Still a Scream

Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man.
Leigh Whannell entered the horror scene 16 years ago and keeps the thrills coming.

Written by Jose Martinez
Photos by Mark Rogers/Universal Pictures


When movie theater audiences squirm and scream in their seats, popcorn flying in the air from panic, horrormeister Leigh Whannell grins from ear to ear.

Elisabeth Moss and writer-director Leigh Whannell on the set of <i>The Invisible Man</i>.

The Australia-born filmmaker has been scaring horror fans since Saw, the little indie film franchise that could—and that did, making a mark on the genre back in the early ’00s. Since then, horror features Dead Silence (screenplay by Whannell, story by James Wan & Whannell), Cooties (action/horror/comedy, screenplay by Whannell & Ian Brennan, story by Brennan & Whannell & Josh C. Waller), and the hugely popular Insidious franchise (Whannell sharing “story by” credit with Wan on Insidious: Chapter 2) have followed, as well as the most recent addition to the lineup, The Invisible Man (which Whannell wrote and directed).

Before the coronavirus shuttered movie theaters in March, The Invisible Man—a modern reboot of the 1933 classic film, this time around starring Elisabeth Moss as a survivor of an abusive marriage who doubts that her ex-husband is dead and begins to believe he is invisible and is terrorizing her—opened in late February to very impressive numbers. Universal then offered the film for streaming weeks after its release to keep the thrills and chills going to a quarantined audience.

No matter the venue, movie-goers are in for a suspenseful and uneasy experience with a Whannell-written project—which is just how he likes it. Written By caught up with the horror writer pre-COVID shutdown to talk all things terror, what it’s like directing his own screenplays, and why watching his films with an audience is like a drug.

Jose Martinez: How did The Invisible Man come to you? What was your writing process like?

Leigh Whannell: Invisible Man was not something I was pursuing. [Producer] Jason Blum had occasionally asked me about it. When I was making Upgrade [2018, written and directed by Whannell, also produced by Blum], he’d ask, What do you think about Dracula? What do you think about Frankenstein? That’s what he does. He’s an instigator. We had a meeting and I thought we were going to talk about Upgrade and instead we talked about Invisible Man. And as soon as it was suggested to me, it got its hooks into me. I’m glad I let that idea sit with me because I quickly became obsessed with it.

“Don’t buy into the theory that you have to strike while the iron is hot. That’s bullshit. The world will wait two or three years. It’s better to release a great movie every few years than release a bad movie once a year.”—Leigh Whannell

Sometimes stories take a long time to craft. That’s usually been the case. I came up with the general idea for this very quickly. It wasn’t the whole spine of the story, it was really just the initial idea of a woman escaping from someone who had been abusive. And then, of course, when I said yes to the job, I had to sit in my office with a notepad and figure out who these people were. What was different about this one is that the central idea did come very quickly and it stayed that way the whole way through. This was unique.

There are different stages. My favorite part of writing is the “not writing” stage. It’s that stage at the very beginning when you actually haven’t started typing anything yet and you’re just figuring out what it is. I love that whole period of daydreaming and thinking about the movie and jotting down random ideas. I try to immerse myself in what the movie is. I go for long walks and listen to music and just think about it all coming together.

Did you have to be very descriptive with this screenplay because you were writing so many scenes with an invisible character? Or not so much because you were also the director?

I didn’t do this back when I was writing for [director] James Wan—I didn’t even think about how the movie was going to be made. But the last three films that I’ve directed, I’ve been a part of the writing process and I’ve been thinking about the style of the film, the visual language of the movie. That’s something screenwriters are told not to consider. They’re told to ignore the visual language and leave that up to the director. But when you are the director as well, I think it’s crucial to integrate it. I think the visual language of the movie can influence the screenplay.

With this movie, I suddenly decided that the camera would be wandering in empty spaces, so the screenplay became very sparse and almost had a visual language in its written form. If I were to write a script for another director again, I would go back to that screenwriter mode of just thinking about the plot and the themes and not worry about how it’s going to be shot. But for now, while I am directing my own screenplays, it is very much part of the screenwriting process.

With The Invisible Man, you’re definitely always cheering for the protagonist, but do you ever worry that the audience may root for the villain, like with Jigsaw in Saw?

With horror movies, the villain often becomes the hero. Freddy Krueger quickly became the protagonist. On the original film, he’s the bad guy and everyone’s afraid of him, but by part four you’re waiting for him to kill the teenagers. And then he’ll say something quippy and you cheer. It’s interesting how that happens with horror. The villain is the star.

Writer-director Leigh Whannell and Elisabeth Moss and on the set of <i>The Invisible Man</i>.

