If you know horror movies, you know Leigh Whannell. Over the last 15 years he’s written, directed and maybe even acted in movies from some of your favorite horror franchises. From torture porn classics like Saw, to new haunted house staples like Insidious, Whannell has left his fingerprints on some of the most popular movies in horror. This year, he took a break from the genre to release Upgrade, a sci-fi action blend that has all of the signs of becoming one of your new favorite action movies (as long as you subscribe to the Hardcore Henry school of weirdo action). That didn’t stop us from calling Whannell up and talking to him about horror movies, biohacking, our favorite 80’s films and the most haunted places in Melbourne for at least 20 minutes.
Dive into the non-stop horror talk below and be sure to catch Upgrade when it hits theaters this Friday. It’s going to be an action packed blast of fun.
Brightest Young Things: Did you make your required pilgrimage, as a horror movie fan, to The Exorcist stairs?
Leigh Whannell: I already did that! The first time I came to D.C. was in 2004 for the Saw press tour with James Wan and we were very excited because we were young and full of energy and it was our first film. We weren’t getting much sleep, as I recall at the time. As soon as we got to D.C., I remember we had a spare hour and the guys said, “Where do you want to go? Want to see the Lincoln Memorial?” And we were like, “No, Exorcist steps.” We proceeded to take the same photos that everybody else thinks they’re the first person to invent. It was great.
BYT: Do you have any weird, spooky places in Melbourne that you tell people to go to when they visit your hometown?
Whannell: Melbourne’s interesting because it’s not as much of a cinema town, in terms of iconography, in the way certain cities in the US are. The good thing about shooting Upgrade in Melbourne is I felt like there were a lot of locations that I could take advantage of that hadn’t been seen before. It was the opposite problem where I was like… In a perfect world Upgrade would be the movie where people are like, “Oh look there’s the bridge from Upgrade!”
BYT: Yeah, you’re creating the location! People are going to be like, “I’ve gotta go to the place where that fight scene happened.”
Whannell: I know! When you’re in a city that hasn’t been totally plundered like that… I will say, some of the movie we shot in an old prison in Melbourne. It was kind of Melbourne’s most notorious prison for many years. It was very old and it actually shutdown about a decade or so ago and it’s been converted into apartments, but there’s still an old section of the prison. It’s called Pentridge Prison. I remember going in there and it was so old it kind of invoked The Shawshank Redemption. I know the film Chopper, which is a film I really love with Eric Bana, part of that was shot in Pentridge. So that was probably the location we were shooting in that was the most evocative for me.
I also have to add to that, there were one set of scenes we shot in an old abandoned building that was next door to a pub in Melbourne called The Tote. The Tote is an old rock and roll club, it’s kind of like the CBGB of Melbourne, you know, just a very rough venue. I shot my student film at The Tote, many moons ago in the mid-90’s. I shot my terrible student film there. So that was a trip. The night we were shooting in this abandoned building, I got to the set early and I kind of ducked across to The Tote. I was sitting at the bar, having a beer, and I just had this moment where I was thinking about myself all those years ago, making that short film. So that was definitely something that struck a chord with me.
BYT: Well now so many horror fans are going to be making a pilgrimage there, which is delightful. So you’ve definitely taken a turn with Upgrade. You’ve gone for a science fiction, action film as opposed to the horror films we know and love you for. Is there another genre you’d like to break into?
Whannell: Oh man. Many years ago I wrote a kids film. It was a big kids fantasy adventure along the lines of something like Labyrinth or even Harry Potter. I would love to make that. For me, I just follow whatever story comes to me, you know? If I had a great idea for a romantic comedy, I would definitely pursue it. I wouldn’t throw it away just because I felt a romantic comedy wasn’t something people perceived me as doing. I would just follow the story. So I would love to get the chance to do that.
BYT: Did you really write it? Or has it been sitting in the back of your mind?
Whannell: No, I’ve totally written it! I’ve written a few drafts of it and it was actually optioned a few years back by an animation studio in Australia. They had the opportunity and for a while and we were going down the road of making it as an animated movie, but it just didn’t work out and I took the option back. I’ve never forgotten that. It’s always there and I’m sort of planning when I can make it.
