HORROR OF IT ALL
Michael Bodey finds two filmmakers adamant there’s more to them than their blockbuster movie series
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?"
Filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell