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Upload's Greg Daniels, Robbie Amell, And Andy Allo On Virtual Reality And The Afterlife - Exclusive Interview

Television as we know it might not be the same without Greg Daniels, the Emmy-winning writer, producer, and director best known for bringing the British sitcom The Office to American soil in the early 2000s. In addition to that game-changing adaptation, which aired for nine seasons, Daniels also co-created the hit series Parks and Recreation and King of the Hill, and was an influential writer on long-running mainstays The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live.

In 2020, he unveiled a new Amazon series: Upload, a futuristic sci-fi satire in which people can pay to upload themselves into their ideal afterlife. It's a quirky cautionary tale of the recently deceased Nathan (Robbie Amell, Code 8, The Flash), a young man who winds up at the luxury virtual afterworld Lakeview. He's assigned a customer service rep named Nora (Andy Allo, Pitch Perfect 3), who acts as his guardian angel — and built-in love interest.

In a roundtable interview, Looper talked to Daniels, Amell, and Allo about the inspiration — and aspiration — behind Upload and what virtual reality is really like.

The future of funny according to Greg Daniels

Greg, the future in Upload looks like our own, even though everything from religion to sex has changed tremendously. What is the future and why is it so funny?

Greg: When talking to the crew, I would always say that this is not a dystopian future and it's not a utopian future. It's like kind of in the middle, which is funny to me because any new technology is always introduced as being this wonderful thing that's going to transform your life in positive ways, and then later you realize there are some pretty unpleasant side effects. The technology doesn't always work or they're in it for the money or they're selling your privacy — there's all sorts of unintended consequences.

What's realistic about the future is... things like 3D printing or drones or self-driving cars. Part of the imagination is, "What happens when those things are widespread in 10 to 15 years?" It's fun to imagine that because other comedic topics — like what life is like for a suburban family — has been imagined a million times. But what sort of comedy is going to come from a self-driving car? So I think one of the fun things about the show is you're getting a crack at imagining what life is going to be like 10 years from now. That hasn't been imagined as much yet.

On the surface, Upload is very different from The Office and Parks and Recreation. What makes it similar to those shows?

Greg: It's intended to be different, for sure. It was my passion project, and I was certainly trying to do something new. But I am who I am. So there's going to be some DNA that's the same. At one point somebody said, "This is kind of like The Office crossed with Harry Potter." And I was like, yeah, that's not bad. I'll take that description. So that's where I'd be happy to place it — something new, and trying to be very imaginative and create a new world. But they are still real people and their concerns are hopefully relatable.

Any TV series or books that were influences?

I loved the movies Her and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and then there's a British movie called Truly, Madly, Deeply, one of Alan Rickman's first movies, which I've always loved. It's a little bit like Ghost but more realistic. Those are probably the ones that I was thinking about

You've mentioned in the past that the very first genesis of Upload was with Saturday Night Live in mind. Did you ever pitch it as an SNL skit?

Greg: Well, it's not great for a sketch. I was on SNL in the Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, Phil Hartman era. As soon as I thought of it, it felt more sci-fi and it became a project that I would work on when I wanted to feel like more of a traditional prose writer. I wrote the first scene as a short story, and then, in 2008, I pitched it as a book during the writer's strike and worked out a lot of the story and the characters thinking it was a book. But, no, I didn't actually ever pitch it at SNL, which is good because then NBC would have probably owned the rights.

How the world has changed since The Office

Greg, how has your attitude and philosophy towards making a TV show changed over the arc of your career?

Greg: So I came out of a late-night sensibility. In the time that I was working on Saturday Night Live, there was definitely this feeling that if you were trying to do more conceptual comedy, stuff that was kind of weirder, you could do it in late night but you really couldn't do it in prime time. My first job was at HBO, but back in those days HBO put on that show 1st and 10. It was not the quality destination that it is today, and I never wanted to write that kind of down-the-middle sitcom.

So, after doing late night, there were only a few shows I really wanted to work on. I came to Los Angeles to follow my now-wife and I got a job on The Simpsons, and that show was another single camera, subversive, layered place. So I was happy. And then after that I did King of the Hill, which again was a cartoon. And in the world of cartoons, you had a different work environment than your traditional sitcom and a little bit different of an audience.

Then things really changed around the time that I did The Office. I feel like Kevin Reilly, the guy who was running NBC who bought The Office, was trying to compete with cable TV and was looking for more unusual programming. I mean, also he put 30 Rock and other interesting shows on in the same year.

