SXSW ’14 Interview: Angus Sampson and Leigh Whannell on Leaving Their Mark on “The Mule”

On creating a thriller with as much tension as its lead holds in his bowels while trying to evade arrest....Read More
Angus Sampson in "The Mule"

Angus Sampson still can’t sit down. If you’re aware of the plot of his latest film “The Mule,” which involves a man detained by authorities on the suspicion of carrying drugs from Thailand to his native Australia up his rectum, you might mischievously venture a guess as to why, but you’d be wrong. The answer is actually far worse.

“I’ve got to stand now because I hurt my back in that shower scene,” says Sampson, who nonetheless braved the flight to come to SXSW in Austin, Texas last week after surviving one of the film’s most brutal fight sequences. “I went through the porcelain of the shower base and cut my bum open.”

Though one would hope Sampson wouldn’t have had to have been injured to achieve what he does in “The Mule,” considering how vigorously he and his co-writer and co-star Leigh Whannell threw themselves into its production, there was never any question it would leave a mark. A vibrant, blisteringly clever crime thriller, the film not only demonstrates the acting range of the pair best known Stateside as the eccentric paranormal investigators Specs and Tucker in the “Insidious” franchise but also their skills as storytellers, creating a potboiler to rival anything to come out of their home country in recent years from “The Square” to “Animal Kingdom.”

With a cast that includes Hugo Weaving as a dogged detective tasked with recovering the ingested narcotics and John Noble as a crime boss who initiated the illegal travel, Sampson and Whannell find themselves caught in the middle as Ray and Gavin, respectively, the seemingly slow-witted TV repairman and low-level thug who believe just one successful run in to Bangkok might lead to their way out of lower-middle-class life in the sticks of Melbourne. Yet of course, their plans go awry and it’s up to Ray’s digestive tract to keep both sides of the law at bay while he’s held in custody, a situation that proves as excruciatingly tense as Whannell’s work in the “Saw” series.

Despite all the allusions I’ve made to other films, there’s no doubt that “The Mule” is a true original and while Sampson and Whannell were in town celebrating the film’s world premiere at SXSW, they spoke about how their longtime friendship led to their first film collaboration as writers, writing themselves into a literal corner as actors with Weaving and Noble playing badasses and the class differences that underscore the film’s suspense.

Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson on the set of "The Mule"How did this come about?

Leigh Whannell: This basically came about through Angus and I’s friendship. I met Angus years ago, coming up to 20 years probably, on a TV show in Australia that we were both working on and neither of us had worked in TV before. In our eyes, everyone else who worked on the TV show was pretty cool and we were the two dorks, so we bonded. Once that TV show finished, we were still hanging out. We even lived together for a while with another friend of ours. Eventually, it got to the point where we wanted to do something together.

We are now separated by an ocean [since] I moved to Los Angeles, but‎ one‎ day Angus came to visit me, and we were like, “If we can’t find the time to write something, why don’t we get someone else to write the script for us?” We actually found a script that a friend of ours Jaime Browne wrote, the first draft of “The Mule” and we worked on the script with Jaime. Cut to seven years later, and finally it’s premiered.

This was partially inspired by a true story. Were you at all familiar with it before picking up the script?

Angus Sampson: The bit that I guess inspired it all was somebody had been arrested and refusing to go to the toilet was his only defense. In his defense, he would put the pellets back in his bum because you can’t stop your digestive system. The gastroenterologist that we went and saw [while we were doing research said], “There’s no way that guy could have lasted that long.”‎ But ‎sure enough, when we did more research [we learned] the pellets were coming out and he was putting them back in his bum. He’d wake up and they would come out. Jaime had learned about this incredible incident that ended up lasting 22 days in New Zealand and that was the jumping off point. Leigh loved the idea of the human being the ticking time bomb.

LW: All the other characters, the police and all, was all stuff we added.

Given that liberty, do you ever consider your own well-being while writing? You give yourselves really good parts, but also ones where Hugo Weaving and John Noble get to kick the crap out of you.

AS: John Noble doesn’t actually beat me. He’s too classy a guy. ‎He has his henchman do the work for him. I tell you what, they really went to town on Leigh.

LW: ‎One of the funniest quotes from the set was the day we were shooting the scene where fucking Ziggy kept beating me up and the guy we got to play Ziggy – Illya Altman – he was actually a night club bouncer and it was his first film. Big Lithuanian guy who worked as a bouncer in pubs, so you can imagine how many fights he had to deal with. Angus came up to him on the set and said, “You know, while you’re holding his head, give him a few punches.” He’s like, “You know what I mean? Like a punch?” Illya goes, “It’s a rib tickler.”

AS: [In his best Lithuanian accent] “A real rib tickler.”

LW: He actually wasn’t a trained actor, so when he grabbed me by the hair, I was like, “Oh, yeah, he’s done this to a few 21-year-old kids outside the pub.”

AS: ‎Illya was incredible. He was an unemployed printer that we’d found. We just put out signs around, not saying that it was a Leigh Whannell film or it had Hugo Weaving in it. We just looking for a certain ethnicity, and his niece said, “You should go in …”

LW: He really got into it, too. It was wonderful to watch him become an actor.

AS: The scene that he has with Hugo Weaving, people are like, “Wow, he’s incredible.”‎ We have such a wonderful ensemble in this film of actors at the very top of the game like Hugo and Noni Hazelhurst, who’s one of Australia’s, and I think the world’s, greatest actors. She plays my mum and she just interrogated us on anything. Then we have John Noble, who we’re so grateful that he supports Australian indie films, and Ewen Leslie, who is our generation’s finest actor, I would say, and Georgina Haig, who probably had the hardest job of all coming into this very male-centric world. We always try to work with as many girls as possible and she did an incredible job, Georgina, just to come in as this lamb in amongst these lions. I do remember saying how we couldn’t believe how incredible the actors were, but we were like, “Maybe we shouldn’t be in this.”

