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Secrets of Insidious: How To Make A Low Budget Horror Movie That Doesn't Look Like Crap

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What's really frightening about Insidious was how little it cost to make this rather large film, only $800,000. How can you make a movie this scary on such a tiny budget? We asked, and the Insidious crew answered.

Including Oren Peli, of infamously cheap Paranormal Activity.

Oren Peli Insidious producer — and director of Paranormal Activity

I think this movie is a very interesting case study of how to make a film very, very cheap and pretty much do whatever you want. The script wasn't originally written to be a one million dollar movie. It was just a horror movie. Later we wondered if we could get it done with such a small budget. When you are forced to think creatively about how to get things done, you can easily figure it out. The movie has very few CGI effects. Almost everything is done practically. And it's done in a way where you wouldn't think it was anywhere near what it actually cost. I don't think there was anything we wanted to do that we couldn't.


You know I'm kind of new to the industry, so I just don't know why movies in general cost so much. Why does a romantic comedy cost 80 million dollars? Even with other projects that I'm involved in — that are still really, really cheap by Hollywood standards but are more expensive than I'm used to — I never understand where the money goes.

As far what's the secret? I don't know, to me it seems like the natural way of doing things. If you tell them to do a project and you give them X amount of money, unless it's entirely unreasonable, they will figure out a way to do it. You could also make Insidious for 100 million dollars, it may not be any better but if you wanted to you'll figure out a way to spend the money. I think if you're forced to do, sometimes there are ways to do things cheaper if you think about it. Look at the [Robert] Rodriguez movies, he makes movies that are sometimes very CGI heavy, and he makes them for a fraction of what it would cost to pay someone else do it. So there's obviously a different way to do things


I think a lot of it has to do with hiring a really, really good crew and a really efficient crew. This movie was shot on the red and it was a fairly small crew. So that helps to be very nimble and creative. We had a practical location, it wasn't abandoned, but we paid the homeowner to shoot in both homes, so we didn't have to build any sets. Practical locations really help.

Other than that I could probably help if I've worked on $100 million movies, but this is the only way I know! The more crew you have, then it grows exponentially. Because then you need crew to support the crew. You'll need more transportation and more catering, and housing. If you keep it very, very small and nimble then you start saving money exponentially.

James [Wan] also edited the movie, and he directed it and because we own the movie as partners, we didn't have to pay high salaries to a lot of people. A lot of the people that were involved in the movie are also kind of co-owners and partners in the film, so we didn't have to pay huge salaries up front, rather they are participating in the success of the movie.

Leigh Whannell: Insidious screenwriter and actor

I wish there were secrets… Horror is great because it doesn't need big effects to make it really effective. It's one of the genres where, a low budget horror film can be more effective. Don't be afraid to keep it confined.


Also, use yourself as a barometer. What scares you, what truly scares you? Don't write films about other films. Don't use other movies as your reference point for what's scary. Use yourself. Like, what's the scariest possible thing that could happen to me in the middle of the night, if I woke up, and try and tap into that.

And try and do something that people haven't seen before, I guess would be the other one. Even if you're working within a rigid genre, like the haunted house genre. Don't just do a seance scene do a crazy seance scene. Try and show people something new because horror fans are craving new stuff and they're starved for quality. You're trolling through DVD after DVD of bad movies, so when you finally get to the good stuff you're finally excited.


io9: And maybe cast the screenwriter?

Yeah, cast the screenwriter in the movie.

James Wan, director of Insidious and Saw

I really think the most important thing, and I know this sounds obvious, but the most important thing is to start off with a story and a concept that is partially interesting. [Something] That is so slightly out of the box. My movies tend to be slightly polarizing, people either like it, or they don't like it. And I've discovered that it's partially because what Leigh and I like to do. It's our sensibility, we want to do things that are outside of the norm. And even though this is a haunted house film, it is outside the norm in a lot of ways. You get a lot of, [said sarcastically] "oh really? you're doing that?" And my god, I got so much of that when the first Saw came out. People could not believe that in the middle of this film, I would have a fucking puppet ride out on a tricycle.


But it's stuff like that, that I find just ghoulish fun. I try to make films that I find fun. And if people get along with it, great, and if not, there's nothing I can do about it. So I guess there's no real trick, but for a scary movie, make what you think scares you. What you think is cool or fun. If you feel that way then there's a vert good chance that someone else out there will feel the same as well. But there's also a very good chance that someone out there won't, which is OK.