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March 2007
DEAD SILENCE: An Interview with Leigh Whannell

DEAD SILENCE: An Interview with Leigh Whannell
By Wilson Morales

Having co-created the “Saw” franchise and brought some life into the horror genre, Leigh Whannell is starting to venture off and have more opinions thrown at him, especially his freedom of writing no longer applies. While doing films for Lionsgate, Whannell had the success to be creative without any many necks over his shoulders. Such is not the case with his latest vehicle, “Dead Silence”, which he co-wrote with James Wan. With Universal Pictures releasing the film, Whannell has to prove that he can deliver on a studio level. Not that he needs their blessing. Success or not, he has another “Saw” film in the works. In “Dead Silence”, A widower (Ryan Kwanten) returns to his hometown to search for answers to his wife's murder. In speaking to blackfilm.com, Whannel talks about creating this horror film, working with another studio, and why he loves the horror genre.

How different did you want to make this from other films that seem similar in terms of the genre?

Leigh Whannell: We wanted to do something really different. First we wanted to have a film that centered around these ventriloquist dummies, which is something we haven’t seen before. Even in something like “Magic”, which was a long time ago. We haven’t seen an out and out horror film revolving around ventriloquist dummies, so we really wanted to do that. For want of a better expression, we saw a gap in the market, and we were like, “how come no one has come out with a ventriloquist horror film?” It’s amazing and that part of the interview, that’s where a lot of the message boarders come out and say, “What’s he talking about? What about “Saw”? “Saw” was really a film revolving around a dummy. Even a film like “Magic” is not a horror film. It just didn’t get there. I think the closest thing is that one segment in “Dead of Night”, the old British horror anthology. We really wanted to define it and the other thing we wanted to do to separate it from other horror films out there is set it in this other world. It’s set basically in a land that’s been painted by Edgar Allen Poe. The town in the film is called Ravenfair and there’s your reference right there. It’s a very old school film. We really are paying tribute to the hammer horror film, the horror films of yesteryear.

Would you say that “Dead Silence” could be similar to “Silent Hill” referring to an old town?

LW: Yeah, but I think “Silent Hill” was very different. That was much more like an action horror film. It was based on the game and packed with CG. Ours is much more like an old school creepfest. Just think of it like a feature length episode of the “Twilight Zone”. That’s what we wanted to make, the old black and white Twilight Zone. That’s essentially what we are out to do with “Dead Silence”. We want to creep people out in a fun way.

Why decide not to act in the film?

LW: It was interesting just to wear that hat and not have any of the acting inspirations in mind. It was good and freeing in a sense because it meant that you were never considering whether or not a line should go to myself or what’s the best line for me to say. Essentially I just concentrated on the story for it and the imagery and that was great.

So you never thought of acting in the film no matter how big or small the role was?

LW: Not in “Dead Silence”. For this film, I just really wanted to get the script right. It was my first time writing for a studio so I was acutely aware that they would watching over my shoulder and you kind of stand or fall on what you deliver. It was a tough experience actually writing “Dead Silence”. It was tough. It was the first time writing with someone looking over my shoulder. I found it difficult have so many opinions. There were a lot of notes handed to me about pages that needed changes and questioning certain scenes. Being that it was my first time doing that, it was tough. On “Saw”, Greg, the main producer, had a few notes but not too many. We really shot the script as it was; so it that respect, we were completely spoiled. With this film, it was like “Welcome to the reality of Hollywood”.

Can you talk about the cast and how Donnie Walhberg was brought into it since you worked with him in “Saw”?

LW: Donnie had just shot “Saw 2” and it was great fun working with him and we were sitting around one day thinking of who can play the detective and Greg just said “Why not Donnie?” and we called him up and he did it as a favor and he breathes a lot of life into the film and makes it really fun. It was a small cast for this film. It really came together through James (Wan) auditioning it and trying to get the best actors for the roles. It was a very small cast in “Dead Silence”. It’s one of those movies where the casting is key because you don’t have a huge cast.

What about casting Bob Gunton?

LW: He’s great. A lot of people remember him from the “Shawshank Redemption” and he just has a great presence. His voice is so commanding and he could put that creep in his voice. He was perfect for that role. He was awesome and so was Ryan (Kwanten). I think one of the best piece of casting in my opinion was Judith Roberts, who plays Mary Shaw, our main villain in the film. She was just fantastic. She was a real theater actor and she brought a lot of panache to that role.

There aren’t that many female villains on screen.

LW: Yeah. We wanted to create a really scary ghost. We felt that in most films the ghost is a bit of a letdown, and with this we wanted to have an old school ghost. Again, the whole film is a total tribute to the old hammer horror films, and her character is definitely a part of that tribute.

As a writer, how does the process work with you and James Wan?

LW: We both came up with the story together. I had the idea to do the ventriloquist dummy and then we talk about it for a while and that’s how we come up with ideas. One of us would come up with an initial idea and then we would discuss it and go back and forth and then I’ll go off and do the writing and give the draft to James. It was good.

How did Universal get the picture from you when you have been with Lionsgate for some time now?

LW: We actually pitched it to them. It was actually a pitch. It wasn’t like we wrote the script and hop it around the studios. We went in and pitched it to Universal and they were really into it. It was an interesting experience. I had never done that before. It was a lot of pressure and good learning experience.

What fascinates you about horror films?

LW: Horror films. I don’t actually know in one sense. It’s like trying to explain why you love a certain song. You don’t why it is that that certain song resonates more than another song; you just know that you like it and that your ears understand it even if your conscious mind doesn’t. I think I’m just attracted to it at a gut level. Also, I love being scared. When I was a kid I love telling ghost stories late at night. People love horror films for the same reason they love getting on a roller coaster. I hate roller coasters myself. It’s amazing that I can watch any horror film but put me on a roller coaster, I’m completely scared. People love horror films because they get to experience what’s it’s like to be stalked by a maniac in a controlled environment. They can dip their toes in a pool and pull it back out. I think the type of fear people have when they are watching a horror film is very different to if you were walking down the street and someone started following you. That’s a very different type of fear that no one wants to experience, but horror films lets you access that without having to go through it.

As a producer of “Saw IV”, what do we expect this time? Why act a just a producer?

LW: I’m definitely going to go oversee it. Both James and I are parents of the project and we still want to make sure that’s it’s good. I just had a desire to tell more stories. I felt I had told all the Saw stories that I could and I really wanted to hand torch to some other guys and see what they came up with. It’s one of those decisions you make where you are like, “I’m done with that”.

Where are we with the production of the film?

LW: It’s great. A couple of writers have been working on the script. It’s really going well and they are gearing up for it. Everything’s going full steam.

Are Jigsaw and Amanda back?

LW: I can’t really say. I can’t reveal anything. Unfortunately there’s a Lionsgate sniper on the roof who will take me out if I reveal any details, but Jigsaw will feature in the film somewhere. It’s how he gets feature is where the fun is.

What’s your role in “Death Sentence”?

LW: James’ finishing that up now and that will come out later this year. I just have a small cameo role. James called me for fun and asked that I come out and hang out with him in South Carolina for a couple of weeks and play this role.

As an actor, do you want to do something outside of horror?

LW: As an actor, I really want to do a comedy. I feel I will have to write my own comedy to really get in there.

As a former critic, what’s the best horror film that you have seen?

LW: “The Shining” and “Jaws”. Jaws affected me when I was a kid. It scarred me for life. It made me obsessed with sharks. It really invaded my psyche. Now when I watch it, I still love it.

DEAD SILENCE opens on March 16,2007





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