With Leigh Whannell’s stunning Upgrade now receiving a new limited edition Blu-ray release, we caught up with Leigh to discuss this modern-day sci-fi classic, how he’s finding life as a director, staying grounded, and even touch upon what we can expect from his upcoming new take on The Invisible Man.
STARBURST: Where did the initial nugget of an idea for Upgrade come from?
Leigh Whannell: Well, it came from somewhere in my mind. I don’t know enough about the mind, but I’m fascinated by it. I think I rely on magical thinking rather than scientific knowledge about how my brain works. I imagine my subconscious as this big swamp filled with all of the ideas that I’ll ever have. I subscribe to the theory of David Lynch, that our ideas are swimming around in our subconscious, then every now and then one idea bubbles to the surface. Ideas are the most mysterious and frustrating part of the creative process, for me. Writing a screenplay is very hard, making a film is very hard, but easily the hardest part of all of it is the idea. A lot of filmmakers make films based on true stories, or they have an issue that they want to talk about, or maybe they made a film based on somebody else’s idea, like a book or a remake. In that case, the idea is not hard to come by. The films I like to make are original ideas, and waiting for them to arrive is really frustrating. Upgrade is one of those. I was sitting in my backyard one day, and this image just popped into my head uncalled for, uninvited. It was the image of a quadriplegic person being controlled by a computer from the neck down. The computer bridged the neural gap between their brain and their nerve endings. It just wouldn’t go away, it just kind of got its hooks into me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it – so I started engineering an idea around it.
So often people like to hate on things simply for the sake of hating on things, yet Upgrade has largely received praise across the board – which is rare these days. How has that been for you?
It’s fantastic. I know that the response to a film is completely out of my control. You can try to control as much of the writing process and the filmmaking process as you can, but once it gets out to the world then it’s not yours anymore. It’s basically like selling a car. When you sell a car to somebody, you can’t go over to their house and start telling them what to do with it and what colour to paint it. When someone buys a ticket to a movie, it’s now their film and you can’t control their opinion on that. When people like a film that you’ve made, it feels like a happy accident. It doesn’t feel like something you’ve engineered in any way. I sit back and enjoy it, and it’s definitely a pleasant feeling to see a good reaction to a film you’ve worked on. I feel that Upgrade is the little engine that could. That contrarian culture that you’re talking about, where people hate on things, I think that it applies to popular things. When something is taking up a lot of attention, there’s always going to be a subgroup on the internet who’ll say that they don’t like it. The benefit for Upgrade was it was the little engine that could. It was not a huge budget flashy movie that opened in thousands of theaters and spent a ton of money on advertising. We didn’t have much of a marketing budget. So, mostly the people who talk about Upgrade are the people who’ve seen it and liked it. The people who saw it and didn’t like it, maybe they thought, “Why bother commenting on it? It’s not important enough for me to put my opinion out there.” But it’s been really good to see that response.
In the movie, there’s the serious narrative of solving the central McGuffin, there’s some moments of sheer brutality, but there’s also some lighter moments in there at times, too. How was it to balance all of those elements?
