The backwoods of the Tasmanian rainforest are a long way from giving birth to one of the most successful horror franchises of the modern era, but Leigh Whannell’s done both.
After writing the original Saw in his childhood Melbourne home, US studio Lionsgate snatched Whannell and filmmaking partner James Wan to international fame and glory. Now he’s in the decidedly weird position where — as he puts it — he feels like a father who’s child is off making its own way in the world.
“You have a strange feeling of detachment,” the actor/writer says from Sydney, where he’s working the publicity trail away from his new home in LA. “People keep coming up and congratulating me for the success of Saw V but the truth is I haven’t even seen it, I didn’t even read the script. [James and I] are very sort of outside the process. Our names are on the poster but it’s not really our thing anymore, it’s kind of its own little factory.
It’s a very bizarre feeling. I saw an interview with Tobin Bell (Jigsaw) online, talking away about the character and the series and the myth and I was thinking man, I created this whole idea when I was still living at my mum’s house, on a bedroom on a crappy old PC. I didn’t have a script writing program so I was literally hitting the ‘Tab’ key to go across for dialogue, and five years later Tobin Bell is talking about it like it’s this great mythology.”
Xpress suggests to Whannell maybe that just goes to show how strong the idea was. “Yeah, I always believed in it,” he agrees. “So it’s been an amazing ride to watch something that existed only in my head come to life. This story has a life of its own that’s much bigger than James or I.”
So while Whannell’s collaborated with Wan on other projects (such as the less successful ventriloquist dummy horror Dead Silence with former Home and Away star Ryan Kwanten) and now appears in Tassie cannibal apocalypse Dying Breed, the Saw franchise isn’t letting them go just yet. Despite only having written the first three films and having little to do with the latter sequels, Whannell and Wan are currently working on a Saw videogame. “It’s the old Michael Corleone line,” he says “‘Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in’.”
But Dying Breed is a very different project for Whannell. He neither wrote it nor produced it, flexing only his acting muscles, and found it something of a relief. “It was exciting to kind of shed those clothes for a little while and not have that pressure. When you act you’re more of a hired gun — you come in and do your job and if you do it well enough, you kind of can relax.
“When you’re a writer you’re the architect for this house being built. If the house turns out bad everyone’s going to look at the architect because it’s all falling apart. Acting lets you be more of a laser and just focus on one thing.”
Whannell’s also stuck to his guns when it comes to writing. Of all the turgid horror remakes of the last five years or so, it’s almost certain either the writing or directing were offered to the writing/directing duo. Whannell turned them all down.
“My nickname around the agency is Dr No because I say no so much,” the 31 year old says. “I feel like I’ve got the writing thing under control because I don’t take assignments. I don’t do rewrites and I’m offered a lot of them so I could easily go down that path but I just don’t want to. I’ve said no to every job around. I’m only really interested in doing my stories. It’s the only way to keep myself interested and keep myself passionate. The second I get out of bed and wander over to the computer and it feels like a job I’m dead in the water.”
Dying Breed is a tough sell. It’s a side of Australia not even many Australians equate with home. Without the dry, flat expanses of red desert Crocodile Dundee and Priscilla made famous, does Whannell think it’ll fly with the all-important US audiences?
“I wouldn’t dare to even guess at why people go and see films,” he replies. “I don’t know if the location has anything to do with it. Most of the time I think it’s just awareness — kids rock up to the cinemas on a Friday night and they don’t even know what they’re going to see yet. They just basically look at what’s showing while they’re waiting in line and then decide when they reach the ticket counter. So you’re really competing for awareness. It’s a very crowded market and American films have the money to just bombard you with white noise. If you pummel someone over the head with something enough they may not like it but they’re aware of it and that’s really what you’re going for.”
So maybe the name ‘Leigh (Saw) Whannell’ will make a big difference? The star seems unconcerned either way. “I’m not really pushing for it because I feel like that’s so far outside my control. I do want to direct one day and when I do I think I’ll be shitting myself when the film comes out, but because I was an actor in this film, I feel pretty relaxed about it. I like what everyone did in it and had fun and that’s really all I want to get out of it. Now it’s just up to the movie gods.”
Leigh Whannell directing? Is that a scoop, or a natural progression, Xpress wonders out loud? “It’s hard to resist when you’re there. It happens in stages, first you act in a film and you think, ‘that’s fun but wouldn’t it be nice if I actually had some say in the editing room or the writing’. So then you go and write a film, then you see how much it gets changed and those changes don’t always fit with what you had in mind. So then you think ‘maybe I should direct’. Right now I’m at about the stage where I’m thinking about being the boss, but the problem is all the responsibilities that come with being the boss. I think if I was going to direct a film, I’d start off very small.”
And small is just where Whannell’s gone with Dying Breed. Taking us into horror territory that’s both familiar (wild, forgotten corner of the world where horrible things happen) and fresh (it’s in our own backyard), Australia’s own Deliverance combines two very iconic mystery elements from our national past.
The first is the Tasmanian Tiger, which boyfriend and girlfriend research team Matt (Whannell) and Nina go in search of in the misty Tasmanian backwoods. Along for the ride are Matt’s obnoxious mate Jack (Phillips) and his girlfriend, but they don’t know that another Aussie icon lurks in the darkness — ancestors of Alexander Pearce, the convict who escaped into the wild from the British penal settlement and survived by eating his co-conspirators.
When the foursome stumble on a small forest town straight out of the 1950s and populated with weirdos (including the obligatory scary kid), they don’t realise there are traditions the locals keep very much alive.
Dying Breed’s a well-made and very good-looking film, but it shies away from cashing in directly on the strength of its twin hooks and loses some sense of the genre for its trouble, ending up less a traditional popcorn horror film and more a dark mystery with horror elements.