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Exclusive Interview: Leigh Whannell Talks ‘Upgrade’, Good Posture and ‘Aquaman’

Leigh Whannell Interview For Upgrade

Leigh Whannell might just be one of my favourite people to interview. Over the years we’ve sat down with the Jack of all trades (Whannell writes, directs and acts) to talk Insidious 3 and Cooties, and always find Leigh to be an excellent and engaging interview subject. For my third sit down with him we chat all about his sophomore directing project Upgrade.

Set within a near future, Upgrade explores the world of artificial intelligence. Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is a technophobe who finds himself implanted with a prototype chip, called stem, after he becomes a quadriplegic as the result of a viscous assault. His new ‘upgrade’ comes with some very unexpected side-effects, and soon Grey is on the hunt for the people that attacked him.

Leigh Whannell Interview For Upgrade

So Upgrade is quite different to what you’ve done before, why did you decide now was the time to branch out in another direction?

I’ve always loved all genres of film. I’ve been obsessed with movies since I could watch movies, ever since my dad brought home a big Beta Video player that my Grandad won in a golfing tournament. Since that moment, I’ve just loved movies, and not just horror movies. I’m definitely a fan of horror movies, but it’s just one genre that I love. I think in my mind, I was always going to do stuff in other genres. Horror is just sort of what I became known for. James Wan and I, after we did Saw, we were the ‘horror guys’, which was fine by us. We were happy to be the ‘anything guys’. We would have been happy to be the Police Academy guys! The Ernest Goes to Camp guys. As long as we were making movies we were happy.

I particularly love this sub-genre of sci-fi noir, if I can call it that? I think that science-fiction is a lot like horror, in that that term is sort of an umbrella that sits over many different sub-genres. Zombie films are horror movies, but they’re very different to haunted-house movies, or possession movies. I think sci-fi is a lot like that. One of the little strains of sci-fi that I love is that sci-fi noir. It’s kind of a, you couldn’t even called in a genre, it’s more of a micro-genre. I’m thinking of movies like Blade Runner, the first Terminator, Existenz. I’m a big fan of film-noir and detective stories, and I also love sci-fi, and for some reason when those two genres are combined there’s just a great mix for me. I love that dark grittiness mixed with sci-fi. I don’t love my sci-fi being shinny – Shinny space sci-fi with clean white walls. Star Trek is cool, but I like that cyberpunky gritty stuff. I guess that was something I always wanted to do.

Leigh Whannell Interview For Upgrade

I did like the how the technology, much like Looper, felt like tangible technology, it wasn’t too futuristic. Was that important to you that you still kept it quite grounded in a way?

Yeah I think so, for many reasons. Firstly, that is a style that I love. I love it when movies set in the future are still tactile. They don’t have to be explosions of CGI. The world doesn’t have to look so different to ours. I think it’s more striking when the world feels very familiar like when this room looks exactly like it does, but there’s one piece of technology in the room that is different. Because a room is a room. I don’t think couches are going change much in the next hundred years, but I think sometimes production designers on sci-fi films take a sledgehammer approach. Where they’re like – ‘Couches must be different! Let’s have something hanging over here made of steel’, it’s like no, a couch is a couch. That’s the approach that a film like Looper took, and that was what I wanted to do.

Secondly, I mean just practically, I think if the world of Upgrade was really out there, if you have flying hovercrafts in the air, and robots walking around, then STEM is less special. I mean STEM is just a voice. I flirted with the idea of even setting it in modern times. I was like maybe, there was a period I was talking to the producers and they were saying maybe it would work just set in our time. But I felt it would be best served if we gave it a little but of a nudge. Just that one nudge.

Thirdly, it really suited the budget. We didn’t have that much money to work with. We probably couldn’t have even done the hovercraft version if we’d wanted to. So all those different reasons when you mix them up, I think they result in that movie. I said to the cinematographer and production designer when we first started pre-production, I said – ‘imagine if Seven was set in the near future, thirty years from now’, as soon as I said that I saw the light go on in their eyes. That’s what we went for.

Leigh Whannell Interview For Upgrade

You also managed the near impossible which was you involved scenes of computer hacking that didn’t make my husband roll his eyes.

(Laughs) Oh you mean the one where it’s like ‘Can you get into the FBI mainframe?’ ‘Let me see’ [Leigh pretends to type on a keyboard for a few seconds] ‘We’re in!’ Oh that’s good. So what did he say about it?

