In 2015, Leigh Whannell was named to Variety's 10 Directors to Watch list. He didn't see the honor coming, for three reasons: He had made only one film; it was a horror movie; and there was a number in its title (“Insidious: Chapter 3”).
Until then, the hard-working Australian screenwriter had been known as the co-creator, with director James Wan, of the wildly popular “Saw” and “Insidious” franchises. But it was not the first time Whannell had been blindsided by his own success. After the release of “Saw” – which he wrote in his early 20s with Wan, a classmate at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology – the two filmmakers traveled to the United States for a publicity tour and pretty much never left.
“I woke up 13 years later with a house and family,” Whannell jokes during an interview in Washington, D.C., for his newest film, the sci-fi thriller “Upgrade.” “I'm basically the equivalent of the person who's like, 'Hey, America, can I crash on your couch for two weeks?'”
Although “Upgrade” is doing well enough – it won the audience award in the Midnighters category at this year's SXSW festival – it's not the kind of big movie that Wan is now associated with. After sticking with his roots in horror – e.g., “The Conjuring” – Wan directed the monster 2015 hit “Furious 7” and he will helm the “Justice League” spinoff “Aquaman.”
Whannell, at least for the time being, prefers to keep things small.
With a plot evoking old-school sci-fi thrillers, “Upgrade” is the story of Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green of “Prometheus”), a technophobic auto mechanic who, after an assault renders him a paraplegic, is implanted with a high-tech device that gives him unsettling new abilities.
Whannell, 41, spoke about how the futuristic film, is, in its own way, a kind of horror film.
Q. Your longtime producer Jason Blum, a notorious tightwad, suggested that you go back to Australia to shoot “Upgrade.” As a citizen, you qualify for government funding there. But why Melbourne?
A. Melbourne is the city in Australia that is, for lack of a better term, the most noirish. It's the grayest, coldest Australian city. There are a lot of great alleyways in Melbourne that look like they were production-designed for the latest Batman film. It has this mixture of stately Victorian and modernist architecture. That speaks to the theme of the movie, about analog technology and high-tech having to co-exist.
Q. How much of you is there in Grey, who is, to put it mildly, not the most tech-friendly guy? I mean, he still listens to vinyl.
A. I've definitely got a foot in the Grey camp, but I wouldn't say I'm an extreme case. I spend a lot of time staring at this (smartphone). As a screenwriter, I have a laptop that I rely on. I'm definitely somebody who's nostalgic for the analog. I love tactile things. I still romanticize going to the video store.
Q. Is it fair to say that “Upgrade” has mixed feelings about the future? Its nostalgia for the past seems tempered by an awe of what technology can do.
A. You're right about the film facing both ways, tonally. Grey is a character who is out of his time. He's this analog person who's being made irrelevant. But I also wanted to show the wonderful advances of tech – the things that it can do. Imagine medical nanobots being able to cure cancer, computer chips being able to regulate epilepsy or diabetes. Like Grey, I sit between these two worlds. I wonder where a world that's delegating everything to computers is going. We're so often the architects of our own destruction.
Q. The new movie is a shift for you, from the splatter horror of “Saw” and the supernatural thrills of “Insidious” to science fiction. Does that capitalize on a new kind of fear?
A. Yes, absolutely. When the first “Saw” came out, a lot of critics were saying it was a reflection of America's anxieties about torture. Abu Ghraib was going on at that time. Of course the first draft of the film was written before 9/11. But somehow the zeitgeist takes ownership of a movie. That's the great thing about audiences: They come into the theater with baggage.
Q. For a sci-fi film, “Upgrade” features relatively little CGI, using what are known as practical effects, which are produced on set rather than in post-production. What is the appeal?
A. Early on, the question was simply, “Can I make a sci-fi movie for a certain price?” The films I grew up loving – “Terminator,” “RoboCop” and classic Cronenberg films like “Videodrome” or “Scanners” – were made using practical effects. They have big ideas but are pretty contained. I wrote a 10-police-car chase scene. It was the Christopher Nolan version of “Upgrade.” But reality came crashing down like an anvil. My producers said: “We can't crash 10 police cars. How about one?”
Q. Is necessity the mother of invention?
A. Not only is necessity the mother of invention, but sometimes abundance can kill creativity. I like constraint.
Q. Your former partner in crime James Wan has made the jump from horror to the mainstream. Are you waiting for Marvel to come knocking on your door?
A. Look, I have a few Scandinavian horror fans who follow me on Twitter. But I'm not yet on everyone's radar. That's a kind of freedom, in the sense that I can still come out of nowhere. People always assume that with every movie you make, you have to ascend. They can't understand a lateral move.
Q. Is horror to sci-fi a lateral move, or being stuck in a genre?
A. There are really only two genres: good movies and bad movies.
Q. How does it feel to be associated with the “Splat Pack,” which includes filmmakers like Eli Roth (“Cabin Fever”), the progenitor of torture porn?
A. When we made “Saw,” we were just grateful that anybody wanted to see it. There was no negativity. But the amount of sequels that they made, where they basically turned it into “Friday the 13th,” that's when I realized that the idea had gotten away from me. It's a case study in how the public perception of you can flip.
Q. What's your next step?
A. I'm just now starting to write something for Universal. It's definitely not a slasher film. And it's definitely not another ghost-oriented horror film. But it is a thriller. It's based on one of the classic Universal movie monsters. That's probably all I should say. Except this time, it doesn't feel like a lateral move.