So, I managed to do two mockumentary-style network shows when the networks were into that. Now it feels to me like the audience that I was writing for at Fox and NBC is more on Amazon and Netflix or that kind of streaming platform. They're doing more interesting stuff, so when it came time to sell this series, it was after The Office wrapped, and I definitely wanted to try something a little different. I wanted to be a little bit more creative, stretch myself, and try something that had more of a cinematic feel to it, a bigger scope and different genre.

This question is for all three of you. Have any of you tried virtual reality headsets? What was your experience?

Greg: Definitely. We did a lot of research. Amazon arranged a tour of headsets. My experience was swimming with a whale and looking around various cities and stuff like that. But I really remember one where these zombies were attacking me and I was kind of braced for all the zombies that were coming at me from the front. And then somebody said, "You should look behind you." And I looked behind me and there were more running at me and I literally fell on my back in the room trying to protect myself. I was so freaked out.

Andy: Amazon set up a VR hang for us where we got to experience different games and environments. I played Beat Saber, and I got so competitive. I felt like I was playing it for a long time, but it had only been like five minutes. When I took the headset off, I was out of breath and drenched with sweat. It was so intense. It's just so real. There's a moment in the show where Nora's dad, who Nora is trying to convince to upload to Lakeview but he's just not into it, puts a headset on and winds up in Lakeview and sees some crazy s*** and he takes off the headset and throws it. It's so relatable.

Robbie: Yeah, they set us up with PlayStation VR and Oculus Rift last year. And I went to Las Vegas, where the MGM Grand has a full VR experience where you're in a giant room with the pack on your back. It was kind of like the end of The Void, but more of a first-person shooter, and one that was similar to a video game called Destiny. The amazing thing was you get in an elevator, which obviously wasn't a real elevator, but you feel like you're moving and then walk back out of it. So the amount of ground that you covered was way more than the room you were in.

What it's like filming the future while embracing the afterlife

Robbie and Andy, what would you say was the most challenging part about playing your role?

Robbie: It's tough to find something that was super challenging. I say that only because the people that Greg put together were so great that it never felt like work. And we were working our asses off. Although the mental hurdle of working for "Greg Daniels" was difficult, the idea of doing a comedy and knowing that it needs to be funny because Greg comes from two of the best comedies of all time, in my opinion. But then you actually get to know him and work for him and that goes away right away because he's so collaborative. His writing is so natural, even though it's science fiction, which I think is incredibly hard to do. And then he cast people like Andy, who's so innately charming and sweet, and everything made my job easier.

Andy: Greg really created an environment where you felt empowered to chime in. There were scenes that we were doing where he was like, "Is there something funnier here, like is there another joke?" But, for myself, if I had to think of something that was challenging at times it was perhaps Nora existing in two worlds — she exists in reality, but also exists in Lakeview. So, there are moments where I would do a scene twice. That was exciting to explore as an actor, but it was also challenging because you're like, "What is she like in Lakeview and what is she like in her real life as well?" There are differences there, even if they might be really subtle.

Robbie: I remember Greg and I talking about the pilot, where Nathan started off as kind of a shallow douchebag and brat and the balance we had to bring to all of that. Like, we can't make this guy too unlikable because if you hate him right off the bat, it's going to be tough to win people back. So the first couple episodes was trying to find that middle ground that this guy needs to be redeeming, but you also need to start him here so that he can grow into something better.

This is for all three of you. In the spirit of the show, what would your ideal afterlife include?

Andy: I would be on a beach in the Caribbean with sunshine and my guitar. My family can visit if they want — the ones that I like. Kidding!

Greg: In the world of the show, different tech companies have different flavored uploads. The one Andy is describing is the Apple Cove upload. Personally I like Lakeview. That's why the show is set there. I like that kind of environment, the mountains and lakes.

Robbie: I agree. I really like Lakeview. What stood out to me from the pilot is when Nathan changes the season of the weather. It's just such a sweet little moment of switching it and switching it back. And the breakfast buffet — I'm a sucker for a big breakfast buffet. I would love to go golfing all the time, as long as my friends and family can be there. One thing that I would like to do at Lakeview is work. That always stood out to me as an interesting thing about our show, uploads can't work, so even though he's young Nathan is essentially retired now. I feel like that would be a big mental hurdle to try and find some purpose or something to do. I feel like you'd need a job, even if it's not necessarily your dream job.