'The Invisible Man' Director Leigh Whannell On Gaslighting, Being Haunted, And Taking Monsters Seriously [Interview]

We, as a culture, are trained to poke holes in a woman's story, to sympathize with the monster in the scenario, rather than the victim. Knowing this, director Leigh Whannell uses the vehicle of horror cinema to Trojan horse a moral lesson into a fun Blumhouse thriller. His latest film, The Invisible Man, an Elisabeth Moss-led Universal Monster reboot in which an ex-lover stalks his old beau by hiding in plain sight, is another way of relaying the fear traumatized women feel when formerly safe spaces become violated. It is somehow both edge-of-your-seat excitement and razor sharp metaphorical commentary – a brilliant new take on an old classic.The director sat down with us to talk about gaslighting, politics, exes, building a beautiful prison, The Munsters, paranoid thrillers, abusive relationships, and the way in which Whannell weaponizes empty spaces to keep the audience off-kilter. I think what's so brilliant about your take is the change in tone. Dr. Griffin has always been an egomaniac, but in the past, it was played for laughs. What made you want to take a more grounded approach?I thought that was the best way to do it in a modern context. I didn't want to make anything retro. I didn't want the fog machine, wolves baying at the moon version of the film. I feel like some of these iconic monsters, they've been represented in such a Transylvanian context for so long that it's become safe. I mean, kids movies feature these monsters now. Animated movies will have Dracula. When I think of Frankenstein, the first image that pops up for me is The Munsters. You know? I think that can happen when an iconic villain becomes really cemented in the popular consciousness. Think about the first time you saw A Nightmare on Elm Street, the original, how much it scared you and then – you probably weren't born when that came out, but that's fine – but then as the sequels came out, there was this diminishing returns where he became almost a comedic character. We were just seeing too much of him. Any time you pull the curtain back and see too much of a villain, I believe it dilutes their power to affect you. Villains need to be mysterious to be threatening, so with this movie I knew I had to shake off the cobwebs – literally and figuratively – and bring this character into a super modern context where the audience could see themselves in a movie. Like, oh, this could happen, this could happen tomorrow. So that was the goal.I love how bold of a breakaway your interpretation is from the H. G. Wells original narrative. I really love that it's not told from the POV of the Invisible Man himself, but that it's told from the POV of the victim of science's snags and failed experiments. How did you go about crafting this fresh perspective?Well it came very early on, because it wasn't a character that I was pursuing, that I was wanting to make a film about. Obviously, I'm aware of this character and have some respect for his place in horror history. Any horror fan usually respects the history of horror and these early monsters and early characters, but it wasn't something that I was pursuing. It was an idea that was presented to me. Actually, it was the title that was suggested, that was all that was said. I was in a meeting and somebody said, "Well what do you think about The Invisible Man?" Which seemed really random, it was almost like somebody said to you, like, "What do you think about Toyota Corollas?" I was just like, "Well, why are we talking about this character of all people?" But it took root in my brain and got its hooks in like a little parasite and just wouldn't let it go. I kept thinking over the next couple of days about the opportunities and the potential of this character and so as I was writing, I just started filling up a notepad with different ideas about how to make the character scary. I realized that the best way to present this character was to make the absence of him a source of suspense.I knew that modern audiences are very film literate, they watch a lot of movies. They know that the camera doesn't go somewhere unless there's a reason for it. So, I was weaponizing that knowledge against them and saying, "Okay, I can point the camera down an empty corridor and I can make it threatening because they just bought a ticket to a movie called The Invisible Man." So, any empty corridor is going to be suspicious to them, and that was the goal, it was the whole way through the shoot. It was like, empty spaces, empty frames.Yeah, I really appreciated that back-to-basics approach to horror of creating these tense rigid scenes by allowing these empty spaces to just exist.I always love horror that holds back, it's that restraint. When things get loud in horror movies, when it strays into action-horror territory, it might be a fun film, but it's not going to keep me awake at night. It's the unknown that's scary. It's the less you do, I feel, and this character presents a perfect opportunity to do that. I mean, if you make a film about a werewolf, you are obligated to show the wolf. I think people would get kind of mad if you kept the wolf just out of frame, you know? It's like, uh, hello! We can hear the wolf, when do we get to see it? But with the Invisible Man, the whole character, it doesn't matter if you point a camera at him. In the movie, I did point a camera at him, there was just nothing there. So, I know where in the movie he was and where he wasn't, and so, I know when we're looking at him, even when we can't see anything.I was very intrigued by the mystification of Dr. Griffin. It kind of reminded me of the original Halloween, back before the sequels fleshed Michael Myers out, when he was just a shape.Again, it goes back to what I was talking about earlier. In that original film, he was an unknown entity, he was this mysterious other, and you saw the whole film through Jamie Lee Curtis' perspective and maybe would get a glimpse of him kind of half obscured behind a bench or something, and it's so much scarier. The more you know, the less you are frightened, really.Yeah, it's