Courageously exploring the unknown and uncovering ways to battle things you don’t have a complete understanding of can be a daunting task for anyone. Whether a vulnerable family is hesitantly reaching out to investigators to find out why they’re being targeted, or a versatile screenwriter is searching for a frightening new story to tell, people are constantly being thrust into unfamiliar situations. That’s certainly the case with the Lambert family in the new horror thriller sequel, ‘Insidious: Chapter 2,’ as well as the film’s ambitious and acclaimed horror screenwriter, Leigh Whannell. Following up on the events of the original hit 2011 film, the Lamberts discover ways to stay together during their continued times of fighting back against ghosts, while the scribe searched for ways to tell another creative story about the family.
Immediately pickup up where the original film left off, ‘Insidious: Chapter 2’ follows the Lambert family, including Josh (Patrick Wilson); his wife, Renai (Rose Byrne); their sons, Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and Foster (Andrew Astor); and Josh’s mother, Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), as they’re reunited after Josh went into the Further to get Dalton back. However, paranormal events continue to occur to the family, which become more and more terrifying. When the family begins to notice strange behavior from Josh, they start to wonder if it was really him who came back from the Further. With the help of returning investigators Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), who helped the Lamberts uncover the ghosts that haunted them the first time, as well as one of Elise Rainier’s (Lin Shaye) old acquaintances, Carl (Steve Coulter), the family is once again prepared to fight the spirits that have long plagued them.
Whannell generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Insidious: Chapter 2’ during a roundtable interview at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Among other things, the writer-actor discussed how when he first started working, particularly on the ‘Saw’ series, he didn’t know the landscape of filmmaking, and how he’s now a more practiced writer; how as a viewer, he finds supernatural elements in horror films, like in the sequel, scarier than the torture shown in his ‘Saw’ movies, as the paranormal plays on his imagination more; and how he never wants to take a mechanical approach when writing, and instead writes ideas down in notebooks before he begins writing a script on his computer.
Question (Q): Was the baby about to be possessed?
Leigh Whannell (LW): I don’t think so, no. The baby’s just getting messed with, but isn’t about to be possessed.
I really like these roundtable interviews, people really get into the details! The TV interviews are just like, “Love the movie.” With the roundtable interviews, people say things like, “Is the baby possessed?” right away. (laughs) The baby’s not possessed, but there’s an idea for the next one. (laughs)
Q: The next question’s about ‘Saw’ chronology.
LW: I didn’t have anything to do with the series past ‘III.’ (laughs) So you’ll have to ask someone else past the third film. I, like everyone else, stopped watching after the third one. (laughs)
Q: The ‘Saw’ series is very bloody, and features a lot of torture elements, while the ‘Insidious’ films are about ghosts, and are spiritual. So what types of movies do you find scarier?
LW: Personally, as a viewer, I find supernatural stuff scarier. I think that fear of the unknown is much more palpable, and it plays on my imagination a lot more. If I’m sitting home alone at night, watching ‘The Shining,’ and then I tun it off, my imagination will run wild.
Whereas if I’m watching a film that’s based more in reality, like ‘The Strangers’ or ‘The Silence of the Lambs,’ it’s still intense and disturbing. But I don’t have that same fear when I turn the movie off and go to bed. I’m not sitting there thinking that Hannibal Lecter’s going to burst out of the closet and get me.
For some reason, supernatural stuff does do that to me. My imagination is my own worst enemy when I’m watching a scary film. I can turn the movie off and really picture scenarios that could occur. It’s good when I’m writing a horror film, though, to be able to tap into that.
Q: What’s the writing process like for you when you’re working on a film?
LW: There’s really no set way to do it. But I never want to treat writing mechanically. I was never good at math-I failed it. If you look at my report cards all throughout high school, I was always terrible at math. I can barely add up a tip at a restaurant. So I never want to take that mechanical approach when writing.
I’ve read a few screenwriting books that take a very mathematical approach to it. They say, “By page 30, you need to have the exciting incident escalate,” and I’m like, ugh, no. It’s very mathematical, and I don’t like that at all. So I don’t take a set approach.
