It’s been almost 20 years since Whannell’s Saw – which he wrote and starred in (the film was directed by fellow RMIT graduate James Wan) – launched a billion-dollar franchise and reinvigorated Hollywood’s horror stakes. In 2015, his debut as a director on Insidious 3 pulled in around 10 times its budget at the box office. His 2018 film Upgrade, a critique of our technological dependence disguised as a genre film, drew critical acclaim. But taking control of one of Universal’s most well-known characters is Whannell’s biggest leap since his Hollywood baptism.
Oddly enough, his fortunes stem from Tom Cruise’s woes. After Universal Pictures’ The Mummy (2017) underperformed critically and financially, the studio nixed its plans for a Marvel-inspired “Dark Universe” franchise based around its classic movie monsters. A big-budget Invisible Man movie set to star Johnny Depp was scrapped and the studio started poking around for small-scale ideas to reinvigorate the character.
Whannell was called in for a meeting. He assumed Universal execs were eager to “praise my genius” and discuss how much they loved Upgrade, but within minutes they were prodding his interest in The Invisible Man.
“It wasn’t something that was on my mind at all,” says Whannell. “Then one of the guys at the meeting said, ‘These movies can be hard to write because if the monster is the hero then who’s the bad guy?’ And so I quite innocently said, ‘Well, of course he’s not the hero, he’s the bad guy.’ And from that one little improvisation, here I am sitting with you at Fox Studios.”
In tackling the project, Whannell says he wanted to “reinvigorate” a story that’s fuelled countless remakes since James Whale’s 1933 Hollywood classic. “The iconic image of the Invisible Man is one of a floating pair of sunglasses, you know? I knew I had to move it away from that.”
Filling up a notepad with what interested him most about the story – the sense “that someone is watching you but you can’t put your finger on it” – he caught onto a timely allegory.
“It was this idea that no one will believe you that this person is coming after you,” says Whannell. “The idea of an invisible man playing games with someone, torturing them, wrapped perfectly around the idea of a toxic relationship, somebody trying to escape from someone who was gaslighting them and emotionally abusing them. It was a good metaphor. The script wanted to go in that direction, so I had to follow it.”
Aware that he was venturing into a sensitive subject, Whannell says he spent time at women’s shelters in Los Angeles while researching the script, talking to counsellors in order to get an informed take on the issue.
“One of the things I heard over and over again was about women living in fear of men and not being taken seriously. Their partner has threatened to kill or injure them, they try to get a restraining order, but the police just don’t have the foresight to protect them,” says Whannell.
“There was also this idea of emotional abuse, and how much more prevalent it is than actual physical abuse. It’s something we know happens, but to hear about it from an organisation that deals with it every day was eye-opening.”
While horror, from Dawn of the Dead‘s (1978) take on mindless capitalism to The Babadook‘s (2014) look at personal grief, has long used its genre trappings to explore wider issues, Whannell says he didn’t approach the film with a “message” in mind.
“I came at this from the character first rather than saying I want to make a movie about domestic violence,” he says. “But I understand this is an epidemic. Whenever these issues come into the public spotlight, like someone kicks over the rock and exposes all the cockroaches underneath, you realise it’s not a new thing. It’s always been there, it just wasn’t talked about. And so it’s obviously been a long time coming for women to be able to talk about domestic violence in such a public way and shine a light on it.”
There’s an intertextual resonance in the lead casting of Moss, an actor well-known for battling patriarchy and male abuse on screen. But Whannell says getting Moss was more an attempt to elevate Hollywood’s most maligned genre.
“I think horror films have had a bad reputation for a long time and if you go back in history you can point to the reasons why: they’ve been mostly cheap, filled with bad actors reading bad lines, and essentially one step above porn in terms of production quality,” he laughs.
“I grew up in that era, going to the local video store and renting things like Friday the 13th Part VII. I have a soft spot for those movies, but I understand why horror has a bad rap. But it’s rising out of that and one of the reasons is the level of acting.”
He cites Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary (2018) as particularly inspiring. “She helps lift that film into this transcendent category. I knew I needed that, someone who’s capable of delivering a searing and truthful performance. It’s a pretty short list of actors who can do that and Lizzie’s on there. But maybe she saw something in the script that even I didn’t.”
Whannell’s cinephilic dedication to his movies is why fans – especially those in Australia, who remember his frenzied film reviews on ABC’s Recovery in the mid-’90s – hold such a soft spot for the filmmaker, says producer Kylie Du Fresne, who oversaw The Invisible Man‘s shoot in Sydney last year, with street scenes in Martin Place and the hills of Gerringong standing in for its San Francisco setting.
“It’s super refreshing when a director is still a fan, both of other movies and the movie he’s making. It’s sort of contagious,” she says. “He still has that sense of pinching himself that he gets to do what he loves and make a living out of it, and that he’s made that seamless transition to the next phase of his career. Not everyone gets that opportunity.
Fans, long-attuned to the bandage-wrapped antics of The Invisible Man weren’t expecting Whannell’s allegory on domestic violence trauma.
“Even from the days when he was on Recovery, he has such an incredible cinematic knowledge and understanding of horror and genre films that he’s always looking for the original take in everything he does. The vision he’s going for is always something he hasn’t seen on the big screen.”
With such an established character as the Invisible Man, that’s also a risky proposition. When the film’s trailer debuted in December, it was met with the kind of confusion that could rattle a filmmaker, not to mention a studio. It seems monster movie fans, long-attuned to the bandage-wrapped antics of The Invisible Man of yore, weren’t expecting Whannell’s allegory on domestic violence trauma. Was he concerned by the response?
“It’s hard to unpack that because I’m the one who made the film. ‘A fish cannot describe the ocean,'” says Whannell. “I don’t think I’m entitled or qualified to say to someone, ‘Hey, you’ve misunderstood the film!’ For me, I like to sit back from the analysis a little bit. It’s an audience’s job to unpack a movie once it comes out, all I can do is tell the best story I can.
“I knew there was going to be some whiplash with this film because I’m modernising it and centring it not around the Invisible Man but his victim. I knew some people would butt up against that. This is a story that’s been around a long time and people keep it close to their heart, and when you mess with that you have to expect some fallout. My biggest hope is that, first and foremost, people see it, and secondly they understand I’m putting this story in front of an audience who can appreciate it in a new way.”
The Invisible Man opens on February 27. Leigh Whannell will be speaking at advance screenings of the film in Melbourne and Sydney on February 5 and 6.
Robert Moran is a culture reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age