Saw creators Leigh Whannell and James Wan
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A pair of film-school buddies from Australia, screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan altered the horror landscape when their low-budget 2004 feature debut Saw became an unexpected cultural phenomenon. Between then and now, every Halloween has seen a new entry in the franchise, with an ever-more-expansive mythology surrounding its iconic villain Jigsaw, and ever-more-elaborate scenes of mechanized death. Though Whannell (who also co-starred in the original) stuck around to write the first two sequels, he and Wan continued their collaboration on the 2007 Universal horror movie Dead Silence (about a killer ventriloquist doll) and the haunted-house movie Insidious, which just premièred at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival. Wan also directed the gritty 2007 revenge thriller Death Sentence, in which Whannell made a brief cameo as a gang member. On the occasion of Saw 3D, the seventh (and ostensibly final) entry in the franchise, Whannell and Wan took the opportunity to reflect on the series’ origins and its impact on the culture and their filmmaking careers.
The A.V. Club: Let’s go back to before the films were even made. The two of you met while attending film school at the Royal Melbourne Institute Of Technology. Did you find you had a common sensibility? How did that friendship and collaboration develop?
Leigh Whannell: We actually did have a common sensibility, and that common sensibility was mainstream. [Laughs.] We were going to film school at RMIT, which is sort of the film school you go to when you don’t get into VCA, which is the Victorian College Of The Arts in Melbourne—that’s our big film school, our Julliard. I didn’t even apply, and neither did James. I don’t know if that’s because we didn’t believe we could get in, or we were just taking the safe bet. But RMIT was a very art-based film school. It wasn’t a school where they were trying to pump out the next Steven Spielberg or Guy Ritchie. It was lots of black nail polish, lots of guys who changed their name from Ian to Moonbeam. It was a bit of a culture shock coming from the outer suburbs of Melbourne, then suddenly landing in this film school right in the city.
Let me put it this way: On review days, where everybody in the class would have to show their work, there was a lot of black and white and super-8 films where we’d see a sheet of plastic with somebody’s vagina being projected onto it. And that was projected for 10 minutes. You were just sitting there, watching this sort of artsy, short film. [Laughs.] And then James came along, and they screened his film, and I could be wrong, but I believe it was called “Zombie Apocalypse” or something similar. And I just loved it. I couldn’t believe that there was somebody in the class who was into that sort of stuff, who loved horror films and so-called schlock. I grabbed James in the hallway and was like, “Did you make that film?!” And we became friends. And that was our shared bond, that we loved all this stuff that the rest of the school felt was beneath them.
AVC: What do you think are some of your touchstones as far as horror films are concerned?
LW: I think as I got into film school, I started exploring deeper. When I was in high school, I loved The Evil Dead, and I loved Pulp Fiction. [Laughs.] I thought I was deep because I was into Reservoir Dogs, and I was the only kid in my high school who really knew what Reservoir Dogs was. [Laughs.] And then all of a sudden, I’m in film school, when you’re get introduced to the films of Dario Argento, stuff that I didn’t know was around, or didn’t have access to in high school. If you go further back, I’d say the original touchstone was Jaws, because that was the film I saw when I was about 4, and I just became obsessed with it. My dad still talks about it, my Jaws obsession. I would make him drive me to the library to look through books about sharks. It didn’t have to be about Jaws the film—anything to be near sharks in general. I think maybe because of Jaws, I was really attracted to horror films and films that make you scared. But as I said, I wasn’t really introduced to the wider world—Japanese horror films, Italian horror films, Spanish horror films—until I was at university.
AVC: I recall Dead Silence paying homage, at least in the opening, to classic Universal horror, too.
LW: Yeah, absolutely. When we did Dead Silence, that’s kind of what we were going for. We had these grand plans about making an homage to the Hammer horror films, which we loved. In the Roger Corman film The Fall Of The House Of Usher, there’s a great shot near the beginning where this guy is sitting on a horse at the gates of the House Of Usher. He’s looking at it across the grounds, and there’s this fantastic matte painting, and this fog on the grounds, sort of dry ice. We had these grand plans to recreate that, but we thought we’d do it in a cool way, and there were references to Mario Bava in there, specifically the drop of water segment of Black Sabbath. The interesting thing was, we had just come off Saw, and we were doing our little victory lap around Hollywood, and went into Universal Studios, all wide-eyed, and pitched them this movie. And they said, “Great! Fantastic! Yeah! Mario Bava! Go!”
