Why 'The Invisible Man' Director Leigh Whannell Defied Test Screening Notes

ONE TIME USE ONLY -Elisabeth Moss and Leigh Whannell - Getty - H 2020
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The filmmaker was warned the opening sequence wouldn't work, but stuck to his guns: "I'm never going to be able to write a scene that will make Adrian as scary as the audience can make him."

After beginning the new millennium as an actor, screenwriter and creative partner of James Wan, Leigh Whannell has truly come into his own as a director thanks to his modernized take on The Invisible Man. Whannell’s third directorial effort for Blumhouse has already received rave reviews — including a 92 percent amongst critics on Rotten Tomatoes — and with a lean budget of just $7 million and an opening weekend projection of $20 million, Whannell is poised to continue his successful run that started with 2015’s Insidious: Chapter 3 and continued on through 2018’s Upgrade.

Whannell’s update of H.G. Wells’ 123-year-old sci-fi novel centers on Elisabeth Moss’ Cecilia Kass and her attempt to leave an abusive relationship involving Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a powerful tech entrepreneur with plenty of resources. The film begins with Cecilia’s careful escape from Adrian’s palatial compound, which immediately reveals the troubled nature of their relationship. Despite notes from executives and test screenings saying otherwise, it was important for Whannell to trust his instincts by foregoing a clichéd scene that illustrated the domestic violence inflicted upon Cecilia.

“We did get that note along the way. In test screenings, one thing we would hear was, ‘Well, I need to see more,’” Whannell tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There almost seemed to be this need or a request for that scene of ‘Let’s spend five minutes with them before she escapes.’ And I just didn’t want to write that scene where it’s like, ‘You call these dishes clean!? (Whack.)’ I’m never going to be able to write a scene that will make Adrian as scary as the audience can make him. In my mind, I hoped that Cecilia’s reactions and the way she was acting told you everything you need to know.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Whannell also discusses his current mindset towards an Invisible Man sequel, behind-the-scenes details about the white paint scene and whether he’ll make the jump to tentpole filmmaking like his friend and former partner James Wan.

Whoever did the line producing on your last two films should be managing this country’s budget.

(Laughs.) Because they’re making champagne with a beer budget?

Precisely. So much can be accomplished without overspending.

Both films were shot in Australia, and I think that’s a big reason as to why we got so much bang for our buck on both Upgrade and The Invisible Man. First of all, you can take $5 million, American, which is your average Blumhouse budget, and stretch it with tax incentives and the exchange rate. All of a sudden, $5 million becomes $10 million, Australian. So, you’ve doubled your budget in Australian dollars. Australia, as a film industry, is very used to making low-budget films. We don’t make tentpole movies like the U.S. does. The crews there are very well-trained in stretching budgets and making things go a long way. I really felt that when I was there, especially on Upgrade, where we were trying to build automated cars. Instead of saying, “Here’s how much it’s going to cost,” there was this attitude of, “Oh, yeah, mate, we’ll make it work.” And they just sort of put it together with spit and glue. They took an old 1984 Toyota Corolla and somehow made it the car of the future. As a director, I was so thankful to these people. So, I’d say a lot of the credit has to go to those crews, those line producers and those people in Australia. 

I really appreciated how the movie begins with Cecilia’s (Elisabeth Moss) escape, as opposed to showing us ten minutes of her abusive relationship first. The way she fled Adrian’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) house told us everything we needed to know without you having to overwhelm us with exposition throughout the movie. As smart as Blumhouse is, did you ever get a note that suggested showing the abuse at the start of the film or through flashbacks?

If I’m being honest, yes, I did, but not necessarily from Blumhouse, though. Jason (Blum) and Couper (Samuelson), who run the feature department at Blumhouse, are really smart. Couper isn’t that guy who’s going to say, “Hey, we need you to do the obvious thing here.” In fact, to dispel a myth that you often hear, sometimes they were the ones telling me to be less obvious. Jason or Couper would say, “I think you can be more cryptic here.” The sob story you usually hear is, “I’m this artiste, and the studios are making me do the most obvious, hamfisted thing.” So, my experience was the opposite, but we did get that note along the way. In test screenings, one thing we would hear was, “Well, I need to see more.” There almost seemed to be this need or a request for that scene of “Let’s spend five minutes with them before she escapes.” And I just didn’t want to write that scene where it’s like, “You call these dishes clean!? (Whack.)” First of all, I’m never going to be able to write a scene that will make Adrian as scary as the audience can make him. In my mind, I hoped that Cecilia’s reactions and the way she was acting told you everything you need to know, which you just confirmed, and that’s fantastic to hear from even one person. (Whannell begins to parody.) “If you can change just one person, you can change the world.” (Laughs.) So, just hearing you say that you got all that info will make me happy for the rest of the day. So, thanks for making my Thursday.

