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INT: Leigh Whannell

07.30.2004by: The Arrow

The Arrow interviews Leigh Whannell

If you don't know who Australian actor and screenwriter Leigh Whannell is yet, mark my words...you will very soon. Leigh is the psychotic scribe behind Lions Gate Films' excellent upcoming (September 17 release) horror film "Saw" and he's also one of the leads in the film! Ambitious little bugger! I had the opportunity to chit-chat with the dude and here's what he had to say about everything that is "Saw".

ARROW: What’s your favorite horror movie?

LEIGH: I have to put an annoying disclaimer on this answer and say that my list of favorite films is a constantly changing beast, so what I tell you today may have no currency tomorrow. HOWEVER - if someone had a cocked gun to my head and said that I had to choose my one favorite horror film, I would probably say The Shining. First and foremost, it scares the piss out of me. I still have trouble watching it on my own at night. Secondly, it reminds me of a time when horror was treated with more respect. I mean, here’s Stanley Kubrick, one of the world’s greatest directors, making what is basically a haunted house film! It’s a work of beauty. Thirdly…well, Jack. I would have to add, though, that the first half of Lost Highway is one of the scariest things ever committed to celluloid, and I think if David Lynch ever made a straight-out horror film, it would be the number one. The Eye, Poltergeist, Pin, Twin Peaks, Suspiria, The Others and Ringu also help me lose sleep.

ARROW: You played Axel in "The Matrix Reloaded" (and did the voice for the video game). How was the experience of acting in a sequel to one of the more popular sci-fi franchises of all time?

LEIGH: It was unbelievable! I am a huge fan of The Matrix. I mean, every Australian actor who scored a role in the sequels uttered that quote, but I wasn’t just someone who ‘really liked’ it – I was a hardcore obsessive fan! When I went for the audition, I dressed in these military style rags, and I actually had a quote from the first film written on my shirt! I think they gave me the role out of pity. The day where I provided all of the different sound FX for the game was the funniest – just standing in a sound booth all day, making noises like I was being kicked and punched in the head. And the sets! I remember walking into one of the studios and seeing these huge rain machines belting water down onto Keanu Reeves, who was facing off against a hundred plastic dummies of Hugo Weaving. I was only there for a week or so in total, but I savored every moment of it, especially on the occasions where I was able to watch the Wachowski brothers at work. It was one of those times where you truly know what you want to do with your life.

ARROW: SAW was a particularly dark film. How did you go about writing the screenplay? Did you lock yourself in a room with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a box of razor blades? 

LEIGH: Ha! That would make the writing of SAW no different from any other day in my life! (As I type this, I’ve got a shot of whiskey in one hand and a pack of Gillettes in the other). No, it’s interesting that you should ask that. When James and I came up with the idea for the film, we knew that it was going to be a thriller, with some elements of horror, so I guess ‘dark’ goes with the territory there. When I sat down to start writing it though, I found all this other stuff from my life creeping in. For want of a better word, I was going through a bit of a ‘dark’ period myself. I working a full time job that I wasn’t enjoying very much, which was manifesting itself in physical ways. Every day I would suffer these stress-induced headaches, my jaw would hurt in the morning from grinding my teeth all night, the works.

Of course, when you go and see a doctor about a physical ailment and he tells you it’s stress, it’s hard to believe him. For a while there, I was convinced I had a brain tumor or something. I went down a long and winding path, before I finally just woke up one day and said “I’m sick of feeling sick.” I remember thinking that I would have done ANYTHING to feel good again. When I finally did do something about it and started feeling normal again, I was elated. I was so happy to be alive and healthy…and this is what bled into SAW. Here is a film about someone who believes that a person can only appreciate their short life on Earth after they have looked death in the face. Jigsaw feels that if you are put through an extreme test of human endurance and you survive it, you will have that same feeling of elation I had, times a thousand.

ARROW: Shades of "Seven" and "Cube" graced SAW’s narrative. Would you say both films were inspirations?

