During a Boston visit to promote his new film Upgrade, we had the opportunity to sit down with writer and director Leigh Whannell. Over the course of the interview, he addresses themes of cultural violence and mental health in the Saw and Insidious franchises he helped create, and talks about what it was like to direct his first film without creative partner James Wan.
Kevin Lynch: There's been another mass shooting at a high school in Santa Fe. With films like Saw and Upgrade that depict intense violence, I'm curious to get your thoughts on this. Can you compare and contrast the differences in your perception of cultural violence?
Leigh Whannell: It's interesting because growing up in Australia, we were watching the same Hollywood movies, violent movies. I grew up watching horror movies, but we don't have the gun problem. We did have a mass shooting in the nineties that was really tragic and kind of shocking to the whole country. It was a wakeup call and pretty soon a guns were reduced to almost nothing. They had a gun amnesty. The government did a buyback and it essentially became extremely difficult to own a gun in Australia. You really had to apply for it. You had to go through all these hoops to get one. Usually, it's something that farmers would use to control livestock, but it's not something that you can have in your house. And that's what I grew up with. I know a lot of people here in the U.S. are so vehement that that's terrible. But for me... it's fine by me.
I don't care. It doesn't matter to me if a government says you can't have a gun, I couldn't give a shit. That's what I grew up with. And so it is interesting in the face of all these constant mass shootings, especially raising kids here. It makes me want to stop glorifying the gun. I think Hollywood has done its part glorifying guns. I'm writing a film right now, actually kind of a horror film, and I'm really adamant about not featuring any guns. Just no guns. Not going to take part. I don't think you can decry guns on the one hand and then glorify guns with the other. And so it is affecting me. It really is. I just don't want to be a part of it.
KL: What do you think violence represents in the horror industry?
LW: It's funny because if we look at Asia, a country like Japan or Hong Kong, they make these super violent movies, but their homicide rate is next to nothing. And I'm just a believer that there is a divide between entertainment and reality. I don't think that the problem in the U.S. when it comes to this violence and mass shootings has anything to do with video games and movies. I think it's the access to guns. You take away the access to guns, the problem stops. So I don't think the onus should be on the filmmakers. But having said that, personally, without censoring anyone else, I think I'm getting into an area of self censorship where I've decided that I don't feel comfortable. I don't feel comfortable featuring a gun in a film anymore. And with Upgrade, you know, Upgrade is kind of a violent movie and it has a lot of hand to hand combat. But I am seeing now that I personally don't feel comfortable making a gun a problem solving tool in a film.
KL: In many of your films, the violence really comes from the human condition. In Upgrade, the body is a weapon.
LW: Yeah, exactly. It's sort of about the tech and they've rethought guns to be a part of their body, actually in their bodies. And that was interesting to work within a sci-fi context and working out how to do that. But in the film I'm writing right now, there's someone who's in jeopardy. And I think an easy movie going trope is to arm that person. Say, okay, they're going to attempt to solve the problem. But I've realized that by representing the gun as a way out of a bad situation in a movie, I'm presenting that as an option in real life. So if I count myself on the side of the fence that doesn't support this lack of gun control, then I have to back that up.
KL: With the Saw films, the weapon is morality in a lot of ways.
LW: Yeah, he's kind of set up these traps and they’re kind of outlandish. Like with the first Saw movie, it really is just this psychopath pushing these people to their limits. And it's a thriller with an unhappy ending. You know, it's a down ending and it's a nihilistic film. I haven't really made a film yet were a so called good guy with a gun goes out and takes revenge, or something that's morally that straightforward. Usually, as you say, there's some moral conflict and some aspect of the lead characters not being so great themselves.
KL: In Insidious, Rose Byrne's character says, “I feel like the universe is trying to see how far I can bend, before I break.” There's a line like that in Upgrade too. Your films tend to show characters pushed beyond their limits.
LW: Yeah, I mean I've realized in hindsight that there's always an element to my films of characters who were sick. Or they themselves, or one of their loved ones, are afflicted with some medical condition that either leaves them unconscious, or paralyzed. So there's always this thing of the randomness of the world. How you can be carrying on with your life. Just living your life, making plans for years ahead and suddenly walk into a doctor's office and be diagnosed with something that just puts the brakes on all your plans.
And that has always been a big fear for me. It's something I've seen with people I've known over the years. Family members who are suddenly suffering something terrible and I think that random affliction seems to be so unfair. Like the cosmos just said, eeny, meeny, miny, moe… BANG… you.
KL: And what are you going to do now?
