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Exclusive “UPGRADE” Interview, Pt. 2: Leigh Whannell and Logan Marshall-Green on unique action and the “DIRTY DANCING” fight scene

Monday, June 4, 2018 | Exclusive, Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Leigh Whannell’s hardcore sci-fi thriller UPGRADE opened over the weekend to solid box-office returns; today we present the second part of our exclusive interview with Whannell and star Logan Marshall-Green that began here.

The physical movements Grey performs under STEM’s control are very impressive and startling. Can you talk about conceiving those, and performing them?

LOGAN MARSHALL-GREEN: They were kind of conceived as we went. The script already had this idea of an emotional head on this physical stick.

LEIGH WHANNELL: I think the sentence said something like, “When Grey moves, it’s very stilted and strange.” But it’s one thing to write that sentence, and then how do you bring that to life?

LGM: I started in my backyard, sending Leigh videos of Grey’s potential movements; there might have been even some stillness, just sitting as a quadriplegic. With STEM being involved, we wanted to get away from anything hard and bricklike, and be more bamboo and supple and efficient. We worked with Darin Inkster, a movement guy from Cirque du Soleil, who deeply stretched me out, and got my posture back to fight gravity and become neutral, so that we could enter a month of fight choreography. But within that training, I had to be careful to keep a placeholder in my mind emotionally. Every time we went into it, I delicately tickled my face to relax it, so I could just move through the scenes. I’d go home and work with Leigh on who that guy is, and not attach any muscle memories to it.

I don’t think either of us really knew if it would work until we got to that scene with Serk [Richard Cawthorne]. We were pleasantly surprised not only that it worked, but that there was a whole new level of comedy to it. Because we were playing it real and not playing up the humor, there’s an elevated lightness there, so it’s very approachable to an audience. And then, of course, you throw in Simon Maiden, who’s talking to me [as STEM] the whole time during those fights, and there it is. That’s the story, in many ways—a buddy-cop, head-on-a-stick story.

LW: [Laughs] It’s your average buddy-cop, head-on-a-stick movie!

Was Maiden actually on set with you?

LMG: He was, but Leigh smartly kept him afar. He had his own little booth away from me; I didn’t really lay eyes on him until we were both in line and he was nudging me, and I was like, “Oh!” But Simon talked to me the whole time through an earpiece—which Leigh also, I thought very smartly, just turned into my phone. That’s what we’ll have in the future—our phones will simply be earpieces—but I was also using it practically, to hear Simon’s lines and talk back to him. Though if you were on the crew, you were just watching a dude talk to himself [laughs]. But Leigh and I could hear everything Simon was saying, and Simon would just lay into me. If he didn’t like a take, he’d say, [in Maiden’s calm tones] “That was a five. I give that one an eight.” He was an asshole [laughs]. Actually, I loved everything he did.

Leigh just set us up to win there. The technology enabled us to have that reality on set—without fully understanding what it would be in the end, but he knew that was the way to give me the best experience of the stakes, of the what-if. Of course, Simon killed it, and here we are.

Maiden’s voiceovers, combined with Grey’s reactions, give the movie a wicked streak of humor.

LW: Yeah, and that’s all credit to Logan, whose comic timing was great. There were so many discoveries on this movie, where we would figure things out about it as we were doing it. Like the fight with Serk in the kitchen, when STEM first comes on-line with Grey, and he’s breaking plates over Serk’s head, and there’s that great shot of Grey going, “Oh, God!” It was very funny, and I had no idea that scene was funny. When I was writing it, I was thinking, “Yeah, this is going to be a brutal, BOURNE IDENTITY-style fight scene!” And then I was watching the dailies, and I was like, “This is really funny!” And Logan, every time you break the plate over his head and have that reaction, it’s instant laughter.

That’s one of the cool things about filmmaking: discovering things about it that you didn’t even know about, you know? The film becomes its own living creature. It’s like raising a child: You can do your best, but eventually the film is going to have its own personality. It says, “I’m my own person. I’m kind of funny,” and you’re like, “Oh, OK.”

LMG: Also, Leigh, you took your time getting to the action. The film certainly has that, but I love how Leigh took care of the emotional story within the first act. We don’t just rush into the violence; we sit in the loneliness and the isolation and the stillness of being quadriplegic. And Linda Cropper is so wonderful in it as Grey’s mother, in ways I didn’t expect. Just feeling what it means to have to convalesce and give yourself over to somebody, even though all you want is to use your hands—in this case, Grey only wants to use his hands to kill people [laughs]. But Leigh really took time to tell that story, and that’s what keeps us rooting for Grey.

It’s also fun that the lead villain, Fisk—who has implants of his own—is cast against the usual type with Benedict Hardie.

LW: Yeah, I wanted somebody who was like a new version of a racist—he’s a tech-ist. He actually feels that people with this tech in them are superior to other human beings. I wanted kind of a neo-Nazi look to him, with the combat boots and the polo shirt. He feels he’s above all these other people, that he’s part of a new race that’s better. I wanted to exploit that, and I auditioned a lot of people, and Benedict was the one who communicated all that the best. He wasn’t signposting “I’m a villain,” and he wasn’t trying to be bad-ass; he’s pretty slim and doesn’t look like a tough guy, but he was able to give me that reptilian creepiness and matter-of-fact superiority complex, like, “I’m just better.” And it was great watching Benedict and Logan together in their scenes, because they’re both actor’s actors. They want to get into it.

LMG: He’s a great fighter. That’s not an easy thing; you can be big and imposing, you can have a great physique and lots of muscles, but it doesn’t mean you can move well. Benny is absolutely a dancer of a fighter, and I really had to keep up with him.

LW: Speaking of which, they did their big fight at the wrap party to the tune of “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from DIRTY DANCING, and it was incredible! [Marshall-Green cracks up laughing] It timed out to the song so perfectly.

LMG: It was pretty great. I mean, we literally were put on the spot…by you!

LW: I know, I know—I was like, “Come on, guys, you’ve got to do this!” But you knew exactly, when that bassline kicked in…

LMG: There’s definitely video of that. They have to put that on the DVD.

LW: And the dive was perfect!

Speaking of the DVD, did anything have to be cut for the R rating that would be restored on disc, or is it pretty much intact the way you shot it?

LW: It’s actually pretty intact. There’s not a lot of stuff where we said, “Aw, this is going too far,” because we didn’t have many takes of any of the prosthetic gags. It wasn’t like we had 10 takes to choose from, some being quite severe and gory and others being less so. It was like, “There are two takes of this, and in one of them, it doesn’t work, so really, there’s one take.” So we used every second of footage we had. We milked as much out of it as we could.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.