UPGRADE: Interview with director Leigh Whannell

30 May, 2018

The merging of man and machine is at the heart of the new thriller “Upgrade,” an action film that also serves as a cautionary tale according to its writer-director Leigh Whannell. After helping to create two success horror franchises with the “Saw” and “Insidious” films he has crafted a different kind of genre exercise for his latest project. It stars Logan Marshall-Green (“Prometheus”) as an average Joe who is left to rely on an experimental technology after a tragic accident leaves him a quadriplegic. The tradeoff of flirting with this unknown tool creates a unique hybrid that is more Robocop and less HAL 9000.

Whannell recently traveled to San Francisco to promote “Upgrade” and we talked about creating a vision of the future that feels oddly relatable and not too far off. The following is a transcription of that conversation.

Q: It’s good to see you.

Leigh Whannell: Same here.

Q: The last time we spoke was for the original “Saw” way back in 2004 when you came to San Francisco with James Wan.

Whannell: Oh wow. That was a great tour. We were a lot younger then and I remember every night of that tour we would go out until 4 or 5 in the morning and get up after a couple hours sleep and go do radio interviews.

Q: I’m sure you don’t remember half of what happened, right?

Whannell: (laughs) There’s no way I could have the stamina or ability to do that today. I’d have to be a machine.

Q: Much like the machine in your new movie?

Whannell: Exactly!

Q: The movie is full of technology that on the surface is meant to keep its characters safe but the first thing I wanted to do when it ended was throw my smartphone in the trash.

Whannell: (laughs) That’s probably a smart move. The idea for this movie just popped in my head. I wasn’t thinking about technology but instead about a quadriplegic being controlled by a computer. Once I had that idea and started exploring it, then I started the research. I read this book called “The Singularity Is Near” by Ray Kurzweil and it’s hypothesizing about the merging of man and technology. It talks about the point where computers won’t be a thing that we hold but something that will actually be inside us. That was really interesting to me because I didn’t want to make a robot film, they had already been done well with films like “Blade Runner” and “The Terminator.” I was more interested in human beings with computer upgrades in their body. The more I explored it the more fascinating it became. The world seems to have caught up to the story because now the idea of humans merging with machines doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Q: One of the drawbacks of dealing with technology in movies is that certain things can look incredibly dated as soon as the film comes out. Did you try to think ahead when it came time to incorporate certain ideas into the film?

Whannell: I liked the idea that the technology in our film was right around the corner. That may mean that in the not-too-distant-future the film may look dated but I didn’t mind that because I didn’t want to make a film set in a blazingly futuristic world like “Blade Runner.” I wanted to make a film that was set in our time but just a little bit ahead of us. It’s amazing to me that we are giving so much of ourselves to computers.

Q: Aside from being a part of the “Saw” franchise you’re also a collaborator on the “Insidious” franchise too. After making the third “Insidious” film did you feel more confident  progressing to direct “Upgrade” or do you feel there are things you’re still learning as a director?

Whannell: I have definitely appreciated the opportunity to learn to make a lot with a little. I definitely brought that horror spirit of “let’s just go for it” to this movie because there’s an attitude you have to have in the low-budget world where it’s very run-and-gun. Even if it’s putting the camera on the floor and grabbing a quick shot of something you weren’t expecting in the moment, it can help you a lot.

Q: It’s very practical.

Whannell: Exactly and for me there’s no other way to do it. Even though “Upgrade” is a different genre and set in a different world I brought a quickly paced attitude to the set. When you get to the editing room you realize that those shots that you steal by being practical become crucial.

Q: Did you take many insurance risks with that run-and-gun attitude?

Whannell: (laughs) There were a couple of close calls. One time we had our lead actor Logan Marshall-Green on a harness where he had to jump off these stairs and land on a different stairwell. A lot of movies wouldn’t think twice and just put the stuntman in there but I decided to put Logan in there. In hindsight that might’ve been a dumb decision but I think that came from the run-and-gun spirit of low-budget filmmaking.

Q: I like Logan a lot. Most people probably know him from “Prometheus” but he has consistently done great work.

Whannell: I saw him in “The Invitation” and that’s what made me think of him for this film.

Q: Most people look at him and think it’s…

Whannell: (laughs) Tom Hardy!

Q: Does he hate being compared to Tom Hardy all the time?

Whannell: (laughs) I’ve never mentioned it to him but sometimes I wonder if Logan would be a huge star if Tom Hardy didn’t exist. Would he be doing all the Tom Hardy roles? But jokes aside, he’s a very well-trained actor. He went to Julliard and is so committed to his roles. He really leans into his performances and doesn’t care how the camera makes him look.

Q: That is great and unfortunate because Tom Hardy likes to do that too. If Tom only did studio films he and Logan could split the difference.

Whannell: (laughs) Exactly! Those things always happen. I’m sure Skeet Ulrich is sitting in a bar somewhere looking at a Brad Pitt photo and thinking, “damnit!”

Q: Are you still interested in acting?

Whannell: Kind of. I’m really caught up with directing at the moment. I’m so addicted to it because I love that feeling of taking something on paper and being the one who gets to translate it. Because when you hand that translation over to someone else they inevitably end up making different choices. As a writer you can’t say anything because you’re barely allowed on set so as a writer-director there’s a real satisfaction in seeing your story through to the end.

Q: As a writer how have you handled those experiences of turning something in and it doesn’t go the way you planned?

Whannell: It’s tough because when you write a film you make a film. You see it in your mind as you’re writing it. I feel any writer who says they don’t picture the film in their mind as they’re writing it is lying. So I’ve had a few experiences where things don’t go the way you’d want them to and you end up armchair quarterbacking the whole thing. At least if you direct the film and it doesn’t go well you can just blame yourself. When you blame someone else that’s when real frustration can fester.

“Upgrade” is now playing in theaters nationwide.

[Article, interview and photo: Marco Cerritos]

About the author

Marco Cerritos

Marco Cerritos is a guest writer for Dig In Magazine, a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and a freelance film critic for Hypable.com.

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