Leigh Whannell wants you to know that he has not killed anyone yet.
The 41-year-old Australian writer-director, best known for turning a post-film-school short into the multi-million-dollar horror franchise Saw, is used to people being surprised about his even temperament.
“People will meet me then five minutes later say, ‘I can’t believe you made that stuff up’,” Whannell told triple J Breakfast.
“People are expecting a serial killer that dresses like Marilyn Manson.”
Fair enough, maybe, when you consider Saw — written by Whannell and his RMIT University buddy James Wan and released in 2004 — is full of watch-through-your-fingers depictions of humans doing terrible things to other humans.
But Whannell said the assumption was misguided.
“All the people I know in the horror scene … they are all so well-adjusted and nice,” he said.
“And then people you meet in the comedy world are all morose and depressed.
“So, there is some inverse equation there where by getting it on paper, you expel it.”
It’s been a decade and a half since Saw made them famous
It was 2003. Whannell and Wan had finished film school in Melbourne and were struggling to get work.
“We were face-to-face with the cold wind of reality, realising that people don’t want to give film students money to make films,” Whannell remembered.
Logan Marshall-Green and Melanie Vallejo as Grey Trace and Asha Trace in Upgrade. (Supplied: Madman)
“And so finally, after a few years of frustration, we were like, ‘What is the cheapest thing we can do?'”
The answer: two actors, one room.
“So, we came up with a screenplay and that was Saw,” he said.
“The next thing we know we were in LA shooting it. That was it. I woke up 12 years later with a family and a house.”
Of course in the intervening years, Whannell, who calls LA home, has made other Saw films (he was involved with the first two sequels before tiring of “thinking up creative ways to flay somebody”) as well as Dead Silence and several in the Insidious franchise.
Wan has moved into directing, making the seventh Fast & Furious film (Furious 7), as well as the upcoming blockbuster Aquaman, which was shot on the Gold Coast.
Whannell has preferred to pursue his own ideas through smaller-budget productions, a method he perfected with Saw, which was made for about $US1 million and has grossed about $US100m.
“Most of the ideas I come up with, nine out of 10 of them, go straight into the terrible draw,” he said.
“And every now and again one sticks in your head and you can’t stop thinking about it.”
That was the case with his latest film
Upgrade is his second outing as a director.
The film, which was shot in Melbourne, is set in the not-too-distant, tech-heavy future and follows a paraplegic named Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) who uses an artificial intelligence implant to “upgrade” his body and avenge his wife’s death.
Whannell said he was always thinking up ideas — and that included the cheeky moments of dialogue that sometimes found their way into Hollywood action films.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about kill quips, the stuff the good guy says after the bad guy has been killed,” Whannell said, offering an example.
Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) plays a paraplegic implanted with an AI device. (Supplied: Madman)
“Maybe the bad guy is in a library and he is facing off against the good guy, and he is holding a book of Latin quotes, and he reads something really ominous in Latin.
“And then the good guy shoots him and is like, ‘It’s a dead language’.”
In the directors notes for the film, which came out this week, Whannell said he wanted to pay homage to an era when science fiction films — particularly Robocop and Total Recall — were less about CGI and more about the humans involved.
“I wanted to write a story about thoroughly modern themes in the spirit of those movies,” he said.
“Something tactile and grimy. Something audiences could see themselves in.”