Aussie writer/actor Leigh Whannell finally branches out from the “Saw” franchise that he co-created to the new ventriloquist dummy horror film Dead Silence. Whannell grew up in Melbourne, Australia, where, at the age of four, he developed an obsession with telling stories. Whether it be through acting, writing or filmmaking, his primary love was getting a reaction from an audience. In 1995, at the age of 18, he was accepted into the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s prestigious Media Arts course, where he met fellow filmmaker James Wan.
In his second year of college, he landed the role of ‘film guy’ on a Saturday morning TV show aimed at teens called ‘Recovery’. Filmed totally live in the studio and hosted by actual teenagers, the ground-breaking show was hugely popular down under and was the first to bring ‘alternative culture’ to Australia’s TV screens, featuring live performances from bands like Sonic Youth, Weezer, Public Enemy, Ben Harper, Pulp and hundreds more. Hosting the film component of the show, Leigh was lucky enough to interview people like Tim Burton, Peter Jackson, Russell Crowe, George Clooney, and eventually went on to host the show in 1999.
After graduating from college, Leigh found himself working more and more as a ‘host’ or ‘presenter’ on Australian TV – all the while hatching a plan with James Wan to finally fulfil his dream of making a film. Small acting roles cropped up from time to time (including one in ‘The Matrix Reloaded’, which Leigh has said was “the most fun I’ve ever had in my life”) and, along with those, some frustrating near-misses (and not so near-misses: like his cringe-inducing audition for ‘Lord Of The Rings’, in which he paid $90 to have ‘hobbit ears’ grafted onto his head, turning up at the casting office dressed as a hobbit – needless to say he didn’t get the role).
However, it was missing out on a role in Alex ‘The Crow’ Proyas’ Australian film ‘Garage Days’ that finally broke the camel’s back. He called Wan and told him that if they wanted to get a film made, they would have to pay for it themselves. ‘Saw’ was born. After nine months of writing, Leigh had written the screenplay for what he thought would be a self-financed, ‘Blair Witch’-style feature, with him starring and James directing. The script gained so much attention that soon enough, they were shopping it around Hollywood and an exciting franchise was born.
Whannell will also be seen as actor in James Wan’s Death Sentence opening later in the year. In this exclusive interview, Whannell talked to Paul Fischer.
Question: Can you talk about the differences between working on this script as opposed to working on the Saw franchise.
Whannell: When I wrote the Saw film I didn’t know what I was doing. There was no one waiting for it and it was something I would do when I came home from work. I wrote on this clunky old PC that I had and I didn’t have a script writing person at that time. The first draft of Saw was formatted by me tabbing it across and then writing the character names and hitting the space bar – I’ve actually got this dog eared copy of the first draft. All the formatting is completely off. I mean I really didn’t know what I was doing.
Whannell: Dead Silence was a pitch that James and I did to Universal, they bought the pitch and it was really trial by fire. I went back to Australia and started typing and all I could hear in the back of my mind was the clock, who I had never had before. You know, whenever I’d written scripts in the past it had been things for me. Now I was wasn’t writing for me, I was writing for someone else a so I kind of felt that pressure and I remember when I turned in the first draft I was really nervous because I knew that the executive at Universal was reading it and there was all this pressure too because Saw had come out and done so well. So that was the main difference in terms of how I wrote it. In terms of the actual content of the script, I think Dead Silence is a lot more fun, more creepy film.
Question: Is there a different kind of pressure to be doing something for a bigger studio?
Whannell: Yeah definitely. Absolutely. You’re playing with the Big Boys. You’re acutely aware that people can go down in flames in situations like that. It’s much safer to be doing it on your own because you don’t have critics to answer to. It was kind of intimidating at first but the people were really nice and eventually you realise they’re just people and, you know, the corporation might be big but it’s just made of people, and they come and go and that pressure starts to wear of. It’s all just filmmaking.
Question: How tough do you think it is to market – I mean there are so many horror films that come out now and one has to outdo the next to try and grab that core audience. What do you think makes Dead Silence a little bit more original than the norm?
