Q&A: Leigh Whannell on Death, the Elderly and “INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Samuel Zimmerman
INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2 is a surprising film. Less the slow build scare-a-thon of the first (and even James Wan’s summer hit THE CONJURING), this film is an aggressive whirlwind that’s no longer approaching The Further with trepidation, but charging through and searching for its weirdest bits. Of course, in what’s become something of a recurring motif in the work of Wan and writer Leigh Whannell, it’s presided over by opposing forces, and guided by sage elderly characters. In a conversation that’s largely focused on death and my budding theory that Wan & Whannell find the elderly to be last vestiges of superstition, the writer tells FANGORIA of the film, their undervalued DEAD SILENCE and his preoccupation with our eventual end.
FANGORIA: I have a budding theory about the work that you and James Wan have done together. The INSIDIOUS movies and the supernatural content, there’s this other plane that’s not necessarily good or evil. It’s there, it exists. Similarly, there are elderly characters who occupy both spaces. There seems to be something you guys are getting at with the elderly and the idea that they are these last vestiges of superstition, or they have closeness with the other side we should pay attention to.
LEIGH WHANNELL: I read your piece on DEAD SILENCE the other day! [Ed. Note: I recently joined my friend Brian Collins at Badass Digest for a defense of DEAD SILENCE. You can find that here.] That was a really interesting piece, because that’s a bittersweet film for me. It was the film where we learned what not to do. That’s where we had our Hollywood trial-by-fire. There’s a quote from Brian Michael Bendis, I think, where he says it doesn’t matter if your first film out of the gate is great and everything goes well, eventually, sooner or later, you’re gonna get the Hollywood burn. You’re gonna get your ass kicked. DEAD SILENCE was the film where we got our ass kicked a little bit and we learned all the lessons you’re supposed to learn.
So, it’s interesting reading pieces like yours from people who weren’t a part of that. You don’t have any of the pain making that film and the annoyance and just the trials and tribulations. You didn’t experience any of that. All you saw was the finished product. My favorite film is JAWS. I love sitting down and watching that, but I hear from everyone involved, including Spielberg, that it was a nightmare. But because you and I weren’t a part of that nightmare, we’re able to sit down and watch JAWS completely objectively and that’s how you’re viewing DEAD SILENCE.
So, it was very interesting to read your piece and sort of re-examine it. Someone e-mailed it to me the other day and it almost gave me pause like, “maybe I should go back and investigate this film.” Because you did nail a lot of our references. You didn’t even go into it as far as I thought you might, like references to Mario Bava, BLACK SABBATH—the final episode of that trilogy is called “A Drop of Water,” about the psychic who dies and the woman comes to collect her ring. We always loved that and there’s so many references. One thing you kind of nailed in that piece is the film is kind of out of its time. It would almost probably do better or be received better if it was released today. I think that during that time, horror was in two worlds. It was torture porn or it was J-Horror. A film that was referencing Hammer Films or Mario Bava felt very out of place.
But to get back to your point of the old people, I think that yeah, there is something we come back to. Remember, you’ve got two brains working here and I think James has, in terms of horror, this thing where the elderly symbolize death. It’s kind of obvious [laughs]. What I’m afraid of, and maybe this subconsciously leads to the elderly, is death itself. On a weekly basis, I’ll sit there and it’ll suddenly hit me, wow I’m going to die one day. It’s something human beings spend their whole life avoiding that thought. We can’t spend all our time thinking about it, we’d go insane. You need to live your life and go do stuff, but it’s always there. We’re aging each day and eventually, it’s gonna get to that point. It’s something that I get really obsessed with, and the idea of your body aging and sort of not being able to do what you used to do. Maybe subconsciously, those fears have sort of worked their way into our work. And we are making horror films, so you’re basing the very text and subtext of the film on your own fears. If you fear spiders, probably that will find its way into the film. That’s a very literal fear, but I feel like the elderly are more symbolic maybe of something of death and illness. Sounds terrible, but…
FANG: There’s a closeness they have to it, and it’s both sides. There’s an elderly character who is good in the INSIDIOUS movies, but they have this knowledge.
WHANNELL: Yes, well I think getting older—it’s going to happen to all of us. I always find it interesting when people would discriminate against the elderly. It’s so weird to me, because we’re all going to be old someday. We’re all headed to that train station. I think getting older to me is very representative of accepting mortality and death. The older you get in your life, the more you have to accept the idea it’s coming to an end. Even just talking to you about it right now, it’s tripping me out. The thought that, there’s gonna come a time when I’ll be gone; you’ll be, too.
