Leigh Whannell says see ya to Saw with sci-fi Upgrade

Looking for revenge, and with STEM not only directing his body but also speaking to him, Grey sees the best and worst of technology. It is a miracle he can even move, but when he authorises STEM to take control he finds his crippled body is now capable of brutally precise acts of violence. “I can do it for you,” STEM reassures Grey, “you don’t even have to look.” And so Grey becomes a horrified observer to his own acts of bloody retribution.

“That speaks to what human beings are willing to let others do for them,” says Whannell. “We don’t want to get our hands dirty, but we’re happy for the military or the government do the dirty work for us. There’s a lot of anxiety about what we delegate as humans to technology. I wanted to imagine that a few years down the road, where it’s further advanced.”

Though it’s dressed in the clothing of a revenge movie, he says, “I didn’t want to make a film about a guy out for justice who takes down the bad guys. I wanted to make a film about someone who thought they wanted that, but then had to watch as his body does these things he’s unsure of and ashamed about.”

Whannell is a fan of 1980s genre films such as The Terminator, Scanners and The Thing, VHS-era features that created a distinct reality on a manageable budget and snuck in subversive ideas beneath the action sequences or horror-movie shock cuts.

Writer-director Leigh Whannell: "One rule I have is to only get involved in something I'm super passionate about."

Writer-director Leigh Whannell: “One rule I have is to only get involved in something I’m super passionate about.”

Photo: Madman Films

“The first Robocop movie works as a sci-fi genre piece where the good guy takes out the bad guys, but the more you examine it as you get older the more you realise it’s a corporate satire working on a whole other level,” says Whannell. “I love how genre films Trojan-horse these concepts into the public arena as a good-time movie.”

Upgrade is Whannell’s second film as director, following 2015’s Insidious: Chapter 3, but he says he was never obsessed with making the transition from screenwriting. He was happy being part of a team with Wan, an experience he compares to being in a band. On a recent 10-city promotional tour of the US for Upgrade, he was reminded of a similar campaign he and Wan did in 2004 as unknowns launching Saw. “It’s just great to have someone to share it with,” Whannell says.

Before the crash: Melanie Vallejo as Asha Trace and Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace.

Before the crash: Melanie Vallejo as Asha Trace and Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace.

Photo: Madman Films

But in recent years, work has taken them along differing paths. Wan is now in the blockbuster realm, having corralled the stars and cars of 2015’s Fast & Furious 7 before moving on to the forthcoming DC comic-book adaptation Aquaman. Whannell, meanwhile, is focused on smaller, original concepts.

“I like creating my own world from the ground up instead of trying to make an interpretation of someone else’s world,” he says. “You can make the film at a certain price and keep creative control instead of being micro-managed by producers and executives.”

To that end, he made Upgrade in Melbourne, at Docklands Studios and on location, and he found local experts in practical effects such as prosthetics to do the work normally done now by digital companies.

Operating far from the eyes of Hollywood doesn’t seem to have hurt any: after 10 days in American cinemas, Upgrade has taken more than $12 million at the box office, roughly double the budget. Along the way, it also bucked the recent trend of original science-fiction films being sold straight to Netflix for streaming worldwide.

“It was definitely a gamble to try and get a sci-fi action movie in there alongside The Avengers, but as a filmmaker I love movie theatres,” Whannell says. “I’m from an era where they were booming and I have a lot of affection for them, and I still believe they’re the best place to see a film.”

Though they are on different paths right now, Whannell says he and Wan remain close. There’s a reference to his friend slipped into Upgrade, while earlier this year Whannell flew from Los Angeles to the Gold Coast just so he could shoot a two-line cameo in Aquaman. When he arrived on set, he found Wan inside a giant sound stage, directing Nicole Kidman and Jason Momoa.

It was a moment that Whannell saw as triumphant, given the occasional travails of their adventures in the movie game.

“He’s made films that haven’t done well and he’s gone to director jail for a while, where no one wanted to work with him,” Whannell says. “I got my bad scripts out of my system in public. I’ve written bad movies that were actually produced. Dead Silence, the [2007] film we made after Saw, was a complete bomb.”

Still, he learnt from it.

“Now, one rule I have is to only get involved in something I’m super passionate about. Don’t get involved in a movie that someone else is super passionate about, or that a producer or agent is trying to talk you into.

“It’s easy to get wrapped up in that and say fine, but that’s proven for me to be the wrong path to take.”

Upgrade is on limited release

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson has been the film critic for The Sunday Age since March 2012, having previously held the same position for Rolling Stone and The Bulletin. The former magazine editor writes widely on film, music and television, and is still able to quote sizeable chunks of the dialogue from Michael Mann’s Heat.

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