A few hours after Google announced an eerily human sounding smart voice assistant — and set off panicked discussions about where artificial intelligence may be taking us — I sat down with famed horror writer and director Leigh Whannell to talk about his new sci-fi thriller, which imagines a future where an AI takes over a man’s life.
Talk about unsettling. That’s the word Whannell, an Australian screenwriter and director best known as part of the creative team behind the successful Saw and Insidious franchises, uses to describe what he looks for in great horror films.
And Upgrade is nothing if not unsettling, and I’m not talking about all the gory fight scenes, though there are plenty of those. The movie, which hits theaters on Friday, tells the story of Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), an analog kind of guy who lives in a not-too-distant digital future with smart homes, self-driving cars, tech-enhanced soldiers and hackers offering VR escapism. Grey’s perspective on tech changes after thugs kill his wife and leave him paralyzed. A boy-genius billionaire offers Grey cutting-edge STEM tech — an AI chip that reconnects Grey’s brain with his limbs and helps him kick ass so he can hunt down who murdered his wife.
But the story — a guy who hates tech relying on tech to get his revenge — isn’t as straightforward as all that. After all, Whannell’s specialty is horror.
“I remember I was sitting in my backyard and this image of a quadriplegic person being controlled and puppeteered by a computer … I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Whannell said in an hour-long Q&A at CNET headquarters in San Francisco earlier in May.
“This chip in his neck starts talking to him and helping him solve this mystery of who killed his wife and who attacked him. So it’s about this guy kind of merging with technology and what this chip can do for him — and what it does.
“With the movie, I’m not looking to provide any answers, I’m trying to tell a great story. The questions of ‘Where is this going? How much of us are we going to invest in a computer?’ — that’s what the film is looking at.”
Whannell is no technophobe. He looks forward to the day when he can sit back and enjoy the ride in a self-driving car and marvel at medical breakthroughs like nanobots that swim in our bloodstream and eat away at cancer cells.
Whannell talked about his favorite horror flicks, the joys of low-budget film making, the kids’ movie he’d like to make and why he hates roller coasters. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
You’ve kept a lot of people up at night with the movies you write and now direct. What did you want to be when you were a kid? Did you want to grow up to scare people?
Well, I did enjoy scaring people now that you put that question to me. It was a lot of fun and hilarious to me. But I guess, I was obsessed with stories and films as a kid before I really knew that it was a job. I remember begging my Dad to let me watch Jaws, and eventually he relented and let me watch it when I was 5 or 6, probably well before the age where I should have.
But I was so obsessed with that movie and I was obsessed with Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark — all these Hollywood films. The same movies that all the the neighborhood kids around me were obsessed with. But I didn’t know it as a job, I just knew I loved it. I used to write stories and it seemed like that was where my interests lie. But I guess I didn’t really start thinking about “Maybe I should try to do this as a career” until like really late in high school, when you start thinking about what you’re going to do at university.
Wait, can we rewind? You saw Jaws when you were 5 or 6? You live in Australia, which known for shark attacks. Did that affect your visits to the beach?
Yes. Not only did it affect my visits to the beach, but it was hard to take a bath. I spent a good year not sleeping with my legs under the blanket as I thought Jaws was under there. It really scarred me, but I loved it.
It was the bane of my parents’ existence, that film, for a couple of years because I was so obsessed with it and would always just talk about it, want to watch it and want to get shark toys. And for some reason — when you ask about horror and scaring people — I remember at that time everyone was into Star Wars. I was much more into Jaws, which is kind of a horror film. It is a horror film. So I guess maybe that seed was there of being much more attracted to stuff that is scary and disturbing.
You have a 5-year-old daughter. Would you let her see Jaws next year?
No. No. And she does love scary stuff and it’s not something I’ve pushed on her. I’ll be telling her a bedtime story — I do this thing where I try to make one up off the top of my head. It’s a good exercise in how well can you tell a story off the cuff — And then I’ll say like, “There was an elf and he was wandering through the forest,” and she’ll be like “And then he saw a skeleton!”
And I’ll be like “OK, so the elf saw a skeleton, and the skeleton was like ‘Wanna play?”http://www.cnet.com/”And she’s like, “No! The skeleton wanted to kill the elf!” And I’m like, “Oh, I don’t think so. No, they wanted to be friends.” And she’s like “The skeleton wanted to kill her.”
