For writer/director Leigh Whannell, the character of H.G. Wells’ ‘Invisible Man” has been in the back of his mind since he was a boy skipping school to watch Universal’s Monsters on television.
What he appreciates about the villain is that, unlike so many other iconic tales, the story hasn’t been redone over and over again. “If you make a film about a character that is globally beloved, you’re dancing with danger,”
“Ask anyone who’s made a Star Wars movie recently about the pressure that you’re under when you take on something that iconic and beloved. With the Invisible Man, I felt that there was a freedom there. Of course, people know of this character, but I felt he was a bit of an underdog when it comes to the horror villains. It was exciting to think about what I could do with this character and how I could stretch him a bit.”
While Whannell began his career as a writer with 2003’s short Saw and its feature follow-up, which would eventually span to a billion-dollar franchise, he actually started out as an actor and continues to perform. From co-starring in films from The Matrix Reloaded to thrillers including those of the wildly successful Insidious series, Whannell has long appreciated what his performers are asked to do in front of the camera…and the boundaries to which they want to stretch themselves.
Considering that he has written several entries in the genre, the world of suspense and terror is one that the filmmaker obviously cares for deeply. “I’m a big horror fan, and I’ve enjoyed being a part of horror films,” Whannell says. Still, it was after his latest directorial effort that he began to revaluate his interest in the genre. “After I made Upgrade, I was bitten by the action-movie bug,” Whannell says. “There’s something about being on a film set and orchestrating a car chase or a fight scene that’s very addictive. As soon as I finished the film, I thought ‘When do I get to do this again?’ In my mind, the next one I was going to make was going to be a visceral action movie.”
Fortune favors the prepared, and that is just when The Invisible Man crash-landed into Whannell’s life. When he received a call to meet with Blumhouse Productions’ development team to discuss potential projects, he didn’t imagine it was an opportunity to reimagine a new iteration of one of Universal’s Monsters. That casual conversation with Blumhouse became a life-changing opportunity.
What you can’t see can hurt you. Emmy Award winner Elisabeth Moss (Us, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale) stars in a terrifying modern tale of obsession inspired by Universal’s classic Monster character. Trapped in a violent, controlling relationship with a wealthy and brilliant scientist, Cecilia Kass (Moss) escapes in the dead of night and disappears into hiding, aided by her sister, their childhood friend and his teenage daughter. But when Cecilia’s abusive ex, Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House), commits suicide and leaves her a generous portion of his vast fortune, Cecilia suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of eerie coincidences turn lethal, threatening the lives of those she loves, Cecilia’s sanity begins to unravel as she desperately tries to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.
Universal Monsters – A New Era Begins
The character of the Invisible Man is part of Universal Pictures’ family of classic movie Monsters—including legendary figures Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Part of the reason these infamous characters have endured is because they are timeless and represent a wide range of cultural fears and anxieties—the intersection of scientific discovery and timeless love and loss. They’re adaptable to whatever time we’re living in.
The Invisible Man represents a fresh, new direction for how to celebrate these classic characters. This new direction is filmmaker driven, inviting innovative storytellers with original, bold ideas for these characters to develop the stories and pitch them.
This film is an example of how that process worked. Writer/director Leigh Whannell had an exciting, new and terrifying idea for this character, and the studio was thrilled to work with him on this new vision. Going forward, Universal Monster films will be rooted in the horror genre, with no restrictions on budget, rating or genre. They won’t be a part of a shared interconnected universe, but instead will each stand on their own.
The first chapter is shepherded by blockbuster producer Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions. “We’re the first of a new generation of Universal Monster movies,” Blum says. “Universal is working on a handful of them, but ours is the first. So, that’s nerve-wracking but also a lot of fun.”
The producer of all the films in Universal’s juggernaut The Purge franchise—as well as the studio’s blockbusters from Split and Glass to Get Out—explains that the Monsters stay close to him. “Our company’s been based at the studio for a long time,” Blum says. “Universal has a huge history in horror through the Monster movies of the ʼ30s and ʼ40s. That lore looms large at the studio. I had a meeting with Chairman Donna Langley, and she wanted to reinvigorate the muscle that was exercised so often by the Monsters. Since we’ve been compared to that era of Universal because we’ve done so much horror with the studio, it seemed like a very natural fit.”
“Those Monster movies are near and dear to my heart,” Blum continues. “That’s why I wanted to do this. Our concept was to make the stories relevant to today. And that’s just what Leigh has done with The Invisible Man.”
A Classic Character, A New Opportunity – Leigh Whannell Rethinks Horror
When Herbert George Wells, better known as H.G.Wells, the “father of science fiction”, crafted The Invisible Man in 1897, he was happy when his story was serialized in Pearson’s Weekly and published as a novel that same year. Little did he know that his influential tale would become the most popular film at the box office in 1933 and marked Universal’s most successful horror film since Frankenstein, resulted in a spate of sequels, and would spark the imagination of moviegoers in 2020.
While Wells’ original character was a scientist who devolved into madness, Whannell was more interested in the objects of the villain’s obsession. The focus, it occurred to him during his Blumhouse meeting, should be inverted. “It was this off-the-cuff pitch…something that just came right out of me off the top of my head,” he says. “I said, ‘If you were making an Invisible Man movie, you would make it from the point of view of his victim. Say a woman who escapes from her abusive partner in the middle of the night and then finds out that he’s killed himself but doesn’t quite believe it, especially when mysterious things start happening.’”
