Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for
March 28, 2011

In their latest collaboration Insidious, filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell (the creative duo responsible for the original Saw) tackle the horror subgenre of the haunted house movie. The paranormal thriller stars Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne as the parents of three children who find themselves afflicted by supernatural forces as their oldest son slips into a mysterious coma. Desperate to resolve the situation by whatever means necessary, they enlist the help of a psychic investigator (Lin Shaye) and her two tech-minded assistants Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (Leigh Whannell in a memorable supporting role in front of the camera).

Insidious harkens back to old school horror movies of the '70s from its opening title card--a giant, in-your-face declaration set to a wonderfully discordant cacophony of violent strings--to its familiar setting of a suburban family haunted by unknown entities in their new home. At the same time, it blends in a modern sensibility with its pacing, imagery, and a few nifty tricks not often seen in the genre. This dichotomy of the old and new is also reflected in the dual nature of the film's approach to the otherworldly: Insidious spends half its time lurking in secrecy and hushed tones, establishing a sense of unease without showing anything graphic, then consciously kicks things into overdrive with a satisfying display of overt reveals and creepy visuals. The result is a good balance of mood and mayhem--a slow, pressured build segueing into a fun payoff that rewards viewers for their patience on the ride.

When we last spoke with James Wan at the 2007 San Diego Comic-Con for his film Death Sentence, he joked that our meetings were as frequent as leap years. Strangely, like slightly broken clockwork, our next encounter came nearly four years later, when we were afforded the opportunity to interview James and Leigh about Insidious at The Magic Castle, a unique performance venue in Hollywood that serves as the private clubhouse for the Academy of Magical Arts.

In this exclusive interview, James and Leigh talk about the approach they took in making Insidious--namely, what to show and when. Granted, we should have used some of our limited time to pick their brains about exciting upcoming projects or less-discussed topics, but it's easy to get caught up in their easygoing back-and-forth banter. It's also nice to know that their attitude and enthusiasm hasn't really changed since we first met them in 2004, and that they're still a self-deprecating comedy duo at heart... Congratulations on all the success since the first Saw...

JAMES: Thank you.

LEIGH: You sure it's success? Did you see the box office receipts for Dead Silence? [laughs]

JAMES: [to Leigh] No, he said Saw.

LEIGH: [to James] No, since Saw...

I think relatively speaking, a lot of aspiring filmmakers would trade places with you...

LEIGH: I think Dead Silence is an underappreciated cult classic!

JAMES: Yeah, it's definitely become that. It's become a cult classic.

LEIGH: In an ironic way.

JAMES: [laughs] People really liked Dead Silence. I'm really surprised. No, I know what you mean. Leigh and I are very grateful for how far we've come. You know, for two goofy kids who have no idea what the hell they're doing, we're very appreciative of what we have achieved. So we're very thankful for that. [pauses] And we're not d*cks, as well. That's the other thing, too.

[laughs] Insidious uses an interesting plot device in which Specs draws and writes down what is being communicated by the medium. Critics often say that it's better to show an audience something rather than tell them, but in this case, the opposite seems true. Why do you think your choice of initially describing the monster is more effective than showing it?

JAMES: The perfect example of this, right, would be "Someone looks off camera and their eyes go really big. They see something frightening." The look on their face says so much more than what they're actually seeing. So if I show you what they're seeing, it is nowhere near as scary, because you as an audience project what you think they're seeing, and that makes it more terrifying. It's what you cook up in your own head. So when someone tells a story about something eerie that has happened to them, when you don't see it, you start to make things up in your head. You know, it's truly that classic thing: your imagination's so much more powerful than what you can show sometimes.

LEIGH: And especially with horror. I think that when you tell someone a ghost story or you say something instead of showing it, it allows the audience to fill in the blanks with their imagination. And their imagination will be so much more scary to them than anything you are presenting.

Eventually, though, you do hit the audience with some creepy visuals. How did you decide on the right amount to reveal?

JAMES: What Leigh and I wanted to do was build a lot of suspense. We wanted to build the suspense, we wanted to keep building it, building it, and eventually, we felt like you've teased the audience enough, you have to show them, you know? It's like Jaws. For a big part of the movie, you don't see the shark. But at the end, you have to see the shark! And especially in today's audience or today's kids, if you don't show them anything, they are so jaded. Today's kids grow up on a diet of such heavy sensory overload from the internet to cell phones that they're constantly bombarded with visuals. If you don't show it to them, I feel like they will be very disappointed, and they'll walk out of the theater. I mean, as great as Leigh and I think Paranormal Activity is, you hear a lot of the younger kids going, "Oh, nothing happens in that movie. We don't see sh*t!" Like they get really upset. That's why they love the Saw films, because you see a lot of crazy stuff. And so we wanted to find that balance with this film.

LEIGH: Absolutely. I think a template in filmmaking has been set over the last few decades where you can hint at something, but at a certain point, you have to see it. As James said, Jaws. Jaws is a good film, and Jaws really set the template for the monster film where you don't see the monster until the final scenes. You know, they only did that because they couldn't afford to show the monster, really, but it ended up inadvertently starting this trend that lives on to this day. And I do think that's the case with these sort of films. I can't just tell you there's a rabbit in my hat. (This is very appropriate for the Magic Castle.) If I hold up a top hat and say there's a rabbit in here, you won't be amazed. You'll only be amazed when I pull it out. And I think with this sort of film, we're hinting at the stuff that's going on around this family for so long that I think it's okay in the final reel to pull back the curtain a little bit and see what it is, exactly, these guys have been afraid of for so long.

Insidious also makes great use of sound. But I'm curious: Why no demonic voice with an accent from your native Australia? Does that just not work?

LEIGH: [laughs] I'm not sure. I mean, they've got to be out there somewhere. Howling III: The Marsupials?

JAMES: Can I just say...Up to now, I'm really pissed that Leigh kind of vetoed this idea: Leigh and Angus are both Australians, and I really wanted them to play [Specs and Tucker] as Aussie characters--[ghost hunters] that just so happen to be Australian characters. But Leigh thought that it was a bit too much.

LEIGH: Yeah, I thought it might be a bit too hokey. But I will say there is a film out there that uses the Australian accent and the Australian character in a horrific way very, very well: Wolf Creek. If you look at the bad guy played by John Jarratt...

JAMES: [laughs] I hope you get a [part] in McLean's next movie...

LEIGH: [jokes] I better! [returns to answer] John Jarratt's character is very much an iconic Australian character. The guy who lives in the Outback, he's driving around in the truck. Very Australian. And Greg McLean the director managed to make that character super scary just by turning it on its head. I think anything can be scary if you juxtapose it against what it is normally represented as. Hence, children and clowns and things like that get used in horror films a lot, because normally, clowns and children are presented as these happy, bright things. And so when you use them in a horrific context, a dark context, it takes on even more horror. And I think Greg did that with this Australian guy. Normally, you would associate a guy who pulls up and says, "G'day, mate! How are you?" as being very friendly. And this guy wasn't like that.

JAMES: Usually demonic possessions, the character speaks in their own language. [growls]

LEIGH: Speaks backwards! [says gutturally] "Nowonmai..."

[Editor's note: Props for this Exorcist reference!]

JAMES: They always speak in a very deep voice so you can't really tell where they're from. [laughs] Other than, they're from hell.

Well congratulations on Insidious, guys. Thanks for your time.

JAMES: Thanks, bro.

LEIGH: Cheers, mate.

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