Director Leigh Whannell On Why ‘The Invisible Man’ Is A Movie About Gaslighting

It was almost three years ago when the world changed after Universal announced the creation of the Dark Universe — a shared cinematic universe of some of the most famous movie monsters ever assembled, started off by The Mummy starring Tom Cruise and with the promise of an Invisible Man movie starring Johnny Depp.

Well, this ain’t that.

As we now know, the much-ballyhooed Dark Universe became just one movie (the aforementioned The Mummy) and the rest of the connected movies were scrapped. But what’s interesting is the idea of making monster movies starring these classic characters wasn’t scrapped. So, The Invisible Man was reimagined, not as a Johnny Depp film, but as a physiological thriller, horror film starring Elizabeth Moss and directed by Leigh Whannell (who co-wrote three Saw films and directed Upgrade).

Just as Warner Bros. has found more success with its DC characters by doing more “one-off” type films instead of worrying about grand interconnected universes, Universal is, kind of quietly, doing the same thing with the monster movies. Here, instead of the classic Invisible Man story, Whannell instead brings the character into the modern era and makes the whole movie a metaphor for women with abusive partners, whose closest friends don’t believe her when she says she’s still in danger. The Invisible Man becomes an interesting way to explore gaslighting.

Ahead, Whannell explains how he came on board post-Dark Universe, and where the idea of making an Invisible Man movie came from that, instead, focuses on the person he’s terrorizing instead of the title character. And he explains how, as a man making a movie about a woman’s experience, Elizabeth Moss was integral to the filmmaking process and it was a true collaboration on set.

Okay, the part about this movie I’m confused about is…

Oh, dear.

Well, it’s the pre-production. There was Dark Universe, and they were going to make an Invisible Man with Johnny Depp. Then Universal scrapped the Dark Universe and made this unrelated Invisible Man movie instead. Is this right?

I wasn’t privy to any of that stuff.

Oh, I know. But this seems to be what happened?

This came about very separately. I’ve never read any other material so I wasn’t actually sure what they were shaping up for that other universe. The way they presented it to me was just the character title. I was sitting in a meeting and they suggested the title of the character and I came back with my idea of what I would do for the film. It was this standalone project, and they didn’t bat an eyelid. They treated it like, yes, that’s exactly what we want to do, too. As far as I was concerned, they were just making this standalone film. It wasn’t until later, during the making of the film, that I began to become aware of the Dark Universe. I guess I’d been under a rock making another movie for a year and wasn’t privy to that whole launch.

To be fair, a lot of people were under a rock when it came to the Dark Universe…

Well, I certainly was. I wasn’t aware of this whole launch that had happened. Now I am, but I guess I missed that whole announcement that they were going to make these movies based on their characters. I was just a bullet train moving ahead on this movie, and then people would start asking me about the Dark Universe and I was confused and had to retrospectively do my homework on what this other thing was. I learned that at one stage Johnny Depp was attached. For me, I was like, not only am I going to make a standalone film, but I’m going to drag it into this century and wipe the slate clean and build a whole new story around this character.

Let’s say The Mummy with Tom Cruise had just done gangbusters and they were going to go ahead and do that universe, I still think this movie exists. It just has a different title. Does that make sense?

Yeah. If Universal would have had more success with their original plans maybe, of course, they would have gone off in another direction. I felt fortuitous that this character landed in my lap because it certainly wasn’t a character I was thinking about. I was very aware of the Invisible Man character and his history in horror and the original H.G. Will’s novel, but it wasn’t something I was thinking about when I was walking around in my daily life. After Upgrade, I got bitten by the action movie bug and wanted to make something with higher production design levels, maybe something science fiction that you can really play around with. That’s where my interests were skewing and somebody dropped this idea, this character, in my lap. And I’m so glad they did because I saw a real opportunity instantly to make something really scary in a way that the Invisible Man has not been for a while.

It is certainly scary, but it’s also obviously a huge metaphor for things that a lot of people go through, only the person isn’t actually invisible. But people still don’t believe them when they say, look, this is what this person’s doing to me.

That was something that emerged organically during the writing of the script. The first thing I started with is just the title — and I didn’t have a storyline or characters or anything — just that Invisible Man title. Usually, when I’m writing, I like to extend the period of time when I’m not writing for as long as possible and procrastinate for a while. I feel like research and preparation for writing a script is guilt-free procrastination.