After the meeting, Whannell’s moment-of-inspiration idea burrowed into his brain and wouldn’t let go. “I couldn’t stop imagining scenes from that film and thinking about the way I would shoot it,” Whannell says. “It chose me; I didn’t choose it. I eventually relented and said, ‘Look, this movie’s taking up a lot of space in my head. It’s rent-free, and if I’m going to evict it, I need to go make this thing.’” He pauses. “I wouldn’t have done it unless there’d been something unique that I thought I could attach myself to.”
For the filmmaker, he let his imagination run wild when fleshing out the narrative of one of Universal’s classic Monsters. “I knew what I was dealing with,” Whannell says. “What became the hard part was building an entirely new story around the character and figuring out whose point of view this story was being told from. Any research quickly became a period of my sitting there with a notepad and a pen and trying to invent new ideas. This was an exciting opportunity, as I felt like this was a character that had not been done to death—he doesn’t have too many people’s fingerprints on him.”
As he crafted a terrifying, modern story of obsession, he imagined the story from the perspective of Cecilia Kass, a smart, capable architect in San Francisco who has become imprisoned by Adrian Griffin, her violent, abusive and powerful boyfriend. When she escapes from the brilliant inventor and optics pioneer, she goes into hiding with the help of her friends and family. But after her ex commits suicide, Cecilia begins to suspect he’s not actually dead but has made himself invisible…using his ground-breaking invention to torture her. The trouble is, her theory sounds insane and paranoid, and she finds herself questioning her own sanity, while also trying to protect herself and the people she loves.
“I didn’t cycle through 10 different versions of this story,” Whannell says. “It almost appeared fully formed in terms of the journey of a victim being stalked by the Invisible Man. It taught me to not feel the need to spend weeks going around the block searching for something better. With hindsight looking back at the screenplay, I can see a lot of these themes of women being victimized or not being believed—somebody trying to prove that something terrible is happening to them but not being able to convince anybody of it. But I don’t even want to unpack it too much because I think one of the fun parts of moviemaking for me is watching other people interpret it.”
Believe the Woman – A Story for Our Time
Joining Whannell on this journey are two frequent partners: producers Jason Blum, the architect and principal of Blumhouse Productions, and Kylie du Fresne, of Australian production house Goalpost Pictures. Du Fresne’s team and Blumhouse had worked with Whannell on Upgrade—and Blumhouse and Whannell on the Insidious series, and the experience left both excited to see what the next steps could be with the multihyphenate.
Du Fresne, who has produced Australian television and cinema for more than 25 years, was drawn to Whannell’s treatment of the heroine’s narrative. “Leigh knows how to write strong women incredibly well,” du Fresne says.
“He did that with the Insidious franchise; he has an insight into writing these strong female protagonists, so it certainly didn’t surprise me that his take on The Invisible Man was from that of a female perspective. When you talk about the making of The Invisible Man, people automatically assume that the title character is the lead and the star of it—whereas it’s Cecilia and Elisabeth Moss. That’s part of his exciting, original take. He’s flipped the focus and the perspective of this character into a strong woman…and he writes her beautifully.”
The producer felt this treatment provided a timely story that could speak to what’s going on in terms of domestic violence, as well as how women are perceived in the media. “I felt that Cecilia is very much experiencing and living through our modern period, including what’s going on in term of women’s rights,” du Fresne says.
“Leigh breaks down these themes and places them underneath the film and subtly threads them throughout thematically. He’s talking about how women who have been made to suffer—controlled for a period by a man—women who are feeling like they’re losing their grip on reality, and how society judges them as ‘just being hysterical’ and that ‘it’s all in your head.’ That’s not the truth. We’re very much living through that now, and this film sheds a light on that in a way that I haven’t seen much on screen.”
The producer believes that Whannell was able to capture Cecilia’s journey so powerfully on film because of the respect the director earns from his cast and crew.
Based in Sydney, Australia, the production allowed Whannell, a native Australian (from Melbourne), to work with many of his fellow countrywomen and men.
“The kind of longevity of Leigh’s creative relationships are important to him, and that brings a lot to what he ends up putting on the screen,” du Fresne says. “People go that extra mile for him. He’s a Melbourne success story who launched this incredible franchise in Saw with James Wan. So, when he comes back here to make his films, people want to give a lot to him; they’re proud of what he’s achieved. He has a very singular, big cinematic vision for the stories that he is telling. It’s exciting to see him realize those.”
Blum was also impressed with Whannell’s innovative ideas for how to terrify audiences.
“Leigh is just one of the best at crafting a scare,” Blum says. “There are only so many scares you can craft in our world, but one of the things he was excited about when attacking The Invisible Man was all the possibilities of different types of scares you could come up with—and the use of negative space.”
The film intentionally plays with classic horror-film tropes, says star Elisabeth Moss. “When the medicine cabinet opens and closes, you expect somebody to be back there,” Moss says. “The same thing happens when the refrigerator door opens. Building the suspense was really fun for us. Things like that, as well as turning on a light in a dark room and revealing that, that shape in the corner is actually a coat rack.”