Interview With UPGRADE Director Leigh Whannell

first_imgLet us know what you like about Geek by taking our survey. Upgrade is a new dark sci-fi thriller from writer-director Leigh Whannell, who previously helped to unleash both the Saw and Insidious franchises on unsuspecting audiences worldwide. With Upgrade, he offers up a new story set in a high-tech future where an ordinary man (Logan Marshall-Green) paralyzed in a brutal attack that also claimed the life of his wife gets the chance to walk again. This is thanks to an experimental A.I. spine-implant called “STEM” that gives him back the use of his limbs… and more.As it turns out, STEM has a “mind” of its own, one that’s not only able to offer a digitally-supercharged assist in sleuthing out his wife’s killers but that can also take over and “drive” his body on its own. Enabling him to fight, drive, sneak and shoot with inhuman precision and lethality… all of which he’ll need to avenge a murder in a grim future where surveillance is everywhere, and common criminals boast deadly cyborg enhancements. I sat down with Whannell to find out about how the film came to be and what he thinks about its themes and implications:When did this project come to you?It was a fair few years ago now, probably at least about six years ago. An idea literally popped in my head one day: An image of a quadriplegic who had a computer chip controlling everything from the neck down – sort of controlling his body for him, letting him walk. And I couldn’t stop thinking about that conceit, so I started to reverse engineer a story around that image.How quick did it come about that this would be as dark a film as it is?Pretty quick. I’m a big fan of… kind of sci-fi/noir? Films like Terminator, Blade Runner, films that use science fiction and the future to tell these dark detective stories. That’s just a type of film that I love… it’s like trying to explain why you love a certain band, you can’t explain it, you just do. So I think it just organically went in that direction, you know?So you start with “He’s got this thing driving his body,” and the rest comes from…?Well, you start asking yourself questions: He’s a quadriplegic with a computer chip controlling his body, so why is he a quadriplegic? What can the chip do? You throw questions at the conceit and it expands – usually. It grows these tendrils and starts to become a story, usually. Not always, but usually that’s what happens.How much of this technology is based on things that are in real development now? Did you look into things like that?It was more the latter, in the sense that I had this idea to start with. But I did talk to a surgeon and ask him about this idea of a computer chip curing paralysis – bridging that gap between our brain and our nerve endings – and he said, in theory, it’s plausible if they could figure out how to do it. So it is something that could be achieved, it’s just a matter of finding out how to do it. It’s not something outlandish, like a Transformer or something; it could be medically viable.The story takes place in a future where technology is everywhere, always, and you have a hero who is (at first) very much against that. Where do you fall on that, in terms of outlook?I’m somewhere in the middle – I’m Switzerland on this one. I use technology, I like technology, I have a phone in my pocket, I carry my laptop with me everywhere – being a screenwriter, you could say my entire life is on my laptop. So I’m definitely not a luddite, I’m not someone who’s anti-technology, but I draw the line at certain things. I’m suspicious of how much of ourselves we’ve given over to our digital lives, with the advent of social media… I feel like people spend too much time living through their social media pages. I live in Los Angeles and I’ll go to a restaurant and see two people sitting across from each other both on their phones.Speaking on technology: The action sequences in the film – when STEM is taking over – it’s rare you get to say “I haven’t seen that before!” in a movie. Where did that come from, and how did you do it?I should give it a name – the effect in The Matrix was called “bullet time” wasn’t it? – so I should come up with some fancy name like “lock-cam” or “lock-step”… you know, those fight scenes originated with me saying “what haven’t we seen before?” When you’re dealing with genre requirements, a fight scene, a car chase, a gunfight, your dealing with ground that’s very well trodden. As long as somebody could turn on a camera there’s been people fighting onscreen. So the question becomes, for me, what are you going to add to that conversation, what can you do that hasn’t been seen before?And that’s a tough thing to do, especially when you have a low budget like us. Usually, money and time is what buys newness, but we didn’t have money or time. So I started by saying I hadn’t seen a fight scene where the people fighting were doing so in a clipped, computerized way I wanted it to look like stop-motion, where they were always taking the path of least resistance in