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'Upgrade' director Leigh Whannell brings sci-fi action thrills to our tech-obsessed times

'Upgrade' director Leigh Whannell brings sci-fi action thrills to our tech-obsessed times
Leigh Whannell, a creative force behind the "Saw" and "Insidious" franchises and director of "Upgrade," photographed at his home in Los Angeles on May 23, 2018. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Are we fools to invest so much trust in the technologies designed to make modern life easier? Is Alexa spying on us? Is Siri silently judging us? Will smart gadgets have mercy when the robot singularity arrives and everything, from our phones to the kitchen toaster, becomes sentient?

These seem like relevant questions to ponder as “Upgrade” writer-director Leigh Whannell chauffeurs me across Los Angeles traffic in his Tesla Model X, excited to test out its futuristic self-parking capabilities.

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Self-driving Teslas have been steering themselves into hot water of late, which might make potent viral marketing for the technology-run-amok action of “Upgrade” if the real-life consequences were not quite so serious. (Days later another Elon Musk special would reportedly autopilot itself right into a parked cop car, casting more doubt over the automaker’s promise of owning a piece of tomorrow, today.)

And then there’s the other question I shove to the back of my mind on the drive to Whannell’s Los Feliz home: Should I have gotten in a car alone with the guy who dreamed up the torture-horror “Saw” franchise, the spooky “Insidious” series, and that movie where Elijah Wood fends off flesh-eating grade-school zombies infected by tainted chicken nuggets?

Whannell, 41, still has a sunny demeanor and his Aussie accent even after 13 years of living in L.A., where he first arrived in 2003 to shoot “Saw” with James Wan. After the film exploded into a full-fledged horror juggernaut, grossing $103 million from a $1.2 million budget, he and Wan came back for a publicity tour “and I woke up 12 years later with a house and a family,” Whannell jokes, taking the scenic route home along a tourist-strewn Hollywood Boulevard.

The genial, self-deprecating filmmaker and actor has made a career out of spinning horror yarns into franchise gold. In addition to helping birth both franchises, he wrote three of the lucrative “Saw” movies and made his directorial debut with 2015’s “Insidious 3.” But the sci-fi action flick “Upgrade” is a departure from the past in many ways, and a step into the future.

“Upgrade” stars Logan Marshall-Green (“Prometheus”) as Grey Trace, an analog man in a tech-obsessed world not terribly far removed from our own, who loses his wife and the use of his limbs in a mugging gone awry. He accepts a mysterious offer to have a HAL-like operating system implanted in his body that can restore his body to power, the better to dole out fantastically violent vigilante justice to those responsible. What he doesn’t realize is the technology — called STEM — has a mind, and an agenda, of its own.

The inspiration for the story struck years ago. “I had an image of someone who was a quadriplegic who had a chip installed that could move their body,” Whannell says. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I basically reverse-engineered a story around this image. And then I started reading up on the tech.”

(L-R) - Logan Marshall-Green and Melanie Vallejo in a scene from "Upgrade."
(L-R) - Logan Marshall-Green and Melanie Vallejo in a scene from "Upgrade." (Stefan Duscio / BH Tilt)

The real-world tech glimpsed in “Upgrade” includes autopilot-enabled automobiles, smart homes, medical technology and scientific movements like trans-humanism, ways humans keep trying to merge man with machine. Ray Kurzweil’s book “The Singularity Is Near” was a potent resource.

“What was interesting to me wasn’t robots; it was humans putting tech in their bodies. That idea of tech in us, and that we invite it willingly,” says Whannell. “That’s the part of me that’s in ‘Upgrade’: This low hum of anxiety that exists under modern life.”

Along an inviting tree-lined stretch of sidewalk at the base of Griffith Park, Whannell zeroes in on a choice spot and brings the Tesla to a stop. Unfortunately, neither of us can figure out which buttons to push to activate the car’s self-parking mode, which according to Tesla utilizes a complex suite of cameras, ultrasonic sensors and radar.

