Fear of the unknown can often be a powerful and compelling motivating factor that can often inhibit people’s personal and professional maturity and growth. Whether they’re contending with personal loss for the first time, or are taking the initial step to achieve their ultimate career goal, people can be intimidated by not knowing what’s happening to them to fully embrace the lessons they can learn from the experience. But writer-actor Leigh Whannell, who penned and starred in the popular first two ‘Insidious’ movies, proved people can move past that concern in his feature film directorial debut with the series’ new prequel, ‘Insidious: Chapter 3.’
The horror film, which opens in theaters today nationwide, was funded in part by series producer Jason Blum and his production company, Blumhouse Productions. Along with James Wan, who co-created the ‘Insidious’ franchise with Whannell and directed the first two movies, and also served as a producer on ‘Insidious: Chapter 3,’ they are among those who encouraged Whannell to take the next step in filmmaking by helming the origins story. As a result, the filmmaker naturally and enthrallingly created a relatable and realistic story about two families that are both struggling to overcome their grief during times of physical and emotional crisis.
‘Insidious: Chapter 3,’ which is set several years before the haunting of the Lambert family that began in ‘Insidious’ and continued into its sequel, chronicles how Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) first began battling the spirits that plagued her in The Further. While still emotionally recovering from the unexpected suicide of her beloved husband, Jack (Adrian Sparks), Elise has decided to stop using her natural physic gift, as she fears it will maliciously claim her own life. But her outlook on communicating with spirits suddenly changes when she’s approached by young aspiring actress, Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott), who longs to communicate with her recently deceased mother, Lillith (Ele Keats), before she begins college the following year.
While Elise immediately feels protective of the sensitive teenager, the physic initially refuses to help her, as she’s still not ready to accept her gift as being her life’s true purpose. But after a shocking accident then leaves Quinn hospitalized and forced to miss school so that she can recover at home, where she has begun making contact with a spirit pretending to be her mother, Elise feels the need to step in to protect the teen.
As Quinn’s father, Sean (Dermot Mulroney), is still struggling to care for his daughter and her younger brother, Alex (Tate Berney), after his wife’s devastating death, he starts to take more responsibility for them when Quinn is attacked by a malevolent supernatural entity, The Man Who Can’t Breathe (Michael Reid MacKay). After pleading with Elise to help separate Quinn from the malicious entity, who has attached himself to the teen in order to take her soul, she agrees to contact the dead. With the help of her two new colleagues, Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), two parapsychologists who Alex finds on the internet, the physic venture into The Further. In her effort to save Quinn, Elise finds herself fighting The Man Who Can’t Breathe, the most ruthless energy she has ever encountered, while she also battles her own personal demons.
Whannell generously took the time recently to talk about returning to the ‘Insidious’ franchise, to once again write and star in, as well as direct, the series’ latest entry, during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the writer-helmer-actor discussed how he decided to make his feature film directorial debut with the horror prequel, after receiving support from the movie’s producers, and writing the previous two installments of the ‘Insidious’ franchise made him more confident and comfortable in his filmmaking approach; how he decided to make the movie a prequel, as he wanted to focus on Elise’s origins and decision to start using her psychic gift again, particularly to help another family that’s contending with possession; and how he appreciates how supportive Blumhouse Productions and Wan have been with his creative decisions, as they truly allowed him to explore his ideas on his own.
ShockYa (SY): Like the first two ‘Insidious’ films, you wrote the script for ‘Insidious: Chapter 3,’ which serves as a prequel, and showcases how Elise began working with Specs and Tucker. As the franchise’s scribe, why did you decide to make this film an origins story?
Leigh Whannell (LW): Well, I really enjoyed writing the first two films, and there’s something very familial about the ‘Insidious’ movies. Everyone on the crew knows each other so well, and Blumhouse is great, so it’s been great working on the films. So it wasn’t a hard decision to come back and work on another one of these movies.
