Last weekend, Leigh Whannell’s latest directorial effort, Upgrade, celebrated its world premiere during the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. The gritty and ambitious slice of sci-fi awesomeness follows Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a man who becomes a quadriplegic after a group of thugs murder his wife and violently attack him. Trace finds a new purpose in life after an implant known as STEM takes over all his motor functions and transforms him into a lean, mean, killing machine looking to enact some well-deserved vengeance on the men who nearly cost him everything. And the only thing standing in the way of Grey’s revenge-fueled journey is a cop (Betty Gabriel), who can’t quite figure out just how the once-disabled man has been able to pull it all off.
While in Austin, Daily Dead caught up with Whannell, as well as Upgrade co-stars Marshall-Green and Gabriel, to chat about collaborating together on the futuristic actioner, the inspirations behind Whannell’s script, how they approached the unbelievably cool action scenes, and more.
So, I'm going to start with you, Leigh Whannell. I’ve gotten to know your sensibilities as a storyteller over the years now, and I think Upgrade feels very much outside of the realm we’ve seen from you, which was cool. What was it about this world of technology that intrigued you to make a film like Upgrade and really just go for broke in terms of this world and all the different action sequences? I do think this is probably your most ambitious film that you've done in your career thus far.
Leigh Whannell: For sure. Well, after I directed Insidious 3, I just got the directing bug. It happens. Logan just directed a film, too.
Logan Marshall-Green: I got it from you.
Leigh Whannell: Did you really get the bug?
Logan Marshall-Green: Oh, yeah—I want more, more, more now.
Leigh Whannell: It's really addictive. When you're the writer, you make the film on paper. So, there is a certain sadness that comes with handing it off and letting someone else make all the decisions. As someone who's done that for a long time, to have written a movie and then watched someone else take it over, it can be tough.
Sometimes the decisions of the director don't match up with what you were thinking while you were writing, and so I really loved getting to see this story that I had in my head become realized on screen. After I finished Insidious 3, the question that you always have is, “What's next?” I've always had this real desire to make a film that had its cake and ate it too, as they say. I wanted to make a film that was cheap enough to have the freedom of independent movies, which are the type of movies that Blumhouse makes. You know that Blumhouse gives you total creative freedom to just make the film you want to make, but the caveat is they don't give you much money. So, you take the good with the bad.
What I wanted was that freedom, but I wanted the film to feel much bigger, too, and so I looked to films like the first Terminator as inspiration. That, to me, is a film that is fairly, rough and tumble—not many shooting days, not much money, but when you watch that movie, even today, it holds up and it feels bigger than it is. The special effects were Arnold Schwarzenegger. You plant a seed in the audience's mind that he's a robot and you go along for the ride. Towards the end they show a little bit of his exoskeleton, but prior to that he's just a guy walking around. As an audience member, you think that he's a robot and it makes the film feel bigger and more expensive, and that's how I came up with the idea for Upgrade where, in this film, Logan is the special effect. He's playing a character who has all this technology inside of him.
For Logan and Betty, these are very different roles than we've seen both of you in before. What was the appeal coming into this project—was it just being able to play in a different playground artistically and go against expectations?
Betty Gabriel: I was really excited to work with Leigh and get that opportunity, because his stories are so surprising and exciting, and I knew this was going to be just that as well. As far as the character goes, she felt like a woman who I could do even though there were a lot of considerations to who she was, especially physically. I was like, “Yeah, I can do this.” So, it always helps to have that bit of confidence in yourself when you’re trying something new. She felt like someone that was really intriguing and serious, and I just wanted to play a cool character in a cool movie. That's basically the gist of it.
Logan Marshall-Green: It was definitely an interesting role for me in my career. Not so much that I felt like it was something that I hadn't done, because it definitely was that. But Leigh and I talked at first, and it was just one of those phone calls that you tend to make when there's not an audition. Which is like, “Okay, you're not crazy and you're not an asshole, either” [laughs]. You check those boxes first and then we got into a creative dialogue from there.
So, Leigh and I really wanted to push ourselves to work this character from the neck down in one way, with his head being our emotional journey in this story, and we still care about this guy even if his body is doing these horrible things. We have to care about him and root for him. So, we talked about it, and we worked on it, and as I was putting all the fight choreography together, I just worked it from the neck down. We worked really hard, but this was just something I didn't know if I could really do until we actually did it.
Leigh Whannell: It was really like that.
Logan Marshall-Green: It was wild, but that razor's edge approach is a terrific way to work, especially if it works, and Leigh and I knew the guy that he wrote, and we just dove into him and all this physicality that came along with who he becomes.
I want to follow up on that real quick. In terms of the physicality, were there certain things that inspired you in terms of your movements? It's a very methodical feel once you have the implant taking over. I'm just curious if there were things that you watched, or you and Leigh discussed in terms of how you should approach the physicality.
Logan Marshall-Green: Yeah, well, there are three physical stories being told here. There's one that is Grey Trace before the accident, and we knew that we wanted to start our physical language there, where he’s hunched and he’s someone who is more badly postured. So, when STEM brings him upright, we really feel this guy being taken on a ride from the neck down.
The one that actually was the hardest in many ways was the quadriplegic story, and I worked with a guy, I won't say his name, but he lives up in Santa Barbara. I visited him a few times and spent the day with him and he was phenomenal in allowing me into his life and into his chair, and letting me lift the curtain on his real life. We drove in chairs for a mile over highways, and he taught me how to use the chair at the same time that we went to visit his doctor, and he allowed me to watch his colonic bag get changed and how he goes to the bathroom and how his hands look and everything. Actually, I had this huge moment in the middle of the night where, because I'm a nail biter, I realized I can't bite my nails and so I immediately stopped. So, for only like the second time in my life, I didn't bite my nails because that would give everything away. A quadriplegic can't bite his nails.
Then, there was the STEM part of the story, which involved days upon days with this incredible stunt team that Leigh grabbed. Chris Anderson and I also worked with a movement coach and it's the first time I really was about playback because there was a lot of physical storytelling. I also worked with Darren Engstrom, my movement coach and a Cirque Du Soleil dude, too. We didn't want it stiff. We wanted it like bamboo, like Bruce Lee in a way, so that the movement actually ripples instead of feeling stiff. We had to be diligent with everything, and the best part was how Leigh had written it all, and so it became a case of, "How do we now fill in the blanks?"
Leigh Whannell: But, it's a hard thing to do. You can write something, but in acting it is a whole different story. I'm so thankful to have met these guys. Without Logan and his dedication, this film wouldn't have worked. It just would have been dead in the water. What Logan does is sell this idea so well and there is no CGI trickery in there. That's just him moving his body and he really sells it.
Both Betty and Logan really gave their all here. Even in the car chase, they were both doing their own driving. I remember Betty saying, "I love that I get to be a badass." I wanted there to be an authenticity, so that everything you saw, you saw the actors. There was a lot that these guys had to do in a short amount of time. We didn't have much money, so I'm so thankful to them for what they brought to the film.