In the feature segment of this week’s episode of the Boxoffice Podcast, actor Patrick Wilson discusses moving behind the camera to helm the fifth installment of the Insidious franchise—and his work with Cinema Lab to revitalize community theaters.
How long have you been thinking about directing a film?
I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, I really have. I felt like I would naturally transition into that as well, not solely being a director, but I knew I would exercise that portion of me. For close to 30 years, I’ve gone back and done master classes and worked with actors, specifically young actors. I always love that. Whether it was film, or whether it was musical theater, I’ve literally been doing that since I got out of college. And I’ve directed a play at my alma mater. So I’ve been just kind of looking for the right opportunity. Probably four and a half, five years ago, I was trying to get a project together that I’d co-written with a friend of mine, we couldn’t really get that together, but my agency said, ‘Would you be interested in directing something that you didn’t write?’ And I said, ‘Sure, if it spoke to me, of course.’ And so when this idea came up, it was just a kernel of an idea that Leigh [Whannell] had written. They pitched it to me, and I said, ‘Well, if I’m gonna direct it, this is the story, I would want to tell.’ Things that I knew, you know, ‘Make him go to an art school. I went to a theater school, so I could relate to that. These are the kind of themes I want to deal with.’ Then once they were on board, we got a writer to write it, so I knew I was coming from a very organic perspective of something that I would continually be passionate about, because it’s been about four years, working on this. So yeah, that’s the long answer, but I always felt like I would transition into it.
I guess one of the benefits of working within this franchise, versus something that you wrote and shepherded through the entire process is, you know this is coming out in theaters.
I was just going to say that, I’ve said that a ton! I mean, that’s one of the caveats, because for a second, I was like, I don’t know if I want to step in and try to fit into James Wan’s shoes, then I said, ‘Are you kidding me? To have the freedom of a fifth movie in a franchise, because you’ve got a built in fan base. There aren’t a lot of great number five movies, you know what I mean? So there’s a freedom. And you know what? Just make it yours, make it truthful, and then nobody can really judge that. It’s sort of bulletproof, in my opinion, because it’s just me, so take it or leave it. It’s just my feelings on the subject. Knowing that it could be seen in a theater, I thought, ‘What a blessing.’ I mean, it’s so hard to get movies in theaters and have movies work in theaters. Here I’ve got Blumhouse and Sony, two of the best in the business. I’ve done so many movies with Blumhouse, that I knew it would get its fair shake. I knew we would get out in theaters. So, yeah, that’s incredibly thrilling. It’s totally shamelessly stealing Tom Cruise’s line from a couple of weeks ago, but I loved him saying, ‘I make movies for theaters, I make movies for people to watch them in theaters.’ Bam. I know it sounds lame, because I’m not comparing myself to Tom, even though we share the same birthday, but I feel the same way. I just do, because that’s what I like. I’ve done things for the small screen, and I love limited series stuff, but if I’m making a movie, I want my movie to be seen on a screen. I just do. That’s the experience that I like. Horror is one of those franchises, one of the few, that perform well.
We’ve been having such a great year for horror on the big screen.
Smile–that was another first time director. Horror and comedy are the genres that are cited most often as just not being as good if you’re alone. They’re just not.
Sure, but hit comedy, it’s very tough these days to really make it successful on a bigger budget scale. That’s even more difficult, I’d say, than horror. But you’re right, it’s been a great year for horror.
What was your hometown theater growing up?
That’s interesting. I grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida. We had several, we had one in Pinellas Park, we had one in Tyrone Square mall. I remember that quite a bit. Now there’s BayWalk in downtown St. Pete. That was not around when I was a kid. So those were the two big old school 80s multiplexes that I’d go to.
I can picture what the carpet looks like, the 80s designs.
Oh yeah, you can smell it, you know what I mean? You can see coke stains and popcorn butter everywhere.
Do you have an early, formative memory of seeing a movie in the theater?
