By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Report: Leigh Whannell on Writing and Directing Upgrade

Fourteen years have passed since I interviewed Leigh Whannell and his filmmaking partner James Wan for their debut feature, Saw. They were a delight then, and over time I watched their success compound as their little indie horror became a franchise, followed by another horror franchise, the Insidious series. Horror is a great genre, especially when the movies are made efficiently and exuberantly. So when I heard Whannell had written and directed a new film, Upgrade, I quickly queued up and was not disappointed. Wildly creative and wickedly funny, Upgrade marks a bold new direction for creator Whannell and a star-making turn for leading man Logan Marshall-Green, who plays Grey Trace, a low-tech, old school car mechanic whose back is broken when he fails to prevent his wife from being murdered by mysterious thugs. Set in the not-too-distant-future, Upgrade follows the quadriplegic Grey as he adjusts to a surgical implant called STEM, a tiny artificial intelligence device that interprets his brain waves and restores movement to his body. Once again mobile, Grey sets out to avenge his wife, and finds in his STEM buddy a digital enabler that becomes increasingly overenthusiastic. Cinematographer Stefan Duscio’s evocative sci-fi-noir images ratchet up the suspense in a tale of automation gone berserk.

When Whannell passed through Chicago years ago, he wrote the first act of the first draft of the Upgrade screenplay, inspired by the city’s noir vibe. He’s as much fun as he was when Saw opened, perhaps more. He seems to have come into his own.

In the U.S. and other developed countries, our cultural postwar fears about automation arose out of our worries about becoming outmoded, of losing out to machines that could one day take over our jobs. In Upgrade, you tap into a newer, deeper strain of that anxiety, one where we fear that the machines we have come to love and rely on are taking over us. Absolutely! And I think the automation thing has already happened. If you look at the manufacturing base of this country, a lot of robots are building cars now. It’s no longer an all-human assembly line, and there’s lot of anger and resentment about that, but I think we are creating this new anxiety ourselves. We often are the architects of our own destruction, aren’t we? We split the atom, and then we built a nuclear bomb. We did create a technology with this forward momentum without necessarily asking why we’re creating it, or what it’s leading to.

I can feel this general hum of anxiety in modern life about our devices. I mean, they own us! I was on a plane the other day, and I looked around and every single person was staring at their phones; it was like I was living in an episode of “Black Mirror”! And that point you’re making about when the tech is in us: it’s no longer going to be something we’re holding. How much of our humanity are we going to give to this tech? How much are we going to let it do for us? So yes, I wanted to infuse the film with those anxieties.

Thanks to A.I., in the film Grey regains the use of his limbs—which of course is an important, desirable thing. But then he starts getting into his new capabilities, as he learns how to work this gadget implanted in him, and soon that devolves into paranoia over digital surveillance. Was there any one particular digital device out there today that inspired you? It’s less about one single digital device than it is about the digital prison that we’re building for ourselves. Information can’t be seen or grabbed, it’s just out there. And what’s even weirder is to watch the younger generation come up in this post-privacy world, where they actually don’t care. In fact, their goal is to put everything out there in this digital realm. They want to be an open book: “I’m all online.” I remember seeing a photo of Mark Zuckerberg where there’s a little piece of black tape over the camera on his computer, and immediately I thought, “Uh, what does he know that I don’t?” Every time there’s a giant hack, like in the last election, it creates anxiety. Upgrade is not about one particular piece of technology, like iPhones. I was trying to tap into the fears out there, because that would make the best movie.

It’s amusing when analog gets in the way of digital in that highway chase scene. And that brings me to your judicious use of CGI, which is admirable. You did not go overboard. No, we only used it when we absolutely had to, when practical would not suffice.

So, those in-camera effects: a lot of how Grey moves certainly has to do with how good an actor Logan is, and his physical prowess and muscular control. Please take a fight scene, any one you want, and tell how you shot it. Did you speed up the camera? Slow down the camera? What’s in-camera, or practical effects, and what, if any, are computer effects? In the first big fight scene in the attacker’s house, where Grey cuts him: that is all practical, no CGI. First you have Logan; as you say, he is a special effect unto himself. He trained for months to move in this way that felt very fluid, and also to pull off that delightful effect of his head being surprised over what his body is doing. What we added to that was just in-camera stuff; nothing was done in post. We strapped an iPhone to Logan’s body, under his clothes, and the camera locks to the phone, and so the Steadicam operator holds this camera housing and the camera unit that sits in it will move wherever Logan moves. Plus, good old-fashioned wire rigs. Oh, sorry! There was one element of CGI, where we were painting out wires. For instance, when he leaps up off the floor, we did have to use wires. But again, it speaks to that thing where we only used CGI when it was absolutely necessary, because we couldn’t have wires in the shot.

You must have saved a bundle. I know! Necessity is the mother of invention, right? We did not have the schedule or the money to overthink this stuff, and we had to come up with a way to make things unique, without relying on a giant post-production budget.

What was your shooting schedule? The film was shot in thirty-two days. I remember we had two nights for the car chase. We shut down a section of freeway in Melbourne—not a big section, either, but a really short section, and I kept saying to Kylie [Du Fresne] the producer, “Two nights is not enough, we need an extra night.” And she would say, “Uh, let’s see how we go”—which means “no” in producer talk. Yet we managed to get it all in there, and full credit to the crew, because the crew in Australia were real top-shelf people. That’s the good thing about Australians: the best crew members, the best grips and gaffers and camera people, work on really big movies, big Hollywood movies, but those Hollywood movies aren’t always shooting in Australia. Between jobs they’ll go do your independent movie. So you end up getting a champagne crew for a beer budget.

Can you talk about budget, net or gross? Well, in Australia, once we did all the rebates and stuff, the film came out to about eight or nine million dollars, Australian.

So, that’s your out-of-pocket, eight or nine million? Yeah, about five million dollars, American, but that’s taking into account the exchange rate, the tax rate rebate, and the fact that I’m Australian. Most movies in Australia are funded by the government, so if you’re Australian, you can actually get some government money. I don’t believe we could have shot this film in Los Angeles; we wouldn’t have been able to do it, but we could pull it off in Australia.

Did you storyboard the complicated sequence where Grey, rapidly losing power, heads toward the hacker’s den? By the way, the “J. Wan” on the doorbell? Nice touch. And did you catch where the Jigsaw puppet was spray-painted on one of the walls? That’s our little “Hitchcock moment,” James and I. We always put a little Jigsaw puppet somewhere in the movie as an Easter egg.

Grey is running out of time, and by the time he gets to the hallway leading to the hacker’s door, he’s reduced to crawling. How did you stage that, where the camera seems to careen and tilt at these crazy Expressionist angles? It’s the same thing; it’s all in-camera. We just put the phone on Logan, and the camera moves with Logan. And to answer your storyboarding question, we did a storyboard only for the action set pieces, like that one. You can have an idea of what you want to do, but the rhythm is actually discovered in editing. The edit room is where I found a sort of metronome; I realized that the sequence [as storyboarded] was more segmented, and that I wanted to keep cross-cutting, between Logan and the men coming up the stairs, and the men in the elevator. I wanted it to feel like a clock, a clock that keeps ticking.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon