Leigh Whannell on the Challenges of Cracking the Story for ‘Insidious: The Last Key’

     January 6, 2018

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Leigh Whannell has been in the Insidious business for a while now. The franchise mainstay created the international horror hit with his Saw collaborator James Wan back in 2010, and four films later, he’s written and acted in every installment, and even directed Chapter 3. And at his side through every film has been Lin Shaye, the quirky ghost hunter turned leading lady who ended up being the inspiration for the latest sequel, Insidious: The Last Key. Four films in and struggling to find something new to say in the Insidious verse, Whannell cracked the story by leaning into Elise’s backstory, digging into what makes the gifted empath tick, and giving Shaye a vehicle for one of the best performances of her career.

With The Last Key now in theaters, I recently hopped on the phone for a chat with Whannell to talk about penning the script (The Taking of Deborah Logan’s Adam Robitel steps in to helm this one). We talked about why The Last Key was a somewhat “torturous” film to write, how he found inspiration by digging into the character of Elise, why 2017 was such a banger of a year for horror, and the strange experience of seeing the Saw franchise return with Jigsaw.

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Image via Universal Pictures

Collider: I love that this movie was focused on Elise and I love how this film presents an older woman in vulnerable, intimate ways that you just don’t usually see.

LEIGH WHANNELL: Yeah, I’m glad to hear you say that. I mean, it’s the fourth movie in the series, and so audiences know who Lin’s character is. They know all about Elise. It’s not something we’re doing straight out of the gate, but it is kind of a gift to be able to do this. I’d hazard a guess that if I went to some producer or studio in LA and said, “Listen, I’m gonna write this horror film and I want Lin Shaye to play the lead!” I’d hazard a guess that they would respond, “Well, what if she was the co-lead or what if we had some young people in there, running around with her?”  

But because the fans of the Insidious films know the character of Elise so well and they are so affectionate towards her. She gets a great response from audience. That gives you license to put her in those positions, to give her those scenes, to make her the focus, to let her be vulnerable. To let her really drive the movie, more so than she did in the other films. In the first Insidious movie, she was like the quirky supporting character that comes in, in the third act, to save the day like Zelda Rubinstein or something.  Now, she gets her own film, and I just love that.  

Yeah, absolutely. You’ve mentioned that you kinda felt you had said all you had to say with the Insidious films. What did you find in returning to this world that you weren’t expecting to when you sat down to actually write it?  

WHANNELL: Well, it was an interesting process. It was quite tortuous, actually. I had this grand idea that I would go off to Spain to write the film. I’d always had this romantic idea, ever since I’ve been writing scripts, that I would travel one day and pull up stumps, as we say in Australia. It’s a cricket reference. You can Google it. Pull up stumps in some country like Italy or Spain and do my little Truman Capote thing. I had these grand visions of myself sitting on a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean and writing away and somehow that view of the water would make the writing easier. 

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Image via Universal Pictures

And so, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do but haven’t gotten around to doing, so finally this time I said, “Right, that’s it. We’re gonna rent it out for a few months and I’m gonna write this film.” And I justified going away for that long by saying, “Well, I’m working!. I’m not just taking a trip and putting my feet up. I’m working!” And we found a house in Spain a couple of hours north of Barcelona and I went there, and I fairly quickly discovered that writing in Spain with a nice view is just as tortuous as writing in LA with a view of a parking lot. It’s exactly the same thing. In fact, it might even be more tortuous because while I’m sitting there pulling my hair out in front of a laptop, everybody else is like, “We’re off to the beach! See you later for a sangria!” And I was really having a tough time.  

And I remember a few weeks went by and I still hadn’t written anything. I can say this now, in public. Of course, I was lying to my boss, Jason Blum, at the time. But now that the film’s all done, I can tell you that I had eaten a substantial chunk out of my time there and still not written a word. Oh my god! [Laughs] I was Nicolas Cage’s character in Adaptation, just pacing like mad man, trying to figure out what to do and the major problem was, I just couldn’t figure out something new to say.  

I know what you’re thinking. Maybe I should have planned what I was gonna write before I left, but I didn’t. I thought it would just hit me in an avalanche of inspiration. But the trouble I was having was that I couldn’t think of the structure of the film that we hadn’t seen before. It felt like the whole there’s a haunting in the house and Lin’s gonna come in and help out had just been done. And I remember the house we were renting was 300 years old. It was quite a creepy house, and I don’t know if the house was giving me some inspiration, but finally I hit upon the idea of Lin going back to her hometown, to a really small town, and this house that I was renting was in a really small town. It was actually only five houses. You can’t even call it a town.  

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Image via Universal Pictures

I believe [the town] roughly translates as “Five Keys”, which is the name of the town in the film. And so I guess where I was ultimately ended up saving the day by inspiring me, but it took a while to get there, and once I was there, the thing I was excited about was the idea of Lin’s past, of making the film actually about her, rather than her saving someone else, and it’s the someone-else that gets their backstory laid out and similar to what we do with Insidious 3. This time I wanted it to be all about her.  

Looking at the genre a bit more broadly, 2017 was such a huge year for horror, not just at the box office but in terms of the amount of movies coming out and the creative level of the films coming out. Why do you think the genre is thriving this year 

WHANNELL: I really don’t know. It’s usually the films. The films drive it. If you have a year where a few good horror films come out, all of the sudden, horror is back and everyone’s talking about how it’s a vintage year for horror. I think that what we saw with a film like Get Out is a horror film reflecting our society back at us, which I think is the best direction horror can go in, at the moment. People really responded to it, to Get Out. And I think it’s no secret the world is in a tumultuous place right now, politically, socially. It’s a strange time. It’s one of those … I think the world goes through these turbulent valleys every now and again, and we’re in one right now. And I think the best thing the horror genre could do is weaponize that and make films that are social metaphors. I think horror does that well. It always has.  

If you look back at a film like Dawn of the Dead — You can either watch it as a straight-up genre film and have fun with zombies being shot, or you can look at it as a metaphor for consumerism. Or a metaphor for the Vietnam war. I think horror has always done that well and that’s why I think horror is exciting at the moment, is the opportunity to do that.  

What was it like for you seeing the Saw franchise come back with Jigsaw, after it was sort of dormant for all that time?

WHANNELL: It was interesting. It’s always an interesting experience with the Saw films, when a sequel comes out that I didn’t have anything to do with, creatively, because here’s this idea, this story, and this character that I created for James Wan, but now it doesn’t need me anymore. I guess it’s a similar feeling, maybe, to raising a child and then watching that child toddle off to college and say, “Bye! I have my own friends and my own life now. I don’t need you.” And you’re sitting there thinking, “But, I made you! I changed your dirty diapers for years!” And now that’s kind of what it felt like driving down the street in LA and looking up and seeing a billboard for this Saw movie that I didn’t have anything to do with.  

And that’s kind of how it felt with Jigsaw. The biggest connection I had to this latest one was that the directors of the film, the Spierig brothers, are good friends of mine. They’re Australians. I think they’re really talented guys, and so I was really rooting for them to have a successful film, to make a great Saw movie. In my personal opinion, I don’t know there’s been a great Saw movie in a while. Probably shouldn’t say that, but whatever. And so I was really hoping these guys would come back, and so it was a very interesting experience. I’m sorry I can’t give you a better five-dollar word than ‘interesting’, but that’s probably all I should say. [Laughs]

Insidious: The Last Key is now in theaters.

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