Leigh Whannell on remaking The Invisible Man, how Horror has Changed as a Genre, and the Impact of Film Critics
With The Invisible Man making his way into theaters this weekend, I had the chance to sit down and chat with writer/director Leigh Whannell about the pressures of making the film, the current state of horror as a genre, and why the critical response of a film has such an impact on filmmakers and talent. This was a very casual interview where we had a very open and honest conversation. Leigh had a lot of interesting things to say and I personally appreciated the candidness of his answers. My full interview can be read below:
Scott Menzel: Good Afternoon, Leigh. Thank you for taking the time to sit down and chat with me today. I want to just say, and you should know this just for your own knowledge, most critics and journalists love it when directors and actors retweet their content.
Leigh Whannell: Oh, really?
Scott Menzel: Absolutely. It gives some people bragging rights and people in general really love when a director or an actor retweets something they wrote.
Leigh Whannell: Oh really? I didn’t know that.
Scott Menzel: So, you were kind enough to retweet one of my things earlier today. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, but it was kind of funny because then I saw that you retweeted others and saw someone post, “Oh my God, Leigh retweeted me. Oh my God.”
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, they made a big deal about it.
Scott Menzel: (Sarcastically) You know Leigh, we as critics have such little to look forward to.
Leigh Whannell: I’m like Marie Antoinette just throwing out cake crumbs to the crowd below the balcony. That is just an unexpected side effect.
Scott Menzel: But in all seriousness, everyone loves you. I’m friends with James Oster and Heather Wixson, both of which, rave about how nice you are.
Leigh Whannell: Oh, of course. Yes, I know both. How cool. It’s funny because I can give you the reverse side of the equation if you want. This is like the Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro cafeteria scene in Heat where it’s like there’s a flip side to that coin. So, you’re sitting over there going, “Please retweet me, make me valid.”
Scott Menzel: (Sarcastically) Oh, please Leigh make me valid.
Leigh Whannell: And as a filmmaker speaking for myself. I’m not going to speak for other filmmakers, but I’m very vulnerable. You’re like an exposed nerve because each movie that I make is so personal to me. It’s like one rung below my children in terms of its importance to me. So, when you put it out into the world, you’re so sensitive about the world’s opinion of it. And so, reviewers, be it the woman from the New York Times or the lead reviewer at DailyDead.com, they have this power over you. So, from my perspective, everyone online whether it’s yourself or anyone else who says The Invisible Man was great, has touched me with this brush of approval that I crave. So, you’re sitting there going, “Thanks for the retweet.” I’m sitting on the other side of the wall going, “Thanks for the good opinion.” I’m trying to put it out there, you know? You think I’m retweeting reactions because the studio is telling me to?
Scott Menzel: No, absolutely not.
Leigh Whannell: Right, it’s because it’s like heroin and I’m a heroin addict who has been locked in a room for days and you guys are providing me with the good stuff.
Scott Menzel: Well, that’s nice to hear. And now it will make me feel bad whenever I don’t like something that you do.
Leigh Whannell: Oh my God, I’m just going to be honest. You’ve started the interview off on a note of honesty.
Scott Menzel: Yes, I take great pride in being honest about my thoughts on film and television.
Leigh Whannell: So, when somebody gives you a really bad review and keep in mind, there’s bad reviews and there are BAD reviews. I’m talking about the ones where you get shredded. You hate that person. I won’t name the magazine, but there is a magazine that I have stopped reading. I used to buy it religiously. I will not even look at it anymore because they shredded my movie in their magazine and I was like, “Fuck that. I’m fucking done here.” But they’re like, “You take it so personally.” So, it’s funny, the power equation, I think you guys have more power on that side of the table than you possibly could know. You can ruin or improve my work with a single keystroke…With a thumbs up emoji, you can improve my whole day.
Scott Menzel: That’s fascinating to me. But I appreciate you being honest about it. Because I’ve always wondered about that. Literally, I’ve liked a lot of movies and then I’ve also disliked a lot of movies, but I’ve been turned down for interviews because I disliked something. The studio has called me up or emailed and said something like, “Well, we’re going to have to pull that interview because of that tweet.” And I’m like, “Really? But I love that person.”
Leigh Whannell: You know who that’s coming from? That’s coming from the director, from the top. It’s not coming from the studio.
Scott Menzel: No, I know that now.
Leigh Whannell: Let me tell you this, all those filmmakers, no matter what their status is, they’re reading all those tweets.
Scott Menzel: Or someone’s reading it to them.
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, even Martin Scorsese’s publicist is reading him the Twitter reactions. Now, he’s probably been around long enough to be above the whole social media fray, but let me tell you, any director of this current generation, they’re reading your tweet about their movie. And they’re storing it for later.
Scott Menzel: To use against me later
Leigh Whannell: Exactly.
Scott Menzel: I’ve had someone do that once to me, but we should move on.
Leigh Whannell: This is a fascinating topic.
Scott Menzel: This is the best conversation. I wish we could just have lunch right now and finish this conversation and not worry about doing an interview.
