Interview Writer/ Director Leigh Whannell talks Upgrade

DIY caught up with Whannell in London to chat about the making of the film and quite how he achieved the insane fight scenes in the movie.

Already in DIY’s top 5 films of 2018 so far, Upgrade is a down and dirty sci-fi actioner from writer/director Leigh Whannell, best known for penning and starring in the original (and still the best) Saw movie as well as spooky ghost flick Insidious. 

In Upgrade Logan Marshall-Green stars as Grey Trace, a mechanic in the near-future who is left paralysed after a brutal attack in which his wife is killed. Grey is offered the chance of a normal life when he is approached by an eccentric billionaire inventor who has the ‘cure’ for his paralysis -an experimental implant called STEM. With STEM inside him, Grey embarks on a campaign to avenge his wife and soon discovers that STEM provides him with amazing physical abilities.

DIY caught up with Whannell in London a few hours before Upgrade premiered at Arrow Films FrightFest to chat about the making of the film and quite how he achieved the insane fight scenes in the movie.

How did you come up with the concept for this?
Like most ideas that I have, it just popped into my head randomly. I wish I had a method for coming up with ideas, like if I sit in this particular spot in my house at this particular time of day that’s when ideas are best. But unfortunately film ideas they don’t have any rhyme or reason they just sort of pop into my head at the most random times. I’ll sit there with my notepad trying to think of something for hours and nothing will come and then two days later I’ll be in the shower and it’s like: “Bang here’s an idea!” It’s those light-bulb moments, that’s the way it’s always worked for me and I wish it wasn’t so random. It was that way with Upgrade, I remember I was sitting in my backyard and I just had this vision of a quadriplegic person being controlled by a computer. So from there I kind of built a movie around that image, it wasn’t like the story popped into my head fully formed. I always remember that quote from J.K. Rowling, I remember reading an interview with her where she was talking about how she came up with Harry Potter - which is a question I’m sure she’s had to answer hundreds, if not thousands, of times - but I remember she said in the interview that she was on a train and the idea came to her fully formed, the whole story. This was not like that! From having that idea to finishing the first draft was a long time. So figuring out: “Alright sure, he’s a quadriplegic who’s being controlled by a computer but what’s the plot of the movie?” [laughs]. I sort of had to put those pieces together slowly.

I was reminded of Ash in Evil Dead 2 being controlled by his possessed hand, because obviously there’s a point in the film when STEM takes over control of Grey’s body…
In a movie where you don’t have much money the actor is the special effect. A big inspiration for me was the first Terminator film. I love that first Terminator film because it’s really cheap and down and dirty. The film is great but it doesn’t have a huge budget, the special effect of the movie is Arnold Schwarzenegger moving like a robot. You just believe that he’s a robot. Later in the film they show you under his skin but really it’s prosthetic effects and that’s what I wanted to do. In a film like Iron Man he’s wearing a suit and it’s kind of visually all the work is done for you whereas with this movie I had to find an actor that could move in that way so that Evil Dead 2 thing of being controlled by someone else, if the actor doesn’t sell that the audience won’t think that there’s something special about the movie. 

Essentially Logan is talking to himself for most of the movie but I understand you had Simon Maiden who is the voice of STEM on set reading the lines. How important was it for Logan to have him there?
I think it was more important to me. I think Logan probably would have put up with whatever I threw at him. I think he preferred to bounce off a real person but if I had said to him: “Listen we’re  just gonna have this assistant director read STEM’s lines,” he probably would have been like: “Oh okay..” but it was actually really important to me that they have this real time rapport the way two actors would. The sound guy had to figure out a way to put an earpiece in Logan and what we ended up doing was making the earpiece a prop in the movie because we knew that we would see it. The problem is as soon as you put an earpiece in an actors ear you’re going to see it on camera so I just worked it into the script and said: “Okay so in the future phones are these earpieces.” I guess that’s an example of how sometimes creativity comes from practical situations that you’re dealing with. 

You spoke about practical effects and the stunts in this are insane. You’ve got a great stunt coordinator and Logan is obviously more that capable of dealing with the physicality of the role, but how did you come up with the camera-effects for the fight scenes? They’re genuinely like nothing we’ve seen before which must be hard to achieve these days.
It is hard, especially if we consider the history of movies with fight scenes and stunts because this is something that goes back a long way through all the James Bond movies back to like old Western movies. Some cowboy punching someone through a window, it’s something that’s been in movies for a long time so coming up with something new is really difficult, especially if you don’t have a lot of money. So how we arrived at the technique that we used to shoot the fight scenes is we looked at the script first, I said to the cinematographer and the stunt team: “I want these fight scenes to look different. How would a computer fight?” There’s none of that sort of loose energy of a human being it’s more like short, sharp. A computer always takes the path of least resistance. I wanted to apply that logic to the fights so we all sat down and talked about how a computer would want the fight to be over as quickly as possible. I remember Chris Anderson the stunt coordinator said: “Why don’t we come up with fight scenes where the hits are in places that would stop the fight really quickly.” If you watch a movie like The Raid the fights go on for a long time, we wanted something where it was like if you had to kill someone with one hit or put them down on the ground where would you hit? And a lot of the stunt team were trained martial arts guys so they actually knew that. So we built a lot of fight scenes around this idea of these short hits and once we had that I realised I wanted to shoot it in a similar short, sharp, very stilted way and that’s when Stefan Duscio the cinematographer came at me and said: “You know a year a go I did this commercial and we did this thing where we digitally locked the camera to the actor so that wherever the actor moves the camera moves with them.” He showed me on his phone, he picked up his phone and he showed me the footage from the commercial and I just remember thinking: “That’s it.” 

So how do you lock the camera to the actor?
[Laughs] I feel like I’m the magician revealing where the rabbit comes from but it’s really simple. You take a phone like this [picks up DIY’s mobile] and we strapped it to Logan under his clothes and the camera locks to an app on the phone. When Logan does these movements the camera, which sits within this kind of housing on a gimbal, will move with him, it just puts the whole thing off kilter.

It is so effective…
It’s funny because it’s not just the camera movements that sell it, it’s actually the way the actors are moving, the way Logan moves in this perfect way that feels off. So I think that does a lot of the work.

Speaking of Logan, he is the film in so many ways. How did you come to cast him in the role of Grey?
Well I saw him in a film called The Invitation that I really loved and I thought he was really great in it. And when it came time to make this a couple of years after I saw The Invitation and the producers were throwing out all sorts of names, big actors. They were talking about Jake Gyllenhaal and Christian Bale and all these people. We all knew it was a long shot to get such a big name actor for the film but that’s just the ways producers minds work, they want to go for the big names. Then we also had a secondary list of actors that were just great actors, they weren’t necessarily household names but I just remember thinking, Logan Marshall-Green. I saw him in The Invitation, I know he’s a great actor, it was a real gamble I didn’t know he’d be so good in the role I just kind of took a chance and we offered it to him and he said yes. But I think he really makes the film, without him we would’ve been screwed. 

You filmed in your hometown of Melbourne, why was it the perfect place to shoot the near future of Upgrade?
I just think there’s something about Melbourne, it’s kind of gritty and urban, it has a lot of great alleyways and lane-ways and it has these old buildings. There’s this great urban sensibility to it mixed with this forward looking architecture. A lot of the buildings are very adventurous architecturally, there’s that mix which suits the film very much. I think the producers wanted to shoot the film in Australia for financial reasons, they wanted to take advantage of the tax breaks and they wanted to take advantage of the fact that I was Australian which means you can get a lot of subsidies from the government. Once we decided to shoot in Australia I was very firm about shooting in Melbourne. I think Melbourne is the only city in Australia that really suits this movie, I think Sydney’s too sunny and happy, it’s too iconic.

Melbourne’s kind of a bit more like Britain weather-wise…
Yeah not just weather-wise but architecture-wise, I think the vibe if you went there, there is a very European vibe and a very good English vibe to the city the way it’s laid out and the architecture. Sydney’s just very iconic and the way it’s based around the water and it’s very beautiful, I don’t think it would’ve suited this movie so I was very firm on shooting in Melbourne and I’m very glad that we did because a lot of the locations we weren’t using studios, we weren’t using sound stages we were using abandoned buildings in Melbourne. A lot of times you wouldn’t have to make them up, they were that decrepit. Do you remember the sequence where he goes into the hackers loft and he staggers up the stairs? See that building looks like that! Of course we added a bit of our own production design, all of the wires and all the glow sticks on the floor. We gave it a vibe but that’s what the building felt like and I think that Melbourne is still untouched in that way, any abandoned building in Sydney gets snapped up by real estate developers - I’m sure it’s the same here - Melbourne still has that feeling where you walk down the street and you feel like a bunch of formally thriving factories that have just been left and it’s great for filmmakers.

