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INSIDIOUS CHAPTER 3 Interview: Leigh Whannell Meets Franchise Fred

I can’t believe I never told Leigh Whannell about Franchise Fred, considering I met him on the Saw films, and we got to know each other annually every time he wrote or produced another chapter in the Jigsaw saga. For Insidious: Chapter 3 it was finally time to tell him about Franchise Fred.

Whannell makes his directorial debut with the third film in this franchise. Set before the events of the first two films, Chapter 3 finds Elise (Lin Shaye) in semi-retirement as a communicator with the dead. She comes back into The Further for Quinn (Stefanie Scott), a teenager trying to speak to her late mother. Insidious: Chapter 3 opens Friday.

Nuke the Fridge: I never told you this, but I’m actually Franchise Fred because I love sequels, as you must know from all the Saw films I talked to you about. Now that you have two franchises they you created, do you understand my love of sequels and continuing stories?

Leigh Whannell: I love that you love sequels. You really buy into the expanding story and universe of a film. I’ll often catch you referencing characters and things that a lot of people that we talk to don’t reference. You’re that person who’s paying attention that I have to be aware of because if I get something wrong, you’ll be like, “Why is Elise doing this when she did this?”

Nuke: Does that mean we might expect The Mule 2?

Leigh Whannell: I don’t know about The Mule. I don’t know if The Mule is the type of film that gets a sequel. I would love to do a sequel to The Mule purely to shoot a film with that group of people in Melbourne again. It was so fun.

Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) return with Quinn's dad (Dermot Mulroney)
Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) return with Quinn’s dad (Dermot Mulroney)

Nuke: With the Saw franchise you were delving into your own mythology. With Insidious is it a different process of expanding outside of what you created in the first film?

Leigh Whannell: Yeah, it was freeing in some way. I think starting with the blank slate was great, especially since it was my first directing effort. I felt an authority to color outside the lines in a way. Because it was a prequel, I could lay down new rules, new situations. If the film had been in continuity and had taken place directly after the second film, I would feel that there were so many threads to the other films that I needed to pay attention to and stick to. I’d feel like I was doing a little bit of janitorial work instead of really creating my own story. Even though this film is tied to the other films, I feel like I did it in a way that was freeing as a director.

Nuke: But you did want to establish how they came up with the name The Further, and how Specs and Tucker came into it. Why were those the references you were comfortable connecting to the other films?

Leigh Whannell: I feel like those aspects, being the writer of the first two films, I guess all that stuff I’m very comfortable with having created it. But I feel like if you’re going to go back in time, you want to see those fun little origin stories. The fun thing about watching Batman Begins is following the story of how he got to that point. Why did he choose this and that? Those are things that people love. They want to see how a person got to a certain point. So I needed to at least pay some tribute to where Elise ended up and the state she was in when we first met her.

Nuke: What I respond to in all of your movies is never the horror. It’s the sophisticated themes like the morality of Saw and the spirituality of The Further. In Insidious: Chapter 3 was it the theme of dealing with the loss of a parent in a supernatural way what appealed to you?

Leigh Whannell: Absolutely. The big theme that I went in thinking about was loss. Losing somebody, losing someone you love. Having that void in your life and death. When you think about it, all supernatural films are about death. That’s what they’re about. They’re about the afterlife by the very definition of being a ghost film. And so I tried to boil that down to its most core concept. If you just strip away everything else, what are these films about? So once I had that theme of death and loss, I tried to build on it and attach characters to it.

Leigh Whannell (left) on set with the cast of Insidious: Chapter 3
Leigh Whannell (left) on set with the cast of Insidious: Chapter 3

Nuke: Is this the most heroic we’ve seen Elise in the three films?

Leigh Whannell: I think so. I really wanted to turn her into a superhero in this film. I wanted her to be a badass who’s kicking ass and she really stepped up. We had a great relationship on set talking about this, about how much of a superhero she was. She kind of starts out the film as a retired gunslinger. She’s somebody who’s great at this but has hung up her spurs and isn’t doing it anymore and I wanted to drag her back into this world.

Nuke: Because her power comes at a cost to her too.

Leigh Whannell: Yeah, interacting with these forces that aren’t always good takes a toll because when you are the person who’s getting rid of these spirits for other people, the spirit then becomes angry with you. You become the target of their rage because you’ve gotten rid of them. So it’s quire exhausting. I think it’s really worn Elise down.

Nuke: Was Warren the dog a reference to Ed and Lorraine Warren?

Leigh Whannell: Yes. That’s a little nod to the Conjuring films.

Nuke: Was directing always part of the plan for you?

