The New & The Visceral: Leigh Whannell On ‘UPGRADE’ & Modern Filmmaking

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Hollywood legend states that when he was trying to get the original Saw film made, Leigh Whannell actually put himself into the rusty bear trap as seen in the original short film and the posters. With that kind of dedication to his craft, it’s no wonder that 15 years later he has written several of the biggest horror films of the past 20 years and is now directing a sci-fi film called Upgrade that pays homage to an era of practical effect films that seemed to have disappeared into time.

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Leigh Whannell sat across from us in a back room made for karaoke at an Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, TX. He was far from his home in Australia but right in the heart of a place that loves his brand of filmmaking.

“When you make a film with Blumhouse, they let you make the film you want to make. They don’t bombard you with notes and nitpicking the dailies. They just let you do it so it’s kind of a live by the sword, die by the sword operation.”

This style of filmmaking isn’t so different from Whannell’s humble beginnings in the movie industry. He got his start with a short film that would eventually grow into a film franchise that spanned much of the first decade of the 20th century called Saw. The original short film was only 10 minutes long and was made on a shoestring budget, however, it terrified audiences and quickly made a name for both Whannell, the writer and lead actor, and director James Wan.

From that first short film, Saw evolved into a cultural hallmark of the early 2000’s with Whannell writing the first 3 films in the franchise. Whannell eventually walked away from writing Jigsaw, but he wasn’t done terrifying audiences just yet. After the release of Saw III, he set his sights on a new set of stories and wrote the bone-chilling Dead Silence.

After a few more successes, Whannell was given the opportunity to direct his first film which was the horror classic Insidious. He did not return to direct Insidious: Chapter 2 or Insidious: Chapter 3, but continued to write the stories for the films. This year, Whannell is releasing a sci-fi film that he wrote and directed called Upgrade. This film follows the story of Grey Trace, a man who becomes a paraplegic in a savage mugging but finds his body restored by an artificial intelligence called STEM.

With John Wick style action and more practical effects than any movie in recent memory, it’s only natural that Upgrade would run into some production difficulties:

“The main roadblock for this film was cash. We had beer money and we were trying to make champagne.”

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Money seems to be the bane of the modern movie industry’s existence and is one of the main reasons that films like Upgrade don’t get made anymore. However, Whannell proves that a modern film does not have to be a big budget blockbuster for it to blow you away. He made a point to acknowledge the members of his production team that make an amazing looking movie with a small budget possible:

“It’s really all credit due to the stunt team in Australia. It was their [the stunt team’s] passion that let us make champagne with beer money.”

With many Hollywood directors on the verge of becoming a known commodity in the movie industry, it’s unusual to hear them sing the praises of the crew that helped them but Whannell made it a point to recognize the people on movie sets that are often forgotten when someone compliments a movie.

Given his humble beginnings as a filmmaker, Whannell offered some words of wisdom to the next generation of filmmakers as they start in the industry that it took him years to break in to:

“My advice would be to go get a phone, get your laptop, get some editing programs, and just go make stuff. Don’t wait for someone else to give you the money to make a film, just start shooting it with your phone and send it to festivals.”

In many ways, this is exactly how he got started by writing and starring in his Saw short film 15 years ago and it led him to a place where he has full creative control over a film that he is both writing and directing. He continued with his advice for young filmmakers to really stress making a film and taking a chance with it:

“A really good story in a film festival shot by a couple of kids on their own, that’s still a story. That’s an angle you can hang publicity off of.”

In a time where it seems like every new movie in theaters had a huge budget and an overwhelming amount of CGI, it’s refreshing to hear from someone who has been successful in Hollywood without all of that. He even forced his way into the industry in the same manner that he’s telling young filmmakers too.

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However, it’s not all about low budget films. As with any artist, Whannell wants to broaden his horizons into the extremely popular superhero genre that we know and love.

“I feel like I would really want to dip into the Saturday morning cartoon world,” he said with a childlike glow to him. His dream film isn’t what you would expect from many upcoming directors but given his heavy influence from the 80’s it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that his dream hero films are He-Man and Thundarr the Barbarian.

In an era where many movies are evolving into fully computer-generated graphics and further away from the practical effects of older movies that we know and love. Leigh Whannell is bringing new films to audiences but with the flair of movies from a previous generation, and it would appear that he is here to stay.

Taylor Tyler

Upgrade hits theaters June 1st

Set in the near-future, technology controls nearly all aspects of life. But when Grey, a self-identified technophobe, has his world turned upside down, his only hope for revenge is an experimental computer chip implant called Stem.

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