Why a Less is More Approach Was Key to the New ‘The Invisible Man’

Eric Goldman
Movies Horror
Movies Horror Sci-Fi

Critics can be very hard on horror movies. As writer/director (and frequent actor) Leigh Whannell told Fandom, “You’re already starting with a minus twenty. You have to crawl out of that hole!”

That being the case, Whannell described seeing the incredibly positive reviews to his new film, The Invisible Man, as, “Amazing. When you make a film, it’s just a wish. It’s just a guess. The old William Goldman saying that nobody knows anything holds true. You’re rolling the dice, you think something up and you hope that it connects. When it does connect with critics, I can’t lie and say it doesn’t affect me. I am someone who really utilizes critics to make decisions on what to watch. As a film fan I read a lot of film criticism and rely on them to push me toward things. I saw Parasite because of the reviews. I was reading reviews and thought ‘I have to see this movie.’ So I can’t pretend that I hate this body of people. ‘Critics don’t matter,’ you’ll hear every now and then. But for me, they do [matter] and it stings when you get a bad review but when you get a good one it’s very gratifying.”

Whannell has a lot of reasons to celebrate, as The Invisible Man has become a success across the board, with the positive reviews followed by a $28.2 million domestic opening weekend for a Blumhouse production that only cost $7 million. Read on below (or watch the video above) to see what Whannell had to say about his approach to this iconic horror character, casting his lead, Elisabeth Moss, why less is indeed more, and the status of two hit franchises he initiated – Saw and Insidious.

SMALLER SCALE,
BIGGER SCARES

Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man

Unlike so many reboots and remakes of familiar properties, where studios tend to think the best course is to go bigger, The Invisible Man tells a purposely small scale story. Explaining this approach, Whannell said, “Pretty instantly, as soon as the idea of The Invisible Man was suggested to me, the title was suggested to me, I saw a way to do it that was intimate, that was terrifying, that was scary. That was the goal for me was to make it scary. Fairly quickly I saw that the way to do this was to keep it simple, keep it small, make it a chamber piece with a few actors – an emotional story following one character.”

He also stressed that a key decision was, “Make the Invisible Man the antagonist and see it through the eyes of his victim and feel her fear about him, as opposed to the original story which is focused on the Invisible Man and his descent into madness. [That’s] a great story. There’s a reason why it’s lasted all these years. But I felt that to make it scary it couldn’t be that.”

RESONATING THEMES

Leigh Whannell and Elisabeth Moss on the set of The Invisible Man

Many have noted how the film’s version of the Invisible Man and what he puts Moss’s Cecilia through feels very topical, as we see the repercussions of both abuse and gaslighting in the context of this horror story. For Whannell, those elements naturally evolved as he wrote the script. “I didn’t start out with that. I started out with the character. That’s the main thing. This iconic character. And I had my notepad and pen and I actually wrote down ‘Who is the Invisible Man and what makes him scary?’ I stared at those two questions for days and tried to figure out what was the bone marrow for this character in terms of making him scary. For me, the question was what makes s**t scary is that you can’t see him. He can be standing next to you. With that, it became obvious that this should be a story about someone stalking an ex-partner of theirs. It became a story about that naturally, rather than me shoehorning it in. It became a story about a woman escaping an abusive partner.”

Whannell said that Moss signing on happened quickly, recalling, “My first conversation with her was kind of awkward. I was driving. My kids were screaming in the back of the car. I couldn’t hear her. It was breaking up. It was the worst conditions to speak to an actor you want in a film. And she kind of closed the phone call by saying ‘Aright, cool. Let’s do it!’ Which threw me off guard because I thought she was just feeling me out to see if I was a lunatic or not but she just said ‘Let’s go.’ So I ended the call being like ‘I think that’s it!’’ Next thing I knew she was in Sydney and we were talking. I know now from chatting with her that it was the script. As soon as she read the script she wanted to do it.”

THE LESS BAGGAGE,
THE BETTER

Oliver Jackson-Cohen in The Invisible Man

While the Invisible Man is a classic Universal Monster, he is far less defined in the public consciousness as far as his persona goes, unlike other characters like Frankenstein’s Monster or Dracula. All of which was quite freeing, said Whannell.

“Dracula, Frankenstein, they have all these rules. Dracula’s rules are what makes him great. He can be killed by sunlight. He can be driven back by a cross. Everyone knows the rules of Dracula; the garlic, the holy water, the sunlight. And that’s what makes the vampire genre fun is finding new ways to work within those rules. But the Invisible Man, he’s not a monster. He doesn’t have supernatural powers. He’s just a guy. He has this invisibility but he’s human. As opposed to Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, who became creatures more than human. Even the original [Invisible Man] film and novel is about the failings and frailties of the common man and how this man is driven insane by this power. It’s unique in that respect compared to those other iconic monsters and that does give you more freedom I think. I realized I can tell a story about a psychopath. What happens when you give a psychopath the power of invisibility, as opposed to when you’re telling a Dracula story and you have to constantly not tread on that fable and that character and his upbringing. If you told a Batman movie and suddenly he was born in Romania and he wasn’t rich, people would be up in arms. You have to stick to the mythology that Bruce Wayne was a young man when his parents were killed. No matter what version of Batman they do, and which way they take it visually, they have to stick to that. The Invisible Man I don’t feel he has that written in stone mythology.”