I remember standing in line for Star Wars. I remember. I remember seeing a lot of movies in…I remember seeing Grease when I was a kid, like five. I remember seeing “Zorro” in the theater, in a matinee. I remember what that theater looks like. It’s so funny. I remember going on my first date to see Footloose. It was a double date with a friend of mine, and we took two of our good friends that were twins. To this day, I’m not sure which one was supposed to be my date for the day, because they looked identical, but it was a great movie.
My parents’ first date was Scarface, so I think Footloose is a little more appropriate.
That’s amazing. Oh, that’s great. I love it.
You’ve been through now, for the first time, the whole screening and test screening process. Is it different seeing the film for the first time in the audience as a director?
Oh, god, yeah. It’s funny, for a guy that comes from the theater, I’m incredibly technical with my film acting, so it would only make sense that I really gravitated towards that side in directing. So when you’re really watching something and you want to make sure the sound is perfect, it’s music. Sometimes it’s actually music, sometimes taking out the music, but knowing that you crafted something. With a horror film, especially in a theater, it either works or it doesn’t. There were a couple early screenings where things that I thought were hilarious….nothing. Two audiences, nothing, no laugh and you’re like, ‘Ooo, okay, all right. They don’t want to laugh here.’ So you’ve got to go back and it’s awesome, because then I reshaped performances. That’s where you’re really in a directors and editors medium. I reshaped performances. Who’s the most important person here–it’s the audience, so you’ve got to look at it through the lens of what the audience wants. And like you said, going through the screenings, and all the talkbacks, and on a major scale, it really is a blessing. Most first-time directors don’t get that. It’s either a short film or a film that’s going straight to streaming and you hope people take care of it and or if you get your final cut, all of that stuff. I was sitting in a global marketing meeting and seeing people’s pitches from Indonesia, and what they’re going to do. And you’re like, ‘On my little movie that I’ve been sitting upstairs with, editing with my friend who’s in Connecticut. We’re on computers, we’ve been making this movie for a year and a half. And now marketing people in Indonesia are talking about how they need to sell my movie.’ It’s really humbling, but what a blessing and learning experience has been for me.
Even now, we’re getting some films on the big screen that were supposed to go to streaming originally. You watch something like Evil Dead Rise–it looks gorgeous. I don’t know. How was that ever going to come out on streaming?
Yeah, no, I know. We actually changed the framing of the film, right during our color correction, actually changed scope, reframed the whole movie, like four weeks ago now. That was another learning experience, because once you start watching it on a big screen, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is much different than cutting it on my computer.’ It’s all learning process, so you just try to make the best decisions you can.
Yeah, like I hope no one watches this on their smartwatch.
Yeah, it’s funny, because I remember, even last year before I’d ever directed anything, I’d see directors that would say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to this theater and I have check all the sound.’ You’re like, ‘Really? Man, you’re real precious about that stuff.’ Or ‘Don’t watch it on your iPad.’ And all of a sudden, I’m that guy. I’m like in there yesterday, checking the sound. I need to hear it in both theaters. ‘Play this part, I just need to see. What level’s it on? Seven, alright keep it at seven, don’t let him go down to six.’ Like it’s just, because when you sit and you cut it, and then you spend however many weeks on a on a soundstage at Warner Brothers, an amazing soundstage. You heard every little sound. You want the audience to experience that, and if they don’t, you feel like, ‘That’s not the movie.’ So I can only imagine someone like Scorsese or Spielberg thinking like, ‘God, don’t watch my movie on a phone, like that just makes me cry.’ You know, it’s just not what we intend, ever.
What’s next in terms of directing, now that you’ve been through this process? What other sort of movie genre would you like to direct for the big screen?