Now, in hindsight, I can see that we probably could have gone in there and said, “It’s the phonebook,” and they would have been, like, “Ah, I love it! A through Z, I could see it!” [Laughs.] So we went off and wrote the film and came back to them, but they hadn’t really been listening to us. Because they read it and said, “What? What do you mean, Hammer horror? What do you mean, fog on the ground? That’s not how we do things.” At that time, The Ring and J-horror was in vogue. I don’t even think Saw had come out at this stage. It was a hellish experience. That was our studio trial-by-fire. That’s where we learned about all the clichés you read about. All these books I grew up reading about how tough it is in Hollywood, and how crazy these studio people are, and you’re thinking, “Yeah, well, I’d love to have a champagne problem like that.” And then you live it, and you’re like, “My God, it is kind of soul-destroying to have a guy saying, ‘Okay, take your script and change everything. Rewrite everything except that first sentence. I like that first sentence, but the other…’” It was tough. They wanted a more Japanese-style remake. So, that was the film where we learned what not to do, basically.
AVC: Let’s get back to Saw.
LW: James and I didn’t even think of Saw until a few years after film school, because when we finished film school, we had that existential problem faced by all film-school graduates. Namely, poverty. [Laughs.] So we were like, “How are we going to make a film when we had all these big ideas? Big ideas cost money.” So we basically were like, “If we’re going to make a film, it’s gonna have to cost about $5,000.” And the solution to that was to have a movie with two people in a room.
James Wan: We spent a few years after film school doing jobs we were not passionate about, like everybody else. We took inspiration from the likes of Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez, and how those guys paved their own way, making the films they wanted to make. We continued with the jobs we weren’t necessarily happy with, but in the meantime, we were saving up money and hoping to come up with a really simple concept we could shoot ourselves, in our backyards, with our mates. That’s where the genesis really came from. I remember Leigh was really harsh. I would try to pitch him some ideas I thought were really cool, and he would just turn them all down. [Laughs.] I had a bunch of different ideas that Leigh turned down, and he pitched me ideas, too, that I turned down. So we were really hard on each other as to what kind of films we wanted to make. And I remember very distinctly that I thought of three concepts. One was an idea for a movie about astral projection, which we weren’t quite sure if that was going to be cool enough to be our breakthrough film. The second one was an idea about a guy who goes to sleep at night, and wakes up in the morning with scratches on himself. He notices that something weird is happening to him at night, so he sets up video cameras while he sleeps. And this was many years ago, long before another movie came out called Paranormal Activity. [Laughs.]
LW: Somebody beat you to it.
JW: And the third one that luckily Leigh really latched onto was a really simple concept about two guys in a room, and lying between them was a dead body on the floor. They have a gun and a tape player. And I said to Leigh, “I don’t know what happens from there, but I do know at the end, da-da-da happens.” I knew there was a twist at the end, but all that stuff in between, I had absolutely no idea what happened. And Leigh goes, “Hm, maybe something there…” And then he went off and thought about it. The first thing he did was call me back and he said, “James, I haven’t fully worked anything out, but I thought of a title for it. It’s called Saw.” [Laughs.]
LW: I remember when you pitched that to me on the phone. James called me and he sort of breathlessly tells me this story, and I hang up the phone. I was a little bit of two minds about it. “Hm, you know, that could be interesting. That could be interesting…” Then I opened a sketchbook that I had and sketched the word “Saw.” I wrote it in sort of ’80s heavy-metal font, with blood dripping off it. I called James back and said, “If we can call it Saw, then fine.”
JW: Obviously, to Leigh’s credit, he went off and basically wrote a really great script. He wanted to write something that’s really good, that would stand out amongst the sea of indie horror films that are out there. He cooked up the final film. He found the drive, the motivation for the characters, and that became the final film, basically—the final script we used to shop around with.
AVC: You started with the short, right?
JW: No, we started with the script. Because Leigh and I were so young and naïve, we thought that we could actually get ourselves attached to it. We didn’t think there was a possibility that that wasn’t going to happen. So we decided the only way we were going to get ourselves attached to it was to prove to people that a) I could partially direct, and b) Leigh could almost act in it. [Laughs.] So we picked a scene from the script, and that’s what we did. We shot it with Leigh in it, playing the Shawnee Smith role, and we used that ultimately as our calling card.