LEIGH: For me as the writer, definitely. I mean, Seven is just a very well constructed film, and if you’re writing a thriller, it can’t hurt to study it. In terms of the story though, James and I never really felt Seven was that close to our film. I guess if you stand back, you have two detectives chasing a psychopath, who uses vile methods to teach people lessons, and those points echo Seven. What we always liked about SAW, though, was the fact that the story is told from the point of view of two of the psychopaths victims, instead of the police chasing after him, as you so often see.  In SAW, the detectives take a smaller, supporting role. Also, we never really thought of SAW as a serial killer movie – simply because our antagonist, Jigsaw, doesn’t kill people, but instead sets up these endurance tests for them. Jigsaw is a psychopath, for sure, but not really a serial killer. On the other hand, I have been surprised and delighted that people have picked up on the Cube element. I LOVE that film, and it was definitely an influence on me. I wonder what it is about SAW that has made people pick up on that Cube influence – I thought it was buried, but I guess it shows. When I was fleshing out the idea, I thought a film like Cube would be a great model, because it is done all in one room essentially, but still manages to be great. It’s so original, and the characters are great. I love it!

ARROW: You also acted in the movie as one of the leads. Did you have to audition to get the role? If so, how arduous was the procedure?

LEIGH: I actually didn’t have to audition – it was stipulated in the contract that I had to play Adam! James and I both wrote this film as a vehicle for ourselves; him as a director and myself as an actor/writer. The whole time we were writing it, we never even considered selling it. The whole point of the exercise was to make the film with us attached. I think we could have easily sold the script and made some fast money, but that wasn’t what we were aiming for. Plus, we wanted to do it our way. We didn’t want SAW to become a watered down version of itself – we wanted it to retain that hardcore, visceral nature. Unfortunately, the climate for making genre films in Australia is pretty frosty, so for a while there, it seemed like it wasn’t going to get made at all. Then our manager, Stacey Testro, suggested that we take it to the US. Both James and I were pretty much flat broke at this time, and the idea of going all the way to the states to get some rejections was not very appealing. Luckily, Stacey is a very tenacious woman, and she pretty much forced us to do it. Not only did she want us to go over there with the script, but she wanted us to try and sell ourselves as the filmmakers, which we thought would be pretty impossible in Hollywood.

That was why we made a seven-minute DVD – essentially a short film – to showcase our abilities. We picked what we thought was the most hardcore scene in the film (the jaw-trap scene) and went out and shot it on 16mm, with whatever money we had left. I played the role that Shawnee Smith plays in the film (as a guy, of course). After we finished it, Stacey, James and myself all flew over to LA and started shopping the script, accompanied by the DVD, around to various studios and production companies. We were trying to sell it as a package deal: you can have the script, but James has to direct, and I have to play Adam. It was a risky bet, but lucky for us we found a company crazy enough to accept those conditions in Evolution Entertainment. We had a meeting with two guys from there, Gregg Hoffman and Oren Koules (who would eventually become the producers of SAW) and they just looked us straight in the eye and said, “We want to make this film. James can direct, Leigh can star, let’s just go out and make it.” Easily the greatest ten-minute meeting of my life. I have to hand it to Gregg and Oren, they really did stick to their word.

ARROW: How much of a thrill was it to act opposite such a seasoned veteran as Cary Elwes?

LEIGH: A huge thrill! The man is a legend. You could write a book about how great of a guy Cary is. He’s just so bloody nice! I guess it’s that British politeness thing. Along with being a great guy, he’s also a great actor, and I think that it was the combination of the two that made it so special for me. Here I was, playing my first lead role in a film, and 99.999% of my scenes were to be done in one room, opposite one actor. It was almost like a play in that respect (idea: SAW: THE MUSICAL) Plus, the way SAW is written, the whole thing rests on the dynamic between the two men chained up in the bathroom. The film is about their relationship, and how it develops. If the two actors didn’t have any chemistry, the whole film was dead in the water.

Luckily, from the first second I met Cary, I knew that we would get on like a house on fire (he laughed at one of my stupid jokes – that scored him BIG points!) He was also very helpful, and gave me a lot of advice throughout the shoot, which I couldn’t have done without. I was very nervous, and he just put me at ease. I can’t imagine what I would have done if a less generous actor had been cast as Dr Gordon. Then there were the stories. I think James and I went a little overboard with the questions we were constantly asking him – “What was it like working on Dracula with Francis Coppola?!”, “Tell us about Don Simpson on Days Of Thunder?!” etc.  He was always gracious and told us these great stories, which I’ll have to keep secret.

ARROW: Your role was a very emotionally demanding one. Did playing the part affect you, one way or another, when you weren’t shooting?

