There's a lot of good genre on the way. Next week sees one of the best horror films of the year, Hereditary, hitting theater screens and this weekend we have a straight up fun sci-fi action/body horror movie called Upgrade. The movie's about a guy who is paralyzed and used as a guinea pig by an eccentric Elon Musk type that claims his new AI can help paraplegics walk again. Naturally there's unseen consequences to this decision, including a kind of Gollum/Smeagol relationship that forms between the lead and the computer voice in his head.
The movie was written and directed by Leigh Whannell, one of the masterminds behind the original Saw and Insidious. Upgrade is crazy, playing like a real-deal movie version of the best '90s direct to VHS movie you never saw. It's fun, but not stupid if you catch my drift.
There's a clear sense of Whannell channeling some of his cinematic fetishes into this story, so when I had the chance to talk to him about it that's what we focus on. We discuss the evolution of his movie tastes and how that mirrored my own. In short, it's a chat that movie geeks can relate to. If that sounds like you, then enjoy yourself!
We do talk about Upgrade, too, don't worry. We don't spoil anything either. Double bonus!
Hope you folks enjoy the chat!
Eric Vespe: Everybody who is a big movie fan has that core group of movies or a particular genre that they loved growing up. What were yours?
Leigh Whannell: I guess it went in stages. It depends at which age you'd ask me. When I was 5 or 6 I was your pretty typical Star Wars kid, loving Star Wars, watching a VHS copy of that until it was completely worn out. Raiders of the Lost Ark... But actually my favorite film of that era was Jaws. Even more than Star Wars! I guess that maybe signposts an early love of horror, but I just loved Jaws so much. I was obsessed with movies.
As I got a bit older and was in my early teens I was basically loving video store staples. I grew up in the outer suburbs of Melbourne. It was very suburban and I wasn't deviating from the standard Die Hard/RoboCop/Lethal Weapon path. My parents weren't forcing me to watch Last Year at Marienbad, that's for sure. (laughs)
Through my teen years I loved genre films... horror films, sci-fi, stuff like Aliens. Then when I got into film school, that's when your palate gets expanded. All of a sudden you're watching foreign films you don't have access to in the suburbs of Melbourne. My local video store wasn't stocking Wim Wenders films! It's almost like A Clockwork Orange. They sit you in a chair and forcibly make you watch all this stuff from all over the world, from different time periods. I'd say that was the final evolution with me, in terms of my taste in films.
It's amazing, though, that as an adult, the films that I go back to are the ones I loved as a teenager. It's almost like comfort food for my soul. To sit down and watch Big Trouble In Little China, for me, is such comfort food.
Eric Vespe: I know what you mean. There are certain films that are “Any Time Movies.” No matter what mood you're in... if you're down, they'll bring you up, if you're happy they'll just magnify that. Big Trouble is definitely one of those. Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Big Lebowski, Little Shop of Horrors are big ones for me.
Leigh Whannell: Yep, yep. There's just a few that no matter will just put you there. E.T. is one for me. I can keep going back to E.T.
Eric Vespe: I think anybody who's a big movie fan will recognize that trajectory. I remember I took a film appreciation class at UT and while I dabbled in older cinema that's where I really became obsessed with it. The professor showed us Sunset Boulevard and it blew my mind. It got me to commit to exploring older films.
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, I think you're right. You have these watershed moments. I guess it's similar with music. Your music tastes evolve as you get older and you end up having these seminal moments when you're exposed to something that changes the trajectory of your musical tastes. And that happens with movies.
I was not deviating from the standard Die Hard path. All the suburban kids around me where I grew up, they loved Die Hard, too. They loved The Crow and Lethal Weapon and all this standard Hollywood action stuff, but I remember... I think it was my last year of high school, I ended up renting Reservoir Dogs on VHS and that was definitely a watershed moment. It was a huge moment. It stood out and marked itself as more special, somehow, than those other movies, those standard Hollywood action movies of the '80s and '90s.
I remember being excited about that film in a way that I hadn't been about other films. You're right. You can always look back and map out these points... they're kind of like the Monolith in 2001. They come to visit the monkeys every hundred years and shove us into the future.
Reservoir Dogs was definitely a black Monolith in the desert for me. It started me investigating movies in a different way. Instead of caring about who was in the movie, I wanted to know who was making the movie; who was behind the camera. That's not something I thought up prior to Reservoir Dogs.
I remember in that moment in time, with Tarantino, suddenly being a filmmaker was cool. It wasn't about being the movie star. In fact, I'd say that Tarantino was a much bigger star than any of this cast members.
These all add up to a picture when you stand back and look at them.
