10 years ago, Leigh Whannell made his screenwriting debut with the horror film, “Saw,” in which he also co-starred alongside Cary Elwes. And after writing the second and third film in that series, as well as the screenplays for the “Insidious” movies, Whannell is taking a different turn with his latest feature, “The Mule,” which releases to VOD and limited theaters on Nov. 21.
Inspired by true events, “The Mule” is a crime drama about a man named Ray (Angus Sampson), a first-time drug mule who is apprehended by Australian Federal Police. Locked in a room with investigators, Ray must make the difficult decision to withhold the evidence that is in his stomach. Even when his bodily functions kick in, Ray puts himself through a torturous ordeal to make sure the drugs don’t end up in the hands of the officials.
The Chico Movie Examiner recently conducted an over-the-phone interview with Whannell about his new film, in which he also co-stars with Sampson, Hugo Weaving, John Noble, and Georgina Haig. Whannell talks about how even though his name is usually associated with the horror genre, he can tell any kind of story; not just a scary one. Whannell also talks about how he likes to push the audience’s buttons and how he prepared himself for his directorial debut, the upcoming “Insidious: Chapter 3.” Check out the full interview below.
David Wangberg: I want to say, first off, congratulations on the film. I had a fun time watching it. I really enjoyed the humor, and Angus [Sampson] was amazing. It was just really well done.
Leigh Whannell: Oh, thank you so much.
DW: Yeah. And a lot of people, at least here in the U.S., when they see your name, they’ll think of “Saw” and “Insidious” and something else affiliated with the horror genre that you’ve done. For you, when it came to doing this film, which is a crime drama, was it more of a challenge to convince yourself that you can tell a good story that’s not a horror film, or was it more of a challenge to convince other people that you can tell a good story that’s not a horror film?
LW: I think it was more of a challenge to convince other people, because I didn’t find it a challenge. I’ve always written stories since I was a kid. I mean, as soon as I could write, I was telling stories, and I just love telling them. And in a weird way, I kind of fell into the horror genre. I loved horror films so much, and I was a big fan of them, but that wasn’t my whole life, you know.
I meet a lot of people here in Los Angeles who love horror films to the point where they exclude everything else. They dress head to toe in black with a “Nightmare on Elm Street” T-shirt, and all they want to talk about is horror. And I do love the horror community in L.A. and around the world. But I wouldn’t necessarily include myself as part of that dyed-in-the-wool horror community.
When I say that, what I mean is my love for film goes far beyond the horror genre. I mean, I love Pixar films like everyone else. I love Spanish films; Japanese films; films from the U.K.; [and] I love westerns. There are so many different genres that I love, and I feel like James [Wan] and I kind of fell into the horror genre, and we were known for that and for good reason. I mean, we do love making horror films, but it’s just one color in our palette.
So, for me, it wasn’t difficult at all to write something in a different genre. I mean, it was as difficult as writing any script is, but it wasn’t made any more difficult by being in a different genre. Luckily, I have the benefit of relative anonymity. I mean, people don’t really know who I am, but, hopefully, “The Mule” can succeed on its own terms. [laughs]
DW: [laughs] Yeah, that’s true. Well, actually, I was reading on Screen Rant that you and Angus had no intentions of rewriting the screenplay. You were going to have your friend, Jamie [Browne], just do it. But now that you have come onboard as writers, and the film’s complete, and it’s receiving praise from critics and other people, do you think that different writers could have made it as good as it is now?
LW: Maybe. I mean, whether or not it would be as good, that’s not really up to us. But I don’t think it could have been this exact film. I really feel like every film is an imprint of the writer’s personality and the director’s personality. It takes pieces from them, and I feel like this film is the sum of its parts. It’s got a bit of Angus’ DNA in it; a bit of mine; a bit of Jamie’s; and you kind of put all of those elements in a blender and see what comes out.
And that’s the same thing with “Saw” and “Insidious.” I mean, you take James’ psyche and put it in a blender with mine, that’s what comes out – these crazy horror films with bizarre talking puppets on tricycles. That’s just really what happens when James and I work together.
I do love that element. When you’re working with other people in a collaborative art form like filmmaking, I love the fact that a sort of personality collide together and explode like a star going supernova. It’s just this explosion, and whatever ends up on screen is the sum of those parts.
So, I don’t know. If someone else had written “The Mule,” it may have been just as good or maybe even better, but it wouldn’t have been this movie.
DW: Exactly. And you’ve starred in a lot of the films that you have written. Going into it, do you usually know who you’re going to play, or do you just write the screenplay and then just determine which character you are going to play after that?
LW: [laughs] Usually, going in, I know what role I’m going to play. You have to be a little bit strategic about these things, because, at the end of the day, film is a business. Making a film is a logistical nightmare in terms of finding the finance, so you really have to be strategic about knowing who you’re going to play in the film.
