LEIGH WHANNELL Talks THE MULE, Writing a Crime Film With Angus Sampson, Evolving as a Performer, and INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3

     November 21, 2014

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I’ve been a big proponent of The Mule since I saw it at SXSW.  Which is funny to me, since I had to be dragged almost kicking and screaming into seeing it by one of the film’s publicists.  Despite my fondness for Leigh Whannell (who co-wrote and has a major part in the film) and Angus Sampson (who co-wrote with Whannell, stars and co-directs), I’m just not that into scatological humor, which is what I thought the film was almost entirely going to consist of.

I was wrong.  All of the stomach churning elements you’ve heard about are there, but there’s an incredibly solid movie around them in every way that never pushes the gross-out throttle beyond what the story organically allows.  This is an effective crime film that works very well as both a comedy and a drama and you should seek it out.  I recently hopped on the phone with Whannell to talk about all of this as well as get an update on Insidious: Chapter 3.  Hit the jump for my interview with Leigh Whannell about The Mule.  Directed by Sampson and Tony Mahoney the film also stars Hugo Weaving,  Ewen LeslieGeoff MorrellGeorgina HaigNoni Hazlehurst and John Noble.  You can find the film in Theaters, on VOD and on iTunes (link here) now.

the-mule-leigh-whannell-angus-sampsonThe film definitely lives up to the scatological inferences of the marketing, but there’s a lot more to it than that. 

WHANNELL: Yeah, I agree.  It’s funny, whenever I think I’ve held back on something I always discover it later.  With The Mule we always felt like we were holding back on the scatological stuff and only touching on it when we really needed to.  James Wan and I felt the same way when we made Saw.  When we first made saw we were like, “Oh we really held back on the gore.  We were quite subtle.”  And then the movie comes out and it became known as this milestone for cinema gore and the poster is of a severed foot.  That’s what Lionsgate offered up as the one sheet for the film.  I think the scatological stuff in The Mule – I personally don’t think it’s over the top or too much.

No, I think it’s organic to the situation.  And event he scene where he has to… expel.

WHANNELL: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s the scene that gets everyone.  I personally take delight in scenes like that because I guess I’m a sucker for hearing a vocal reaction to a scene.  I remember the same vocal reaction when we first screened Saw at Sundance and Cary Elwes starts to saw his foot off with a hacksaw, the vocal reaction was very similar.  It’s like a drug.  It’s like heroin, hearing that reaction.  Because you’re hearing a room full of people emote and vocalize the states of their emotions from something that you created.  It’s kind of satisfying [Laughs].

I imagine it is.  I don’t want to downplay it, I just want people to know that there’s other stuff.  

WHANNELL: It’s a crime thriller.

the-mule-john-noble-leigh-whannellYeah, and it’s a very good one.  One of the things I like about it is that it’s an independent crime thriller that doesn’t feel – you know, every five years they kind of shift.  For five years they were all Tarantino, for five years they were all Guy Ritchie.  But with this one everything feels very much motivated from an organic place.

WHANNELL: Thanks for saying that.  I do think it’s a different kind of crime thriller that we haven’t seen.  One thing that people may not know, and the US poster might lead them astray on this, because the poster that the distributor has designed for the US release features Hugo Weaving holding up a gun.  But there’s actually no guns in the film, not one gun.  And you cold say that the gun is a staple of the crime thriller.  How can it even be a crime thriller without a gun?  That’s something that people may miss.  I bet some people walk away from the film thinking like, “Oh no, there’s guns in it, there was cops that had holsters on.”  But if you actually watch the film closely, not even the cops have guns.  It was sort of a conscious decision by us.  I think little things like that make it a very different kind of crime thriller.

Obviously you’re a prolific writer, but we’ve seen you act in a few things over the years.  This feels like another step in your evolution as a screen performer. 

WHANNELL: Well thanks, I like that you said that, I really put a lot of work into it.  Acting is such a funny beast.  It’s something that’s entirely out of your control.  If you chose to be an actor, if you take that baton and say “OK, this is what I want to do with my life”, you’re really putting your fate and your life in the hands of others.  Because most of the time with acting you only get work after winning a role.  You need a panel of jurors, essentially, to give you a the thumbs up and say you get the role.  It’s essentially like a life-long version of American Idol that you just cant escape from.  This nightmare of agents, and audition rooms, these fluorescent casting offices that are so depressing.  I just never liked it.  I found myself in this conundrum of loving acting, but not liking the path that you have to take to do it.  I was just never good at auditioning, so basically I decided I would just write my own stuff and if I could get a role in it, then fine.

