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Creator Greg Daniels wanted to build his own 'Harry Potter world' with sci-fi comedy Upload

By Jacob Oller

You might not be familiar with Greg Daniels’ name, but if you've watched an acclaimed TV comedy in the last decade and change, then you certainly know his work. He's behind The Office, Parks and Recreation, King of the Hill, and many more. Now the comedy legend is dipping his funny bone into the future with the sci-fi Amazon series Upload

The high-tech rom-com is about a will they/won’t they couple with a unique twist: One of them is dead. Nathan (Robbie Amell) has been killed at a young age and had his consciousness uploaded to Lakeview, a digital afterlife. There he meets his customer support rep, aka “angel,” Nora (Andy Allo), with whom he has some very frustrating chemistry. Not only is Nathan dead and Nora alive, but Nathan’s being put up in these fancy post-life digs by his rich (living) girlfriend, Ingrid (Allegra Edwards). Woven through this tantalizing romantic tangle and comedic punchlines are tangential remarks about the state of this future — and Daniels was navigating it all.

The showrunner sat down with SYFY WIRE to talk about Upload’s long road to creation, speculating about the future of technology, and life under quarantine.

I know you’ve been kicking the idea of Upload around for a long time. Can you tell me how it finally made it to the screen?

I was a writer for Saturday Night Live, the year is 1989, I’m walking around trying to think of sketches. I’m in midtown Manhattan, I walk past these electronics stores and they’re all advertising CD players — if you can imagine how long ago this is — and it’s all about digital versus analog. I’m thinking “What would be funny, what could you exaggerate? What would be the ultimate thing you could digitize? It would be yourself and your mind, and maybe you could live in a virtual world.”

And I realized the thing that was interesting to me was that if humans could program a virtual world for us to live in, it would be as if we’d created our own afterlife. But it would have all the problems of any human society or human-created thing. I was like “Well, that’s pretty cool, but it’s not really a sketch for Dana Carvey.”

I filed it away and then over the years whenever I didn’t have a job, I’d take it out and try to write it into a prose version. During the [2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike] I started turning it into a book proposal. I was very into Harry Potter and I was gonna build my own Harry Potter world.

With a bunch of dead teens?

Well, when you think about — for instance — Hunger Games and where that came from, at least the teens aren’t killing each other. But then, when The Office wrapped, I was looking for something and by this point, I’d found more comedy in it from the standpoint of it being a big tech company that was trying to charge you all the time and monetize it.

I did a lot of work with other people because I sold it in 2015, started hiring people in 2017 to work on it with me, working with the cast since 2017, then we did the pilot and then we did the series. It’s been a long time thinking about it. Whatever you’re seeing on screen is the tip of the iceberg of the thoughts that went into it.

I was going to say, if you had a prose version, I bet you have a ton of things you can’t wait to include on the show.

When I pitched it in 2015, I pitched it with the first two seasons worked out in a very extensive bible from all the thoughts I’d done for the book.

It’s definitely a topic that speculative fiction has jumped on in recent years. Neal Stephenson’s novel Fall; or, Dodge in Hell covers similar ground, but your version was much more about class than technology.

I think that’s true. To me, good science fiction is not so much about all the scientific advances. It’s a way to say something about the world we live in today. One of the big issues is income inequality and the idea of a manmade afterlife that you had to pay for seems to want to be talking about income inequality and unfairness.

You said you saw more humor grew into the project as tech companies caught up with your idea, but how did you decide on making it a romance as well?

Having finished this long arc with [The Office’s] Jim and Pam before doing this, I was very aware of the need to have a strong obstacle in a romance. There’s something very poignant in this class of romantic stories where the obstacle is that one of them has died, such as Ghost or a movie that I really love called Truly, Madly, Deeply, which was one of Alan Rickman’s first movies. It’s the same idea. 

It felt to me that it would be a very romantic situation, that this guy is still around and is still bringing to life his personality and his wit, but he doesn’t have a body anymore. What does that say about what’s important in a relationship? Is it better to just bring your personality, or do you need a body?

It’s weird now that none of us are communicating with bodies anymore. Andy Allo, who plays Nora, was saying — because she’s isolating by herself — how much it was reminding her of the show because she basically has to put some sort of VR gear on to talk to anybody.

I talked to her and Allegra Edwards, who was supposed to get married. Now she's isolated and can’t see her fiancé.

Oh, they’re not isolating together? I didn’t realize that. Oh, my goodness, how weird. She’ll have something to think about if we have another season and she wants to bring one of her past experiences to bear for a good scene.

I’m interested in the relationship the show has with technology because having any sci-fi show developed over a long period of time, you’re gambling that technology won’t surpass or make yours obsolete.

That’s a great point and in the beginning, this was a weirder idea. And when it was a weirder idea, I mostly thought of it in sci-fi terms. Like, the only people who’d be able to follow the concept and enjoy it would be people who were really into computers and sci-fi. As the technology has caught up to the idea somewhat, I think it’s actually helped because more people are familiar with the premise. I can kinda just absorb the premise and get to that more interesting next level, which is “OK, well what would life be like if this was happening everywhere?"

I did a lot of research with the Consumer Electronics Show and different futurism websites, and my daughter was in college studying history of science. There’s a scene where they’re in a self-driving car and they’re debating whether to have it set to “Protect Occupant” or “Protect Pedestrian” and I find it really interesting to be able to write about all those implications because, in five or 10 years, we’re going to be living that. 15 years from now, you’re looking back on the show, I’m sure I got 90 percent of it wrong. But I’m certainly trying to get some of it right.

You had such a gap between the pilot and the full series order, was there anything in between those where you saw something in the news and were like “Oh, I’ve got to sneak this in there?”

There’s definitely stuff that I’d done initially as a joke, but later came true. My joke was that Nora’s dad was suffering from Vape Lung, which was a disease I made up from vaping. After we shot the pilot, there were studies that came out that were like “There is this mysterious disease caused by vaping.” There’s a joke in the show where they have this dating app where you rank people like an Uber driver after your one-night stand. I thought that was hilariously extreme, but then China started a social credit app where they’re ranking all their citizens.

Things are going from fanciful jokes about what could happen to commentary about what is happening.

How are you planning for the future of the show?

Without giving away what the stories are for Season 2 [Amazon notes that Upload has not yet been renewed for a second season], the issue of surveillance and countersurveillance measures, like the protesters in Hong Kong were using, is something I've been doing a lot of research in.

There are a lot of seeds planted for folks that want Upload to be available for all.

It’s sort of like healthcare, any kind of healthcare in our country. We have these amazing machines that are better than they have in many countries, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can afford it. It’s not always great for everybody.

Can you tell me about how making the show has affected you now that you’re self-isolating?

I have a writer’s room for Season 2 that started normally where we all went to an office and hung out together. Then we had to convert it to Zoom halfway through. It’s good in the sense of I’ve got something to think about, something to do from home that’s work, that’s definitely a luxury. There are a lot of people that can’t continue a job from home. It’s also not as good as being in real life. It’s a bit weird.

Upload hits Amazon on May 1.