Cecilia: “There’s nothing left for you to take. You’ve already taken it all.”
By far, one of the best films of 2020 is “The Invisible Man.” It was released in late February – coincidentally or appropriately – during the same week of the sentencing of an infamous sexual predator movie mogul. Cosmic karma? It was the last experience I had in an actual movie theatre. I have since gravitated to it a few times since it’s begun streaming at home. Yes, it’s that good. Last night I showed it to my companion, and he was stunned. He’s not into horror movies the way I am, but this extraordinary reboot of the classic monster premise plays more like a Hitchcockian thriller with an up to the minute timely subtext. It’s devilishly fun – its scares are about getting under your skin – and boasts a stellar performance.
This is smart filmmaking. The first eight visceral minutes set the tone. We watch our heroine – Cecilia – looking at the clock by her bedside at a seaside mansion. It’s 3:41 am. The lighting is lowkey. The only sound is of the crashing waves outside. With a good sound system, you will hear the rumble – reflecting the inner turmoil. She’s sleeping next to Aidan. She lifts the bedcovers to reveal that he’s got a tight grip around her waist. She’s medicated him with a glass full of diazepam. She scrambles to sneak out of the house without making a noise. She makes a frantic getaway out of the house through the garage only to be met by a Doberman named Zeus. “Sorry I can’t take you with me,” she tells him – and she bumps the car door next to her setting off the alarm. Running towards the fence, we can see the light upstairs turning on. She runs towards the street in front, her sister Holly pulling over to pick her up. She frantically gets in and he smashes the passenger car window. They drive away from him and to safety. She’s broken free. Or so, she thinks. Or so we think. In those eight minutes director Leigh Whannell has given us everything we needed to know and care about – and it’s played out like a silent film.
She’s escaped from the controlling and manipulative relationship with Aidan – a wealthy optics inventor. “He was in complete control of everything. Including me. He controlled how I looked, what I wore, what I ate. Then he was controlling when I left the house. What I said. Eventually what I thought,” Cecilia explains. She takes shelter with her cop friend James and his teen daughter Sydney – but is afraid to step outside the home. Holly informs her that she has no more reason to fear because Adrian has committed suicide – distraught by her abandonment. But did he really take his life? “He said that wherever I went, he would find me, walk right up to me, and I wouldn’t be able to see him,” says Cecilia.
She’s suffering from some major PTSD, and the horror in the film goes beyond what she sees. The abuse she’s undergone won’t easily shake off. Her sanity will come into question. Elisabeth Moss joins a group of women who deliver major performances in psychological horror movies – Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Essie Davis in “The Babadook,” Toni Colette in “Hereditary,” among others. I’ve admired Moss ever since her breakout role in “Mad Men,” but this is on another level. She deserves some serious Best Actress consideration. Alas, Oscar doesn’t take this genre seriously enough.
It should. Whannell working with Stefan Duscio as cinematographer does some unsettling and deeply suggestive visual work. I recently was explaining to my students about motifs in movies which help almost subliminally hint at the deeper themes a director wants to address. “The Invisible Man” has two color palettes being used in every frame – blues and gold tones. They stand side by side on the screen – alluding to the two opposing forces that Cecilia has to battle and break away from.
They also create an atmosphere of dread around her by emphasizing the negative space in the composition. Notice how there’s always an area on the screen that is left empty around her. The camera becomes voyeuristic – following her as she moves – stalking her. The production design by Alex Holmes – who worked on “The Babadook” – is fantastic.
There are some really nasty twists. Violence comes unexpectedly. Cecilia’s journey towards emancipation is a thriller – and so is Moss’ turn.
Cecilia – “One night I was sitting and thinking about how to leave Aidan. I was planning the whole thing in my mind. And he was staring at me. Studying me. Without me saying a single word, he said that I could never leave him.”
Available to stream on DIRECTV, HBO MAX, HBO NOW and HBO via Prime Video and Hulu.
Written and Directed by Leigh Whannell
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Harriet Dyer, Michael Dorman and Oliver Jackson-Cohen
Writer and Director Leigh Whannell on Writing “The Invisible Man”
“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…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.”