Instead of gliding into its spot with the effortless ease of a high-functioning iPhone on wheels with mathematically-perfect parallel parking skills, it sits there, defiantly uncooperative. “Is it parking itself?” Whannell asks. “I don’t think it is! You can say in the story that you didn’t get the car to do it. That can be the title of your article,” he laughs. “‘The Future Has Failed.’”

The director credits his love of genre movies — particularly the corporeal sci-fi horror of Paul Verhoeven and David Cronenberg — for the way his storyteller’s mind instantly jumps to the grimmest possibilities in any situation. As Grey’s deal with the devil descends into a gory series of violent encounters, “Upgrade” recalls cult genre gems like Richard Stanley’s 1990 post-apocalyptic robo-rampager “Hardware” and George A. Romero’s 1988 film “Monkey Shines.”

The film also carries on the tradition of stripped-down sci-fi Whannell loved in his youth. Driving near the iconic Griffith Observatory just up the road, some cineastes might think of teen punks taunting James Dean in 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause.” Whannell thinks of a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger mugging teen punks in 1984’s “The Terminator.”

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Filmmaker Leigh Whannell in Los Angeles.
Filmmaker Leigh Whannell in Los Angeles. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

As it happens, a startlingly realistic life-sized T-800 greets visitors inside the office he has at the hillside home he shares with his wife, actress Corbett Tuck, and their three children. On his walls hang framed posters of “Saw” and “Insidious”; on his shelves are art books on subjects from Spielberg to Norwegian black metal and an array of pop culture collectibles from Ellen Ripley in the power loader to Skeletor — “pure nostalgia.”

Watching sentry over it all is Schwarzenegger’s eerily lifelike Terminator, red eye gleaming. It was the influential James Cameron picture about a time-traveling killer cyborg that helped Whannell realize how “Upgrade,” written ambitiously for a $30 million budget, could be made for far less.

He had written “Upgrade” on spec on his own time before taking it to “Insidious” producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Jason Blum (who produced with Kylie Du Fresne), the latter known for the low-budget Blumhouse model that turned profitable hits and franchises out of genre films like “Insidious,” “Paranormal Activity,” “The Purge,” M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” and Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning “Get Out.”

“I was so inspired when I was writing this by the first ‘Terminator’ movie because the first movie is so lean and mean; they’re really judicious about when they dish out the sci-fi,” explains Whannell. “That movie made me feel like this movie was possible in the Blumhouse model.”

He scaled down the script and fought to keep key scenes. “The producers kept playing with the budget. ‘If we shift this money over here, we can give you your helicopter shots.’ I just kept bartering for the best movie I could, like, ‘I will not give up the helicopter shots!’”

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After working together on the “Insidious” films, Blum says of Whannell, “I would follow him creatively to Pluto.” (He only had to go as far as Australia, where filming incentives enticed the “Upgrade” production, which Whannell filmed in his hometown of Melbourne.)

And when “Upgrade” opens Friday on 1,500 screens via Blumhouse label BH Tilt, in partnership with Neon, it will test out a new distribution model for the savvy producer.

"Jason had this system where you would make a movie and it would either come out on 3,000 screens with Universal [Pictures] support, or disappear into the furthest reaches of iTunes – not even the central iTunes, but the Dagobah system where Yoda lives," Whannell says of Blumhouse's microbudget genre distribution arm, BH Tilt.

"He wanted a sub-label within Blumhouse that landed in the middle, where you could release a movie on 1,500 screens instead of 3,000 and spend less on marketing, but you’d still get a cinematic release.

“He was like, ‘I think this movie is a cult movie; it’s half “John Wick” and half “Ex Machina,” and I like it sitting in this space. $30 million in billboards all over Los Angeles is not going to help you. What’s going to help you is word of mouth.’ So BH Tilt is supposed to accommodate that.”

Writer and director Leigh Whannell on the set of "Upgrade."
Writer and director Leigh Whannell on the set of "Upgrade." (Lisa Tomasetti / BH Tilt)

“Tilt we started for movies exactly like this,” Blum says. “The way we make our movies is we look at the movie and then we choose the right shape of distribution. I’m very glad that we had Tilt as an option for this because I think it’s exactly the right way for it to be released.”