their hits. Not jumpy and skittish like humans, very machine-like.And the Steadicam-effect [in the fight scenes] was achieved using what sort of camera/rig?All done in-camera, all on the set. It’s very simple, really – you take an iPhone, you strap it to the actor under their clothes and the camera locks to the phone; so the camera sits inside a housing that the operator holds and [the camera] is able to pivot on this gimble and move wherever the actor moves. It gives you this real off-kilter effect, but it’s all in-camera – nothing in post.How did you end up casting Harrison Gilbertson as Eron (the creator of STEM)?I auditioned a lot of people for that role. I wanted something specific, something that was a bit “off,” and it got down to two actors and I just loved what Harrison did. Auditioning is a funny thing… having been on the other side of the camera as an actor myself, you start to realize that when you’re doing auditions you know most of the time right away whether the person is right or not. I’d walk into a room and feel the energy was so bad and go “Oh god, these people don’t even want me here.” So now that I’ve been on the other side of the camera as director I can see why that is: Many people, they might be great actors, they might be interesting looking people… but you can tell they’re not right for this particular role.So I really cast [Harrison] on the strength of his audition, not because of having seen him in anything specific. It was just about him stepping into that role so completely.Was the process similar for casting Logan Marshall-Green in the lead?Logan Marshall-Green was not an audition process… this movie was tough to cast. The producers, I think they were thinking sky high at first, you know – they were thinking maybe Jake Gyllenhaal, maybe Christian Bale, a big “movie star.” And I think once we decided we wanted to make the film a bit leaner and meaner we could cast the actor who was right for the role, and Logan’s done a lot. He may not be a household name, but I’d seen him in a film called The Invitation which was a low-budget thriller I really liked, and from that film I knew he could handle the emotional aspects of Upgrade.The first time we met about it, he came to my house, and he had some notes – you roll your eyes when you hear that “Oh god here it comes, the notes…” but his were so great! His thoughts really helped the story of the film, and from there on I knew he’d be good because he was thoughtful about the films that he made. There was nothing flippant, and I’d have been dead in the water with an actor less thoughtful.He’s very good, especially considering how much of the film is him talking to himself!Well, Simon – the actor who voiced STEM – was on the set. I didn’t want to dub in his voice later, so every time we had a dialogue scene with STEM Simon was just around the corner and Logan had an earpiece in, so he could hear all STEM’s lines on the day. That interaction between them, in the movie, is all happening in real time.Was it challenging to have to construct a plausible future on such a low budget?I thought it was fun! A totally innocuous thing like a light switch becomes an issue: A production designer would come to me and go “How do lights work? Do they use a switch? Is it automatic? Voice controlled?” Every little thing had to be thought of, and there’s real fun in that. I love making those kinds of micro-decisions.We had a strong idea about the tech in this world, and that’s what it was influenced by nature. Everything trying to point back to nature. The sounds of computers are natural… birds, rushing rivers, there’s a lot of hexagon patterns that harken back to beehives. Lots of natural organisms, I think that’s the way tech is going to go – referencing the natural world. The production designer, Felicity Abbot, had never done a sci-fi movie before – I thought that was a real plus, that she’d bring a fresh perspective, she wouldn’t be influenced by other films she’d worked on, she wasn’t a “sci-fi geek.” She’d actually done a lot of costume dramas and period films.When you do a genre film like this, are you looking to embrace films that have come before or keep influences more at bay?I’m aware of it, but more in terms of what not to do – what I want to stay away from. For this movie I was very influenced by 80s sci-fi – Terminator, Robocop, Total Recall, Scanners… films that very gritty, violent and also sort of “contained.” They didn’t have that vast canvas that CG offers you. You think of a film like Robocop, it’s very judicial about where it dishes out the science fiction. I also love Akira and Blade Runner, films that imagine a big rain-soaked neon future world, but I wanted with this to bring it closer to our world here and now with smart homes and electric cars… and as we developed this and the years ticked by, it got closer and closer to reality. MovieBob Reviews: ‘Shadow’MovieBob Reviews: ‘The Curse of La Llorona’ center_img Stay on targetlast_img read more

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