Whannell: It’s an interesting question. It’s tough to stand out in the crowd. Who knows how to do it? James and I certainly didn’t intend for Saw to stand out in a market place because we didn’t know what the market place was. We didn’t know when the film was going to be released. It’s not like when we came up with the idea for Saw we sat around and had a little business meeting in James’ apartment where we tried to work out what the general public would be interested in in 2004. We had no idea. I mean when we started writing Saw it was 2002 so we had no idea and I think in a lot of ways that marketing aspect of filmmaking is best left to the experts. I can’t even give it a thought. It just drives me nuts. And if you asked me why it stands out, Dead Silence, I think it’s very different to the other horror factors. I mean, on the first and most basic level it’s a ventriloquist dummy horror film. That’s something we’ve never seen. And I’m going to have the audacity to say ‘never seen’. Even though you might say ‘Well what about Magic?’ I would say that’s not really a horror film I distinctly remember the day and James was editing Saw and I came into the editing room and I said ‘It’s interesting how there’s never been a ventriloquist in any horror films – a straight up horror film about ventriloquism’. And James was like ‘Yeah, interesting’. And of course, we had managed to shoehorn a puppet in Saw and he had turned out really successful. People loved the puppet so I thought ‘What about if we gave the puppet its own film?’. And that’s really where Dead Silence came from. So in that sense, that’s something people haven’t seen for a while. And in another sense I think it’s unique because of the world that its set in. I think, if you’d seen the movie, it really is set in this completely fogbound world. There’s an old theatre out in the middle of a lake called the Guignol Theatre, you know. The town that the film takes place in is called Ravens Fair. It’s just dripping with Edgar Allan Poe and hammer horror film references. We wanted to essentially make a feature length episode of the Twilight Zone, the old black and white Twilight Zone.
Question: Now tell me, do you think you two are going to move on beyond this kind of genre now or do you have other things …?
Whannell: Oh. I mean James has just finished directing an action film, a revenge thriller with Kevin Bacon. And that’s very much along the lines of those gritty 70s revenge movies, like Death Wish.
Question: And you’re in that too right?
Whannell: Yeah a very small role. It’s literally like Alfred Hitchcock walking out of the pet store in The Birds. It’s more of a cameo for the fans than it is a meaty role. James called me up one day when I was sitting on my balcony and said ‘Do you want to come down to South Carolina and hang out with me for a bit?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sure’. And he was like ‘I’ll stick you in the movie. You can shave your head and put some tattoos on’ so I was like ‘Cool’. It was more like me just hanging out with him but I can say even those few days hanging around the set in costume, really whet my appetite to act again. It made me realise how long it had been since I acted and, I mean the year since Saw came out really has just flown by and it’s been a while so this year and next year I really want to sink my teeth into …
Question: So you are pursuing acting now at this point?
Whannell: Yeah I am. I am. I feel like I’ve been writing for so long it’s time for me to really pursue acting again and get into it.
Question: Are you writing anything at all?
Whannell: Yeah I’m actually working on a kid’s film (laughs). A children’s film, but it’s a script that I love that I’m kind of working on and James and I are starting to work on something together again.
Question: I take it you’re quite happy to put an end to the Saw franchise?
Whannell: It depends what day, you know, what side of the bed I get out of. Sometimes I think it’d be great just to have the trilogy, the box set But at the same time I think if we can keep coming up with great stories, that’s great. And I’m kind of really flattered by the fact that Saw has turned into this, you know, it like Nightmare on Elm Street in a way. Someone told me – I was at a horror convention up in New Jersey, the Monster Mania convention – and there were all these kids there, you know, fifteen year old kids, and their faces were painted up as the doll from Saw – painted white. A couple of them had tattoos of Shawnee Smith’s face with the jaw trap on. I mean these were hard core Saw fans and I just had so much fun in meeting them face to face. I mean you can read kids’ messages on IMdb or whatever but it’s another thing to actually meet these kids and I was talking to them and they’re saying that for them, Saw was like Star Wars for them. It was like the new trilogy. Essentially they said ‘Star Wars horror fans’. And I didn’t believe that. I was laughing at them when they said that but I couldn’t believe that that’s what it meant to them. So in that sense it’s really flattering and it makes me think that they should go on making these Saw films and giving these kids more.