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How Elisabeth Moss helped Leigh Whannell turn ‘The Invisible Man’ into a survivor’s story

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“The Invisible Man” director Leigh Whannell and star Elisabeth Moss photographed in Los Angeles on Feb. 12.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

For Universal’s “The Invisible Man,” star Elisabeth Moss and writer-director Leigh Whannell modernize the classic movie monster with a female-forward and tech-centric storyline that brings back the scares.

When writer-director Leigh Whannell was approached to update the horror classic “The Invisible Man,” he basically spitballed the entire plot on the spot.

Fresh off the modest success of his low-budget 2018 sci-fi thriller “Upgrade,” Whannell found himself in a room with executives from Blumhouse Productions and Universal when “they floated this title to me like, ‘What do you think about the Invisible Man?’” he said. “Which was weird to me because it was a bit Mad Libs. I was like, ‘Not really sure? Never thought about the Invisible Man too much.’

“But one of the guys in the meeting said, ‘Well, what would you do with the character?’ And purely to fill the airtime I was like, ‘I guess I would probably tell the story from the point of view of a victim, like a woman escaping a relationship.’ I sort of vomited out the entire movie.”

Whannell conceived of the character as a wealthy scientist (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen of “The Haunting of Hill House”) who is charming and controlling in equal measure. After his girlfriend manages to escape the glass prison they share together, he stages his own suicide just to continue to torment and control her under the cover of invisibility.

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In a departure from the original H.G. Wells novel and its 1933 film adaptation — and despite the character’s title billing — this invisible man is a distant secondary character.

“I think it’s really obvious that the way to make the Invisible Man scary is to not focus the film on him,” said Whannell. “Once you put the monster in the spotlight, you demystify it. Not showing something is always the scariest thing.”

Instead, he shifted the narrative focus from the titular antagonist to his intimate partner Cecilia Kass, a woman who is gaslighted to the brink of insanity, played by Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actress Elisabeth Moss. “One of the things I liked the most about this movie is that it’s a real-life monster,” Moss said during a joint interview with Whannell earlier this month. “That’s what really curdles your blood when you watch the movie.

“That feeling of not being believed, not being heard or being scrutinized for believing something you know in your heart to be true is something I think on varying levels we can all identify with,” she added. “When I start telling people what this movie was about and how it was being used as an analogy for gaslighting, I was really surprised by how many people would get this look in their eye. It’s a commonality that I think deserves to be explored.”

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“I think the 1933 film is a classic horror movie with an important place in the history of horror, but it’s not terrifying to modern audiences,” said Whannell. “I saw an opportunity to reframe it in a way that could be scary. We didn’t want to rely on the histrionics of horror, we wanted it to be real. The scarier monster is the one you can imagine in your own life. It’s not a fanged beast, it’s the guy next door.”

Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in “The Invisible Man”
Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia Kass in “The Invisible Man” movie, written and directed by Leigh Whannell.
(Mark Rogers / Universal Pictures)

Upon finishing the script, Whannell quickly realized that the success of the film would hinge on its central performance. “I realized that the whole movie rested on this one character’s shoulders,” he said. “The list of actors that can [carry an entire film] is short. And I remember everyone at Universal was really excited about Lizzie because they had just done ‘Us’ with her.”

In a stroke of kismet, Moss had been hankering to revisit the horror genre after her experience working with Universal and Jordan Peele on the filmmaker’s sophomore outing, which was produced by Jason Blum and starred Lupita Nyong’o as a woman battling her shadow self.

“I’ve always loved horror but I really wanted to do one after the experience of watching Lupita and how absolutely magnificent she is in that movie,” said Moss. “I could see, ‘Oh, my god, OK, that’s what you can do with a role like that.’ She went so far and it was just the coolest thing, so I couldn’t wait to get the script. They said, ‘You’re going to get an offer for ‘The Invisible Man.’ And I was like, ‘OK, that’s amazing,’ because I loved working with Blumhouse. But I also was like, '... The Invisible Man?’”

“‘I guess if they can’t see me, it’s fine,’” Whannell joked.

“Yeah, ‘If they can’t see me, I guess I can play any gender?’” said Moss. “But they said the woman was the lead and when I read the script, it was not only a horror film but this incredible character piece. It had a really challenging arc that you don’t get in some of your best dramas. So I said yes immediately.”

After Moss was secured, Whannell leaned on his leading lady to authenticate the female perspective. It’s the latest in a successful series of creative collaborations for Moss, who has helped shape many of her strongest roles, from the heroine of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to her partnerships with indie filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, including last year’s grunge rock drama “Her Smell.”

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“That was the missing puzzle piece of the script,” Whannell said. “I was happy with the screenplay but I needed that collaboration with Lizzie. We would dissect scenes for hours and we would rewrite the script and kind of do an autopsy on these scenes. I feel like the film became stronger because we were like copilots.”

“There were times when a scene would only exist on our scripts,” said Moss.

“Yeah, exactly,” said Whannell with a laugh. “And everybody would be like, ‘Scene what?’”

“It would just be written in the margins,” said Moss. “And some of it would be written in mine and some of it would be written in yours.”

“The funniest thing was watching the reactions of the other actors,” said Whannell. “They just had to roll with it. Because there’s a certain sense of impostor syndrome that happens if you’re writing a story about a woman’s point of view [as a man]. And I didn’t really start feeling comfortable with it until Lizzie and I had all these conversations. She gave the film authority ... and it felt like a true collaboration.”