I remember this quote from Judi Dench once — and I’ll probably mangle this because I always mangle quotes. I think Cate Blanchett asked her for advice on playing a queen and was like, “What’s the key to playing Queen Elizabeth?” And Judi Dench said, “It’s not about what you do. It’s about what the people around you do. It’s how the people around you act that tells the audience who you are and everything about you.” That quote and that theory is what drove me in that scene. I can never write a scene that will be as scary as what Elisabeth can do just with her reactions. Going by Elisabeth, the audience will fill in the blanks and be like, “Oh my God, this guy is terrifying.” That was my hope, anyway. I’m not going to say that I knew that for sure, but I was hoping.

You encouraged Elisabeth to tweak the script as needed in order to accurately portray a woman’s perspective. What did you learn from her adjustments that you’ll take with you to the next female character that you write?

It’s interesting because I’m not necessarily sure — and maybe I’m wrong in this — that there’s a huge difference in writing characters between men and women. Obviously, in real life, there are real differences between men and women. There are physiological things that women are going through that men aren’t going through. There are hormonal differences between each as well. When you’re writing a movie and you’re trying to communicate trauma, if you just boil it down to chapter one of any screenwriting book you pick up which is: what does the character want and what does the character need? I don’t know that there’s huge differences. I don’t think of it in terms of, “Well, a woman doesn’t have these needs, or a man wouldn’t want this.” (Whannell begins to parody.) I hope I’m not sounding like, “I don’t see color.” I guess what I’m saying is when I’m writing the character, I try not to think about how a woman may perceive it until maybe a bit later. But, I did learn so much from Elisabeth about saying less. It’s not so much a gender-specific thing, but the biggest screenwriting lesson she imparted to me was to not write so much. I’ve written a few scripts over the years, but more than any other film I’ve worked on, I saw how much a great actor can do. Lizzie could communicate an entire monologue with a look, and then, we would have those conversations on the set. And then, it kept going in the edit room. Andy Canny, the editor, and myself would realize that we didn’t need all this dialogue because Lizzie had already told the audience that. You just said that you learned a lot about the characters’ lives from that opening scene, and that scene is pretty much dialogue free. I guess it’s a Holy Grail of screenwriting: show, don’t tell. As a screenwriter, I really geek out about great screenwriting that tells me a lot without doing much. Just off the top of my head, do you remember that scene in The Thing when we first meet Kurt Russell and he’s playing computer chess?

Of course.

We’ve never met him, and he’s sitting there playing chess. Then, the computer beats him. It’s like, “Checkmate,” and he pours his scotch into the disk drive. The computer shoots off sparks, and he goes, “Cheating bitch.” I love that scene; it’s such beautiful screenwriting economy. You just told me so much about this guy, and he just said one line. You didn’t have to cut to somebody going, “There’s MacReady. He never was the same after Nam,” or some hamfisted exposition about who he is. You just told me so much, and I love that. I try to do it, but I’m never quite successful. Lizzie taught me that you can trust that the audience will know what’s happening without needing to say what’s happening.

Please tell me you actually threw white paint on a green-screen-suited stunt performer.

You are correct. Your wish is granted. There were a lot of discussions about how to do that, and I said, “Not only do I want to throw it on somebody, but I need the green suit to match the invisibility stuff.” Without spoiling it for anybody, I wanted it to match. So, they actually had to build a bright green version of that suit, at least the head, shoulders and torso. You know what’s awesome in scary movies is doing things in camera. I would hate to be doing a scare scene in a horror movie and have to wait for the end result. I would hate to have someone react to a tennis ball on a C-stand and wait five months for the monster to appear. Sometimes, when you’re dealing with a monster, you have to do that, but I’ll always push, push, push to do it in camera on the set so that you get it. I guess it’s like a joke. It needs to work in the room. You need to be on set going, “We got the joke.” I don’t want to put it together in editing, and I need to get it right now on the set. And the crew needs to think it’s funny. That’s what I feel like with scare scenes, and you know it when you’ve got it, too. You can just tell by the take that goes right. So, yeah, it was all practical and in camera with a little bit of CGI help at the end.