BYT: That’s so cool! I haven’t been able to see Upgrade yet, but I’ve been reading a lot of interviews you’ve done about it and you’ve mentioned a ton of different sci-fi movies that you were inspired by, like Terminator and The Thing. I was wondering, were there any sci-fi books that inspired you?
Whannell: I think in terms of books, what really inspired me on this particular film was non-fiction stuff. I actually read a book by Ray Kurzwell called The Singularity is Near. It’s all about the merging of technology and human beings. It really inspired a lot of what’s in this movie. I loved reading about these theories of what technology will be used for and how the idea of us holding a computer in our hands will seem antiquated because tech will be inside us. That was an idea that I wanted to run towards with this movie, the idea that tech lives in our bodies. It’s not something outside of us, but in us.
BYT: I feel like it’s an especially good time for Upgrade to come out because there is so much more news about biohacking, which is essentially what happens in the movie.
Whannell: Exactly! It’s amazing to watch the world catch up to the film because over the years that I’ve been writing and developing the movie and trying to get it made, a lot of the stuff I thought was science fiction in the movie has become science fact. Part of every day life. Self driving cars are no longer these mythical things, they’re out there being tested right now. They’re around the corner. You mentioned biohacking and I think technology being apart of our bodies… I don’t think it’s that many years away. It will be interesting to watch the world catch up to the movie.
BYT: You’ve done a lot of franchise work, you did Saw, which is one of my favorite movies and franchises, and you’ve also worked in the Insidious franchise, was it refreshing to take a break and do something that will standalone?
Whannell: For sure. It was interesting, my first time directing was Insidious 3, and that was a movie that was part of a franchise, part of an established world. I loved the world and I knew the characters very well, but it felt like I had to stick to an established path. I couldn’t go to Jason Blum and say, “Okay, Insidious 3 is going to be all black and white and it’s going to be set in Poland in the 40’s.” I had to make an Insidious film, but with Upgrade the shackles were off. I really felt the freedom of being able to invent something, create it from scratch and make a film that was totally me. I loved that about it. It’s something I really want to do again… Making these films that are original genre films that can be made for a certain price, that don’t need tens of millions of dollars from the studio, but can be made within a budget framework. Which means you retain that creative freedom, so you can get a bit crazier than you normally would.
BYT: Would you want Upgrade to become a franchise? Do you see a sequel in the back of your mind? Or a trilogy?
Whannell: It’s something I push out of my mind before I start to think about it. When it comes to making films, it’s so difficult to get people to go and see films. This film is releasing in the summer and we’re competing against huge budget movies with giant marketing budgets. So, I think planning a sequel, or thinking about a sequel, is an assumption of success and that’s something I want to stay away from. I always just try and make the best film I can and then if the film is successful enough to warrant a sequel, that would really be a champagne problem I’d be luck to have.
BYT: Obviously this isn’t the first time you’ve worked with Blumhouse, since they’re such a powerhouse in the horror industry. Do you have a favorite Blumhouse movie that you haven’t worked on, just something you admire?
Whannell: Oh man. I have to go to Get Out. I loved Get Out and obviously that’s a film that everybody loved, it was nominated for best picture, but what I love with that movie is that it really took the traditions of a horror movie and inverted them to comment on our own society, and comment on race. I thought it was a genius idea to turn this sort of African American fear of white people and turn these racial politics into a horror film. When you step back and think about it, it’s a perfect metaphor for a horror movie. So I really loved that. I also really enjoyed Happy Death Day, I though that was a super fun movie. That’s definitely something I can see myself doing, something that leans more on the horror comedy side of things. Those are my two favorites that they’ve made lately.
BYT: Both of those lead into two different questions. You mentioned Happy Death Day and that reminded me that you acted in one of my favorite movies last year, The Bye Bye Man. I think that is a perfect horror comedy. It’s silly, it’s fun. You can watch it with group of friends and everyone is going to have a good time.
