STACK caught up with writer-director Leigh Whannell to discuss his innovative take on H.G. Wells’s classic tale, The Invisible Man.

The Invisible Man is Leigh Whannell’s latest collaboration with US production company Blumhouse, following the sci-fi/action hit Upgrade in 2018. Back home in Melbourne to promote the film, the Aussie actor-turned-filmmaker – who became a hot export in Hollywood following the success of Saw in 2004 – reveals he didn’t know what he wanted do next after completing Upgrade.

“I knew I had been bitten by the action movie bug,” he tells STACK. “There’s something very fun and addictive about putting car chases and fight scenes together; that very kinetic, visceral kind of filmmaking. So I thought, now I’ll do the big budget version of Upgrade if I’m lucky enough, and then The Invisible Man came out of nowhere.   

“It was suggested to me; I wasn’t thinking about the Invisible Man in any way, shape or form,” he continues. “I had a meeting with Blumhouse and Universal and they started asking me what I wanted to do with that character and I kind of started making things up on the spot. But when I left the meeting, the ideas stayed with me and started growing like a tumour over the next few days; I could see the direction, and now here we are.”

Leigh Whannell on the set

With production taking place in Sydney, Whannell jumped at the chance to return to Australia – something he wasn’t anticipating.    

“When I wrote the script for The Invisible Man, producer Jason Blum said, ‘Okay, so we’re going back to Australia, right?’ because he’d had such a good experience with me shooting Upgrade in Melbourne. I hadn’t really been thinking of it as a film that would be shooting in Australia, but as an Australian, I’ll take any excuse to be here.

“When you make a film, you’ve got to be here for five months, so I got to know Sydney in a way I never have before. And the crews you can get access to in Australia are like A-grade athletes – people who have worked on films for Martin Scorsese and George Miller,” he says, adding that it was gratifying that the ‘best of the best’ were working on his film. “Big films like Fury Road only come along once in a while, so they plug the gaps with independent films and that’s how you get access to these people. Every day on set it was astounding to look at the crew and count off who had worked on what.”    

Although he was familiar with the original 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells’s classic novel The Invisible Man, Whannell says the idea of rebooting it wasn’t on his radar.      

“I would go through phases as a kid, which used to drive my Dad crazy. After a six-month Sherlock Holmes phase there would be a six-month Dracula phase, and that would finish and it would be James Bond, and it just kept going. I was an obsessive child,” he laughs. “The classic movie monsters were definitely a part of that period but I wouldn’t say that the original Invisible Man was a touchstone for me that I was really looking to investigate.”

The character had been revitalised in 2000 by director Paul Verhoeven, in the gory sci-fi horror Hollow Man, but Whannell’s take on the Invisible Man fits more comfortably into the suspense-thriller category, incorporating topical themes of domestic violence and stalking.

Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) plays the protagonist, who after fleeing an abusive relationship discovers that her wealthy scientist ex has taken his own life. Or has he? Convinced she is being stalked by an invisible presence, she must convince those around her that she isn’t paranoid and that the unseen threat is very real…

“I wanted to modernise the character and make it as grounded as it possibly could be,” Whannell explains. “There have been many different iterations of the Invisible Man character. Indeed, the idea of invisibility has been explored in many films, but I felt that I hadn’t seen this version of The Invisible Man before.

“I wanted to make something very cold and clinical that felt real.

“I was really inspired by the films of David Fincher – Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Zodiac. He has this really interesting way of making thrillers that’s very clinical but beautiful.”

Adding to her resume of traumatised characters, Moss delivers a committed performance, conveying fear in every glance and giving us a heroine to root for. So, how did she come to be involved with the project?

“When it came time to cast the film, I realised that I had written a one-woman show – she’s literally in every scene. The list of actors who can carry a film like this on their shoulders – where you’re expected to lose your mind and go to these dark places – is a pretty short list, and I think Elisabeth is on there. She’s proven herself time and time again.

“We sent her the script and suddenly I was on the phone to her, and it was kind of an awkward phone call because I was driving and my kids were in the back, screaming. So I was laughing and trying to play it down, but I couldn’t quite hear her. It wasn’t a good introduction but I spoke to her long enough to know that she’s hyper-intelligent and could pick the script apart and talk about it.

“I also learned that she loves suspenseful movies and the thriller genre. When she makes The Handmaid’s Tale, she told me that her goal is to have the audience squirming, so she was really into the idea of us making The Invisible Man a really uncomfortable and stressful movie to watch.

“I wanted this to be a suffocating experience from the first frame; I didn’t want to take the foot off the pedal. I wanted the audience to be uncomfortable from the very first second of the movie, and if I do my job well, holding their breath for two hours. Hopefully I’ve achieved that.”

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