Australian film director Leigh Whannell is also a screenwriter and actor. In the “Saw” films he plays Adam — the man in the bathtub. In the “Insidious” films he is Specs — a would-be ghost hunter. Whannell wrote the first three “Saw” movies, as well as the first four entries in the “Insidious” franchise. His first go at directing was with “Insidious: Chapter 3.” He again does writing/directing double duty on “Upgrade,” a science-fiction film with edges of horror about the possibility of a physical connection between humans and technology.
It’s the slightly futuristic story of car mechanic Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) who, along with his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo), is attacked and left for dead. Grey survives, awakes as a quadriplegic, and says yes to having a special microchip implanted that will allow him to regain his mobility and partake in revenge for the death of his wife. As you might expect, things go wrong. Whannell, 41, now an L.A. resident, visited Boston recently to chat about “Upgrade” as well as about working with his friend James Wan, who directed “Saw” and the first two “Insidious” films.
Q. When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?
A. As a kid I was obsessed with “Star Wars” and “Jaws,” but I couldn’t fathom that this was a thing you could do. I was interested in storytelling — I would write stories and I would act in school plays — but the moment I thought I wanted to do something behind the camera was in high school. I had a media teacher who was showing the class films like “Taxi Driver” and “Apocalypse Now,” and then explaining the films to us in a way I’d never heard before. That’s when I thought, “Oh, making films, putting them together, is what I want to do.”
Q. You knew James Wan from your film school days. Did you learn a lot by watching him on film sets?
A. Absolutely. Half the time I was studying what he was doing. But the rest of the time it was kind of unconscious. One of the main things I learned from James is that you can try things that seem difficult, and you don’t have to be on the side of the producers. I would watch him push the limits of what he had time and money for. I saw him get into heated discussions with the producers, saying, “I … need … to … DO … this!” Watching him do that made me realize that you have to fight for the movie at all times, no matter how much angst it’s causing the crew and the producers, because once you get into that editing room, you only have the movie you shot to work with.
Q. How did the idea for “Upgrade” come to you?
A. I’m always thinking about movie ideas, and one day I was sitting in my backyard, and I suddenly had a picture in my mind of a quadriplegic that was controlled from the neck down by a computer chip — a computer that allowed this person to walk. I couldn’t stop thinking about that and it started expanding out into a movie idea. I wrote it as a script, without a mind to direct it. then the years went by, I directed “Insidious 3,” I got the filmmaking bug, and decided, this is what I want to do.
Q. What’s the origin of the film’s term “biomechanical fusion?”
A. To me, biomechanical fusion describes when tech fuses with flesh. While I was writing the script, I read a book by Ray Kurzweil about how computers will eventually be part of our bodies, not something we hold. I love robot movies, but I was more interested in the idea that tech will be implanted. So biomechanical fusion, in that Cronenbergy way, felt messier to me, it felt visceral. Human beings are messy. We’re not clean, like robots. We have blood and organs. The idea of shoehorning tech into that was interesting.
Q. You were working with a very low budget, but you managed to get in a great car chase and some excellent fight scenes. How did you pull that off?
A. With a movie like this, where we’re trying to achieve so much and be so ambitious with a limited budget and a limited schedule, what you need to do is plan ahead, so meticulously that there are no surprises. In pre-production, we would look at the car chase and the fight scenes, and every day we would have meetings about those sequences. By the time we got to set, we knew them so well, that in the short amount of time we had to do them in, at least we knew exactly what we were doing.
Q. This is only the second film you’ve directed? Were you more nervous or more relaxed this time?
A. I think I was a little more relaxed, in the sense that when I directed “Insidious 3,” I was diving into the unknown. Being friends with James, and knowing other directors, I had heard all these war stories. But afterward, I realized that as stressful as it is, directing can be fun. So, I think I went into “Upgrade” with a little more confidence that this process doesn’t have to be hellish. I’ll probably eat my words on my next film and say, “Oh, that’s what they were talking about with the war stories.” This film was harder than my first, in terms of its ambition. But my attitude towards directing, and my confidence that it wouldn’t kill me, was up.
“Upgrade” opens on June 1.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.