Interview: Leigh Whannell Talks ‘The Invisible Man’, the Dark Realism Grounding the Story & More
I had the opportunity to speak to Leigh Whannell, who wrote, directed, and executive produced The Invisible Man. During our interview, we spoke about how the film came about, what it was like directing his own screenplay, and the dark realism that grounds the film!
Check out our conversation below:
I wanted to start off with this question because I’m really curious, what initially drew you into this type of project?
Leigh Whannell: Well, I wasn’t thinking of doing this type of project. I’m very aware of The Invisible Man character and a fan of his place in the history of horror films, but it wasn’t a character I was walking around thinking about. When this came into my life, I had just finished Upgrade. I’d had a really good experience and I was thinking I wanted to go more into that world of sci-fi, there’s so much fun you can have with production design. It just makes films more fun when you walk onto the set of a spaceship as opposed to a kitchen in a house [laughs], there were a lot of kitchens in my time! I kind of wanted to get into something that was really creative from a production design standpoint.
I had a meeting where the title of The Invisible Man was suggested to me, and someone in the meeting said, “Well, what would you do with this character?” I just thought it was a mad-lib, I was like, “You know, okay. We’re passing the time here. I don’t have any burning desire to make a movie about the invisible man but to humor you at this moment, I’ll say this.” And I just kind of blurted something out, and I said, “Well, I would probably tell the story from The Invisible Man’s victim, the person that he’s stalking. From that one improvisation came this job, and now I’m talking to you.
That’s a really good outcome all from an improvisation!
Whannell: [Laughs] Yeah, it all came about in a strangely organic way. At the risk of sounding too new-agey, you do have to sometimes open yourself up to the universe and let things fall into place and be receptive to other people’s ideas because you just never know where this strange river of life is going to take you.
That’s a beautiful way and story of this kind of coming about, clearly everything worked out. But, were there any challenges you had on this film that you haven’t experienced before on your previous films?
Whannell: I mean, first of all, it’s a known property. So, when I was making Upgrade I felt very much like I was working in secret. You know, I was the kid having a party while the parents were away in Hawaii. We were over in Australia making that film, we were putting it together with spit and glue, we didn’t have much money but were scrambling trying to achieve this science fiction look. It just felt very underground. Then, of course, when we finished the film, nobody cared too much in terms of studios. It wasn’t like major Hollywood studios were banging on our door to put that film out on thousands of screens, it felt very much like an underground, cult film. But with this movie, you’re dealing with a piece of intellectual property that’s owned by a giant multinational corporation, so I definitely felt a microscope kind of hovering over me. I never felt oppressed by it, in the sense that I was being micro-managed or steered in a certain direction. But you still feel that Eye of Sauron, it’s there! It’s behind you and it’s looking. Even though we were shooting in Australia, I could feel it. I could feel the Eye of Sauron [laughs] hovering over the volcano of Mordor looking down. But I just had a great experience, Universal was so encouraging. They never shoved me in any one direction or tried to push the film into a larger scheme of movies. Like “Hey! You need to connect this film to some sequel” or “we need a cameo from Frankenstein!”, there was none of that. They always treated it like a standalone movie, but that was definitely something that was new to me. Dealing with someone else’s IP now and doing it justice.
I can imagine the little bit of pressure that comes with taking on such a classic, iconic character. But because you were able to write, direct, and executive produce it, I bet that kind of eased the experience just a little bit.
Whannell: It does! I mean, I don’t know if I’m even qualified to direct something that I haven’t written. It’s not that I think I’m the best writer out there, it’s just that I feel most comfortable directing when it’s my own script that’s at stake. I feel like I know the film inside and out. You know, when you write a film, you make a film. You see the movie in your head and you know, any screenwriter who hands their script off to a director, no matter how much they trust or love that director, there’s a part of you that dies inside [laughs]. Somebody else is now going to interpret this document that you’ve created and there’s something really creatively satisfying about writing a sentence in a script like, you know, “The Geeks of Color reporter walks in the door”, and you can write that sentence in a screenplay but when you get to set, you suddenly have to decide what color is the door? What is the reporter wearing, is she carrying anything- a notepad, a laptop? All those microdecisions that make up a movie, I enjoy making them. I enjoy fleshing out that sentence in that screenplay to every tiny detail. You know, she’s got five bracelets on and jeans! I like making those decisions, because all of those microdecisions may seem inconsequential to a viewer, but they’re not. They all add up to the picture. A movie is basically- you know those pictures that they make out of pictures? Like, they’ll construct a portrait of someone’s face using tiny photos.
