Interview: Upgrade Writer-director Leigh Whannell

UpgradePosterLeigh Whannell, Corbett TuckWriter-director Leigh Whannell (co-creator of the Saw and Insidious series) takes a side step from the torture and supernatural horror genres with his latest film, Upgrade–an homage to the gritty sci-fi action films of the ’80s the filmmaker grew up on in Australia.

Upgrade follows Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), a hands-on DIY guy living uncomfortably in a near-future world of “smart everything” digital “helpers.” But when a tragic attack leaves Grey paralyzed from the neck down, he agrees to the implantation of new chip technology that acts as a bridge to let him move his body again.

The problems start when the chip’s AI starts to make its own decisions and overrides Grey’s  control–giving Marshall-Green the opportunity to do some impressive body acting and the film a chance to show off high-energy fight scenes. The result is a taut, entertaining Terminator-style helping of cyber-techno fears and good ol’ ultra-violence action.

I sat down with Whannell in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk about Upgrade, but also Chicago’s film history, his writing process, and the role of the subconscious in David Lynchian dream-logic creativity.

Upgrade opens today, June 1, in theaters everywhere.


Do you get to Chicago often?

Leigh Whannell: I wish I did. Before I had kids, I used to do this thing where I would fly to a random city when I was a script and just book a hotel room, and I would just stay in the hotel room all day writing and then go out at night. And the first draft of this script for Upgrade was written here in Chicago. I was here for a week staying at a hotel on this street [Michigan Avenue].

And I loved it. I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s a combo of things. Chicago kind of reminds me of Melbourne, where I’m from. And also, that classic thing where it feels like a more approachable New York City. It feels like New York, but you don’t have that constant feeling that everyone is thinking, “Get the fuck out of my way,” the way they do in New York.

But also, in a weird way I kind of grew up with the city, because growing up in the ‘80s watching so many seminal films set in Chicago. So, in a weird way coming here is like this nostalgic trip, like I’m coming home or something.

untouchablesunionstationWhenever I’m in Union Station’s Great Hall and I see those stairs, I think…

Untouchables! I have the same thought when I look down [LaSalle] street that ends at the Board of Trade, the final shot! And right now [in an office overlooking Michigan and the Chicago River], it’s like I’m the dad in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.

Every film shot in Chicago uses this corner.

It is the Eiffel Tower of Chicago! Countless movies that I love, like The Fugitive, that great sequence. It’s an interesting feeling to be like somewhere that you’ve never been before, yet you feel weirdly familiar with it.

Before you go to a hotel to write, how much of an outline or plan do you have for a script?

Usually what I do is, I have an idea for something, and most ideas I come up with, I think about them for a day and realize they’re terrible and file them away. The ones that stick are the ones that I can’t stop thinking about them.

If after a week I’m still kind of obsessing on it, then I know I’m onto a good thing. That was the case with Upgrade. I’ll kind of start planning it out and get it to the what I call the “notepad stage,” where you’re just writing all the ideas out in a notebook. It’s actually my favorite stage of screen-writing. Once I get to the end of that, and I can sort of see the rough outline of the movie in those notes, then I would book the hotel. I guess the idea is to sequester myself away and write, write, write, write.

upgrade_logan_marshall-green_courtesy_bh_tiltThe nice thing is I’ll go out walking around the city at night. Usually whenever I’m writing a film or make a soundtrack before I start writing; download a bunch of tracks that I feel are evocative of whatever I’m writing about and I’ll just be constantly listening to it. When I’m writing I want to try and live in the movie or like watch the movie in my mind.

I remember walking around Chicago the middle of winter, and I had the headphones in and be walking along, Chicago is such a great Gothic city, and I remember one night I was walking along a street with the elevated train was overhead and steam coming out of the street grates, and it just couldn’t have been more of a noir movie set, especially to my Australian eyes. I was listening to different pieces from the Zodiac soundtrack. So walking down those Chicago streets and listening to that music, I was already in the movie.

I’ll also take photos of a bunch of different things. I think Melbourne is the closest Australian City to Chicago in terms of feel. Australia is a very sunny place, not exactly the type of place that suggests noir. But at least for Australia, Melbourne is the grayest, coldest city; it has these old Victorian buildings. It’s not really that cold and grey at all, but compared to the rest of Australia it is. If you watch Upgrade, I was trying to make Melbourne look like Chicago with a lot of those wide shots of the city—I really had Chicago in mind.