You have car chases, were they cool with you closing off roads and stuff?
No not really! [laughs]. It’s funny because I live in Los Angeles and L.A. is so used to it: “Oh another freeway shut down? It must be Friday!” It’s very common to drive through L.A. and see a street blocked off because of a movie, Melbourne not so much. I remember they gave us one section of freeway that was quite short so what you have to do is you shoot the cars going down the road but after 40 seconds of driving it’s time to turn around and go back to the start! I was always worried people were gonna think it was that Road Runner cartoon where the same background has been going past [laughs]. All the things you think you’re going to get spotted for in a movie usually if the audience is in it they don’t notice. We had the police block the road off for us and they were very nice and very helpful but according to my brother there was some talk-back radio chatter about it with disgruntled citizens of Melbourne:
[adopts radio DJ voice]: “These Hollywood movies come to town and they’ve blocked the roads off. Let’s go to Norelle in Dandenong, what do you think Norelle?” 
[cue nasally female voice]: “It took me 20 extra minutes to get to work.”
[DJ]: “Oh it’s bloody disgusting Norelle, what right do they have…?” I’m like: “Okay, this is how you support the filmmakers coming back to Australia?” But aside from that experience it was great, one thing that’s great about Australia are the crews, I hear that a lot about the UK as well that Hollywood productions come to London and they love the attitude of the crews, and Australians have a good no bullshit work ethic. Nothing is too hard, there’s no stress, there’s no diva behaviour, which really helped on a movie like this because we were being very ambitious. So the fact that I could slide over and say: “Hey do mind jumping over there and getting that shot?” There was no: “Oh I don’t know..” it was like: “Yeah sure!” That kind of ‘can do’ attitude really helped us. I feel like Australia is half way between the American attitude of you just work until you drop and then the more European style of like: “Well we’re gonna finish at 5.30 like a normal human being.” Australia is right in the middle there with a foot in both camps. I like it when people don’t take it too seriously because it’s supposed to be fun! When I was watching movies as a kid I loved it, it didn’t feel like homework and now that it’s my job to make movies I don’t want it to be homework either. And it still is stressful and tough but I think people make film making less fun than it needs to be, they bring the stress and the toxic attitude with them and it weighs everything down. It’s amazing how much easier things are if everybody is just getting along and not taking it too seriously.

Upgrade is set in the not-too distant future but it has a real 80’s vibe. It invoked memories of renting videos from Blockbusters for me. You mentioned The Terminator was an inspiration in terms of the feel of the movie, were there other films from that era that inspired you?
Inspired it? Yeah! I’m from the same era as you, I was even pre-Blockbuster, I’m from the era of going to the independently owned video store that was always owned by some couple. All those stores were called either Videobusters or Video Attack or something [laughs]. So movies that were inspirations for me were the Cronenberg movies like Scanners and Videodrome, Paul Verhoven’s films like Robocop and Total Recall. Even stuff like Tetsuo, some of the Japanese stuff, John Carpenter’s The Thing…

A lot of body horror in there!
Yeah I love the body horror [films] all those 80’s movies that were so special to me because I was at an age where movies were really special but also it was prior to the advent of CG, before Jurassic Park came along and changed the cinematic landscape you had this really tactile practical effects landscape and I guess I’m very nostalgically attached to that period but there’s also something I loved about the stories, you could hold them in your hand in a way that films now have to be bigger than big. When you see the Avengers fight somebody it has to be like the army from ‘Zoron’, it’s got to be big and buildings falling over and if I see one more trailer where a tidal wave wipes out New York City… [laughs]. I like that human scale sci-fi action like if you go back and watch the first Terminator movie it’s really the story of just one woman on the run from this killer. I just love that. I like compact sci-fi. I’m sure it would be fun to make a giant epic movie but even as a viewer I really like compact stuff, I find myself going back to those movies. To this day I can watch The Thing and I never get tired of it, I never get sick of watching that movie. So those were the movies that were really inspiring me with this.

Upgrade is available in UK cinemas from Friday 31st August courtesy of Universal Pictures.