I go back a long way with Leigh Whannell. I was one of the first press to discover Saw in 2004, and requested a one on one with Whannell for Saw II. We were left alone for over 30 minutes when a publicist must have forgotten about us. Since then Whannell and I have reconnected over every movie he’s written. He’s long been telling me that he did have stories in mind that weren’t horror, but what I loved about Saw and Insidious were the morality and spirituality respectively, more than the gore and ghosts. When I saw him in Austin for SXSW this year, I told him I had to see The Mule.
The Mule is directed by and stars Whannell’s Insidious costar Angus Sampson. Sampson plays Ray Jenkins, a first time drug mule who gets caught, so holds the heroin pellets in his stomach for a week so the authorities (Hugo Weaving) can’t get the evidence. Whannell also plays a character named Gavin. The Mule is in theaters and on VOD and iTunes November 21.
Nuke the Fridge: I told you we’d be talking about The Mule one day.
Leigh Whannell: Yes, and here you are. It’s a ritual. I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t chat with you about a film I made.
Nuke: I appreciate that, thank you. I have to tell you that “f***wit” is my favorite Australian word.
Leigh Whannell: Nice, I’ve always liked f***wit. The good thing about it is you can use it here in America and you get these quizzical looks. No one quite gets it so no one’s angry at you.
Nuke: I was going to ask, why hasn’t it caught on in the States?
Leigh Whannell: It just hasn’t caught on. I mean, look. I know that the people on the receiving end of it, if they’ve cut me off in traffic and I use that word, they know it’s bad. I mean, they can get context clues but because they’ve never heard it before, often you’ll get a funny look. Now, I want it to be noted that I don’t drive around the streets of Los Angeles calling people f***wits. Only in extreme situations, Fred, would I ever use that.
Nuke: You’d told me for a long time that you had plenty of ideas for films that were not horror, and actually my attraction to your work has never been the horror elements. Was The Mule what you were talking about?
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, that’s exactly it. I think the last couple of years have been interesting for me. I’ve been making films in different genres. Now, they’re not films that the general public is familiar with yet because they haven’t been released. The Mule is released this week but Cooties will come out next year sometime. So I’m actually really keen for people out there to see these different films in different genres. I can’t wait for The Mule to get out there and I can’t wait for Cooties. In a way, I feel like I’ve already taken a break from the horror films that I’ve been known for over the past couple of years.
Nuke: Do you see The Mule in any respect as body horror?
Leigh Whannell: In some ways, yes. You make a good point. It is horrific at times and I think even subconsciously I can’t get away from horror. So even a crime drama about a drug mule ends up creeping into body horror territory. I think that’s actually happening on a subconscious level because that’s not something that I was thinking about during the writing. If anything I was trying to steer away from horror as far as I could.
Nuke: When you wrote that he swallows the pellets, did you have no concern for how Angus would pull that off on the set? Just here you go, pull this off?
Leigh Whannell: I actually didn’t know how it would be done. Lo and behold, once we got to the set, it was really just achieved by him actually swallowing these things. The props department gave him these fake heroin pellets, heroin stuffed inside a condom actually made out of marzipan. It was like a hard candy fashioned to look like one of these balloons and he actually just stuffed it into his mouth and swallowed it whole. To this day, I’m stunned that he did that. I can’t believe that he managed to achieve that. It kind of makes me ill even when I’m watching it because I was actually there on the set watching it on the monitor and I know what he had to go through.
Nuke: Then when they’ve already been through him once and he has to put them back in, did you have any concern with what they would cover the pellets with?
Leigh Whannell: I was thinking about what we would use. It’s amazing the ins and outs of movie sh*t. Mostly, funnily enough, made with chocolate. So there’s your irony. Movie sh*t is quite tasty. Just for something to do, I actually dipped my finger into the bucket and had a scoop of it. The Mule essentially is going places that a lot of other films don’t and I really like that about it. You just haven’t seen stuff like this before in a movie.
Nuke: When you hear the premise of The Mule, you might think it’s a comedy. Were you really writing it and playing it as a straight thriller?