Just that it wasn’t over the top, the characters kept mentioning the time it would take. Just even the bits and bobs of code that you saw were…

They were actual code that is used.

…They were believably, tangibly code that could be used.

It’s always funny when they do these hacker movies – and I’m sure this drives your husband crazy – and the layout of the technology they’re using is hyper-designed. Who has that computer?! Also, computers don’t make sound when you type! Even directors of integrity like David Fincher will add that when people type it goes [imitates chirping noise]. I remember that was a mantra for me on set in post-production. When we were doing the sound the sound guys bought in all these bleeps and boops and I was like ‘No! Computers don’t make noises!’ The only noise is fingers hitting keys, except maybe if you get a window that says wrong or something, and you get that bump. But that’s it. I’m glad that he appreciated that.

Leigh Whannell Interview For Upgrade

Where did you first see Logan Marshall-Green, and when did you know he was Grey?

I saw him in Prometheus and I was like ‘there’s a handsome guy on the Hollywood production line who looks like all the other angular male actors in Hollywood’, so that’s the first time I saw him. But the first time I really sat up and took notice of him was when I was at a wonderful film festival called The Overlook Festival, which is named after the hotel from The Shining. Which took place in Stanley Colorado, in the hotel that supposedly inspired Stephen King to write The Shining. That was the hotel he was staying in when he thought up The Shining. Somehow they capitalised on that. I had just done a film called Cooties and I went to the festival, I guess this was in 2013. What’s great about it is everyone’s there at the festival, at this remote hotel, so you can’t go anywhere. It’s not like a film festival in London where after the movie we duck off down the boozer. You’re all together in this one hotel. So I actually went and saw the movies at the festival and really participated in the festival. I sat down and watched this movie I’d never heard anything about before called The Invitation. I loved the movie so much. I just loved it. I think it’s a really underrated film, and I think Karyn Kusama is an amazing director. Logan was so good in that. He was so real and so grounded.

I wouldn’t say I knew that he was Grey right in that moment, but I remember thinking ‘God that guy’s a great actor’. Then a few years later we were banding around names. Of course the producers always start with the Willy Wonka golden ticket version. They’re always like ‘what about Christian Bale or Jake Gyllenhaal?’ and I’m like ‘we’re never going to get them.’ I’m always the pessimist whose like ‘well Jake Gyllenhaal is going to take like eight months to read the script’. At some point I remember suggesting Logan and it was after I suggested him I came to the realisation that he was perfect for the role. I just blurted this thing out and then realised later it was the right thing. I think it’s hard not to be romantic about movie making sometimes because in hindsight everything seems to have fallen in place perfectly. I think you assign meaning to it like ‘it was meant to be’, but Logan’s definitely that, I feel like it was meant to be.

I’m an OC girl myself, I saw him The OC first.

Oh, see I never saw that, so I totally missed that train. I had no idea he existed until he showed up in Prometheus.

Leigh Whannell Interview For Upgrade

I loved the physicality that he brought to the role, was that something that you discussed? Because as soon as STEM is in, Grey doesn’t walk quite right.

Yeah, the first time we talked on the phone. It was all very quick. I remember I suggested him and Jason Blum said, sitting right in front of me like you are now, ‘I’ll call his agent’. He picked up the phone, it was very Entourage, he was like ‘Hey, yeah it’s J. We’re thinking about Logan Marshall-Green’. I was just thinking is that how it really happens? Then eight hours later I was on the phone with him.

I said to him ‘so in this movie I want your body to be doing something different than your head.’ There was silence on the phone. I think whenever you’re not sitting right of somebody, silence is dangerous because you can’t see the expression on their face. I was thinking, ‘God is he thinking of not doing this movie?’ Then after a long pause, he said ‘cool’, which is very Logan, very low key. What I later discovered is that me saying that is what made him want to do the movie because he’s one of those actors. He’s a very well trained actor. He went to theatre school in New York. He’s one of those actor’s actors. He’s not in it for the parties. He’s very serious about it, and he loves a physical challenge.