Elisabeth Moss and writer-director Leigh Whannell on the set of “The Invisible Man” movie.
Elisabeth Moss and writer-director Leigh Whannell on the set of “The Invisible Man” movie.
(Mark Rogers / Universal Pictures)

Though the script required Moss to stretch her imagination by fighting against an invisible adversary multiple times, the actress says the biggest challenge of all was the amount of running the role demanded.

“Let’s just say I underestimated it,” she said. “And the speed at which Mr. Whannell would require me to run, which was basically faster and faster and faster. I am not a particularly physical person, I do not really work out. And I got there and was like, ‘I’ve made a terrible mistake. I absolutely should have gone to the gym.’”

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“Remember a lot of times you’d be like, ‘I feel like we got the shot?’” said Whannell with a laugh. “You’d be like, ‘I really feel like that one worked.’ And I’d be like, ‘One more!’”

“I should have perhaps trained a little bit,” she said. “And then once I got there I quickly ordered an elliptical machine for my apartment. Warming up before takes is different for me. I don’t usually do the plank before a take on ‘Handmaid’s Tale.’ So that was a whole new thing, but it was fun. I felt like I was Jason Bourne, basically.”

But not all of the physical stunts were grueling. Thanks to her background in dance, the choreographed fight scenes were a lot less arduous, Moss said.

“It was so much fun. We had such a great stunt team and they took really good care of me and made sure things were safe. Leigh called me when I was in Toronto shooting Season 3 [of ‘Handmaid’s Tale’] and said, ‘Look, I want to talk to you about the stunts and I would like you to do as much of it as possible.’ And I basically was like, ‘I want to do as much as I can. We should just always decide by what looks best on camera.’”

“It’s very mechanical,” said Whannell. “A lot of the fight scenes that Lizzie had to do were almost like dance choreography. This disembodied voice would be booming over the set counting out the motion control camera like, ‘And one and two and ...’ and Lizzie knows that on three, she has to be here. And I remember thinking, ‘God, I couldn’t do that.’”

“I thought it was so fun, the idea of having to follow the counts,” said Moss. “For my brain, that’s perfect.”

“The Invisible Man”
Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) struggles to be believed in “The Invisible Man,” written and directed by Leigh Whannell.
( Mark Rogers / Universal Pictures)

Whannell’s earliest memory involving the Invisible Man dates back to elementary school when he played hooky one day to watch the 1967 stop-motion animation “Mad Monster Party.”

“I guess it speaks to the fact that these characters have been around so long,” he said. “They’re so ubiquitous in popular culture that they’re not even scary anymore. Like when I think of Frankenstein, I think of ‘The Munsters.’ But when that book first came out, it was [considered] terrifying. And so the idea with this movie was, can I take this character back to his roots and make him scary again?

One of Whannell’s key strategies for upping the scares was to ground the means of invisibility in reality. This invisible man has a technological explanation rather than a supernatural or fantastical one.

“When I came up with the idea, I was like, ‘Is this plausible?’” said Whannell. “And we talked to a bunch of scientists and they were all like, ‘Oh yeah, this is possible.’ Tech is like that now. I feel like things that used to be sci-fi when we were kids are now ubiquitous. Like my daughter thinks nothing of walking into the kitchen and being like, ‘Alexa, play Taylor Swift’s greatest hits’ and having a disembodied voice answer, ‘Yes, I will.’ So I wanted to get away from the serum [trope] like, ‘Ah, it’s alive!’ I needed it to be something that you could see an Elon Musk or a Mark Zuckerberg launching on the world.”

Following “Upgrade,” about a quadriplegic who gets a computer chip implant that allows him to walk again and spurs a bloody quest for revenge, that low-humming anxiety many of us feel about the encroaching tech evolution has become a common theme in Whannell’s work.

“They put this stuff out into the world at an accelerated rate without really testing it,” he said. “And then the aftershock is measured later. The push towards easiness isn’t always a good thing. Other technological innovations have had to crawl before they could walk. It wasn’t like the car rolled off the production line and it was like, ‘Bang! We’re in cars now.’ But tech today has a much faster rollout. The world can change tomorrow.”

“The Invisible Man” marks the first release in Universal’s new plan for rebooting its classic movie monsters. After 2017’s Tom Cruise-toplined update of “The Mummy” bombed at the box office, the studio quickly pivoted away from the idea of a shared movie universe á la Marvel to a series of “filmmaker-first” stand-alone stories.

“Of course you feel a great responsibility because this was the beginning in some ways of horror cinema,” said Jason Blum of taking on the iconic property. “So you carry the weight of that on your shoulders.” But that weight also feels familiar to Blum, whose production company is ushering in a revival of horror classics one reboot or remake at a time.

“The Invisible Man” arrives in theaters two weeks after the release of “Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island,” a Sony reimagining of the ’70s television series. And in October, the production house will release the second film in its reboot of the “Halloween” series with Universal.

“I like the challenge of it,” said Blum of his attraction to previously loved IP. “People are skeptical about it so the expectations are low. I like surprising people. And more often than not, we’ve [succeeded].”

Though he’s not yet attached to any of the other Universal monster titles, Blum says he would like to be in the future. As for Whannell, who created both the “Saw” and “Insidious” franchises with filmmaker James Wan, the director says he’s just hoping audiences respond to this film before considering any follow-ups.

“A sequel is a champagne problem created by the success of a movie,” he said. “I’m so superstitious when it comes to movies because it’s so much gambling. You have all this control but then when you release it, it’s out of your hands. So I don’t want to jinx the whole process by thinking about a sequel before it’s warranted.”


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