Whannell: Like, they’ll arrange those photos in a way that the color and everything matches and lines up, so when you stand back from it, it forms another picture. That, to me, is a movie. All the tiny decisions you make on a film set; whether it’s the color of someone’s tie, or their haircut, the color of the walls, the type of curtains that hang across the walls, all of those decisions add up to the movie. If you’re doing your job correctly, none of those decisions should be made lightly. There’s nothing that doesn’t matter. If a production designer walks up to me and wants to talk about the curtains, I’m never flippant. To me, it’s a life or death decision that can add or subtract from this portrait I’m trying to create. That’s always been my attitude on set. That everything is important.
Speaking of important decisions, one of my favorite aspects of this film is that it’s grounded by the real-world horrific issue of domestic violence. Something like this can be tricky to portray on screen in this capacity, I think you did an amazing job of elevating the story and the horror elements without relying on the abuse at the film’s core. How did you come up with this, and was it difficult to tow the line to make sure you didn’t have to rely on it for the scare?
Whannell: Yeah, I was very aware of this because I’m a male. You know, and I’m writing about this issue that primarily affects females and so I had a little bit of imposter syndrome in a way that a heterosexual writer might feel a little bit of guilt writing about a gay man or woman. Sometimes you don’t feel like you’re qualified to tell this story, and that someone that has lived it should. But ultimately, you want to be free. I’m not interested in writing a movie about a middle aged white Australian male [laughs], I want to go broader than that. So, I knew I couldn’t exploit it and I had to be sensitive because it is something that affects people every day. It’s very real, so I definitely used Elisabeth [Moss] as a thermometer for where things were sitting. I would talk to her a lot about certain scenes, and she’s had a lot of life experience- relationships, things that she could draw on and talk about. We shared a lot and she would help me shape the dialogue for a lot of her scenes. She was just a good stamp of approval to me, and that would help me sleep at night because if she signed off on it then it was okay.
On the topic of Elisabeth Moss, she gave an incredibly haunting performance as Cecilia. How did her presence in the film come about, was she a name that was in the mix during early development?
Whannell: She actually wasn’t. Usually when I write a screenplay, I actually picture my friends and relatives. It’s kind of a shortcut way of connecting to a character, if you can picture someone that you know personally, then you can picture what they might say in a certain situation. Like for instance the character of Emily, played by Harriet Dyer, that character was based on someone I know very well. I felt that I could write that character, but then when I finish the script, I have to stop thinking of her as this friend of mine and start casting someone. Even the actor I ended up casting looked similar to this friend of mine. So with the Cecilia character, I wasn’t quite sure what actor would be perfect for it. I just knew it had to be a great actor. When you make a list of great actors, it’s relatively short. I mean, there are a lot of charismatic, good looking, and good actors. But great, truly great actors are rare, but Elisabeth Moss is on that list. She is as good as Meryl Streep, so I was crossing my fingers that she would be interested but I always assume the worst. You send your script to actors and you never hear from them, six months go by when finally their agent tells you they’ve passed on it. And I’m like, “Really? Couldn’t tell”. So, with Elisabeth, I actually heard from her very quickly and I could tell instantly that she was a super intelligent person who had the right point of view on the script.
I agree about her being a highly skilled actress, I put her performance on par with Toni Collette’s in Hereditary. That kind of nuanced performance where we understand everything viscerally just by their portrayals of the characters onscreen. It’s raw and so effective for the overall film.
Whannell: Oh, wow. That’s a great compliment because I love that film and I love Toni Collette’s performance in it. It’s gut wrenching, there’s an authenticity and a truth to what Toni Collette and Elisabeth Moss can do. A lot of horror films, when you’re dealing with such extreme emotions of grief and terror, it’s fairly easy to fall into histrionics when you’re an actor. It just doesn’t connect, the person’s screaming and they look upset, but there’s got to be a truth there. That’s really hard, to walk that line. It would have been very easy for Toni Collette or Elisabeth Moss to overdo it. It’s amazing that they can walk that line of authenticity. Lizzie was always truthful, I never doubted her emotions on set when we were rolling. I was always like, “Wow, she’s feeling that right now.”
It really is always amazing to see that caliber of a performance onscreen.
For a majority of the film, we can’t even see the monster. But, we feel his presence in the spaces of the frames and voids of some of the shots. How was that experience of creating that atmosphere of tension when the monster is invisible?
Whannell: There’s always challenges making any film, you’re always nervous. I just don’t want to make films that no one sees. There’s too much effort that goes into it, the crew works to hard for it to be a tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it. I want it to be seen by as wide as possible of an audience. But, I think the way to get people into a theater is to try something unique. It’s the thing that scares you, that’s what you should run towards. So, every time I was on set shooting these empty corridors and rooms I felt that we were doing the right thing. It was spooky to do it because I was like, “Oh god, is this going to work?” But I always find that the unique thing is the right thing to do.
It translated beautifully to the screen. Well, thank you so much for talking to me today and sharing your insight into this film.
Whannell: Thank you so much for chatting with me!