The seeds for “Upload,” the Amazon Prime Video comedy about a young man named Nathan (Robbie Amell) who has his consciousness sent to a digital afterlife, were planted in creator Greg Daniels’ mind three decades ago, when technology was so different that such an idea was truly the stuff of science fiction. But making the show in the 21st century meant creating a hybrid comedy-sci-fi-murder mystery to keep up not only with changing tech, but also to add to the “intensity” of story.
“I like the [mashup] of a lot of different genre elements because they’re in the books that I like,” Daniels says, citing “the Harry Potter” series as a specific example.
To hear Daniels tell “Upload’s” origin story, it was the late-1980s New York and he was walking around Manhattan, trying to think of sketches for “Saturday Night Live,” for which he was writing at the time. He saw advertisements for CD players and he began thinking about the difference between analog and digital and how far one could go with digitizing a life. This story idea began to get fleshed out as a book in 2008 during the WGA strike, but it didn’t get developed in earnest until after he wrapped “The Office” in 2013.
To keep up with the changing technology, Daniels would attend trade shows such as the Consumer Electronics Show, but to create Nathan, Daniels looked a bit closer to home. “My barber is an inspiration for Nathan,” Daniels says. “I have a Persian-American barber who’s very good-looking and a very charming, likable guy.”
Nathan, while alive, was a somewhat cocky guy in a seemingly picture-perfect relationship. He had developed an app that could likely change the world and then was “cut down in his prime,” notes Daniels. This backstory gave Daniels the opportunity to deliver a “hopeful message of, if this technology existed maybe it would give you a second chance to think more deeply about the life that you have or your choices.’”
Getting uploaded to a digital afterlife gives Nathan a chance to make new connections, including with his upload “angel” — aka guide — Nora (Andy Allo).
No stranger to creating love triangles and will-they-or-won’t-they romantic tension after co-creating the U.S. version of “The Office” in 2005, Daniels says it was important to show both Nathan’s girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) and Nora as viable relationship options for him, despite the impracticality. (Both women are still alive and therefore can only communicate with Nathan through digital projections and need special bodysuits to simulate any physical contact.)
“While Ingrid can be shallow, I would calibrate it in the editing room so it was not all one or the other” as the perfect relationship for Nathan, Daniels says. “You want him to get to know Nora. Nora is a person who’s suffered some reversals in life and has a little bit more compassion because of it.”
And it is Nora who is the first to raise her eyebrows over some mysterious circumstances, such as missing memories, surrounding Nathan’s upload. Daniels says he did craft the first season knowing why Nathan was targeted and by whom, but he wanted to pace that story out slowly and leave room for evolution.
“I’m not going to say I’m sticking to it, because as you cast something, you go, ‘Oh, OK, these are the people I’m writing about now’ and you have to adapt to the cast.”
Greg Daniels’ Inspirations:
Writers’ room style: “A loungey, living room part with couches and then a dining room part where there’s a table. If you could rent a house, it would be the perfect writers’ offices.”
Favorite writers’ room snack: “My favorite healthy snack is probably a yellow bell pepper and then my favorite unhealthy one is the chocolate-covered caramels from Trader Joe’s.”
Mood music: ‘So What’ by Miles Davis, I feel like you can write to that because it’s lively but it’s not got lyrics so it’s good for sparking inspiration, I think.”
How he breaks writer’s block: “I buy reporters’ notebooks and I like to take one of those and walk around the neighborhood. Also those chocolate-covered caramels from Trader Joe’s.”