Leigh Whannell has become an important name in the horror circle over the last decade or so, and has brought us all manor of modern day horror institutions. Alongside longtime friend James Wan, Whannell created both the Saw and Insidious franchises. A jack of all trades Whannell writes, produces, acts and most recently started directing. With such a wide range of skills he is of course highly in demand so we count ourselves very lucky to have been able to speak with him not once, but twice this year.
Back in summer we sat down in London with Leigh to talk all about his first venture into directing on Insidious 3 (click here for the video) and now recently we got him on the phone to talk about his latest project Cooties.
Cooties is played for laughs and is a very enjoyable black comedy. Whannell helped write the script for the film which sees some tainted chicken nuggets infect pre-pubescents with a violent and flesh hungry disease. Cooties is set in an elementary school (that’s a primary school to us Brits) and sees the faculty of teaching staff under siege from wild and foaming ‘cootie’ infected pupils. Not content to merely write the script Whannell again pulls double duties and stars as the socially awkward science teacher Doug.
We spoke to Leigh to find out all about Cooties, his favourite scary movie and his most embarrassing audition moment.
So how did the idea for Cooties come about?
Actually the idea came from one of the producers of the film; Josh Waller is a producer on the film along with Elijah Wood and Daniel Noah. The three of them had just formed a production company. It’s a little known fact about Elijah Wood that he loves horror movies, people may not know that but he really does. So he formed this production company, Spectre Vision, which was called The Woodshed at the time, in the hope of producing so called quality genre films. They wanted to make films that they wanted to see. As a horror fan sometimes you’re starved for quality and they wanted to get difficult films off of the ground.
One of the producers had the idea for Cooties, it was just a one line sentence idea like ‘what if a virus broke out that only affected kids, and it was a film called Cooties?’ I had a mutual friend of Josh’s who told me that one sentence idea and I instantly wanted to make it into a film. I wanted to be involved somehow. I hear a lot of pitches as you would imagine living in Los Angeles you’re surrounded by people in the movie industry. Every person from the cab driver to the person in the supermarket has a movie idea and they’re telling you about it. I don’t usually react to them but I remember with this I instantly wanted to be involved.
I sat down with the guys and said let me write this film and that was it.
Were there any reservations about making a film about adults killing children?
(Chuckles) Well I don’t see it as a film about adults massacring children, I’d say it’s a film about children massacring adults. They’re really the antagonists of the film and the adults are scared of them. I thought that was interesting to have the teachers be terrified of these kids.
I think we can all agree that kids are like little monsters sometimes. Not just behaviour wise but they’re kind of snotty, they’re dirty, they’re like these creatures. So the idea for Cooties was to literalise that monster aspect of kids, you know make them the aliens in Aliens. That’s how I feel about it.
What is it about your character Doug that you like?
I just love that Doug has no idea how to interact with people, that’s really fun to play. As an actor I’ve never gotten the chance to play an all out comedy character before. I think the most thing about playing him is you don’t have to stick to any of the normal rules of human interaction.
It’s sometimes difficult in acting to stay within a scene and be real because it’s not real. You’re sitting on a set, surrounded by crew members, there’s a huge camera in your face. All of this stuff is in your peripheral vision and you can’t just click your fingers and make it disappear. You can just focus on the other actor as much as you can and try and forget it, but I have a hard time with that. So with Doug it was a real gift because he doesn’t know how to maintain eye contact with people, and he doesn’t know what to say. In a way it almost incorporates the awkwardness of being on a film set and pretending that it’s real. Once you forget about that simulacrum of real life and just play the awkwardness which I really enjoyed.
You work with Elijah Wood, star of the Lord of the Rings movies, I read somewhere that you auditioned for the movie…
Yes I did. I did audition for Lord of the Rings once wearing latex hobbit ears, that I paid some make-up artist to apply to my head. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking. I’d just returned from a long overseas trip, I was away for four months backpacking with my friends. We finished the trip in Thailand and the resort we were in flooded. The second day we were there there was this huge storm and we were knee deep in water. My belief is that I contracted some sort of rare brain disease that only lasts for a couple of weeks. Because I returned home from this four month trip and did the audition I think a couple of days afterwards. That’s the only explanation I can come with as to why I would go to a make-up store and say ‘Hey, here’s $90, can you please stick these ears on me?’
I think maybe I thought I’d walk into the audition (laughs) – I’m actually embarrassed right now just telling you this story and thinking about it. I actually then caught public transport from the make-up place to the audition. So I had to sit there on a tram in Melbourne with these pointy ears (laughs) and go into the casting office where there were other actors waiting to audition, all looking normal. There I was in this half arsed hobbit costume with these ears. I think maybe I thought the casting agent would say ‘Oh my God I’ve never seen such commitment from an actor, you’ve got the role! You don’t even need to audition – the ears – it’s clear you’ll do anything for this role and you deserve it.’ Instead she yelped with fright when I walked in.
Halloween is coming up, what’s your favourite scary movie?
My favourite scary I would say is The Shinning. It’s a beautiful film, and it really scares me in a way that is uniquely old school you might say. In this century horror films have obviously got themselves into a certain place and they always go through trends. As you know for a while there we had the so called torture porn trend that Saw inadvertently kickstarted. So that was a trend, and now partially thanks to Insidious and films like Paranormal Activity we’ve got a trend that definitely relies on jump scares and this adrenaline which I’m not adverse to at all. We really had fun doing that in the Insidious movies, scaring people. But what I love about The Shinning is when I watch it I’m ‘Wow this film is so terrifying to me.’ They didn’t do that [jump scares] back then. There were no ‘jump scares’ it was just scary.
Sometimes when I’m writing I sit and I watch it and I try to figure out what’s scary about it in such a primal way, because it’s invisible. You can’t just sit there and go ‘Oh that’s what he’s doing,’ it’s harder then that. So I really try and watch it and study it and there are a few things that I’ve come up with that I’ve tried to incorporate into my writing.
You have two movies out just in time for Halloween, Cooties & Insidious 3 – why should people pick them for their Halloween scare?
Well I think they are two distinctly different reasons, Cooties you should pick if you want to have a laugh. If you’re having like a fun time at Halloween and you’re not taking it really seriously and you just want to have a good laugh at this horror stuff you should go for Cooties.
If you actually want to be scared, and you’re in a house that’s dark maybe its you and a couple of friends or on your own even, then you should watch Insidious. That’s definitely designed to scare.
So it really depends on what your aim is but I think you should really watch them both. You should have the laugh in the afternoon and then get scared in the night.
Catch Leigh in Cooties when it is released on 12th October as well as Insidious 3 also released 12th October.