There’s a legitimate reason why the Insidious sequel is called Insidious: Chapter 2. It’s a continuation of the first movie, not a departure. That was important for director James Wan and co-writer/co-star Leigh Whannell, who both hit the jackpot with 2004’s Saw. The first Insidious was their biggest hit since their breakout film, after Wan took a shot at action with Death Sentence and the duo’s rocky time on Dead Silence. So it goes without saying that the Insidious franchise is important to them.
I spoke with James Wan and Leigh Whannell the week before Wan scored an even bigger hit with The Conjuring. That movie showed more of who Wan is as a filmmaker, and with him now taking on a Fast & Furious sequel, he’s firmly establishing himself as a go-to storyteller.
A decade after breaking out, the scary pair is just getting started.
You probably heard from fans what they wanted to see in a sequel. Do you have to consider expectations?
James Wan: You can’t ignore that. I think you kind of need to acknowledge that the reason why sequels do well is because people that loved the first one come back. And they’re so excited about the first movie that they bring more friends that did not see the first one to come out to see it. So you need to acknowledge that. You need to expand on the world that you’ve created in the first one. But, hopefully, within that you can get to make a film that is a bit different, or at least there’s something in there that you enjoy.
Leigh Whannell: One thing I used to say to James on the set of the film is, you know, because on any film you worry and worry if you are getting it right. But I used to say the first film has a lot of good will. You’ve got to use that good will; it’s like credit. You’ve got this credit and you’ve got to use it wisely. I think it would be foolish to use that good will and step on it by turning around and making it completely different or turning it into something that isn’t in the spirit of the first one.
When you are worried, how do you know if something works?
JW: You can only go by the instinct that you have. You use yourself as a gauge and you go, “Oh, this could maybe work.” There were moments in the first movie that we weren’t quite sure if they were going to work.
LW: That famous moment was where I said to you, “Hey, is that meant to be scary?”
JW: Exactly! The best story I can tell you, the best anecdote here is when we were shooting that scene where Rose [Byrne] wakes up and she feels a presence outside her balcony window and she looks out and she sees someone there. Then the guy walks off camera and then walks in. I remember I was setting that shot up and Leigh very coolly came up to me and went, “Do you think this is scary?” [Laughs] I’ll always remember that moment!
LW: And I remember your face. James went, “I don’t know! I don’t know, man!” And so, when he says that, he’s sitting there. He’s the captain of the ship. It’s like, “Oh, my god. If he doesn’t know it’s scary, what are we doing here?” Then, of course, you see it in theaters and everyone is shitting themselves. But I don’t know that we knew that was going to happen.
JW: What I should add to that is you go by your initial instinct. When you conceive the scene you go, “That is scary, right?” When you shoot it, a lot of times you’re not quite sure. Hopefully what you can shoot is what your conception is. Then after you shoot it, you take it into post-production. I cannot state enough how important post-production is for the success of a horror movie. You bring so much to it with the way you edit it, the way it is sound designed, and the way the music works with it. I think that was what helped complete that scene, for example.
The editing for Insidious 2 must’ve been a balancing act with all the stories going on.
LW: It definitely was tricky. It is tricky from a filmmaking and from an editing standpoint. You have three stories running parallel to one another, right? You have what’s happening with Josh in the real world and then…
JW: Then you have the story about what Loraine and the people she’s with that she’s trying to find out what’s happening to her family. And then you have the third part of the story, which I don’t want to talk about.
LW: Didn’t you say this is one of the toughest films you’ve ever made in your career?
JW: It was hard to construct it, yeah. I think Saw was harder to construct. Lee wrote such a really smartly interlocking script. If one scene wasn’t working and I pulled it out, everything would just tumble on its own. It was a bitch to cut. [Laughs]
LW: I think back then we were just excited to have a script that we both liked. Once you get on set you learn the reality, which James learned quickly. He’s like, “We should put the crane here.” And the 1st AD would say, “We don’t have time for that.” And so, he’s sitting in the editing room going, “How am I going to turn the footage I have into the film in my head?” We were even resorting to taking photos. There’s a lot of photographs used in Saw. And those photographs are filling these gaps…
JW: …that we did not shoot. [Laughs]
LW: It’s like, “This will help tell the story, some photos.”
How do you guys stay grounded after getting that level of success so early on? You sometimes see filmmakers let that go to their head…
LW: Oh, James has changed a lot!
JW: I just think that’s not who Leigh and I are. And, yeah, you are right. I’ve seen the coolest people after just one little success let it go to their heads. That’s not who Leigh and I are, man. We work very hard to not be those very people that we despise.
LW: James is also tougher on himself than anyone I know. He’s never satisfied. I think if you are never satisfied, you will never rest on your laurels. Resting on your laurels is really what leads to that whole, “Hey, I’m awesome.” Everybody, including you, is like, “Oh, my god! Saw, what a success! What a success!” James was never quite comfortable with it. He was happy that it was successful, but he felt like the finished product wasn’t a display of what he could do. And I have always felt that for him. So it’s like he’s continually striving to get better and better and better, which is great.
JW: You have to. I think it’s good to look back and go, “Wow. We didn’t peak with our first movie.” I feel like I’m only just starting my career in a lot of ways.
LW: That’s awesome. But we’re also very self-deprecating. Some of the most fun I’ve had over this whole journey has been sitting down with James to do commentaries for the films, because if you listen to the commentaries on Saw, we just take the piss out of it the whole time.
JW: We’re making fun of our own film! We’re making fun of ourselves. I hate ego and I’m not a fan of it.
Insidious: Chapter 2 opens September 13th.