It’s one thing to conquer Hollywood, but can Leigh Whannell conquer one of the oldest cinematic franchises? Maria Lewis interviews the Australian screenwriter, actor, producer and director whose latest film The Invisible Man, starring Elizabeth Moss, reimagines the classic movie monster and challenges its "hokey" perception.
Before Marvel’s cinematic universe, before DC’s attempt at one, before Tarantino’s interconnected web of characters and timelines, there was the Universal movie monsters. They were Hollywood’s first cinematic universe, with characters like the Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster, Bride Of Frankenstein, Phantom, The Creature, Dr Jekyll and his counterpart Mr Hyde establishing a fanbase with solo films before overlapping and appearing in each other’s. The brand was solid for almost 25 years before audiences started to lose interest (The Creature Walks Among Us in 1956 a definite low point). They were like the rock stars of early cinema, with Dracula Mick Jagger and the Wolf Man Keith Richards. Yet if there was any Ronnie Wood among the lot, it was the Invisible Man. That was a big part of the appeal for Australian writer, director, producer, and actor Leigh Whannell. “I remember talking to James Wan about doing Aquaman and asking him why he wanted to do it,” he says. “He felt Aquaman was seen as something of a joke by the public: he was the fishman. It was the hokey nature that some people perceived Aquaman to have that empowered James to take the character back. I mean, if you direct a Batman movie that’s daunting. You’ve got so many people peering over your shoulder who’ve done it in the past and done it well. If you do an Aquaman movie, you’re kind of starting with a clean slate.”
Helming a serious, scary, and grounded take on the Invisible Man was a unique task and one that also had a significantly smaller margin of error than, say, Universal’s more recent attempts at resurrecting the brand with The Mummy in 2017 and Dracula Untold in 2014. “I felt a little bit of what James felt on this,” says Whannell. “If I had been making a Dracula film, I would have felt the weight of history on my shoulders. Francis Ford Coppola and Gary Oldman would have been over there in the corner like ‘good luck, boy’. But there’s something great about attacking this character who’s well known but hasn’t been depicted as well as he should have been. Even in films like Memoirs Of An Invisible Man that (John) Carpenter did, it was played for laughs, for comedy. Hollow Man they went for the jugular, but I saw a really exciting opportunity to do something with this character that hadn’t been done before.” The 43-year-old has made a career out of doing what hasn’t done before. First introduced to audiences as the impassioned film critic on ABC’s Recovery with Dylan Lewis in the nineties, Whannell cut his teeth as an actor with small roles on Aussie staples like Blue Heelers and Neighbours.
On the side, he and his BFF James Wan had been cultivating a clever idea for film that was part horror, part noir, part mystery. The concept didn’t get much support as a short film in Australia, so the boys took a gamble and headed to Los Angeles where they sold the project and developed it into the now billion-dollar Saw franchise. With Whannell co-writing and co-starring in the film that Wan directed, they became one of the most successful creative duos over the course of the next decade. It’s hard to overstate what an impact Saw had on the horror genre, spawning a wave of imitators that are still being released even now (last year’s Escape Room, for instance). They originated another horror franchise with the Insidious movies, before spinning off to concentrate on solo projects. Wan stayed in the horror lane with The Conjuring Universe, before pivoting to blockbusters like Fast & Furious 7 and Aquaman. Whannell pivoted slightly, finding a home with the team behind Get Out, Blumhouse. “He’s so popular now, you only have to use his first name – like Britney,” Whannell quips about super producer Jason Blum from whom the company gets its name. The Blumhouse model is famous, with the budgets small but creatives getting almost full control over their visions. Insidious: Chapter 3 was his directorial debut, but Upgrade heralded his arrival as an auteur. Glossy, gory, and gripping, the techno-thriller paid homage to all of Whannell’s genre influences while simultaneously creating something original. Like The Invisible Man and Wan’s Aquaman, it too was shot locally.
“It’s interesting that I had to go to the US to make films in Australia,” says Whannell. “I did it kind of backwards. Usually people direct a film here and then if it does okay, Hollywood lures them over to the US with lucrative deals. James and I kind of reverse engineered it.” Growing up as a film fan and aspiring filmmaker in Melbourne, Whannell would often look across the sea with jealousy at the kind of movies that were being made in New Zealand. “They used to have such a varied and offbeat film scene,” he says. “They’d do everything from a period drama like The Piano to something like Bad Taste or Meet The Feebles with disgusting puppets and early Peter Jackson … I used to see that and think ‘why can’t Australia have more of a system like that?’ I felt like they (Australia) were making only one type of film, that they were trying to impress some imaginary Cannes Film Festival jury in their mind. Now I do see that kind of diversity happening with the slate of films that Australia makes.”
Whannell considers himself one of the “Peter Jackson OGs”, a long-time fan of the filmmaker’s work before and after he became a household name with The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. The Kiwi and his posse of collaborators represented the genre leanings Whannell so wanted to find support for in a country that wasn’t so keen on Saw until it was an international hit. “I think now obviously with the benefit of hindsight, I’m very relaxed about it all,” he says on the frustrations he felt back when Wan and he were starting out in their twenties. “I feel like things worked out the way they were supposed to … If we had shot the original Saw film in Australia, if the film funding bodies had supported that script, who knows what would have happened? Maybe it wouldn’t have been such a runaway hit. Maybe I’d be teaching English at some high school somewhere. You don’t know about the road not taken.”
The road he’s on now has been paved with nearly 20-years worth of experience in the industry. He has seen a lot of shit, but the upside is he’s able to bring the ‘know better, do better’ mentality Down Under for The Invisible Man. “Universal brought it up with me first,” he recalls. “They brought me in for a meeting after they saw Upgrade and I thought they were going to tell me how great Upgrade was for an hour, but they brought up the Dark Universe and what they wanted to do with it post-Mummy. And I was sitting there wondering why we were talking about the Dark Universe when I wanted to talk about how great Upgrade was. I needed that kind of praise in my life, it’s like oxygen for me.” The Invisible Man was offered as a potential re-re-re-entry point into the world of classic monsters, with that idea sitting with Whannell for weeks until Blum became involved: “then we were off to the races”.
Written, directed and produced by Whannell, The Invisible Man follows Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) who escapes from an abusive relationship only to believe her mad scientist ex is haunting her … and he’s invisible. Re-centering the narrative around a woman is an approach Blumhouse executive producer Beatriz Sequeira felt was “contemporary” for the conversation currently happening in the world. It also subverts Whannell’s trademarks. There are less jokes and less overt horror: the terror is instead drawn out through agonisingly tense scenes as Moss tip-toes through a cold mansion at night or as the audience sees visual clues in the background everyone else is ignoring as the character questions whether she’s going mad. His unique visual style is sharp as ever, as is the storytelling, with the finished product a long way from Whannell’s first introduction to the “stable of classic monsters” via a forgotten Rankin/Bass film as a child. “I became obsessed with all those characters after I saw Mad Monster Party as a kid,” he says. “I was just so into it and I went through a hardcore monster phase afterwards. But the Invisible Man in that is seen as, well, a joke with the floating pipe. Here I wanted the chance to change people’s minds about what The Invisible Man is and was. Hopefully I’ve done that.”
The Invisible Man is now showing in cinemas Australia-wide. You can watch the trailer here.
Maria Lewis is a best-selling author, screenwriter and journalist. Her fifth book The Wailing Woman is out now.