LW: You have to remember, we had planned to shoot Saw with our own money. The thing about film school is, it’s such a nurturing environment. You’ve got all this equipment at your disposal, and all this encouragement from the students and teachers. You really start to believe “Wow, I am going to be the next Steven Spielberg.” Then of course you finish film school, and two months later, you’re working for some guy who edits wedding videos. And you’re like, “Oh my God, this is reality. This is what life’s really like.” I think after a few years of doing that, we became very militant about making a film in the style of The Blair Witch [Project], where we could take a video camera, save up $5,000 between us, scrape it together somehow, and just go off and shoot it. So by the time we finally came up with an idea that was cheap enough to shoot with a video camera for $5,000, which we thought was Saw, we ran into our manager’s office and we were like, “We’re going to go off and do this film with our own money.”
Up until that point, it had been our big secret. She was the one who then said, “Well, I think we should try and get money for this.” And we didn’t want to do that. That was never part of our plan. When she did finally convince us to find money and to try and make the film properly, that was when we decided to make the short. And she suggested that we take it to the States. To us, that was such a big market. We couldn’t even fathom the idea of getting the film off the ground in L.A. I think we were in our comfort zone in Melbourne.
JW: We tried to shop the film around for about a year back in Australia. We found producers that really loved the material, but just couldn’t get the funding for it.
LW: Getting the funding to make a horror film in Australia in 2001, 2002 was extremely difficult. Luckily, the culture of genre film is changing in Australia, thanks to films like Wolf Creek, and to some extent, Saw. Back then, it was very difficult. So when our manager said “Well, if we can’t get the money here, let’s go to L.A., where they make these kinds of films,” we thought that would be impossible, and that was when we made the short. We said, “Look, if we’re going to go all the way to L.A…” Because we had to fly all the way over there, we thought, “There’s no use in going all the way over there without a little piece of evidence that says James can direct and I can act in it.” So we made the short.
JW: My favorite part: I was broke. I think I was out of work for five, six months. Had no income. Nothing. Leigh was the only one that was working at the time. Fortunately, he actually had some money saved up. So whenever I say, “We used our own money,” I really mean to say I used Leigh’s money. [Laughs.]
AVC: And the short film did its job?
LW: Yes. When we came to L.A., we had our script in one hand and this DVD in the other hand. People liked the script, but they loved the DVD. As you quickly find out in Los Angeles, everybody’s got severe ADD. Reading a script is fairly boring—it’s a nightmarish task. Whereas people loved to be able to put the DVD in—
JW: Watch a five-minute short and go, “Yeah, I get what the film’s about.”
LW: Yeah, but even then, we would have meetings with bigger people, like maybe a big production company, or even a studio. Usually they would be a bit skeptical about that. They weren’t so open to James directing the film, and myself playing one of the leads. The reason that finally got to happen is because one of the companies we met with, that became Twisted Pictures, sat us down and the producers said, “You want to direct the film and you want to act in it? Let’s do this. We’re the only people in town that would let this happen the way you want it to happen. The budget of the film will be very low, but the up-side will be that you will actually get to do what you want to do.” James and I were like, “Yeah, let’s go for it. We’re not in this to sell the script, make money. We’re in this to direct a film and to act in a film and make a film.”
JW: Yeah, we actually got much better offers from other companies around town. I feel we got better offers from DreamWorks and Gold Circle at one point, and all these guys wanted it, right? But I think people weren’t willing to take the chance on Leigh and myself.
LW: If you go with DreamWorks, you get the DreamWorks version of the film. It’s like, “This summer, Michael Bay presents Saw, starring Josh Hartnett and Michael Douglas.” The trailer would have been car chases, and maybe the puppet would have been driving the car or something. [Laughs.]
AVC: One of the distinguishing characteristics of the series is its dark, grimy, tactile quality. That presumably arose out of that low budget, right?
JW: That is very true. If we had made that film with a bigger studio with studio financing behind it, I think the film would have a very different feel and look to it. It was very hard for me, from a directing standpoint, because to some degree, I still envision the film being made with maybe $3 to $5 million, which is still not a lot of money. Only recently did one of the executive producers tell me how much we shot the film for. We were so young and naïve when we first started. No one told us anything. We were really kept in the dark. They were like, “Okay, this is what we could do. You could do it.” It wasn’t until recently that I found out that we shot Saw for about $700,000. And we shot it in 18 days. Here I was thinking, “Ah, I finally get the chance to make a big Hollywood film. It’s gonna have bigger financing behind it, and it wouldn’t be such a struggle.” But boy, it was no different than all the other student films Leigh and I had made in the past.