Leigh Whannell: That was the whole attraction. That was the thing that made me want to do it was writing a thriller but using the guy’s bowels as the ticking clock. I think a lot of other films that have dealt with toilet related issues, they always go the comedy way. That seems to be the way, gross-out humor. Somebody’s taken laxatives and they’re crapping their guts out, ha ha ha, which is fine. I can laugh at a good fart joke along with anybody. What attracted me to The Mule though was the idea of taking the act of going to the toilet and turning it into the device in a thriller. Could you make that thrilling? Could you make that tense? I really do think we’ve achieved it. That’s what I’m most proud of with The Mule is that we’ve made the act of going to the toilet tense.
Nuke: Is it part of your M.O. to always write a role for yourself?
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, pretty much. No one else is writing roles for me so I figure I have to find a writer to do it, and that write might as well be me.
Nuke: I saw you in Crush though.
Leigh Whannell: Did you actually sit and watch Crush?
Nuke: I did. I had an interview with Lucas Till.
Leigh Whannell: Man, you see everything. It’s incredible. What do your nights look like? Do you just get home and pick up a stack of DVDs and just watch them one after another.
Nuke: Pretty much, or sometimes binge television, but some woman is going to have to understand how I come home from a movie and put on another movie.
Leigh Whannell: [Laughs] It is amazing how many films you’ve seen. The best thing about being in Crush was playing Caitriona Balfe’s boyfriend. That was the most fun thing about that. I would like to make Crush 2. I think she may have died in Crush so I would have to find a way to bring her back.
Nuke: Are you still pursuing acting?
Leigh Whannell: I’m still pursuing acting. Acting is a perilous game as you know. You put yourself out there and you hope to get a thumbs up from this panel of jurors that’s judging your performance. That’s what an audition is. It’s basically a microcosm of American Idol. You get up there, you try to impress and you try and get this thumbs up. It’s very perilous. Some people are great at it and seem to succeed at it but I hate the idea of being in competition with other people. I would rather generate my own roles, my own films, write my own scripts. I’d rather do things in secret. Auditioning’s just not something I’m good at, nor do I enjoy or respect the culture of it. I know it’s a necessity. I know that there’s no other way to do it. You’ve got to bring actors in and you’ve got to have them audition. I’ve been on the other side of the casting camera now. I’ve directed a movie and I remember sitting there for days and days bringing girls in for the role of Quinn in Insidious 3, bringing guys in for the role of her father. I know what it’s like on the other side and I just still can’t bring myself to enjoy it as an actor. But I do love creating stuff. I do love sitting down and creating the world. That’s the one thing I unabashedly love so if I get a chance to act in one of those worlds that I’ve created, then I’ll go for it.
Nuke: When you did make your directorial debut, did you underestimate how difficult it would be acting in scenes you were directing?
Leigh Whannell: Very much so. I almost didn’t think about it. In fact, without a word of a lie, I honestly forgot that I was in the film at one stage. I remember sitting there on the set and thinking, “Wait a minute, I’m in this movie.” I had completely forgotten. It’s quite tough. I have to say I really respect people like Ben Affleck now who direct a film and star in it, not just play a supporting role but the lead role. There’s so much pressure on the lead actor in a film. How do you even split your brain into those two jobs? With Insidious, the pressure’s off. I’m playing a character who’s kind of a goof. He’s a supporting character. I have Angus to bounce off. It was hard acting in scenes that I was directing for sure but at least I was only there 30% of the time. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be number one on the call sheet as an actor and have my name at the top of the call sheet as the director as well. It must be the worst kind of mindf***.
Nuke: Would you have ever played the lead in The Mule or was that always Angus’s part?
Leigh Whannell: I think it was always Angus. Angus is a pretty well respected actor in Australia. He has quite a good name that he built up for himself so I think we always wanted him to play Ray and I always wanted to play Gavin. I thought that was an interesting role for me to play, someone pretty different to myself. So I think it was never really questioned that those would be the two roles we would go for.
Nuke: If Insidious: Chapter 3 is a prequel, does it still pick up where Chapter 2 left off?
Leigh Whannell: It doesn’t pick up where 2 left off because it is a prequel so it takes place before the first movie.
Nuke: Is the plan to get back to that epilogue scene at some point?
Leigh Whannell: Maybe. I’m not actually sure. I never look that far ahead. I do like the direction part three went in. I like the idea of following Elise and Specs and Tucker around so that’s definitely something I think they should explore for future films. This film’s definitely a prequel that takes place three years before the first movie.
Nuke: Well, I hope we get to talk again. I’m really glad we get to keep doing this.