Film Interview – Leigh Whannell – Upgrade

I was given a chance to speak with writer and director Leigh Whannell about his new film, Upgrade, while he was on a press tour in Dallas, Texas. We touched on the filming effects for Stem, one of the themes of the film, a change in his film’s genre, and why you should never see Dunkirk on a plane.

Sarah: Can you talk about the filming effects for Stem? You differentiated between when Stem’s in charge versus when it is just Grey.

Leigh: I knew that I wanted it to feel a little strange when Stem takes over, and so I worked with the stunt team and the movement coordinator to teach Logan [Marshall-Green] to move in a certain way … He was doing all of this training. And then pretty late in pre-production, I was talking to the cinematographer Stefan Duscio and he … one day I remember we were in the office, we kind of shared an office, and he said: “You know, I did this music video a while back where I locked the camera to the actor so wherever the actor moved, the camera moved with his center of gravity.” He showed me this on his phone, and I remember seeing it and thinking, “Yeah, that’s what we need to do.” It was kind of a last-minute breakthrough idea because I knew instantly that would help convey this feeling. That was really it.

On a film, you got to be humble enough to take everybody’s ideas. You know, don’t say it’s my way or the highway. The best idea wins, and the film is really going to benefit, so I am glad that Stefan said that.

Upgrade Movie Still 1

S: I noticed when we finally get a one-on-one conversation with Fisk (Benedict Hardie) at his house, apartment, etc., I picked up on a little commentary on not necessarily skin color, but race, referring to it as “upgraded” with computers. I hope that was intentional.

L: Congratulations, you are the first person to mention that (shakes my hand). Very intentional. One of the most interesting of making a film is, you have all of these ideas and themes you are trying to explore and express, and then you release it, and people just make of it what they will. And sometimes they pick up what you intended, and sometimes they go in a completely different direction, and they’re not wrong, it is all subjective. That was definitely intentional. The character of Fisk played by Benedict Hardie, who’s a great actor, is kind of like a Neo-Nazi from the future.

S: His look was kind of…

L: Yeah, we literally gave him this Nazi-ish look in the way he dresses, and even with the Alt-Right and things like that, we were kind of driven by this sense of he is someone who believes that upgraded humans are superior. He says in the film, “I gave you a gift. I inducted you into my race.” He almost has this nouveau version of racism, techism. Several times throughout the movie, he says something like, “It should be an honor to serve people like us.” So he really looks down on people without the tech the way a racist would look down on someone from another race and so, very intentional and I wanted that there. If I ever got the chance to make a sequel maybe I would expand on that and make it a stronger theme, so this time people won’t miss it. Except for you. We even gave him that Hitler mustache and the combat boots. He was really supposed to look like a Neo-Nazi, Alt-Right person, but someone who didn’t actually care about skin color. He was concerned with what’s under the skin, the tech, and he felt he was better than everyone else.

Upgrade Movie Still 2

S: When he said to Grey, “I don’t want to kill you because you have the tech.”

L: He’s like, “You’re a brother. You are on my side. We need to team up against; there needs to be more of us.”

S: Considering your previous work (Saw, Insidious), are you concerned with people coming out with a pre-conceived notion of what this film may be like? I feel like the trailer gives (the genre) away enough that a person would not expect that.

L: I guess I don’t really mind. I think it’s a bonus if anybody goes to see it. If somebody went to see it and was disappointed that it wasn’t a horror movie, I wouldn’t really be upset about it. Getting people into a movie theatre these days is so hard. People have movie theatres in their houses now. It’s getting harder and harder to motivate people to actually leave the house, drive, park, and do all the things to go to a movie theatre. This theatre [Alamo Drafthouse] is the way to go because they have turned it into an experience. It’s not just a movie theatre; it’s a restaurant and a place you want to hang out. I actually think movie theatres will go the way of the Alamo Drafthouse, which is making it more. Your average multiplex isn’t cutting it anymore. When I grew up, our television in our family home was shitty tube television. If you wanted to see a beautiful image, you had to go to the theatre. Now the TV in my house is beautiful. It’s like, really, I have to get off the couch.  So I would hate to be the owner of a movie theatre chain because how are you going to compete.

Certain movies are communal; certain spectacles just won’t do, like a movie like Dunkirk. Not only did I see it in theatres, to the chagrin of my friends, it had to be 70 mm IMAX, not just IMAX, but 70 mm. It demands that viewing. My wife watched it on a plane, and I was like, “What are you doing?! This is an insult! You cannot watch Dunkirk on a plane!” She’s like, “It’s fine,” and I am like, “It is not fine.” If I had Christopher Nolan’s number, I would have texted him, saying a crime was being committed.  So, certain movies demand to be seen in theatres whether it is The Revenant, Dunkirk, or these giant spectacles. And then there are other movies like horror films that are still very communal; they are great to see with an audience. I think this film is, too. It’s a good audience movie. Some movies like personal dramas, I feel okay watching them at home for the first time.

Leigh Whannell’s Upgrade is in theatres now (and you should definitely see it in one).


Sarah resides in Dallas where she writes about films and trailers in her spare time when she is not taking care of her animals at the zoo.

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