You fight, you scrape together everything to try and make your days and get your shots in. It was a really tough struggle for me. Every day, it was me fighting to get the shots I did not get. I had high aspirations, but there’s only so much you can do. I wanted to make it in a very Hitchcockian style of filmmaking, but that style of filmmaking takes time to set up and so on. The film I ended up with was more gritty and rough around the edges, due to the lack of time and money that we had to shoot the movie with. Ultimately, that ended up being the aesthetic for the film. Because I didn’t have enough shots to work with, I didn’t have enough takes. We were basically shooting rehearsals. So I had a lot of gaps in the final product when we were trying to cut it with Kevin Greutert, who ended up directing the last two Saw films now, and who’s a fucking great guy. He and I really pulled our heads together and tried to work out what was the best way to piece together what we had shot.
We ended up basically cooking up a lot of things in post to put the film together. We would cobble shots together… that we would make up, and basically we would grunge the shot up to make it look like surveillance cameras. And then we would, like, use stills that the still photographer had shot to basically fill in gaps. We did a lot of things to fill in gaps throughout the film. Whatever we cut to newspaper clippings and stuff like that, or we cut to surveillance cameras, or we cut to still photography within the film, which now people say, “Wow, that’s such a cool experimental style of filmmaking” we really did that out of necessity to fill in gaps we did not get during the filming. So, Scott, we’re telling you a lot of our deep secrets here. [Laughs.] But that’s the truth. I feel, “Well, we’re at the end of the Saw run, now. I can tell the truth.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you look back on the film and cringe sometimes? Do you think, “Oh, man, I wish I had gotten this shot or done it this way”?
JW: Yeah, of course. From an artistic standpoint, I do. Here’s the irony: I’ve made two other films—not including the recent one Leigh and I just shot [Insidious]—that are way more polished and definitely more accomplished for me as a director. But because those movies do not hit in the same way that Saw hit, people definitely recognize me for my first film. That’s kind of tricky for me as a director, because in this town, you’re as good as your last movie, and everyone still remembers me for Saw. To some degree, I think people really think that my filmmaking level is at that first movie.
LW: I think even back then, James would cringe a lot after Saw, just because he kept saying he had his film that he was running in his head and the film onscreen didn’t match up to it. But I was much more encouraging about the film. I was like, “As long as we get the story right and we tell it decently, we’ll be okay. It doesn’t matter if we don’t have these sexy crane shots or whatever. It’s really just the film itself.” I think the fans of Saw really took ownership of it. When we catch the film late at night on HBO or whatever, there are parts of it for James as a filmmaker and me as an actor where we’re like, “Oh, jeez.” But then, by the same token, I have so much affection for it. Saw changed our lives.
In a lot of ways, Saw didn’t just change my professional life, it changed my personal life. Because of Saw, I live thousands of nautical miles away from my family in Melbourne. Because of Saw, I met my wife and I have a whole new group of friends on the other side of the world. There have been all these sort of aftershocks from Saw in every aspect of our lives, not just in the obvious aspect of, “Hey, yeah, your life changed. You hadn’t made a film before, and now you have. And you’re making a living doing it.” But in so many other ways, it’s hard for me not to have a lot of affection for that original film. It’s like a moving diary of a part of your life.
JW: That’s very true.
LW: Yeah. On the one hand, you may cringe at something, where you’re like, “Oh jeez, I would have done that differently.” But at the same time, in the next scene, you’ll be smiling, because it will trigger off a memory of that time. It was a pretty amazing time in both our lives, as you could imagine, being in L.A. We were straight off the boat. A lot of people come to L.A. and crash on people’s couches for 10 years, script in hand, before they get around to it. But we actually did all that in Melbourne first. We didn’t have the hard years in L.A. We were really straight off the plane when we were shooting that film. So we were just so naïve about everything.
JW: I agree with everything that Leigh said. It changed our lives. Sure, it really wasn’t the film I set up to do, yet it ended up being this cultural phenomenon that we never expected. I never expected that my first little, as I refer to it, my student film would ultimately go on to have such a cultural impact. I know one could argue that’s for better or for worse. I think through the rose-tinted glass of time, people will come to really—even the haters of the Saw films will come to look at this and go, “You know what? That wasn’t bad.” That was definitely an era that people have fond memories of. In the same way, I remember growing up in the ’80s and the ’90s, but in the ’80s, you had your Freddie and your Jason, and there were so many of those films, so many sequels of those films, that you got sick and tired of them. But at the same time, you enjoy them as well.
Now we all look back at those franchises and we love them. We enjoy them. So I think it’s very fitting that now Saw is coming to an end, and it’s kind of the passing of the torch to whatever next horror film that’s out there doing this. They’re going to have their run as well. They’re going to go through the whole process. Eventually, something else is going to come along to follow that up. And then someone else is going to come to follow that up. Hopefully each generation will have their Nightmare On Elm Street, their Friday The 13th, like it was for us.
