I have been a fan of Leigh Whannell since the first time I viewed SAW back when it was released in 2004. Since then, I’ve followed his career not only as an actor but also as a writer, where he helped helm some of the biggest horror franchises such as SAW and Insidious, as well as a director (Upgrade). What I’ve always appreciated about Whannell is his ability to craft horror films that are not only terrifying, but also elicit an emotional response that begs the viewer to dive even further into the story. Furthermore, he has a special craft for always making sure to add a splash of humor to either his writing, directing or acting, which always helps in breaking up moments of intense dread and fear.
For his latest film, Whannell has tackled the Universal Monsters with his rendition of THE INVISIBLE MAN. The film centers on Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) after she leaves her abusive ex, only to find out that he takes his own life and leaves her with his fortune. However, she suspects that his death was a hoax after a series of coincidences turn lethal. For the release of the film, we had the chance to speak with writer/director Leigh Whannell where we discussed everything from the terror of the unseen, incorporating visual and practical effects, as well as how the story focuses on the treatment that women face in society.
When we think of The Invisible Man, we typically think of the title character; however, you’ve given us a view through the lens of Cecilia. Why was it important for you to focus on her instead of Adrian?
Leigh Whannell: I just felt that the character was scarier if we were seeing the film through the eyes of his victim – the person being stalked by the Invisible Man. Ultimately, the lead character of the film is the audience – you are walking in the shoes of this character and experiencing the world through their eyes. I just felt like if you make that [lead] character the Invisible Man, you demystify them and it becomes more of a character study. I was more interested in making the character terrifying again, kind of unknowable, you know? That seemed to me to be the cleanest way to do it.
I like that we don’t see much of Adrian in the flesh throughout the film, though his presence is more than felt. Was one of the reasons you did this because it made it so the audience couldn’t get too emotionally attached to him?
Leigh Whannell: I guess the very character part of the Invisible Man begs for him to be invisible (laughs). I didn’t want to know this character too well. He’s in much of the movie he’s just not visible. I know which scenes he’s in and he’s in the room with these characters. The whole conceit of him is that – a lot of past versions of The Invisible Man have made him a visible man by hanging a hat and a coat and sunglasses on him. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make a film where he was avoiding any depiction at all and was completely camouflaged and could be standing next to you and you wouldn’t know it. That was my goal. I never wanted to put any clothes on him, so to speak. That just seemed to be my direction and I was locked into that from very early on in the script-writing.
I think that’s what made it so terrifying because I never knew where he was. When the camera would pan down a hallway I was like, “Is he there? Is he not there? I’m scared either way!”.
Leigh Whannell: That’s great to hear because those exact words that you just said you could write them down and make a T-shirt out of it for me. When I was on the set of the film, I was always saying to Stefan Duscio, the cinematographer, I want the audience to be looking down the hallway thinking, “Is he there? Is he not there?”. It was verbatim of what you just said so it’s kind of gratifying to hear those words parroted back to me by someone who has seen the film recently.
I was also insanely impressed with how you incorporated visual and practical effects. How difficult was it to do all that, especially in regards to the fight scenes between Cecilia and Adrian, as the Invisible Man?
Leigh Whannell: It is difficult, it’s a logistical challenge. Your playing Tetris with different approaches with a few practical effects, a little bit of CGI, and stunt work – it all works together when you are dealing with something like this. I discovered just how difficult it is to remove somebody from a frame, though. It’s easy to add things, well, correction, it’s not easy but it’s easier when you’re adding something to the frame. There’s somebody who’s fighting with an empty space and you can paint in a CGI dragon, it’s difficult and a lot of work goes into it but it’s achievable. I found out that erasing someone from the scene is next to impossible (laughs). It led to a lot of migraines, a lot of heartaches, but I hope we got there. The scary thing is only you can be the judge, the royal you – the audience – so if you were to tell me it works for you and you felt that it was real and felt like this was something that was actually happening and photo-realistic, then I would be very happy, indeed.
I loved the contemporary feel that THE INVISIBLE MAN has opposed to what we are used to from the original films, meaning the cobwebs, scary mansion, fog – the typical horror tropes that come along with that. Was there a reason behind having a more clean, contemporary look?
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, those tropes you talked about, the lightning cracking over the cemetery and the fog crawling across the cobblestone streets, that’s all great. In terms of horror iconography, I love it, I love Hammer horror films and I just love stories set in Victorian London, but I think for me, personally, that’s not the direction I wanted to go down. I would rather watch that movie than make it. For me, I felt to make this character relevant and scary I had to place him in a completely modern era and I had to make it grounded. One difficult thing about The Invisible Man is that it is kind of outlandish. The idea, at least at this moment in history, of being completely invisible is still supernatural. So how do I take it out of the fantastical territory of drinking a serum and suddenly you’re invisible. To me, I had to ground it in tech, that was the way to do it. I find that human beings accept new tech very quickly. We think it’s impressive for about five minutes and then we get used to it and we take it for granted completely. When I was growing up watching sci-fi films in the ’80s, talking to someone over a video phone or a self-driving car was a complete science fiction concept that belonged in films like Bladerunner. Now it’s part of our daily lives, you know, being able to see someone while talking to them or having a watch that can dial someone in Hong Kong. It’s all just totally taken for granted and that to me felt like the best gateway drug to this concept feeling grounded – basing it all in tech and steering away from any potions or any of that malarky.
One of the reasons, for me personally, that I appreciated this film so much was that I found it to be a rather accurate portrayal of emotional/mental abuse. I was wondering if the story took inspiration from the women speaking out in regards to the #MeToo movement. Is that why Cecilia received such a powerful storyline?
Leigh Whannell: I will say that that whole movement has been inspiring to watch and it’s been sobering, as a man, to see women coming out and telling these stories and shining a light on just how common it is. In terms of this movie, it wasn’t like I went into it thinking that this is going to be a story about domestic violence and gaslighting. It was more that I started writing and the movie seemed to want to go in that direction. We are talking about a woman here who is escaping from a toxic relationship, that felt like this was what it was about. A lot of times, at the risk of sounding wishy-washy, the movie tells you what it wants to be about. It kind of bubbles up from your subconscious. You discover what the themes of the movie are as you’re writing, not before, at least for me. All screenwriters are different, everyone takes a different approach. But for me, I usually have a story in my head and I really concentrate on the mechanics of the story and then as I’m writing, these themes emerge organically. It’s only later when I sit back and do the post-mortem on the script that I realize this is about terminal illness, or this is about losing a child. It’s funny how that stuff shoots through. I guess when you’re writing subsequent drafts you can hone the film down and point it in the direction of those themes that have emerged. That’s exactly what happened here. I found that the movie was kind of speaking to the issue of being stalked or feeling unsafe, you know? That thing that women have to do when they’re walking back to their car, where they put their keys between their fingers expecting the worse. It’s amazing to think that women have to live like that where you’re expecting the worst. I feel like this movie could speak to that. When you are talking about someone who can’t be seen then you’re talking about someone who can pull off gaslighting and stalking and torturing in a really palpable way. It’s kind of what horror does best, they literalize the fears we have in society. They turn a metaphorical monster in our lives into a literal monster and they’ve always done that. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about paranoia about communists taking over, but you can enjoy Invasion of the Body Snatchers as a genre film. I’m sure a lot of people sit back and watch it and don’t unpack it in that way. They just take it in as a pure genre exercise. That’s the great thing about horror, all the themes, they’re all just trojan-horsed into the movie and you can use the genre to your advantage, you know?
For more on THE INVISIBLE MAN, check out our review here and make sure you see the film when it’s released in theaters this Friday, February 28, 2020.