just pure evil. Yeah I wanted to do that with this one, I wanted to drop the audience right into the movie without giving them a backstory or anything like that. It's nice, too, when horror can remind people of the injustice that's being done around them and this definitely feels like a fun horror movie with a social message on top. In your own words, what would that social message be?I guess for me, the film is a lot about abusive relationships. I think physical violence has been depicted a lot in films before, relationships or marriages that involve physical violence, but it's the psychological abuse that doesn't get touched on as much, and the gaslighting. You know, the Invisible Man presents a perfect metaphor for gaslighting, because this idea that somebody is doing something to you or changing your reality, it dovetails very neatly into the idea of someone in the room with you that can't be seen. So I decided to take this gaslighting to its nth degree and ramp it up in a way that almost feels supernatural, like how is this person capable of this?It's very smart in the way that it tackles gaslighting and just the idea of being haunted by an ex in a more literal sense.I mean that's going to happen anyway, isn't it? I always said to Lizzie, you know, I feel like I want this movie to work even if we took the Invisible Man out of it. Like, we could still make a movie about a woman who is haunted by the ex, and that happens in doing the research for this film, you just hear a lot of stories about women who have escaped from a relationship, but they can't shake it off. Every time they walk to their car, they're waiting for something to happen. Unfortunately, in this country, especially, where there's such easy access to guns, it must just be an extra fear of thinking like, getting out of a bad relationship is only the first step. It's keeping away from that person, and sometimes I don't feel like the legal system is quick on its feet to protect women from these things. So, I just wanted to kind of ramp that up and do what a lot of horror movies do so well, which is just Trojan horse these issues in there, in the context of a suspenseful, entertaining movie.I like that you can use the vehicle of horror like that. It's almost like giving somebody a vitamin in the form of cotton candy.Exactly. I mean, it's always has been like that, hasn't it? Horror films are really special in that regard, in the way that you can wrap them around something and they can be seen from two totally different perspectives. You can sit there and watch Dawn of the Dead and just enjoy the zombie kills or you can be like, "Well this is all about consumerism and mindless shopping", you know? There's a reason the film is set in the mall. I think great horror films have always done that. There's always a deeper level. I think the deeper level with horror films is what keeps them around. Like, you might have a film that's really visceral and gory and fun, but it just stays fun, whereas the ones that last like The Exorcist, there's a lot of layers to unpack and it can take years to unpack all those layers.Yeah, this movie has strong Rosemary's Baby vibes.Yeah, I mean I definitely watched that and I was really inspired by the great paranoid thrillers that we've seen where somebody is totally unsure where something's actually happening to them and you know Rosemary's Baby is one of the best examples of that.I'm fascinated by the look of Adrian's house. It's so museum-like and transparent, he can watch Cecilia wherever she goes and she has nowhere to hide. How did you go about finding and/or building this haunted little house?I think the house becomes a character in the movie, because you don't really get to know Adrian, so I need the house to do a lot of talking for me. As you said, I wanted it to be this beautiful prison. It has the glass windows that face the ocean, but it's like Alcatraz – where do you escape? It's in the middle of nowhere, it's glass, it's concrete, like it's actually oppressive. I think on the surface level, its kind of architecturally beautiful, but when you stand back from it, it's like, yeah, it's kind of this prison. And that's what it had to be, she was escaping even over a wall. The fight scenes are super impressive. How did you accomplish choreographing conflict where one party is invisible to the naked eye?For the fight scenes in the other house, it was interesting, I think I was kind of empowered by Upgrade because I noticed people really responding to the way we shot the fight scenes in Upgrade and having this hammer that was locking into the characters, and it made me think I gotta keep doing this. I want to figure out a way for each scene to be interesting like that. So then, I thought, like, somebody being dragged on the floor by an unseen entity is automatically interesting to me. A fight scene where you can only see one of the participants, but it's one thing to write that down and then to get to a film set and figure out how to do it. You can't imagine how many meetings we had about that scene. We had Lizzie being dragged along the floor, we had old school practical effects like a piece of string just pulling a can, and then we had CGI, we had to remove someone in a green suit from the frame. So, all approaches were taken. It was modern CGI, but we were also using effects that would've been used on the original Invisible Man. Sometimes that stuff works, just the string and the smoke and mirrors of old school practical effects, it still works.It's incredible what they were able to pull off back then in the original Invisible Man. I guess it kind of applies to the staying power, perhaps.Exactly. Those certain films still hold up, they really do. There's not a lot, but even if you look at a film from the '80s like The Thing, they're using these practical effects, but it holds up because there's this devotion to making them real and oppressive, the way they're lit and they way they're shot. I think for visual effects to stand the test of time, you have to be just totally devoted to photo realism. Don't be trying to impress anybody with visual effects, try to make them completely invisible.