AVC: Let’s dig in a little bit into the movies themselves. One of the conceptual hooks of the series is that it places the victims in a position where they have to make a terrible choice, which often has a moral component. What was the thought behind that? And how do you see that affecting the way people view Jigsaw over time?
LW: That really started for me back when James first pitched the idea to me. As James said earlier, he really had the beginning of the film and the ending. So it was my job in the scriptwriting to go off and bridge that opening scene to that final scene, and that took a while. Basically the conundrum was, “Okay, two people are stuck in a room, they’ve been put there by somebody. Who put them there and why?”
Those were my two big questions, and around about that time, I think I was 24, I was working at a job I didn’t like very much and I was getting these migraines every day. Being the hypochondriac I was, I carted myself off to have tests. I had an MRI, and it was such a weird experience to be just sitting there in the waiting area of a neurology ward, being nervous about getting an MRI. And that really was the impetus for the [Jigsaw] character. I started to think, “What if you were given the news that you had a tumor and you were going to die soon? How would you react to that?” So I started to imagine this character who had been given a time limit, who’d been told that he had a year, two years to live, really, and that his condition would slowly kill him. Then I sort of attached that to the idea of somebody who put people in a literal version of that. Instead of a doctor telling you, “You have a year to live, make the best of it,” this guy would put people in a situation and say, “You have 10 minutes to live. How are you going to spend those 10 minutes? Are you going to get out of it?” I thought that would be a good way to capture the idea of why somebody would stick two people in this room and give them a time limit to get out.
That’s how the whole mythology of Jigsaw was created. It’s interesting what elements of a film an audience grabs onto. For James and I, the Jigsaw element of the first film was a small part of it. For us, the juice of it was what was happening with these two guys in this room. That was the story of the first film, but the audience really loved the traps, and they really grabbed hold of that, so of course the sequels made that the focus. I think the sequels have retrospectively tainted that first film with the impression that that’s what the film is about. But for us, Jigsaw and his message was sort of a small part of the first film that got extrapolated on. And I think people just respond to it because they love hypotheticals.
AVC: Were you able to see into the future at all when you were working on Saw? Were you thinking about what you would do if you had the chance to make a sequel?
LW: Not at all. Again, I think James and I were thinking more of the first Saw film as a demo reel for our next film than anything. Far from thinking of what should the sequels be about, we thought that we would probably make the film and then be carting that around on a DVD trying to get people to watch it. So we just really didn’t think ahead. Funnily enough, a lot of people say to us now, “You really left the door open for a sequel in that first film,” the way it ends.
JW: We literally let the bad guy open the door and then close it.
LW: It’s funny, to us, that was very final. It wasn’t us leaving the door open at all. We thought that was a great ending to a film. The sequels have explored the mythology of Jigsaw and who this person is, and I was involved in writing two of them, the first two sequels, so I’ve been a part of that. It’s been great to explore that, but there is something about that ending of Saw we thought was quite final, that door shutting and everything going dark.
JW: [After Saw], I got caught up with projects I was directing instead. But in hindsight, I wish I had more input in what direction the sequels should have gone. There wasn’t anyone telling me I could not be a part of it. If I could do it over, maybe I would have been more involved in the storytelling or the storyline. I wouldn’t have necessarily wanted to direct the sequel, but at least I could have kept it in the direction that it was going.
Now having said that, I think the producers did do a great job, to a great degree to continue the mythology. All the sequels have worked thus far, but for me, I felt certain things… I felt people ended up concentrating on certain things that were not necessarily, for us, what the film was about, like the blood and guts of the trap. I keep reminding people that the reason why I think the first film works so well was because it was fresh, it was unique, and it had a really cool twist ending that made people say, “My God, did you see that?” And I felt some of that was kind of lost in the process. But I don’t have a time machine, and I think the producers did do a great job, as did the writers that got to continue this mythology that Leigh and I planted from the first film.
AVC: Once Saw came out and was a huge hit, the timeframe for coming up with a sequel was incredibly small.
JW: Oh yeah, because they make one of them per year. And the Saw films are really involved movies. They’re really complex, because we actually have a very complicated storyline compared to your more generic horror films. People used to always complain that horror films have no stories, that it’s all just about kills and stuff like that. I think a big part of why we did Saw—and why the studio and the producers have continued with it—was we had a complex storyline so people ultimately could not complain that we didn’t make the effort to try and come up with stories that were a bit meatier, compared to a classic movie about a slasher trying to chase a bunch of teens and kill them. The irony is, now that there’s been so many sequels, the storyline has gone completely to the extreme and has become convoluted to the point where I know Leigh himself—who wrote the first script, and the second, and the third—is having a hard time trying to keep up with its mythology.
