Interview: Australian Writer/Director Leigh Whannell Talks 'Upgrade'
by Alex Billington
June 19, 2018
"Not man. Not machine. More." One of the biggest surprises of the year is an action sci-fi titled Upgrade, the second feature film directed by Australian filmmaker/writer Leigh Whannell. Whannell has worked in Hollywood for over a decade. He broke in with a little indie called Saw, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 and went on to become, well, a succesful franchise and a massive hit. Whannell wrote the script for it with James Wan, and starred in it, then continued his career mostly as a screenwriter & producer. The first film he directed was Insidious: Chapter 3 in 2015, jumping in the hot seat with another horror franchise he co-created with James Wan. Upgrade is Whannell's first time going all out, directing an original screenplay he wrote, working with Blumhouse and mega-producer Jason Blum to get the film made.
I've been following Whannell closely since the early days of the Saw movies, and I was lucky to finally have a chance to interview him. More than anything, I wan to bring even more attention to his new film Upgrade - because it's awesome. Yes, sure, it's kind of a new 2018 upgrade on the RoboCop concept, but it actually feels like an entirely original idea with some very clever cinematography and a smart script. Not to mention an outstanding performance by Logan Marshall-Green (read Jeremy's full review). The film is also full-on sci-fi, with some nifty sci-fi concepts and slick visuals, and I was impressed by everything about it. I hope to talk more with Leigh again soon about all things film, until then here is our chat about making Upgrade.
My interview with Leigh Whannell was conducted over the phone, which is always a pain to deal with. But I'm happy I could talk with Leigh anyway and I covered a few of the topics I wanted to get into with him. It ends abruptly because the publicist came on and wrapped up the call quickly. I started out the discussion by saying that I think Upgrade is awesome, and that it's way, way more sci-fi than I was expecting…
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, that's what I was going for.
Are you where you thought you would be / where you wanted to be in your film career now?
Leigh: That's an interesting question, because a lot of what has happened to me and to James Wan since we first made Saw has felt like a bonus prize. At least to me. I think you've got different types of people in the world, some people have all the ambition in the world and they have their "Goals" board up in their bedroom and they print pictures of themselves and they look at themselves in the mirror and say, "you're going to be a star!" And you definitely see this a lot with actors in Los Angeles. It's this total belief and confidence in themselves. And so I think if & when they do make it, the answer to your question would be, yes, I'm exactly where I need to be.
Without speaking for James, I always felt like everything was a surprise. I couldn't believe that people went to see Saw, that people actually lined up. I'm the opposite of the actor that is bursting with confidence who just knows they're going to make it. I'm the guy who's like yeah, probably, it won't happen… And so everything to me has just been amazing in terms of being able to make films for a living. And so right now, I actually feel pretty good about everything because — I feel like I've discovered directing. And now I really wanna sink my teeth into it.
You've been writing and producing for so long, does it feel good to direct? Do you feel more in control of the final product? What makes you feel so happy to be directing?
Leigh: Yeah… I find [directing] to be an extension of writing. I've always enjoyed writing screenplays and I was happy with that. I wasn't a frustrated writer who really wanted to act or a frustrated writer who really wanted to direct. I was really happy writing screenplays, and there's a lot of people who just do that — they're screenwriters. That's what they do for a living. They don't need a side job or a night job or they don't need to aspire to anything else. But I met James at film school and I didn't go to film school to be a screenwriter, I was there to learn how to make films and direct. Life just sort of took me in that direction and James and I teamed up, and it was great that we worked together in that way. And I'm so thankful that we worked together and stayed friends after film school.
But I guess there was always a voice in the back of my mind somewhere that said, "well, one day you'll direct something, eventually." And when that opportunity came up, I think I kind of crept into it thinking it was going to be a much more stressful job than writing. Writing feels safe, you know, it's a hard job, but at least you're in your office or wherever you are and there's no one standing over your shoulder staring at what you're writing. And when you're directing, everybody's looking over your shoulder. And so I think I built it up in my mind to be a much less fun job than it actually is.
When I actually did direct I was surprised by how fun it was. And it's basically — for a writer — it's basically a way of making all the little decisions that you don't get to make when you're just the screenwriter. All the little things… You can write a scene with two people standing in one room and when you direct that scene, you get to decide what those people are wearing. And what color the wallpaper is in the room they're in. And all those little decisions, I find them to be a lot of fun. And it feels like you're filling in the blanks of your own screenplay. So that's the reason I love it.
There's so much sci-fi out there, so much great sci-fi recently, how do you go about coming up with something that's new and different? Where do you even start? Upgrade isn't trying to be like everything else - how do you come up with this to begin with?
Leigh: Well, first of all, thank you for saying that. It's a great compliment. Reading some of the reviews, they don't agree with you… I'm getting very varied reviews on this one. Some echoing your sentiments and some saying, ah it's formulaic, seen it all before. So thank you for saying that. But I think that path of being, quote unquote, original, when you're working within the context of genre films, it can sometimes be extremely difficult without a crystal ball. I don't have a crystal ball that can predict what the trends or where the zeitgeist will be in five years. And when you sit down to write a film, you are essentially making a bet that people will care about this in five or so years. Because my good guess is that's about the average length it takes from writing to getting a film in theaters. So it's really hard, I can't predict the future.