You don’t want to upend the commerciality of the film by saying, “Hey, you see that lead role there? That’s me.” You don’t want to be the scary, Russian mobster hanging around theaters saying, “Oh, that’s my wife playing the lead role.” It’s just something that happens in films all the time. And with me, I just love acting, and I feel that if I’ve gone through all the troubles to write a film, I’d love to be a part of it.
Having said that, I’ve also written many films in which I don’t intend to act. You haven’t seen them yet, but there are a couple of scripts in the works. One in particular is a sci-fi film that I wrote that will hopefully shoot next year, and it’s not going to feature me as an actor. I think it is an organic process where I just sort of decide whether or not I want to perform in it. But, definitely, it’s a decision made ahead of time.
DW: And you’ve also had some films in which you’ve had an acting role, but you did not write them. So, hypothetically, just for fun, if you had a chance to write one of those films in which you just had a starring role, which one do you think might be the most interesting to see a Leigh Whannell spin?
LW: [laughs] That’s interesting. That is interesting.
I acted in a film called “Dying Breed,” which is about a bunch of cannibals in Tazmania. I think my take on that would have been interesting. It would have been very, very gory. I probably would have wanted to do some sort of “Cannibal Holocaust” tribute. [laughs] I think that would have been an interesting one to write.
DW: As I watched “The Mule,” I noticed that this film and “Saw” kind of have a lot of similarities. They’re both about people trapped in a room, and they have to make an ultimate decision that’s going to change how they’re going to be afterward. And they both feature pretty grotesque scenes toward the end of the movie, too.
LW: [laughs] Yeah.
DW: When you’re writing a screenplay, and you get to that moment where it’s at that grotesque part, do you think about if you’re pushing the envelope too far, or do you just write it and see how people react to it?
LW: I think you have to work that out for yourself. You have to know when to hold them and fold them, and I think I have a pretty good inner gauge for what is pure exploitation and what is dramatically necessary. I do like pushing people’s buttons. I feel like, in the world of independent film, you really have to stand up and shout to be heard. I mean, today’s media landscape is just a blizzard of white noise. There’s internet, gaming, theater, radio, and satellite radio.
There are all of these different platforms from which media is being cannonballed at us as human beings on a daily basis. And how is an independent film going to stand out amongst that noise? How is it going to cut through the noise? The way for me to do it is to just get people’s attention with a sledgehammer, to quote Kevin Spacey in “Se7en.”
Having said that, I personally would never write something like “The Human Centipede.” I like “The Human Centipede”; it was hard for me to watch as it was for many people, but it’s not something I would personally write. I don’t think I’d go that far, so I don’t think there should be a line in the sand for everybody. I think everybody needs their own individual line in the sand. And I know where mine is; I know what’s too much for me, but having said that, I do like pushing people’s buttons.
So, when I was writing that scene in “The Mule” that everyone talks about, I was having fun picturing the audience’s reaction to the scene. And lo and behold, the audience’s reaction was exactly what I was picturing.
DW: [laughs] Well, and I think it kind of helps out that the film has a sense of humor, too. So, when it gets to that moment, we’re not quite as grossed out, I guess.
LW: [laughs] It does have a real sense of humor. I mean, that moment in “Fargo,” where the bad guy is feeding his [cohort] into the wood chipper, that is the moment that stands out in people’s minds. And I feel that the Coen brothers have that same black sense of humor, and they really know how to balance the comedy. I mean, there was a lot that was funny in “Fargo.” But then, suddenly, the film would turn, and we’d be in a really tense scene; something was really violent and disturbing.
And we really looked up to “Fargo.” We used it as a model for “The Mule” in terms of tonal shifts. Obviously, “Fargo” is a masterpiece film and a very hard one to emulate, but it’s a good film to hold up as a model and a good one to aspire to.
DW: Yeah, exactly. Now, this my last question for you. I know that you’re attached to “Insidious: Chapter 3” as the director. What have you learned from being a screenwriter that’s going to help you become a good director for the next “Insidious” movie?
LW: Well, I’m actually in post-production right now; I’ve already directed the movie. But in answer to your question, I think what I’ve learned is that you need to know why you’re doing anything in the script.
If something happens in the film, if a character does something or a scene turns a certain way, you need to be able to justify it and explain it, because other people will poke holes in it later. First, it will be the executives and the producers, and then it will be the audience. You really have to know it back to front. That’s your armor; that’s what gets you through.
And that’s what I really relied on when I was shooting “Insidious 3.” I knew the script back to front; I pretty much had it memorized, and I could always fall back on that. I didn’t know everything about lenses or lights, but I knew this particular story back to front.