Opening in theaters this weekend is James Wan’s Insidious: Chapter 2. The follow-up to the 2011 surprise hit picks up exactly where the first left off. Josh (Patrick Wilson) has returned from the Further feeling not quite himself, and when Renai (Rose Byrne) begins seeing familiar signs of the paranormal the Lambert family is thrust once more into a world of psychics, demons and ghosts. Insidious: Chapter 2 also stars Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, and Ty Simpkins.
During a recent New York press day for the film I sat hopped on the phone for an interview with Whannell. He talked about what he’s most excited for fans to see in the sequel, why he wanted to write it, his method for coming up with new scares, learning from Wan on set, working as writer and actor, and his upcoming film Cooties. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
LEIGH WHANNELL: I would say the thing I’m most excited about is the same things I was most excited about with the release of the first movie, which is watching audiences crap themselves. I love watching audiences scream. James and I did a huge press tour for the first film. We went everywhere across America, Canada, the UK, Europe, Asia, we went all over the place. And watching the film in so many countries it’s just a joy- I imagine it’s the same joy that a director feels who has made a comedy when he or she is sitting at the back of a theater listening to the audience laugh. That sound of laughter is so sweet to a comedy director and that’s exactly how a horror film feels when you hear the audience scream. So I’m really looking forward to standing at the back of the theater and listening to the audience scream. Probably the second thing on the list is watching fans react to references to the first movie. I feel like we put a lot of sort of fun Easter eggs in there for fans of the first film where the sequel actually visits the first movie. That was one of the things that I really liked about writing this film was sort of doing that.
When it came to the idea of a sequel what were the ambitions between you and James of what you wanted to achieve with it? Why did you think it was suited for a sequel and what did you want to do with it?
WHANNELL: Well we weren’t thinking sequel when we wrote it. When we wrote the first film we were both in a particular place in our lives. We felt like we were stuck in a bit of a rut. We hadn’t made a film in a few years. We had many scripts out in development, but as I’m sure you know, development hell is a very real thing. One day you wake up and years have gone by and you wonder why you haven’t made a film yet, and we decided to go off and basically do Saw all over again. So we went back to our roots and made a really low budget film, but this time we decided to do a supernatural horror film. We were so happy when Insidious came out and when it was successful. We had not thought of a sequel so when the idea of a sequel came up the first thing we thought was that we wanted it to be super scary. Horror films are very functional like comedies, as I talked about before. The main thing with a comedy, the big question is “is it funny?” And with horror the question is “is it scary?” So that was our first goal. And the second one was to tell a story that enriched the original film. We didn’t want to just retread the original film and go through the same beats. I think it would have been stupid to do that because we’re dealing with the same characters and they’ve been through a lot. We’re picking up from where the first film left off so you’re dealing with a bunch of characters who are very knowledgeable about what’s going on around them. They’ve already been through so much. So that became the challenge and the goal of the sequel, how do we keep everyone terrified when the characters know everything that’s going on? We had to give them sort of fresh mysteries to solve. But I think we got there.
You guys have said that with the first Insidious you kind of dried up an existing well of scares. So what’s your technique for coming up with new scares and set pieces?
WHANNELL: I feel like with the first Insidious film we had a massive cache of stories and scares that we’d built up over the years. It was like a band, you know they say a band has forever to write their first album because no one cares. You’ve got years to write that first album, but once that first albums out there’s a clock ticking to get that second one out there. That’s kind of how Insidious was. We had been talking for years about doing a ghost horror film and over the years we’d built up all these scenes. And Insidious is where we really got them all out. A lot of the scares in the first insidious film are ideas that James and I have been talking about over the course of ten years. With the sequel we realized we had use up all our scares and we needed to come up with new ones. The way to come up with them is really just to sit back with a notepad in the dark and try to scare yourself, basically. I remember sitting around the house one night, everyone else was asleep and I was just sitting there with a notepad trying to scare myself, trying to come up with ideas. And it is tough. Trying to come up with something unique, it takes a while. It’s sort of an ongoing kind of transformative process. It starts out as one thing. You might start out with a character walking into a room and there’s someone sitting on the couch. Then you do another draft and the persons standing up, they’re not sitting on the couch any more. And then you get on the set and you realize maybe it would be better if they were pacing. Then you get in the edit room and you realize maybe it would be better if they were pacing but you couldn’t quite see them. It’s an ongoing process, but I think that James is really skilled at calibrating scares and so he was great in the editing room at kind of putting everything in shape.
When I spoke to you at the LA press day for this film you mentioned that James was kind of teaching you little things about directing and we didn’t have time to go into it, but just as a big film geek I was hoping maybe you could give a specific example or two of the kind of things he was showing you.
WHANNELL: Well yeah he would show me a range of things from really practical stuff like why he was using a particular lens. He might pull me aside and say, “I’m using a 50 here because I really want the film to feel claustrophobic at this point and I want the characters to feel a certain way so that’s why I use this lens.” But then he would also sort of drift into more character stuff and really sort of tell me why he would make a certain choice to direct an actor a certain way. He talked a lot about using a really wide frame, especially with a horror film. At one stage he said to me the reason you use a really wide frame is that the audience in the theater will explore that frame. If you’re in tight on the character there’s only so much room to explore, but if a character walks into a living room you want to get that really wide because subconsciously the audience knows that you’re aiming to scare them so they’ll be exploring that frame and looking out for the ghost. So that was really interesting.
WHANNELL: I think it has gotten a little bit easier. I’m just learning more, like anyone I guess in any discipline or aspect of filmmaking, you learn as you go. When James and I made Saw we were so naïve and young, and we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were just sort of bluffing our way through it. I feel like we are learning purely by experience. I’m having a lot of fun acting at the moment. I just wrapped a film called Cooties and I had fun with that. The problem with acting is that there’s really no control. You’re at the behest of others. Everyone else decides if you did a good job and you have to wait for other people’s permission to work as an actor. That’s what I love about writing is you don’t need anyone’s permission to do it. You can just get up in the morning, grab a pad and pen and start writing. With acting you’re really beholden to everyone else. So I love acting in these films, but I would never place any expectation or hope on those roles leading to other acting work because I think there’s just no rhyme or reason to that world of acting.
I was just on the set visit on Cooties, what we saw looked great, did the rest of the shoot go well?
WHANNELL: It was so good. Cooties was awesome. It was so fun. I don’t know you saw this on the day that you were watching, but the cast, we really got along well. And I realized on that film that comedic actors are never off. It doesn’t matter if you’ve called cut, they’re still doing bits and telling jokes. They live their life as one long show. So I really had fun just sitting there listening to them do their bits and sometimes being in the middle of their bits. So it was just pretty amazing and it was just super fun. I’m really excited about when it comes out.