Why ‘Upgrade’ is Leigh Whannell’s ‘Terminator,’ Not His ‘Venom’

Chris Tilly
Movies Horror
Movies Horror Sci-Fi Marvel

Leigh Whannell made his name in horror having written and starred in the likes of Saw and Insidious. But this year he made the move into action via Upgrade, which stars Logan Marshall-Green and hits UK screens this Friday (August 31). The film’s plot is as follows…

After his wife is killed during a brutal mugging that also leaves him paralyzed, Grey Trace is approached by a billionaire inventor with an experimental cure that will ‘upgrade’ his body. The cure — an Artificial Intelligence implant called STEM — gives Grey physical abilities beyond anything experienced and the ability to relentlessly claim vengeance against those who murdered his wife and left him for dead.

We caught up with Leigh while he was in London for a FANDOM screening of the movie at FrightFest, and asked about the influence of The Terminator and Venom on his movie, as well as what he has planned next.

Leigh Whannell on the set of Upgrade.

FANDOM: Where did the inspiration for Upgrade come from?

Leigh Whannell: It was kind of two things at once. I wanted to do a low-budget sci-fi movie; something along the lines of the first Terminator film. I’d done Insidious with Blumhouse so I knew that they worked in this realm of $5m movies and they give you all the creative freedom. They let you go off and do what you want. Then you have to fall on that sword. If the film isn’t good, they’re like ‘too bad,’ and if it’s good, they’ll put it out. But I liked that system of creative freedom, and I thought it might suit something like this. I thought that if the first Terminator movie were made today, I feel like you could make it in that Blumhouse model. Like if you go back and rewatch The Terminator it is pretty down and dirty. It’s not a big-budget movie. I feel like you could pull it off, so that’s what I was trying to do. Then I had the idea for Upgrade, of this quadriplegic guy being controlled. And that was it; my version of The Terminator.

FANDOM: Was comic book character Venom any influence on the movie?

Whannell: No I didn’t know much about Venom and then I saw the trailer [for the forthcoming Tom Hardy movie] and thought ‘Oh my god, that’s just Upgrade.’ But I don’t know which came first; obviously Venom’s been around for a while. Was it always a guy with a voice talking to him and controlling him?

FANDOM: It’s an alien ‘Symbiote’ that bonds with a human host, making them more powerful.

Whannell: Ah yeah. Well no it wasn’t an influence at all. But obviously they got there first, obviously Venom’s been around for a while. I guess it looks like I was taking from them but I was much more influenced by [David] Cronenberg movies than comic books. But I can imagine if Venom had come out first I’d be like ‘Oh God!’ But it’s a different realm. That’s a big Marvel movie that’s going to have a huge advertising budget. They’ll have a lot more of a presence. We felt like we were the scrappy underdog. We released in fewer theatres without much of a marketing budget. So we’re more of the down and dirty low-budget version of something like Venom.

FANDOM: You made the movie look a lot more expensive than it was — how?

Whannell: I don’t know if there’s one solution. It’s really that you have to approach it scene-by-scene. One thing is to parcel out the so-called ‘money shots’ – if you go and see a big Marvel movie or a Star Wars movie, every third shot is a big wide shot of some world. They have the money to saturate the film with scope and grandeur. Whereas with a movie like this you have to be very surgical. There’s only one wide shot of the city in the movie. In the whole movie, just one. That’s the type of thing you have to do. Be very precise about where you’re going to put your eggs; in what baskets. So there were certain things I wasn’t prepared to compromise on, and there were other things I had to sacrifice. The trick is knowing what you can sacrifice and what has to stay. So as the writer-director, I had a firm grasp of what I was not willing to touch. Many times they would come to me and say ‘What if we had one less fight sequence? What if we cut the fight scene with Fisk?’

You have to kind-of do an impersonation of somebody throwing a wobbly. I’m not that person in real-life, but I know some directors do scream and yell at people and get upset. So I have to fake it. But you kind of have to fake it to get your message across. So they would ask about cutting one of the fight scenes, and I’d be like [shouts] ‘No! No! No! No! I won’t f**king do it!’ And they’d be like ‘Alright, settle down.’ But after a while they’d be like ‘That’s a terrible impersonation of an angry, sh**ty person.’ I’m not convincing when I try to be like that. But you just have to know; it’s like playing Tetris; you just have to keep shifting the parts around until it fits. I think the movies that inspired this movie, like The Terminator, they’re like that. When you watch that movie, you can see where they’ve decided to spend the money. They’re like ‘Let’s put all the money into that end sequence when his face gets ripped off and the truck explodes and he’s a skeleton…’ They’ve put all their eggs in that basket. And prior to that it’s just Arnold Schwarzenegger walking around. That’s kind of the approach that we took.

FANDOM: The action is pretty original and unique. How did you shoot that incredible first fight sequence?

Whannell: I actually wrote in the script ‘Gray starts fighting with a guy’ and then I wrote ‘His fighting style is strange and stilted.’ But it’s one thing to write that line, and another thing to physically bring it to life. So we had our stunt team; Chris Anderson was our stunt co-ordinator, who is a legendary stunt co-ordinator in Australia. He worked on the first Mad Max film. And then Stefan Duscio was the cinematographer. He’s a young guy but I just think he’s really talented. So when we got together we had to decipher that line. Chris doesn’t pull any punches, he’s been around the block, so he’s like ‘Yeah, what the f**k does strange and stilted mean?’

I said to the stunt team ‘I want you to go against everything you’ve learned about fight scenes. I want you to actively work against your intuition. Because a computer is doing the fighting. And when a computer fights it’s not bouncy or fluid like a human being. There’s a scrappiness to humans, but a computer takes the path of least resistance. So I want the fights to look very short and sharp, as if the computer was trying to end the fight quickly.’ A lot of the stunt team were trained martial arts guys, so they would say ‘If I wanted to end a fight like that [clicks fingers] I’d aim for this [points to chest] because if you hit someone there you can crush them or stop their heart.’ So that’s what a computer would do. It doesn’t make for a very long fight scene.

We started with that. Then Stefan and I came up with the idea of using a technique where we locked a camera to the actors. So it wasn’t like one thing, it was more like a stew where we put a whole bunch of things in there. And then of course the key thing was Logan. He was such a graceful mover and he had such a physical presence that I think he sold the weirdness of those fight scenes.

FANDOM: What’s up next for you?

Whannell: I don’t know. I’m working on a couple of scripts. I’m always envious of those directors who finish a movie and then have their next script ready to go. I run into them all the time. I’m always thinking ‘How do you find the time to do that?’ Once I finish something I’m at a loss for what to do. So right now I’m in the writing stage of a couple of movies, but I don’t know which one’s going to win the race. Or which one will take a long time. But one’s a horror film and one’s a sci-fi movie. I do know that I’ve got the bug. With Upgrade I definitely got the action film bug. I’d love to do this with more money. See what it’s like to spend more money and do the $40m version of Upgrade.

Upgrade hits UK cinemas on Friday (August 31).

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
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