a closer look

Director Leigh Whannell Talks How to Make an Invisible Man

Photo: Mark Rogers/Universal Pictures

As a lifelong horror fan and veteran of the genre, writer-director Leigh Whannell didn’t quite know what to think when, in 2018, Universal Pictures president Peter Cramer asked him, “What do you think about The Invisible Man?” The filmmaker (best known for co-creating Saw and Insidious) had to wrap his brain around such an expansive question. “It would be like if someone said, ‘What do you think about Monopoly?’ I guess I like it?,” Whannell says. “But the idea got its hooks in me, and I remember lying awake that night thinking there’s a real opportunity there to modernize this character and to make him scary again.” His update of the 1933 classic opens today, and it looks like the film that might finally resurrect the most famous monster gang in movie history — something not even the combined powers of Tom Cruise and a mummy could achieve.

Based on H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel, the original Invisible Man was directed by James Whale and starred Claude Rains, and revolved around a chemist who figures out how to turn himself, yes, invisible with a dangerous drug that drives him to murderous insanity. The film spawned several sequels, and the character became a key part of the Universal Monsters stable, but as Whannell points out, the original movie is also a bit of a “museum piece” after 90 years in rotation and a long dormant period. “The best tribute you can pay to these older characters is not to be slavishly devoted to the original story but to modernize it,” says Whannell, who directed the new film from his own screenplay. “That’s my own take. Let me get shredded on social media for that one!”

To make old Invisible an exciting addition to Universal’s revised Dark Universe initiative, Whannell knew he had to drag the character into the present and find a way to frame invisibility as a genuinely urgent, and unique, threat. Have people imagine the power of flight and they’ll talk about visiting exotic destinations; posit the power to go invisible and they might talk about what banks they’d rob or people they’d spy on. But Whannell didn’t want to drive a good guy mad with power, either. He wanted to take someone fundamentally sinister whose nature would be amplified by the ability to go unseen, so he made his villain an abusive boyfriend, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and his heroine, Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), the woman trying to escape his torment.

Whannell isn’t under the impression he’s created a new narrative, despite his Invisible Man lining up with the current discourse as a “#MeToo movie,” but he did enjoy the opportunity to put an icon of Old Hollywood into a conversation that defines our current era. Here is how Whannell collaborated with his technical pros and his lead actress to create an unseen but ever-present malevolent force.

Trust in Elisabeth Moss

Much like Vulture, Whannell appreciates the power of Moss’s eyes (running mascara or not), and their ability to communicate the exact intention of a script without bogging down a scene in exposition. “It’s what her eyes are doing that tells you the story, and that’s perfect for this movie,” he says, calling Moss the missing puzzle piece that finally completed the whole picture of his film. And considering her adversary in Invisible Man is usually a stretch of implicitly threatening negative space, the actress’s instincts to not shout into the void until totally necessary serve the film well. “She tends to play these roles where she’s not allowed to say much, and some sort of patriarchal force is preventing it, whether it’s Mad Men or Handmaid’s Tale,” says Whannell, who would painfully watch his star suggest significant edits to his lovingly crafted words, often replacing them with silence. “She would cut whole paragraphs of dialogue from the script and just say to me, ‘I think I can say this with a look. Why don’t you just give me a chance?’ She was very gentle. Then I would see her do it and be like, ‘Okay. Fine.’”

The result is Moss’s character being gaslit into a state of paranoid madness in mostly empty frames as Adrian inflicts his most violent acts of terror, leaving the audience immersed in Cecilia’s trauma. We see the scars of past violence as she is subjected to more in the present. “She gave me a lot of personal insight into relationships in her life. We both shared a lot with each other, and through conversation the dialogue would change,” Whannell says. “I’m writing a movie about this experience that I have nothing to do with, and there’s a certain impostor syndrome that can set in. You start to doubt yourself. She would really go through the scenes with me with a razor and just bring her insight to it. As soon as I got her stamp of approval, I could feel comfortable moving forward. In that regard, she was almost like a co-writer in her policing of every emotional beat.”

Weaponize the Space

Creating that quintessential Terrible Place is foundational to almost any horror film, and while the unseen is always meant to destabilize you in a scary movie, Whannell’s unique challenge was making the open air itself a threat. You’re not scrutinizing the back and sides of every frame looking for the monster in waiting. You have to think you could be looking right at him at all times. “I wanted people to be stressed from the first frame, and not even know quite why they were stressed. Just like, ‘I don’t like this atmosphere,’” says Whannell, who worked with cinematographer Stefan Duscio to make the camera a character in and of itself.

One of the best tricks in Invisible Man involves the camera slowly panning across an empty space while the action continues out of frame, just to make you wonder what’s hiding in the shot — which the director admits involved the silly process of rolling the camera for what felt like an interminable amount of time on nothing but empty rooms. Whannell says he knows exactly where Adrian is at all times (his actors only did sometimes), but he isn’t going to tell us where to find him. The director does, however, offer this for our speculative enjoyment: “There’s only one scene in the film where the camera moves on its own and he’s not there.”

With the camera acting almost like a person, it becomes a kind of audience surrogate. We know Adrian is hiding somewhere in plain sight, so we’re always scanning the scene while the characters go about their lives. But what’s in the hallway? What’s in the next room? “If you buy a ticket to a movie called The Invisible Man, you’re automatically going to be suspicious of any empty corridor I show you, and audiences these days are very cine-literate,” explains Whannell. “They’re aware of all the tropes and conventions of horror movies, and they’re desensitized to it. So I decided that I could weaponize that knowledge against them.” Whannell also did Duscio the unkindness of telling him he wanted light. Lots of it. Typically in horror, you’re playing with darkness and shadows, but if your bad guy is transparent it’s actually more disarming to know you still can’t find him in a brightly lit room.

Making a villain that exists almost totally in absence also gave the director extra room to be creative with sound. After Cecilia escapes at the start of the film, the first time we experience Adrian is when we can’t see him. So Whannell, who attended a film school that emphasized the role of sound in film-craft and says sound mixing is his favorite part of the process, worked closely with supervising sound editor Will Files and had a lot of “fiendish fun” audibly terrorizing his potential audience. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, this is my sound movie.’ I already go into the writing prioritizing that,” Whannell told Vulture. “But I knew for this movie that the very title of this film begs for great sound design, because you can’t rely on your eyes, only your ears, and I had great fun with Will throwing sounds all over the theater. I wanted things behind people. I wanted things to go off the screen.”

Mind the Gaze

Making the camera a character also meant being extra-conscious of the nature of the film’s gaze. Whannell realized that the most recent touchpoint many fans had for an Invisible Man movie was Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man from 2000, which handles a similar premise in a much more troublingly familiar way: through the voyeuristic lens of a man with bad intentions. The new Invisible Man, on the other hand, is about the long-term effects of domestic violence and the role gaslighting plays in keeping victims in the grasp of their abusers, and Whannell consulted with counselors at women’s shelters in Los Angeles while working on the script.

It’s a delicate job putting that material in a mass market horror film that still needs to feel entertaining, and while creeping on women while they disrobe has never been part of Whannell’s cinematic vernacular anyway, he knew he had to make sure the film’s POV (unlike Hollow Man’s) never veered toward leering. “I want the camera to be more interested in empty rooms than it is in spying on somebody in the shower,” says Whannell. “I think people maybe wait for those moments in the film, but they never come.”

Director Leigh Whannell Talks How to Make an Invisible Man