Leigh Whannell, the writer behind the SAW and INSIDIOUS franchises, certainly knows how to scare the hell out of us. Despite that, nothing he has made seems so utterly frightening as his latest effort (his second as director), UPGRADE, which made its world premiere at SXSW. Set in the not so distant future where technology runs our lives (i.e. next week), the action SciFi revolves around the analog-loving Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) who works on vintage cars for excessively rich clients. His own car is the typical self-driving model which, during a malfunction, propels him and his wife on a collision course with a bad neighborhood and a group of thugs who kill his wife and leave Trace paraplegic.
His reclusive client, a tech genius played by Harrison Gilbertson, makes Trace an offer, an embedded chip in his spine that will restore his motor capabilities… actually making him better than ever. And then… well, hilarity ensues? If you find it hilarious that a protagonist essentially gives over his body to an AI so his revenge can reach its fruition. Meanwhile, Detective Cortez (GET OUT’s Betty Gabriel), basically the ‘last human standing’ on the police force, finds her investigation of Trace’s accident quickly becoming an investigation of him.
I had a chance to sit down with Whannell, Marshall-Green and Gabriel at SXSW and talk about the film… and a lot about my own personal nightmares.
BEARS: I’m terrified of technology. I feel like this is the first film that captures all of my worst-case scenarios. My wife works in technology, specifically in Internet of Things and wearable technology, so I hear about all this stuff all the time and it terrifies me. Can you talk a bit about the impulse to make this film? Are you as terrified as the film seems you might be?
Whannell: It’s interesting, for me, when I come up with a story idea for a film, it’s always story first. There’s always a story or a plot that comes into my head. The themes of the film and the ideas and the unconscious things, they seem to creep in later. The first SAW movie, James Wan and I were trying to come up with a really cheap film we could shoot in one room. We came up with this game film, with two guys chained up in a room and that’s a good way to keep them stuck in a room. When I look back at that film now, so much of that film is about my fear of illness and death. At the time I was writing it, I was having anxiety problems but I was in my mid-twenties, so I couldn’t understand it. Long story short, I was visiting hospitals and getting CAT scans and it was really weird. So much of the fear at that time is in that movie, but I didn’t know it. It was kind of unconscious. I think with Upgrade, I do have a lot of fear of technology. In answering you, I realize that it’s all there. The funny thing it’s only getting worse week by week. Like wars are going to be started on Twitter. That’s a new thing. That’s a new thing for world leaders to be logging insults at each other on Twitter! It’s fine for a fourteen-year-old to be like, “you suck!” But I’ve never seen a president do it. It makes me so anxious. The way we’re using tech is scary to me.
BEARS: And those tweets go into a logarithms that gets funneled out onto certain peoples’ readers. That’s all technology.
Whannell: Exactly! Technology is absolutely changing us. Everything you’re hearing about today, whether it’s fake news, it all comes from this technology and how we’ve used it. The technology’s changed us to the point where you can section off the world to only reflect your own viewpoint now. You can live in this little bubble. I think it’s scary.
BEARS: You’ve often written movies and then after chosen to act in them. You chose not to do that in this case. So how did it feel to basically have an avatar in a film that is essentially about avatars?
Whannell: It was great! I didn’t want to act. I found that really hard to do. I can’t imagine how someone like Clint Eastwood does it. I think it’s very confusing to do a scene and then run back behind the monitor. I prefer not to be involved. Plus, these guys are amazing actors. Let’s let them do the acting. I really enjoyed it. It was great to have real partners in Logan and Betty. I wanted to make them creative collaborators and invite them in and not be like, “okay, you guys are actors, just say those lines.”
BEARS: Betty, right now we’re in the age where technology’s invading our procedurals so much so — like cop shows are essentially technology shows. That’s happening in real life too. But yet your character is like — you’re like the last human standing. Can you talk about portraying that?
Gabriel: I think my favorite part was the headphones. I don’t know why. It just felt like very — the foam — so old school.
Whannell: I remember talking to you when I first met you and saying on the phone, “so do you hate technology?” And you were like, “Yes! I don’t like social media. It makes me anxious.” And I was like, yep, that’s it.
Gabriel: I didn’t get a smart phone until 2012. No joke. But I can definitely appreciate technology, me as a person. Playing Cortez, I felt like she was such a cool person because she was anti-technology. She was about looking people in the eye. There’s a lot of lines where she says, “my mom” this, or “you have a great haircut.” She’s very real. That really informed my character, that sort of wavelength she operates on.
Marshall-Green: I love that moment with the headphones being on, and you take them off — I love that line, you take them off, SILENCE. She knows how to use it.
Whannell: That’s really what I wanted that character to be — the last human standing in the room. Within a film, you’ve only got a certain amount of characters within the bandwidth of the movie and so I wanted Cortez to represent the last human standing.
BEARS: Logan, one of the things in the film I really enjoyed were those moments where your body is doing one thing but your performance is in a totally different place. You’re like, ‘please don’t get up, please don’t get up,’ while you’re beating the hell out of someone. Can you talk a little bit about that dichotomy on screen?
Marshall-Green: Yeah it was scary! The thing that frightened me the most was what Leigh’s character needed. There were really only two versions. There was the version I think we achieved and the other version is something much more broad and two dimensional, instead of what I think we strove for. Or tried to do. Which is to deepen him. It was definitely an audition in front of the camera, if you will, of watching this head be pulled around by this body. The only approach I knew to do was to get the muscle memory very strict in these fights and choreograph them and understand that from fingers, to shoulders, to knees, to toes. It had to be very strict. Rigorously neutral. But everything up, I had to just be very calm in how I approached these fights.
Whannell: You know it was the first time Logan saw the film last night. So, what did you think of the fight scenes?
Marshall-Green: I loved them! I thought they were gorgeous.
BEARS: They’re so much fun. It was like the first time watching Terminator. It had that moment of, “wow, I’ve never seen this before!” What are you guys most terrified for in the future, with technology?
Marshall-Green: I think war. Like they say, technology shows itself in porn, then in war. It’s true. Sex and death. We should think those things are so visceral that they would have nothing it, but actually it has everything to do with it. I was watching The Atlas robot. It’s this walking robot, but now he can do backflips. He does a lot of hilarious falls forward when they kick him.
Whannell: I keep thinking it’s a man in a suit. Like that’s not a real thing.
Marshall-Green: It looks like it. You know that we and others are taking full advantage of tech we don’t really understand yet and using it in ways to kill people.
Whannell: I feel the same way. I feel like human beings will start the war, but the tech will finish it. That’s what makes me afraid. But then there’s the other side of things that make me sad. What makes me sad with technology is how it’s dehumanizing us as people are living their entire lives through their phone and creating avatars of themselves online, the perfect version of them. Nobody puts their toenail fungus on Instagram. It’s always them on the Greek Islands. C’mon, Steve, I know you were not recently in the Greek Islands. We’re building these avatars and I think when VR comes in, that’s going to take that to the next level. That’s going to be 4D Instagram.
BEARS: And people would just live in it forever.
Whannell: People would much prefer to be in that world where they can curate their experience and be whoever they want. This is all right around the corner. That doesn’t so much make me afraid but it makes me sad.
BEARS: Betty, you ‘hate technology’ – are we heading into a dangerous future?
Gabriel: I’ve seen people say it. What happens when they deem us irrelevant and part of the cancer.
Whannell: Elon Musk says it’s a bigger threat than North Korea.
Gabriel: If you really look at human beings and what we’re doing to the planet, it makes logical sense to get rid of us.
BEARS: Great, on that note . . .
Whannell’s UPGRADE gets its US theatrical June 1, 2018.