It all felt part of a whole, to me. When I make a film, I like to let go. The initial stage is the idea, and there’s this germ of an idea that’s exciting and it keeps you up at night. At a certain point, you know that you’re going to commit to this and see it through. I have a lot of ideas, but 99% of them go in the Terrible Ideas Drawer. The 1% that stick around in my head, I make a commitment to them and I start to sit down to flesh them out. When I do that, I think a lot about what type of movie this is, what is required. If it’s a horror film, it’s pretty simple to work out the requirements. The requirement is to frighten people, to fill them with dread, suspense, or terror, and so you have this really clear goal. With sci-fi, the goal is less clear. Comedy and horror have very clear aims, whereas sci-fi is a bit more open-ended as to what you’re supposed to do for the audience. Even with horror, at a certain point, once I’ve fleshed out the story and start writing it, I let go of what the movie is and I stop thinking about whether it needs to be funny or scary or any of that. I take my hands off the wheel and close my eyes to see where the car goes. If it crashes against a wall, fine; I just want to see where it takes me. It may sound pretentious, but I think at a certain point films become their own living organism and you’re no longer the puppeteer of this thing anymore. You’re now more the owner of a pet. It’s like you’re taking care of this pet, because it takes on a life of its own and you need to see where it wants to go rather than pushing it. So, when it comes to the humour of the film, it came out naturally and I didn’t fight against it. It felt like STEM, the computer chip that’s at the very forefront of technology, would be arguing with a self-professed luddite. There’s a certain type of movie that I love from the VHS era. I’m going to take a guess that you loved that era, too – the ‘80s and ‘90s. Do you remember that period when you would bike down to the video store, and you’d browse for ages trying to find the perfect movie? I think that because those are our formative years, we look back on them with a lot of affection. There’s a certain type of movie that got made during that time, and it’s almost like all the movies I loved in that era got put into one big blender. I think one of the films that was strong during that late ‘80s, early ‘90s period was the buddy cop movie. I think there were some aspects of that that wanted to come out here – some aspects of these people bickering and wanting to get along. I think that’s where the humour came from.
This is the fourth time that we’ve talked over the past few years, with the first of those being to discuss Insidious: Chapter 2. At that point, you said how you were looking at getting into directing, and you’ve since directed Insidious: Chapter 3, Upgrade, and most recently The Invisible Man. How are you liking the director’s chair so far?
I’m loving it. I feel like it’s the thing that I was already driving towards. It just took me a longer time to get there. I always wanted to be involved in the film industry before I even knew there was a film industry. I just loved movies. When I was a six-year-old and watching Star Wars, I just wanted to climb into the television and be in that world. Then, when I was in high school, I learned that there were people who actually made these films and that made decisions on how these films looked. When I went to film school, I think I had a crisis of confidence. I made a couple of student films that were absolutely terrible. Simultaneously to that, I met James Wan, who was very talented. His student films were high quality stuff. I guess I ended up becoming James Wan’s partner, because he didn’t like writing and that was something he didn’t enjoy. We kind of made a good duo, as I was the screenwriter and he was the director. We would make shorts together, then when we finished film school we’d pursue projects together. We were a good team, and I was really happy in that role. When Saw happened, then Insidious, I was thanking the universe that James and I came together. Who knows, if I never met James then Saw might not have ever happened and I might not be talking to you right now. But I realised that that wasn’t the end of my journey. That was just me getting to the place where I was ready to direct. And James, he really passed the baton gently. He was there when I directed for the first time, and he encouraged me. He really wants me to do this, and he really wants me to do well. It’s something that I really am passionate about, this is what I want to do, and I cannot wait to do more films. Even if I got a bit of a later start than James and some other directors I know, I feel like I’m just raring to go.
It must be a bit crazy to think of these two kids who met in film school, and now one’s directed a huge budget Aquaman movie for Warner Brothers, and the other’s been tasked with handling this legendary Universal property, The Invisible Man. That must be a bit surreal, no?
I’ll tell you what was really trippy. When I was 23 or 24 years old, I got a really small role in The Matrix Reloaded. I was a huge fan of the first Matrix, so to get a role in the film was the best thing that ever happened to me. I actually went to the audition with some of my favourite lines from the first film written on my shirt, if you can believe that. For those out there who may have laughed at me and thought that was the dumbest and nerdiest thing ever, they can suck eggs because somebody saw it and said, “That’s the guy!” I ended up flying up to Sydney, and I couldn’t quite believe it. First of all, I couldn’t believe that I was in a hotel room that was free. The production assistant who showed me to my hotel room had to stand there while I said, “You’re telling me that this room is FREE?!” I remember going to Fox Studios in Sydney, and the Wachowskis were there, Keanu Reeves was there. It was this huge deal, and the sets were awe-inspiring. To my 23-year-old eyes, it was incredible. And The Invisible Man, which I’ve just directed, was shot at the same studio on one of the same sound stages. That was a real full circle moment for me. I remember being on set one day and just thinking, “I remember being here when I was so young, and I was so in awe of this movie. Now, I’m here directing a film at the same studio.” Granted, it doesn’t have the same budget as The Matrix or doesn’t have the same sci-fi-tastic sets, but it was a real full circle moment in life. It was pretty amazing.
