SXSW 18: Interview With The Cast And Director Of ‘Upgrade’ (Betty Gabriel, Logan Marshall Green & Leigh Whannell)

One of the more coveted spots at many film festivals, is that of the “Midnighters” spot. These are the movies that close out each day and carry with them the weight of  ensuring that audience members make the early morning trek back to their hotels with giant smiles upon their faces. This year, at SXSW, one of those spots went to the latest directorial effort from Leigh Whannell, the sci-fi revenge thriller Upgrade.

Over the weekend, the film actually walked away for the award of “Best Midnighter”, helping solidify it’s place as a film to keep an eye on. The plot is relatively simply, harkening back th great B-movie efforts of the 80’s & 90’s. In the near future, Grey (Logan Marshall Green) spends his time repairing antique cars, while the rest of society has accepted technology to rule almost every waking moment. After a tragic accident robs him of the ability to walk, a client agrees him to hook him up with an experimental implant called “STEM”. The device, when released, will revolutionize the world for those with disabilities. This being the near future though, not everything is as it seems and with the help of a Police Officer (Betty Gabriel), they may be able to figure out who is behind the death of Grey’s wife.

It’s a crowd-pleaser through and through. If you don’t believe us, check out our review here. We were granted to opportunity to sit down and discuss a couple aspects of the film with actors Betty Gabriel (Get Out), Logan Marshall Green (The Invitation) and director Leigh Whannell (Saw I-III, Insidious 1-4).

Betty, what does it mean for you, so early in your career, to be hoisted up to the status of “genre icon’? Is it overwhelming or do you just simply love it and embrace it?

I love it. Absolutely I love it. For a lot of the movies I’ve been in so far as so good. Including this one! Yeah, it’s like, I dunno…Of course I wanna do all sorts of storytelling: serious drama, rom-coms and what have you, but the stories I’ve been a part of, and label them what you want, they’ve been really exciting.

Of course Get Out. I am very very excited that I was a part of that and I think this [Upgrade] as well. I think after last night, well, I saw it for the first time last night and I was like ‘I can’t believe I’m a part of this movie”. Was so cool.

I really enjoyed the movie as well. It was one of those cases when you walk out into the early morning at SXSW and see that Daylight Savings time has kicked into effect and think “no, that was worth it”

Leigh Whannell: Yeah, it was a little bit of a late finish.

I wanted to ask you, Logan, as it’s something I’m fascinated by, when it comws a movie like this & concerns an actor’s preparedness. What was the process that went into deciding how you would play thing when you’re a quadriplegic and once you have STEM taking control of Grey’s movements?

Logan Marshall Green: Fist things was getting together with someone who is actually dealing with that experience. So, I worked with a guy, up in- well, just above Santa Barbara, who is a C-4 quadriplegic. He’d been living like that for the past 9 years.

I was very rigorous when I first met him. I let him know “I don’t want the sugar coating. I want the dirt. The colonic bag. I want and need it all. ” I told him “I’m gonna be very hard on you, to be honest with me” and literally wanted him to show me under his skit. He was phenomenal.  He was so excited to actually, kinda get perspective on  himself,  in that way. So we’d end up getting into [wheel]chairs and would drive for miles in them, over highways, to get to the hospital, to get his colonic bag.

His hands were most essential, I found. Really quickly- I mean, stillness is obviously a prerequisite, if you will, to a quadriplegic, but the hands were something that tell such a story, in themselves. I’m a nail-biter by nature and that was something I had to train myself to stop doing right away. Since there’s no way for them to do so, there’s so no reason for me to do so.

Their hands are so beautiful. At least, I find that to be the case. They’re wonderfully beautiful in all the different character that it holds for the individual. And in the way they use their hands too. A lot of quadriplegics can still move their shoulders, but their hands are just kind of in a set position. One of the things that stood out with the guy I worked with, was his thumb. He literally pushes a button for everything with it. Has been for 9 years and now has this beautiful curve to it. The kind that you or I would never get, because of how we use ours. There was a lot of beauty in his thumb’s silhouette and I tried to find a way to reflect and own that aspect in my own hands. Because that to me tells as much of, if not more of a story, instead of just being still in a chair.

I think it’s easy to notice that  commitment, on the big screen. To me, I always appreciate being able to see the care and effort an actor put into doing people with disabilities justice. The way you go about it in UPGRADE seems eerily similar, though very different, from the work Robert Deniro did in AWAKENINGS. So much of both performances comes down to the movements, stillness or gestures. They feel wholly organic, rather than forced or showy. Elements that get lost in other films, It feels very respectful.