Well, since I’m talking to you, it’s interesting, because it’s not just about sort of my own ego, like, ‘I want to go make a Western’, sure, I do want to make a Western, but I start to think. I’d like it to be a different genre, however, like we started the conversation, I want the movie to be seen. So being an exhibitor as well, and understanding what works in theaters, because I see my receipts every day and our box office every day from our theaters, I want to make sure it’s a movie that audiences want to see. So, I don’t know, the answer is, I don’t know. All I know is, that whatever genre it will be, it’ll be something very personal to me. Even my wife would attest to this, I’m just so all-in, it’s just so all-consuming. Honestly, there has not been a day in four years, even taking time off during Christmas and when I was shooting Aquaman, I was working on the script in the morning for this. I’d be in my costume typing away, thinking of scenes. It has occupied my brain space since June of 2019.
All through the pandemic.
All through. We pushed a year. I needed to train for Aquaman. I trained during the day, and came to work on this in the early morning. I’m not saying 24/7, but every day, every single day, I’ve been thinking about this movie. So I’ve got to shake that out of me first and foremost. And then find something that can match that level or demand that kind of attention. So it’s got to be something I’m deeply passionate about.
How do you like being an exhibitor?
It’s a learning process for sure. I love it. It’s hard when you get in conversations. It’s hard when you get on emails, when you’re the only guy that’s an actor, now an actor/director that’s on the email, and people like, ‘I heard that’s not very good.’ And you’re like, ‘Well, hold on, guys. That’s not fair to the filmmakers.’ I’m always the artist in the bunch, like, ‘Easy guys, not to play this card, but none of you have ever made a movie, so just lighten up. Just lighten up on the, “well, I heard” stuff, can you just experience the film?’ I’m usually that guy on my email chains, to the annoyance of my partners. You know what’s been interesting, is we have, and it’s sadly not surprising, hundreds of cities, towns that have said, ‘Hey, can you come save our theater?’ You have to really sift through and find, ‘Okay, why is your theater not working?’ Is it a lack of desire from the town? Because we’ve also run into that. I’m not going to come in and drop millions of dollars, nor can I, into something that’s not going to be supported by the town. For instance, in New Canaan, Connecticut, where we’re working with the town to rebuild their 100 year old theater. It’s going to be beautiful. It’s the gem of their downtown, it’s gorgeous. And you know, it should be restored and we’ll restore it with you and we’ll run it and, that to me, is sort of the core of who we are. If you’ve got a town that, a big movie chain is not going to move in there, because the numbers don’t match, but if I can make the boutique experience something important to those people and play movies that they want to see, and maybe have an elevated experience, and we’re going to have this really beautiful bar upstairs. So it’s different. It’s a different experience than just, ‘I don’t know, let’s go see movie.’ I think we take the care out of seeing movies. I think a lot of us of a certain generations are still nostalgic about the way that we felt as kids. You want an audience to respect the space, you want the young audience to understand special things can happen in here. It’s not just, ‘Let me get on my phone while I watch the trailers.’ You want to curate, and that doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s not about policing the area or any of that. I mean, certainly in security. It’s not about that, but I always tell my guys this, we’ve got to define their experience. We have to make them feel like this is somewhere that is their place. That it’s special, and not just, ‘I don’t know, I’ll go see an Avengers movie.’ or whatever it is. You want it to feel different.
It’s a community center.
It should be a community center. I think that’s the only way it survives, I’ll be honest with you, on a bigger scale. I spent a lot of time in England, and I was really fascinated by their little Everyman theatres. They’re usually, one, two screens.
And they’re boutique.
That’s what we’re trying to do. We can’t everywhere, because you’re sometimes filling a six-screen multiplex, and trying to adjust your numbers and figure out your audience and all of that, but that’s the goal. If you can find those sort of, two to five screens, ideally two, three, four, where you could really curate it, and not have the overhead and all of that, but still have it be an experience. Somebody can go, ‘Oh, my God, I just want to go see whatever movies playing there. I love the vibe.’ That’s what I want to do.
It’s a mental break, you can sink into something else.
Because we all need it. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but give me another experience that–I can’t control whether the movie is good or not, but I can control your experience in there, everything surrounding it. What other experience is changed every week, but you have this consistent feeling? I can have a consistent feeling of the space, but the movie changes every week.