LW: Yeah. What are you going to do now? You have cancer. You have MS. You've been hit by a car, or whatever it is. Yeah. What are you going to do to get out of this situation? And sometimes that brings out the worst in people. It's not always an uplifting story!
KL: It’s a revealing moment.
LW: Adversity is such a revealing thing, isn't it? Like you just see who a person is when they're up against it.
KL: Mental illness seems to be a common theme. In the Saw franchise, it's about being haunted by the past, Insidious being stuck between the past and the present, and Upgrade, fear of the future.
In concert with that, I see Saw dealing with depression. In Insidious, I see anxiety. With Upgrade, I see PTSDhich ties to the past. The themes in Upgrade deal with how do you meet the two where you're stuck in the past, while in the future and present. Is mental illness a conscious theme in your work?
LW: I think so. When I was in my twenties, before I wrote Saw, I was suffering anxiety. That's something that's been a problem for me. And it's something that when I first began having anxiety attacks, I didn't know what it was. That lack of knowledge about it. I thought it was a physical thing I was going through. I was taking myself to the doctor and saying there's something wrong. I didn't know that anxiety could lead to your heart racing as a condition. I wasn't educated enough on anxiety or mental illness to know that. So, I thought if you're walking down the street in the middle of the day and your heart starts randomly racing, I thought there's a heart problem. Like having a heart attack! It was really scary, and I think that really had an effect on me at that time. It's bled into the work. Definitely with that first Saw movie those feelings of anxiety and dread. That whole film was supposed to be like this mounting anxiety attack, you know? And it’s definitely something that I come back to in movies.
KL: Not to get too personal, but when I was in high school, I struggled with suicidal thoughts. When I finally realized it was a problem, I told my parents I thought I should see a therapist, and their response was “We don't believe in that sort of thing.”
LW: Oh no!
KL: And what I think is so great that comes across in Insidious is the theme that your fears are justified. What you’re feeling is real. I feel like so many of your characters represent that, in a surprising way. Usually, it's like “No, you're crazy.” And there are so many moments in that film where the characters are kind of bucking convention and saying “I believe you, this is real.” Even if they don't entirely believe, they’re still validating those feelings.
LW: Well, you believe that the person is going through something. So that's what I was keen to write The idea that, okay, it doesn't matter if somebody's sitting there saying “I can see a ghost.” You know, my view on that doesn't apply. What does apply is that this person is going through something. So I have to be there to support them.
KL: It's real for them.
LW: Yeah. It's real for them. And that's something I always think of. I keep coming back to this movie I'm writing now, but it's the same thing. I really wanted to take that to its extreme where you have a character not only saying “It's real for you.” But for the sake of the other person, treating it as if it were real. Saying, “Okay, so how should we solve this?” Because that I think is something that's a great gift you can give people is to say I understand. You know, understanding
KL: And in that film, the whole family is together as a unit. If it's infecting one person, it affects everybody. So it's in everyone's best interest to tackle it together.
LW: Yeah, exactly. I mean you have to solve those problems. When you're suffering anxiety or depression, you also realize that even with your family or a therapist, you're going to have to do the bulk of the work alone. Because there's no magic thing that someone can say to you to fix it. They can help with support, but really you need to rewire your own brain.
When I was going through that period in my twenties I was initially so scared and worried about it. I made a list of the things I thought I needed to do to take care of it. Just to help, just to relax. Then hopefully as you get older, you get better at recognizing if you're going into that state. So now you know where the road goes, and so you're better at steering away.
KL: Don't go into The Further.
LW: Yeah, don't go into The Further, move away. If I'm starting to feel really anxious these days, and I can feel it happening, I have certain tools or techniques. Things that I can do to calm myself down.
KL: Another kind of bizarre thing that I can relate to, especially with Upgrade, is that I had a crazy near death experience.
LW: Oh Really?
KL: An accident last year. Actually, on my way back from a horror convention.
LW: What happened?
KL: There was an indent on the highway. I was driving, and I was alone. My tire hit the indent in the pavement and the steering locked up. Luckily, I was the only person on that stretch of the highway at that time, but I couldn't get control. I was afraid to adjust the wheel because I was worried I was going to go into the left lane. But I overcorrected and ended up crashing into the right guardrail and flipping over it. Everything felt like slow motion. When it all stopped, it was like Jurassic Park. “Well, we're back in the car.”
LW: You’re the second person to quote that line recently. So you were in the car upside down?
KL: Yeah, and I managed to physically walk away unscathed. Despite all the first responders and everyone around saying I should be dead, because the car was totaled. I’ve been suffering PTSD since. Most people are say “You're so lucky to be alive!” And I just feel like I was that close to death, why didn't I just die? I almost kind of resented surviving.