LEIGH: It actually affected me in a positive way. Sure, there were days where we’d be shooting a particular scene and I’d have to spend the entire day really angry, or afraid. Physically, that was pretty demanding, to keep up that level of emotion for an entire day (I learned to carry a discman around with me, and I would play certain songs to put me in a certain mood), but I always found that straight after we wrapped each night, it all just disappeared and I would feel so happy. I just couldn’t believe that James and I had achieved our dream, that we had just spent the day working on our film! It made me want to cry sometimes. I mean, here is a script you’ve spent two years of your life pushing for, hoping and praying that you can get it made…and there we were, finally doing it! It still puts a lump in my throat. James was so busy, and trying so hard to achieve his vision, that I don't think he really had time to reflect on that, so I think I did the reflecting for both of us.

ARROW: James Wan and yourself are collaborating on yet another project called "Shhh" for Universal. What can you tell us about it? Will it be as visceral as SAW?

LEIGH:  The idea for ‘Shhh’ came about during the shooting of SAW. We wanted to make more of a straight-up horror film, relying on scares rather than visceral shocks or gore. Something really creepy. And to us, nothing is creepier than ventriloquist dolls. So the film is about the ghost of a ventriloquist. It’s a real throw back to an older horror style. In fact, if I had to summarize it, I would say it’s a combination of two episodes from old horror anthologies – the ‘Drop Of Water’ segment of Mario Bava’s ‘Black Sabbath’, and the ventriloquist segment of ‘Dead Of Night’. How did you and James Wan meet up anyways? Are you long time friends or recent acquaintances? James and I are coming up to our ten-year anniversary of friendship (I feel old when I think about it like that!) We met at university in Melbourne, where we were studying film.

We were two of the youngest people there, as they didn’t accept many people straight out of high school, and we just became mates. I remember that you had to make a film to get accepted into the course, so on the first day of university, we were like “lets show each other the films we made that got us here”. So I stick mine in the video machine first, a short film I had made in my final year of high school. It was very Dawson’s Creek – lots of angst. Not too bad in a high school kind of way. James was like “Cool, good stuff”.Then he put his in the machine...it was a stop-motion animation epic about two robots trying to destroy each other, and I swear to God it was better than any anime I’ve ever seen. I was just sitting there thinking “how the bloody hell did a high school kid make this?!” I became James’ number one fan right there and then, a title I’ve held ever since, although it seems I’m going to have to share him with a lot of other fans pretty soon. He’s my favorite director, and I was just lucky enough that when I said, “you need a writer!” he foolishly agreed.

ARROW: SAW somewhat left the door open for a sequel. Is there any talk of one yet?

LEIGH: SAW 2: SEEN? I don’t know, I haven’t really thought about it. I guess because the film hasn’t come out yet, I don’t want to mess with the Movie Gods by thinking of a sequel. I’m WAY too superstitious to count any chickens before any hatchings! I’ll just wait and see what the first one does. Now, where’s my lucky pair of socks gone? And my rabbits foot?

ARROW: Do you already have ideas brewing in your noggin in terms of sequel “meat”? 

LEIGH: See answer above. James and I have joked about a couple of ideas, but nothing serious. We do think the ventriloquist doll deserves his own film - which I guess is why we’re writing ‘Shhh’!  Is there another genre you’d like to write for or are you comfortable solely riding the “horror” wave for now? James and I cannot wait to work in as many genres as we can! I mean, we always have, and always will, LOVE horror films, and we’re so happy that they’re enjoying a healthy renaissance at the moment. If SAW is included as part of that renaissance, then that’s fantastic! As a writer, though, I don’t want to burn myself out or get bored by staying in the one genre. For me, the only thing that matters is being passionate about the story. It could be a story about a psychopath on the loose, a ventriloquist doll or a tofu salesman who discovers that his thumb has superpowers; it doesn’t matter.

If the story keeps me awake at night, then I’ll do it.  I think just walking in. We were actually late to our own wrap party, so when we walked into the bar where we were having it, everybody was already there. They all turned around to see the new arrivals, like in an old Western. That’s when it hit me - all of these talented people were standing in one room, and they were all there because of our little film! It was a great feeling. There were no big congratulatory speeches, no one standing on a chair and trying to summarize everyone’s feelings – it was just a bunch of people drinking and having fun. It was amazing, a literal ‘dream come true’. I don’t know how many more of my dreams are going to come true in this lifetime, so I’m going to appreciate this for as long as I can…just like Jigsaw would have wanted me to.

I'd like to thank Leigh for the hardcore genre treat that was SAW and for sharing some behind the scenes "joo joo" about the flick with us here on the site. Good work, bro! Keep kicking that genre ass! We need more movies like this! I predict that October 2004 will be THE MONTH OF THE SAW! This baby is going to clean house!

SEE THE SAW TRAILER HERE

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