[Interview] ‘Upgrade’ Writer/Director Leigh Whannell on CGI Gore and His Upcoming Mystery Project
Leigh Whannell has been a mainstay of the horror genre ever since he burst onto the scene with 2004’s Saw, a film that he both co-wrote and starred in. Since then he has written two Saw sequels, the ventriloquist doll horror film Dead Silence and all four Insidious films. Up next for Whannell is the upcoming sci-fi thriller Upgrade, which he both wrote and directed (it his is second directorial effort after Insidious: Chapter 3). In the film, a paraplegic man named Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) uses an experimental computer chip (nicknamed STEM) embedded in his spinal cord to become a superhuman fighter and avenge his wife’s murder. I was fortunate enough to speak with Whannell when he stopped by Austin, Texas on his press tour.
With the exception of the Saw films, Whannell is wont to inject a healthy dose of comedy into his horror films. It has been used to various degrees of success in all four entries of the Insidious franchise (see: the characters of Tucker and Specs), Dead Silence and now Upgrade. Anyone who reads the comments on Bloody-Disgusting (something that I am guilty of) will know that some viewers aren’t the biggest fans of that choice, so I wanted to give Whannell a chance to explain his motives for making it:
“It depends on the movie you’re writing,” he said. “The movies sort of tell you what they want to be as you’re writing them. So when I work with James [Wan], especially when we do independent films together, we come up with this outlandish stuff. If you think about the first Saw movie there’s a doll on a tricycle and it’s pretty outlandish. That seems to be our chemistry when we’re working together, to go for this weird stuff. And so with Insidious, it seemed at the scriptwriting stage, it seemed to suit the movie. Whereas with Upgrade I slowly discovered as we were shooting the movie that the banter between Logan and STEM was fun. And I liked the idea of kind of a buddy cop movie where one of the characters is just a voice. I don’t think humor is something to be afraid of. You just have to ask yourself ‘Is this the movie to do it?’ A movie like Hereditary, which I recently saw and it’s great, is not the type of movie that begs to be funny. The script doesn’t need that do you really need to be good at judging what it needs and I thought Upgrade would be a better movie if there was a little bit of comedic tension between Grey and STEM.”
While viewers may find themselves divided on the necessity of comedy in a film like Insidious, Whannell (and critics) seem to think that they will be more than satisfied with the comedy in Upgrade (I’m a fan of all of his films, but Upgrade really hits the mark with the comedy).
As with many low-budget films, certain sacrifices must be made when it comes to production. One thing that horror fans are starting to see more and more of is the use of computer-generated blood as opposed to good old-fashioned fake blood. For a low-budget film (Blumhouse productions tend to stay within the $5 million range but a handful have gone as high as $10 million), Upgrade actually contains some nifty practical effects, the best of which can be seen in the rather spoiler-y red-band trailer. That being said, there are some fleeting moments of CGI blood. Most of them are relegated to gunshot splatter, but their mere presence will no doubt bother some viewers. Whannell provided a bit of an explanation for his use of CGI gore, stating:
“It’s usually dictated by pragmatism and practicality. The decision is made for you. For instance, a squib might not go off correctly. We had real squibs but human error. You hit that button and it doesn’t always work the way you need it to, so [CGI] is brought in to save something. I would never go for CGI blood either, but there were I think two scenes in the film where the squibs and the practical blood just didn’t work properly. So that’s when you have to, however reluctantly, bust out the CGI. If the practical works beautifully then it all comes together. I’d go for it every time if I could. And most of the time on this film the practical worked brilliantly.”
In reference to the aforementioned practical effect shown in the film’s red-band trailer (this contains a minor spoiler about which body part is involved so feel free to skip this next paragraph if you wish to be kept in the dark about this tidbit), Whannell said:
“There was a big chance that wasn’t going to work. We could only afford 2 practical heads. We didn’t have 6 like a film with a bigger budget might so we had 2 chances to get this right and the first one didn’t work. I’m not a religious man but I was praying to God. With each head you get one go so if the second head had not worked properly I would have had to call up the CGI company and ask them to help a brother out. So just know that for me at least, whenever you see CG blood, it’s usually to cover something that hasn’t worked.”
With such an esteemed filmography, one has to wonder what Whannell will be working on next, especially since Insidious 5 doesn’t seem to be in his future. Concluding the interview, Whannell gave us a brief, if vague update on what’s in store for him after Upgrade.
“I have this opportunity to write a script which I’m probably not allowed to talk about,” he said, “but I’m working on it right now. I can say it’s a horror film and it’s different than anything I’ve done. It’s a little more high-profile in the terms of the characters and it’s something that people know. But it’s not a remake. How’s that for a tongue twister? So I’m working on that. I’m really excited about it. I want it to be this really intense, Polanski-style horror.”
What could this mystery project be? It looks like we’ll have to wait to find out, but go ahead and hazard a guess in the comments!
Upgrade hits theaters nationwide this Friday, June 1, 2018.