Every time I try to tell her a story, it has to be scary.
You started with a famously low-budget movie, Saw, and you’ve said that was part of the appeal of that film — that you can make a horror film without a big budget. Can you talk about your approach because it contrasts with this film, “Upgrade,” where you spent a bit more money.
Horror is a genre that really suits low budgets. I can’t think of many big-budget horror films that are great. It seems to be a genre of film that thrives in these cramped conditions with a limited cast. It’s a great genre to start out in. You know a lot of great directors started out making horror films because you can really try stuff. And it’s commercially forgiving. You can have an unhappy ending and nobody cares. You try that in other genres, people lose their minds.
So you can be pretty experimental and you can make it low budget. The genre is the star. Nobody really cares who’s in a horror movie. The genre itself is the star and horror fans just want to see great horror films. They don’t care if Jake Gyllenhaal is in it, they just want to see the film.
James Wan and I — who directed Saw — met at film school in Melbourne. We had the same interests. We loved the same movies and when we finished film school, we were broke, as most film students are, trying to figure out how to get a film off the ground. And we were in Australia, which didn’t really have a strong genre scene or tradition, not like the US has. Back then it was really hard to get a horror film off the ground. So we decided we would make a horror film with our own money — save up whatever we could scrounge together and shoot something like “The Blair Witch Project,” which was a film that had just come out and was so inspiring.
And so I wrote the script for “Saw” and just as we were about to go off on this expedition of making it with our own money, everyone around us kept telling us, “No, you shouldn’t do it that way. You should try to get real money for this.” That’s how we ended up in the US.
But it was still a very low budget film. Funnily enough, everybody thinks of that film as being low budget, but to us it was huge. The fact that we were shooting it in the US and we had a cast, that wasn’t the plan.
You’ve said in other interviews you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles to make horror work. To explain that, you’ve described the scene in The Shining where you’re looking down a long hallway, and how much that scared you. Tell us about that.
It’s just one of those films that gets under your skin. It’s like it’s alchemy. It’s something that Stanley Kubrick is doing that somehow gets under your skin.
It’s funny, I’ve screened that film to younger audiences, and I think they’re trained for these more high-octane, busy films that have all these jump scares. The Shining seems slow and boring to them. I think what I’m saying is that a lot of the scariest stuff is the simplest stuff. That’s why horror is such a budget-friendly genre. You know, if you’re making an action film, maybe you’re having to drive a car off a cliff. You’re fighting, you’re breaking things. That’s all expense. But if you’re in a dark house with low light and you’re just seeing people appear and disappear…. It’s a hard thing to do, it’s not easy to make a horror film, but it’s really budget friendly.
Why isn’t it an easy thing to do?
Just because. There are a lot of horror films out there, and only a small number are actually scary. That shot you’re talking about in The Shining doesn’t just happen. It’s all about the editing, the timing, what’s the music doing, the sound design. There are a million different decisions you have to make for it to be scary. And it’s very mechanical — horror — in some ways. It’s like one fraction of a second to the left or if that music cue comes in one fraction of a second earlier, it won’t be as scary. You really have to mess around with it and and try to get that perfect moment. So it is very hard.
But the actual elements in the scene — a corridor, a child standing at the end of the corridor — is fairly low budget. Something like Upgrade, where you’ve got fight scenes and car chases, isn’t as low-budget friendly. You face this problem of having to figure out how you’re going to pull off all this expensive stuff, like crashing cars. But yeah, horror, is very difficult. I’ve seen enough bad horror movies to know how hard it is to get one really right. So when you see one that’s great, it’s like a miracle.
What’s your favorite?
Of all time? The Shining is definitely up there. I think The Shining and The Exorcist seem to be two pillars for any horror fan. I still see new horror films. I always crave the new thing. I just saw a film at the Overlook Film Festival in New Orleans called Hereditary that screened at Sundance. It has Toni Collette and it’s really unsettling. I had that excitement of being a horror fan watching a great new horror film. As a horror film fan, you’re kind of starved for quality. There’s not many great ones coming out.
But it’s been a good year for horror with Get Out and A Quiet Place.
Yeah there’s been some great ones. Get Out, of course, and Hereditary. It’s really an amazing film. And when I see the film, I’m not envious of it. I’m so excited for people who haven’t seen it, for horror fans to see this movie.
Unsettling — is that what you look for?
It really depends. Everybody’s got a different definition of what makes a great horror film. I have friends who just love gore. They want to watch the zombie’s head explode, which isn’t my thing. I always say that I see horror as this big tree with all these different branches and all the branches represent different subgenres of horror. You’ve got zombie movies. Haunted house movies. Survival. Home invasion films.
Political thrillers? It is 2018.
Yeah. [laughs] What I look for in particular is that unsettling thing that stays with you — that stays with you when you’re trying to go to sleep at night. And you don’t have to narrowly define it as horror in the traditional sense. One of the most unsettling films I’ve ever seen is Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson, which is not strictly a horror movie. To me, it was so disturbing. They had this really simple scene where — I don’t want to spoil it — a baby was left on the beach and Scarlett Johansson plays this alien who is totally indifferent to human beings and their suffering. They’re just like cattle to her. And she’s packing up this murder scene while this baby is screaming and just ignoring it. It’s such a simple moment, but it was just chilling. So that’s kind of what I’m looking for. But as I said before, it’s a really hard thing to achieve as a filmmaker — to get under people’s skin like that. It’s not easy.
Every few years, horror seems to be the new thing again.
Horror’s weird, the way people treat it. It never really goes away. Yet any time there’s a successful horror film, people are like “Horror is back!” You don’t really see that when there’s a successful comedy. People aren’t like “Comedy’s back!”
People are aware that comedy doesn’t go away. There are successful comedy films and there are bad ones. Horror’s like that. But for some reason people treat the genre in a weird way. The other thing that gets me with horror is that people are kind of afraid to label their films as horror films. Even the filmmakers themselves, which always blows my mind. It’s kind of seen as like a dirty label. So you’ll get that thing where someone will say, “Well it’s not a horror film. It’s a drama that happens to be scary.” I’m like “Right, a drama that happens to be scary. That’s a horror film.” The great one is when they’ll say, “It’s not a horror film, it’s a supernatural thriller.” Or the funniest one I ever heard was, someone wrote on Twitter recently, “The Exorcist isn’t a horror film. It’s above that. It’s a mystical thriller.” And I’m like, “Yes, it’s in that great mystical thriller tradition.” I don’t know why people are afraid to wear that label.
You often point out that one of the earliest movies ever made was about Dracula.
Yeah, human beings just love to be scared. If you look at the tradition of storytelling, like sitting in a cave drawing pictures, there’s always that element of jeopardy and fear, like that campfire-tale element. It’s a primal thing. Human beings want to be scared in a safe environment — to experience terror, not for real. Because they’re two very different things.
If you’re sitting in your house and you see someone climbing through the window, that’s not something you want to go through. That is truly terrifying and it activates a different part of your brain. But if you’re sitting in a movie theater, vicariously experiencing someone breaking through the window in the house, it lets you put a toe in the water of that experience. To me, it’s the same as going on a roller coaster. That’s just simulated death. Rather than jumping off the roof of a 20 story building where you’ll die if you hit the bottom, you pay money to get on a roller coaster — I’ve never understood it myself. I can’t stand roller coasters. I’m really bad with them, but I understand why people want to pay money to do that. They want to experience this total fear and terror.
Let’s talk about your new movie. Tell us what Upgrade is about.
Upgrade is about a character named Grey played by Logan Marshall-Green, who is kind of an analog person in this totally digital, computerized world. It’s set in the near future. It’s not 200 years in the future but it’s just around the corner. And all the things that we’re on the brink of now have become ubiquitous in this world: self-driving cars, smart kitchens and smart homes. He’s a guy who hates technology and he’s becoming more and more irrelevant in this world that’s automated and computer-driven.
Until one night, he and his wife are attacked. They’re both shot and she’s killed, and he’s left a quadriplegic. His entire world is shattered. And then he’s offered the chance to have a computer implant in his neck that will bridge the gap between his brain and his limbs and essentially cure the paralysis. He has this operation, he’s cured and then this chip in his neck starts talking to him and helping him solve this mystery of who killed his wife and who attacked him. So it’s about this guy kind of merging with technology and what this chip can do for him and what it does.
