A haunted family struggles to uncover a terrifying secret that has left them dangerously connected to the spirit world in “Insidious: Chapter 2,” another nerve-twisting thriller from director James Wan and screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannell. This sequel reteams most of the cast from the first “Insidious” movie, including actors who play members of the haunted Lambert family (Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Barbara Hershey and Ty Simpkins) and Whannell and Lin Shaye, who play paranormal investigators. Here is what Whannell said when I recently sat down with him during a roundtable interview at the New York City press junket for “Insidious: Chapter 2.”
It’s tough to do time travel in regular movies and it’s even tougher to do time travel in horror movies. When you were writing “Insidious: Chapter 2,” how much did you feel was a fine line between telling people who didn’t see the first “Insidious” movie what happened in that movie and not relying too much on flashbacks?
We wanted to be careful of that. That’s the thing about writing sequels: Where’s the line between telling a story that exists on its own? And a viewer who has not seen the original can sit down and watch and totally understand and then referencing the original film.
Because on the one hand, you want to tell a self-contained story that anyone can enjoy. But on the other hand, the fans of the first movie, whatever the film is, they want t come in and see you elaborate on some things. Working on the “Saw” films was very similar. It was always this battle between, “How much do we reference from the other film?”
I think with [“Insidious: Chapter 2”], it does have a lot of references to the first film, so I think if someone had not seen the first “Insidious,” may be a bit lost at moments. But I’d also like to think — and I might be wrong in this — that it tells enough of its own story that you’d be able to sit there and watch it.
In the end, we decided to reference the first film a lot because we were like, “If you didn’t see the first film, and you’re going to see the sequel, you’ve already psyched yourself up.”
In one of the trailers for “Insidious: Chapter 2,” the demon from the first “Insidious” movies is referenced and we even hear Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” which was a song that was prominently featured in the first “Insidious” movie. Why wasn’t the song used in “Insidious: Chapter 2”?
Any references to the demon in then trailer are definitely quick cuts from the first film. We definitely didn’t intend to do that.
There are some homages to Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick in “Insidious: Chapter 2.” Did you make a conscious decision to do that from the start?
Yeah, we were kind of aware of that. We never try and do direct homages, really, but we often find ourselves, subconsciously leaning in the direction of something we love. I was on the set in the scenes were Patrick [Wilson] is chasing Rose [Byrne] around, when I suddenly how “Shining” it was. In the writing, I realized, “Oh, naturally, this is what would happen.” And then you get on set and it’s like, “Wow.”
And I love “The Shining.” So I think it’s more a subconscious thing, maybe than going, “Oh, I’m really going to do my ‘Shining’ reference here.” No one brought out the axe.
And there’s also an homage to “Carnival of Souls,” right?
We love “Carnival of Souls!” I think in the first [“Insidious”] movie, “Carnival of Souls” was big, especially in the production design, maybe not in the writing stage, but in the production design, we definitely talked about “Carnival of Souls,” and had lots of pictures of “Carnival of Souls” on the board.
Can you talk about writing the character of Specks, the character you play in the “Insidious” movies?
I enjoy playing that role. It’s kind of fun to have that. The thing about being a writer is that once you finish writing and you hand it off, that’s it. “Go away now. We’re going to make this film.”
The cool thing about acting in the film is that you still get to be a part of it. The shooting of a film really is like summer camp. It’s like hard work, but it’s a really weird experience. I’m sure you’ve been on plenty of sets. It’s like a little bubble, and you have these really intense relationships with people for a short amount of time. It’s just really fun, and so I really want to be a part of that.
And until I start directing films, the way I stay involved is I go, “Here’s my script. Oh, and by the way? Gary, that’s me.” And as long as you don’t make Gary the lead, he’s part of the supporting cast, the producers are cool with it. They’re like, “All right, you can play Gary.” So that’s my way of way of staying involved in the shooting of the film.
Plus, acting is way more fun that directing. You actually have to work when you direct a film. Actors get doted on. If you say you’re thirsty, 10 people will fall through the ceiling with bottles of water. “Are you cold? Do you need a jacket? Are you thirsty?”
Meanwhile, you’re surrounded by grips who are lifting equipment, freezing their asses off, haven’t eaten in seven hours. And meanwhile, you’re sitting there on your chair with your phone. “Do you need a jacket? Do you need a fan? Are you hot?” Don’t believe anyone who tells you that acting is hard work. It’s really just being doted upon and given free clothes and things.
You and James Wan have been described as being part of the next generation of influential horror filmmakers that the media have called the Splat Pack. How do you feel about that?
Some writer from maybe it was The Guardian in England invented that term, the Splat Pack. I don’t have any feelings regarding it one way or the other. When I think of that term, it gives me a warm, nostalgic feeling, because it reminds me of this time in my life when I first moved to L.A. and I was making films. That was essentially my life’s dream.