With the focus on Cecilia as the protagonist and the decision to make the Invisible Man a scary, ethereal villain, little specific information is given about Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), the title character, prior to the events of the film. Said Whannell, “I didn’t want to know too much about him. I wanted him to be mysterious. To me that’s always the scariest thing is when this malevolent figure you’re supposed to be afraid of in the film is a little bit unknowable. You don’t know all the rules. Off the top of my head, if you think about something like The Exorcist, you have a story about this young girl being possessed. You never know who the demon is. It’d be a very different movie if someone came in and said ‘Oh yes, this demon was cast out of hell in 1400 BC and he hates fire.’ What’s interesting about The Exorcist is that you never see the bad guy. People think that the little girl covered in scratches and vomit is the bad guy. No, that’s the little girl. You’re actually trying to save her. You never get to see this demon. You hear of him through her. But I believe a big reason that film is powerful today is because of the mystery. That you really never get to touch this force, ever… I just felt that keeping the Invisible Man hidden and mysterious would be a good answer to him.”

STARTING THE SPIRAL

Leigh Whannell in 2004's Saw

Whannell, of course, got his start as the writer (and co-star) of Saw and this May sees the release of Spiral, the ninth film in the franchise. Asked what it feels like to see the series still continue – with an installment starring Chris Rock [who set up the new film] and Samuel L. Jackson, no less – Whannell remarked, “[Saw director] James Wan and I, we never intended that movie to connect with people the way it did. Sometimes when you make a film, you really intend for it to connect. I certainly went into Invisible Man thinking about and aiming for the widest possible audience. Given it was an established property I thought it had a good chance of getting a big marketing push behind it. With Saw, it was the opposite. Our goal was to make a straight to video film. This was 2003. Video stores were still a thing. James and I were big fans of straight to video horror movies that used to thrive. There was a whole market of these things. Our big goal was it would really be cool if we could land in Blockbuster on that shelf. If it managed to be a popular title in stores, that would be our calling card. We didn’t expect our calling card to become our thing. The circumstances of the situation wildly exceed our own modest goals. It’s a testament to having modest goals. If you just want to come third in the race, you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you come first. You’ll only be disappointed if you wanted to be in first and come in second. That’s the Australian in us. Modest goals.”

As the Saw movies continued, their continuity became more and more complex, constantly building upon or expanding on what happened before. For Whannell, it’s been amusing to witness from afar since he stepped away from the series. “The last Saw movie I wrote was the third one and I killed the villain. Doesn’t get more definitive than that. He’s dead! I thought ‘Well, that’s it.’ And there was a moment where it felt like it was it. And they came to me and said ‘Let’s get into it. Let’s do Part 4!’ And I said ‘No, I think we’re done here.’ And they said ‘No, we’re not done but thanks for your time!’”

Whannell laughed about them continuing the series after the main villain had died onscreen, saying it was amusing to see it become akin to Friday the 13th where a “Final Chapter” isn’t really a final chapter. “I think that happened with Saw. Me killing off Jigsaw, that didn’t mean anything. It meant he was dead for that movie. They kept going and I have a lot of affection toward it. James and I inadvertently created the millennial Freddy Krueger. In the same way I used to go to sleepovers in my teens and watch Freddy movies, millennial kids were doing that with Saw movies. I still have people come up to me and go ‘When I was a kid I grew up on Saw movies.’ So that’s pretty cool. I’m not ashamed of it and I also want to continue to make other movies. I wouldn’t want that to be my epithet – ‘That’s the Saw guy!’ As long as I can keep making other movies, I have a lot of affection for Saw and what it’s doing and what it’s become. [The fact that] someone as amazing and talented as Chris Rock deems it worthy of his time blows my mind.”

(L-R) Leigh Whannell, Lin Shaye, and Angus Sampson in Insidious: Chapter 3

As for the other big horror franchise Whannell originated, Insidious, and whether we’ll eventually see a fifth film, Whannell said, “It’s Jason Blum! if you’ve ever interviewed Jason or know Jason at all, he’s always thinking more. ‘Can we do this?’ He wants to work with people he likes and once he locks into a story he likes, he’s like ‘Let’s keep doing it.’ So I think once this Invisible Man stuff calms down he’ll elbow me in the ribs and be like ‘What are we doing with Insidious?’ I don’t know that I’d return to it directly if they were to make another one, but I would probably want to oversee it and be involved somehow. I’m kind of keen. I got a late start in directing but I’m going to see how far I can kick this can down the road.”

The Invisible Man is now playing.

Eric Goldman
Eric Goldman is Managing Editor for Fandom. He's a bit obsessed with Star Wars, Marvel, Disney, theme parks, and horror movies... and a few other things. Too many, TBH.