GORE IN THE STORE
IN CONVERSATION WITH LEIGH WHANNELL
Marking the launch of Universal’s revived attempt to refresh its Classic Monster back catalogue, SAW and INSIDIOUS writer Leigh Whannell takes on THE INVISIBLE MAN with spectacular results. In his third film as director, after INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 3 and the FrightFest 2018 hit UPGRADE, Whannell imaginatively goes in a different direction than the James Whale 1933 original bringing the story bang up to date and elevating H.G. Wells’ literary creation into the mystery horror tension stratosphere. Together with star, ‘Mad Men’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ actor Elisabeth Moss, amplifying the woman-in-severe-jeopardy stakes, Whannell becomes one of the best genre talents working today. FrightFest's Alan Jones spoke to Whannell in London while on the European leg of his world tour.
FRIGHTFEST: THE INVISIBLE MAN is one of the Universal classic monsters, but nobody really touches it. Most recent attempts have been John Carpenter’s MEMOIRS OF AN INVISIBLE MAN (1992) and Paul Verhoeven’s HOLLOW MAN (2000). Why do you think that is?
LEIGH WHANNELL: Obviously a few people have had stabs at it, but I felt that no one had made a really, truly chilling version of this character. Carpenter made a sort of comedic version with Chevy Chase. And we've seen a sort of a visceral Verhoeven version. I don't think this character has anywhere near the cultural footprint of Dracula or Frankenstein's monster or the Wolf Man. I think it's because people have found it hard to kind of drill down on what makes this character scary. Maybe too many people think the movie needs to be all about him. To me the movie needs to be about his victim. You need to see the film through the eyes of the person who is afraid of the Invisible Man. That was my way in anyway. If you are going to create a perfect monster for today, this is the way to do it.
FF: Exactly right. You've refreshed the tropes properly and completely modernised it?
LW: Because of its long history - the novel was written 100 years ago – there’s a lot of these Gothic connotations that come with the name. If I think of the Invisible Man before I was ever associated with this film, if you had said to me, tell me what comes to mind when you think of the Invisible Man, I would have said the trilby hat, the bandages, the trench coat and this very Victorian London feel with fog bound streets. There's a gas lamp quality to some of these old horror heroes like Dracula. And I love that stuff. I love Victorian London and I love the Gothic tales that come from that period. But I'd rather watch that movie than make it. I feel the movie I'd want to make is something completely modern and set in our time. To me, that was the only way to go with this character.
FF: But you had no burning desire to write an Invisible Man film, producer Jason Blum just came to you and asked if you’d be interested?
LW: I obviously knew about the character. He's such a mainstay in pop culture, but it never came to my mind. And I had just finished UPGRADE. I wanted to go crashing cars. I wanted to go and make a sci-fi movie. It's a very addictive drug. I wanted to go and do my BLADE RUNNER. And this was something that crash-landed in my life. It fell in my lap and then wouldn't leave my head. It was taking up residence and I couldn't stop thinking about it. And I felt like I needed to make this movie before someone else did. Eventually someone's going to come along and make this version, so I better get cracking.
FF: I totally bought the idea of the electronic suit that renders Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) invisible. I thought in the moment, yes, that could actually work!
LW: I talked to some scientists in Sydney from the University of Technology. I discussed with them the idea and they talked about how it would be feasible, about how you could actually pull this off. We're a few years away from the technology that will make invisibility real. But in theory, they said what we came up with is possible.
FF: Elizabeth Moss really sells it, was she your first choice?
LW: We had this list of people. I knew when I finished writing the script, I realised the character of Cecilia was in every scene but two. And that wasn't by design. I didn't intend to do that. And I was sort of thinking, wow, what actor can possibly carry this entire movie and go to this really dark place off the cliff of sanity? You know, there's only a short list of actors that can credibly do that without being histrionic or over the top. Or all of a sudden, you're in MOMMIE DEAREST territory! It's a hard thing to calibrate so-called madness. Elisabeth Moss was firmly on that list. I didn't doubt for one second that Lizzie could pull that off. And I've had that with actors before in movies where you're trying to be encouraging, but you're thinking, is this is going to work? But there wasn't a day with Lizzie where I felt that it wasn't getting there. Never.
FF: You call Elizabeth Moss your co-writer. What does that mean? How much input in the character did she have?
LW: Look, the thing is, I've written a film about a female character, about a woman, and it was dealing with these sensitive issues. So I called her my co-writer because we used to go through every scene she was in. And we would just dissect the script. She would give me the female perspective on it. She would talk to me about what she would do in a certain gas lighting or stalking situation. And it helped me sleep at night because I didn't feel like an imposter making this movie that I had no right to be making. I felt that between the two of us we got to the truth of the matter.
FF: You've got your Claude Rains homage moment of course, the patient being wheeled out of the hospital room. And in the key hospital corridor set-piece, OLDBOY really came to mind. Deliberate?
LW: I love OLDBOY, but I hadn't thought about it for this. One of the most fun parts about making films is forcing the crew to try something out. I love that moment on set when everyone's on tenterhooks and everybody doesn't know if something's going to work. There's nothing worse than looking around the set and maybe seeing a few yawns. I'm actually more comfortable when everyone's tense. Three, two, one, go and then there's some big happening. It's usually some stunt like a car crash. It's amazing what it does. It electrifies the set. There's a palpable energy. I remember on UPGRADE when we did that kitchen fight scene, which raised the roof at FrightFest. I remember when we were doing that we had this prosthetic head and star Logan Marshall-Green had to cut into it with this knife. But the problem was we only had two heads. And so Logan did one take and it doesn't work at all. So now we have one left. I mean, talk about an electrical charge on the set. We brought in the stunt person because we thought he is going to be more accurate with the knife. I've never felt more nervous calling action. And it was like, okay, three, two, one, go. Perfect. There was this huge round of applause. A massive tension release. Those are my favourite moments on a film set and that corridor sequence you're talking about was very much that. It took so long to get the timing right. When we finally did get the timing right, the cheer that erupted around the set from every one of the craft service people, anyone on that set was just clapping because it was so hard to get it right. If the take didn't go well, wiping all that blood off the wall and cleaning up glass is no fun.
FF: So will your next film be the remake of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and widely reported?
LW: I don't know. The press release went out before it was ready. I was like, who leaked this? But things leak in today's world. And so I acknowledged that I was attached to the project. But I'm not sure if I'm going to do it or not. I have to tread very carefully with that movie, because unlike THE INVISIBLE MAN it's a part of people's recent past. They saw it when they were growing up or they still watch it today. And so, as you may have noticed, people online get very angry when you mess with their childhood. I'm going to take my time with that one to figure out if there's exactly a right approach. John Carpenter is the master and I’d have to feel totally confident to even touch it.