popular horror franchise in history. What’s your collaborative process like? How do you work together?

LW: We have a great process because we met at film school, and so we have this long history of friendship and kind of mucking around and making videos before we started getting into the more serious realm of actual filmmaking.

We tend to get together and talk about ideas, and once we have an idea that we both like - and that’s the key word, “both” – because usually one of us will have an idea, but the other one might not be as into it…

JW: By that, he means that I will throw him an idea and he will just shoot it down.

LW: But when we have an idea that we’re both into, it’s great and we both lock into it and we start talking about it and then I go off and write. I give James the script and he gives me ideas and feedback and we talk about it, so it’s really collaborative.

JW: Yeah, that’s what we did on 'Saw', and that’s what we did on our second movie, 'Dead Silence' as well, and that’s what we definitely did on 'Insidious'. You know, it’s a real back and forth process, and by the end of it, we don’t really remember who started what.

So, once Leigh and I settle on an overall concept, and where the film will possibly go, I just kind of let him go off and do his thing, you know, and give him the freedom to write the film. I just have so much trust that he can go off and write something really great, and then, you know, if it’s not that great, I just go “Leigh, hey, maybe tweak this here.”

LW: Then I go on a rampage…

JW: [Laughter] Yeah, but you know, he did a fantastic job with 'Insidious' and that’s part of the reason why I was very fortunate to get the actors I did because they read the script and they were very impressed by it, and they wanted to come play with us, despite the fact that, you know, we weren’t really paying anyone any money on this film because it was so low-budget.

Clip from Insidious

SR: That’s interesting, because being a low-budget film, you’re sort of going back to your roots in independent film. And then you have Oren Peli and the Paranormal Activity team as producers as well. Why are you so much more passionate about independent film?

JW: Between 'Saw' and 'Paranormal Activity', along with the 'Blair Witch Project', it’s been proven time and time again that the scariest movies are ones that are made outside of the studio system, where you have the control to say, “You know what? I’m not going to open the movie with a big, scary action set piece. I’m just going to slowly build characters and get you sucked into the family, get you liking the characters before things start to happen."

If I was to do this movie through the studio system, it would have been a very different film. Would it have been a worse or a better film? I don’t know, I cannot say. But, I’d like to think that having the creative freedom that Leigh and I have to make it this way, to make it for a price, and with producers that really support us and trust us…we felt that that was the best way to tell this movie.

LW: It’s all about the story you’re telling. Certain stories need the resources of a studio. If you’re telling a story about a giant robot war in outer space, you’re going to need the money and the resources most of the time to do it justice. But with this particular film, it’s not the type of film that needs any of that. It’s best to do it outside of the system, do it low-key. You don’t need big effects or anything that can’t be done for a price.

JW: And I think the financial restraint really pushes me as a director to be more creative with the way I shoot the film, because the last act of this film, without giving it away, could have become some huge CGI crazy movie. But, because we didn’t have the money, I love that I have to be more creative with how I create this particular world.


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