Interview: Writer/director Leigh Whannell on his relationship with the horror genre and his unique take on The Invisible Man

As The Invisible Man prepares to be seen (or not seen) in theatres this week, The AU Review’s Peter Gray was fortunate enough to chat with the film’s writer and director, Australian talent Leigh Whannell, on his relationship with the horror genre and how a major studio like Universal Pictures left him to his own devices.

The film was initially announced off the back of The Mummy, under the Dark Universe banner, were you involved in the film in the original stages?

No, not at all.  I had no idea about any of that universe that Universal were working on.  I was making Upgrade at the time (that happened) so it wasn’t something I focused on.  When I finished Upgrade and I delivered it, and was happy with it, I took a meeting with Universal and Blumhouse and it was something they spoke about.

I was a bit mystified that we were talking about it, but they asked me what I would do if I made the movie.  I casually said that I would tell the story from the point of view of the victim.  Whoever the Invisible Man is chasing – that’s who I’d follow.  And all of a sudden phone calls were being made, contracts were being signed…

I was going to ask you about that, because your decision to make The Invisible Man essentially a supporting character to Elisabeth Moss was an interesting choice.  You obviously had that idea from the beginning.

Yeah, it was the first thing out of my mouth, quite literally.  And once I knew I wanted to make the movie I just started building out from there…who is his victim and why would he be chasing this person, and I started gravitating towards being about a bad relationship and that they were in hiding.  It just seemed to fit neatly with the idea of the Invisible Man.  I was left alone (to write the story), Universal didn’t micromanage, Blumhouse would give me a few notes, but there was never any pressure to build it into a part of a franchise.  They were just keen to do what I wanted to do.

I really liked that the film took a more psychological thriller approach.  You utilised silence so well.

Oh thank you, that’s really gratifying to hear.  When your villain is the Invisible Man you have to use silence, you can’t see him, so you are relying on what you can hear.  The sound mix was one of the funnest parts of the entire process.

You’ve always had a great relationship with horror films.  Where did that start for you?

It started from a very young age.  I’ve always been fascinated with dark characters.  I remember being fascinated with Jack the Ripper when I was young.  I was just drawn (to him) and I don’t know why!  It’s like trying to explain why you like a certain song, you can’t really explain it, you just do.

The Saw franchise obviously put you on the map, and you stayed quite influential throughout those films for the original trilogy.  Was there any hesitation in letting go of creative control of that series?

Not really.  I felt like it was time for me to move on.  I had written that original film and I was very affectionate towards it, and very thankful in that it established me, but I got into filmmaking to be creative and to tell stories and writing sequels just started to feel like a job.  I wanted the feeling of total freedom that creativity gives you and I couldn’t get that from cranking out Saw movies.

And with The Invisible Man, you have Elisabeth Moss who is fantastic in the lead role.  Was she someone you had in mind? What was the casting process like?

I didn’t have her in mind. I never write scripts with actors in mind, I actually write them with my friends in mind.  In fact, Harriet Dyer’s character (Elisabeth Moss’s character’s sister) is based on someone i’m very close to.  I even cast someone who looks a little like her, it’s something I do when i’m writing.  But then when I finish I have to divorce myself from the image of these people that I know and start attaching actors, and it takes a while to adjust to a new face.  Lizzie (Elisabeth Moss) was never a part of the initial process but she was on a wishlist of mine, and she read it and loved it…again, it all happened very quickly.

Were you influential in having the film shot in Australia?

Yeah.  We shot my last film (Upgrade) in Melbourne and that was a great experience.  We really got champagne on a beer budget with that movie, and Jason Blum (the producer and founder of Blumhouse Productions) was so impressed with what the Australian crews achieved.  The level they got, they made this movie look much more expensive than it was.  When I was writing this script he was automatically suggesting Australia.  And I certainly don’t need to be pushed to film here, and this time we were in Sydney and I loved getting to know the city.  The whole thing was so great.

I have to ask about that house!  Was that already a Sydney structure, or was it built specifically?

Yeah that was a house we spent a long time looking for.  I was being very picky about where we could shoot, was looking at a lot of different locations, and I just couldn’t find one that I completely loved.  But when we walk into that place I knew we could get it there.  It’s a couple hours north of Sydney, on a cliff, overlooking the water…it has this perfect quality.  We had to make a few adjustments, a few production design alterations…it took a little bit of convincing for the owner to let us shoot there, but i’m so glad he said yes because I think it adds real character to the story.

It’s been announced that The Invisible Woman is on the cards with Elizabeth Banks directing, do you know if there’s a plan to link your film with that? Or it will be its own product?

I actually think that film is more just a title, I don’t think it has anything to do with invisibility. A lot of people have drawn that line between the two films, thinking it’s somehow connected but it’s not.  The Invisible Man is very much a standalone movie, that’s the way Universal wanted to treat it.  They never pressured me or pushed me into making something bigger.

The Invisible Man is screening in Australian theatres from February 27th 2020.

Peter Gray

Seasoned film critic. Gives a great interview. Penchant for horror. Unashamed fan of Michelle Pfeiffer and Jason Momoa.