Interview : Leigh Whannell & Nathan Phillips


As part of their initial pitch to the American film studios for ‘’Saw”, Leigh Whannell and James Wan shot a sequence from their script and packaged it together with the script. Inevitably, it was that short scene (the head-trap sequence) that sold the execs at Lionsgate.

Ironically, the filmmakers behind the film Whannell is now acting in, the downunder horror pic ‘’Dying Breed”, did the same thing – they shot a teaser trailer to convince investors that their production was worth pouring money into.

‘’They flew [actors] Clayton Watson and Tammin Sursok, and two other people, to Tasmania and they shot a few scenes for a trailer”, explains Whannell’s co-star in the film, Nathan Phillips. “It’s a great way to go about it. It’s proof – visual proof that you’ve got what it takes to pull it off”

A modest Whannell, whose since seen his modestly-budget horror series spawn into an unstoppable and mega-successful franchise, says he and ‘’Saw” partner Wan don’t deserve the credit.

‘’Jamie Blanks did it first. He directed Urban Legend. That was a big hot story ‘Australian director gets big Hollywood gig'”, says Whannell. ‘’How he got that film was he put up his own money to direct a trailer for I Know What You Did Last Summer – I heard $30,000 – which he had the script of.

“[Jamie] took so long to do it though that they’d hired someone else to direct the film by the time he’d finished it. He sent it over anyway and the producer of that film said ‘We can’t give you this job, we’ve got someone else, but guess what? We like what you did’. They gave him Urban Legend. James and I were at Uni[versity] when that happened and that was a big inspiration for us. And now we’ve got people getting inspiration from us for the same reason – but seriously Jamie Blanks deserves all the credit for kicking off that trend”.

Though both Whannell and Phillips – a rising young Australian actor whose starred in such films as ‘’Wolf Creek”, “West”, “You and Your Stupid Mate” and the American blockbuster ‘’Snakes on a Plane” – usually have to audition for most roles they go for (Phillips actually tells us of a 9-hour audition he did for the Matthew McConaughey film “Surfer, Dude” – which he consequently got – after the interview), this one was a straight offer.

‘’Yeah, we actually got offers!”, explains Phillips. ‘’We’d call each other and say ‘Are you gonna do?’ ‘I dunno, are you gonna do it?’ ‘If you do it, I’ll do it’. I’d met Leigh on One Perfect Day, so we already had a connection, so it was essentially a no-brainer – we actually liked the script too of course – and Geoffrey Hall was shooting it. It had a lot of things going for it – the story of the Pieman, the fact that it would shoot in Tasmania, feature the Tasmanian tiger. It also reminded me of Deliverance.”

The film, directed by newcomer Jody Dwyer, tells of a Zoology student, Nina (Mirrah Foulkes) who is headed to Tasmania to find the apparently-extinct Tasmanian Tiger, something her sister was looking into just before she died in an ‘accident’. Joining Nina on her journey are partner, Matt (Whannell) and his old mate Jack (Phillips) and his girlfriend Rebecca (Melanie Vallejo).

Not surprisingly, it’s not the Tiger that sees lunch when the four arrive into town – but the locals, most of whom are related to a 1800s cannibal convict who had a taste for human flesh.

Phillips plays the more rambunctious and unruly member of the troupe.

‘’I wanted to play [Leigh’s] character [though]”, admits Phillips.

‘’I would’ve gotten the big sex scene then, you would’ve had to have been sensitive”, responds Whannell.

‘’I’m really glad I played the character I did now” says Phillips, chuckling.

It goes without saying that the success of other local home-grown horror films, like Greg McLeans ‘’Wolf Creek”, pathed the way for Dywer’s gory cannibal flick.

‘’Yeah, it’s probably easier to get the money because of things like Wolf Creek’, says Whannell, a former entertainment journalist.

‘’Yeah, the proof is in the pudding”, adds Phillips. ‘’You look at what films have been successful of late – the ones generating money – and they’re like Hostel, 28 Days Later. There’s a huge horror following. Horror week in L.A is huge. They’ve been making these types of films for a long time, they just haven’t had any real success with Australian ones of late.

‘’They say it’s a resurgence, but it’s been there… they’ve never gone… go back through the film catalogues. People have been doing this a long time, it’s just that these films haven’t been in the spotlight.”

The distributors are quite aware of Phillips and Whannell’s reputation in the horror community – streaming from their involvement in both ‘’Wolf Creek” and ‘’Saw” – and so have plonked them names atop of the movie poster.

‘’It’s great that people see us as helping this resurgence of the [Australian horror] film. I’m hoping this one is a wholesome cinematic experience. Thanks to the success of Wolf Creek and Saw, it allows the film a bit more of a chance. I don’t want to recommend my mates go see a shit film. I’ve called all my friends and family up to ask them to come and check out the film tonight. I don’t want it to be like ‘I’m awesome bro! Come watch it! I’ve got a sex scene in it!’ I want them to have a good time – popcorn in the air, squeeze from the girlfriend… I still remember crying tears of happiness when my dad took me to see Spaceballs – I want them to really enjoy this movie like I did that. And I believe they will”.

DYING BREED is now showing