By MICHAEL GINGOLD
After making his directorial debut on 2015’s INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3, the franchise’s constant scripter Leigh Whannell went back to merely writing, co-producing and co-starring in the latest entry, INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY. He gave RUE MORGUE an exclusive one-on-one about the latest in the ongoing supernatural saga.
Directed by Adam Robitel (THE TAKING OF DEBORAH LOGAN) and opening this Friday, THE LAST KEY gives the film series’ parapsychologist/medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) her biggest role yet. The storyline follows Elise back to her childhood home in Five Keys, New Mexico, accompanied by demon-busting assistants Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), to confront a demon from her past. Whannell, who produced with James Wan, Jason Blum and Oren Peli, relished the idea of putting Shaye’s heroine front and center…
How did you come up with the premise of THE LAST KEY, and the decision to focus on Elise’s character this time?
Well, I think Elise has really become the center of the franchise, the central thread through all the movies. I love that it has become about her; she was a supporting character in the first film, but she made a big impact on people, as Lin Shaye does. She stands out, and she’s become the hero now; she’s the Jason Bourne of this franchise! She and I talked about it all the time on set—how lucky she is to be a woman her age and working; it’s sad, but at a certain age, women often have real trouble finding roles. It’s unfair, and an unfortunate problem in the industry, so Lin is grateful to not just be in a film but to be the lead, and not just the lead but kicking ass and taking names.
With this movie, I just decided to put all the focus on Lin. She was definitely a lead in INSIDIOUS 3, but she kind of shared that with Stefanie Scott, so I decided to shift the balance of power totally to her. The film is about her character, it’s about her life, and she’s in nearly every scene. Everyone around her is a supporting character to her story, and I just love that.
How much can you tell us about how THE LAST KEY develops the mythology we saw in the previous films?
I can’t say too much, Blumhouse keeps things pretty tight; there’s a guy with a knife to my throat right now! But I will say that by looking into the past, at who Elise was when she was younger, you do get a window opened into the world of the Further. It’s almost like by exploring Elise’s character, you learn more about the Further and how she’s tied into it, and what being a psychic has meant to her over her entire life. There’s probably more backstory and light shed on the world these films are set in than in any of the other movies.
Why did you decide not to direct this installment?
Well, it was a couple of things. I had another film in development that I directed earlier this year called STEM, which is a sci-fi movie, and I didn’t want anything to get in the way of that. So I decided not to direct THE LAST KEY; I felt like I had done that, in terms of directing an INSIDIOUS film, and I wanted to try my hand at my own thing. Directing 3 was such a great experience; as a first-timer, it couldn’t have been more of a soft landing, you know? As a first-timer, with first-time nerves, I was cushioned by the fact that I knew the characters so well, and the world that the two previous movies had established. But once I got that out of the way, and discovered that I loved directing that much, I wanted to branch out and do something that was mine, that wasn’t a sequel. I was happy to hand it over to someone else, and essentially be a guiding force; I still had a hand in the film, I didn’t just abandon it. On top of writing the script, I was there helping out Adam Robitel and guiding the movie to live up to the standards of the previous three.
How did you and James Wan select Robitel to take over as director?
It was interesting. You would think there would be a queue a mile long to direct a film that’s part of an established franchise and will have a huge theatrical release, which is not something first-time directors get very often. But it was surprisingly small; we narrowed it down to a list of people we really wanted to do it, and a lot of them were busy; they were doing their own things. So it was rather difficult to find someone, but we’re really happy with Adam. He has a great sensibility, he’s young and enthusiastic about the franchise and had made a really promising debut film, but wasn’t jaded and wasn’t going to bring the weight of any bad experiences; he was right in that good area. We were lucky we found him.
How was the experience of being not only the film’s writer but an actor as well, being guided by a newcomer to the franchise?
It was very interesting being directed by someone else who wasn’t James Wan. Directing yourself is the oddest thing; when I was doing INSIDIOUS 3, that was definitely peak weirdness, when I had to do a scene, call “Cut” and then run back to the monitors and judge my own performance. I really don’t know how these actor/directors do it, like Clint Eastwood and Ben Affleck and Woody Allen and countless others. I mean, you look at a film like UNFORGIVEN, and Eastwood gives this great performance, and it’s amazing to me that he also directed it. When I was making INSIDIOUS 3, I had a little trouble judging my own performance, and it felt a bit like having a split personality trying to juggle those two jobs. In fact, most of the time when I’d be doing a scene, delivering lines and interacting with the other actors, my inner monologue was just thinking things like, “Oh, we need to move that light!” So having someone else direct THE LAST KEY was definitely a return to what I’m more comfortable with as an actor.
You have a significant new demon in THE LAST KEY played by top creature performer Javier Botet; it’s a bit surprising that this is the first time he has been part of the INSIDIOUS universe.
I know, he’s so perfectly suited for it! He’s such a nice guy, and puts 100 percent of himself into each role he plays, and he takes great pride in that. You can see that when you’re working with him. I felt the same way when I was making the other INSIDIOUS movies; you see the pride that these actors take in their outlandish, otherworldly characters. Just because they’re demons, and not of this world, doesn’t mean the actors can’t know who they are and how they move, and often they’ll have a whole story in their minds. Javier definitely does that, and he’s a lovely guy too.
Did you write this particular demon with him in mind?
I did not, but what was funny was, when I began work on the script for THE LAST KEY, I wasn’t entirely in a creative space to start writing. Usually, when I’m about to start a screenplay, I really feel like I’m facing an uphill battle. It’s like I’m climbing Everest, and that first draft is base camp at ground level, and I’ve got a giant mountain in front of me. I get exhausted just thinking about it. So this time, I thought, “How can I make the writing more fun? I know, I’ll go to Spain!” So my family and I actually rented a vacation home on the Spanish coast. We had it for a couple of months, and the idea was that I was going to be like Truman Capote, sitting on the balcony with the ocean view, typing away, and that the atmosphere and the joie de vivre of everything would help make the process fun. What I discovered was that writing in Spain is just as miserable as writing in LA; all I’d done was move the setting [laughs].
But this town we were in was a strange, cool place. It was a little hamlet with about five houses, and its name roughly translates as “Five Keys,” which became the name of the town in THE LAST KEY. And it’s interesting that Javier ended up in the film; there seems to be a real Spanish influence in there!
Are there any thoughts at this point of what you might do with a fifth INSIDIOUS film?
No idea, none at all. Usually, I start thinking about a storyline once I’ve taken the job, and we haven’t had any chats about another INSIDIOUS film yet. So at this point, I just have no idea.