How did the idea come to you?
Ideas are weird. I find ideas the hardest part of filmmaking. A lot of things about filmmaking are stressful — not having enough time, not having enough money, getting notes from the studio, getting notes from the producers, financing falling through. All that stuff is hard and can potentially shave years off of your life.
But the only reason anyone goes to all that trouble of figuring out a schedule or trying to find money is because they like an idea. You’ve got to have that idea. And for me ideas just appear in my head at random times. I know there are some screenwriters who can read an interesting article in the newspaper and formulate a movie out of it. But I can’t really reverse engineer it like that. I’ll just be in the shower or eating breakfast and something will just pop into my head. Nine times out of 10, I think about it and then realize it’s terrible. And it goes into this filing cabinet in my brain of ideas that I’ll never make.
But every once in awhile you’ll have an idea that you can’t stop thinking about, and that’s what Upgrade was.
I remember I was sitting in my backyard and this image of a quadriplegic being controlled and puppeteered by a computer — so that the head was doing something different than the body. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And that started a five-year long journey to be sitting here with you talking about it.
You present a pretty clear image of a tricked-out smart home and self-driving cars. Did that come from research or your own imagination?
A combo. I did research but then I also want to create something that was relevant to the story. With a screenplay, every arrow should be pointing toward the central story. So I wanted to create a world where computers did everything for you, whether it’s your shopping or the lights coming on or your car. Anything. I don’t particularly know if that’s the direction this world is going to go, but for this world, in this story, that’s how I wanted it to be.
You kind of mold the world of your film to suit the story, and hopefully it reflects something back at the audience about our world. None of this stuff is a secret. We are moving in that direction of computer’s doing everything for us and smart homes. So it worked.
What’s your take on self-driving cars?
It’ll take awhile before people are comfortable with having their hands off the steering wheel and letting the computer drive. I think at the moment there’s a human fear of relinquishing that much control, especially in a car, which is like a little metal missile that’s flying. The fact that there are other cars around you that aren’t being self-driven — there’s a lot of fear. But eventually we’ll get over that and self-driving cars will become very common. I can’t wait for a time when they’re really common because I just want to sit back and read books while the car does all the work.
So you’re not a technophobe?
Not really. A little bit. I’m definitely not one of the super techy people who’s an early adopter and is out there and is super interested in it. But I’m also not some sort of Luddite who rejects it.
There are great things about technology and the singularity of technology that’s in our bodies. I’ll be amazing one day if nanobots are swimming through our bloodstream eating cancer cells, or medical advancements will cure the world of destructive diseases. That’s a great thing.
And then there are other sides of technology that I think need to be examined. I read an article the other day about how much we stare at our phones, and the doctor quoted in the article says it’s a full-blown epidemic. It’s an addiction. With the movie, I’m not looking to provide any answers. I’m trying to tell a great story. The questions of Where is this going? How much of us are we going to invest in a computer? — that’s what the film is looking at.
Is this a horror film?
I think in a way, yeah. It has elements of horror. I never try to think about the genre too much. I think it’s unhealthy especially in the writing stage to put the cart before the horse and try to squash your film into a genre. It’s better to just tell whatever story you want to tell and see where it lands. It’s up to other people to label it and say “That’s a sci-fi horror action film.” And if someone told me “This movie is a sci-fi horror action.” I’d be like, “Great, you’re right it is.” But there’s a lot of different genre elements in it.
It does paint an unsettling vision of the future.
What’s interesting to me is how much we invest emotionally in social media. I feel like I’m really unqualified to have this discussion in this room in San Francisco. There’s a whole bunch of people here like “Whatever buddy. I do this for a living. Asshole.”
Nobody would say that — out loud. [Audience laughs.]
Just creating these little ideal avatars of ourselves and investing so much in it. It makes me realize that when VR comes out in its best form, people will just leave Planet Earth. “Oh no, I’m way better in this world.” That being not dangerous.
I feel people take the view right now with something like Instagram of “What? It’s fun. Who cares? Why does it bother you?” And I’m just curious. I’m like ‘Wow, we’re really putting a lot of ourselves into these little avatars.’