It was a relief for Whannell as well. “I’ve been involved in movies that were low budget that did really well, but I’ve also made the movies that disappeared into on demand,” he says with a grin, “and I can tell you, the hit version is better.”

Blum is optimistic about the new evolution of the BH Tilt distribution plan, which if successful could save more Blumhouse micro-budget productions from quick and obscure non-theatrical releases. “We’ll know after the weekend how it went,” he says. “But so far it feels very good.”

On paper, says Blum, low-budget action movies are less commercial than horror movies — and they’re more easily financed when they’re anchored by a known movie star or household name. Instead, he says, “We built ours around a terrific actor.”

Whannell cast Marshall-Green after seeing his acting chops on display in Karyn Kusama’s “The Invitation,” but the “Upgrade” role nevertheless had unusual demands.

“I said, ‘So... I want your head to be doing something different than your body in this movie,’” recalls Whannell of an early conversation with Marshall-Green. “There was a pause and he said, ‘Cool.’ Which is very Logan.”

The actor immersed himself in extensive training for the grueling physical performance; in some of “Upgrade”s most striking and impressive action scenes Grey reacts in real-time shock, bemusement, and horror to the lethal killing machine his own body becomes under the control of STEM.

(L-R) - Logan Marshall-Green in a scene from "Upgrade."
(L-R) - Logan Marshall-Green in a scene from "Upgrade." (Ben King / BH Tilt)

The disconnect of body and mind is most extreme in a dynamic fight sequence contained entirely in a cramped apartment. “It was a stressful day of shooting because we were in a tiny kitchen, and there wasn’t really room for the camera crew, and the sun was going down. We were really juggling chainsaws that day,” recalls Whannell. “But I love the surprise on his face. What Logan did there, I love.”

It’s Marshall-Green’s face that Whannell has been hoping to see staring back at him from the stark black and red “Upgrade” billboards, ideally all across Los Angeles, in the lead-up to the film’s release. At least, Whannell jokes, savvy marketers seem to have blanketed the streets around his home.

“Someone told me a secret that studios and distribution companies put posters up near where filmmakers live,” he laughs. “I believe that conspiracy! They’re going to paper Los Feliz and make me think that it’s everywhere.”

Still, Whannell admits that he feels a lot riding on “Upgrade,” even after enjoying one of the most successful careers in horror in the last few decades. In addition to test-driving the BH Tilt/Neon model, it’s also the first movie that feels entirely his.

“This is the first statement of just me,” he muses candidly. “My identity was so wrapped up in being James Wan’s partner in crime, that when he went off into the world [to direct films such as ‘Furious 7’ and ‘Aquaman’] he wasn’t coming back. It was almost like a breakup, even though we were still friends. I was like, ‘Wait – who am I without James?’

“Even with ‘Insidious 3,’ I still felt linked to James by the umbilical cord – it was part of his world. … I’m sort of relieved that I’m proud of [‘Upgrade’]. The success part of it, I just have to keep telling myself, is not up to me.”

Leigh Whannell in the movie "Saw."
Leigh Whannell in the movie "Saw." (Greg Gayne / Lions Gate Films)

Blum is banking on audiences that have already seen their fill of blockbusters — viewers who might be hungry for something different.

“I think the marketplace expands with the product that’s out there,” says Blum. “The hope is [since] there’s been tentpole after tentpole after tentpole, there’s a demand out there for movies other than tentpoles, and hopefully this movie will fulfill that demand.”

Looking back to the first “Saw” film, whose success took everyone — including Whannell — by surprise, the filmmaker sees a completely different world. “I feel like ‘Saw’ was released in the last days of the monoculture,” he says. “Everything’s fractured now. Now summer is five months long and every weekend is a blockbuster that’s part of a cinematic universe, and they take up so much media bandwidth. With a movie like this, when you’re an original that’s smaller, the question becomes, how do I cut through the noise?

“This is the first time that I’ve made a film that is trying to compete with the Marvels and the ‘Star Wars’ movies of the world, and that’s daunting,” says Whannell. “I have no idea whether a movie like this can signal enough in the landscape we live in. I guess I’ll find out.”

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