There’s a great quote from Patrick Wilson (who starred in the first two films). Someone was telling me how they asked me why he came back for ‘Insidious: Chapter 2.’ He said, “When are you going to get the chance to work with nice people? It’s kind of a hard thing in the film industry to work with a bunch of people who are all nice.” I loved that Patrick said that, because that’s how the ‘Insidious’ films feel to me. So it wasn’t a hard decision to come back and write the third one.
The reason why I made it a prequel is because I wanted to build the story around Lin Shaye. If you want to tell her character’s story, you need to go back in time. (laughs) This film had to be a prequel, since her character died at the end of the first movie.
SY: While the prequel focuses on how Elise, Specs and Tucker began working together, and why she decides to start using her psychic gift again, it also focuses on a new family, the Brenners, and how they’re affected by a possession. What was the process of creating the backstory behind the family, and integrating it into the origins of Elise?
LW: Well, I wanted a new family, because I didn’t want to focus on the Lamberts anymore. As much as I love Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, I wanted a new family.
As far as bringing Specs and Tucker back, they’re just funny characters. I feel like they’re staples of the series, and the audience likes them. When you have a franchise that has a lot of dedicated fans, you start a dialogue with them. They inform what you do in the future, and I think filmmakers would be lying if they said they don’t listen to the viewers.
I remember reading an interview with the creators of the TV show, ‘Lost.’ They were talking about how as the series went on, they really started to read the fans’ comments. Those comments would influence the direction the show would take. I think it’s a great approach to let the fans be participatory. I knew the fans of this franchise love Specs and Tucker, so I realized that I couldn’t leave them out.
SY: With the serious and dramatic nature of Elise deciding to start using her physic gift once again, Specs and Tucker offer some comic relief to lighten the film’s mood, like you mentioned. Why was it important to balance those comic elements with the film’s more serious subject?
LW: I think the Specs and Tucker characters really add something to the film. When I was growing up, and was watching films like ‘Poltergeist,’ they definitely had an element of humor, which I was keen to include in the first ‘Insidious.’ Now fans have fallen in love with those characters. I had fun playing Specs, and hanging out with Angus, as we’re really good friends. I think if there are more ‘Insidious’ films, you’ll see more of Specs and Tucker.
SY: Besides writing the script for the prequel, you also made your feature film directorial debut with the movie. Why did you decide to transition into helming with ‘Insidious: Chapter 3?’ How did your experience penning, and starring in, all three films, as well as co-creating the series, influence the way you approached directing the prequel?
LW: I knew I wanted to direct a film, but I just didn’t know what that film would be. Then when I started writing ‘Insidious 3,’ I began to really fall in love with it. The producers of the film also wanted me to direct it, so the offer was there. I started to think about it, and realized it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
Now in hindsight, I’m so glad I did direct this film, and made it my first effort. It’s such a friendly debut, as I know everybody on the crew so well. You have to look for things that will help cushion the blow when you’re a first-time director, because a lot of it is hard. There are a lot of elements that slam down on you and crush you, and there’s a lot of stress.
So the more you can surround yourself with the comfort of the familiar, the better. It doesn’t get any more familiar for me than this. As you said, I wrote the first two films, so I know the world. But I didn’t want to repeat what James had done, though, so I tried to steer away from doing the same exact type of story. So I tried to move towards something a little bit different. I hope the end result feels like an ‘Insidious’ film, but doesn’t feel like a retread of what James had done.
SY: Speaking of James, who directed the first two ‘Insidious films, and with whom you co-created the series, he served as a producer on the prequel. How did your working relationship with him on the first two movies influence the way you approached making ‘Insidious: Chapter 3?’ How involved was he in making the origins story?
LW: Well, James wasn’t around that much while we were making this film, as he was directing ‘Furious 7.’ It’s almost what he didn’t do that was so great. He didn’t really crowd over my shoulder, and tell me to do this or that. That was so helpful, because if I had someone telling me what to do, I think I would have buckled. I needed some room, and James definitely gave me that.
