Once upon a time he was just one of those faces on Australian TV, appearing in Blue Heelers and Neighbours in the late 1990s. But when Leigh Whannell went to film school at University in Melbourne, met friend and collaborator James Wan, wrote and made a horror short called Saw, he was on a path that would change the face of horror and the movies and put at least one fledgling studio on the map.
With the torture porn legacy now a decade old, he and Wan return to their roots with the sequel to one of the breakout hits of the genre, Insidious, which Whannell wrote and starred in as bumbling paranormal researcher Specs.
Picking up the instant the first film leaves off, insidious is just as scary and much funnier, and Whannell spoke to darkhorizons.com in LA about horror, a possible franchise and $100m indie movies.
Question: Insidious chapter 2 got a few more laughs in the cinema than the original did.
Answer: The thing with the sequel is that we knew the audience had their heads around the universe of this film. The first one was introducing them to this world, so when Specs and Tucker (played by Whannell and fellow Aussie Angus Sampson) were introduced it was a little bit left field. It threw some people because these guys were a little bit funny and quirky.
When it came to the second film we felt like we could push that a little bit further because we knew people would go into the theatre expecting it. I'd definitely say this film's a little more fun and tongue in cheek than the first one.
Question: So you decided on that different tone from the outset?
Answer: The set of the first film was so funny. If I think back to the shooting what I remember most is the laughs. Patrick Wilson is a really funny guy and Angus, who's been my friend for years, is the funniest guy I've ever met. We'd just sit around cracking up.
And I think when we all came back together we might've subconsciously pushed the funny a little bit without even knowing. We didn't intend some of the things people are laughing at to be big gags but I'm fine with it.
But if you think back to a film like Poltergeist, there was a lot of humour in that too. It seemed to be integrated into these films but things maybe became a bit more serious through the Saw period. You know, horror films became very serious. So we're sort of getting away from that and bringing a bit more of the fun back in.
Question: Was a sequel always intended?
Answer: No, if we'd thought about doing a sequel while we were shooting the first film, that would've meant we were assuming success. But not only did we not know if the first one would be successful, we didn't have a North American distributor when we shot it. We had to go and get one.
We screened the film at the Toronto Film Festival and I remember it was one of the most nerve wracking nights of my life because we screened the film where we'd first shown Saw and it was like this big homecoming. It was great in one way but in another way it was so nerve wracking because we knew that all the buyers that would be interested in a film like Insidious were all there.
We had a real fear Insidious wouldn't be picked up. Things always seem very assured in hindsight, but we were crapping ourselves. James had just made Death Sentence which didn't do as well as he wanted, so he was very nervous about Insidious.
So we didn't have a conversation about a sequel until probably about four or five months after the first one came out in cinemas.
Question: That's amazing because they're so well enmeshed together.
Answer: There seems to be an assumption that was planned because it locks in too well. I'm flattered by that because it's a good bit of sleight of hand by James and I.
Question: It's a testament to good screenwriting.
Answer: Thank you. We always say we made the horror version of Back to the Future 2.
Question: Any thoughts yet on Chapter 3?
Answer: No, we want to wait and see how this sequel connects. Jason Constantine, one of the execs at Lionsgate really looked after the Saw franchise. He's a really nice and smart guy and he once told me 'one success is a hit movie, a hit sequel is a franchise', meaning you haven't got a franchise until the second film does well.
So I'm really curious as to how much the public wants to continue with these characters. Just how much goodwill did we engender with that first film? If it does well, I'll probably sigh with relief and start thinking about Part 3.
Question: Your blog post from ages ago about the horrible experience making Dead Silence is still classic. Have you stuck to your plans not to take assignments?
Answer: I have. I've been very gun shy about it and every time I think I might do it I end up not doing it. I've been offered a lot of different jobs but I find writing an original film from scratch is so much more comfortable for me. No one can tell you you're wrong if you create a world, whereas if I try and take a Tolkien or Stephen King novel and adapt it, there are millions of people who'll let me know via the internet that I've got it wrong.
Question: How's your relationship with Hollywood changed?
Answer: My experience has been great in terms of being able to do this for a living. But I worry about the fact that studio films seem to be getting more and more homogenised and need to be based on some toy. I'm seeing a lot of the creativity disappear from studio films.
It's fine if that's left to independents but I really relish a time when big budgets would be lavished on original ideas. There's a very select group of filmmakers who can do that. Chris Nolan is one – Inception is a big budget indie movie, but he's in a very, very exclusive club and I'm sure this frustrates people going to the movies and being like, 'I just want to see a film that's not based on a comic book or a cartoon character'.
A $100 million film based on an original idea is an endangered species.