Icons Of Fright Interview With THE MULE/SAW/INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER III’s Leigh Whannell!!

TheMule_Poster_5 Since making one hell of a splash writing (and acting in) 2004’s epic franchise starter, SAW, Leigh Whannell hasn’t really stopped for a second. Being involved with the SAW series, along with collaborations with SAW director James Wan, Leigh wrote films like DEATH SENTENCE, DEAD SILENCE, INSIDIOUS and INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER TWO, as well as acting in a decent amount of films outside of that collaborative team. While just finishing up writing the upcoming horror/comedy COOTIES, making his directorial debut helming the third film in the INSIDIOUS franchise and a million of other projects, Whannell co-wrote and co-stars in THE MULE (hitting theaters/VOD/iTunes on November 21st via XLrator Media), a crime thriller revolving INSIDIOUS star Angus Sampson (read our recent interview with Sampson here) getting entangled in some nasty situations, when he decided to smuggle drugs.

We had a chat with Whannell recently about his role in THE MULE, as well as Australian cinema’s different eras of filmmaking. Give it a read!

*Editor’s note: We were asked by the film’s publicist to keep the conversation focused on THE MULE, so we obliged and did just that. That explains the lack of INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER III questions. 



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When we talked to Angus recently, he mentioned that you guys were big fans of films like CHOPPER, FARGO and movie like that and that it helped shape the project into what you wanted it to be, while being it’s own thing. What was it that drew you, specifically,  into wanting to take on a great crime/thriller like THE MULE?

Well, the first thing that drew me in was the story. When I’m looking for a new story at night, it has to be something that keeps me awake at night, otherwise they’re no point. Anybody who has written a movie and tries to get it made knows that it’s an uphill battle, it’s like dragging an ocean liner up a mountain. It’s really impossible and a lot of times, doesn’t even get there, to that point. A lot of people pour their heart out into a script and it never gets shot. It can almost seem futile at times, so for me to do that and take that gamble, there has to be something in it that stands out to me and something that I haven’t seen before. Even if it’s just one element that feels unique to that movie, then I can kind of hang my hat on that, and THE MULE has that. I had never seen a movie before, where to ticking clock of the movie, was a guy’s bowels.

Yeah, seriously!

It seemed like a great idea to me, having all of these characters, cops and criminals, sitting around just waiting for a guy to take a dump, to put it crudely. The fact that I had never seen that before, was really exciting. As you know, everything has been done. In 2014, everything has been exhausted, and we’re seeing variations on things instead of new ideas. Today, you see movies that proclaim to me new by saying, “It’s just like the gangster movies of the ’70s,” well, that’s not new, it’s still like a gangster movie of the ’70s. I almost feel jealous of filmmakers from the ’60s and ’70s, because there were so many more taboos to be broken. So many stories were left untold, simply because of how timid the ratings board was back then. Just think about the first 200 people who saw THE EXORCIST, they thought hell was unleashed on them! If it came out today, a film like THE EXORCIST would seem tame, but back then it was unexpected. I do think every avenue has been explored. That would be the primary thing that drove me to this film, that idea.

Every character to me, had something to hide, something up their sleeve, and your character had a real nervous energy to him. Was that something that was in the script that you and Angus wrote, or did you develop that later on, during filming?

I think we had it in the script. We really tried to figure out what kind of guy that Gavin is, and both of KNOW this guy, we both went to school with a guy like this in Australia. He’s kind of nervy guy, uses drugs, quick to fight, quick to push people around, and he’s kind of a bully in that sort of way. Behind that bully armor though, there’s a guy who is really scared. We really liked exploring that, so I think we always tried to have that energy to him. I really enjoyed researching for the character, we based him, at least how he dresses and the look of him, on a gang that used to run around Melbourne in the ’60s and ’70s, called ‘The Sharpies’. They were kind of like mods, they used to dress a certain way, they had that mullet, with the “business up front, party in the back”.  They would walk around with huge belt buckles and steel-toed boots…they were kind of a scary gang. It was interesting to research that, and I actually interviewed a few people who used to BE in that gang. Setting the film in 1983 allowed us to explore these subcultures that were around, and it reminded me of THIS IS ENGLAND, in that way. While we weren’t as explicit as that, doing research on that kind of person helped form Gavin, even though he’s a supporting character, in that way.

THE MULE reminded me of another Australian crime film, ANIMAL KINGDOM, which I’m a big fan of. There seems to be a big resurgence of really great Australian thrillers, THE MULE being one of them. Do you think that’s a new thing, or has it always been there, just without people realizing it?

I think it IS something new. Australian films have gone through many different phases, you know? In the ’70s, we sort of became a global thing on a worldwide level, with films like PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK and MY BRILLIANT CAREER. That was something that previously hadn’t happened, so that was an interesting time. I think the ’80s became more of an exploitative thing, there was ‘Oz-ploitation’, as it’s called. Tax breaks at that time, allowed people to throw a lot of money into a cheap film, and that led into some really great B-movies and even some classics. I know Quentin Tarantino is a big fan of those ones. In the ’90s, there seemed to be a lot of films that had a musical element to the, like MURIEL’S WEDDING and STRICTLY BALLROOM, so it DOES seem to go in waves. There does seem to be something going on right now, with these really dark stories and very taunt thrillers and I think that the filmmakers who are making those films grew up watching all of those other films. They grew up watching crime films, and films from people like the Coen Brothers, and that’s culminated in these Australian versions of that. I would also say that Australians are fascinated by their criminals and criminal history. We’re a country where European settlers came and dumped their so called “criminals”, who were sometimes just guys who had stolen a loaf of bread, on the shores of this new place that had been inhabited for 3,000 years by the oldest indigenous people on the planet. They were forced to meet these people dropped off by the European people, most of them were in chains. When a country has that kind of history, I think you can’t help but to be fascinated by the criminals and the history. The actual story of ANIMAL KINGDOM,  the true story that it was based on, I grew up with that. My dad worked on Television news, so even as a very young boy, I was exposed to the news, when other kids probably were not. They were out riding their BMX bikes and watching the NINJA TURTLES and I was watching these crime stories on the news. I think Australians are obsessed with that, and I think that’s why a lot of these films are so good.

A lot of writers consider their script as ‘the bible’. With films that YOU write or co-write, like THE MULE, did you decided to stick to the script 100% or was there room for improv?

We did stay pretty close to it. I don’t that was us forcing that on the actors, I think the script was just really tight and the characters were so clear, that each actor just grabbed onto it. It’s very interesting that you brought that up, because I haven’t thought about that until now. Even veteran actors, like Hugo Weaving and John Noble were sticking to the script, they weren’t suggesting that we change things or asking to change lines, which is something a lot of actors do. It was a great honor to us, having these great actors, sticking to the word. I HAVE done movies with a lot of improv, I just did a comedy called COOTIES, and that was very improv based.  With that one, we would do a bunch of different takes and just let the camera roll. This one was a lot different though.

Right on. Well Leigh, I definitely appreciate you taking the time out of your day to talk with us, it’s definitely appreciated, and kudos again on THE MULE, it was a lot of fun. 

Thank you very much, and I would say reverse that, so thank YOU for taking the time to talk to me and for watching the film. It’s hard enough to get people to watch an independent film, let along an Australian one, so again, thank you!

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