HOR­ROR OF IT ALL

Michael Bodey finds two film­mak­ers adamant there’s more to them than their block­buster movie se­ries

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

LEIGH Whan­nell and James Wan seem gen­uinely per­plexed at the amount of at­ten­tion paid to the ‘‘ money side’’ of their ca­reers, when — in their view — there’s so much else to look at. The for­mer Mel­bourne film school stu­dents who made their names, and for­tunes, with the Saw se­ries of hor­ror flicks in­sist it’s not even the money that keeps them in the game.

It may be a disin­gen­u­ous point of view, but some­how it comes across as con­vinc­ing. Whan­nell and Wan are too rest­less to pon­der their suc­cess cre­at­ing the fran­chise that ar­guably spawned the ‘‘ tor­ture porn’’ genre, a genre that in­cludes films such as Hos­tel and The Hu­man Cen­tipede and that pushed some Euro­pean film­mak­ers, par­tic­u­larly in the east, into some very dark places.

In any case, as Wan points out, ‘‘ I al­ways tell peo­ple to go back and watch the first [Saw film]. The only one I di­rected is more of a dark psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller. It has its mo­ments of grue­some­ness but a lot of it’s done off cam­era, a lot of it’s sug­ges­tive. It wasn’t un­til the se­quels that it got re­ally out there. So once again I get tarred by that brush in a ret­ro­spec­tive way by all the se­quels.’’

It’s im­por­tant to Wan’s ar­gu­ment — and his sense of what the pair are do­ing these days — to make sure ev­ery­one knows ‘‘ all the se­quels’’ in the fran­chise are not their cre­ations. Whan­nell and Wan made a film that gen­er­ated six fol­low-ups af­ter not be­ing able to find back­ers in Aus­tralia for the first in­stal­ment. Last year’s Saw 3-D, or Saw VII, promised to be ‘‘ the fi­nal chap­ter’’. The se­ries has earned more than $400 mil­lion in North Amer­i­can cin­e­mas and an­other $450m glob­ally.

The duo re­tained ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ing cred­its through­out the se­ries with their man­ager Stacey Te­stro, al­though Whan­nell didn’t write any screen­plays be­yond Saw III. Even a sliver of the Saw pie is a handy pay­off, though, and it was enough to place them in the top 10 of BRW’s an­nual rich en­ter­tain­ers list in 2008 with a split in­come of $8.8m that year. And it sus­tains the big dream for Aus­tralian film stu­dents, just as many acting stu­dents at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Dra­matic Art, Vic­to­rian Col­lege of the Arts, West­ern Aus­tralian Academy of Per­form­ing Arts or any­where else look to the ca­reers of peo­ple such as Cate Blanchett and Hugh Jack­man. Young film­mak­ers look at what was pos­si­ble for two kids who met as stu­dents at RMIT Univer­sity and see the pos­si­bil­i­ties for them­selves.

Yet Whan­nell and Wan do not flash the fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits of hav­ing cre­ated a mon­ster film fran­chise. The only sign of Whan­nell’s wealth is a DeLorean car and a mod­est house in Los An­ge­les’s Los Feliz, the rea­son­able ac­cou­trements of some­one who has been in work since he be­gan while at uni as a film critic on ABC youth pro­gram Re­cov­ery. In­deed, they’ve spent years try­ing to stop be­ing re­ferred to sim­ply as ‘‘ the Saw guys’’, with, un­til re­cently, lit­tle suc­cess.

‘‘ I will say this: the big­gest thing the Saw thing has done is it’s opened doors for Leigh and my­self,’’ Wan says. ‘‘ For me, that’s the big­gest thing. Leigh and I aren’t driven by money. If I was driven by money, I would have di­rected the Saw se­quels be­cause if I di­rected them, they would have paid so well.

‘‘ Leigh and I just want to tell the sto­ries we want to tell, and some­times it works and some­times it doesn’t work. Like [2007 ef­fort] Dead Si­lence didn’t re­ally work out and [the same year’s Wan-di­rected] Death Sen­tence didn’t re­ally work out, but that’s OK, you learn from that. But we’ve got a chance to do what we want to do and we’re very hon­oured by ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pened to us. We’re not blind to it and if any­thing we try to let it not get to our heads. We try to, as they say here [in LA], keep it real. I think Leigh and I are OK be­cause ul­ti­mately we’re just two kids from Mel­bourne who like to give each other shit all the time.’’