Bringing the Female Perspective to “The Invisible Man”
Whannell wrote “The Invisible Man” screenplay, which is rooted in the perspective of a female abuse victim, so when Moss boarded the project in the lead role he was adamant about getting her thoughts on the script to ensure the movie would not just be a women’s story told from a male’s perspective. Whannell encouraged Moss to make any change needed to ensure his “Invisible Man” did right by a female point of view. “I think most men who are intelligent want to,” Moss recently told Esquire when asked about the importance of men watching film and TV projects about women. “I mean, this was written by a man. He wrote it brilliantly. It’s a beautiful script and what’s on the screen is very, very close to what he wrote. But he also had the intelligence to ask me, as soon as I was cast: ‘Can you please tell me what I did wrong here? What did I miss? You’re a woman, you’re coming at this from a completely different perspective. What can I put in here that will be true to being a female?’” Moss continued, “Most men that I’ve dealt with, and worked with, have that frame of mind. So, I think that is important, and I think that most smart men know that. But there are some dummies out there.”
According to Moss, Whannell personally spoke to abuse victims before writing “The Invisible Man” screenplay so that his narrative would reflect the reality of being a victim of domestic violence and harassment. Moss had previously done her own research on the topic during her Emmy-winning run on Hulu’s drama series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but “The Invisible Man” continued to teach her about abuse and victimhood. “There were a couple things that I learned on this journey that I thought were interesting, especially about stigmatisation,” Moss told Esquire. “Victims feel like they’re stupid, or that somehow it’s their fault and they deserve to be in a relationship like that. I felt I had to address my own bias, even judging other women. Like, there have been times when I’ve looked at a woman in a relationship, even just a toxic relationship, and you’re like, ‘What is she doing with him?’ or ‘What is he doing with her?’ It’s really not creating a safe space for that person.” (indiewire.com)
Cinematographer Stefan Duscio on “The Invisible Man”
Duscio worked with Whannell on his last film “Upgrade” (2018) which the pair shot in Melbourne in 2017. “We had a great time working together and really enjoyed creating a unique visual language for that film,” says Duscio. The pair employed a great amount of in-camera motion tracking to the lead actor during action sequences in Upgrade, and Whannell was interested in evolving that for “The Invisible Man,” which obviously features a character you can’t see. “Our initial discussions focused on the problem of making a suspenseful film centred around a person being pursued by someone who may or may not be there,” says Duscio. Together, the pair watched films that they thought might be stylistically relevant including “Prisoners” (2013, cinematography by Roger Deakins CBE BSC ASC), “Personal Shopper” (2016, cinematography by Yorick Le Saux) and “A Ghost Story” (2017, cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo). Also films that the pair thought were masterfully made such as “The Exorcist” (1973, cinematography by Owen Roizman ASC) and “Hereditary” (2018, cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski). “Collaborating with the director and the art department on ‘The Invisible Man’ was very thorough and intensive,” says Duscio. “I was booked for more pre-production than I’ve ever done on a movie, about ten weeks. We had time to do a lot of location scouting and workshopping sets together. We all wanted to make a clean, contemporary thriller. Using art direction and lighting, we were able to give Adrian’s house (Cecilia’s ex-boyfriend) a cool steeliness, and contrast that with James’ house (her adopted dwelling), which was warm, familial and comforting.” Duscio was very excited to be using the ARRI Alexa (LF) Large Format and Signature Primes on “The Invisible Man.” “I’d used this combination on a few commercials and after reading the script, I felt it really suited a modern thriller,” he says. “I’m a huge fan of what Roger Deakins and Denis Villeneuve achieved on ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Sicario.’ I felt this film needed a similar approach in both clarity and naturalism.”
