Insidious screenwriter Leigh Whannell has written a script about a zombie epidemic in an elementary school called “Cooties,” and he enjoys doing impressions of Rodney Dangerfield. James Wan, director of Insidious, jumped to the chance to tell my recording device that “Trojan War is one of my favorite teen romantic comedies, next to Can’t Hardly Wait.” Hold on, am I talking to a comedic duo, or the two guys who came up with the “Razor Wire Maze Trap” in the first Saw movie?
The horror duo believes that setting up a scare is just like setting up a gag, and this idea is certainly tested by the funnymen in their latest film, Insidious. Produced by Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli, the film is about a young boy in a coma whose vacant soul leads to his house and family being haunted.
I sat down with Wan and Whannell to discuss Insidious, but the topics went far beyond anything I could have ever expected. (For understanding of some of the jokes in this interview, reading our “Quick Questions” at the bottom wouldn’t hurt, as those are always asked first). Working off each other with the same chemistry as two professional goofballs, the two filmmakers were constantly razzing on each other and trying to crack each other (and subsequently me) up.
Insidious opens nationwide on Friday, April 1st.
If you [Leigh] were to direct this movie, how would it look different?
Leigh Whannell: Well, I would have to say the terrible script. I would probably have to concentrate more on the effects. It would probably be an effects heavy movie to taper over the poor dialogue.
And if you [James] wrote it?
Leigh: I’m sure Peter Murphy would do the score. He’d pop up in there somewhere. Giorgio Moroder would pop up. It be more like a romantic comedy with Giorgio Moroder in the soundtrack.
James: Yeah, Giorgio Moroder isn’t dead is he?
Leigh: You keep casting these death spells on everyone. If Scarlett Johansson dies tomorrow, you’re going to feel really guilty.
James: She’s single … let me call my agent. That’ll get me nowhere.
Leigh: “Hey Scarlett, I’ve got two guys on the line. One of them is Ryan Gosling, the other directed the first Saw movie.”
Would your script be exactly like Leigh’s?
James: It would probably be a bit less pretentious.
Leigh: I don’t think it would be a searing document that will be remembered for years to come. It’d be more like wrote by numbers. You could wipe your a** with it.
James: My script or your script? I have wiped my ass with your script. So I wasn’t sure if you were talking reality or a hypothetical question here. I think, all joking aside, I don’t think I am capable of writing a better script than what Leigh did.
Leigh: And I think I’m really capable of directing a film a lot better than James. But I appreciate that he said that. He’s been honest.
Who decided Tiny Tim should be in the movie?
Leigh: Ask the Peter Murphy fan.
James: Hey. Peter Murphy’s song worked really well in Trojan War starring Will Friedle who was the kid from … boy …
"Boy Meets World."
James: Yeah, he plays the older brother I think. And it’s a routine romantic comedy with Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Leigh: That’s like the first time Trojan War has been mentioned publicly since it was released.
James: It’s a great film. I don’t care what anyone else says. It’s on there. I want to go on the record and say, [walks up to the recorder] Trojan War is one of my favorite teen romantic comedies, next to Can’t Hardly Wait. And both movies happen to star Jennifer Love Hewitt.
You should have her stalk you as a ghost because she is in “Ghost Whisperer.”
James: She is in Ghost Whisperer. I grew up with Jennifer Love Hewitt, I think we’re roughly the same age. It’s funny that [earlier] I said Scarlett Johansson, I usually would have said Jennifer Love Hewitt.
[Getting back on track]
James: Oh! Tiny Tim! When I first heard Tiny Tim’s version of “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” I said to Leigh “this is one of the creepiest songs I’ve ever heard! It belongs in a serial killer movie. Where someone is cutting someone up, and something’s playing in the background. Do you remember that kid’s song that they had in the movie Night Watch, with Ewan McGregor? He played a security guard in a morgue, which was a remake of the director’s film from another country, and there’s a sequence where the killer was killing someone and he had this kid’s music that was playing on loop, again and again. For some reason, when we finally heard Tiny Tim’s version, I made the correlation between the two. I told Leigh we needed to somehow get Tiny Tim in there, he had no idea where to put it! But as always I just jammed it in there.