That Uber driver’s twelve-point turn was agonizing — just agonizing. I would’ve given that driver one star just for that alone.

(Laughs.) You’re saying all the right things. You get ten points for this interview. I always remember this interview with Cameron Crowe that I read years ago. He was talking about Jerry Maquire, and he was like, “I was so sure that the best thing in the movie that the audience would take away and that would become the catchphrase of the movie was Cuba Gooding’s character saying, ‘The quan, the quan…’” He had purposely built that to be the catchphrase. And then, he put the movie out into the world, and everybody remembered, “Show me the money.” In his mind, that was just some throwaway scene, and he had no idea it would become this pop culture catchphrase. It’s so funny how often that happens with movies. When I was shooting that car scene, I was certain that people would be losing their minds, and you’re the first person to bring it up. I haven’t heard anyone else say, “Oh, man, that scene drove me crazy.” I wanted him to be really taking his time, torturing the audience, thinking, “Get out of there! He’s clearly going to appear and hit the windows.” So, it was a ridiculous ten-point turn, and even the cinematographer was going, “Does it feel a bit weird that it’s taking him this long?” and I was like, “No, we have to make it this long. We have to torture the people in the crowd.” So, thank you.

The ending leaves things in a very tantalizing place. Are you open to continuing this story?

In my last Hollywood Reporter interview right before Upgrade was released, I talked about my superstition that I have around box office. You’re on such tenterhooks when you put a movie out in the world. You can control everything in a movie: the costumes, the lighting, the editing. But, you can’t control whether the world deems it worthy of seeing or not. That’s the one thing that’s out of your hands. For a control freak like a movie director, it drives you crazy. I haven’t angered the movie gods by thinking about a sequel. I feel like people don’t believe me when I say that, but I promise you, hand on my heart, that any time a thought of a sequel drifts into my mind, I just push it out. I don’t want to even acknowledge it until the movie is worthy of it. If the movie does well, I’m sure someone will call me and say, “Hey, what do you think about a sequel?” But, until that happens, I just have to block it out. I don’t want to anger the movie gods.

While I’ve enjoyed all your films as director, you’ve really developed a signature style on Upgrade and Invisible. Because you worked so closely with James (Wan) at the start of your careers, did you find yourself shooting in his style when you first started directing as of Insidious 3?

I think I did with Insidious 3, mainly because I was making the third film in this franchise. So, there’s that responsibility there. If you’re coming in and you’re directing a James Bond movie, they’re probably not going to go for it if you say, “I want it to be black and white, and it’s all in Polish with subtitles. And it’s not really about James Bond; it’s about his butler.” They’re gonna say, “We’re 25 movies in, we’ve got a template and you cannot shoot it in black and white or in Polish.” That’s where franchise responsibility comes in. I didn’t feel necessarily like that was truly me. I was still doing my best. I really cared, and I really wanted it to be scary. But, I felt this responsibility to the fans of that franchise, and in a way, I was thinking about how James would do things. He’s a master of scares, and I think I’ve absorbed a lot watching him over the years construct scare scenes. He’s so meticulous about not doing the obvious thing. He’s so invested in misdirection and going, “Oh, you think it’s happening over here? Wrong. It’s happening over here.” I’ve absorbed that and studied it. On Upgrade, I think that was my coming-out party where I was like, “Okay, this is just me.” That’s not to say that James wasn’t still an influence; he has to be. He’s been my friend and mentor for so long, and it’s impossible for me to not reflect him in some way. But, it definitely was me going, “What can I do here that’s different? What can I do here that I haven’t seen before?” It’s not so much what I haven’t seen James do before, but what can I do that I haven’t seen anybody do before? When we did the fight scenes in Upgrade, I would say to the stunt team, almost ridiculously for a film of our budget, “I want to do a fight scene that no one’s ever seen before.” And to their credit, they didn’t laugh or say, “You’re an idiot. How are we gonna do that on our budget?” They were all up for it. They were like, “Alright.” But, I would say initially, yeah, especially with Insidious, you’re right.

Now that you’ve proven yourself in the lower-budget arena, the industry is going to want to lure you to the blockbuster sandbox, where your friend James currently resides. Are you willing to make the jump?

