With all the Avengers and Star Wars fatigue, we get an unlikely hero who takes control of his own destiny. Leigh Whannell takes a break from horror films like Saw and Insidious to deliver high-octane, funny techno-thriller in Upgrade. We got a chance to talk with him about his film and the futuristic, utopian world he created, the origins of his love of horror and more!
Upgrade isn’t your first action-comedy film, but it is your first time stepping into sci-fi. There is a Black Mirror quality to it that I loved. What inspired you to make this film?
Leigh Whannell: My main inspirations for this film were the 80’s sci-fis I grew up with, specifically the first Terminator film. What I wanted to do with this film was make a film on a specific budget and with the creative freedom I could get from Blumhouse. I wanted to make something that felt much bigger than it was. The first Terminator did that if you study the film. It’s pretty lean and mean with low-budget, run-and-gun stuff. Every now and then, they would dish out some sci-fi, but they did it so judiciously, as opposed to the second film where it was sort of an extravaganza. The first film felt like a gritty noir film that just happened to have a killer robot. That was a huge inspiration because I knew that if I wanted to pull this off, I needed to do the same thing Terminator did.
Just sprinkle in some technology every now and then.
LW: Exactly! Sprinkle it in and spread it out. I knew there was going to be one money shot of the city so I managed to convince the producers to give me a helicopter for a day. They were trying to convince me to use stock footage, believe it or not.
Do they even have stock footage of a technologically advanced Melbourne?
LW: No, what they wanted me to do was to take footage of Melbourne and have the CG people go through it, but I finally convinced them to let me use a helicopter for a few hours and the movies gods smiled on me that day. Melbourne isn’t a city like Chicago with this tumultuous weather, but for some reason that day, there was a mist over Melbourne that gave it such beautiful light. What we were looking for was one big shot of the city that we could hand over to our CG guys, a company called Cutting Edge in Sydney. They were going to fill in the blanks. If you study Upgrade, we only show the city once.
Yeah, you only see the city shot once. Everything else is close-ups that look more or less like a typical neighborhood.
LW: Exactly. If you were watching a much bigger movie, like a Marvel or Christopher Nolan movie, those city establishing shots would be all over the place, but we had to be much more judicious.
You essentially created your own world in this film, especially with your very functional tech. What did you base your designs off of?
LW: We actually used nature as our jumping off point. You see a lot of things mimic nature in the film. There’s a hexagonal pattern that we use that’s almost like a beehive. Many of the wooden structures in the film use this pattern. Even in one of the houses, there is a literal cloud in there. The natural world was emphasized more than the tech.
In the city shot, I loved the juxtaposition of all of that greenery over the typical tech movie design of cold and sterile environments.
LW: Most sci-fi city movies go for that dystopian, Akira vision with heavy rains and neon everywhere. This film is set in a utopian future with everyone using solar power and having garden rooftops. I’m glad you noticed that!
I really enjoyed the concept of the arm guns, especially because it seemed very functional and not that far-fetched in our society.
LW: That felt very Cronenberg to me. I wanted the tech the be in the people. I didn’t want it to be something that you could hold, but something integrated. Like in the homes, the tables have screens in them and are like computers, but the police are still very analog using monitors. I feel like that’s how technology advances, in stages, and the cops in the world just don’t have the funding.
So how close do you think we are to being taken over by our technology?
LW: In some ways, we’re already there when you think about how much time we spend on our phone. I think I remember reading a study that says most people spend about 5 hours a day on their phone.
Oh, I am definitely one of those people.
LW: You’re not alone. I think these things already own us. This is literally the black mirror. In a few decades, it’ll seem antiquated to even hold things. It’ll be like how antiquated rotary phones and fax machines are to us. The sort of AI gone rogue thing I’m not so sure about, although Elon Musk seems to know something we don’t. I think we will willingly go into our destruction. The machine won’t take over, but we will willingly hand over the keys.
We will go quietly, as long as they provide convenience.
LW: That is always the way human beings go with this stuff. We design our own destruction.
Your storytelling roots seem to be in horror since you’ve created franchise films like Saw and Insidious. What draws you to the genre?
LW: I honestly don’t know. I guess it’s unexplainable. It’s like trying to explain why you love The Rolling Stones or Suicidal Tendencies. You don’t really know why you do. I’ve always been drawn to that feeling of being scared, and those movies that put you in that world. I think if movies didn’t exist, I would still love telling scary stories. I remember being 8 years old, and I haven’t even really seen a scary movie yet, but I would be trying to scare the shit out of my cousins with stories. It’s like an inbuilt instinct just to frighten.
Also, I love going to see those kinds of movies. I just saw a horror film a couple of weeks ago called Hereditary at the Overlook Film Festival. It’s a great new horror film. The horror fan in me loves that the film exists because I get to experience it purely as a viewer. Don’t know anything about how it is made and I don’t know anything about the director, so I get to just sit down and enjoy like a regular audience member. I want to give other people the same feeling I had when I went to see Hereditary.
I have to say how much I loved the AI, STEM. It channeled films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Moon, and even a little bit of KITT from Knight Rider.
LW: Also, JARVIS from Marvel. By the way, I would not be adverse to a KITT influence because I loved that show growing up. There is a little bit of that in there. When you tackle something like an AI voice, there’s only so many things you can do. Even if you try to avoid it, you’re going to evoke memories of KITT and HAL. I would always say things to Simon Maiden, the actor who voiced STEM, who was always on set. Logan would have an earpiece and Simon would be in the other room, and they would be doing the lines live, which is something I insisted on.
It really gave their interactions and reactions a much more natural feeling.
LW: It’s so organic, especially when they are interrupting each other. None of that would have been possible if we hadn’t of done it all live. I do remember saying to Simon sometimes to do it less HAL. Calibrating that was interesting because I would tell him to be a little more passive aggressive or to be a little more shitty without being openly shitty. Sometimes I’ll be driving in my car and my navigation will tell me I missed a turn, and it sounds like she’s getting shitty with me, and I wanted that exact hint of passive aggressive.
Just a little bit of an attitude.
LW: Absolutely. I always said to Simon to make sure STEM has a view on things and an attitude, especially when he becomes less subservient. Unlike HAL, who I felt was very neutral the entire time.