As soon as he knew he had the role he started training. He didn’t have to wait for us to be in official pre-production, he just started emailing me videos. I would just get an email from him and it would be a video of him in his backyard walking around and I would give him feedback. So there was a real relationship between us. I would say ‘don’t robot dance. I don’t want you to look like C-3PO.’ I remember one note I gave him, I said ‘it’s less robot and more perfect. Just be perfect.’ Have you ever seen those people who are like really great at Yoga, and they stand a little bit better, and they just seem a little more perfect? Whereas you and I are all hunched over from sitting at desks. That’s what I said to Logan, I said ‘forget robots and think perfection’, because if you think about it, a computer chip wouldn’t want a human to be robotic. They would be perfect. He said later that he was in pain during the making of the film because it was painful for him to have good posture. His posture was usually so bad like me that it’s actually painful to be good for long periods of time. Our bodies are just so not used to it, it was like ‘What are you doing?! What happened to [hunches over] this?’ It was a great relationship between us and the talking about the movement, it was a real collaboration to get to that point.

Leigh Whannell Interview For Upgrade

The fight sequences are insane, how much fun were they to shoot?

Great fun to shoot. I mean we didn’t have a lot of time. I think if you’re doing a fight scene in a James Bond movie they have so much money, they probably take a week or two to shoot a fight scene. If they have a fight scene in this hotel room the director is ‘alright so Bond grabs him, throws him up against this window,’ and then they rehearse it for days and days before they shoot. We were the opposite. We came in and we had like four hours to shoot the whole scene.

It’s stressful, but what that does is, it gives it this real run and gun energy. What you saw in the movie, the energy on set wasn’t far off that. Whereas when you go and see a Bond movie, the fight scene looks slick, but the shooting of it was very slow. It’s like, ‘OK Daniel hit him, and then we’ll do it again and again and again’. That first fight scene where he comes to life and beats the shit out of that guy, I think we had three takes. It has its good and its bad qualities. The bad qualities is that its scary. If I only have three takes, what if there are no good ones? We’re fucked! But the positive of it is that there is a certain energy that comes from it.

Film sets are usually pretty slow, they’re pretty boring, nothing is happening. This set, especially during the fight scenes, the energy was just electric. It was like you were in the fight scene. My producer would be ‘Hurry up, hurry up!’ and the steady-cam operator AJ [Andrew AJ Johnson], he had worked on Mad Max: Fury Road. We’re talking about a professional guy who’s worked a bunch, he was our steady-cam operator so he had the skills to just grab the camera and go ‘I’ll get it, I’ll get it!’ It was just (laughs)… I think it’s shaved years off my life, but something was captured. Some of the scrapiness was captured.

Leigh Whannell Interview For Upgrade

You also manged to sneak Billy the puppet into the film.


Are you always going to have him in?

Yeah, I think I have to. James Wan and I have always snuck him in. He’s in every one of our films. (Laughs) I’m wondering if James has put a little cameo from Billy into Aquaman.

That would be cool.

He should have because, prior to this, he’s put one in every film in the background somewhere. I just like that. It’s a way to keep yourself amused on set. The Saw films, they were never really where that film took place, what city it was in. So I feel like, not to hop on the shared universe bandwagon, but I kinda feel like what if Upgrade and Saw took place in the same city?

So speaking of James Wan, you guys have both done phenomenally well… coming from Australia, it must be nice to come up and have a friend in the industry still…


He’s doing Aquaman and you have a small part in that…

(Laughs) Yeah, very small! But it was fun to shoot it because you get to see a movie of that scale.

Are you excited for him to share what he’s got up his sleeve?

Yeah totally. I’m a fan of him as a filmmaker, but this is what he’s always wanted. I’ve already experienced him doing something huge with Fast and Furious. That was really the first time I saw a movie of his that was so big and expensive. But I think with Fast and Furious,in a way, he was doing stenography. He was a hired gun, it was the seventh movie.

I think he has a lot more creative control in Aquaman. I think the film is a bigger reflection of him. I’m really excited about that. To see what James unleashed looks like (laughs) when he’s just off the chain.

Upgrade arrives in UK cinemas from Friday 31st of August 2018. Read our glowing five-star review here

Kat Hughes is a UK born film critic and interviewer who has a passion for horror films. An editor for THN, Kat is also a Rotten Tomatoes Approved Critic. She has bylines with Ghouls Magazine, Arrow Video, Film Stories, Certified Forgotten and FILMHOUNDS and has had essays published in home entertainment releases by Vinegar Syndrome and Second Sight. When not writing about horror, Kat hosts micro podcast Movies with Mummy along with her five-year-old daughter.


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