Leigh Whannell is half of one of the most successful partnerships in horror history. With writer-director James Wan, Whannell, who is predominantly a writer and actor, is behind two ongoing franchises based on original ideas. Their breakthrough, Saw, expanded with six sequels that have drawn nearly $900 million at the worldwide box office, and Insidious, which has its own box-office hit of a sequel, will return to theaters next year with a third installment that will be Whannell’s directing debut.
But Whannell isn’t planning on restricting himself to horror in his upcoming projects “not because I would become bored of the genre as much as because the genre would become bored of me,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter.
“I think if I was constantly generating horror, the films would suffer,” he says. “I feel like going off and making a film that’s completely different recharges your batteries. It’s a great thing to do.”
He made a comedy — okay, horror-comedy — with his zombie film Cooties, which he wrote with Glee co-creator Ian Brennan. The feature debut of Elijah Wood‘s SpectreVision production banner, it earned acclaim at Sundance and a seven-figure distribution deal with Lionsgate. His newest film, The Mule, is his first crime thriller — it’s the true story of a first-time drug mule (Angus Sampson, who co-directed) who is captured by authorities and decides to refrain from going to the restroom, and thus discharging his cargo, until the lead detective (Hugo Weaving) is forced to let him go.
What’s next? “If I had to pick one genre next, I’d love to make a sci-fi film,” Whannell says. “I grew up in the ’80s, going to the video store and renting Aliens and The Thing — I just love them so much. Nostalgia for the films I loved in my teenage years kind of really draws me.”
Find an edited transcript of THR’s talk with him below, including his favorite directors and why he isn’t drawn to television.
Is writing (and directing) in multiple genres a longtime goal of yours?
Both James Wan and I, when we first came over the States, we were film fans, not horror fans. When we would talk about films and filmmakers that we loved back in Australia before Saw was even an idea, we wouldn’t even talk about horror films. We’d talk about Steven Spielberg. We kind of fell into this genre and that’s what we became known for. I think both of us have had our eye on other projects, which James has now done with Furious 7. He’s made a big-budget action-adventure film, and I know from knowing him for so long, that’s been his ambition.
Is there a writer or director whose career path you’d like to follow?
It’s so mood-dependent. Some days my answer would be Steven Spielberg, and I want to make big action epics, or I want to be Spike Jonze and make these quirky films that appeal to a certain kind of person. One director I really love is Rob Reiner. He’s a director that’s worked in so many genres but has excelled in each of them. He’s made a horror classic with Misery, a romantic comedy with When Harry Met Sally, and a great comedy with This is Spinal Tap. He’s made a great kids’ adventure film with Stand By Me. There was a while there where he was just hopping from genre to genre and really excelling.
If you ask me which modern filmmaker I most admire, I really love Rian Johnson. I just think that what he’s done is great, making his own film with Brick, writing it and creating his own world, and then going on to do Looper and Brothers Bloom. You really do look at him as a true creator. He’s not a director for hire, he’s a guy who writes his own stories. I don’t know that I could direct someone else’s script. I think that any script I direct would have to be written by me. I don’t know that I would feel qualified to do someone else’s. My agent, right now, if he was listening to this conversation, he’d put a gun to my head and say, ‘are you really telling The Hollywood Reporter you don’t want to direct other people’s movies?’ [Johnson is] just a true creator. Him doing his own thing has basically led to Star Wars. That’s a guy where I go, ‘ok, that’s what I want to do.’
When you’re working in other genres, like crime with The Mule, do you use techniques you learned writing horror?
I think so. It’s so embedded in me, those rhythms of horror. I think the one thing that really came through [in The Mule] is this sense that you need to give the audience a gift every now and then. Horror is a very functional genre — it’s a Siamese twin with the comedy genre in that horror and comedy are the only genres where your sole purpose is to elicit an involuntary response. You can debate a film’s quality till the cows can come home, but what rises above all that is, is it funny or is it scary.
What that teaches you is that rhythm, that metronome inside you. You’re trying to anticipate how the tension is coming through, and I think in The Mule, that metronome manifested itself saying, ‘let’s have an explosion of violence or a twist.’ It’s this inner rhythm that makes me want to keep having the story unravel.
Do you ever think about working in TV?
I think there’s no doubt that in 2014, television is the king of the scripted arts. It’s where all the best stories are happening, where all the best writing is happening. All the films I love from the ’70s, they aren’t being made for the cinemas. Breaking Bad is the current generation’s version of The Godfather. Films that get released now, it’s either The Avengers or it’s one of these Blumhouse horror films that I write. All this nuanced adult drama that made for great films in the 70s, like The Godfather and Marathon Man and All the President’s Men, has transitioned to TV. But for me, it’s all about the idea. I think a really good TV idea would have to hit me before I’d pursue it.
I also still love film. I still get really excited by the smell of popcorn. I’m so nostalgic about movies and movie theaters — I can’t quite leave it, no matter how much TV becomes the cool kid on the block. I like it when people fly the flags for art forms and media that are supposedly dying. Quentin Tarantino loves film, 35-mm film. I like the fact that there’s someone out there flying the flag for 35 mm film. I’ll keep doing that for movies, no matter how cool TV gets.