I spoke with Leigh Whannell recently about his new film Upgrade which he wrote and directed. His name might not jump right out at you, but if you are a horror fan, you know his work. If you’ve enjoyed the Saw or Insidious franchises, it’s thanks to him. Ok James Wan too. Leigh wrote and executive produced most of the films in those franchises and played Adam in the Saw films and Specs in the Insidious movies. His latest film, Upgrade, is a science fiction film that finds Grey (played by Logan Marshall-Green) paralyzed and his wife dead after a mugging. A tech billionaire offers Grey new technology called STEM that can make him move again and get revenge on those involved in his wife’s murder.
As a man best known for horror, I asked Leigh why he stepped into the genre of science fiction. Leigh Whannell, “I’m only known as the ‘Horror Guy’ because those are the films that got produced. I’ve actually written a lot of movies in a lot of genres. They just weren’t made (laughing). Many years ago I wrote a kids movie in the tradition of something like Labyrinth that I loved. I really wanted to make it and it was attached to an animation studio for a while and unfortunately it never got off the ground. I hope to still make it one day. The range of scripts I’ve written is outside the horror genre even though I love the horror genre. It seems natural to me to do something like Upgrade because it was always there waiting to be made.”
Even though it is a sci-fi flick, Upgrade does have the type of gore in it that you would expect from a guy involved with Saw. I was curious to see if the studio or producers wanted any of it toned down. “I had free rein. I was working with Blumhouse and Jason Blum. The great thing about them as a company and a culture is they let you make the film you want to make. Never once did they step into the edit room and say ‘Hey can you tone down this gore or hey let’s bring this down to a PG’. I love that about them. It’s a low-budget movie relative to other sci-fi movies and action movies and so I feel like you have to shout to be heard. When you don’t have as many resources as the kids down the street you gotta go for it. That was something early on I decided to do, was really go for it with the action.”
As a fan of science fiction movies myself, I could see a lot of other movies that might have inspired Upgrade. Leigh talked about that. “The movies that inspired me are the movies that I always loved. Films like the original Terminator, which is one of my favorite films. RoboCop, The Thing. Cronenberg movies like Videodrome and eXistenZ. These are movies that I love and are in the cauldron of my subconscious. Then as you write, you’re really expressing your subconscious. I feel like that’s what writing is. All those movies are in that stew, but what I’m careful of doing is not reference things too directly. I want to add something new to the conversation. If I’m going to do some type of body horror that may be reflective of Cronenberg, I want to add my own twists to it.”
As previously mentioned Leigh is best known for horror films and now science fiction so I asked him if there was a genre of film he’d like to do that would surprise people. “Yes! I think a kids movie. That’s weird to say, kids movie, is that even a genre? What would you call Labyrinth? Would you call that fantasy? Harry Potter, that’s fantasy right? Kids movie almost seems too simplistic a term. Let’s revise it to fantasy adventure film. I still love movies from my youth like Labyrinth, like The Dark Crystal, like Willow. I love these movies. What I really love is sword and sorcery stuff. Remember that whole VHS era of Conan, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Dragon Slayer, Krull? One could say that genre has already been exhausted in these modern times by things like Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings, but certainly a fantasy adventure aimed at younger audiences is something I’d love to do.”
I mentioned we are kind of getting a bit of that with things like Stranger Things and the IT remake. Leigh, “Yeah I would just love to go all out with practical effects and things like puppets. They are doing The Dark Crystal as a Netflix series and I spoke with a woman from Jim Henson Films and she said they are going all out with puppets. So maybe that ship has sailed and this is a problem when a script sits in the drawer for too long. Somebody else snatches the idea and goes and makes it (laughing). The kids movie I wrote years ago I always wanted to make with practical effects and puppets, but that requires money and money means time and development. And it means risk aversion so convincing a studio to make an original kids movie using puppets is a tough task.”
Upgrade is the second film he has directed, the first being Insidious: Chapter 3. I asked him if he saw himself directing more. “If I can. If I’m lucky enough to get the opportunity, yes, I have gotten the bug. I love it. I really like writing my own stuff to direct not so much interested in directing other people’s material. That obviously means I won’t be as prolific as I would be if I was just directing from a pile of scripts but I hope I get to make many more films.”
I said this film was very much 100% his baby. “Yes very much. I worked with James Wan for so long and I really felt like a team with him. We were a duo. I would write and he would direct so it was an interesting moment when he kind of went off into this tent pole world and started making these huge movies. I had to recalibrate what I wanted to do. Who are you if you aren’t working with James? What’s your identity as a filmmaker? I think a lot of my identity was wrapped up in being one half of that team. We had a great dynamic. We liked doing weird and wacky stuff. When Upgrade came around I said ‘This is your statement. This is really you.’ Insidious 3 which I had previously directed was part of a franchise. I had to hew pretty close to the world that James had directed (in the previous films). I tried to bring my own thing to it, but I couldn’t go wildly off course or the producers would have taken issue. With this I was starting from scratch. No one knows this world so this is really me. This is me discovering my directing style.”
