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A Q&A with Leigh Whannell and James Wan, Creators of Saw and Insidious

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A Q&A With Leigh Whannell and James Wan, Creators of Saw and Insidious

Leigh Whannell and James WanThese apparent goofballs are Leigh Whannell and James Wan, the evil masterminds behind the Saw franchise. Yes, the gentlemen who kept you up nights, wondering how far you would go in the face of imminent death and pain, or seriously thinking about taking a blowtorch to that porcelain doll Great-Aunt Beatrice gave you, are just two normal guys. And I was happy to have the opportunity of seeing that side of them at the Q&A session after the Dublin preview of their new film, Insidious.

Let’s get it right out of the way: I wasn’t a huge fan of the film, and this is not a review. Insidious has its problems. If you want a review that fairly addresses them, you don’t even need to leave this website.

Anyone familiar with the duo’s collaborations knows what to expect: there will be a kind of cold color scheme, a creepy old lady or demonic child, and flickering lights. Wan and Whannell are self-aware enough lads, though. They know that they have been accused often of, as one would-be critic on Twitter put it, “making the same bad horror movie again and again.” And that’s fine. While the two obviously want people to buy tickets and enjoy Insidious, the project was very much about breaking away from the image they feel that they’ve been pigeonholed into, about shaking off the “gore-hound” label and, as Wan commented, just getting back to “making films that are scary again.”

The fact that they have been able to maintain who they are, can admit their faults and make fun of themselves, is really impressive. Whannell made audience members privy to the reality of the writing process of Saw as he reenacted a discussion he had with Wan at the time:

And James was like, “I love it. If you put a creepy doll in there, it’s perfect.”
“How are we going to get a creepy doll in there?”
“It’ll ride in on a tricycle.”
“What? No! You’re ruining my scene!”

Working with the small production company behind Paranormal Activity gave Wan and Whannell the ability to stretch out a bit, have fun with ideas. When the two first started discussing Saw, Whannell pitched it to his friend as being “two guys locked together in a room.” It was just that simple: a basic concept that lent itself to the exploration of fear and boundaries in people. Whannell stayed on to write the film’s two sequels, but detached himself when he saw that it was becoming all about the traps and violence, which were never meant to be “the primary juice” of the films. The writing of Insidious began in much the same way. Whannell latched on to the idea of astral projection because he liked it and wanted to feel out what would happen if a person were to “leave [his or her] body and float away.”

At times, Insidious does seem to get a little confused with what it wants to do, but that is to be expected. The project was shot in twenty-two days and Wan, who had a clear idea of the film he wanted, co-edited the rough cut in just over three weeks. Wan poked fun at himself and the kind of comments admitting something like that might cause when he sarcastically noted, “That’s how garage-filmmaking this film is.” But he did actually edit the film on his computer. In his garage.

All the laughs, antics, and joking threats on the audience members’ lives aside, there was a sense that these men, still so young, will forever be haunted by their cinematic pasts. Horror is a genre that is exceedingly difficult to take on, all of the tropes being so well known and that much easier to bowdlerize. As soon as the two decided to make the astral projection concept “housed in haunted house structure” (Wan), they sort of trapped themselves, not only in that sub-genre, but in the context of every film like it that came before. One audience member pointed out the similarities between Insidious and Poltergeist, asking if they were intentional and if Wan and Whannell’s film was in any way an homage to the horror classic. Wan, quite good-naturedly responded, that the two aren’t interested in homages and that Insidious, being a haunted house film to a certain degree, should probably “have a house in it…and maybe some ghosts.” Every genre has its tropes, and, while it is easy to point them out and then write them of as being “formulaic”, it is that comfort and enjoyment of that very formula that keeps people coming back.

Wan and Whannell may not be down with homages, but they are conscious of the past. The insertion of Whannell himself into the film as a bumbling paranormal buff recalls his role as Adam in the first Saw film, and was a delightful aside for everyone present. More striking, though, was the chalk drawing of Jigsaw’s iconic “creepy doll,” looking over the shoulder of Josh Lambert (played by Patrick Wilson). As much as the playful image is a wink-and-a-nod to the horror fans watching, it is a reminder of all that has built up to Insidious’s creation. Wan and Whannell got their big break with Saw, and now they can never be free from it.

So what’s next, then? There’s talk of science-fiction collaboration, a genre that carries with it a whole new slew of monsters. Whannell cheekily admitted, though, that, despite his promise to Wan that he was “halfway through [writing] it,” he is just as guilty of procrastination as anyone else, and hasn’t even started, so don’t start sharpening your claws just yet.

–Elizabeth O’Connell-Thompson is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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