“Go Left When The Audience Thinks You’re Going To Go Right” Leigh Whannell Discusses ‘The Invisible Man’
Horror film screenwriter/director Leigh Whannell is best known for creating the enormously successful Saw and Insidious movie franchises. Whannell spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about his contemporary vision of the 1897 H.G. Wells classic The Invisible Man.
It was clear from the outset that Whannell’s interpretation of The Invisible Man was not going to include dismembered bodies and other hallmarks of slasher films no matter how deep their theme. So what attracted him to this film?
“After I made Upgrade in 2018, I was keen to make another sci-fi film like that. I wanted to make something with high design. There’s something about an elevated production design when setting a film in another world,” he said. Highly-stylized design differs from visual effects added during post-production because Whannell got to live his vision on set while he was filming. Insidious and Saw were mainly filmed in domestic settings. Whannell notes that much of the original Saw film was set in a basement toilet. Visual aesthetics were therefore naturally going to feature heavily in The Invisible Man.
“All of a sudden I’m making a sci-fi movie [Upgrade] and the production designer was presenting me with all these fantastic creations. It gets in your blood,” continued Whannell. This was when The Invisible Man crash-landed into his life.
He couldn’t stop thinking about it, so he decided it was going to be his next project. It was the film he was most passionate about. We asked Leigh Whannell what stoked his relentless passion for The Invisible Man. “I could see an opportunity to create a modern, scary version of this film. I’ve made many horror films, so to some extent, I’ve been there and done that. It was time for something different.”
The director leaned into the psychological thriller genre for this film. He added that he still gets offered ghost, possession and demon movies, but he declines them.
“What was attractive about The Invisible Man is that it was very real. I could see a way to make it about a real man stalking a real woman and having it be relatable to a modern audience,” he opined.
“Many people make the assumption that scary movies are easy to make and it’s just not true.” All horror movies are not created equal. “The horror gems are made by people who really understand how horror films work.” Whannell cites some of his horror heroes such as James Wan (Saw, The Conjuring), Ari Aster (Hereditary), and Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange) who have inspired his work.
Adapting The Novel
There are marked differences between H.G. Wells’ original novel and Leigh Whannell’s film, but also stark similarities. We asked Whannell about his adaptation process. “You’ve got to ask yourself what it is about this original text that has appeal. You have to understand the soul and intention of the source material.”
He added that many films he likes are remakes. No matter how they retooled, the original kernel always remains intact. “One of my favorite movies of all time is The Thing (1982). I think it’s a masterpiece. If you watch the original Howard Hawks movie, The Thing From Another World (1951) and compare it to John Carpenter’s version, it’s both different and the same.”
The 1951 version was a great film for its time, but John Carpenter dragged his version of the story into the modern time. “Carpenter utilized modern anxieties,” a mantra Whannell also utilized in The Invisible Man. “Carpenter kept the spirit of the original film and the basic structure. The same is true with David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly in 1986.”
Whannell stated that Cronenberg’s version of the 1958 classic was a big inspiration while he was writing The Invisible Man. “It was a real template for me.” He took the basic idea and made it an allegory for the AIDS crisis which was affecting society at the time.
You are not changing the movie. The audience changes – Leigh Whannell
There are many anxieties in people’s lives today. We asked Whannell why he chose domestic abuse to be the thematic underpinning of his version of The Invisible Man. “It happened organically when I decided that the main character should be a woman that was in a relationship with her partner Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen),” declared the writer/director. Following this creative decision, a wealth of possibilities opened up for Whannell in terms of crafting his story.
He began researching domestic violence. He needed to get inside the head of victims of psychological abuse to get his facts right. “When I decided The Invisible Man was about a woman escaping a toxic relationship with her partner, I spoke with some female counselors at Peace Over Violence, a non-profit, domestic violence center for women in Los Angeles.”
Whannell found the experience equally eye-opening, shocking and fascinating. “These psychological abusers and narcissists have the same modus operandi.”
Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) is a subsequently a composite character of the stories Whannell heard at Peace Over Violence. “Like all good screenwriters doing research, you must listen to people.” Listening can also generate story ideas that you can use in your screenplay.
After watching a bunch of films, Leigh Whannell consulted his library of screenwriting books and Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting masterclass to re-familiarize himself with screenwriting “rules.” Rules can be broken. But you need to know what they are so you know you when are breaking them. “I want to learn the rules so I can forget them,” quipped Whannell.
Manipulating The Audience
Well-crafted horror/thriller films rely on the art of manipulating the audience. Screenwriters must bait, lead, mislead, subvert, shock and surprise audiences. Whannell masterfully uses these techniques to full effect in The Invisible Man. “Misdirection is important to me. Audiences think they know where the scares are coming from and I like to mess with them.”
Leigh Whannell prides himself on not writing anything the audience is expecting. “Nothing will induce a groan like a cheap scare.” He cites the clichéd example of a character standing in front of a bathroom cabinet mirror, opens the door and the reflection of a stranger appears when the close it. Cue hysterical screams.
Whannell’s version of this scene might be having the character open the cabinet door, close it, and there’s nothing there. “I don’t acknowledge it. I just want to toy with the audience’s expectations and make them feel unsafe.” This unsettles the audience because they are expecting a scare that is not forthcoming.
The screenwriter advocates using such sleights of hand to create these screenplay moments. “Studying magic is a great way to write horror and thriller films. Magic is about making the audience looking in one place when the real action is happening in another.“
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