You work in genre a lot, and this film has that feel of an ‘80s independent-spirited science-fiction film noir. When you get the initial notion for a film like Upgrade, do you have a specific plot or thematic idea or do you just kind of grab onto more of a visceral, visual, or tonal feeling?

I usually start with the concept; that’s usually the first thing that comes in. Then once you have a concept you can’t stop thinking about, you figure out what the movie is. In a lot of ways, it tells you what it wants to be like. It’s like making a Lego wall; each brick you add creates a picture.

upgrade-movie-logan-marshall-green-2-600x400With this movie I started off with the idea of quadriplegic who has had an operation where the computer chip was installed and this person was now able to move. And then that suggests the idea of what if the computer chip said, “well I’m in control of everything from the neck down. So really I’m in charge of more than you are.”

And all of a sudden that just this Pandora’s Box of movie possibilities because I had this picture in my mind of somebody watching their body do something and going, “What?!”

Each new idea blends into 10 little ideas, and then each one of those 10 little ideas, in the best case, scenario creates 10 more. It sort of jellyfishes out into this thing that you hope is a movie. Now that I’m watching this guy who’s a head on a stick watching himself do things, I’m applying that to fight scenes and thinking, “Okay what if you were watching yourself murder somebody?” Or what if what if you were watching yourself torture somebody and you didn’t agree with what you were doing but you couldn’t actually do anything about it.

Everything starts wrapping itself around the notion in that notepad stage, where you’re like, “Okay now the story needs a reason to exist. What’s the forward momentum?” So that’s a fun process when it works.

IMDB tags Upgrade as “body horror.”

That ultimately is the horror part of it, that you are just along for the ride. I mean in a lot of ways it’s the ultimate nightmare isn’t it? I always think of the ending of Being John Malkovich. That idea that that you were sitting inside of your own body but not able to dictate what you were saying or doing. For me that’s the ultimate nightmare, the loss of control.

upgrade-movie-2018-image3_origI guess this happens with people who get sick are starting to lose motor function. I’ve known people in my life who were suffering from MS or ALS, and that loss of control to any human being is tragic, it’s a terrifying thing to face. So that’s the body horror element. But when you make a movie you have an idea of what it is but then when the audience sees it they really decide.

Even when we made the first Saw movie, James Wan and I were pretty sure we’d made like a locked-room thriller. And then when the movie got released the audience was like, “No this is a visceral gory horror movie.” And it’s almost like we didn’t even realize that the gore elements of the film—which in the original were not frequent, very small. But for some reason, the audience grabbed onto them.

I’ve noticed with Upgrade that some of the Cronenberg, body-horror influences like guns inside arms, people grab onto that. Maybe it’s visceral, and the visceral is the first thing that’s going to arrest someone’s attention. I feel like in this case other people are telling me that the film is body horror, rather than me saying, “This is what I’m doing.”

You look at Cronenberg’s films from the ‘70s and ‘80s, where there are so many strong, reoccurring themes and fears, and wonder how much he knew upfront at the time what he was pouring out again and again in those films, or did he only see the pattern later, when looking back at his body of work, so to speak?

Well, without knowing him or reading an interview with him, my guess would be that he just spewed it out. That that he kept returning to his own neuroses and anxiety, and it’s in hindsight that you’re able to do an autopsy and say, “Oh, okay.”

upgrade-movie-logan-marshall-green-4-600x400I’ve just recently noticed with me an interesting first-hand example. Every film I’ve written involves some kind of illness. Hospitals are always there, there’s either a terminal illness or some condition. And that was not by design.

In the first Saw film, the guy has cancer and is in this hospital, and then in Insidious he’s in a coma, and this film has plenty of hospital scenes. I think that I have this really unconscious fear of hospitals and sickness, more than a fear of death. Because death is just the lights going out.

Before I wrote the first Saw movie, in my early to mid 20s, I was sick for a while. I was suffering anxiety, but I didn’t know it—in my early 20s I didn’t know anxiety was even a thing. All I knew was my heart was racing and I was having migraines and I’d be in these really weird situations where I would start feeling dizzy. It was really messing me up because that time of year life is supposed to be when you’re at your healthiest.