Their lat­est pro­ject has cer­tainly worked out. In­sid­i­ous, star­ring Rose Byrne and Pa­trick Wil­son, is a throw­back to the haunted-house hor­rors of the past, creak­ing floor­boards and all. The duo teamed with Para­nor­mal Ac­tiv­ity team Ja­son Blum, Oren Peli and Steven Sch­nei­der, and have cre­ated an­other low-bud­get ($US1.5m) smash that al­ready has taken more than $US70m glob­ally and earned the early tag as the most prof­itable film of the year. It has also al­lowed them to drop their dreaded moniker.

‘‘ It’s a fair call to call us the Saw guys in the sense that un­til we do some­thing that is more pop­u­lar or as pop­u­lar as Saw, that’ll be our T-shirt: ‘ we’re the Saw guys’,’’ Whan­nell says. ‘‘ But I kind of rel­ish the op­por­tu­nity to shake that tag off.’’

Both have been work­ing on markedly dif­fer­ent projects dur­ing the past cou­ple of years, to­gether and sep­a­rately.

Wan di­rected Dead Si­lence and Death Sen­tence (the pair co-wrote the for­mer), and Whan­nell has con­tin­ued to write and act. ‘‘ I wrote a chil­dren’s film, like a Pixar film, and if that came out that would be a real shock for any­one who just thought we were the Saw guys,’’ he says. There is also a pro­ject in de­vel­op­ment with Syd­ney dig­i­tal stu­dio An­i­mal Logic and an Aus­tralian com­edy.

‘‘ And I know James has sim­i­lar stuff,’’ Whan­nell says. ‘‘ He wants to do a ro­man­tic com­edy some day, and I can’t wait to see a ro­man­tic com­edy from James.’’

Wan saw In­sid­i­ous as a cru­cial step away from Hol­ly­wood’s pi­geon­hol­ing of the duo. They are prag­matic for men in their early 30s and, he rea­sons, it was time to move back from the ‘‘ blood and guts’’. Sure, it’s a hor­ror film but, as Wan notes, ‘‘ you slowly move your way and give peo­ple a dif­fer­ent per­cep­tion of who you are as a film­maker’’.

‘‘ Even­tu­ally peo­ple are go­ing to look at In­sid­i­ous and say: ‘ You know what, he can di­rect ac­tors with fam­ily dy­nam­ics, maybe that’s not such a big stretch for him to do a fam­ily thriller or an ac­tion thriller with a fam­ily dy­namic be­cause he did it in that film,’ ’’ Wan says. ‘‘ You can slowly leapfrog el­e­ments from one film to an­other and then you’re out of the genre. Sure it’d be great to just jump out of it com­pletely and try some­thing else, a west­ern or sci-fi or love story, but you just need to know how to nav­i­gate through it all.’’

Whan­nell is the more cre­atively rest­less of the duo, just as likely to ap­pear in a mate’s short film as write a screen­play. He even tried stand-up com­edy re­cently in LA and qui­etly in Aus­tralia.

‘‘ I wasn’t se­ri­ously try­ing to do any­thing but I wanted to try my hand at it be­cause I think it’s the ab­so­lute coal­face of hu­man ter­ror,’’ he says. ‘‘ What could be more of a test than to stand in front of a room of peo­ple with their arms folded and say ‘ I’m go­ing to make you laugh’? It’s ab­so­lutely ab­surd.’’

He had friendly crowds mostly, friends he’d in­vited.

‘‘ I think it was just try­ing some­thing dif­fer­ent just for my own rea­sons,’’ he says. ‘‘ I wasn’t do­ing it as a ca­reer thing. In the film in­dus­try things just take so long. It’s a very slow-mov­ing in­dus­try and you can wait years be­fore a film you’ve writ­ten gets in front of the cam­eras. What I love about stand-up and things like that is it’s so im­me­di­ate, you can just get out there and cre­ate some­thing and not have to wait around for years.’’

Not that Whan­nell and Wan have waited. They took Saw to the US af­ter mak­ing a short film as a teaser and re­al­is­ing if any­one was go­ing to make the fea­ture, it would have to be them. They’ve made their own luck.

‘‘ Leigh and I have said in terms of ca­reer longevity it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and you’ve got to pick your path,’’ Wan says. ‘‘ Some­times you pick good paths, other times you don’t, but that’s part of life, right?"

FRAZER HAR­RI­SON/GETTY IM­AGES

Film­mak­ers James Wan and Leigh Whan­nell

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