Leigh Whannell on Splicing Horror and Science Fiction in ‘Upgrade’

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Leigh Whannell says that his film ideas arrive to him in a flash.  “My story ideas just appear in my head randomly,” says Whannell, the co-creator of the Insidious and Saw horror film franchises.  “They seem to arrive when they want to, not when I want them to.”

This was the case with Whannell’s latest film, Upgrade, which combines horror and science fiction.  “I remember that I was sitting in my backyard one day, many years ago, when the image of a quadriplegic being puppeteered by a computer just popped into my head,” says Whannell.  “I was instantly excited about it, and that moment began the long, long journey of getting an independent film made.”

Upgrade tells the story of Grey Trace, a technophobe who is the victim of a brutal mugging that leaves him paralyzed and his wife dead.  “Grey’s goal in the beginning of the film is to find his place in this new technological world,” says Whannell.  “He wants to know where he fits in.  Then, when his wife is taken from him, he wants revenge, and he uses technology to aid him in that quest.”

Revenge is made possible through an experimental computer chip implant called Stem.  “Technology gives him [Grey] a chance at a new life,” says Whannell.  “Someone who previously hated technology becomes technology, and he sees how intoxicating and overpowering that can be.”

Whannell says that Upgrade was heavily influence by the 1980s science fiction films that Whannell grew up watching.  “I think the horror that exists in the film is of the ‘body-horror’ variety and the idea of technology intruding on human flesh,” says Whannell.  “My influences were definitely sci-fi films from the 1980s.  There was always a horror tinge to many of the sci-fi films of that time, perhaps born out of the practical FX boom.  I’m talking about films like The Terminator, Scanners, Robocop, Videodrome, Aliens, The Thing, Total Recall, and The Fly.  They were grimy and icky.  They were not slick.  They were violent and raw.  I wanted to capture that again with Upgrade—a time when sci-fi was contained and very practical FX-driven.”

The making of Upgrade represented a triumphant homecoming for Whannell, who shot the film entirely in his hometown city of Melbourne, Australia.  “The one memory that stands out the most for me happened when we were filming in an area where I used to live in Melbourne,” recalls Whannell.  “We had found this old technical school that had closed down and was lying abandoned.  There were so many rooms of such different sizes in the building that we ended up using it as a kind of back-lot for so many of the scenes.  We turned rooms there into a morgue, a dive bar, a minimalist loft apartment.”

“This building was next door to a pub called The Tote,” continues Whannell.  “It’s kind of a legendary music venue in Australia; it’s beautifully grimy and grungy, and it almost exclusively hosts rock ‘n’ roll and punk bands.  It’s the CBGB’s of Melbourne, if you will.  It just so happened that I shot my student film at The Tote, when I was nineteen.  It was called The Demise of Fallon Thomas, and it wasn’t very good. I remember thinking, during the making of this student epic, that perhaps directing wasn’t for me. On the first night of shooting Upgrade at this back-lot, I got to set early and snuck off to The Tote for a drink.  I was sitting at the bar and just thinking of that younger version of me—so nervous and convinced that I was terrible at filmmaking—and contrasting it with the fact that I was now shooting a sci-fi movie with a crew of hundreds right next door!  It was a moment of true perspective—about how far I’d come and how lucky I was. It brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye.  Upon telling the story to the bartender, the drink was on the house.”

Upgrade is scheduled for theatrical release on June 1, 2018.

David Grove is an author, journalist and a produced screenwriter from Vancouver. He’s the author of the books Making Friday the 13th, Fantastic 4: The Making of the Movie, Jamie Lee Curtis: Scream Queen, On Location in Blairstown: The Making of Friday the 13th, and Jan-Michael Vincent: Edge of Greatness.