Infamous characters such as Universal Pictures‘ family of classic film monsters have endured in part because they’re timeless and represent a wide range of cultural fears and anxieties. The intersection of scientific discovery with timeless love and loss has made ‘The Invisible Man’ a noteworthy entry in the studio’s series of classic movie monsters. It has also successfully proved that it’s flexible to represent whatever time period the current audience is living in.
Veteran horror filmmaker, Leigh Whannell, has written, directed and executive produced a powerful contemporary movie adaptation of the novel of the same name by H. G. Wells. The screen adaptation also serves as a reboot of ‘The Invisible Man’ film series. The new sci-fi drama represents a new direction for how to celebrate the classic title character, as well as all of Universal‘s classic movie monsters. This new direction is filmmaker-driven, and invites innovative storytellers, like Whannell, who have original, bold ideas for these characters, to develop their own stories and pitch them. Whannell, who’s also known in the genre for penning and helming ‘Upgrade‘ and ‘Insidious: Chapter 3,’ as well as scribing several entries the ‘Saw’ franchise, had an exciting and terrifying idea for ‘The Invisible Man’s title character, and the studio responded to his new vision.
The first chapter in the new Universal monster series was shepherded by producer Jason Blum, through his production company, Blumhouse Productions. The duo’s fresh take on ‘The Invisible Man’ is being released in theaters today by Universal Pictures.
The new version of ‘The Invisible Man‘ is told from the perspective of the victim, instead of the antagonist. It follows Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss), who’s trapped in an abusive, controlling relationship with the title character, Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). The wealthy, brilliant scientist, inventor and optics pioneer follows his equally smart and capable girlfriend after she escapes in the dead of night. However, he doesn’t catch up with her at first, as she disappears into hiding, and is aided by her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer), their childhood friend, James (Aldis Hodge), and his teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid).
Cecilia is later shocked to hear that Adrian commits suicide, and leaves her a generous portion of his vast fortune, soon after her escape. Despite her initial happiness, she soon suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of eerie coincidences turn lethal, threatening the lives of those she loves, Cecilia’s sanity begins to unravel, and leaves her desperately trying to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.
Whannell generously took the time recently to talk about writing, directing and executive producing ‘The Invisible Man’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that he inadvertently landed himself the job of penning, helming and producing the mystery movie when he met with executives from Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions to discuss ‘Upgrade,’ and was casually asked what he would you do with ‘The Invisible Man’ if he were to hypothetically make the modern adaptation. He also expressed his appreciation of being able to work with Universal and Blumhouse, the latter of which he collaborated with on such movies as ‘Upgrade’ and the ‘Insidious‘ franchise, on the contemporary remake.
The conversation with Whannell began with him explaining how he become involved in scribing the screenplay for the drama, and what the process like of writing the script was like. “I became involved in it when I went in for a meeting at Universal. I was talking to some of the Blumhouse and Universal people at the meeting, and I thought we were all there to talk about my film, ‘Upgrade,’ and how great it was. But we quickly diverted from that topic, which was distressing to me,” he admitted with a laugh, “and started talking about ‘The Invisible Man.’
“I thought that was a little strange, and wasn’t quite sure why he were talking about ‘The Invisible Man.’ It’s not a character that I walk around and thinking about in my daily life,” the writer divulged.
“But they asked me, ‘What would you do with this character, hypothetically, if you were to do this film. I casually said, ‘I would probably tell the story from the point-of-view of the victim he was stalking, instead of The Invisible Man,” Whannell shared.
“Everyone reacted in a positive way. My agent called me afterwards and was like, ‘Oh wow, this is a great new job for you.’ I was like, ‘What job?,'” the scribe relayed with a laugh. “So I clearly got a job without me knowing it.”
After comprehending that he was hired to spearhead the new adaptation of the classic Universal monster, Whannell “realized there was a great opportunity to modernize this character, drag it into our century and make him scary again. I felt like The Invisible Man hadn’t been scary in a long time,” he admitted.
“I thought I could really exploit the central aspect of the character, which is his absence. You look in an empty room, and wonder if he’s in there or not. I knew I could exploit that for a modern audience,” the writer shared. “I knew-or at least, hoped-I could make their palms sweat just by looking down an empty corridor.”
Like Whannell mentioned, he was able to adapt the title character’s motivation to maintain his control over his love, Cecilia, to the modern era. “I have a lot of respect for the character, and I think you can tell by watching the film. I’d like to say that you can, because the best tribute that I can pay to this character is to make hims scary and relevant,” the scribe noted.
The filmmaker further confessed, “I don’t want to make a film set in the past if I’m telling a story about a monster…When I’m telling an intense film about an iconic character that’s been around for a long time, I want audiences to feel like it can also happen today, and it’s something they can see themselves in…I want clinically clean, modern environments, and base the technology in the film on modern tech.
