In 2003, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell changed American horror cinema. While countries like France and Japan had already been dabbling in extreme violence for several years, general audiences in the States weren’t accustomed to the torture tourism of films like Audition, High Tension, and Irréversible. But that all changed with Saw, a movie from a pair of Aussies that delivered nihilistic screen horrors as anxiety about the Iraq War and human rights violations in detention centers were blanketing the country. “Torture Porn,” as New York Magazine’s David Edelstein dubbed it, overtook the horror zeitgeist, but before the trend could fade, Whannell and Wan pivoted to a different subgenre and brought a sense of elegance back to horror with the Insidious franchise, which also helped to establish the now-famous low cost, high concept ethos powering the engine at Blumhouse Productions and transition the zeitgeist away from brutality exhibitions towards more traditional ghostly fare.
As one half of Big Horror’s most influential modern duo, Whannell is responsible for catalyzing 12 movies across two franchises. After making his directorial debut with this 2015’s Insidious: Chapter 3*, Whannell is finally helming one of his own original stories. Upgrade is a streamlined near-future sci-fi film that draws from the Paul Verhoeven school of 1980s practical-effects-driven genre thrillers, and tells the story of Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green), a stubborn Luddite who is forced to embrace techno-futurism after a mugging leaves him paralyzed and widowed. Together with the new tech in his brain, named STEM, Grey sets out to avenge his wife’s death with a computer core that’s turned him into a killing machine. Vulture caught up with Whannell before Upgrade’s release to talk about his cinematic legacy, his changing attitude toward screen violence, the role he plays in progressive cinema as a plain old straight white guy, and the addictive power of a smash-hit film.
At a studio level, you and James Wan together have been a generation-defining presence in horror, and that began with Saw, which really imported extreme brutality American audiences. Going from that to Insidious, which is practically family-friendly, and now to Upgrade, which is kind of return to brute force visuals, where does violence fit in your life now, creatively?
What happens as you get older, in my experience, is as your life experience grows, your filmmaking breadth grows in tandem, so instead of just thinking about cool shots you’ve seen in other movies, you’re actually thinking about — I’m writing a scene about a married couple, and I’m thinking about my marriage and my relationship, and real life starts to creep in. So with Upgrade, there’s certainly a nostalgia there associated with ’80s sci-fi films that I grew up with, like Robocop and The Terminator. I love, and I’ve always loved, contained sci-fi films that utilize practical effects. I feel like the human eye can tell when something is actually in the frame and when it was inserted digitally later. And for me personally there can be a kind of detachment if something is inserted later. It’s like I check out of the movie. I check out of the stakes. So I was so keen to do this movie, but all of the sudden within a sci-fi story like this, I’m incorporating stuff from my own life.
So I feel like where the violence changes is that I’m no longer doing it just for effect. I felt the violence in Upgrade was necessary because I wanted to show what a computer was capable of. What is a sociopath capable of? A machine takes the path of least resistance, and so when I cut those scenes together I was like, “This is supposed to be here. It’s not gratuitous.” But it is interesting, in asking me that question, I think about the film that I’m writing now. I have a family now and I’ve been living in the U.S. for 12 years. I feel entrenched in the politics in a way, and I’ve made a decision. I really don’t want to present a gun as a problem-solving tool in a film, and I guess that’s an example of how my real-life relationship with violence and what’s happening in the U.S. is changing my writing. It’s so easy. It’s such a go-to instrument in a movie, isn’t it? And I don’t think you can hold up a picket sign with one hand and direct a scene involving guns as problem-solving tools with the other hand. And I’m kind of reconciling that. I’m thinking, “Okay, I’m writing a movie with a female protagonist who’s in danger. I’m not gonna use a gun.”
On that note of “being the change you want to see,” how has your perspective changed on whose stories you tell, and what stories you want to see onscreen? Insidious stars Lin Shaye — an older actress than we typically see as a heroine — and there’s Betty Gabriel in Upgrade, which also has a gender nonbinary hacker showing up at one point, and you say you’re working on a movie now with a female protagonist.
Well, it’s interesting, because the best thing white men can do at the moment is listen, not talk, because we’ve had the microphone for so long. If you take Get Out as an example, the best person to tell that story is an African-American filmmaker, and the best person to tell a female-centric horror film is obviously going to be a female director. She’s gonna have the right insight into the issue, and I certainly don’t want to bandwagon up and say like, “Oh! Get Out was successful! I’m gonna make a social-political horror film!” Having said that, I stand by that statement.
Well, horror has always been political. That has always been a driving force in what makes it such fascinating, good cinema.
Yes! People point to Get Out as some sort of horror that is leaning political. Dawn of the Dead was a political film.
Jordan Peele cites Night of the Living Dead as a huge influence on his work.
There is a long tradition! When I was a kid, Robocop to me was just good guys and bad guys.
Yeah, I thought Starship Troopers was just fun.
Yeah, and then all of the sudden you get older and you’re like, “Wow. It’s like a corporate satire, or a statement about fascism, and Dawn of the Dead is about the Vietnam War.” So you’re right, that tradition should continue, and Get Out was fantastic, and I would love it if horror went in that direction. My contribution, I guess, would be — I think the best thing you can do is lean towards what you’re passionate about. Don’t fake anger. If you write towards what’s actually pissing you off, then the center of that theme is going to be more white hot. I don’t want to take on an issue that’s not affecting me, but for instance, with this film I’m writing now I’m like, “Okay. I’ve got a female protagonist and there’s this interesting moment happening here, and I’m interested in this idea that women have to be afraid of men.” But I’m not looking at it from their perspective, so I guess I just want to — I don’t want to drop the movie just because of that, so I guess you just have to educate yourself. I’ve been and talked to women at domestic-violence shelters, just trying to educate myself and be informed enough that I can put my statement about that on paper.