LW: Yeah, ‎all the other actors are amazing. Like “Also featuring Leigh Whannell.”

A‎S: [laughs] I’ve got to say Leigh’s performance in this is so incredible, so nuanced, I’m out here for 20 years and I’m editing his performance together, and I’m just like, “Wow, this guy is really smart.” He’s someone that I know and love, and I don’t recognize him on screen.

LW: I felt the same way about Angus. It’s such a great performance that even now, after seeing the film many times, watching it last night, I genuinely forget I’m watching Angus. I’m watching Ray. That’s amazing because I’ve seen it so many times now that you think I would see through the movie, but I don’t. I still get sucked in.

Angus is obviously credited as a co-director [with Tony Mahony], but Leigh isn’t and I wondered how you divvied up the responsibilities since I thought it may have been natural to direct with each other after collaborating on the script.

LW: I didn’t think I was ready. It’s taken me a long time to get to the point where I think I could direct. With “The Mule,” I really wanted to put in a good performance, so my focus was on acting. Obviously, it’s so great for me to hear Angus say that he’s really happy with my performance because I was trying to do him and the rest of the cast justice. I was probably the least experienced actor.

AS: Second least. [laughs]

LW: Second least after Illya. But I was just trying to do a good job, and I was happy to just write and get the project made.

AS: ‎And that’s the thing. There are jobs that need doing, and if you can’t find somebody, then you end up doing it. We were able to find our friend Tony, and he helped us on set. We couldn’t do everything. I apologized to Hugo once a day. I said, “I’m so sorry about how unorthodox this set is,” because we’re acting. We’re the producers. I’m in the scenes with him, and I’m giving him direction, which you kind of never do as an actor. He said, “You don’t need to apologize. This is the most creative set I’ve ever been on. I think it’s wonderfully collaborative.” He said this in front of the cast, and we’re all sitting down whilst they’re lighting, and there’s about six of us. To have a champion of that, it really just helped.

LW: For him to say that …

AS: ‎On day three, where … I mean, how do you give Hugo Weaving direction? You don’t. We honestly were thrilled that at any moment so many people contributed to it. We had the most amazing cinematographer Stefan Duscio, who after our film, went and shot a couple clips for Beyonce. He is way on the rise internationally and already at the top of his game in Australia. It was a very congenial set, and that was really important for the story because it is about the community, and the best thing for us is that we had these really intelligent actors playing people who all are maneuvering themselves around on another, lying to one another, and eventually revealing themselves as the film goes on and on.‎ Leigh and I [thought] how do you make a thriller about someone being passive? We have to spend that first act really making it seem like, “Come on…” Then it just goes ape shit after that.

There’s a mention late in the film where Ray’s derisively called a “Westie,” implying he’s lower class. As an American, I was wondering what the class distinctions at play here might’ve been and how it influenced the story you wanted to tell?

LW: We did want a lot. Westies are quite literally people from the Western suburbs, the west side of the city, which in Melbourne is traditionally the lower income working class, especially in 1983 when this film was set.

AS: The theory here on the East Coast of Australia, the closer to the water you are, the more expensive the real estate, so in theory, the further west you are …

LW: The more west you are, out near the airport – obviously, you could hear planes flying overhead a lot throughout the movie – and it was really important to us, that class separation. A lot of the people in the film are aspiring to be something that they’re not. They want to get out of their situation, and that applies to everyone – the lawyer, the cops, Ray. This entire movie is about people struggling to get up to some level that they’ve imagined in their mind, and in Australia, a big part of that is class. It’s sort of like where you are on that economic ladder.

I couldn’t help but notice you also included in the end credits a ‎special thanks to the Kulin people whose tribal lands you filmed on. Is that unusual among productions?

AS: It’s not typical, no. It’s just something that’s important to us because we’re writing a film about character, and ostensibly that’s how Australians identify themselves, and we wanted to acknowledge that we are guests of the Kulin nation. It was just a way for us to pay respect to the first people in Australia, the longest continuing culture in the world. That was just a personal thing that we wanted to acknowledge, that wonderful culture.

Speaking of which, you really seem to really pick your moments for scatalogical humor, which given the subject seems like it was no small temptation. How did you restrain yourselves?

LW: ‎‎We were very keen for the film to not be comedic, at least in relation to the bum stuff because we thought what was unique about it was if we had a film about a guy refusing to go to the toilet, which instantly when you hear that, it says comedy, but what if wasn’t comedy? What if it was a thriller? What if this guy’s digestive system was the ticking clock? That was interesting, and to put in too many jokes would have diluted that. and kind of undermined that goal. W‎e’ve got a fart in there, and a couple of other things, but actually even they’re actually related intrinsically and bound to the guy’s predicament. They’re not exploitative or superfluous. They’re really there because they need to be there.

AS: We wanted to bring the element of smell in there. That’s the one thing that you can’t convey.

Well, that goes back to the strong actors you have since you can tell on their faces.

LW: Georgina is wonderful. Her face is perfect every time.

AS: Do you remember that, when she’s talking to the lawyer and the guy farts, and she tries to continue on, “No, no, it’s fine… ” [pulls a face to the side]. It’s incredible.

“The Mule” will be released in theaters and digitally on November 21st.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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