With Jigsaw, that definitely happened. The cast around him revolved and he was a fixture. I don’t mind that. I guess James Wan and I accidentally created the Freddy Krueger of the millennial generation. I’m proud of that. We shot Saw in ten days. It was a victory against the odds. The fact that it connected with people was astounding to us. And then Hollywood economics came into play and producers are knocking on our door saying, “It’s time to make another one.” I hadn’t planned on that. And I did two more of those films and eventually I walked away because that’s not what I came here to do. It’s a funny thing how that works. Everybody has to eat. I didn’t have a burning desire to make sequels to that film. I had a burning desire to make some money.

How did you feel that you were among those credited or blamed for creating torture porn with the Saw films?

I didn’t mind it at the time. You have to remember that I was happy I had made something that connected with people. There was no part of me that was pissed off. James and I aspired to be in the film industry and were obsessed with it. Suddenly we got our foot in the door. I guess we more than got our foot in the door—we pushed it open. So, when that label came about, there was no umbrage on my part. When I think of that term, I think of me in my twenties living in LA, running around making friends, grinning about the fact that I had just achieved my life’s dream. I know the term has a negative connotation for a lot of people, but it actually brings up positive memories for me in an ironic way.

In 2006, you wrote Dead Silence, but you had already experienced wild success. What do you remember about that experience?

That was definitely the film where I learned what not to do. It was the film where we got our asses kicked. If anybody had looked over at James and me with envy or disgust—"these kids came from Australia with their first screenplay and not only did it get made, it was a hit”—well, those people got their revenge with our second movie. We really didn’t know what we were doing. We were naïve. We signed on to make the film with Universal before we were ready.

Looking back now, I shouldn’t have committed to another movie until I had an idea I was truly passionate about. When you have a hit movie in Hollywood, you’re suddenly surrounded by people who advise you on what to do. And they start telling you the rules. It’s not even that they’re advising you, they straight up tell you what has to be done. And because we were so naïve, we believed them.

But in retrospect, we learned a lot of lessons. We matured a lot over the course of that movie. Don’t buy into the theory that you have to strike while the iron is hot. That’s bullshit. The world will wait two or three years. It’s better to release a great movie every few years than release a bad movie once a year. You’re really as good as your last movie, and Dead Silence hurt us. We both went to filmmaker jail for a while on that one.

Do you consider yourself a writer-director? Can you now do one without the other?

I do consider myself a writer-director. I don’t know if I’d write a film for another director. If David Fincher came to me and said, “I want you to write me a film,” that would be a hard offer to turn down. I’m enjoying directing so much. To me, directing is an extension of writing. When you write a screenplay, you write, “He walks into the room and puts his jacket on the coat hook.” I love deciding what kind of coat hook moves the story best. Ninety-nine percent of the audience won’t notice that coat hook, but I will. And all of those decisions add up to a picture. I love it.

Would you want to be involved in any of the other Universal monster movies?

Before The Invisible Man, I wouldn’t have thought I’d make Invisible Man in a million years. Never say never. Right now, I’m not itching to make a Dracula movie. But if I woke up in the middle of the night with an amazing idea for a Dracula movie, I would follow it. For me, the horse has to go before the cart. You have to let the idea lead you. Any decisions I’ve made purely for money have not been good experiences. The best experiences I’ve had since I moved to L.A. came from the heart.

What do you like best about horror movies?

Storm Reid in <i>The Invisible Man</i>.

I like something that challenges me. I seek out the ones that push the genre; that are really scary. The ones that are changing horror culture in some way, like The Witch, Hereditary, A Quiet Place, or Get Out. They really contributed to the genre. They’re not just great horror movies, they’re great movies, period.

How much fun is it to watch your films with an audience?

It’s a drug. Hearing people scream and react to something you’ve made is the best. I would hazard to guess that it’s very similar to watching people fall about hysterically with laughter if you made a comedy. That feeling of people having this visceral, vocal reaction to your work is very addictive. I love it. The great thing about horror and comedy is that you have this vocal barometer of how you’re doing.

Do you think it would take a lot of convincing if you wanted to make a musical or romantic comedy?

It probably would. You know how Hollywood economics work. You make a film that’s a hit in any genre and all of a sudden a few more doors open and people are more receptive. I’m sure it would take some convincing. I would like to play with a bigger set of paints. I don’t want to make a big-budget movie just for the sake of making a big-budget movie, but I would like to let my creativity off the chain. I’m so used to saying to a producer, “Ok, I need 20 horses up that hill.” And the producer says, “We can afford one horse, and it won’t be a horse, it’ll be a pony.” That’s what I’m used to.

What do you hope someone takes away from seeing a movie of yours?

I hope that people remember the movie. Movies are disposable. If you make tables and somebody buys one and puts it in their home, you’re a part of their house. That table is now part of their lives. With movies, they can sometimes be a whispered fog in the air. They come and disappear. Only a fraction of movies stand the test of time. The movies that have lasted for me are Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Mad Max, Trainspotting, and The Thing. I hope people don’t walk out of my films saying, “Alright, what’s for dinner?” I just want to make films that will stay with people.