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

SR: It was a really interesting practical set in the last third of the movie. That whole last sequence really separates Insidious from what might be a sort of conventional haunted house movie. And it is kind of uniquely “your thing.” You can see your guys’ imprint in that last third especially.

JW: Yeah, that’s what Leigh and I actually really thrive on. People either love that, or they’re polarized by how strange we tend to make our movies. But we kind of have to do that to be different. If you don’t do that, if you don’t bring something different to it, or put your own stamp to it, you’re just rehashing the same kind of movie again and again and again. And it’s really not much better than a remake.

SR: Leigh, I’m going to ask you about your script, because you’re acting in the movie as well and your character and your partner in the film bring a little bit of levity to the script. As I was watching, I thought “Oh my God, this is so tense,” so thank you for injecting a little bit of humor in the movie. When you’re writing a horror movie script, how difficult is it to find that balance between something that’s terrifying on the paper, and a little bit of levity?

LW: It’s tough, because you don’t want to tip the balance of the film in one direction, you know? Suddenly shoehorning some moments of levity in there can become a problem if you went too far, and that was something we had to watch both in the scriptwriting and on the set so that it didn’t suddenly seem like half the movie was quite serious and then you didn’t want the Men in Black to show up and start tossing out zingers.

So I had to carefully calibrate it, and I think James did a great job finding just the right amount in the editing. And it was written that way, too. I tried not to make it too broad, more of a subtle oneupsmanship between the two guys. But it’s interesting, I think the ghost hunter characters get bigger laughs in this film than they would in another film because by the time they come into the film, the audience is so tense…

JW: So dead serious, yeah…

LW: …that it’s almost like somebody that’s been beaten up so badly that the tiniest push would send them over, you know? It’s like, by the time you get to the middle you’re on a knife’s edge so much that just a couple of little lines here and there get a big reaction, so it seems bigger than it is.

But actually, you know, the ghost hunter guys are pretty subtle, they’re not too broad, but I’m glad you liked it, because that was the intention. To give the audience a place to relieve some tension, chill out for a little bit, and then get back into it.

Scene from Insidious

SR: I’ve always wondered this about horror directors: You’re telling your actors to react to this demon, or some abstract concept, and there’s so many elements that go into it – sound design, camera work, editing – that it’s hard for them to know what it’s going to look like in the end for me as a viewer. So, how do you create an environment on set where people are really in the moment and terrified of what is supposed to be happening to them?

JW: That’s a very good question because it is very tricky to pull the right kind of performances from your actors. Firstly, your actors need to trust you as a director, but normally, I think you just need to have an open communication between the actors and the director. I think the director needs to really paint his or her vision to the cast and let them know the kind of mood that he or she is making. I think that’s very important.

When we were on set, one of the things I tried to do is to kind of talk my actors through the scene, but at the same time let them know how I plan to shoot the film and just give them an insight into the way I’m thinking, so that when they’re acting out their scene, they can kind of see it in their minds’ eyes. I think it’s really important to set the tone and the mood for a movie like this, that’s supposed to be creepy - you really need to be able to paint a very clear picture for the actors.

If they were acting in front of a green screen, it would be even worse, you know, where you’re reacting to a tennis ball hanging there. So that’s one reason too why I did not want to shoot this film on a set in a studio, I wanted to shoot it on real live locations so there’s that authenticity to it.

You know, every little small decision that I make really funnels back to how I would direct the actors and the environment that I would create for the actors. You know, working with my production designer, saying, “The demon is going to look like this,” okay? And then maybe not tell my actors until the demon shows up that day, and then I try and capture that on camera. So just little things like that.

The really sort of sad thing is the boy, Dalton, played by Ty Simpkins in the movie, he was so terrified - he was like 8 or 9 years old. Just about every single scene he has in the film, besides the start of the movie, was with a particular nasty, scary character, right? A demonic character. And he was terrified of him. Because, man, if you think that thing is scary on screen, imagine being an eight-year-old kid having to stand next to this thing all painted up in the darkness.

And you know, I would have to work with him and go, you know, “This isn’t real.” And sometimes, I would have to work with Ty and kind of go the opposite way, and go “You know what, in this scene, I really need him to break out and cry here.” Then, I would try and find some way, without scaring the kid too much, to extract that out of him. Then, when I would yell cut, I’d go “See Ty, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” and he’s like balling his eyes out.

LW: Years of therapy he’s going to need.

JW: [Laughter] Years of therapy, yeah. I remember one moment he was starting to lighten up and starting to have fun, and I was like, “Oh man, that’s not the effect I want.” [Laughter] So I went up to Ty and said, “You know Ty, after we shoot this scene, the next thing we’re shooting is that monster character chasing after you.” His eyes just started tearing up and I said, “Roll camera.”

LW: You bastard. You’re a monster.

Insidious Movie Ty Simpkins

SR: [Laughter] So manipulative.

LW: He’s like Sam Peckinpah.

JW: But what I did, is I would also take him on certain days to the makeup trailer and show him, “Look, it’s just an actor done up in makeup.” And he got to play with the makeup and get to apply some of the makeup to the actor playing the demon, who just happened to be the composer of the movie as well.

SR: That’s interesting, because the music really adds to the intensity of the film. It’s all strings and organs, and it makes you feel so tense.

JW: Yeah, and part of the reason why I wanted to go for that was that it’s really my throwback to classic old-school horror filmmaking. Today’s horror films are almost very electronica sounding, like very hip and cool and rock and roll. And I thought that that was wrong for 'Insidious'.

SR: Well, they’re telling me to wrap it up, so if you guys wouldn’t mind, let me know what your upcoming projects are, either independently or together.

JW: I’m in the midst of working on a script that I’m thinking of producing. It’s another haunted house-esque movie, which I love, and I came up with a really cool angle and twist for it. It’s called House of Horror. Because I’ve already done a haunted house movie, I didn’t want to do it again, so I didn’t want to direct it, so I found a really great director that’s attached to it. So, that’s something I’m working on, and I’m also in the process of looking for other future projects. Right now, I’m just so busy trying to get this movie out there.

LW: I’ve got a few different things I’ve been working on. There’s a sci-fi project that James and I have sort of been talking about for a while that we’re working on. I’ve written a comedy, a kid’s film, like an animated film that people will hopefully see one day. I think both of us are making a marked attempt to move away from the horror genre, not as a rejection of it, but simply because we want to show people that we can do things in other genres.

JW: Yeah, we felt like we’ve pretty much proven to ourselves by now that we can do horror.

LW: Yeah, so it would be great to do different genres. A sci-fi thing or a comedy.

JW: Leigh and I have always said that we’re not just horror fans, we’re movie fans.


And with that, I had to say my goodbyes to the Wan and Whannell. I wished them luck on Insidious on my way out, and I truly meant it.

I really think Insidious is a film that horror fans should see, because it offers all of the things you could ever want for in a haunted house-style movie without having to be explicit or overly gory. I really hope this film finds an audience and becomes the Poltergeist of this generation, just as James Wan thinks it might be.

Insidious will be in theaters on April 1, 2011.

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