Interview with Upgrade Director Leigh Whannell
by Bobby Blakey
There is no doubt that the SAW and Insidious franchises are massive hits in the horror world. Leigh Whannell burst onto the scene teaming up with James Wan to not only bring these franchises to life on the page, but as an actor and director of Insidious: Chapter 3. That alone is an impressive resume but he has offered up so much more starring and writing other great films like Dead Silence, Cooties and The Mule top name a few. Now he is stepping into the director’s seat once again to bring his bad ass sci-fi action flick Upgrade to the big screen and I had the joy of sitting down to speak with him about the film and what it took to bring this gritty violent future come to life.
Bobby: Where did the idea for Upgrade come from?
Leigh: The idea just kind of popped into my head one day. Not the whole story fully formed, but the image of someone that was paralyzed from the neck down and given the opportunity of having a computer installed. The computer would then drive and talk to them and just that one idea I couldn’t stop thinking about it. From there comes the fun part of trying to build the story. What does the computer want and what are some fun things to do with it? I started reading about computers and humans merging and there is a book about singularity that was really interested and a year later I had the screenplay.
Bobby: You have already had a big career with the Saw and Insidious franchises as well as other films like The Mule which are all great, but with this one you are heading into a more sci-fi action and the fights themselves defy all the rules of how it is supposed to be done, but are awesome. How did you get those to work like that?
Leigh: From the very start in the script I had written in the action description that his fighting style when being controlled by STEM is strange and stilted. I didn’t quite know what it meant yet, but it was in the script. When we finally got down to production I had this scary moment of what are we going to do to give it this feeling. I had a couple of sessions with the stunt team and fight coordinators and kept telling them to do whatever you can to make the fighting style look strange. As you said it is wrong and doesn’t move fluid like a human. To his credit he tried to take what I was doing and he said something that was interesting like what you just said “I feel like I am doing something counter intuitive because my body is wanting to do one thing, but my body is wanting to change it.” We added to that effect that we locked the camera to Logan and we ended up with what we got. It was definitely a step by step process.
Bobby: As a director when you are dealing with sequences that are very chaotic where the actor is supposed to react while fighting, but in a confused way, how hard is something like to structure?
Leigh: It was really hard. Logan would have to be fighting and doing one thing with his body while his face is looking around confused and then on top of that we have a voice talking to him in his ear. It was a triple threat and the real test of doing body, face and reacting to dialogue. I give full credit to Logan who did the training and put the work in and pulled off this triple act. If I had gotten an actor that was incapable of doing that I don’t think the film would have resonated.
Bobby: This film has almost a horror level of gore that felt the need to be there, but was that something you had envisioned from the beginning?
Leigh: I was definitely inspired by a certain 80s sci-fi movies I grew up with. All through my early teens I would go to the video store, which was my church. I would go there and head straight to the sci-fi / horror section and rent these movies that came from the era of practical effects. Films like Robocop and The Terminator and if you go back and watch those movies they are really violent. There is something about the sci-fi that is scrappy and punkish, but a fun spirit to them. Somewhere along the way that got lost and I loved those movies so much that I wanted to make something that had the visceral attack of a film like Robocop or Total Recall.
Bobby: This is one of those sci-fi flicks that just have a sprinkle of the futuristic tone to it shoved into a gritty world. Was this how you always envisioned it?
Leigh: Yes. I love film noir and I kind of wanted this to be that kind of film. It’s always a bit gritty and when sci-fi gets too shiny I am not as interested. A modern film example is something like Looper. It feels very real and tactile, but it’s a bit dirty. Just because we are in the future doesn’t mean that a shitty place where criminals hang out is suddenly clean. It was always something from the start where I wanted that big city, grimy feel.
Bobby: How hard is it to not go to futuristic with something like this then? There are elements that feel very future, but the rest feels like it could just be today.
Leigh: It’s mainly using yourself as the barometer. You look at the script and use your own judgement. A lot of filmmaking is taste. When you are directing a movie you have to make decisions like which shirt this character is going to wear and 10 different directors will chose 10 different shirts. With that it was really up to me to look at the script and decide where to throw a touch of sci-fi in. I didn’t want to go overboard because I wanted it to feel very much around the corner so it was important to me to just sprinkle it throughout the movie and keep the rest of it very relatable to the rest of the audience.
Bobby: I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. I am a huge Saw fan and love everything you have done and this movie is awesome!
Leigh: Thanks so much man. Glad you enjoyed it!
Be sure to check out Upgrade when it hits theaters on June 1st.