Leigh Whannell: Well, I feel like most filmmakers that you interview, they sort of put on this air that they’re above the critical reception. And maybe some of them genuinely don’t care. But I’m being honest when I say I’m needy. But to me, of course, I’m needy of good reviews because the film is so personal. It means so much. So, it would be crazy for me to be so blasé about what people think about it. Too much work has gone into this film to just dump it in the world and forget about it.
Scott Menzel: I don’t want to shit on someone else’s movie, but they should have hired you first to start off this Dark Universe thing instead of what happened before this film. I’m just saying.
Leigh Whannell: Well, I’m happy to hear you say that. I just tried to treat this one like a standalone movie. Over the past couple of days, I’ve done a lot of interviews and people will talk about the Dark Universe. And it’s funny because it was never even mentioned. Even in the initial meeting when they brought up the idea of doing an Invisible Man movie, no one in that meeting said, “So, you heard about the Dark Universe, right?” It was almost like pretending it never happened. You ever seen that episode of Fawlty Towers, “Don’t mention the war?”
Scott Menzel: (laughs) I haven’t but I know what you are referring too.
Leigh Whannell: It was like … never once. All throughout the production of the movie, no one ever called and said, “Hey listen, what do you think about a cameo from Dr. Jekyll?” So, I think maybe I’ve gotten away with something.
Scott Menzel: To be honest, I never used to be into horror movies. It was always like a genre that I kind of wrote off. I found them entertaining yet disposable. And now there’s been this evolution where I feel like you have all this fresh new content, whether it’s The Babadook or Get Out or this movie where they make you feel things, and think about the themes that have been addressed in the plot. And I just get so sucked into the world. And that was something that I wanted to ask you. I know that you wrote three Saw movies, which I know that as they went on, people were less and less kind to them. But as a filmmaker, starting off with Insidious 3 and then going to Upgrade, how have you changed?
Leigh Whannell: As a filmmaker?
Scott Menzel: Yes and writer.
Leigh Whannell: I think that the first Saw movie was written when I was 23 years old. I barely finished film school. I had no idea how to write a screenplay. I remember the first draft, all the dialogue was all over the page. I didn’t actually know that it all had to be in a line. I didn’t have final draft. So, it’s very reflective of a different version of me. Like anyone who looks back on their life, you sort of think about this young person as if they’re another person. I was 23 and am now I’m 43, so it’s exactly 20 years later since that first draft of Saw was written. I have three children. My life is so different. You can’t help but you absorb the slings and arrows of life and whether you want them to or not, they come out in your writing. So, the short answer to the question is just maturity, life experience, all the ups and downs, the sort of EKG chart of someone’s life. I’ve packed a lot more in. And so, I hope that my writing and film-making reflects this life experience that I’m having, you know?
Scott Menzel: Totally understand what you are saying and where you are coming from.
Leigh Whannell: If it doesn’t, there’s a problem. If it’s arrested development and you’re stuck at being 23 years old, there’s an issue.
Scott Menzel: Yeah, I agree. I think you can really see in those three films that you directed; you can see your transition as a filmmaker.
Leigh Whannell: Oh, great. Cool.
Scott Menzel: And I think that’s very important to see. The thing that I’m always curious because like I already told you, I became a lover of horror movies. It wasn’t one of the genres that connected with me, but I learned to love it and appreciate it. And now, I can tell which ones great, which ones good and which ones are bad. Fantasy Island is not good. The Invisible Man is great.
Leigh Whannell: You’re right.
Scott Menzel: The next thing that I wanted to ask you about is what is it about this genre that speaks to you? Because you honestly have built your career all around horror.
Leigh Whannell: It’s a big question to ask me because so much of my life, as you said, has revolved around horror. I owe so much to this genre. And it’s interesting for you, who came to it late and you feel like there’s a new type of horror film being made. And I think what’s happening lately is more diverse, more avant-garde, more intelligent filmmakers are making horror movies. There was a time when I was growing up, the video store era of the 80s when it felt like only a certain type of filmmaker was making a horror film.
Scott Menzel: Yes, exactly. I grew up in the 80s.
Leigh Whannell: It was something tawdry. I grew up in that same era, going to sleepovers to watch Friday the 13th Part Six and there was a perverse joy in seeing Jason Voorhees cut someone’s head off. But the Ari Asters of the film world were not making horror movies in the 80s. Not very often anyway. And I think in a way, that decade, that VHS era really squashed the critical perception of horror, because you have to remember The Exorcist was nominated for Best Picture.
Scott Menzel: Oh, I do.
Leigh Whannell: Here’s a movie that absolutely stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any horror film released today. When I’ve examined it, I think it’s really that VHS era when horror went through a slump, not in quality because for me there are some classic 80s horror movies, but it was more the type of filmmaker that was attracted to horror.
Scott Menzel: That makes a lot of sense.