LW: I know. Yeah, yeah.
KL: And so, this is the huge, sort of instigating, moment of Upgrade. I could relate to how he was feeling in his recovery. Obviously, he's much worse off.
LW: It's like in an instant, everything can just go to hell.
KL: Purgatory comes up again. His purgatory is within his body.
LW: He's just unable to do anything, and he's relying on machines for everything. In a way he's already dead. Because he's not doing much living, having to rely on these machines and stuff. That, to me, sounds terrifying. I've been in a car accident before. The sound is the thing that is PTSD inducing. It's just like so violent and so loud.
KL: And the anticipation of impact too.
LW:I know! That! Oh God, yeah.
So, with this movie, even with that car crash, I tried to capture that feeling where you're out of control. You can be talking to someone having a fine time one minute, and all of a sudden everything changes, you know? And so I tried to give it that feeling and also give it the post accident shock. Where it's like everything's changed.
KL: Once he gets the Stem implant, he's kind of in this perpetual car crash. The control over his own body is in the hands of someone else.
LW: Exactly. And at first he thinks he's in control. Then as the movie goes on it's like, wait, who's the chip? The chip controls everything from the neck down. So that was definitely something I was going for. That feeling of this guy suffering emotional, PTSD. Thinking that he needed to do one thing to cure it, but finding out that this was just not gonna happen.
KL: This is your second directorial effort. In your first, Insidious: Chapter 3, you had the benefit of there being a few movies already established in the franchise. Your partnership with James Wan was established. I've read interviews where you said it was an ideal scenario to operate in that sort of safe space. Now, with Upgrade you're not working with James I believe, right?
KL: So this is your first movie where the training wheels off.
LW: The training wheels are off. That's a great way to put it!
Insidious 3 was a great film to make. I had such fun and I'm proud of the movie. But it did feel like the training wheels were on. Given that I was working within a franchise with characters I knew. There was an established template that had been set by James, in terms of filmmaking. And I could make my own film and I gave it my own touch, but I couldn't deviate too far off the set path. I couldn't say to Jason Blum, this one's going to be set in Poland in the forties, in black and white. I had to stick to what we had set.
Whereas with Upgrade, it was just totally a clean slate. Build the story from the ground up. And I felt like it was the first time it had just been all me. It was kind of scary in that respect, but it was fun too. I mean, the fact that I'm sitting here talking to you about it, or that anybody cares about it, it's super gratifying. Because, you know, there's so much media out there in today's world. There's just a media blizzard from all directions. And so if you can cut through the noise a little bit and get people to pay attention to what you've made, that's an achievement in and of itself.
KL: What lessons have you learned? How would you describe your growth from that experience? Between Insidious 3 and now having finished Upgrade?
LW: I think what Upgrade has done is given me the confidence to really try things. Because there were a lot of things we did on this movie where we didn't know how it was going to turn out. For instance, the fight scenes. We had this technique where we locked the camera to Logan Marshall-Green, and it would move around. And we didn't just do that during fight scenes. We employed that technique a lot. You know, when he's crawling down the corridor? and the camera. So this was something that I was doing on the set and I was thinking, you know, is this gonna work? Is this going to be too disorienting for the viewer? Is this going to be something that gives the audience vertigo? You know, we all know how shaky cam gives people vertigo. And so in seeing the reception to Upgrade, I've realized that the things people are responding to the most is all the stuff I was afraid of.
So it's been great lesson to take into the next film, which is you should attack the things you're afraid of. That's a reason to do them. Not a reason to not do them. And so I think if I'm lucky enough to direct another film, which I hope I am, I'm going to dive in headfirst to all the stuff that is potentially embarrassing. If there's risk for embarrassment, you’re probably on the right track. Playing it safe just isn't going to get you to that to that level where you want the film to be.
KL: It's not as interesting.
LW: Yeah, it's not, it's not. By trying to prevent embarrassment or failure, you've ended up being tepid. Who wants to make a film that people are ambivalent about? I'd rather they passionately hate the film then be kind of ‘meh’ at it, to use that terrible expression that I hate. I want people to love it or hate it, but I just don't want to make anything midland. I want to just go for it. Just try shit.
KL: Well, it certainly seems like you are!
LW: Yeah, yeah, I’m trying. Thanks mate!
KL: Thank you very much!
LW: Appreciate the interview. Cheers! Good luck. Sorry to hear about that accident!
Upgrade is produced by Blumhouse Productions with a wide release on Friday, June 1st.