By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Out today from OTL Releasing and BH Tilt, UPGRADE is Leigh Whannell’s exhilarating and imaginative near-futuristic sci-fi shocker (see review here). RUE MORGUE got an exclusive sit-down with writer/director Whannell and star Logan Marshall-Green, the first part of which follows.
This is the second effort at the helm for SAW and INSIDIOUS franchise scripting veteran Whannell, after INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3—though as he reveals here, he wasn’t the first director attached. Marshall-Green, whose previous credits include Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS and Karyn Kusama’s outstanding THE INVITATION, plays Grey Trace, who is rendered quadriplegic in a violent assault that kills his wife. Thanks to an implanted computer chip called STEM, Grey regains the ability to walk, and STEM also gives him enhanced senses and physicality that allow him to take brutal revenge on the attackers. Although it boasts plenty of tech trappings, there’s a heavy concentration on practical and prosthetic effects in UPGRADE, as Whannell (pictured below on set) explains…
UPGRADE has a very high concentration of physical effects for a modern futuristic film. Can you talk about that approach?
LEIGH WHANNELL: When I was writing it, I wasn’t so much thinking about that practicality, but once I decided to direct it and got into preproduction, I quickly went in that direction. I love practical effects, for many reasons. One is pure nostalgia, ’cause those were the films I grew up with, and UPGRADE was heavily inspired by ’80s sci-fi movies at the height of those effects, before the advent of CGI. As soon as TERMINATOR 2 and JURASSIC PARK came along, they ended that era, but before then, you had ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL and THE TERMINATOR, and THE THING and THE FLY and SCANNERS and so on, and I was always going to the local video store and grabbing those movies.
And on the other side of it, I want things to be in front of the actors. I don’t want them to have to pretend that something is happening. I like pointing a camera at stuff that’s actually there; it’s no fun pointing a camera at a greenscreen. Sometimes it’s necessary, of course, but on UPGRADE I didn’t want to do it unless we absolutely had to. It felt right for this movie. We did have a phenomenal CGI company, Cutting Edge in Sydney, and they did some great work. For the shots of the city, we got some helicopter footage of Melbourne, which is just your average modern-day city, and what they were able to turn it into with their CG art was incredible. I give them lots of credit, but what I think CGI is best for is augmenting something that’s already there, as opposed to building the entire frame from the ground up.
Is there any shot or scene in UPGRADE that no one will know is CGI, but actually is?
LW: [STEM creator] Eron’s lair was actually a very small set. We CG’ed it to look much bigger than it actually is, so hopefully people will watch it and think it’s this huge space, but actually it’s all an illusion, it’s all sleight of hand. The room we built was not much bigger than this hotel room [where the interview is taking place], but we were able to make his house feel much larger.
As an actor, how was it working with all the prosthetics?
LOGAN MARSHALL-GREEN: It was so refreshing to not hear, “Ah, we’ll get it in post” all the time. That’s just unfortunately what you hear on sets now. There’s no time for [practical effects], there’s no patience for them, there’s no trust in them. So to be able to come to set every day and know that there is, somewhere, a gorgeous prosthetic being built—only so we can destroy it later!—is so rare now. The idea of the “money shot” is gone from these big-budget movies, and that was a gorgeous thing. In the old days on the old movies, when you did those money shots, everyone stopped everything, and you’d be behind the monitor saying, “Is it going to work?” And at times on UPGRADE, it didn’t work for us, but that was the best part—that energy focuses the team on the task at hand.
As an actor, as Leigh said, of course you want the prosthetic head to be there, to be the guy who pulls the knife through it—even though, on that day, my stunt double Chris Weir took it, because I didn’t dare be the guy who fucked that up! I did the next one.
LW: Yeah, you did the arm break. But yeah, that was amazing, because we only had two opportunities, and the first one didn’t go so well. But [the makeup effects team’s] work was brilliant. The body in the morgue was a full prosthetic, and I look at it in the movie and it’s beautiful. And the arm break was so cool. We had a couple of shots at that.
LMG: Yeah, though we only had so many, because it starts to break down, you know? But that’s a beautiful edge to have to walk on. And unfortunately, a lot of movies don’t have that anymore. They throw greenscreens around you and say, “We’ll get it in post, don’t worry about it.”
Leigh, you mentioned deciding to direct UPGRADE; were you not originally planning to do that?
LW: No, I wrote the screenplay years ago [under the title STEM], before I directed INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3. I loved the idea, but at that time I was happy being a writer. I actually took a lot of joy at giving directors migraines, writing a scene that was impossible to shoot and being like, “Figure that one out!” The film was first attached to the Spierig Brothers, who did DAYBREAKERS and JIGSAW, and they developed it for a while, and then it was attached to Greg McLean, who made WOLF CREEK. All that time, I was working with those guys, giving them notes and thoughts.
Then the opportunity to direct INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3 came up, and I discovered I loved directing. I was like, “Where have you been all my life?” So as soon as that film wrapped, I was like, “What’s next? I’m ready to go!” UPGRADE had not been made yet, it was still languishing, so I called Greg and said, “Can I have my script back?” [Laughs] I was worried that he might say no, but he was nice enough to say, “Sure, go ahead.”
Then I had to read it through a different set of glasses. All of a sudden, I was thinking about the logistics and practicalities…
LMG: And all the times you were like, “Make that happen!”
LW: Exactly, and now it was me who was suffering, because I was like, “Oh man, how am I gonna do that?” And we just sort of figured it out.
Were there any changes that the Spierigs or McLean asked for that you decided to keep in the script when you took it over?
LW: Yeah, a couple of things. The Spierigs came up with some great ideas; they would say things like, “You know, I really like when Grey is fighting against himself,” and I’d be like, “OK, cool.” I believe the whole knife-in-the-hand scene came from a draft I wrote for them, where I was like, “OK, I’ll make this a fight between STEM and Grey.”
Then, when I decided to direct it, I did a whole other draft that was not only a creative rewrite but also about stripping the budget back, and that was the biggest leap the film took. I actually think it made the script better in some ways, to condense it down and say, “A lot of this indulgent stuff, we can just lose.” For example, the original STEM-implant scene had robots doing the operation, and I read that again and thought, “Well, let’s just have humans do it.”
LMG: And you just saved a million dollars!
LW: Yeah, exactly: “Here’s a million back!” Because when I’m writing for someone else to direct, I’m not thinking about the budget, necessarily. I’m just like, “It’s the future, robots will probably perform surgeries in the future, so it’s these robotic arms.” And as Logan says, just deleting that sentence cut a huge chunk out of the budget. And I believe it made the film better. The leaner and meaner it got, the more focused it got.
TO BE CONTINUED