But i usually do like to plot it out first. I use a notepad and say, “He comes into the room. The journalists are there, and he kills them all. (laughs) He leaves the room after cleaning their bodies. The staff chases him down Fifth Avenue, and he gets on a train at Grand Central, and goes to Boston. End of Act I.” (laughs)
Q: Is that the plot for ‘Insidious 3?’
LW: Yes! (laughs) I’m also giving away the plot for the next hour of my life. (laughs)
When I sit down to actually write, I open this notebook and look at how he kills the journalists. I always follow this guide, and it’s hand-written. I don’t actually use a computer until it’s time to put in, Interior: House, Night, and all that.
I’ve got a stack of notebooks that I’ve kept since I was 20-years-old, when I started writing. I fill up these notebooks.
Q: What’s the process of coming up with an idea when you’re writing?
LW: Well, that’s actually my favorite part of the writing process. The best part of not only writing, but also life, is having an idea. Ideas are so few and far between, I don’t know where they come from.
I always picture my subconscious to be like a swamp. If you subscribe to the theory that all the ideas you’re ever going to have are already in there, you’re basically waiting for one to come up to the surface, and just appear in your conscious mind.
If you compact all the days I spent doing this together, I reckon I’ve spent months of my life, just sitting around and thinking and waiting for one of these ideas. When I have an idea that’s really exciting to me, it’s so fun.
I just wrote a sci-fi film that I hope will shoot next year. When I came up with the idea for that, I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep. I would wake up every morning and leap out of bed and run it over. I think that’s my favorite part, because it’s lazy. I love walking around and just thinking about it. Then when you actually have to sit down and commit to it and write it, it’s kind of painful. (laughs)
There’s no rhyme or reason to coming up with an idea. I wish there was a set method to it. I wish that I knew that every time I ate spaghetti, an idea would come. (laughs) I’ve gone months trying to think of an idea. I’ve had plenty, but none of them are good. Then all of a sudden one day, for no good reason, you’re brushing your teeth and you’re like, “I’ve got it.”
I actually just shot a film called ‘Cooties,’ and it actually wasn’t my idea. I was talking to a friend of mine, and he said, “I’ve got this friend, and he’s got this idea for a film. He’s not a writer, but he wants to produce it. It’s called ‘Cooties.'”
It’s about a virus that breaks out in an elementary school, and it turns all the kids into killer zombies. It was like a diamond bullet, to paraphrase ‘Apocalypse Now.’ I was like, “I want to write that film.” (laughs) I was like, “Who is your friend? Call him up.”
So he calls up his friend, and we went out to dinner. I said, “I want to write that film.” This guy, Josh, actually said to me, “Yeah, I think it can be really scary.” I said, “Yeah, I’m thinking of doing it as a comedy.” He was like, “Oh, I was thinking more horror.”
I was like, “It’s called ‘Cooties.’ No one’s going to take it seriously. You either have to change the title, and make it a serious horror film, or stick with ‘Cooties,’ and it has to be a comedy. We can’t lose the title, it’s one of the best things. Everyone knows what cooties are.” I eventually convinced him to keep the title.
We just finished wrapping it (on August 16). It was really fun, and we had an awesome cast. We had comedians like Rainn Wilson from ‘The Office’ and Jack McBrayer and Nasim Pedrad from ‘SNL’ and Alison Pill. They were so funny. I’ve got high hopes for that one. There were also a lot of devilish kids. They’ve got this virus on their face.
That’s an idea of when an idea hits you or someone else, it’s like being in love. You instantly know whether that’s the one.
Q: How has your experience on the ‘Insidious’ series compared and contrasted to your time working on the ‘Saw’ series?
LW: That’s an interesting question. The ‘Saw’ films were made when I was a lot younger and newer (to the business). Especially with the first one, I had just gotten to L.A. I didn’t really know what was going on, and the landscape of filmmaking at all. When I think back to that time, I think of a more naive version of myself.
I think now, I’m a more practiced writer, and James is a much more practiced director. It’s been awesome watching James’ evolution. Forget about ‘Saw;’ I watched James years before ‘Saw,’ as he was making his student films. I thought he was talented back then, but it’s been really cool to watch his evolution.
