Leigh Whannell on Upgrade

The Aussie co-creator of Saw and Insidious returns with a techno-thriller that has every chance of becoming a franchise
Logan Marshall-Green in Upgrade
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Ask Leigh Whannell what movie had the biggest impact on him as a kid and he has no doubts. “Jaws,” says the 41-year-old co-creator of horror juggernauts Saw and Insidious. “It so traumatised me that I couldn’t take a bath: my five-year-old brain couldn’t discern the difference between the bath and the ocean. But, obviously, it was an early indicator of a love of scary stories.”

We’re at the Screen Australia offices in Sydney to talk about Whannell’s second film as a writer-director, Upgrade, which was shot in Melbourne with a US and Australian cast. It’s a high-tech thriller in which a crippled car mechanic (Logan Marshall-Green) regains the ability to walk thanks to a computer chip called STEM inserted in his spine that can take control of his body and wield it with the precision of a robotic killing machine. Perfect popcorn fare with a script that dodges cliché, Upgrade is another run on the board for an Aussie filmmaker who has a miraculous, STEM-like grasp of turning genre into box office gold.    

Leigh, congratulations on a kick-arse movie. Let’s hope it gets a sequel.
Thank you. That’s up to the audience. A sequel is a Champagne problem – but I would love to have that Champagne problem.

What inspired the Upgrade screenplay?
I had the idea of a quadriplegic who was given the chance to walk again thanks to a computer chip, and that image of somebody being puppeteered by a computer wouldn’t leave my head. I started reading books by Ray Kurzweil and these futurists who talk about the merging of technology and human beings. Kurzweil refers to it as ‘the singularity’. And I hadn’t seen that topic covered before in movies. And that feels very much around the corner.

The screenplay tells me you are deeply worried by artificial intelligence.
It’s not so much artificial intelligence, I’m worried about human beings and about how much of ourselves we are giving to tech. Already, today, I think we are completely addicted to these little devices in our pockets. I’m not a Luddite – I’m a screenwriter, I take my laptop with me everywhere, there are good things to be gained from social media – but I’m wondering where this path is leading us.

People are excited about the way the action scenes have been shot – how the camera is anchored to Logan so that it gives the audience the dizzy feeling that he’s not in control of the moves he’s pulling. 
Stefan Duscio, the cinematographer, had shot a music video where he had strapped an iPhone onto the performer and the camera had locked to the iPhone. And wherever the actor moved the camera went with them. And I saw this video and instantly knew this was right for this movie. It felt like the last piece of the puzzle.

You’ve lived in LA for 12 years – how was it shooting in Melbourne?
It felt like coming home on a lot of levels. The first level was literal – Melbourne is where I grew up. And there’s something about that Aussie attitude. It’s not fussy, everybody’s up for it. That cliché Aussie attitude of “she’ll be right, have a go” really does exist and when you’re working on a movie, which is always a Mount Everest, that attitude could not be more required. I would shoot every film in Australia if I could...

It was interesting to see some of the Australian crew members getting to do things they don’t get to do often enough. For instance, how often does an Australian prosthetics make-up artist get to create exploding heads, Scanners-style? They were like kids in a candy store. 

Was it a hard film to cast?
Initially, when we thought the film was going to be bigger budget, they were tossing around names like Christian Bale, Jake Gyllenhaal. The problem is, everyone wants Christian Bale, and he has a pile of scripts seven feet high on his desk. So at a certain point we decided to just go for the best actors. And that was such a freeing decision, because I remembered Logan Marshall-Green from this film The Invitation, which was an independent thriller that I really loved.

Are you done with Saw and Insidious?
Saw – yes. Definitely. That first movie gave me my career and it was my big break, James Wan and I, so I have a lot of affection for it. The sequels seemed to be driven more by commerce and box office than creative forces. So I don’t think I would revisit that world. Insidious has been really fun. That would be something that I’d maybe go back to. I like working with Jason Blum. What they do at [grindhouse studio] Blumhouse is unique in Hollywood.

Winning Oscars, for instance.
Can you believe it? It’s unheard of that a $3 millon horror film [Get Out] would be nominated for Best Picture. But Jason has made it a reality. He’s made these films an undeniable force. There’s a lot of competition for people’s attention these days and Jason feels like one of the last people left who makes movies that people want to see in a communal environment.

Upgrade opens Thu Jun 14. Read Time Out's review here.

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