Invisible Man Director Reveals His Take on the Universal Monster

Rebooting the iconic Universal Monsters franchise hasn’t been as easy as the studio thought it would be. After the highly publicized launch and failure of the so-called “Dark Universe,” Universal is going back to basics by collaborating with the boundary-pushing horror house Blumhouse and genre stalwart, Leigh Whannell. The director changed the game with Saw a decade ago (which he co-created with his regular collaborator James Wan), has been involved in some of contemporary horror’s biggest hits recently, and delivered one of the most exciting and subversive action movies in ages with his lo-fi sci-fi Blumhouse-produced masterpiece Upgrade. We meet Whannell on a wintry day in Sydney on the set of The Invisible Man, Universal’s first return to the Monsters franchise since 2017’s The Mummy. Whereas that Tom Cruise star vehicle was a big-budget would-be blockbuster meant to set off a sprawling shared universe, what we saw of The Invisible Man is anything but, with a relatively small crew and an intimate practical set based in a fully realized suburban house which Whannell gave us a guided tour of whilst espousing all the reasons that he loves shooting in his home continent. “You get world-class crews in Australia. In the US, the guy who’s the grip on Transformers only does movies like that. You can go from tentpole to tentpole. But in Australia, they only shoot giant tentpole movies here, sporadically, every now and again. The Matrix will come to town or Superman or X-Men or whatever. So those guys who work on those movies, they plug the gaps when X-Men is not in town with indie movies. So they’ll go from being the grip on, you know, Superman to the grip on some $700,000 Sundance movie. So there’s a weird crossover there you wouldn’t get in the US. You know, you’re not going to ask the grip from the Bourne Identity to come work on your $700,000 Sundance movie unless you’re related to him. Whereas here you can really get champagne on a budget, you don’t have to have a huge amount of money to get a Steadicam operator who worked on Fury Road.” [widget path=”global/article/imagegallery” parameters=”albumSlug=the-invisible-man-gallery&captions=true”] Whannell shot his critically acclaimed Blumhouse action flick, Upgrade, in Australia too on an unbelievable $5 million budget, the experience of which ended up shaping where the director and Blumhouse decided to shoot The Invisible Man. “Going into Upgrade it was like how are we going to make this movie? We tried to get it done the expensive way and it’s just too hard. You know, we tried going for the sort of Hugh Jackman version of it, and it was just too hard. So I was like, ‘What if we did the Blumhouse version of this? And Jason was like, it’s impossible to make this movie for $5 million.’ Then we figured out if we went to Australia, we could turn $5 million into $12 million. We could double our budget, so that’s why we came to Australia. Then once we did that, I think Jason was completely blindsided by how much bang for your buck you get in Australia. He was like, ‘Wait, you did all this?’ So, when I wrote [The Invisible Man], he was like, ‘ Australia?’ and I was like, ‘Let’s not rush into anything.’ But he was like, ‘Australia!'” Despite the shared location and budgetary constraints, Whannell was quick to highlight the differences he saw between the shoots in his classic, hilarious fashion: “This film is to Upgrade as Lawrence of Arabia is to cat videos on YouTube.” [ignvideo width=610 height=374 url=https://www.ign.com/videos/2019/11/07/the-invisible-man-official-trailer] Ironically, it was that “YouTube cat video” that got Whannell the meeting with Universal who were eager to meet the director after casting their eyes of the exceedingly entertaining action horror. “Universal said they wanted to meet with me after they saw Upgrade. I thought they were going to praise me for an hour about how great Upgrade was, so I ran to that meeting. No one can praise people like Hollywood studio executives. So I was ready. I got there, I sat on the couch, I was like, ‘Hi, me tell me how great I am for the next hour.’ They spent a little bit of time on Upgrade, and then quickly moved on to the Dark Universe. And I was thinking, ‘Why are we talking about these monsters when we haven’t finished with the praise for Upgrade?'” It was during that conversation that Whannell hit the pitching jackpot with one offhand comment. [ignvideo width=610 height=374 url=https://www.ign.com/videos/2018/06/16/the-creator-of-saw-and-upgrades-favourite-gory-horror-scenes] “One of the guys that I was meeting with was saying, ‘Well, you know, these movies are hard to write. I mean, if the Invisible Man is the good guy, who’s the bad guy? What scares the Invisible Man?’ And I said, ‘He’s not the good guy, he’s the bad guy.’ And they all said, ‘Go on.’ So I sort of stumbled into it. It’s like one of those pits filled with razor blades that pot growers build. I wasn’t expecting it, I was just walking along and sort of fell into it. And the more I thought about it the more intrigued I was, thinking about what the Invisible Man could be. I landed on the story and kind of reverse-engineered it into a concept rather than a story appearing fully formed.” So just what does Universal want from Leigh Whannell, Blumhouse, and their intimate Sydney shoot? One thing that’s clear is that the days of the shared Dark Universe are over and that’s something that actually made the project far more palatable for the director. “What they want to do is make standalone films. That’s their plan, to sort of have individual filmmakers who have an idea for a monster and for them really plug in and not have to worry about linking it and stuff like that. It probably would have been less interesting to me if I had to have like cameos from Dr. Jekyll. Yeah, I was really interested in telling this story.” [widget path=”global/article/imagegallery” parameters=”albumSlug=59-movies-to-geek-out-over-in-2020&captions=true”] Though Whannell is totally aware of the massive task at hand his personal feelings about the Invisible Man have left him without the true terror that often comes with redefining a legend. In fact, as we spoke on the set, the classic character’s B-list status in the world of monsters had the director thinking about his regular collaborator and close friend James Wan and his recent foray into the epic landscape of billion-dollar superhero movies. “I think the Invisible Man is sort of an underdog character. I remember asking James about doing Aquaman, he was like ‘It’s cool ’cause everyone really hates Aquaman, he’s the fish guy.’ He felt like he was really coming from an underdog place and he felt like he could make Aquaman cool. With this I feel like there’s been a lot of great Dracula movies, there’s been some great werewolf movies. But I feel like with the Invisible Man, he’s kind of the Aquaman of this roster. I feel like if I was making a Dracula movie, I’d feel the weight of my forefathers on my shoulders, you know, Coppola and Bela Lugosi. But with the Invisible Man I just feel like I’m excited whereas if I was making a werewolf movie I’d just be like, ‘Please be as good as The Howling.'” Whether he’s an underdog or not, the well-known status of the iconic character gave Whannell the freedom to tell the story that he found the most interesting, which meant shaking things up. [widget path=”global/article/imagegallery” parameters=”albumSlug=the-25-best-horror-movies&captions=true”] “With these iconic figures, as you guys know, once they become iconic enough, you can plug them into anything. You can take Dracula out of the Dracula story, you could plug him into a modern-day film, a futuristic movie, you know, Dracula could show up in the year 20AD for a day. You could pit him against Sherlock Holmes, once they become icons, they become really malleable. Universal Monsters have enough time behind them to go even beyond modern icons like Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers. So that character of the Invisible Man that we know was really the inspiration but I realized what would be exciting to me would be to take that character out of where we’ve seen him before, out of the [H.G. Wells] novel, out of that traditional story structure of that original film which was really based on the book to a large degree.” It was here that Whannell found his angle, the story of a young woman desperate to escape her abusive ex who seems to be free of him once he kills himself, only to find herself haunted by something or someone who she can’t see. It was a story the director didn’t take lightly. “For the main story of Cecilia, I certainly talked to friends of mine about things that they’d experienced. I usually go through this research period, I try to extend that as long as possible because that’s the fun part. The part before writing is the best part of writing everything up until you actually have to sit down and start typing. So I’ll do anything to extend that, I’ll just make things up. To me, it was less a story of abuse in a thematic way that was interesting. What was interesting to me was the idea of gaslighting and being sure that someone was there having that feeling someone’s in the room with you. What would be the psychological ramifications of that? So that became the real focus rather than–some writers go into a project saying I’m really interested in this thing, centering on one theme: immigration, these endless wars, and then try and wrap an iconic character around that–well, I didn’t come at it that way, I started with that character.” [ignvideo url=”https://www.ign.com/videos/2018/01/24/dark-universe-being-reconfigured-by-universal-after-setbacks-ign-news”] With the R-rated movie almost in theaters, what can audiences expect from the new iteration of the popular Universal Monster? According to Whannell, something unique, dark, and thrilling with some classic genre influences as well as a new take on the character himself. “In a lot of ways, it is a psychological thriller. I love the early Polanski films where you would never be quite sure like, ‘Is she crazy? Or does the devil really want her baby?’ I love that stuff so I’d say that was an influence… I will say this, I think what’s cool to me about the Invisible Man that I’ve never seen, or that we’ve not tapped into before, is the idea of not seeing something.” The Invisible Man hits screens on February 28th in the US and UK and on February 27th in Australia. For more from our set visit, find out what drew Elisabeth Moss to the horror film.

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