He’s been getting much more confident in the way he talks to crews and actors. Like on the first ‘Saw’ film, he could barely talk to the actors. (laughs) He’d be like (in a quiet voice), “Um, excuse me.” He’d be tucking his hair behind his years as he said, “Do you think you can do this?”
Now I watch him talk to actors, and I’m so proud of him. He’s so in there, and I think he’s going to be a really great director. I think he is now, but I think he’s going to get even better, and will probably win an Oscar one day. It’s been great, as both of us have learned a lot. I think the main difference would just be that experience.
Now he has to tell The Rock and Vin Diesel what to do (in ‘Fast & Furious 7’). I can imagine Vin Diesel saying, “Don’t tell me how to play this character. I know how to play this character.” (laughs) The ‘Fast & Furious’ movies are really about the cars and falling off buildings, so he’s going to have fun.
Ever since I met him in film school, that’s what James wanted to do. I went to a very artsy film school, so there was a lot of black nail polish and people saying, “No one understands me.” James and I were the only ones at this film school who were apologetically mainstream. We loved ‘The Evil Dead’ and ‘Die Hard.’
When I first met James, I asked him, “What do you want to do with filmmaking?” He was like, “I want to make ‘Die Hard.'” Now that he’s making ‘Fast & Furious 7,’ he’s finally caught up to his vision of what he wanted to be doing.
Q: Since so many films, particularly in the horror genre, are being remade today, would you be interested in doing a remake of a horror movie you grew up liking?
LW: Maybe, but I have a split opinion on remakes. Some of my favorite films are remakes, like ‘The Thing’ and ‘The Fly.’ They’re such great films. The term reimagining gets tossed around in marketing today, and it’s such a bullsh*t term. But ‘The Thing’ and ‘The Fly’ really were reimagining.
You can’t really compare John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ to the original, which is a black-and-white film with a guy in a rubber suit. If we’re going to use that bullsh*t term, it actually applies in that case.
When you’re remaking films that were made five-to-ten years ago, it’s a weird feeling. So on the one hand, some of my favorite films are remakes, but on the other hand, I feel like it’s kind of cheap. I’ve been offered a lot of remakes to write, pretty much any horror film that’s come out in the last 10 years.
I always say no, but not because I think I’m above it. But as a creator, I don’t want to trace someone else’s drawing. I’d rather be the original drawer. That’s what’s exciting to me-waking up in the morning with an original idea.
I don’t know if it’s that exciting to wake up in the morning and go, ‘Nightmare on Elm Street!” You write, “He wears a glove with knives on it.” It’s like, that’s what he wore in the original. It’s also like, yeah, but that was a black glove; mines’ going to be brown! So you’re inventing reasons to make it new. So personally, I’m not that interested in it.
But if something came along like ‘The Thing,’ an old black-and-white film that was terrible, and it’s a film that was made in the ’50s and has a great idea but wasn’t pulled off, then I might be like, let’s do it. But if someone comes to me and says, “Let’s reboot ‘Scream,’ I’d be like, no thanks.
You can get in trouble saying these things, because people may think you’re ungrateful. But I did like Zack Snyder’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’ remake. When I watched that remake, I realized it is possible to do one that has integrity, and is a great film. But I think creatively, it doesn’t excite me as much.
Q: With this film, people come in with certain expectations. Do you like working within the conventions of a genre film, and working with those conventions?
LW: Yeah, I like that. In some ways, it’s more freeing to have parameters. It’s like if I said right now, “Go write me a 1,000-word story on anything you want,” it’s really hard, because it can be about anything.
But if I say, “Write me a 1,000-word story on a scuba diver,” it gives you something to work with. So it’s almost freeing in a way. If you’re told it can be about anything, where do you even start?
So working within the parameters of a genre, I find it’s great. You have these walls, and you can subvert or reinforce them, and that’s really cool, in any genre.
Like with this sci-fi film I just did. I’ve never done a sci-fi film before, and I asked, “What can I do that we haven’t really seen in a sci-fi movie before?” It was really hard to try to think of something that hasn’t been done in the genre, because everything’s been done. I’m not going to say I reinvented the wheel, or did the most amazing thing ever, but I tried to think of scenes where viewers would go, “I’ve never seen that.”
Written by: Karen Benardello