I know that when I wrote the first draft, it was right after I finished the first Insidious film. And that was shot in 2009. So we're talking about a screenplay that was written seven/eight years ago and back then I was really putting my all into it to make the film as original as I could. And there was nothing else around like it, I felt. And then it's been interesting / heartbreaking / frustrating / invigorating to watch all these different projects in the space of my script suddenly pop up. All of a sudden, in the time it took us to make this film, you had "Black Mirror" come out. Then you had Ex Machina. Then you had "Westworld". I felt like the world was catching up to the screenplay I had written.
I actually think it's one of the main difficulties for me in making independent films is that in the time it takes to make it, to raise the money, to put it together, and to get your cast together, the zeitgeist can catch up to you. And it's interesting, I've never really talked about this before with anyone, but that's definitely a problem in screenwriting, trying to beat the zeitgeist. So there definitely are other things out there now in the space, but I guess what you have to do is just say, "look, they're allowed to exist and so is my thing." And you have to let the troops fall down and end up where they are. Sometimes you're the first horse across the line and you're like "yes, I beat the zeitgeist!" And then other times you're sitting there and you're doing Deep Impact and you're like ah shit, didn't anyone know about Armageddon?!
So yeah, it's kind of a longwinded answer, but I think that's the main problem with trying to be original is trying to out-think where the zeitgeist is going and hoping that similar projects don't suddenly evolve.
Is there a chance to make tweaks before you start filming? If you notice something that was just in a film that came out, can you tweak it a little bit before filming to stay fresh?
Leigh: Oh yes. 100%. Yeah, I mean, I was doing that while we were shooting. For instance, there used to be hologram advertisements in Upgrade. And before we were shooting Ghost in the Shell had come out, and so had Blade Runner 2049. And I saw them and said, we have to get rid of all these hologram advertisements. Because, if we had been the first cattle off the ranch in terms of that image, then great, but the "U.S.S. Hologram Advertisement" has just left port… That ship has sailed. And so I guess that's one example of tweaking the film to seeing what's out there. And it's interesting…
I want to ask about the camera movements and cinematography, because there's some crazy cool shots in this, especially with the way the camera moves with the action. Is that something that naturally came about on set? Or did you actually plan that out early in the development?
Leigh: It's definitely — I knew that I wanted something really interesting for the fight scenes and for the choreography. And I didn't quite know what it was. But I knew I wanted it to be different. So I had a lot of conversations with the cinematographer and the stunt team about what we would do to achieve that. And we worked for a month with Logan Marshall-Green and some of the other actors framing them. And we just needed that extra thing. Stefan Duscio, the cinematographer, and I, we kind of stumbled upon this technique that he had used in a music video about a year prior where he had locked the camera to the actor in the frame and we thought it would be perfect. So it was definitely something that — we discovered it late in the game, but as soon as we saw it, we knew it was right for the film.
Yeah. It's awesome. I mean, I was thinking that I want to see even more of this, but I'm also appreciating that it was used in the right way in the right scenes and not overused at all.
Leigh: Yeah… It's tricky with that stuff, because if you overuse it, and you've tipped your hand and people will say, ah these scenes gave me vertigo or it made me dizzy or it's too much. So you really have to calibrate it when you're doing it. And you've only got yourself as a barometer. We didn't take the movie out and test it and ask people if they thought it was too much or too little. We really just used ourselves to decide what's the right amount of this.
What was the most important part about this film to get right? What did you spend the most time stressing over?
Leigh: I think the relationship between STEM and Grey was the most important part to me. Even just doing it technically was very difficult because I wanted Simon Maiden, who plays the voice of STEM, I wanted him to be there on the set. I didn't want to dub his voice in later or have a production assistant reading his dialogue on the set. I wanted their interaction to be in the moment, so that they could interrupt each other and riff off each other. And so figuring that out technically was pretty difficult. We had an earpiece in Logan's ear and we ended up putting Simon on every set. He would just be tucked away in the corner speaking into a microphone. And so everything you hear in the movie from STEM was actually recorded on the set. And that was probably the trickiest and the most rewarding part of it.
Yeah, and it works well. I love how natural the dialogue is between him and STEM. The first time he hears the voice, he freaks out. I really appreciated that realism throughout.
Leigh: Oh, good. Thank you. Yeah. That was one of the most fun things to do – to have Logan freak out.
So many films I would expect to play it in a really dumb way, where it's just oh, he gets it and now he uses it. Especially because we have Jarvis in Iron Man now and we've seen the Marvel movies do it. But I think it's cool to have it be so real.
Leigh: Yeah, I mean, I always wanted to play every scene very real in the film. I wanted it to feel around the corner. I wanted the world of the film to feel touchable like close to our own world instead of… I didn't want that sort of neon lit, rain-drenched, Akira-future thing. I wanted to keep it very "around the corner". And that was part of that. I was treating that scene as if what would you do if this happened to you.
Thank you to Leigh Whannell for his time, and Smith & Company for arranging the interview.
Leigh Whannell's Upgrade is now playing in theaters nationwide - you can find full theater listings on the film's official website. It's an awesome sci-fi action that I highly recommending seeing. Follow @LWhannell.