I was in the suburbs of Melbourne [in Australia], wanting to be a filmmaker, and feeling so far from Hollywood and America — literally and figuratively. And James and I, we had this film script. And somehow, through this series of events, we found ourselves making a film in L.A.
And then, through another series of events, that film came out [2004’s “Saw”], and it was successful. And so, it was a crazy time in my life. It was like, “Wow, my life’s dream came true.” I’m not sure many people can say that. I think there’s a slim percentage of people in the world who can say that their life’s dream came true. And so, Splat Pack and all this stuff just reminds me of that time.
What movies inspired you to be a filmmaker?
My list of movies would be very similar to anyone else my age: “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jaws.” I was obsessed with those films.
I was very young when I saw “Star Wars” and “Jaws.” I think I was probably 4 years old. And I don’t think I knew how to make films. I didn’t know that was a job. So I wouldn’t say these movies kickstarted my obsession with making films, but they kickstarted my obsession with movies in general.
Every kid I went to elementary school with loved “Star Wars,” but I took it to another level. I mean, yeah, my next-door neighbor loved “Star Wars,” but he didn’t draw Wookiees with his peas when he ate at night.
I was so obsessed. I lived, ate and breathed movies. My dad still tells me to this day, “Oh God, you were obsessed with movies.” And then as you get older, like in high school, I did a media class and you actually discover, “Oh, people actually make these things, and that’s a job you can have,” and slowly come to that realization. The short answer to your question is that “Star Wars,” “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” would be the three films that consumed my whole life when I was a kid.
“Insidious” producer Jason Blum says he wants you and James Wan to do a third “Insidious” film. Where are you at, in terms of writing this movie?
[He laughs.] Of course, he does! I haven’t started writing anything. I’m sort of just waiting for this one to come out. I’m really curious about how it’s going to do, what the reaction is going to be to it. I’m curious about that.
James has just made “The Conjuring,” which has done so well. So I’m really curious about how “Insidious 2” is going to do in relation to “The Conjuring.” So I feel my mind is so on that right now. I won’t start focusing on doing a Part 3 until that’s subsided a little bit, that feeling.
A crucial part in the plot of “Insidious: Chapter 2” revolves around a haunted, abandoned hospital. Did you make it up on your own or did something happen in real life that inspired your decision to put the hospital in the movie?
I think I was inspired in real life. I went to on a ghost hunt with these guys, before the first “Insidious.” I was writing the first “Insidious” movie, and I knew I was going to play one of the ghost hunters in the film. And I wanted to do some research into the paranormal. I wanted to get real stories from people.
So interviewed a couple of psychics in L.A. and talked to them a lot. And that was really good. And then, that wasn’t enough. “I really want to go on a ghost hunt.” And so I found these guys on the Internet. They had their own website. L.A. Paranormal, I think they’re called. And they’re really awesome.
They’re very official. Their website looks very professional. But then you meet up with them, and it’s a few guys who are total hobbyists. And so we went to Linda Vista Hospital. This was before we shot the first [“Insidious”] film.
And Angus [Sampson], who plays Tucker in the film, he and I wandered around with these ghost hunters. It was like 1 in the morning, we’re in this abandoned hospital, it’s pitch black. The only light is coming from our flashlights. We’re walking around. It was really creepy.
We didn’t see anything or have any experiences. They said that they had several experiences in this hospital. Unfortunately, nothing happened that night. But I think doing that informed the scene in “Insidious 2” where we go to a hospital and stuff.
What scares you in real life?
I’m a bit of a wimp. Real life scares me. Bills scare me. I hate when you forget to pay a bill, and then they send you one with the scary red lettering, saying “final notice” or whatever. I hate roller coasters. I’m very easily scared, and I think that’s why I’m so interested in writing horror films, because I can easily tap into my own fears.
What can you say about working with Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne?
It was great. I think when I heard they were cast in the first [“Insidious”] film, I was very excited, because I think that they are very respected dramatic actors, and so their very presence in the film lends this dramatic credibility automatically.
If you hear that Patrick or Rose or someone like Vera Farmiga — someone who is respected as an actor — as soon as they’re cast, you change your opinion of the movie. So I loved that. I got to know them, and they’re super-nice people.’
Working with them on the second [“Insidious”] movie was very familial. It was like getting the band back together. Not only was the cast on “Insidious 2” exactly the same as the first one, but every member of the crew was the same as the first one, right down to the PAs [production assistants]. When I walked on the set of “Insidious 2,” the same PA with the walkie talkie on his belt from the first movie was like, “Hey, Leigh!” I was like, “Did I just step through a time portal?” Everyone was the same.
People talk about getting the band back together. This was really getting the band back together. All the roadies. This was every original member of the band. It almost felt like we shot half of a movie and took a two-year break and came back to shoot the second half. It was very familial, and everyone just knew each other.
For more info: "Insidious: Chapter 2" website