LW: You’re right in saying the producers did something unprecedented, basically, in making a new film each year. So essentially, the second you wrap one film, you have to start with the next one. It’s like you wrap the film on Friday, and on Monday, it’s like, “Okay, ideas for the next film.” And they have put themselves through hell, I will say that.
JW: And Leigh and I were just talking about this. I think before Saw came along, there really wasn’t a movie franchise that actually went out there and said, “We’re going to come out with one every year during Halloween and make that our trademark.” And guess what? I can tell you right now, Paranormal Activity is going to follow that very same formula. Because the smart thing was, you make a film every year, and around the same time every year, people make a habit of seeing it. It’s not like you make a sequel like Wall Street 2 that’s like 10, 20 years later, and no one really remembers what it is. So by keeping it fresh, making it every year, that’s how you stay in people’s psyche, and then new ones come out.
AVC: Leigh stuck around for two sequels, but has Saw become a Frankenstein monster of sorts, in that it’s gone off and done things you can control?
JW: Of course, but that goes with any horror sequel. They get sequelized so much. But unlike others, like Friday The 13th or Halloween movies—those movies have generally very simple storylines, which I think works very well for those films. But because our movies are so complicated, and because the sequel has tried to stay true to some degree with the complexity that Leigh had started with the first one, ultimately it became these really convoluted, sort of overwrought stories with a lot of time jumps and stuff like that. So yes, it’s Frankensteinian to a big degree. Right, Leigh?
LW: It’s an interesting feeling to be so involved with [the series] in the beginning, and then to watch new writers and directors take it off in another direction. It’s kind of surreal right now. Right now in this moment in time, L.A. and I’m assuming other cities in America are papered with Saw posters and billboards. There’s a new Saw film coming out next week, and it’s an interesting feeling to be sitting in your car, looking up at a billboard for Saw, thinking, “Yeah, wow, here is something that’s about to come out that I have something to do with.” Yet I feel divorced from it in a way, because I wasn’t part of the making of that particular film. I guess it’s like having a child and raising it and putting all this time into it, and then watching it go off to college, saying, “I don’t need you anymore. I don’t want you around. I don’t want my parents making me look uncool.” [Laughs.] That has been a bizarre feeling for me.
AVC: I saw the first film when it played the Midnight Madness section at the Toronto Film Festival. I’ve been going to the festival for 11 years, and I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a reaction that raucous to a movie. Was that your first screening with an audience? What do you remember about that night?
JW: Actually, we screened it at Sundance first back in January. And I just remember being shit-nervous. [Laughs.] Because that was the first time we played it in front of a real big audience, a real big crowd. We had no idea what to expect, to be honest. And I remember, Leigh and I, we were very frightened. We were very nervous, and this was a big festival, a festival we always wanted to get into. We really did not know what to expect. The Sundance screening was a pretty big reaction for what Sundance is, but Sundance tends to be a lot more subdued compared to Toronto at midnight.
Toronto was the last festival we did. We really didn’t do that many festivals. In fact, the film went to a lot of festivals that Leigh and I were not aware of. I would receive audience prize awards for Saw, and I’d go, “Oh, we won an award at a festival? We didn’t even know about this!” If I had known, I would have gone to it. But I remember when we were at Toronto, it was rowdy. It really wasn’t what we expected. It was definitely much more in-your-face than Sundance was. And Leigh and I, we were just recently back in Toronto with our latest movie, Insidious, and we got to experience that again. That was an amazing experience, too.
LW: The Midnight Madness crowd is a much more bloodthirsty crowd.
JW: It’s more the general public, wouldn’t you say, Leigh? Compared to the Sundance one, which seems to be more industry people, to some degree.
LW: Sundance is very much an industry crowd. I have one memory of walking up the main street in Park City there on the first day, and I’m looking around, and I’m like, “Wow, I’m at Sundance!” And this woman in like a pink tracksuit with, like, Gucci snow boots walks past on her cell phone, screaming, “Sundance is hell! It’s living hell! That’s what it is!” I was thinking, “Yes, right up there with Rwanda and Liberia.” [Laughs.]
