INTERVIEW: Upgrade’s Leigh Whannell on Crafting the Futuristic World of BH Tilt’s Latest Thriller

Alcohollywood’s spinoff mini-cast On Tap returns! Every so often, we’ll be providing you with exclusive interviews, reviews and festival coverage alongside the regular podcast. Hope you enjoy!

To kick off our (semi-) inaugural installment, Clint reviews Leigh Whannell’s upcoming sci-fi thriller Upgrade.  After losing his wife and the use of his limbs after a tragic attack, a man (Logan Marshall-Green) equips himself with an experimental technological upgrade to regain the ability to walk  – using his newfound powers to track down the men who killed his wife. It’s lean, bloody and immensely entertaining, with more than a few neat tricks to spice up its bone-crunching action and enticingly rendered near-future world.

Along the way, Clint sits down with Whannell to discuss the conception of the film’s cyberpunk world, choreographing intricate fight scenes, and finding the perfect voice for Upgrade‘s all-powerful technology. Take a listen, and/or read the full interview below!

(To read Clint’s full review of Upgrade, head over to Consequence of Sound.) 

(Special thanks to our sponsor Simplecast, as part of the Chicago Podcast Coop!)

I’m a huge fan of cyberpunk stuff, so all of the design elements of the future world really resonated with me. What was your process like for conceiving that?

When I wrote the film, I wasn’t intending to direct it – I was writing it for someone else. So I didn’t think through every little design decision in the film, I was just concentrating on the story. But when I decided to direct it, that’s when I entered the world of the design.

I chose Felicity Abbott as the production designer – she hadn’t worked on a sci-fi film, hadn’t done much genre stuff. I really wanted someone like that because I wanted someone to think outside the box, with no preconceived notions of sci-fi.

As for our influences, we wanted to think of whatever hasn’t been done. And we thought about the themes of the film – the film being tech combined with nature, a human body combined with tech. So we started looking at designs that mirrored nature; you’ll notice a lot of honeycombs in the film, hexagon patterns and the like. All the tech in the movie is trying to feel like the natural world. For instance, you might have noticed in the movie, when they turn computers on, you hear rushing waters.

I wanted to stay away from the bleeps and bloops – I feel like there are certain go-to noises in sci-fi. You know the automatic door opening – “kssh.” I wanted to stay away from all that stuff, and say “in the future, your computer is trying to sound like the natural world.” That was really the main design influence on the film.

The film essentially hinges on Logan Marshall-Green’s performance. What was it like working with him, especially to achieve all the different layers of physicality? He has to play able-bodied, quadriplegic, and move in this robotic way when STEM takes over. What was the rehearsal process like for that?

It was really interesting. We didn’t have a lot of time. I mean it’s a lower-budget movie, so Logan threw himself into it immediately as soon as he knew he had the job. I pretty much went back to Australia to start the process of making the film; he was back in Los Angeles, and he would send me videos of himself moving in his backyard, figuring out how STEM movies. I would give him notes and thoughts on what he was doing. It was just a step by step, day by day process.

And when he did get to Australia, I had him work with a movement instructor who was from a dance company, to teach him that very fluid movement. It was just a day by day process, and I gotta tip my hat to Logan for all the hard work he did. Because like you said, the whole movie rests on his shoulders.

And especially with those action scenes, which are really unique. I love the way you sort of lock in on Logan, the camera canting and tilting with his movements. How did you determine how the action scenes were going to be realized?

I knew I’d written something different – I’d written in the script in parentheses, “These fight scenes should look strange and stilted.” And it’s one of those things that writers write, and suddenly a hundred people have a migraine trying to figure out how to bring this sentence to life.

But I was the director of the film, so I was one of the people with the migraine. It was, again, a slow process of figuring out what that looks like. I said to the stunt team, “I don’t want you to give me a regular-looking fight scenes. I want you to give me something that’s clipped and robotic, where the fighters are taking the path of least resistance.”

And then the cinematographer, Stefan Duscio, he came to me – he’d shot a music video with this camera that locked to the actor. You just strap an iPhone to the actor, and the camera locks to the phone and moves with he actor. To me, that was the final piece of the puzzle – “okay, if we take what Logan’s been doing, and add this camera element to it,” I hoped it would achieve the desired effect.

This is your second film as a director – did you feel a little more confident, a little more comfortable behind the camera?

A little, yeah – I felt more confident in the process of filmmaking. I knew what to prioritize, I knew what it was going to be like to have someone standing behind you saying, “we’re gonna be done in two hours.”

What was nervewracking was that it was very ambitious; it wasn’t a film set in a house with two characters. It was a bigger world. Things like car chases are nerve-wracking; traditionally a car chase is made with hundreds of edits, and that takes time. Time is something we didn’t have a huge amount of, so that was the nerve-wracking part – how are we going to get a great car chase in that much time?

You also wrote the film; what was the initial impetus for the idea?

It was really just a concept that I had one day – the image of this quadriplegic being controlled by a computer chip. That was just something that appeared in my head. Ideas are a mysterious thing; you can’t make them happen. You could be in the shower, you could be eating breakfast, and something just pops in your head. Most of the time it’s not very good, but every now and again something pops in your head you can’t stop thinking about, and that was the case with Upgrade.

I had this image of the quadriplegic, and he was controlled by this computer, and my obsession with that led to the research. Then I started reading books about tech, books like The Singularity. The more I read and investigated tech and where it’s going, the more it seemed to speak to this image.

I also love that you used that idea as the basis for kind of a 70s-style grindhouse revenge story – was that a genre that you thought about immediately, or did you have other ideas for it?

It sort of organically progressed in that direction. Films have this weird way of telling them what they want to be – writing them, and trying to come up with the idea, you’re basically assembling building blocks. It’s a finite thing, a film – it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You’re working toward this end point.

The more I worked, and assembled these building blocks, the more it seemed like it wanted to be this visceral revenge movie. It was the best way to exploit what this computer chip can do. And as the film goes on, you realize the chip is the thing to be afraid of in the movie – it’s not the “bad guys.”

And that’s one of the most fascinating dynamics in the movie – seeing that Jekyll and Hyde situation between Grey and STEM. What was the casting process like for finding the voice of STEM?

It was an interesting process, because I only wanted to hear their voices. So it was the normal casting process, but they would just point the camera at the actor’s feet, so I never knew what they looked like, I just heard this voice.

What I was looking for was this voice that embodied the sociopathy of this character. Where it seems pleasant, like Alexa, but there’s something underneath it. I think human beings are pretty good at detecting the layers beneath. I read passive aggression into my car’s navigation system all the time – it’ll say “you missed your turnoff, please turn around.” I’m like, “don’t get snippy with me!” So when I heard Simon [Maiden’s] voice, I said “yeah,” and brought him in to talk to Logan.

Another interesting tidbit: I didn’t actually add Simon’s voice later – it was all done live on set. Basically, Logan actually had an earpiece in his ear, which I turned into a prop in the movie. Everybody has these phone earpieces; well, the one that Logan had actually worked. We would put Simon in the other room, just out of view, and they would actually talk.

So all their interactions and cutting each other off, it’s a live dynamic – two actors feeding off each other. That’s what I wanted, because I wanted their rapport to be of the moment.

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound, Crooked Marquee and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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