Leigh Whannell: Now, people are seeing a couple of things with this genre, that they didn’t see before. One is that it’s so malleable. You can Trojan horse a theme. Horror has always been a way to express our anxiety, right? That’s how we sort of ventilate our anxiety as a society is through art and through horror. If you think about a film like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it’s a literalization of this Red Scare, this McCarthyism that was happening in the US in the mid-fifties. Night of the Living Dead is an allegory for the Vietnam War if you want it to be. Or it can just be an entertaining zombie movie. And I think filmmakers who are coming up now are starting to realize that durability of horror because it’s getting harder and harder as you know, to get people into theaters, right?
Scott Menzel: Oh, yeah. It is a huge concern of mine because I love going to the movies.
Leigh Whannell: So, let’s say you’re a filmmaker with a burning desire to make a film about a family falling apart from a divorce. So, you went through a divorce when you were a kid and it had a huge impact on you. And that’s the film you want to make. Now, if you make a film, a realistic depiction of divorce, if you’re lucky, it’s Marriage Story, but if you’re unlucky, maybe it gets into Sundance and then it quickly disappears. What do you do in 2020 if you want people to see your film in a theater? How about you wrap the divorce movie in a horror film? Suddenly, a vampire movie is about divorce. Do you know what I’m saying? And so, I think that is what is attracting Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, Robert Eggers and these people who maybe have one foot in the art-house world, but they see the potential of horror to get people into theaters, to have a wider audience, and it’s kind of cracking the genre open to more talent. So, that’s kind of my theory on what you’re saying. I’ve seen these little bumps and upticks and downfalls of horror over the years. What I’m seeing that’s new possibly now is a critical respect for certain films.
Scott Menzel: Oh, I completely agree with you. There’s a level of passion and love for it. One last question and we’re done for now…
Leigh Whannell: You’re like, “Dammit.”
Scott Menzel: I’m like, “I didn’t even get through half my questions. I am going to have to message him later”
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, exactly.
Scott Menzel: So, I guess this is a big question that you probably had to struggle with somewhat. What are the challenges of remaking a classic from H.G. Wells? Especially considering the negative impact of something like Hollow Man and then also the state of Dark Universe and all that stuff.
Leigh Whannell: The biggest challenge that I had was the same one I have on any film, which is how do I make this tense and scary? The challenge of how do I please the Invisible Man fans, the purists, sat far below that main goal of “make it tense.” Because I feel like you’ll be easily forgiven by any horror fan if the movie delivers. There’s something pure about horror in that way. It’s very similar to making a comedy. Nobody cares where a comedy is set or who’s in it. If it’s hilarious, all sins are forgiven. I’ve never heard someone say, “God, that movie was hilarious, but I hated it because it was all set at a supermarket, and I don’t like supermarkets.” Do you know what I’m saying? There’s a singular function of horror. All sins are forgiven if it’s tense and it’s scary. And so, that was the thing keeping me up at night, all throughout the making of the film.
Scott Menzel: 100%. I have a lot of kudos to give you. Literally, from the very first shot of the movie until the very end, I was…
Leigh Whannell: on edge.
Scott Menzel: Yes! You’re constantly building tension, and I’m like, “How the hell is he doing this?” And you keeping it going throughout the entire movie. Because we’ve seen this before, the elements that make up a lot of this film, yet it still works and it’s so damn effective.
Leigh Whannell: Oh, good. I mean, it’s great to hear you say that. I wanted the movie to be tense from the first frame. I just had this idea that I didn’t want any introduction. I didn’t want to spend 15 minutes making the audience feel warm and cozy and then hit them with the tension. I wanted to go from black to the end. And it’s fine to say that, but can you pull it off? And to be honest, I’m sitting way too close to the TV to know if I’ve pulled it off. Only someone like you can tell me whether it’s been successful, but the goal was there. And the way to do it is almost weaponized the audience’s knowledge of film against them. Like audiences today, they’ve seen so many movies, they’re so media literate, they know all the tropes and tricks. The upside of that is you can actually invert it and use it against the audience. I knew that if the camera panned away from the actors to an empty corridor, I knew they’d be suspicious of that corridor.
Because they know in their bone marrow that the camera doesn’t do something unless there’s a reason to. You don’t cut to a closeup of this recorder unless it’s going to have some importance later, right? And you as a reviewer and a movie watcher, you catalog all those closeups. You’re like, “Okay, the recorder’s going to come back. Otherwise.” When you’re on a movie set, you don’t have time to do a closeup of anything that’s not vital. We’re not in the business of being like, “Let’s just get a close up of this.” It’s like we don’t even have time to do what we want to do, let alone luxuriate in frivolous shots. So, I weaponized that against the audience and just said, “I’m going to make a film where the audience is tense even when I’m not doing anything. When I’m just pointing the camera at an empty kitchen, they’ll be afraid of that kitchen. They just bought a ticket to a film called The Invisible Man, so they know he’s in here, they know he’s in here somewhere.”
Scott Menzel: Right on, man.
Leigh Whannell: Cool, man. It’s great to meet you.
Scott Menzel: Oh my God, it was so great just chatting and shooting the shit.
Leigh Whannell: Thank you for your kind words.
Scott Menzel: Great talking to you and until next time, best of luck with this one.