Leigh Whannell: I don’t know if I would call it a plan. Longterm plans have never worked out for me. I think my life has worked out by not having a longterm plan. I met James at film school and suddenly we’re working together and then suddenly Saw happened and we’re thrust into this world. We had no idea that this would happen. I’m certainly not the person who predicts success. If you throw the ball high in the air, I’m not sitting under it saying, “I got this, I got this.” I’m the pessimist who’s like, “I’m gonna drop it, I’m gonna drop it.” So I’ve always been surprised by every level of success that we’ve had. So I think in the back of my mind I thought, “Well, I’ll direct one day.” But to me it was a bit like climbing Mount Everest. It seemed like this big scary thing that I should avoid at all costs. And then it was dropped in my lap, the opportunity. My first instinct was to say no, and then I realized I’d be stupid to say no to this opportunity. To direct Insidious 3, it’s such a gift wrapped entree into the directing world because you’re dealing with established characters, there’s a built in fan base so I thankfully said yes.

Nuke: Because you were directing, did that inform how late Specs and Tucker arrive in Insidious: Chapter 3?

Leigh Whannell: It’s interesting you say that. I was looking at the schedule saying, “Hmm, let’s shoot them towards the end.” Even if I wasn’t directing Insidious 3, I don’t think I would want Specs and Tucker to play a huge role. I think that they’re great as side characters. They’re like a side salad. A little bit of them goes a long way, because if they add too much levity to the film, it becomes a horror-comedy. I definitely wanted to temper that so I’m definitely cautious about just how much of them we see.

Nuke: You’ve always told me you have a lot of non-horror scripts in the works. The Mule was close but there is some body horror to that also. Are you still developing those other ones, and is it hard now that you have a second horror franchise that people want you to continue?

Leigh Whannell: Right, every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in. Yes, those other scripts I’m developing are still going and I really want to make them, and I don’t think it’s hard. It’s a champagne problem. I really do feel genuinely thankful that I’ve been involved with two franchises that people are interested in. So there’s nothing bad to think about that. I don’t feel trapped or constrained by the horror genre. I do get offered horror scripts a lot, but it’s up to me to say no. No one’s putting a gun to my head. I think what you have to do is determine your own course. For instance, The Mule was a film that I made deliberately to say, “Hey, here’s a whole different thing that I can be involved in.” People really respond to it. The film wasn’t a box office hit by U.S. standards but I meet film fans like you and you really love the film and you can talk about the film. You do see the different side of it. So I just want to keep doing things like that. I want to keep making films like The Mule that show a completely different side of what I can do. It catches people off guard. If they’re not as popular as the Saw films or the Insidious films then so be it. I’m cool with that.

Dermot Mulroney and Leigh Whannell on the set of Insidious: Chapter 3
Dermot Mulroney and Leigh Whannell on the set of Insidious: Chapter 3

Nuke: What are those other ideas and when can we see them?

Leigh Whannell: I’ve had a sci-fi script in the works for a couple of years that I really like. I’m actually thinking about directing it. I really love sci-fi. I’m going through this real love affair right now with ‘80s sci-fi, the cream of the crop. Aliens, The Terminator. I’m just watching these films on repeat and I’m so in love with them. I think there’s a lot of nostalgia involved because I was such a fan of these films as a kid. But I feel like they’re such economical films. If you think about the first Terminator, it’s such an engine of a movie. It’s a great concept but it can be boiled down to such a simple story that you can shoot for a price. So I really want to do something in that realm.

Nuke: So Blumhouse style for under $4 million?

Leigh Whannell: Yeah, maybe. The good thing about Jason is he’s pretty flexible. Blumhouse is pretty flexible with their budgets. It’s not like $4 million is the cutoff point. They’ll go a little bit higher if the film needs it. I love that flexibility. They’re not rigid about these things. They just want to be enough inside the limit of budget that you don’t have to suddenly start including studios and going down that road.

Nuke: Do you imagine another Insidious will take place between 3 and 1 or after 2?

Leigh Whannell: I can imagine another Insidious film taking place between 3 and 1. I think that that’s a good space because you can tell the story of Elise now that she’s rediscovered her love for this work and these people. She’s now solving these different cases. It sort of leaves another blank slate.

Nuke: Eventually you’re going to have to get to the spirits she saw after the Lamberts.

Leigh Whannell: Yeah, eventually. Eventually I’m going to have to deal with it. Maybe I’ll throw that one in there at some point.

Nuke: Was there no role for you in Furious 7?

Leigh Whannell: No, I was waiting for my cameo. Whatever big budget film James does next, I’m going to be standing on the set with my SAG card. I’m ready to go.