“We were very interested in Cecilia’s highly paranoid point-of-view, and suggestively filmed empty spaces, letting the camera hauntingly linger on mundane corners of a room,” explains Duscio. “We also framed characters in an unusual way that would suggest someone else could be inhabiting the negative space in the frame. Focus might push past a foreground character, into an unlikely area of the frame.” Some of these techniques might feel ‘wrong’ or unusually composed to a cinematic eye, but Duscio’s aim was to create unease and tension. He also hoped it would engage the audience, and encourage them to search the edges of his frame for any movement or hint of our lurking predator. “It was very challenging to design coverage for these scenes,” he says, “and required a lot of imagination on behalf of our cast and crew to trust that these sequences would be suspenseful.”…Adrian’s house was a mix of three real locations that the filmmakers combined to make one. The character’s home needed scale and wealth, and the audience needed to believe it belonged to a tech millionaire. For this reason, Duscio and the filmmakers extensively searched to find an austere space that could feel threatening and cinematic.
“Floor to ceiling glass windows were both beautiful and challenging, as it meant they were giant mirrors when filming night interiors, and made hiding crew and lighting difficult,” says Duscio. “We also tried to film many dusk for night interiors, to try and take advantage of the beautiful ocean vista out the windows. The challenge was to darken those dusk skies in post-production to make it feel believably night.” Early in pre-production the decision was made to build James’ house on stage, as there were many complex scenes and stunt work to achieve. Also, with the ability to remove ceiling pieces and walls, this gave Duscio freedom for lighting and camera work. “My gaffer Matt Hoile and I are big fans of ARRI Skypanels,” says Duscio. “We created several soft boxes above key rooms. Surrounding windows were illuminated with a mix of space lights and traditional tungsten fixtures. I tried to motivate as much of the lighting for day interiors from the windows as possible, and tried to use the interior soft boxes very sparingly, to try and avoid that ‘studio’ feeling. I often tried to ask myself how we would have lit a room on a practical location, and not rely on too many studio luxuries.” To limit his use of greenscreen, Duscio worked with 4K video rear-projection and Rosco soft drops out the windows. This gave the cinematographer more freedom to compose frames without worrying about excessive green screen coverage. It also meant he could capture the look in camera. “A lot of my favourite filmmakers are using rear projection and LED walls on much bigger productions, so I was excited we were able to dip our toes into that world,” says Duscio. (acmag.com.au)
About Writer and Director Leigh Whannell
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Whannell began his career as an actor. He was also a presenter on the cult hit TV series Recovery, which he later went on to host in its last two seasons. As a film critic on Recovery, Whannell interviewed names such as George Clooney, Jackie Chan, and Tim Burton. The co-creator of “Saw,” he studied film at the prestigious Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology where he met filmmaker James Wan. They collaborated on the 2004 Lionsgate release “Saw,” which Whannell wrote and starred in. In addition to his work on the screenplay for “Saw II,” Whannell wrote and starred in “Saw III” and is an executive producer on the “Saw” franchise. He is also a creative consultant on its video game. The franchise is recognized as one of the most successful horror movie series and was named so by the Guinness World Records in 2010…In 2020…Longtime Blumhouse writer/director Leigh Whannell has signed an overall deal with Blumhouse for film and television. Over the course of 10 years, Whannell and Blumhouse have collaborated on seven projects, including “The Invisible Man”…The two-year, first-look deal will cover projects that Whannell proposes to write, direct or produce. Jason Blum, Blumhouse CEO and founder, praised Whannell’s vision. “Leigh creates movies which not only build franchises but fundamentally change the landscape of their genre. After he and James Wan made ‘Saw,’ it launched dozens of copycats. Their work with Blumhouse on ‘Insidious,’ founded not just a franchise but dozens of classical proscenium PG-13 supernatural horror films. I have no doubt that will be true for ‘The Invisible Man’ and for anything else he wants to create. I just want to be there with him when he does!” Whannell also reflected on the deal. “Ten years ago, I walked into Jason Blum’s office thinking that I was having a general meeting with a producer who liked horror movies,” he said. “Little did I know that a decade long partnership and friendship was about to begin. I have since watched his then-infant company, Blumhouse, grow into a powerhouse of genre films; a nurturing place that is willing to take risks on people. Indeed, they have taken plenty of risks on me and I look forward to taking many more with them as they continue to grow in the world of film and television.” (deadline.com)