He’s a really good friend of mine at the end of the day. He treated the producing job as a good friend would. He made sure that I felt comfortable, but he definitely didn’t crowd me creatively. He let me do what I wanted to do.
SY: One of the other producers on the series’ new installment, Jason Blum, helped make the film through his production company, Blumhouse Productions, which you mentioned earlier, and also produced the first two entries. What was your working relationship with Jason like, and how did it influence the way you approached making the prequel?
LW: It was good. Blumhouse is a good company, and they have a great business models. They give filmmakers just enough money to make their movie. It’s a low-budget production company, so they want to make movies for a lower price, while also giving filmmakers creative freedom. Then you end up with what you end up with, and you either stand or fall by that.
I love working with Jason, and we’ve obviously had a good run with the ‘Insidious’ movies. It’s nothing but smiles when we hang out together. I have never been involved on a Blumhouse production that has been troubled, or has run into any problems. I’ve had a very good time with them, and they’re very hands-off, just like how I said James was-they really let you make the film you want to make, and that’s exciting.
SY: Blumhouse Productions specializes in producing micro- and low-budget genre movies, like you mentioned. Since ‘Insidious: Chapter 3’ features diverse stunt and action sequences, as well as make-up and costume designs, how did filming independently influence the way you approached creating the physical aspects?
LW: I did have a lot of creative freedom. But the stunts and the visual aspects of the film are more technical than creative. It was about the question of, how are we going to design this? I loved making the film practically. Not only is it good for the budget, but it’s just what I prefer in the horror world.
If I was making more of a science-fiction film, maybe I’d use more CG. But with a horror film like this, I wanted to avoid it at all costs. You only bring it in at the end, as a paintbrush to fill in what you missed. So I’m really happy with where we ended up, and the film looks great-I love it.
SY: What was the casting process like for the Brenner family, particularly Stefanie Scott, who plays Quinn, the teenage girl who becomes possessed, as well as Dermot Mulroney, who portrays her widowed father, Sean?
LW: We saw a lot of girls for the role of Quinn Brenner. It was interesting because they’re all so talented, and I saw a great range in them. But when Stefanie came in, she had an innocence that Quinn needed. Stefanie’s not a Hollywood kid-she’s a real teenager who’s a little shy, and had an inate innocence to her that I really for this character. Since Quinn’s mother had died, a lot of the film is about her resulting vulnerability and pain in that situation.
Dermot is someone we made an offer to, as I’ve loved his work for years. He’s such a nice guy, and I instantly saw that when I met up with him for a coffee. I was thinking that I would have to convince him to do the film. Then three-quarters of the way through our conversation, he asked me, “You know I’m doing the movie, right?” When he said that, I thought, that’s great. I’m happy with every element of the film, and it couldn’t have gone better.
SY: Once they were cast, what was the preparation process like with them, particularly in building in building the relationships and tension over losing Quinn’s mother, Lillith?
LW: It was good, as we did a lot of talking about the situation, especially how Quinn had lost his mother. I gave Stefanie a diary, which I asked her to fill out as Quinn. So we did a lot of work on how this family would be, and I’m really happy with how it ended up. Everyone had a good time, and knew what we were getting at.
SY: As Quinn tries to contact her mother’s spirit, she’s targeted by the supernatural entity, The Man Who Can’t Breathe, who was played by Michael Reid MacKay. What was the process of creating The Man Who Can’t Breathe, and differentiating them from the Lipstick-Face Demon and the Bride in Black, who appear in the first two films?
LW: I really spent a lot of time trying to come up with the main demon for this film, as I didn’t want him to be a retread of the others from the previous movies. So I thought about the themes of the film, in an effort to relate them to the demon. I said Quinn’s mother had cancer, so I wanted to embody cancer physically. I worked with Fractured FX on this movie, and we really worked hard to figure out how the demon would look. I’m so happy with how he turned out, as he’s pretty scary.
Written by: Karen Benardello