Whannell: It feels like the type of movie you rented from a video store in the late 80’s or the early 90’s. One of those sleepover movies like Candyman or Wishmaster or something like that.
BYT: It is 100% one of those movies. Do you have any horror comedies that you keep going back to?
Whannell: Oh man. So many. I’ve got this weird thing where every time I get sick, like if I get a bad cold or the flu, for some reason I only want to watch films from my youth. I never want to check out a new movie. Whereas, if it’s a regular Wednesday night and I’m sitting at home, I’ll check out whatever the latest move is that I haven’t seen… But whenever I’m sick, I guess it’s the comfort factor of it. Maybe when I’m sick I’m reaching for the nostalgia to comfort me in my sickness. Lately, I remember having this one marathon day where I watched Fright Night, The Monster Squad, The ‘Burbs, Romancing the Stone and The Blob. Love those. In terms of the movies I continually return to, if you’re talking specifically about those fun 80’s horror movies that are kind of bad, I do love the original Tremors. That has never gone out of style. That still holds up as a great film today, 100%. Of course, I love The Lost Boys. I can watch The Lost Boys anytime.
BYT: Me too. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time.
Whannell: It’s amazing. It still holds up, it’s as fun as it always was. The only thing that gives it away as being from the 80’s is the haircuts… and some of the music actually.
BYT: Yeah the haircuts are so bad! I have two more questions for you if that’s cool. You’ve been in the film industry for years, you’ve written, you’ve directed, you’ve acted and I’m sure you’ve done a million of these press tours. In what role do you get the best questions? Do people prepare more and care more when you’re the director, the writer or an actor?
Whannell: I think director is the best. I think with directing, for better or worse, people assign a lot of the credit and the blame for a movie to the director. It’s usually something that I’ve fought against because I feel like hundreds of people make a movie and the credit should not go to any one single person. I think that perception of the director being the single voice of a movie hasn’t really changed. So when you’re doing interviews, the questions are more thoughtful. They dig in a little deeper. Whereas, if you watch people interview celebrities for other movies, the questions are fluffy, like, “What was the most fun moment on set?” Whereas I think people walk into an interview expecting a director to be really knowledgeable about every aspect of the film. From the themes to everything else.
BYT: So my last question, which you started to tap into with Get Out, is that… I think horror trends, especially with popular horror movies are pretty noticeable. With Saw, you guys were apart of the torture porn craze, there was the found footage craze, there was the haunted house, which you were also a part of with Insidious, there were the zombies… There are a million different trends and themes you can see throughout horror. I was wondering if you had any opinion on what the upcoming horror trend is?
Whannell: If I knew what it was going to be, I’d probably write a film in that genre and be the first horse out of the gates in that race. But I think maybe with Get Out, we’re gonna start seeing horror films moving in a more social just direction. Horror has always worked well as a metaphor for social conditions and politics. I feel like we might see that. We’re also seeing a growing trend of upgraded horror films, or prestige horror films, like The VVitch and Hereditary. I think what’s good about that is it makes studios less afraid to make horror films. Someone like Megan Ellison, who made name for herself as someone who finances prestige movies, the type that P.T. Anderson would make. If critically acclaimed horror films keep coming out, then someone like her is going to be less afraid to finance a horror movie. I hope that the horror genre is going to become more social conscious and also more respected in the eyes of critics and the filmmaking powers that be.
BYT: I 100% agree. I think we’re definitely on a social justice trend, not even with just Get Out, but when you consider what the last couple of Purge movies have done… They’re very focused on class.
Whannell: I’m working on a horror film right now that is focused, not so much on a political issue, but is focused on a female central character. It’s not something I’ve done because this is trendy, so I’m going to do it, but the actual idea for the movie lends itself to these themes. I think you’re right. I think it’s going to become a thing.
BYT: Yeah, and I think we’re starting to see more women in horror not just as your classic final girl, but as compelling main characters.
Whannell: For sure. I hope another trend too is female horror filmmakers. I’d love to see more female horror directors and writers making films from that perspective. They’ll be able to present horror films from an entirely different perspective, we’ve run out of the male idea of that, so it would be great to see female driven horror films from behind the camera.