The screening for Saw at Sundance was the first time we had screened the film publicly like that. We had only finished the film a couple of weeks before, if that. James and I spent the entire screening out in the lobby of the theater, pacing around. I think the name of the theater we were screening in was The Egyptian, on the main street in Park City there. We spent the whole film pacing around. Every now and again, someone would leave the theater and you would eye them suspiciously, as if they were leaving. You just wanted to grab a hold of them and be like, “Why are you leaving?!” We did get somebody come out and say that they just couldn’t handle it. I distinctly remember that. Two young women walked out, and I accosted them. “What’s going on? Why are you leaving?” They said they couldn’t handle it anymore. [Laughs.]
I think the only part of the film we stuck our heads in for was the ending, because that was our favorite part to watch. Even when we were screening our film everywhere, when it was coming out everywhere from Texas to Tokyo, screening our film all over the world, we would be too nervous to watch the entire film, but we would always come in for the ending. No matter what language the audience spoke, people loved that ending. It got a great reaction.
AVC: Saw created a market for extreme horror that didn’t really exist much at the time. How do you account for its impact? Was it sort of the movie of the moment?
LW: I think it’s really difficult to capture the zeitgeist for the film, because you’re working so far ahead. When James and I first started working on Saw, and I started writing it, it was 2001. I guess there was no way we could project that far into the future, or sit down with each other and be like, “Okay, I’ve got a really strong feeling that around 2004, extreme horror is going to come back into vogue. We should really begin on that.”
LW: So, I think sometimes when people see a film as catching the zeitgeist or being of the moment, it’s just a pure accident. That’s what Saw was. I think right around that time—and James and I will admit, luckily for us, there was something in the air. I think horror films go through cycles. I always see horror as this huge tree with all these branches representing the different subgenres, from slasher films to haunted-house movies. Each one of those little branches gets its moment in the sun. We’d just come off a period of slasher-film throwbacks, like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Then there was a brief moment of supernatural films with twist endings, like The Sixth Sense and The Others and things like that.
Right around that time, I think, in 2004, this subgenre of horror that existed in the underground for a long time, this extreme stuff, suddenly became palatable to mainstream audiences. People that previously would have never checked out films like Cannibal Holocaust or The Evil Dead suddenly were going to films like Hostel and Saw. And I don’t know how to psychoanalyze that. I guess you could go on and say, “Well, you know, it was right in the middle of a war, and there were all these accusations of torture being thrown around in Iraqi prisons and stuff.” But I’ll let somebody with a degree in that stuff go into that.
I don’t know why audiences latch onto things at certain times. If I did, I guess I would bottle it and write a book about it. Or I guess I would write a bunch of films that would take advantage of that. It’s really strange. Right now, James and I have a film [Insidious] that we’ve just done that James mentioned we just screened again at Midnight Madness, that is kind of our take on a haunted-house film, if I could put it like that. That film has not come out yet. It screened at Toronto, and it was bought by Sony. God knows when it’ll be released. James and I admit, we have no idea if people will take to it. Will people be in the mood for that type of film? I hope so. [Laughs.] I don’t know. I’d be interested to know what your take on it was. I really don’t know why audiences took to that kind of film at that time.
AVC: It seems to me that genre films—horror films, especially—have a way of reflecting certain social and political anxieties at the time, before straight dramas can really address them. For example, The Last House On The Left was informed by a lot of the images coming back from Vietnam.
JW: Vietnam also gave us Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Night Of The Living Dead, really.
AVC: So when you have these films that feature torture, my thoughts naturally turn toward that, too. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, maybe people are responding to something they can’t respond to directly, expressing anxieties about the things in their head at the time.
LW: I think at the time Saw came out, the world was a very anxious place, so you’re right. I think people were being confronted, especially here in America, with things that are difficult to face up to. Like the American government being accused of these back-room dealings, and giving orders to soldiers about how to treat detainees. Guantanamo Bay, all that stuff was really beginning around that time, 2004, 2005. Maybe you’re right. Maybe people subconsciously vent about things they can’t bear to think about, and maybe horror films do reflect that. I guess it can’t be a coincidence that all these extreme horror films were popular at a time when there was all this extreme stuff going on in the world.
AVC: I’m interested in the way you guys deal with criticism. You’ve put forth these genre films in an unapologetic way. Do you brace yourself for the reality that your films may be embraced in one corner, but there’s going to be a certain segment of the population, certainly the critical population, that’s just not going to engage with what they call torture-porn?
JW: Again, with the first Saw film, we didn’t set out to make a torture movie. We had a really short segment that focused on that. But even then, it was shot in such a way where the focus wasn’t really on torture, but it was more focused on the overall mystery. The first movie played out like a mystery thriller.