That reminds me of Deep Red (directed by Dario Argento).
James: Oh yeah!
Are you guys Dario Argento fans?
James: Am I a Dario Argento fan? Is it not evident? [laughs]
Leigh: Hell yeah. We love Dario Argento.
What’s your favorite Argento movie?
James: It’s definitely Profundo Rosso.
Leigh: I’m less pretentious, and I’m going to call it Deep Red. Says the writer. James orders like that in Italian restaurants. [In Italian accent] “I’ll have the scarpellina!” [In normal accent] “You mean the spaghetti Bolognese?” [Italian accent] “Si, si!”
Leigh, after handing over the script, what part did you play in the creative process of this movie?
James: His process was pretty much over when he handed it over.
Leigh: James is … sometimes he takes my advice. Which is evident, like all of the good scenes in the film were when he took my advice. A lot of the acting in the film with Angus, who plays the other ghost hunter, Angus Sampson, it was fun. It was a very fun set. James like to keep it fun, keep it live. Everyone has a good time. It’s not one of those tense movie sets where everyone is yelling and screaming.
James: I wasn’t slapping Rose to get her to cry. But that was off camera.
Leigh: That’s not what we heard coming from your trailer.
What used to be scary in horror movies that’s no longer scary?
James: I think that we stuff that we tried to avoid in Insidious, fake scares, used to work back then, because people were not accustomed to it. But in today’s world, there’s been so much that have been done that it no longer works anymore.
Leigh: Overkill. Yeah, the cat jumping out of the closet. Backing up in a hallway, and running into somebody that is also backing up. Turning around and realizing …
James: When you were describing that, I always think of “Scooby-Doo.”
Leigh: Every other crappy ass horror film that has false scares in it. I also think that a lot of things, to go back further, [like] the old dark house thing is not scary anymore. With the tree and the front yard. A lot of that stuff isn’t as …
James: I disagree with him.
Leigh: Really? I don’t find it as scary. I think what’s scary today is things that people can relate to. The house is not a gothic mansion anymore, it’s a house that looks the house like we all live in. I think that Poltergeist was a film that dragged haunted house films into suburbia, and took them out of the gothic mansion of the hill, with the lightning cracking behind it, and it took it into something people could relate to.
James: Yeah, when they do that sort of gothic mansion with the lightning cracking behind it, or the giant moon behind it, or the dark clouds, it’s now done more with a retro love for it. It’s a very Tim Burton-esque thing to do, like Edward Scissorhands with that gothic mansion on top of the hill. I think that dark houses are scary as well – it just doesn’t have to be a gothic dark house. I think that all that adds to the mood and atmosphere that one creates for the film. Insidious has tons of dark house moments, throughout the whole movie. I think it’s frightening. I think it adds that tension.
You don’t see many haunted house movies nowadays.
James: But we’re not rehashing it, right? We’re taking it and spinning it, and giving it – I like to that’s what Leigh and I do best. We take something that people are familiar with, and twist it on its head, and make it a bit more unique. So I don’t want people to look at this movie and think “Oh, it’s a haunted house movie that we’ve seen many times before,” because it … it isn’t. Where the film ends up going is completely different.
Yeah. And as we were joking earlier, it’s not a “write by numbers” [kind of script]. Leigh, it seems like you had a few ideas and had many ways to go with this.
Leigh: I mean, a scare scene is like a gag in a movie. There’s only so many different ways you can go. If you want to tell a joke in a film that can have the audience cracking up laughing, you don’t want to reinvent the wheel completely. There’s an art to it, a form. And it’s very much the same with scare scenes.
James: Yeah, you want to embrace, but you want to find an interesting way. To me, one of the great masters of suspense, Hitchcock aside, everyone refers to Hitchcock, but I actually refer to Steven Spielberg. Spielberg takes the form that is so, so, so set in stone and he knows how to use it, at just the right moment. He knows where to move the camera, when to cut the shot. Jaws is just one of the most masterfully crafted movies ever made. He wasn’t really reinventing the wheel. He was just taking what was there, and making it great. Not that I dare to compare myself to Spielberg.
