After the Australian debut of his science-fiction thriller Upgrade at the Sydney Film Festival last week, Leigh Whannell was ambushed by fans. "There was a lot of pale skin and Saw DVDs to autograph," says the Los Angeles-based Australian screenwriter-actor-director. "Those are my people."
Despite the residual boyishness in his face and the ability to casually compare himself to creatures from the 1982 fantasy film The Dark Crystal, the one-time RMIT film student is now 41 years old and at a turning point in his career. While he insists he's not famous, Whannell's creations with his long-time friend and collaborator James Wan certainly are: the Saw and Insidious franchises are among the most profitable, and long-running, in the horror genre.
Made in Melbourne, Upgrade is a sci-fi film about a man who becomes paralysed after a car crash but regains the use of his legs through an implant called STEM.
But for Whannell, Upgrade is different. "This feels like the first time I've made something that's a statement of me alone," he says. "I wrote it, I directed it. It's a fork in the road."
Upgrade is set in a near-future America where technology has moved from phones and homes into human bodies. It is a world that is anathema to Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a mechanic who prefers working on analogue muscle cars to the computer-controlled self-drive vehicles that dominate the roads. But when his wife is murdered by unknown assailants with enhanced bodies and he's left as a quadriplegic, Grey reluctantly accepts a tech billionaire's offer of a neural implant named STEM to reactivate his body.
Logan Marshall-Green stars as Grey Trace, a mechanic with an ambivalent relationship to technology.
Looking for revenge, and with STEM not only directing his body but also speaking to him, Grey sees the best and worst of technology. It is a miracle he can even move, but when he authorises STEM to take control he finds his crippled body is now capable of brutally precise acts of violence. "I can do it for you," STEM reassures Grey, "you don't even have to look." And so Grey becomes a horrified observer to his own acts of bloody retribution.
"That speaks to what human beings are willing to let others do for them," says Whannell. "We don't want to get our hands dirty, but we're happy for the military or the government do the dirty work for us. There's a lot of anxiety about what we delegate as humans to technology. I wanted to imagine that a few years down the road, where it's further advanced."
Though it's dressed in the clothing of a revenge movie, he says, "I didn't want to make a film about a guy out for justice who takes down the bad guys. I wanted to make a film about someone who thought they wanted that, but then had to watch as his body does these things he's unsure of and ashamed about."
Whannell is a fan of 1980s genre films such as The Terminator, Scanners and The Thing, VHS-era features that created a distinct reality on a manageable budget and snuck in subversive ideas beneath the action sequences or horror-movie shock cuts.
Writer-director Leigh Whannell: “One rule I have is to only get involved in something I’m super passionate about.”
"The first Robocop movie works as a sci-fi genre piece where the good guy takes out the bad guys, but the more you examine it as you get older the more you realise it's a corporate satire working on a whole other level," says Whannell. "I love how genre films Trojan-horse these concepts into the public arena as a good-time movie."
Upgrade is Whannell's second film as director, following 2015's Insidious: Chapter 3, but he says he was never obsessed with making the transition from screenwriting. He was happy being part of a team with Wan, an experience he compares to being in a band. On a recent 10-city promotional tour of the US for Upgrade, he was reminded of a similar campaign he and Wan did in 2004 as unknowns launching Saw. "It's just great to have someone to share it with," Whannell says.
Before the crash: Melanie Vallejo as Asha Trace and Logan Marshall-Green as Grey Trace.
But in recent years, work has taken them along differing paths. Wan is now in the blockbuster realm, having corralled the stars and cars of 2015's Fast & Furious 7 before moving on to the forthcoming DC comic-book adaptation Aquaman. Whannell, meanwhile, is focused on smaller, original concepts.
"I like creating my own world from the ground up instead of trying to make an interpretation of someone else's world," he says. "You can make the film at a certain price and keep creative control instead of being micro-managed by producers and executives."
To that end, he made Upgrade in Melbourne, at Docklands Studios and on location, and he found local experts in practical effects such as prosthetics to do the work normally done now by digital companies.
Operating far from the eyes of Hollywood doesn't seem to have hurt any: after 10 days in American cinemas, Upgrade has taken more than $12 million at the box office, roughly double the budget. Along the way, it also bucked the recent trend of original science-fiction films being sold straight to Netflix for streaming worldwide.
"It was definitely a gamble to try and get a sci-fi action movie in there alongside The Avengers, but as a filmmaker I love movie theatres," Whannell says. "I'm from an era where they were booming and I have a lot of affection for them, and I still believe they're the best place to see a film."
Though they are on different paths right now, Whannell says he and Wan remain close. There's a reference to his friend slipped into Upgrade, while earlier this year Whannell flew from Los Angeles to the Gold Coast just so he could shoot a two-line cameo in Aquaman. When he arrived on set, he found Wan inside a giant sound stage, directing Nicole Kidman and Jason Momoa.
It was a moment that Whannell saw as triumphant, given the occasional travails of their adventures in the movie game.
"He's made films that haven't done well and he's gone to director jail for a while, where no one wanted to work with him," Whannell says. "I got my bad scripts out of my system in public. I've written bad movies that were actually produced. Dead Silence, the  film we made after Saw, was a complete bomb."
Still, he learnt from it.
"Now, one rule I have is to only get involved in something I'm super passionate about. Don't get involved in a movie that someone else is super passionate about, or that a producer or agent is trying to talk you into.
"It's easy to get wrapped up in that and say fine, but that's proven for me to be the wrong path to take."
Upgrade is on limited release
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