JW: It wasn’t like we took the torture sequence in Marathon Man or Reservoir Dogs and stretched it to the entire film. We didn’t do that. We only had it in a short segment, and the rest of the movie was just this huge mystery. It’s almost like a whodunit, right? But, like I said and as Leigh pointed out, it wasn’t until the sequels that it became more and more about [torture].
It’s kind of a strange one for me to defend, because I ultimately didn’t direct the sequels, and I didn’t really have that big of a hand with the sequels, with the exception maybe a little bit of storyline with 2 and 3, but that was really it. And the stuff I was really involved in had nothing to do with the torture stuff. So I myself am really removed from it.
I know my colleagues who are part of this quote-unquote “splat pack” have referred to this term “torture-porn” as lazy journalism. It’s a really strange one for me, because Leigh and I, we don’t really make those kinds of movies. Part of the disadvantage of not having hits with my other films in the same way that Saw was a hit, is people kind of look at my other stuff and go, “Oh, I see, this guy doesn’t make only one type of film. He’s made a movie like Dead Silence, which is an old-school tribute to Hammer horror films, and was all about creepy atmosphere. Then my second one [Death Sentence] was a ’70s-style revenge thriller. And then the latest one that Leigh and I made, Insidious, is an old-fashioned ghost story, a haunted-house film with a twist. So if you look at our body of work, we don’t really just make that one style of movie. I think what Saw did was really open up a huge branch of lots of these other movies that ultimately retroactively gave the first Saw somewhat of a negative reputation.
LW: I think the first Saw film has a more violent reputation than it deserves, in the same way that The Texas Chain Saw Massacre became the yardstick for cinema violence without really deserving that. I think the title, if anything, is what really gave The Texas Chain Saw Massacre its violent reputation. Whereas if you’ve seen the film, it’s not that violent a film, certainly not one that warrants a nasty label. It’s a disturbing film. I think the first Saw film is fairly gore-free, but the sequels of course have gone on to be more and more gory, and that’s become a part of it.
I guess the term “torture-porn” doesn’t affect me one way or the other. I don’t love the term, nor do I really hate it. For me, it’s kind of hard to have any bad feelings about the term, because I guess torture-porn has given me a lot of good things, like being able to work in the film industry and work as a screenwriter. I guess I’m just thankful to be part of a film that made it, and anything after that is just a champagne problem. The people that James is talking about, like some of our friends that work in Hollywood and are more defensive about their films being called torture-porn—I agree with James that neither of us really feel that way, because we don’t see ourselves to be a part of the scene.
I worked as a reviewer at a magazine in Australia, and I know the media sometimes needs a shorthand when it’s talking about pop culture, about anything, really. So these terms get invented. I think it’s a bit useless to get upset about these terms. It’s not like we’re a band. Sometimes I cringe when I see bands interviewed—I’m sure you’ve seen this, Scott. They vehemently protest being slotted into a certain genre. “We’re not emo! We are not an emo band!” But I sort of see why, because it’s their sound that’s being branded as slotting into this thing. I guess if you’re a band that hopes to go on and have a long career, you don’t want to be a part of something that is naturally going to have an end.
All these terms and trends have a life cycle. So I guess if you’re in a band, you don’t want to have your career be over and your band be over when those 15 minutes are up. But film is different, because as James said, we’ve made all these other different films, and I do think James and I are going to go on to make films in lots of different genres, hopefully. So we don’t feel any sort of malice toward it. Myself, I’m just thankful to have been a part of it. Terms like torture-porn and “splat pack” make me laugh, because I’m like, “Cool!” I think that’s awesome.
JW: I think it is cool. Years from now, when people forget about all the negative connotations and look back at it, it’s like you were part of a movement, like it or not. And that’s cool. That is awesome. I’d love to be a filmmaker and look back and be like, “Ah, man, we were part of that whole ’80s video nasty thing!” Which people can do now. I honestly think we’ll look back with a lot of affection for this time and everything, and it’ll be great.
[Addendum: After this interview, Leigh Whannell contacted us with one final note about the cultural impact of Saw:
“As this last Saw film comes out and I look back at the franchise and think about what it’s all meant to me, my favorite memory is still when Saw was mentioned on The Sopranos. After all the premières and Comic-Con visits and time on set, that still stands out as the moment I knew that Saw was truly part of the cultural conversation—when a character from my favorite show mentioned the film. Even though I was pissed that James got mentioned and not me!”]