Well, it’s interesting because I feel like putting the budget first is putting the cart before the horse. My policy is to let it be story driven. I don’t have a burning desire to make a big budget movie, in and of itself, just to make it. For instance, I wouldn’t sit down and go, “Right, I’m gonna reverse engineer a movie into a budget, and it’s gonna be a hundred million. So, what can I think of that could spend a hundred million?” What I would do is let the story drive it. After Upgrade, I had really got bitten by the action movie bug. It was so much fun to choreograph fight scenes and do car chases that I felt like I wanted to do more of that. I loved the futuristic design of Upgrade, and in my mind, the logical next thing to do was to go and do that again. Maybe spend some more money and do Blade Runner or something like that. And then The Invisible Man crash landed into my life, and I was so obsessed with that story that I ended up sitting down and writing a domestic thriller that’s mostly set in a house. That’s not something I was expecting, but I did it because I was obsessed with the idea of making a scary invisible Man movie. What I’d love to do is sit down and write another original film. If it’s small like The Invisible Man, then so be it, but I’m not necessarily sitting there going, “I have to do this big budget thing for my career so that it looks like I’m advancing up the latter.”

When you and James came up with Saw’s brilliant ending where Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw stands up, did you celebrate by running and screaming through the streets? Did you know you’d discovered gold?

It’s true, we did celebrate. We had finished film school, and we messed around making short films and just generally geeking around like you do when you finish film school. You’re not sure what you’re gonna do, but finally, we decided, “Look, if we’re ever going to make a feature, no one’s going to give us money to do it. We’re going to have to pay for it ourselves.” We were really inspired by The Blair Witch Project and Pi. It was right around that late ‘90s, early 2000s period of these independent movies making money or at least making a splash. A film like Pi didn’t necessarily set the box office on fire, but it set the film world on fire. All of a sudden, Darren Aronofsky was a name to be reckoned with, and that excited us. We wanted to do that. So, we’re like, “Fine, we’ll spend ten thousand dollars, and we’ll make our Blair Witch on a video camera.” But, it took a long time to come up with an idea; I think it was a year. We decided it had to all be set in one room, and we came up with every bad version of a one-room movie that you can think of. I do remember at one stage that I pitched a movie entirely set in an elevator that was stuck. There were five people in this elevator, and one of them was a murderer or something. (Laughs.) It was like Ten Little Indians but set in an elevator. Finally, after a year, we were almost ready to give up. We couldn’t find an idea that both of us liked. Usually, one of us liked it, and the other one wouldn’t. And then James called me one day at home; I was still living with my parents. He called me and he said, “I was sitting on the toilet, and I had this idea that two guys wake up in a room. They don’t know how they got there, and somebody put them there. And there’s this dead body in the middle of the room, and at the end of the movie, the dead body stands up. And that’s the guy that put them there.” That was what he pitched. He pitched me the start of the movie and the ending. I remember it like it was yesterday. I hung up the phone, and I went to my room to think about it. Earlier that day or the day before, I had sketched the word “Saw” down in my diary, apropos of nothing. I just wrote it down, and it was dripping with blood like it was a movie title. But, I didn’t have a movie; I just had the title. I sketched it down in red pen, and I actually still have the diary. I remember looking at that title, and I called James back and said, “That’s it. That’s the movie we’re gonna make, and it’s gonna be called Saw.” And he was like, “What? What do you mean Saw?” And I said, “It’s gonna be called Saw because those two guys in the bathroom are gonna have hacksaws, and the person who put them there is gonna say, ‘The only way you’re getting out of here is cutting your leg off.’” And James was like, “Okay…” And then we hung up again and called each other back. You could just feel it. I wouldn’t say we did a lap down the street, naked, but there was a palpable electricity of like, “That’s it. We found the idea.” I remember that day; it was crazy. And that’s the movie we wrote. We started talking about it, and I started writing. Now, I’m talking to you about The Invisible Man sixteen years later.

Similar to how you updated a 123-year-old The Invisible Man, it has to be a bizarre feeling when someone such as Chris Rock wants to try their hand at making a Saw movie.

Yeah, it is still trippy to me. One thing I’m thankful for is that the novelty of making movies has not worn off. Obviously, I’ll be on a film set, and if something’s not going right, you start acting like it’s the world’s biggest problem. But, it still trips me out every day that I get to make movies. I guess I didn’t have a lot of confidence when I was growing up. I wasn’t the captain of the football team where my success was preordained. It’s still a surprise to me that I’ve managed to become successful in this arena I was obsessed with. So, I’m thankful for that. I never want to be the guy where the novelty has long worn off, and now I’m just accepting my life at face value and getting pissed off at this, that or the other. So, yeah, definitely. Check with me on the next movie and see if I’ve become the jaded person. (Laughs.)


The Invisible Man is now in theaters.