When I flew into New York, I looked through the window and right near the airport, there’s a huge cemetery. As the plane was flying over, I was looking at this massive cemetery and it got me thinking down that path again. That’s a huge plot of land that is marked out for the dead. All these people that we’ll never know and they were here and to them, their lives were just as important as ours are to us now. Now, they’re gone and in the ground and there’s maybe a handful of people that remember them and have photos of them, but everyone else in the world is never going to know who they are.
FANG: I’ve been thinking about horror and ghost stories lately. They can be scary, but there’s also something comforting in that aesthetic. Maybe it’s because there’s the sense that something is there after.
WHANNELL: I know. I’m kind of agnostic. It’s not that I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I’m a real “believe it when I see it” person. Unfortunately, you won’t see it until that moment comes. In my moments where I think there’s nothing—we die and then it’s just over—I realize we’ve already been dead. If that’s death, if death is just nothingness, then we’ve already been dead. You were dead in 1924. You were dead in 1901. You were dead in 1876. You’ll feel the same about death as you did the year 1876: nothing. You didn’t exist in 1876. But then again, life gives you the awareness to be afraid of nothingness, because if it’s the choice between the two, you’ll choose life. I’m really hoping that they come out with some bot that reverses aging and by the time I get to 80, human beings are living to be 300.
FANG: When I spoke to you about INSIDIOUS, I asked if you thought there was anything being overlooked in the film and you specifically called on their avoidance of aging, and Patrick Wilson with the eye cream. In INSIDIOUS 2, he’s decomposing, and looking especially older and getting more aggressive. The whole movie is aggressive, were you in an angry place working through these fears?
WHANNELL: I don’t think I was in a particularly angry place, but I recently became a father myself. I think that the idea of a parent not being trustworthy, the idea that you’re living with a stranger. I think in a marriage—a family is really two people cooperating to raise a child and I think I was really fascinated by the idea you might wake up one day next to a stranger. So, if it’s a metaphor for anything, it’s a metaphor for that thing, “Is my partner, or my husband who I thought they were?” And I just was really fascinated by that. And to really service that idea, I had to go to the place, they very sort of SHINING-esque place of him wanting to kill the family.
FANG: That extends to the whole vibe of the movie, it’s so assaulting.
WHANNELL: It’s a sequel, so you’re sort of bound to the first film. When you’re creating an original film, there’s no rules. No one’s ever heard of it before, so you can do whatever you want. When you’re writing a sequel, you are chained by your ankle to that first film. You have a bunch of people who love the first film. Ostensibly if you’re making a sequel, that means the first one did pretty well, so you really have people who are fans; you really feel beholden to them. There is a freeing thing about writing an original film: you don’t feel beholden to anyone’s expectations. When you’re doing a sequel, I definitely do feel bound by those expectations. Maybe there’s other filmmakers out there who’d say, “Fuck it, I don’t feel any of that pressure.” But I definitely do. I felt it when I was working on the SAW films, the sequels and I definitely felt with INSIDIOUS. So the trick with this one was, “how do I please the fans of the first film and give them what the producers want?” What the producers want is for you to provide everything the audience loved about the first film, to give the audience the same experience. The difficulty is, “how do you provide the audience with the same experience they had on the first film without just repeating the story?” I didn’t want to do TEEN WOLF TOO, where you just replace the wolf with another actor and it’s the exact same story. So, that was a real conundrum with the second one. Give them what they want without giving them what they expect. That’s one of the hardest things in the world.
So, James and I spent a lot of time coming up with a story that hit the beats that people loved, but almost moves into a different genre. I know that you’ll be in sync with this thought: Haunted House films have a very rigid structure.
FANG: This one feels actively trying to defy it. Once you get into some backstory, there’s a feeling of ghost giallo.
WHANNELL: It’s not a haunted house movie, because I think the structure of a haunted house movie is “family moves into a house, weird shit starts happening and they’re unaware of what’s going on.” A lot of the joy of watching a haunted house movie is watching the people in the house react to what’s going on around them, watching them say, “What the fuck’s going on?” We couldn’t do that because they already knew what was going on. And so, we had to throw out the haunted house genre and I think we turned INSIDIOUS 2 into almost more of a supernatural domestic thriller. They’re more active, they have a lot more knowledge. I think if we did an INSIDIOUS 3, I would almost want to go back to the haunted house genre. Start with a new family. Start with that lack of knowledge, so we could go back to that structure of somebody slowly learning what was happening to them. With this film, we kind of just threw a lot of different things in there. It’s got elements of giallo, it’s got elements of films like THE STEPFATHER, it’s got elements of mystery horror films like THE RING. It’s more of a mixture.
For more on INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 2, see our talk with Patrick Wilson here.