Is the Invisible Man in this image? We’ll never know.
Is the Invisible Man in this image? We’ll never know.
Photo: Universal Pictures

The latest rebirth of the Universal Monsters happened so fast, you almost couldn’t see it. Writer and director Leigh Whannell was in a meeting that he thought was about his recent movie, Upgrade, when the conversation started to veer into the iconic collection of creatures.

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“One of the people in the meeting started probing me about the Invisible Man [and] what would I do with that character,” Whannell told io9 in Los Angeles recently. “And me in my naivete, I thought we were just shooting the breeze. I didn’t see the ambush. I was like, ‘Off the top of my head. I would probably tell the whole story from the point of view of the victim.’ And the next thing I knew, I had a job.”

It wasn’t exactly that fast. But Whannell’s idea to turn the monster story on its head and make it about a woman (Elisabeth Moss) whose abusive boyfriend (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) stalks her using invisible technology, was not only timely but offered the chance to do a big name monster movie on a not-so-big budget. That’s where producer Jason Blum came in.

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“I immediately was excited about it,” Blum told io9. “I called Universal. I said, ‘Hey, I know you guys are doing [the Universal Monsters] separately now, would you guys consider letting us use the Blumhouse model to do one of these movies, particularly Invisible Man?’ And they said, ‘No one’s doing that. Absolutely.’”

Whannell and Moss on location.
Whannell and Moss on location.
Photo: Universal Pictures

With The Invisible Man, Whannell saw the character who carefully split the difference between famous and underutilized. “What that meeting did was spark something in me where I could see a way to modernize it and to make it truly scary,” Whannell said. “I feel like some of those iconic villains that have been around for 100 years, they’re safe now. They’re so familiar that they’re safe. What I wanted to do is make this character unsafe again. Unknowable and unknown.”

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“To put it in the context of Dracula, I think [puts his arms up and uses a creepy accent to say] ‘Bloooood’ is not scary anymore,” he continued. “But Dracula himself as an idea is scary. You just have to get at the essence of what makes that character scary.”

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That essence is simple. You never know where the Invisible Man is. He could be anywhere or he could be nowhere. Which is great not just for its fear factor but for the film’s bottom line. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on digital effects if most of the time the monster may not even be there. “I don’t think it’s by accident that the first Blumhouse monsterverse movie, and maybe the only one we have no plans for any other, but that it would be The Invisible Man,” Blum said.

“I felt like if someone buys a ticket to a movie called The Invisible Man they’ll automatically be suspicious of any empty corner,” Whannell said of working with the character. “Also audiences today are very film literate, even if they don’t know they are. They’ve seen a lot of movies and they are trained to recognize the different rhythms of modern films. So I tried to weaponize that against them. Knowing if I pointed the camera at a corner, in a film called The Invisible Man, the audience is going to start thinking, ‘Is he there? Is he not there?’ And that became exciting to me because it felt unique like I hadn’t seen a lot of movies do that.”

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Whannell said Moss basically helped him write the script.
Whannell said Moss basically helped him write the script.
Photo: Universal Pictures

One thing we see a lot of movies do, unfortunately, is having men write about a woman’s perspective. That’s the case here too since Whannell is both writing and directing a film about an abusive relationship. He was very conscious of how problematic that may look though and was careful to make sure he did things the right way.

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“Elisabeth Moss was my greatest asset and greatest ally,” he said. “Anytime she signed off on a scene, I felt comfortable with it...The amount of collaboration that we had, she really became a co-writer in a sense because we would dissect each line of dialog every which way so that she could feel like it was authentic to a female perspective and to her own perspective in her own life. She wasn’t trying to speak for all women, but she wanted it to feel personal and real for her.”

“Personal and real” was kind of the mantra when it came to most aspects of The Invisible Man. The story is like that, the settings are like that, and the on-set making of the film was like that too.

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“We used everything in this movie from state-of-the-art visual effects to old school practical effects that they would have used in the original Invisible Man,” Whannell said. “We had props guys hidden in cabinets on the set, on camera. The only reason you couldn’t see them is that they were hidden in a cabinet. And they were pulling doors on a string. On a movie set with all this expensive equipment, it feels kind of hokey. There’s something very ‘student film’ about pulling a door with a piece of string like, ‘What are we doing here? Isn’t there a more expensive way to do this?’”

Elisabeth Moss, in the attack, with a chef’s knife.
Elisabeth Moss, in the attack, with a chef’s knife.
Photo: Universal Pictures
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“But what you learn in the editing room is that it doesn’t matter how it’s done,” Whannell continued. “It doesn’t matter how the door is opened. In fact, sometimes it’s more effective with string because...there’s something tactile and touchable about practical effects that you just can’t do with CGI.”

After co-creating Saw, Insidious and now with The Invisible Man, another thing you’d think “you just can’t do” is scare Leigh Whannell. But, you can. In fact, he’s scared greatly by what he could very well end up doing next. A remake of Escape From New York. Whannell has been attached to the project since early 2019 but went from Upgrade straight into The Invisible Man. Now that that’s done though, he’s going to take another crack at it. If he dares.

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“I’m a big fan of Escape From New York and I’m afraid of it in a way that I wasn’t with The Invisible Man,” Whannell said. “I feel like The Invisible Man has such a long and storied history with so many people attacking the character from different angles that it gives you permission to mess with it a bit. Not so Escape From New York. It is very much the product of one brain and how are you going to replace Kurt Russell? So I think I’m a little afraid of it and I want to approach it very carefully. If I was going to do something, I would have to know exactly how I was going to please the fans of the original.”

Appropriately, the same probably goes for The Invisible Man. It’s sure to please fans of the original, and everyone else too. It opens Friday.

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Entertainment Reporter for io9/Gizmodo

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