As someone who writes characters, your job is empathize.
It is empathy. How many great movies have you seen about gay men that were directed by straight people? It doesn’t make them less of a great film, but I guess whoever directed that film had to employ their empathy to write towards it. Videos of police shootings is something that really gets my blood going, but that is one area where I’m like, “Am I the best person to write that film?” Maybe that’s best left to someone else. But maybe what you can do is help enable it. Sure, I don’t have to write, but I can help a filmmaker, help produce it. You can do something!
Getting to the point of empathy, and moving to the question of exploitation, a thing I’ve catalogued about movies you’ve written and directed is that sexual violence is not present. As violent as Saw was, it was never sexual, and in Upgrade it was entirely possible that Grey’s wife wasn’t just going to be murdered in front of him, but also raped while he watched. We are subjected to that a lot in film and television, so I’m pretty conditioned to expect it! Tell me about the iron curtain you seem to have between sex and violence.
That’s never been interesting to me. I don’t think it was a conscious decision to build that iron curtain, it just was never something that occurred to James and I. I think horror is a genre that can be quite good to women.
I’m a big proponent of the empowering role that horror can play for women. Yes, there is so much that is problematic — and your movie does kick off with the “man motivated by murdered wife” structure — but I think it also has the potential to serve women in a way that is uniquely potent compared to other genres.
Yeah, and a lot of times it’s accidental. Like with Insidious, we have a woman in her 70s playing the lead, and it took me a moment to realize how unique that was, that someone like Lin’s just not being given lead-role opportunities in a franchise, and so I celebrate that part of horror. I remember there was a moment in one of the Saw films, I think the last one I wrote, where it was a female character and I felt a bit uncomfortable. I was like, “Why am I comfortable with the men being tortured and not this?” And I guess there’s a tradition of that sort of stuff that I don’t want to be a part of. There’s always an evolution as well. You have to remember, Upgrade was written many years ago, and it’s funny how audiences sometimes put it in the context of the current moment. They’ll say things to you like, “Wow, with Saw you guys must have really been reacting to the Iraq War and Abu Ghraib.” And I was like, “This film was written before September 11.” Usually movies land in the Zeitgeist and it’s a happy or unhappy accident that they reflect a moment.
It’s really a matter of what people pick up on and decide to make a phenomenon. If you’re primed to grab onto a certain thesis or a certain theme because of the circumstances in which a movie arrives, then that movie will be thrust into the spotlight and talked about and contextualized within a sociopolitical moment.
Exactly. They put it in the context of that moment. So with Upgrade, in this current moment, it can be seen as, “Oh, that’s kind of an antiquated trope, the male lead motivated by the death of the wife.” And I think back to the time when I wrote it and at that time in my mind that was fine, but going forward I wouldn’t do that. Not because I’d be afraid of the reaction, but because we are in a different moment. So I’m going to write to where we are now and kind of — I want to speak to what’s comfortable to me right in this moment. And I guess at the time I wrote this film, that was something that I was like, “Okay, this is a good motivating action for this character.” But I might not do that today. If I was writing a film, I don’t think I would do that.
A lot has changed since you and James both came on the scene with Saw. That was really the last wave of the monoculture, before theater chains were competing with TV and algorithm-driven digital-content platforms for viewers. Horror is already a specialty interest, so I wonder how that fracturing at an industry level changed your approach creatively?
It’s difficult, and it’s very nerve-racking! You know, I’ve been part of movies where there were lines around the block, and I’ve been part of movies that nobody cared about that have disappeared into the farthest reaches of iTunes. And let me tell you, the line around the block one is better! So you ask me, you know, which door do I want to take? I’ll take the lines around the block door every time. So I do feel like there’s a part of me that, having experienced that and had my feet in that pool, I’m aiming for it. But you are right. The media landscape has changed so much since that original Saw film. There are so many more platforms, and so much more competition for eyes. Back then it was like, there was TV and there were the movies, and gaming was happening. Now, between YouTube and streaming and gaming and VR, people are more interested in recording their own little Snapchat videos than they are in seeing a movie, and I feel like movies have had to move in a direction of events. They have to be more than a movie. They have to be this Zeitgeist-dominating sledgehammer that comes out, and people line up for those movies like it’s part of their civic duty.
That Saw success, I don’t know if it would happen today. It would be a niche movie. It might be a movie that goes straight to iTunes. So it makes me wonder about Upgrade, but it’s funny. You’re asking me about this before the movie has come out. It’s hard for me to — like, a fish cannot describe the ocean. I just don’t know! But maybe that fracturing is leading to almost a pressure off situation where you have to stop worrying about four quadrants and just focus on, “I’m gonna own this audience.” Perhaps that’s good, but I gotta tell you, having seen the lines around the block that is an addictive drug. I would love to see that again! Also, not to mention the fact that we’re releasing this movie in summer, so I feel like I’m David getting out of the boxing ring and I don’t even know that Goliath is standing behind me, suiting up. So how do you shout to be heard? I don’t know. I’m not the sixth film in a cinematic universe that people in Namibia can tweet about. I’m happy that you’re talking to me, let alone anybody knows what this movie is.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
*Correction: This post previously stated that Whannell’s directorial debut was Insidious: The Last Key. It has been corrected throughout.