“That was a clear decision for me. But within that, you can still pay homage to the original through a few little visual nods. The main tribute that I felt I was paying to the original was prioritize making him scary for a whole new audience,” Whannell added.
The filmmaker then delved into the fact that in addition to writing the screenplay, he also directed the sci-fi thriller. With his background in helming horror-sci-fi genre features, his experience penning the script and helming his previous features influenced the way he approached directing ‘The Invisible Man.’
“My overall approach on this set?,” Whannell asked with a hint of a laugh. “I wanted to point the camera down an empty hallway. So it was kind of nerve-wracking to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to set up and light, point the camera and lock it off, and then nothing’s going to happen. No one’s going to say a line of dialogue, and nothing’s going to happen. We’re looking at nothing,'” he admitted with another hint of a laugh. “There’s something spooky about that, because you’re wondering if it’s going to work.
“But I’m very passionate and serious about the movies I make. I try to make the film set a really quiet space for the actors. I’m pretty militant about enforcing that, and keeping everyone pretty quiet, and not just between action and cut, but all the time,” the director also divulged. “We’re not having a party-we’re here to do something.”
But Whannell also feels that it’s important to reward the cast and crew. “I’ll have food truck Fridays, and bring in an ice cream or burger truck, and give back to everyone who’s working on the film. They’re pouring their blood, sweat and tears into something you wrote down on a piece of paper, so you need to show your gratitude for that,” he pointed out. “My normal attitude on a film set is one of strict enforcement of the rules,” he added with a laugh, “coinciding with lots of praise and presents” for the cast and crew.
The filmmaker then disclosed that he felt honored to have been able to work with the actors who appear in his take of ‘The Invisible Man,’ and called the casting process good with another hint of a laugh. “I think I got a really great cast of actors; all of them were amazing…I was so privileged to work with this cast. Everyone has bad days on set…but when I was in the editing room, I couldn’t believe the caliber of performances, and what they delivered. I think they make the film what it is,” he conceded.
“A horror movie is only as good as its central truth. You have to believe in it to be scared by it. I feel like when you stop believing in a tense thriller or horror movie, you check out,” Whannell revealed. “What these actors can do is keep you checked in, because they can be so authentic. So I loved the whole experience of working with them-it was a joy.”
Once the actors were cast, the helmer didn’t have many days to rehearse with the actors, even Moss and Jackson-Cohen. “We didn’t have a huge rehearsal time. What we usually did was talk over the script, rather than rehearse the lines. We would go through the lines, and have long conversations about our own lives, and what we would and wouldn’t say. They made valuable contributions,” he revealed.
“Actors are the ones who have to say the words, so you can’t just shove the words down their mouths. So I really learned a lot by working with them,” Whannell divulged. “But if I felt they were wrong, I’d make a case. I thought that part of the filmmaking was amazing. The push and pull between us led to us finding the central truth.”
In the scenes between Adrian and Cecilia, she fights to physically protect herself from him, and fights him off to save her life. The filmmaker liked that process of creating the stunt work and physicality in those action sequences. “We had a great stunt (coordinator), Harry Dakanalis. He worked really well with the cast,” he shared.
“We used all different methods, from cutting-edge CGI to an actor beating himself up. Aldis Hodge should get the stunt person of the year award for beating himself up and throwing himself around-he made it look very realistic,” Whannell enthusiastically gushed.
“It’s very intense when you’re filming these sequences on set, because you don’t have much time, and everything has to go exactly right for it to look good. It’s when you’re in the edit room or sound mixing stage, and you’re putting the final touches on these sequences, that you start to realize what all that work meant. You went through all that trouble for this visceral, adrenaline-pumping scenes, and I was super happy with the way those sequences turned out,” the director revealed.
In addition to appreciating the process of writing and directing ‘The Invisible Man’ for Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions, Whannell also cherished the experience of serving as one of the executive producers on the film. “I’ve worked with Blumhouse many times-I’ve done all of the ‘Insidious’ films, as well as ‘Upgrade,’ with them,” he noted. “There’s a familial connection there. It’s a small company, and everyone knows each other. There’s a great vibe there.
“They put all the money on the screen. They’re not in some big, fancy building in Beverly Hills; I think Jason actually bought the former headquarters of Cat Fancy Magazine to put Blumhouse in,” the director revealed.
“It’s great to make films with them, because they support you, but they’re very hands off, in terms of the creative direction you’re going. They don’t micromanage you in what you’re trying to achieve; they let you go, and you can fall on your face,” Whannell admitted. “It’s kind of a devious move, because if you end up making a terrible movie, it’s all your fault! They can say, ‘We let you do what you wanted, and you made a piece of sh*t!’ But it’s always fun working with them, and I’d love to keep making films with them.”