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Q&A: Leigh Whannell on “THE MULE”

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Out of all the screenwriters currently working in horror, there’s as few as prolific and busy as SAW/INSIDIOUS scribe Leigh Whannell. With 2 major studio releases hitting next year, Whannell still takes the time out to write, produce and act in several indie projects. And while Whannell has his own words about his upcoming genre releases, he’s relishing a whole different kind of horror in his latest independent film, the Australian crime comedy THE MULE. Whannell recently spoke to FANGORIA about offering a new kind of body horror, returning to his cultural roots and working with his INSIDIOUS co-star Angus Sampson on THE MULE…

FANGORIA: How did you first become involved with THE MULE? You’re credited as co-writer as well as performer.

LEIGH WHANNELL: It actually was a while ago; I think back in 2007, so there was about 7 years of gestating time on the film. But I was talking with Angus Sampson, my co-writer on the film along with Jaime Browne, and he is a longtime friend of mine who horror fans would know as Tucker from INSIDIOUS. We met on a television show in the mid-’90s in Australia, and we lived together in a sloppy house that was in extremely poor hygiene. So we spent most of our 20’s, getting drunk and running around, as you do when you’re going from job to job. And in 2007, he was visiting me in L.A., where I had moved to work on the SAW films and other stuff, and we talked about doing a script together.

Now, we realized that between our schedules, we were too busy to write a script ourselves, so maybe we should commission someone else to do it. So we hired a friend of ours, Jaime Browne, who had written a draft of THE MULE, because we loved the idea of a drug mule, holding on both figuratively and literally. And the longer we worked on it, the more work we did, so we ended up sharing the writing credit with Jaime, and after a long struggle, we got the film made. So it was really a movie born out of Angus and I’s friendship.

FANGORIA: Considering how well you both fit the roles, were they fashioned towards Angus and yourself specifically?

WHANNELL: We definitely wrote the film for ourselves to act in. Acting is something we both love and we thought if we were going to go to all the trouble of hiring someone to write the script, we’d love to play those roles. As an actor, you’re always trying to surprise yourself and prove that you can do different things. I’ve always been a believer in manufacturing your own destiny, and acting is quite a powerless profession since you’re waiting on the approval of others before you can practice your craft. So in that sense, acting can be frustrating, so writing your own stuff is a shortcut around that frustration.

So it was always a given that we’d be performing the roles, and I think that we did write them for ourselves in a way. We wanted to play against type, so Angus, who is a very gregarious guy in real life, wrote this very shy guy who isn’t very forward and is bit of a dolt. As for me, I wrote the role of this tough guy for me, and anyone who knows me knows that I am not a tough guy at all, so I’m wrote this guy who is a bit of a skeevy speed addict. I actually had a lot of fun playing Gavin because he reminds me of people I grew up with, but he’s not like me at all.

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FANGORIA: In a previous chat with Angus, we touched upon how THE MULE subverted the masculine communities often seen in crime films. Was that your intention as a writer or was that, more or less, a happy accident?

WHANNELL: I think it was definitely intentional. We love ensemble films and films with great casts, so when we talk about films that are interesting to us, we were trying to look up to and emulate films like FARGO. If you look at FARGO, it’s similar thematically to THE MULE where it’s a very specific, regional group of people with their own dialect, language and way of life, who are normal suburban folk but keep making these bad decisions that drag them deeper into a pit of chaos. That’s what we were really going for with THE MULE, and if you look at FARGO, every character that surrounds the main character is interesting in their own way. That’s what we really wanted to do, and once we cast the actors, we knew that we had that cast. The actors were so good because they brought another level to everything because if it was good on the page, it was even better when Hugo Weaving and John Noble were done with it.

FANGORIA: As someone who has written and acted so much in U.S. productions, was it refreshing to do something in your native cultural vernacular ?

WHANNELL: Absolutely! I found it extremely refreshing for me to be writing and acting in my native tongue. And this is a world I know so well, because I grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne. In fact, my dad was a big soccer fan, and we used to go to a club very similar to the one in the beginning of the film. These characters were like people I really know, and as much as I like writing films here in the U.S. for U.S. audiences, I don’t know the inner psyche of an American as well as an Australian.

I’m not from [America]; I’m an immigrant to this country and the longer I’m here, the more mysteries are unearthed. But it’s hard for you to get inside the head of someone you don’t know the psyche of, whereas with Australians, I know what someone would say in a specific situation. So I thought this was very refreshing in that regard.

FANGORIA: Considering you have worked with Angus as his writer in the past as well as a co-star, how was it on THE MULE to allow him to direct you and put you through the ringer?

WHANNELL: It was great. Working with Angus was interesting because he had an interesting role on set, considering his acting role was so big and he’s in 90% of the scenes. So his co-director, Tony Mahony, did a lot of the heavy lifting on the set, taking care a lot of the set co-ordination so Angus could focus on his acting. Angus had his words of advice but when we went into post-production, Angus stepped more into his part of the co-directing role.

It was definitely a very different collaborative setting; you could say THE MULE was made by a village. It was not an auteur running around in a baseball hat going, “I’m in charge! I’m in charge!” It was very much a collaborative effort and everyone had their say. We all contributed to the final product and it was truly a great situation.

THE MULE, co-written by and starring Leigh Whannell, is currently on VOD from XLrator Media.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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