No one posts pictures of their toenail fungus. It’s always them in the Greek islands. And it’s like ‘Yeah, I’m sure you’re always in the Greek islands, buddy.’ I’m just super curious: How much can we give over to this other version of ourselves we’re creating online? It’s the perfect version of us that has none of the problems. That stuff is fascinating to me.
Would you make a movie in VR?
I would if the story was really served by that medium. Sometimes when you have a story idea, you need to figure out what’s the best medium for this. Some stories are best suited to graphic novels. Some stories are meant to be books. You can sort of figure it out. I’ve had ideas in the past and thought “I should do this as a graphic novel” but all the good stuff I get excited about is visual. It’s in motion. I want to hear it. I want to hear the soundtrack. I want to see the car move in a way that maybe you can’t do that in a graphic novel. So you sort of figure it out.
So short story long, if I had an idea that was best served by that. “Oh yes, the audience wants to be in this story.” They don’t want to be watching it. I would totally go for it.
Horror seems to lend itself to VR, given that you’re literally all in your own head.
They still need to work out a couple of the elements. They’re framing VR too much in the context of gaming, like first-person shooters and stuff. They need to move it away from that. VR will truly be great when it finds its own little world. You’re not just playing 4D Halo, you’re doing something. I’ve heard of a couple of things that really sounded interesting. Like Alejandro Iñárritu — the guy who directed The Revenant — did this VR experience where you were a refugee and you walked this path and you literally lived in the shoes of a refugee. I haven’t done that, I don’t know how you would. But when I was reading about it I thought that was a really interesting approach to VR and it felt very much outside the context of gaming.Maybe this is what it’s going to be. So yeah, we’ll see. Smarter people than me will figure it out.
Maybe your kids’ movie should be in VR?
Maybe. I keep coming back to the book because I can just do it. No one can stop me from writing the book. But everybody can stop me from making the film.
You’ve said that unsolved mysteries, like Jack the Ripper, really are the scariest things to you. Why is that?
I have to speak for myself because maybe other people don’t feel this way. But for me wanting to know the answer to a mystery is the most chilling thing. Because human beings innately seek answers.
I kind of go down these internet rabbit holes, looking them up because it’s so creepy just not knowing.
You know we assign patterns to life. Patterns that aren’t really there to give it meaning — you know, to give life structure, so we don’t all have to admit it’s all just chaos and stuff’s just happening. And that’s what storytelling is. It’s comforting because you can sit in a theater and feel like life has a point and a meaning and actions have results. When really life is more chaotic than that.
I think an unsolved mystery is the ultimate chaos. You don’t get the answer. You don’t get the ending. And I just find that so scary. I recently read a book “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” by Michelle McNamara, a true crime blogger who was married to the comedian Patton Oswalt. She was writing this book about the Golden State Killer, which is what she had termed it. And she tragically passed away before she finished the book, but her researchers and a team of people finished it. I read it recently and it just scared the living shit out of me. Can I say that? It was so chilling, not only the fact that it was unsolved and I’m reading about it, but also her writing. It was just so evocative, the way she would describe what this guy did.
And two weeks after I finished reading it, they caught him. I feel like it came down a peg in terms of scariness. Because now, as she says in the book, the monster has a face. You take the power away from someone like that when they’re just standing in a courtroom. The guy, he looked kind of pathetic.
Is it true when you write movies you have a soundtrack that goes through your mind?
For sure. That’s something I always do when I’m writing. Before I really start writing, I’ll put together an imaginary soundtrack for the film. You know, take different pieces of music from other films. Or maybe not from other films, just from anywhere. Just try to put something together that coaxes you into that subconscious place where you’re watching the movie in your head as you’re writing it.
I like to be analytical, and it can be dangerous. Because sometimes, and this has happened a lot, you’ll be listening to a great piece of music and it kind of Jedi mind tricks you into thinking what you’re writing is great. You’re hearing this great music and you’re like, “Oh man, start writing the Oscar speech.” And then you read it later without the benefit of music and you’re like “This is terrible.” So it can have that trick, and you have to be careful with it. But I just love watching the movie while I’m writing it, if I can.
What kind of music?