Eric Vespe: Yep. That era was full of that phenomenon. You had Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith as well, who were more famous than most of the name actors in their movies.
Leigh Whannell: Exactly.
Eric Vespe: I have a similar story... The short version is a friend of the family was a big movie nerd, so she'd take me out to see movies every weekend. She liked all sorts of movies, I was definitely more interested in genre. Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein had just come out and I wanted to see that. She said she'd take me to that if I'd go see this John Travolta movie after. I saw Frankenstein and hated it. I was fuming because the movie I wanted to see sucked and now I had to go see this stupid art house movie with the guy from Look Who's Talking in it. That one was, of course, Pulp Fiction.
Leigh Whannell: (laughs) That's such a good consolation prize!
Eric Vespe: Within the first five minutes of that movie my world had changed. There was something so different about film. It legitimately blew the doors open for me.
Leigh Whannell: People really propagate the mythology of the cinema of the '70s, that auteur era with Francis Coppola and William Friedkin and Steven Spielberg, but for people my age the '90s were really that moment. All of a sudden you cared about movies in a different way. Even the biggest redneck living in my suburban neighborhood had copies of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack! That's something that would not have happened prior to that film. It was such an explosion in the culture that it seeped out to the people who normally wouldn't care about stuff like that. Even my mum knows who Quentin Tarantino is, which is pretty amazing because I doubt she could name any other film directors. It was a huge time, an exciting time.
Eric Vespe: What I liked about Upgrade is that feels like a throwback film. The world is over the top, it has some ridiculous conceits in it, but you as a filmmaker takes it seriously, which I think is the magic formula of making a movie fun. I see a lot of movies that are super serious, I see a lot of movies that are super silly. I don't see a lot of people striving for that balance. Can you talk a little about hitting that tricky balance and maybe how some of the stuff you loved growing up fed into that?
Leigh Whannell: Well, I'm definitely influenced by those films that I mentioned growing up. I always loved contained sci-fi and movies with a dark, film noir bent to them, especially if they incorporated sci-fi. If you look back at the first Terminator film, it's kind of a mixture between a horror film, a film noir, set in the alleyways of Los Angeles and a sci-fi movie, but it's got this punk energy to it.
Sometimes they're very literal about those things. For instance, the first group of guys that the Terminator kills is a group of punks. The nightclub where Sarah Connor hides out is called Tech Noir. I've read plenty of stuff about that movie and James Cameron always coined the genre that way. He thought he was making a tech noir film.
One could look at as a marketing gimmick, but it's something he really bought into. You can't help what you love and I've always just loved that. I love movies that leave you with something, movies that aspire to change your perception of story. I guess I'm trying to dance around the word “gimmick.” It's such a dirty word, but I get really excited by “gimmick movies.”
When I first saw Memento I loved it. The whole gimmick of that movie playing backwards was exciting to me. I loved Run, Lola, Run and the gimmick of seeing the same story play out three times. Of course it has to be a good movie. You can't let the gimmick itself sell the movie. You have to make a good film, but I don't see anything wrong with a gimmick.
I love movies that try to push the genre they're working in and frame the narrative in an interesting way, whether it's playing it out backwards or repeating the same story three times. I've always kind of written to that. Even the first Saw movie was a non-linear film. I wanted to tell a thriller that was out of order, that felt like you were waking up from being unconscious and were remembering things.
Upgrade was kind of that to me. Some may look at it and sneer and say “What did you think was interesting about this?” But to me the idea of a character in a movie that was purely a voice in a guy's head... I found that really interesting. I feel like you always end up writing the movie you want to see and I feel like if I was 20 years old I would want to see Upgrade. That's a movie that's framed in a way that would excite me. That's what I'm always striving for. I want to satisfy the 20 year old movie-going version of me.
Eric Vespe: I think you do a good job with that here, for sure. Even people that I've seen that didn't love the movie all say “If I'd seen this when I was 15 it would have been my favorite movie ever!”
Leigh Whannell: (Laughs) I've seen a lot of reviews of this movie that are positive. I've lost count of the ones that say “It's silly. It's dumb fun, but it's great!” I'm like, “I thought when I made a film that good reviews the reviews would actually be good!”
Eric Vespe: (laughs) They're positive backhanded reviews is what you're saying?
Leigh Whannell: Yeah. My cheek is just red and stinging from the amount of backhanded compliments I've received on this one, but what're you going to do? Once the movie leaves your hands it's not yours anymore and you can't control the perception of it. You just let it go.
Eric Vespe: Awesome, man. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me. Good luck with the release!
Leigh Whannell: Thank you, mate. I appreciate it!
Upgrade is in theaters this weekend! Give it a shot if you like fun things!