Yeah, yeah and I think Leigh [Whannell] and I really pursued those “ugly moments” and I was really excited about seeing them, the way Leigh captured them and edited them in. That he doesn’t stay too long on them, but there’s a lot of process, to just start your day and I think we earn a lot in the building of our man, by understanding him in each of the 3 stages in his “being” Grey: regular, quadriplegic and bionic, I guess you’d say.

Which is great as the final shift is so subtle. It’s almost hard to miss, as it comes to mostly off-kilter movements and slight exaggerations.

Well, that’s always the point too though, not to even be thinking about it. You know, you never wanna see an actor “moving”. Just existing as they would in that situation.

This movie does deal with the rise of technology, in a time where it seems almost impossible to escape. Grey stands alone, wanting to be hands-on more in an automated world. Do any of you three consider your technophobes? Or do you harbor any fear towards a specific form of technology?

Leigh Whannell: “Technophobe”, did you say?

Yes. A fear of technology. With how it governs aspects of our lives already, it seems natural to worry things could go the way it does in the movie.

I feel like such a passenger, when it comes to technology. There’s these tech titans like Elon Musk and others, who are driving the way, leading everything and the rest of us are sitting there going “uh, what’s happening again? oh, this is a thing now”.

But I’m definitely just not good with technology. Some people have the knack and they’re just good with it. I have a lot of good friends who were early adopters and the second the new iPhone comes out they have to have it. Or the new whatever comes out and they totally understand how to use it perfectly. I still like tactile things. I’ll write out an entire script longhand, before I even use the laptop.

I don’t have email on my phone. People think I’m crazy, “where do you get your email, then?” So I dunno if I’d qualify as a “technophobe”, but I definitely have a suspicion of it and I have a, uh, I don’t want to say “hatred” of it. I guess I have a little bit of disdain of people who life their entire lives of instagram. Who live their entire lives on Twitter and through these social media avatars. You know. Who are they trying to impress? Where are these thousands of photos  they’re talking, where do they end up? It’s not like an old photo album you’ll have forever. When the plug goes *snaps fingers* those photos are gone.

So, I think I’d fall under the category of someone who is just a little bit of a Luddite and that’s where I think a large part of the genesis for the movie comes from.

Logan or Betty, do you necessarily agree?

Logan: I mean just to jump off what Leigh was saying, we’re in a position now where, as a species, it used to be when you’re house was one fire, I was just thinking about it, you grab what? (all 3 nod to each other) Your photo album. And I think there would probably a lot of people who

Leigh & Logan (in unison): just grab the phone

Leigh: What’s really interesting is the panic you feel when you realize “oh no, I forgot my phone”. So you can be driving along and it feels like a limb was missing or something. That happened to me a few weeks back and I remember thinking that I should feel like this right now. I shouldn’t feel lost without this little device.

Logan: This device too (points to wrist), which I just got for Christmas. These apple watches, they’re just extensions of your phones. I had to turn off the vibration, because basically my phone keep on saying “hey, remember me? remember me? I’m just 5 feet behind you.” I had to turn it off, as it was too much of a redundancy.

Betty, just a second ago, I noticed you move you phone away as Liegh got very impassioned there and a look of absolute terror crept across your face when he mentioned losing his phone.

Betty: Well, of course, yeah! You’re whole life is in that phone! I do fear, though and do keep a distance from some of it, because of things like the Russian hacking and (visibly tenses) I dunno, it’s just so alarming that we were all, as a group, manipulated in that way, That just scares me. Sooooo much!

Leigh: Absolutely! I find it even spooky when ads follow me around! Have you ever bought a tent online and the next email you get is from 5 camping supply places? And all of a sudden whatever websites you go to they pop up. Like, we’re being followed around.

Betty: Yeah, no. (shakes head)

Logan: Just because you said tent, if your phone is on and an app is open, it’s gonna look for tents, because it can hear you. If you even hover with the cursor over tents for too long

Leigh: You’re gonna have tent ads just everywhere. Everywhere.

Logan: Yup and it’s all happening right now, as we speak, on that phone of yours.

To help protect us from the rising of the phones, since I’m recording on one or being buried in tent debt, I’ll just first off thank you for your time and then finish by asking when the film comes out and how it’s being released?

Leigh: It comes out June 1st, so it’s in summer. I’m supper excited and the hope is that it can can play like a big fun summer movie, even though it’s kind of a low-budget Blumhouse type thing. I want it to play like a big expansive adventure type movie.

Well if it makes you at all feel better, it very much looks and feels that way.

Oh, well thank you. Thank you very very much.