Obviously, you can’t say too much about The Invisible Man at this stage, but is there anything you can tell us about the new movie?
It does come out very soon [February 2020], so it won’t be much of a wait before you get to see it. I will say that I tried to forget about how the Invisible Man had been depicted in the past. I’m a fan of the Universal monsters, and I have been ever since I saw the film Mad Monster Party when I was a kid. That was the Claymation film about all of the monsters gathering for a party. I love these monsters, but I realised the wrong thing to do was to try to make a complete homage to that time and that depiction of the character. I felt like I needed to drag it into this century and this time. I really tried to make it feel completely fresh and modern and new. I’m not 100% sure if I’ve achieved that yet, but that’s what I’m going for.
Given that those Universal monsters are on such a pedestal amongst horror fans, was it a daunting prospect to tackle that character, or was it more of an exciting challenge to take on?
It wasn’t really daunting. I think that you have to look at each monster on an individual basis. I think if I was making a Dracula movie, it would have been daunting. The great Dracula movies of the past would have been sitting on my shoulder, from [Francis Ford] Coppola’s Dracula, to the original, to vampire films like The Lost Boys and Let the Right One In. All those films would have been looming over me, just looking at me like, “Don’t cock this up.” With the Invisible Man, he’s kind of in the background. I remember talking to James about Aquaman, and he felt the same way. He felt that with Superman and Batman there was all this pressure from people, but Aquaman is a less-known character where he felt there was a freedom there to really mess with this character. I had the exact same feelings as James had with Aquaman on this film. I feel the Invisible Man has not been done in the way that he should’ve been done for a long time. Obviously, the original Invisible Man is a classic that has a firm place in the history of horror. It was a movie that was made decades and decades ago, and it’s not a movie that would be viewed today by a younger audience too often. It’s a museum piece, it’s a great relic from an older time, which I love. I’m fascinated with the history of early Hollywood monsters and how they came about, but I felt that the Invisible Man was a bit of a blank slate as opposed to Dracula, to the Wolf Man, to Frankenstein’s monster. I just didn’t have that pressure of people in the past making great versions of the Invisible Man, looking right over my shoulder.
As somebody who grew up as a fan of all things genre, how it is now to be viewed as one of those go-to names that fans look out for? Is that a little bit surreal or are you just enjoying it?
It is surreal, and it’s also something I’m really aware of. Human beings have a capacity to adapt to their environment very, very quickly. We get used to things. You take someone and you give them what they’re asking for, very quickly they’re over it. I see this with my children. My daughter begs me for a puppy, I give it to her, she’s happy about it for an hour, then she’s complaining about something else that she wants. The novelty of the puppy wears off pretty quickly. And I think adults do that in their life, too. We quickly adapt to our surroundings and we want more. One thing that I’m really happy about it in my life, is I’ve never gotten over this whole ride that I’ve been on. The novelty of being a filmmaker, of living in Hollywood and making films, has never worn off. I’m not sure why it hasn’t worn off or why I’m not jaded or used to it now, but it hasn’t. Just this morning, a few hours ago, I was standing in my backyard thinking, “Man, this is amazing. I get to go and edit my movie.” It’s just really not lost on me. And I’m aware of the fragility of it, too. The window might only be open for a small amount of time, and you just don’t know where this road is going to take you. As well as a feeling of happiness and contentment that I’ve managed to achieve this goal of making films for a living, there’s also a nervousness and a fear that it may be taken away from me at any moment – and that keeps the fire under my arse, for sure! I never put my feet up, flex my fingers behind my head, and start thinking I’m a genius. I know that the rug can be pulled away at any second. So, I would call it a mixture of happiness and fear.
Upgrade receives a new limited edition Blu-ray release on November 18th - and you can find our review here.