Exclusive 1:1 Interview: Leigh Whannell talks Insidious 3 and The Mule!

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

When you see Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson together, your thoughts most likely turn to the amusing antics of Specs and Tucker, the ghost hunting duo from the INSIDIOUS franchise, which of course Whannell pens the screenplays for. But Whannell and Sampson are faced with problems of a wholly different sort in THE MULE, a darkly comedic crime thriller that the two wrote many years ago and is just now finally being released. (Sampson also co-directed with Tony Mahoney.) The film tells the tale of a sad-sack named Ray (Sampson) who is cajoled into acting as a drug mule by his sleazy friend (Whannell); when the authorities capture him, they force Ray to stay in a motel room until he "unloads" the contents of his stomach. The challenge for Ray is keeping a lid on it, so to speak, for almost two weeks. That's scarier than anything in INSIDIOUS, let me assure you.

THE MULE is really terrific (read my review HERE), and while we haven't been covering it much here on AITH (it's not a horror film, per se, although it has its gross-out moments), it's almost guaranteed to delight and disgust genre fans looking for something a bit different. Whannell has long been a friend of this site, so it was a pleasure to talk to him about getting THE MULE made, acting for his friend Angus, and the surprisingly straight-forward approach to this icky material. From there we talk about "going to war" (or not) on INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, whether or not it'll be similar to the first two films, and if this is indeed the franchise's finale.

I know you and Angus wrote the script but you didn't come up with the story originally; how did THE MULE start?

LW: The original story was written by a friend of ours. Angus and I had been trying to figure out a project to work on together for a long time, but we're both great procrastinators; if there were an Olympic event for procrastination, Angus and I would be shoe-ins for the gold medal. Finally, we figured out we should just get somebody else to work it out. We found Jamie Brown's script and we started working on it. We just kept pushing it, it was like pushing a ship up hill. We kept going and going but we finally got there; it took seven years.

You've been doing the horror thing for about 10 years now, were you looking to do something a little different, or was this just the right project?

LW: I have been looking for different things for the last few years. I think THE MULE was just the first thing up, but hopefully later this year you'll see a film called COOTIES, which is kind of a comedy that I wrote with a friend of mine. There are a few things in the works that I hope get made in the next few years. I have a sci-fi film that hopefully will shoot next year; I even have a kids movie that I wrote. I definitely have been writing different stuff over the last couple years.

In terms of approaching the story, were there any particular inspirations that you looked at, any films or novels that were helpful?

LW: There were a few different things. Tonally, Angus and I were always name-checking films like TRAINSPOTTING, FARGO, CHOPPER the Australian film with Eric Bana. If you look at TRAINSPOTTING and FARGO, they're both very funny films. I find TRAINSPOTTING in particular hilariously funny, but then in the next scene it'll be harrowing and dark. I love those kinds of tonal shifts, and I think TRAINSPOTTING navigated them beautifully, and so did FARGO. That was the real model for us, because we knew we wanted the film to be funny, we also wanted it to be dark, we wanted it to be tense and get people on the edge of their seat. I think we got there; I think Tony and Angus, sharing directing responsibilities, really walked the tightrope of the tonal shifts well, which is hard to do.

It's impressive, because if you look at the logline, you immediately think it'll be scatological or over-the-top, and it really isn't.

LW: [Laughs] A lot of people, when they read the logline, assume it's a comedy. I think that speaks to the perception that anything having to do with bowels or going to the toilet is funny. That's how we as human beings treat that; if somebody farts, everybody laughs. People don't get morbidly depressed when somebody farts. The thing that attracted me to the project and made me want to work on it was, no one had ever treated somebody's bowel movements as a thriller device before. I've never seen a thriller where the ticking clock was a guy going to the toilet. I think if you're writing something on spec and you're not getting paid, you really need something to keep you going, something that gets you out of bed every day, the fuel. For me, the fuel is always the idea, the idea that I haven't seen this before.

Considering your history with Angus, what was it like being directed by him?

LW: It was fun. We know each other so well that we have a shorthand, our own language. I wouldn't say that Angus directed in the traditional sense, it wasn't like he was coming up to me between takes and saying, "We need you to do this." I think he and Tony took a more subtle approach, they like to prod you in a certain direction, suggest things, and let you discover it. Tony, the other director of the film, is a very quiet guy as well. It was a very quiet set, there wasn't a lot of people yelling and screaming; it was very collaborative and friendly. So I would say it was very easy to be directed by him.

You just directed INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, your first film. Did everything go according to plan?

LW: I would say it was not as bad as I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be a lot more harrowing. Every director I know always paints directing as this battle, like going to war. I pictured it like a platoon in the trenches just taking machine gun fire. I think it's a very male-driven myth about directing, that you're a general taking a trip into war. I think a lot of directors really buy into that, it's something that's been cultivated and propagated over the years. You do have a really macho subset of male directors: Michael Bay, James Cameron, John Ford, Sam Peckinpah; these guys are all responsible for this.

I'm just not like that as a person. I thought for a million years that I wasn't qualified for this, I thought, "Well, I'm just a wuss, I can't stand there with mirrored aviator shades on, screaming at some grip." And you get on the set and you realize that's just one way to direct, and it's actually not the right way, in my opinion. I think that's a bunch of bullshit. I think directing is about collaboration; you're a traffic cop pushing talented people in the right direction.

It can be tough because so much is out of your control, like a film where one of the producers is really antagonistic, constantly in your face and making your life hell. I've heard many horror stories from directors about situations like that, where somebody took the film away from them, or kicked them out of the editing room. The worst one of all is the story of the actor out of control. I have a friend – I won't name him – but he directed a film with an actor who is well known for being difficult and he told me directing this actor was like hell. The potential for that is always there, but on this film the stars aligned, and every actor was great, every member of the crew was polite and happy to be there. It was just fun, it was fun to do it.

Is this the wrapping up of the trilogy, or do you think there is room for more INSIDIOUS films after this one?

LW: I don't know, that sort of thing is always decided by other powers. Like, I'm not going to be the guy to come forward and say, "Yep, we're doing another one!" For me, I'm so focused on this one right now. If it comes out and does well, I'm sure Jason Blum will say, "Okay, let's do it again." That's just Hollywood arithmetic right there: if it works well, bash it into the ground! [Laughs]

Is it tricky keeping it fresh? I'm sure you want to do your own thing with it, but you also don't want to stray too far from what's it successful already.

LW: I really tried to do my own thing. It still feels like an INSIDIOUS film, but it doesn't feel exactly like James'. I have my own style, and different tastes and different ideas than James. One of the things James said when he first say down and watched a cut of the movie was, "Wow, you really found your own version of INSIDIOUS." I was really happy that he said that, because it wasn't just me doing a photocopy of James, I'm bringing my own thing to it. And I think people who see it will probably agree, that it's still in the same universe as the other films, but it has its own thing going on.

Sounds good, I can't wait to see it. Thanks so much for your time, Leigh.

LW: No worries, thanks so much for taking the time to watch THE MULE and talk to me about it.

THE MULE trailer

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Eric Walkuski is a longtime writer, critic, and reporter for JoBlo.com. He's been a contributor for over 15 years, having written dozens of reviews and hundreds of news articles for the site. In addition, he's conducted almost 100 interviews as JoBlo's New York correspondent.