You guys have such a prominent place in the horror genre. But what are your thoughts on zombie culture? Is it truly dead?
James: We differ on this one. I love zombie films. Believe it or not, I’m a hardcore zombie lover. I love zombie films, I don’t know why. I’ve been trying to convince Leigh to write us a zombie film. He said, “It’s done to death.” And that’s what I admire about Leigh. I said, “Okay, it’s done to death, but that’s what we’re good at. We take something that’s [dead], and try to find something different, which is what Danny Boyle did with 28 Days Later.” You find a new angle to it. I’m like, “Well, let’s pride ourselves on something like that.”
Leigh: [Danny Boyle] did that at the start. There wasn’t too many out then. Now they’re starting to be dead. It’s starting to get a bit more saturated.
James: I definitely do agree that there’s a lot of zombie stuff out there but I’m part of that niche of people who just love zombie films.
Leigh: James loved the Lucio Fulci zombie films years ago before this craze even happened. I’m not as big a fan of zombie films. I do love them, but I would be reticent to do one now … although I just wrote one.
James: Yeah, who’s writing a zombie script?
Leigh: But it’s a comedy. That’s the angle.
Is that a possible prospect for a new project?
Leigh: I think it’s actually fairly low budget. It’s called “Cooties.” It’s about a zombie virus at an elementary school.
Do you write often?
Leigh: Yeah, I’ve always got a few different scripts I’m working on at the same time.
Do you have a bunch in the closet?
Leigh: There are a couple of scripts that are in the drawer that haven’t produced but …
James: I prefer the closet. I don’t know why you didn’t pick that up.
Leigh: It’s a “Trapped in the Closet” R. Kelly type of thing.
Well, that would make an interesting concert.
Leigh: R. Kelly and Slayer?
Quick Questions with Leigh Whannell and James Wan
Private Concert, Who’s Playing?
Leigh: Slayer and U2. They’d do a duet … “With Or Without You in Hell.”
James: Leigh and I have different music. I’d like to Giorgio Moroder doing his old classics with Peter Murphy.
Leigh: Who the hell is Peter Murphy?
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Leigh: Omelette, no toast. Gluten free.
James: Two eggs, over easy …
Leigh: And a huge line of coke. The breakfast of champions.
James: Someone has to take over “Two And A Half Men.”
Age of first kiss?
Leigh: 15. Late bloomer.
James: I will say 18.
If you could be haunted by one person for the rest of your life, who would it be?
Leigh: I would say Rodney Dangerfield. He would just keep you laughing. His ghost would be standing behind you going, [in a Dangerfield voice] “Huh, you think you’re sick? You should talk to my doctor. My doctor said I’m sick and I said I wanted a second opinion. Ah … I don’t get it. You think I’d get any respect from the dead?”
James: I’m surprised he didn’t say Michael Bay.
Leigh: Hey, Michael Bay is not dead! Are you suggesting his career is dead?
James: No. Do they have to be dead?
TSR: They don’t have to be dead, they can just haunt you in an Obi-Wan Kenobi sense.
James: I know mine. Scarlett Johansson.
Leigh: She’s a ghost.
James: She can invade my subconscious.
Leigh: So you’ll be sitting over there frustrated because you can’t touch her, and I’ll be sitting here laughing cause Dangerfield would be like, [in Dangerfield voice again] “Hey, I can’t trust my wife, at my bachelor party she was in the video!”
James: You just want to do Dangerfield.
You’ve seen Rover Dangerfield, right?
It’s amazing. Early 90’s.
Leigh: You’re telling me it's better than Ladybugs?
It’s Rodney Dangerfield voicing a dog. It’s funny.
Leigh: He’s a genius. [In Dangerfield voice] “I live in a rough neighborhood. Every time I close the window of my apartment, I hit somebody’s head.”