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James Wan and Leigh Whannell Creep Back in With “Insidious”

James Wan and Leigh Whannell Creep Back in With “Insidious” (photo)

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Shortly after ordering a stack of pancakes on the morning of the his film’s premiere at SXSW, James Wan is explaining how he much prefers the “sugary crap” to maple syrup, a notable precursor to our conversation since the half-hour that followed was a demonstration of how sweet he and longtime collaborator, actor/screenwriter Leigh Whannell, can be. In each other’s company, the two giggle as they kid each other about Uwe Boll movies and enthuse about Barbara Hershey in a way only film buffs can. Which is why it remains something of a mystery why these two kindly kids from Melbourne, Australia always aim to scare the bejeezus out of audiences, though it’s one with considerably less intrigue than their latest film “Insidious,” a thriller that operates like a Rubik’s Cube of horror subgenres where once you’ve unscrambled one side, it’s onto the next.

This mashup stars Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne star as parents who have recently moved into a new home when their older son (Ty Simpkins) falls into a coma after hitting his head, leading Byrne’s Renai to believe their new digs are cursed, only to discover after moving across town that while the kid’s body may be at rest, he may be running amok elsewhere as a result of astral projection. As you may have heard, the film was produced by the creators of “Paranormal Activity,” which isn’t only interesting as a marketing hook, but as a union of the two parties most responsible for the direction of horror films in the last decade, considering that Wan and Whannell’s debut “Saw” would eventually popularize the gore-heavy leanings of the genre in the years that followed despite the fact the initial film in the franchise induced far more chills with its wits than severed limbs.

Although it’s no less terrifying, there are no body parts flying in “Insidious,” either, but the film does share the go-for-broke abandon that made “Saw” such a success as well as the fact that for the first time since then, Wan and Whannell have made a film completely independent of the studio system, which the two talk about, in addition to how they got into the supernatural and their friendship, in the interview below.

Leigh has said before that this was the right time for this movie to be made, so why now? I imagine it had to be a difficult film to pitch to people.

Leigh Whannell: We didn’t actually pitch the story to anyone. The producers of “Paranormal Activity” came to us and said we want to make a film with you and that sparked the idea for the film. It was like we were ready to take it easy and do nothing. [laughs] Then all of a sudden from nowhere, it was like bang, let’s make a movie and next thing we know, I was writing and then by the time I got back from Australia, they were in pre-production.

James Wan: We started making the film without him. It’s like, “Hey guys, but I want to make the film!”

LW: I came back they had finished shooting.

JW: We had to digitally insert Leigh in the film.

03312011_Insidious.jpgIn a strange way, “Saw” and “Paranormal Activity” came to represent the opposite extremes of the horror genre of the last decade, which made it easy for people to suggest there was a rivalry between the two in the media. Were you actually surprised when “Paranormal”‘s Oren Peli and Jason Blum reached out to make this?

JW: Actually, all the made-up competition came along after Leigh and I had already befriended the producers of “Paranormal Activity” and so when all that stuff was happening, it was more “huh” – one of those things that came along after. But like you say, it really was made up by the media because we all get along really well.

LW: It’s funny. We never mentioned “Saw” or “Paranormal” throughout the entire making of this film. We just talked about this film, that was the priority. They definitely love it as much as we do, so unless they’re doing some sort of drawn out conspiracy to ruin us, then they’re onboard with this film.

JW: There’s no need for them to do that, right?

LW: We did it ourselves. [laughs]

Were you a little frustrated by what you were seeing in the horror genre?

LW: We didn’t think there was anything scary out there.

JW: That was our thing. At the end of the day, Leigh and I just wanted to make something that was unique and scary, but yet people go in there and they’re familiar with it. We picked a particular story structure within the horror world, which is the haunted house subgenre that everyone gets, right? And possession. So we combined those two elements, but then within that, that’s where Leigh and I always had fun with our project – that’s where we take what you think you know about the film and then we just start twisting and spinning the film around.

Speaking of twisting, it seemed like the camera was always moving, which seems like a break from other films like this where there might be long panning shots, but the camera still might be shooting from a stationary position.

JW: Even though the camera moves a lot, I think it’s there to slowly build the tension and they’re not fast camera moves at all. They’re very controlled. I definitely wanted to make a very classical, old fashioned horror film based on very classical, old fashioned filmmaking. If you go back and see what Spielberg did with the first “Jaws,” it’s all very controlled camerawork – or “Duel.”

LW: I read one review that said your direction was very reminiscent of “Dressed to Kill.” That’s pretty cool. Is that something you noticed at all [with the camerawork]?

JW: I look back at my body of work and I definitely see things that excite me in the same way that excite Brian DePalma for sure.

LW: The way he loves to move the camera in…

JW: It’s not just that. He moves his camera, but he does it in a really interesting way.

LW: That opening shot of “Insidious,” to me, is a very DePalma-esque shot. [The camera] comes in upside down and then twisting around.

JW: I was very inspired by someone like [Roman] Polanski as well, [in how] he takes slow, brooding movies that are made in such confined spaces and just builds on that and builds on that and builds on that. That’s what we want to do. But instead of paranoia that we’re building on, we’re building on supernatural things.

03312011_Insidious3.jpgOne of the best things about the film is that you don’t feel manipulated by the frights, which seems to derive directly from having more control over the picture – like editing yourself. What was it like to make an independent film again?

JW: Definitely from our conception of the project to Leigh writing it to me making it, shooting and editing it, post-production and music, I would not have been able to have done all that if I had done it through the studio system. If I had funneled it through the studio system, the movie would have a very different flavor to it.

LW: If we hadn’t been given creative freedom, I think the movie would’ve been different in ways subtle and big. When I was writing, the freedom we were given didn’t manifest itself in me thinking, wow, I can do anything. I can have pink elephants dropping out of the sky.

JW: You could.

LW: I wanted to. That scene’s actually on the disc’s deleted scenes. [laughs] The freedom we’d been given meant that I felt freer with the details. Things like taking time with the characters, being able to establish who they were, having a scene there that may not necessarily advance the plot in a huge way, but it says something about who the characters are. Those were the ways I used this filmmaking capital that had been given to us, not by going and making the craziest thing ever, but by actually taking this rigid form and inserting things into it that you haven’t seen in awhile like getting to know the characters.

Think of “The Exorcist.” How much time was spent in the opening scenes of “The Exorcist” just getting to know the family? I feel like if “The Exorcist” had to be made today, I think they’d say we don’t need this stuff at the start with the mother being an actress. Why do we need to see her on a film set? That’s not important to the possession story. But in the ’70s, you had that room. So in our own small way, we wanted to hearken back to that.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.