It depends on the movie. You want to get something that puts you in the mood. When I wrote the first Insidious film, I had music from The Exorcist, The Shining. I had all these pieces of experimental classical music. Actually there’s a group that I love that I think are from San Francisco called the Kronos Quartet. They just do the most amazing stuff. A lot of it sounds like it could be from a horror film. It’s just this screeching, atonal, discordant kind of experimental classical music — and it’s great for writing a film like that. It really puts you in the zone. But with something like Upgrade, I was listening to a lot of ambient electronic music — some of what Trent Reznor does, his stuff is great — trying to get into this machine like, near-future head space.
I’ve written a kids’ film before and I was listening to stuff that was kind of relevant to that. It really depends.
Tell us about your kids’ film. I’ve read that it’s Harry Potter-eqsue.
I love putting that it’s “Harry Potter-eqsue,” which is supposed to subliminally trick the person you’re talking to into thinking it’s going to be successful. I wrote it many years ago. It’s like the great white whale. One day I want to make this film.
It’s got a good name, “The Myth.”
The issue with certain types of films is once you get into that bracket with lots of money, the level of difficulty in getting the film made just goes up and up and up. That’s why these low-budget films are so fun to make, because you can actually make them.
I don’t want to talk about making films, I want to make them. With films like “The Myth,” you’re really beholden to these purse strings at studios. I’ve had it optioned a couple of times but the machinery and the gears of that type of filmmaking just moves so slowly. That’s why they make so many films based on existing properties, because if you’re going to spend $200 million you want to make sure it’s based on a comic book that everybody knows. Everybody’s hedging their bets and protecting themselves. And so with an original film like “The Myth,” I find it really hard to get it to that point.
Are you going to make it?
I hope one day. If there’s anyone watching….
Maybe you can do the puppet version for YouTube first?
I was even thinking of doing it as a book. I feel like that’s one medium — not that it’s any easier to get a book published today — but at least you can sit down and do it. Nobody can stop you from sitting down and writing this book.
Let me ask some tech questions. What’s your favorite piece of tech?
Oh man. Well. I’m going to say because I’m a writer, my laptop. Just the traditional laptop. Because to me it’s everything. I take it around with me everywhere. It’s where all my ideas are. I do need to be backing up better. Back up your stuff! Get it together!
But I love it. I love a blank page. Ultimately, text is really there to just serve human ideas and lift them up a little bit. I still start out writing long hand. I still like to use a pad and pen. It’s less daunting. There’s something about that blinking cursor that seems to spell out, “You are terrible,” in Morse code. “You can’t write.”
But when it’s just a pad and pen, I just whip out this stuff in this illegible script and then look back through it. But eventually you get to the point where you have to put it down and I love that part of it.
What piece of tech do you wish were invented that hasn’t been yet?
The self-driving cars is a big one. I live in Los Angeles. I could be so much more productive if I didn’t have to drive.
The guy who produced Upgrade, Jason Blum, is really good at hacking life. He sees the green code of the Matrix and does it in a way where you’re like, “How did you think of that? You’re a mad genius.” He decided he was going to get a full- time driver and he kitted out a van, like bought a van, put curtains on the windows. So he has this mobile office and a driver who drives him around and he sits in the back. And I’m like, “That’s the way to do it.” I’ll be happy if I can be sitting back in the self-driving car doing other things like watching films or reading, and not wasting so much time in the car.
What tech do you wish was never invented?
Never invented? Man, it’s tough. I feel like the stuff that people don’t want gets weeded out slowly. There are days when I wish no one had figured out how to make a comment section happen. Wish that idea had never happened.
Never read the comment section. Never read the opinions of others. That’s one the thing the internet’s done for us is made us realize that everyone’s terrible in the world. I didn’t know that before. But now I know that everybody’s awful. There is a choice, just steer clear of it.
What question do you wish I’d asked?
I guess I wish you had asked “When you won your Oscar last year, how excited were you?” Because if you had asked that question, it would be a real thing. How do you manage to stay so physically fit whilst maintaining a hectic filming scheduling? How is it you know so much about tech when you’re a lowly screenwriter? Now I’m just riffing on questions….
Tech Culture: From film and television to social media and games, here’s your place for the lighter side of tech.
The Smartest Stuff: Innovators are thinking up new ways to make you, and the things around you, smarter.