I think I’ve learned over the years.  I think I’ve almost learned about acting on film.  If you go back and watch Saw, I was very young.  I’d never really done anything before.  And there’s a lot of stuff today I kind of cringe about.  I’m very affectionate about Saw as a movie, obviously, but I think as an actor I’ve learned a lot since then.  I’ve gotten older.  So with The Mule I really wanted to put a lot of effort in.  I really researched the role, I changed my walk, I figured out how this guy walked, I wore his clothes, even on my days off I would wear these tight jeans.  I really wanted to inhabit the character.  So it’s good to hear you say that you can notice that evolution, because I guess I’m getting more serious about it than I was when I was younger.  If I can continue to do it then great, but if nobody was to call up and say “Hey I saw you in that movie, I’d like to offer you a role in this other film”…  if somebody does that, great, but if nobody does that then I’m fine, because I’ve got other avenues to pursue.  I can write and I love directing, but speaking to what you’re saying, I definitely put a lot of work into the character and the life of the character.  Who he was on the outside and then who he was on the inside?  Who was he really?  He acts like this tough guy but really he’s a scared kid.

the-mule-angus-sampsonYeah, and he’s got to lie to himself about what he’s doing to his friend.  

WHANNELL: Exactly.  I really enjoyed that.  I enjoyed giving it my all.  I enjoyed channeling my inner Daniel Day Lewis and really being this guy 24/7.

How was the writing process for you working with Angus on it?

WHANNELL: It was really fun.  Angus and I have been friends for a long time, so there’s this history there with us.  We lived together, we kind of have our own language.  We call everybody Bronze, we have all these Mad Max references that we use and we kind of have our own language that confuses a lot of other people.  I remember when I first came to the states I was calling everybody Bronze and they would say to me, “Is that what you call someone in Australia?  You call them Bronze?  What does that even mean?”  And I would have to say “No no, that’s just what my friend Angus and I call people, it’s not an Australia wide thing.”  [Laughs] So that made the writing process kind of cool, because I could instantly know what he was talking about.  The writing process really consisted of us sitting around trying to make each other laugh.  We would sit there and crack up about something, and we’re both procrastinators so we would talk and talk for hours until finally we realized we better actually touch the keyboard.  So it did take a long time.  He lives in Melbourne, I live in Los Angeles, but we got there.

We got it done and I was really happy with the finished product.  I think this script could only have come from Angus and I.  I know I could not have written this particular script on my own and I don’t think Angus could have written this script.  It’s like we both brought something to it that the other was lacking.  I think Angus brought this very wry sense of humor and an understanding of these types of characters.  Angus played Rugby in Australia for a long time and he’s a very keen observer of human beings.  I’ve noticed that every since I met him, he’s very observant and he’s got the memory of an elephant, he just remembers everything.  So that was great for the characters, and I think my contribution that I brought to the table was this knowledge of writing thrillers and the clockwork of thrillers.  He would write a ten page scene and I’d be like, “Look, that’s great, but we got cut it down to two pages.  We’ve got to keep the pace going.”  I think I kind of exposed the discipline of that metronome that thrillers run on and the twists and the turns.  So between my twists and turns and his character stuff, I think it kind of merged into this script.

insidious-chapter-3-leigh-whannell-stefanie-scott

I know Insidious: Chapter 3 has been testing, though I haven’t been able to go to any of them myself obviously.  Have you been sitting in there experiencing that audience feedback for yourself?

WHANNELL: Yeah, we have done a test screening and it’s a great experience.  There’s just nothing better than – we actually videotape the audience and watch it back.  I’m really proud of this film, and that’s not to say that the film is great, that’s not for me to decide, that’s for the audience to decide whether it’s great or not, but I’m really happy with the finished product.  I actually think it ties into the first two films, but it’s kind of its own thing.  Even James said that when he saw, he looked over and was like, “Wow, you really put your own stamp on it.  You didn’t just copy my thing.”  And he was really happy with that, happy that it was different.  I can’t wait for people to see it.  I hope that the title, Insidious: Chapter 3, I hope that doesn’t mean that people go in there expecting low quality.  There haven’t been many good Part threes of anything in the world, I mean not even the Godfather Part 3 was great.

Dream Warriors [Laughs].

WHANNELL: Yeah, exactly.  Every now and again someone will make a good part three, but I actually treated this film like it wasn’t a sequel.  I went into it treating it like it was an original one-off movie and I think that was the best way to approach it because there was none of that – there was no cheaping out.  There was no, “oh, we’ll just stick this demon from the other movie in there and the audience will clap because they’ve seen it before and that will be enough.”  I actually pretended that I was creating a whole new world, and that was good.

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