I remember going to a hospital and I never even been in a hospital before. Now I’m sitting in one and getting a CAT scan and that really bled into my work. I think that that experience really has become something that is informed my writing. It’s there. Even in films that I’m writing right now, I can see it coming back. It’s always coming back, this fear of hospitals and fear of sickness.

When you get into a creative space and you’re heads-down, working away and get in the zone or in a fugue state, you’re not entirely in control of your own thoughts and creativity. If you’re thinking consciously, “I need a powerful scene or idea; I need something really emotional here,” your mind reaches back onto that shelf of your subconscious and says, “Okay, here’s our number one fear, or thing that bothers us, or is really intense for us.”

leigh-whannell-upgrade-movie-600x400I like that expression, “the fugue state,” because I really do love approaching this stuff—creating, writing—from an unconscious state. The best-case scenario for me would be if I could write the film while I was asleep; just pour out pure unconscious “bleeaah.”

And I read this book by David Lynch, and he’s all into transcendental meditation. His big thing with creativity is that you have to plumb your subconscious, because all your ideas and all your fears and anxieties are there. I think that really obviously really works for him because his films do follow this dream logic. They feel very sub-conscious, there’s nothing linear. I love reaching into that muck. If we picture our subconscious like a swamp, I love getting in there and grabbing stuff and pulling it out.

And that term “fugue state” is great—don’t apply a formula to it, just let it all go. The first draft of a script, a lot of people say make it the “vomit” draft. I don’t think, I just write. And then the rewriting is analysis, where you dissect and go, “Well, that was terrible.” But if I could really achieve that fugue state for the first draft of a script, I would love it.

It really helps your films stand out from the weekly parade of artificial “date-night” horror or action films pre-planned and plugged in to appeal to teenagers on date night. Under their genre trappings, your films all feel very personal. You pull out and tap into things that don’t feel pre-tested.

updateThat’s definitely the case with those films. I just saw the film Hereditary recently at the Overlook horror film festival in New Orleans—Upgrade was playing there. Everybody’s talking about Hereditary, and it’s a great horror film. It feels very much like what you’re saying; it feels like the writer’s worst fears just kind of vomited out onto the paper.

It’s not market-tested, it doesn’t follow any sort of streamlined logic, it’s not wrapped up with a bow. One plus two does not equal three in this movie. It feels so primal, even though you know that it took time to make it, and obviously he hasn’t shot the first draft, it feels like that; it feels like a dream. So that’s definitely what I try to do.

In regards to David Lynch, the fun thing is taking that unconscious stuff and squashing it into the box of a story. Someone like David Lynch doesn’t bother with that part—he just presents you with the dream, and you’ll figure it out later. Whereas I can’t help but put it in a story. I guess it’s the movies I grew up with, but I do love telling a story. Maybe one day I’ll have the guts to make a total dream-logic Lynchian film that people have to figure out for themselves, but right now I like telling stories.

Last summer’s Twin Peaks revival had a pretty big story box. There was a lot of room in that box.

Yeah, it ended up just being The Story of Dougie. [laughs] I was like, “Wow, this Dougie thing is really going all the way to the end of the river.”

I love both kinds of work. I like the idea of a tightly structured story with a logic to the story that has to be hammered out. But I also love when things between the story points are poured from dreams.

913ulmgI think you’ve just nailed exactly what I love about movies; when you said that you take a tightly structured story and then within that within the gaps of that story you have have fun and do something that’s different.

For instance, with David Lynch, my favorite stuff of his—and I’m a big Lynch fan—is when you feel some of those more commercial parameters around him. Like in the first season of Twin Peaks; it still has all the Lynchian stuff, and it’s still very original and quirky but it also tells this story that you can lock onto and identify with. I love Lynch when those conditions are imposed again. When he’s given free rein to go crazy, it’s not as interesting to me as when the screws are on; The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks.

So I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head for me when it comes to what I love, which is creative filmmakers who are forced to work within the box. I love that. And somehow, they make that box interesting. Whereas when they’re completely off the chain… okay, it’s cool, but… [laughs]

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