I really enjoyed Upgrade and it reminded me of the genre movies I would have rented at the video store growing up. To me, that’s a compliment. Leigh, “Yes it takes you back to those movies you would rent. I kind of exactly wanted to do that. If you said to me ‘This reminded me of going to the video store as a kid and getting Timecop or something’ I certainly wouldn’t take that as a put down! I was going for that feeling. I wanted to make a modern version of those scrappy sci-fi films that we used to watch. There’s kind of a clean aesthetic that’s come along in the age of CGI because you can clean everything up. I wanted to go back to the time when sci-fi movies were a little bit dirtier, a little bit more run & gun, a little less perfect. There was a wild creativity that would fuel the movies. I tried to capture that.”
If you aren’t familiar with Leigh Whannell beyond his films, he is Australian and went to Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s prestigious Media Arts course which is where he first met director James Wan. One of his first gigs was as a TV host discussing movies, think something like we’d see on MTV in the late 1990s. I asked him how he went from Australian TV host to a god of horror films. “When I was doing Recovery, which is the TV show you mentioned, I was the show’s film reviewer. I was the resident film critic. I was basically talking about movies, which I loved, I was in film school, I was 19 years old. It allowed me to interview people like John Woo, Jackie Chan, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Jackson, Tim Burton. The list went on and on. I was having fun doing it. I was talking to all my heroes. I remember thinking at that time, in that typical, ungrateful, shithead way 19 year olds have, ‘I don’t want to interview Tim Burton, I want to be Tim Burton’. I loved movies and I was talking about them, but there was this desire to take that further. When Recovery ended, I drifted around from job to job. I went through that first dot.com boom in the late 90s/early 2000s when they hadn’t discovered yet that users should provide the content. I had a job at one of those in Australia. I was kicking around and I was still friends with James Wan. We were drifting through that post college feeling where you step out of academia and realize the world is a cold and cruel place. Real world alert! The cushioning of student life is gone. Once we drifted through that world for a few years we finally got so frustrated and decided that the only way to make a film was to pay for it yourself. We didn’t want someone else to cut us a check, we just thought ‘What is the cheapest thing we can do?’ Right at that moment, no budget films were having a resurgence. We looked to those films as an inspiration. The cheapest thing we can do is a couple of actors in one space. We kind of had to reverse engineer the movie into those restraints. We spent a long time coming up with a movie revolving around two people in one space. James called me one day with this idea of two guys chained up in this room and we started talking about it. It was apparent pretty quickly that this was the idea we were excited about. I remember hanging up the phone and thinking about it and I took out my diary and wrote ‘Saw’ with dripping blood off the font. I don’t know why I wrote that. That was the film we made. That was the journey from TV host to filmmaker, that decision to do something ourselves.
“Ironically, the decision to pay for it ourselves was the first time anyone else was interested. The other scripts we had written that we needed money for, no one cared about. It wasn’t until we were militant about doing it ourselves that suddenly people were looking over the fence saying ‘What are you doing over there? Can I get involved?’ and I think there’s a lesson in that. Any film student that asks me for advice, I always tell them ‘Just grab an iPhone or a camera and just start shooting your film’. Technology has democratized filmmaking. When I was at film school, none of that was available. If you wanted to make a film in the mid 90s, you had to buy film stock. I drove a 2 door Ford Escort for years when I was that age that didn’t have working brakes. It was literally a death trap. The fact that I’m still alive talking to you is a miracle. I didn’t have the money to buy 16 mm or 35 mm film. Today, in 2018, a film student can pick up their phone and shoot something, producing an image that looks pretty crystal clear. If I was a film student right now, I would be making stuff constantly. I wanted to do that, but couldn’t.”
With movies like Saw and Insidious, Leigh seems to have been ahead of the curve or maybe even created the curve when it comes to horror films. I asked him what the next big thing in horror films will be. “If I knew what that was, I would do it (laughing). I would quickly rush out and be the first one out of the gate. I’m just as curious as you about the next evolution of horror. I do take a lot of pride in the fact that the genre seems to be moving into a socially conscious direction with films like Get Out. I do think horror is a great genre for metaphor. You can make a film about the Vietnam War and dress it up in zombie movie clothing and people can be none the wiser. You smuggle a message into this straight up genre movie. What genre does that better than horror? There’s a lot of room and scope to play with stuff. I do hope that the success of films like Get Out pushes horror in that direction. I’d love to contribute. I’m working on a horror movie now, kind of a psychological horror film, meaning not supernatural, no ghosts or demons, but certainly, even in the early stages, there are real life things and social issues that I can see reflective in the movie. That’s not necessarily because I’m following a trend, it just seems to be where the film wants to go. The metaphors just seem to present themselves easily in horror because you take a literal boogeyman to stand in for a societal boogeyman. The Purge has done it. Jason Blum is very smart about sensing where those winds are going.”
Upgrade is in theaters June 1st.