With Insidious and Saw, Leigh Whannell's triumphant journey into Hollywood horrorGarry Maddox
Published: February 8 2018 - 8:00AM
Horror films have been good for Leigh Whannell and James Wan.
Fifteen years ago they were struggling Australian filmmakers trying to get a break. "I hate ATMs telling me 'insufficient funds'," Whannell said at the time.
Now they are in elite company – joining Paul Hogan with Crocodile Dundee and George Miller with Mad Max and Happy Feet – in creating an internationally successful movie franchise. Two, in fact.
With the Saw and Insidious series, Whannell and Wan have been the brains behind 12 Hollywood horror movies that have grossed more than $1.8 billion at the worldwide box office.
The story of how they created Saw – as an unknown writing, directing, producing and acting team – is part of Australian film folklore.
Friends who studied media arts together in Melbourne, they were broke in their mid-20s – living on a potato and water diet – and battling to finance the film.
After interest from a Hollywood literary agent, they used Whannell's savings of $7000 to shoot a scene, took it on DVD to Los Angeles and found a production company that offered $US1.2 million (a measly $1.5 million at the time) to shoot Saw.
While many critics sneered, it became a surprise hit. Centring on two chained men who are trapped in a serial killer's twisted game, Saw took more than $US100 million around the world and has produced seven sequels – collectively grossing more than $US970 million.
But when the two friends' success led to disappointing experiences making Hollywood studio movies – the horror-thriller Dead Silence and revenge thriller Death Sentence – they came up with a second hit franchise, Insidious, based on an idea they ditched on the way to Saw.
"One of the ideas that got floated but went into the scrap pile was a horror film about someone's astral body leaving but not coming back," Whannell says. "We put it away but we never quite forgot it.
"After Saw, we did our little victory lap of Hollywood where people throw real money at you and tell you how you can start making real films.
"We did that for a while but the films weren't working and we weren't enjoying working with the studios so decided to go back and do Saw all over again – to make another independent film. We said 'what about that idea we had years ago about astral projection?'"
A 2010 supernatural thriller with Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson as a couple whose comatose son is a vessel for ghosts, Insidious was made for $US1.5 million and took almost $US100 million. It introduced the team of paranormal investigators – veteran medium Elise (Lin Shaye) and sidekicks Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) – who returned for Chapter 2 (2013), Chapter 3 (2015) and now The Last Key.
Teaming up with rising horror producer Jason Blum, who had just had a surprise hit with Paranormal Activity, gave Whannell, a former teenage movie reviewer on the ABC's Recovery, the chance to work with total creative freedom.
"He sat down with James and I and said 'listen I really want to work with you guys, whatever you want to come up with, whatever idea you have'," Whannell says.' "That was what really spurred us to go back and dig out that old idea we had. By that stage we'd realised that total creative freedom in Hollywood is a rare thing.
"If you draw up a pros and cons column for a low budget independent film, lack of resources and time is definitely something that goes down in the cons column. But a big pro for me is you get total creative freedom.
"You don't have people micro-managing you. You don't have 17 chefs in the kitchen. [Insidious] was absolutely made in that model and it connected with audiences, which we were so happy about."
With Wan having great success directing two Conjuring movies, Fast and Furious 7 then Aquaman in Queensland, Whannell has continued with a franchise that has taken more than $US520 million so far. He has written all four Insidious films, directed the third, executive produced this one and plays Specs.
Directed by Adam Robitel (The Taking Of Deborah Logan), The Last Key sees Elise returning to her cursed childhood home to face a demon called Key Face.
"I've enjoyed writing the Insidious films may be a little bit more than I did with the Saw sequels," Whannell says. "I felt the sequels to Saw weren't going in a direction I loved.
"It was a little bit too gore-happy, whereas with the Insidious films the supernatural focus I find really interesting and there are a lot of stories that can be mined from that."
While the duo are listed as an executive producers on the Saw sequels, they have had little creative involvement for more than a decade.
"The last Saw movie that I actually wrote myself was the third one in 2006," Whannell says. "I felt at that time that I was pretty exhausted when it came to that story and I didn't have any more ideas so I stepped aside and the producers kept on going."
Whannell sees the supernatural as a great form for storytelling.
"What I think horror films are good at is taking an emotional issue or maybe a social issue and literalising the horrific aspect of it," he says. "You take something like the war in Afghanistan or the horrors of losing a child and you kind of turn it into a monster somehow. I think horror has always been good at that.
"With the Insidious movies, I find myself coming back to these same themes of fear of death, fear of getting older and also, with this fourth Insidious film, I was really wanting to examine our past and how we can kind of lock things away.
"Human beings are pretty good at putting traumatic memories in a vault as if they never happened."
Never having had a ghostly experience, Whannell describes himself as not necessarily believing in the supernatural – but not disbelieving it either.
"I believe in science," he says. "When you have a large consensus of scientists saying that climate change is real, I'm firmly in the category of people who believe them.
"But having said that, I also think there's a lot of things that human beings don't know. And you only have to look beyond our planet to realise that.
"Once you start investigating space and other galaxies, you realise how little scientists know. I guess that's confirmation to me that there's so much out there that's a mystery ... writing supernatural films really taps into that mystery of what lies beyond this life."
So why have the Insidious films been so successful?
"If I could answer that question, I'd have a lot less anxiety when it comes to making films," Whannell says. "Number one, I'd say that people have found the films scary which is good. Number two is I think there's a very human element to the films, especially with Lin Shaye's character.
"We're living in a strange time right now politically and socially. Human beings are focused inwardly. It's a very 'me' time with social media. I think Elise represents somebody who's selfless. She's a good hero and a unique hero. Maybe that's something that audiences really respond to."
Whannell also has another film, shot in Melbourne, out this year.
He wrote and directed the sci-fi thriller Upgrade, about a paralysed techophobe (Logan Marshall-Green) avenging his wife's murder with an experimental computer chip implant.
He is not sure if there will be another Insidious instalment.
"If there is, I'm not sure if I'd be the one write it," he says. "I have so many other stories I have to tell."
Insidious: The Last Key is now in cinemas.
This story was found at: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/entertainment/movies/with-insidious-and-saw-leigh-whannells-triumphant-journey-into-hollywood-horror-20171212-h03dp4.html