The first thing I wrote down in my notebook was, “How do you make the Invisible Man scary?” After a couple of days of thinking, I realized we’ve got to tell the story from the point of view of his victim. To make him the central character is to demystify him in my view. All of a sudden now, I’ve got this story about a woman who’s escaped this relationship. And as I was writing it, it just felt organically like it was rolling in that direction of gaslighting and stalking and psychological abuse. I just followed it where it wanted to go. I started doing research and I was interviewing counselors who worked at domestic violence shelters in LA, and basically just following the film down that path.

It is a movie about gaslighting. No one believes what is happening to Elizabeth Moss’ character and her closest friends are telling her it’s her fault.

Yeah. As I was writing, I realized that the Invisible Man, as a character, is a perfect metaphor for this issue of gaslighting and of women feeling like there’s this unseen threat that no one else can see. It just seemed to wrap around that naturally. It wasn’t like I was forcing it, like shoehorning in: making a zombie movie, but it’s really about the refugee crisis. I didn’t feel like I was shoehorning anything in it. It seemed to dovetail well.

No, it doesn’t feel shoehorned in. It feels like a movie about gaslighting. It’s literally the movie.

Yeah, exactly. It’s really the durability of this character. There’s a reason these iconic horror characters last so long: it’s because they’re so malleable. You can plug Dracula into a romantic comedy, if you want. It’s Dracula, but he’s on Tinder or whatever.

Right, Chevy Chase played the Invisible Man once.

Exactly. I felt a lot of freedom as well with the Invisible Man because, having done the research, the cultural footprint of the Invisible Man is not as large as these more well-known characters: like Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein. It’s like they’re tier one and he’s tier two, with apologies to all the hardcore Invisible Man fans out there.

Obviously you’re a man. And you’re making a movie about a woman being abused. Did you collaborate with Elizabeth Moss on this? When you were filming, was she like, “I don’t think this would quite go this way.” How did that dynamic work?

It was very much what you said. It was very much a partnership. There is an imposter syndrome that can set in when you’re writing a film that’s not directly about your own experience. You sometimes find yourself questioning whether you’re qualified to do this. With Elizabeth, she became my soundboard and my partner and we would dissect each scene. Go through the dialogue and, exactly as you said, she would say, I feel like in this situation, I might stay here or I might run out. It was these stamps of approval that helped me sleep at night on the set, feeling like she had co-signed on everything.

When did you make the decision not to make the Invisible Man supernatural and make it more of a technology-based character?

It was very early on. It was that period I described of just filling up the notebook with ideas. It was during that time, one of the tenants that I wrote down for this film was to make it as grounded and as real as possible. I wanted to take it out of the realm of the serum. Every superhero movie, the serum is what turned him into a superhero.

Or the magic blood, yeah.

Exactly, the radioactive blast or whatever it is. I wanted to take it out of that comic book realm and make it very relatable to where the audience could see themselves in it. The most obvious bridge for that to me was the world of tech. We live in the middle of this tech evolution that drops new science fiction objects in our daily lives every single day. My daughter thinks it’s perfectly normal that a voice talks to her in the kitchen and says, “playing Taylor Swift.” That’s just life to her. When I was growing up, that was strictly the province of science fiction movies. It’s amazing how quickly human beings adapt to change. And what was once mind-blowing, suddenly becomes ubiquitous and we take it for granted. I’m sure in a few years there’s going to be self-driving cabs running around the streets and we’ll just think of it as normal.

I had this happen yesterday. You know the Shazam app that’s been around forever?

Oh yeah, where you find out what song’s playing.

I take it for granted so much now. If you’d have told me in, say, 1995, I’d have a device that can just tell me whatever any song playing is, I’d have thought that was insane.

I know, isn’t it? It’s funny. I remember going to see Total Recall in theaters when I was 14 years old and it was supposed to be mind-blowing that he could talk to his wife over a video. Oh, imagine that! Imagine being able to see the person you could talk to! And then all of a sudden, it’s in our daily lives.

Where we don’t even like doing it. We’d rather text.

I want to start a blog or a Twitter account that’s like, sci-fi shit from the ’80s that we take for granted now. Maybe you can take that idea and run with it, I will be a dedicated follower of that Twitter account.

‘The Invisible Man’ opens in theaters on February 28. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.