Leigh Whannell's secret weapon for keeping the Insidious franchise fresh

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Jan 5, 2018, 1:52 PM EST (Updated)

Leigh Whannell is the backbone of the Insidious franchise.

The 40-year-old has written and co-starred in each Insidious film, and he directed the third. In Insidious: The Last Key, the fourth film in the franchise, Whannell is back to writing and playing the character Specs, of Tucker and Specs fame. In this installment, we learn about Elise Rainier's troubled early years as she returns to her childhood home to exorcise a demon she unwittingly released.

We spoke to the multi-hyphenate about why he decided not to direct, the challenges that come with keeping a franchise fresh, and working with the fabulous Lin Shaye.

You are back for your fourth Insidious film. You directed the third; why didn't you direct the fourth?

Leigh Whannell: I felt that I had done that. Insidious: Chapter 3 was a great first film for me, as a director. I felt like it was a very soft landing. I knew the characters very well, I'd been on the set, so it was as comfortable a first film as you can get, I'd say. But once I had done that — and I did have a great time doing that — I felt that I wanted to spread my wings and fly [laughs]. I felt like I wanted to try my hand at another genre. I've discovered my love for directing fairly late in life, relative to a lot of people — certainly to James Wan, who has wanted to be a director from the day I met him, when I was 18 years old.

I wasn't quite sure. I loved writing, I loved acting. So when I directed Insidious 3 and loved it so much, I kind of felt like I was making up for lost time, like "I need to get out there and start making films!" So I had another script I had written, a sci-fi film, that I made with Blumhouse [the upcoming Stem]. I didn't want to repeat myself, necessarily, so I ended up kind of having my cake and eating it by writing this film. That meant I got to have a creative hand in it without actually directing.

What were some of the challenges you had writing the fourth film in a franchise?

I think the biggest challenge, for me, was coming up with something new. Once you get to that fourth film, you've really covered a lot of ground. As you well know from horror franchises of the past, by the time they get to number four, you're pretty much treading water. There are only so many times you can see Jason Voorhees chopping someone up with a machete before you say, "okay, I get the routine here," as enjoyable as it is.

It's coming up with a new framework that is really tough. I didn't want to repeat myself, I didn't want to do the same thing. It took me a long time to hit upon the story for this film. That was definitely the most challenging part of writing it.


Was making Lin Shaye's character Elise the focus of this film always in the back of your mind or did it just happen organically?

I think... it wasn't something I planned out ahead of time. I did the third film and Lin was more prominent. I had a great time working with Lin. I remember reading one review for the film that said, "The spunky Lin Shaye provides another delightful character turn. Hopefully if the filmmakers are smart, we'll see more of her in the next installment."

That kind of stuck with me. It's an example of how the things critics say do stick with you as a filmmaker, even though most filmmakers try to pretend they don't care, they don't absorb reviews. At least for me, things do stick. So when I sat down to write the fourth film, the first thought I had was, "Well, I've got to put Lin up front! I've got to give people what they want and give Lin the starring role." Once I had that idea of putting her in the lead, that kind of snowballed into this backstory explanation. Finding out where she was from, about her parents. I really enjoyed doing that. I really enjoyed deepening the mythology of the Elise character.

Everyone in the horror community loves Lin Shaye, so it is exciting to see her in a lead role, especially in a genre dominated by young, nubile girls in lead roles. Was it difficult to get the idea of an adult woman as the lead past the producers?

[Laughs.] It actually wasn't, for a couple of reasons. In regards to [producer] Jason Blum, he is really about empowering filmmakers and writers and actors and artists to do what they want to do. He wants you to make your film. He's not the guy who is micromanaging you the way a big studio might. He would never step in and say "You can't put Lin in the lead." He wants to let you fall on your own sword so he doesn't have to take the blame when the film doesn't work. [Laughs.] I think he's smart that way, letting people do that.

The other reason it wasn't difficult to convince anybody is that Lin, at this point, is the franchise. Audiences love her. She's already gotten the seal of approval. Now, if I had written a film with someone like Lin in the lead role, straight out of the gate, if the Insidious films never existed and I wrote a film with Lin Shaye in the lead role, maybe I would get some pushback from studio executives or the so-called bean counters of the industry, who would be saying they need a younger face to go with Lin. "We need some nubile bodies in here to keep the primary audience of teenagers packing into the theaters." But that just didn't happen. It's a testament to the affection Insidious fans have for Lin. 

Having said that, it was not something that was lost on Lin and I. We had many conversations on the set of this film, where we talked about how unique it was to have a woman of Lin's age in a lead role in a film. It's no secret that Hollywood can be cruel to women of a certain age. It shouldn't be that way, but we've heard a lot of women in the past talking about how the roles start disappearing when they hit a certain age. It's a double standard. It's not something that happens to men. You see men playing leading roles well into their 70s, still getting the girl, shooting the gun... it's a real double-standard. That wasn't lost on us.

There is no one in the world more grateful than Lin Shaye. She's such a thankful person in life. She's probably the best person to give a gift to because you're never going to get more thanks from anyone than Lin! She's fully aware of it, and in some ways I think she treats it like a dream, like a bubble that could pop at any moment. She feels like it is tenuous because she doesn't know if the powers that be will continue to give her those kinds of chances - but I know she'd be up for it. It's more to their shame if they don't because she's got a lot to offer.


You have probably come to terms with this, but is it difficult for you to write dialogue for yourself, as Specs?

It's actually not. For some reason, I am really able to divorce myself from the acting side of things when I am writing. I know Angus Sampson, who plays Tucker, so well that it's pretty easy for me to write the banter between us. I'm writing for voices I know. Not just my own, but for Lin and Angus. In a way, when I write the dialogue for Specs and Tucker, I'm not even committing the final words to paper because I know when we get to set, we'll just kind of improv around them. It's almost like a blueprint for something that's going to change. So I don't find it difficult.

That's one of the fun parts about doing the Insidious films: once I've finished writing the script, the fun is not over. Usually screenwriters have to hand off the script and disappear. But with these movies, I get to hang around longer and be part of the fun.

If Insidious 4 does well enough, are you already thinking about Insidious 5?

Certainly not! I really don't like to think that far ahead. I kind of want to make room for my actual life. I remember a quote from Francis Ford Coppola, who said that he felt filmmakers didn't make films about life anymore; they made films about other films. Because film is such a long, backbreaking project to get off the ground, and it's quite exhausting, I really do like to switch off for a while and live and be. That's what refills the tank. Your own life is what recharges the batteries and puts the inspiration back in there so you've got something to draw from. I really don't try to think that far ahead. Who knows what will happen.

I am excited about a sci-fi film I directed [in 2017] that you'll be able to see [in 2018]. At the moment it's called Stem but who knows if the title will change or not. You can call it Untitled Leigh Whannell Sci-Fi Film. There's a really catchy mouthful for you. It's set in the near-future and it's about a quadriplegic man who has an operation to install a computer chip in his neck that will control his limbs for him and bridge the gap between his limbs and his nervous system. The operation is successful, but as he quickly finds out, the chip can make him do a lot more than walk around. I'm really excited about it. It's kind of different for me.

Insidious: The Last Key is now in theaters.