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Monday, June 01, 2020

In Upload, there’s a mix of genres: Greg Daniels

Writer and director Greg Daniels on Upload, the tough times that we are living in and why we must not believe everything peddled on social media

Written by Ektaa Malik | Published: May 7, 2020 2:18:35 pm
Greg Daniels’ Upload is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. (Photos: Jason Redmond/AP and Amazon Prime Video)

Self-driving cars. Traffic cops who operate through drones. Phones that are actually holograms that snap into existence between your forefinger and thumb. All these things exist in the universe created for us by creator-director Greg Daniels, in Upload, his latest offering that is streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Upload as the name gives away, is a lot about a futuristic world, and is a far cry from Daniels’ usual oeuvre. In Upload, we deal with the afterlife, where you can upload yourself digitally and continue to live, in an alternate time and space quantum.

While many may not be aware of Daniels through his name, but for any consumer of world comedy, it’s impossible to not have chuckled at one-liners created by Daniels. Think The Office (2005) with the antics of Dwight Schrute and Michael Scott or Parks and Recreation where Amy Poehler tries to create a utopia in the small-town of Pawnee. Daniels has also written parts of Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons and is often credited to have created characters that are quirky, heartfelt and very relatable to the public at large. In a zoom conversation, 56-year-old, Daniels talks about Upload, his long-lost-love for science and why The Office will always be a romance. Excerpts

While Upload is set in 2030, it could very well be talking about today’s times, where a large part of the world is practising social distancing and communicating only through virtual means, very much like Nora and Nathan, the protagonists from the show.

I am locked down with my family. It is six of us and we are kind of stepping on each other’s toes. I was speaking with Andy the actress who plays Nora in Upload. She is by herself in this lockdown and she realised she could only speak to people through technology and that is so similar to the show where Nora could speak to Nathan. There is something very yearning about the desire to connect now, in such times.

Upload is a surprise offering, a departure from your usual staple, we hear a lot more of scientific and nerd chatter. Have you always been interested in science and this kind of futuristic storytelling?

When I was a kid, there was a section of the New York Times Science Times and I always thought I would end up writing for the section as a science journalist. I did like science fiction a lot when I was a kid. I actually had this idea for Upload when I was writing for Saturday Night Live. I am walking around New York back in the day, I was trying to think of ideas for sketches and there were all these discussions about digital versus analog and I thought that if you can digitise yourself then mankind could make our own afterlife because there would be no physical body anymore. I kept thinking that what would that be like? That ‘what if’ question was very intriguing because I assumed it would have all the pluses and minuses of human society. So I thought about that for a long time and I was going to write it as a book before The Office and then I started working on The Office and we had a strike in 2008 and I worked on it some more. When The Office was over and I was wondering what I could do. I thought of revisiting this.

Upload has a scathing comment on capitalism, human greed, but in the end, it’s essentially a love story, set in the 2030s.

I sort of found a comic way into it and thinking about how the tech companies would use it to charge you for everything. One of the issues here would be unfairness and the human afterlife would be unfair. People have this association of heaven with justice, and I had done a lot of work on the romance between Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) in The Office. This (Upload) was a great premise for a very good romance because there was all this love and jumping this gap and struggling against this large obstacle and one of them not having a physical body. One of the things that attracted me to it was enabling me from doing something different than my normal stuff. I do think its connected, I loved The Office, it was my favourite. You know, how here, there’s a mix of genres, right? I like that aspect too. As for the future bit, I agree, I think the future is just where they live and you know it’s really about who they are and the kind of personalities they live with.

You have written sketch comedy, satire and sitcoms and have seen it evolve to be this force to be reckoned with. But we also see unprecedented rage, especially on social media, where people take offence at the simplest of jokes. Are we as people, losing our sense of humour?

Sometimes it’s hard to know whether it’s really happening. One of the themes of Upload, is how all this technology will be introduced amid all the optimism and one of the issues is that it often has unintended consequences and it backfires a lot. As a comedy writer, I surely have my view on things, but then there is the internet and social media where there is so much initial optimism of connecting people. But we then realised, for example, that Facebook has damaged democracy and journalism and it has a sort of an unintended bad side. So yes, the internet is connecting people but it’s also magnifying the cranks and voices of the weirdos, allowing other people to think that these views are more widespread, when they are probably just made up in a troll farm in Russia. It’s very hard to judge what people are really thinking. And we often wonder if there are others who share these extreme views on the internet. But most people are quite reasonable and good-natured unlike some of those people with extreme views online.

Upload is streaming on Amazon Prime Video

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