Saw: James Wan & Leigh Whannell on the 10th Anniversary
I go back a long ways with Saw. I met screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan at press junket roundtables in 2004 in my early days of film journalism. The only thing that could have impressed me more than their debut was the fact that they made a sequel every subsequent year and most of them were still great. For the 10th anniversary of Saw, I got to speak to Wan and Whannell again. Of course now they know me from our annual talks about various Insidiouses (Insidiae?), Conjurings, Death Sentences and that one Dead Silence.
In its humble beginnings, Saw was simply about two men chained to a pipe on opposite ends of a bathroom by Jigsaw, a notorious serial killer whose other crimes we see in flashback. Six sequels continued to tell Jigsaw’s story in twisted depth. While Wan had success in horror movies since Saw, he announced his retirement from horror films after Insidious: Chapter 2. At the end of our interview, he may have just announced his un-retirement!
Leigh Whannell: It’s actually legally required Fred interviews us. No matter where he is in the country, he has to come back.
CraveOnline: Can you believe I’ve gone digital? I used to use those little Jigsaw tape recorders.
Leigh Whannell: Then you had the reel to reel.
James Wan: I was going to wait for you to get the Nagra and put it on the table.
Leigh Whannell: I still remember when he was inscribing it with a quill on parchment.
So how does it feel to put the spider walk sequence back into Saw?
James Wan: [Laughs.] No.
Leigh Whannell: I told you not to edit that in. It doesn’t make sense.
James Wan: It feels like I just stole it from William Friedkin’s movie. Why is she walking down the stairs possessed?
Leigh Whannell: We didn’t really have anything else, additional stuff to put in.
James Wan: No, I didn’t put in anything. There’s two versions of this film. There’s the theatrical cut that we needed to cut down to get the R-rating in the first place, and then there’s the uncut version which is my director’s cut. So there’s only two versions of this film and the re-release anniversary, because it’s coming back into theaters, needed to be the correct theater version.
Does it change things if people watch Saw knowing there were seven films all starring Tobin Bell?
Leigh Whannell: I was actually surprised how many seeds for the future were laid out in that first film. You had this guy who had cancer. Everything you see in the sequels is all laid out in that first movie.
James Wan: It is a testament to Leigh writing number two and number three, and also a testament to Lionsgate and Mark [Burg] and Oren [Koules] for shepherding it the way they did, and Marcus [Dunstan] and Patrick [Melton] as well for always coming back to the first movie and using that as a leaping off platform for the future stories. That’s cool that they did that. They could have gone down such a different path, and they did to some degree, but at least the seed of inspiration came from the first film. There’s not much more one can ask for there.
It is a re-release, but there could be new viewers. Do you think they’ll have a very different experience?
James Wan: I hope so. That’s the thing for me. For the kids that did not grow up seeing the first one in theaters, here’s a chance to go back and visit the very first movie where it all began in theaters and to see what a whole generation of high school kids or teenagers grew up with. That’s the part that’s very cool for me and Leigh. This is the 4K transfer that I spent the last couple of weeks supervising because the opportunity to go back to the first movie that I never had the chance to color time it properly, to finish it properly because of the lack of money and time meant that I wanted to take full advantage of the 10th anniversary, go back and tweak a lot of the colors that I didn’t get right the first time around.
Ten years ago you could make an independent film on film. Was that a special experience that independent filmmakers today don’t have anymore?
Leigh Whannell: It is true. You’ve shot a film on 35mm. I’ll probably never make a film on 35.
James Wan: No, you won’t. My first three films were all shot on film. Saw, Dead Silence and Death Sentence were all shot on film.
Leigh Whannell: You must be happy about that, that you’ve made some 35mm films.
James Wan: It definitely is cool. I like the badge of honor to be able to say that, but I have to say, and I know a lot of hardcore film aficionados would kill me for saying this, but I think I could have potentially crafted a better film if I had shot the first Saw with the technology we have today. The technology you have today, you don’t need as much lighting to light your shot. Your shot will look really clean and crisp. Because I never had enough coverage on the first movie, I could blow my shot up and I could keep rolling. So you can get a lot more when you don’t have the money, which is what I think the digital medium is a great tool for young, upcoming filmmakers with very low budget to work from.
Now, having said that, I will backpedal slightly here and say that I think the film stock quality of Saw, the grittiness, the slightly underexposed photography because we didn’t have enough lights, didn’t have enough money to afford lights and stuff like that, added to the aesthetic of the film.
Leigh Whannell: It needed to be down and dirty.
James Wan: Down and dirty, yeah. If I take a lot of the grittiness away, I think Saw would have a very different film to it and I think it would’ve been a very different film. Things happen for a reason.
Saw started with a short of the bear trap scene. Had you directed shorts before?
James Wan: Yeah, Leigh and I went to film school together and individually we’ve made different short films. Speaking for myself, I have not made anything that I was proud of.
Leigh Whannell: Nor have I. I made a terrible film about a punk band that kills the people who come and see their shows.
James Wan: It was great.
Leigh Whannell: James helped me out with editing that one and I’ve buried every single last copy of it.
James Wan: I’m the same. My short as well. I would say that the one other short before the Saw short that Leigh and I had made together called Negative was probably the one that I enjoyed the most, because the idea in that, Leigh and I eventually went back to that concept. The short wasn’t very well made. It was fun, we didn’t have a lot of money and we were young, but the concept in that short was so cool, we went back to the idea of that and actually expanded on it, and it became Insidious.
Leigh Whannell: That’s an interesting point. A lot of people talk about the short for Saw but even Insidious had a short behind it.
James Wan: To some degree. The short inspired Insidious. It wasn’t the short that became Insidious. There were just elements of it in that short Negative.
Leigh Whannell: The old woman ghost, the photography.
James Wan: That’s not to say that we stole from that short. That short started a lot of themes that Leigh and I would eventually go on to play with.
I always love the morality of Saw, but if we continue watching we find that even the people he saved ultimately relapse. Were you always hopeful that Jigsaw’s morality would work?
Leigh Whannell: I’m not sure. We never saw Jigsaw as someone who is enraged by society’s morality. The John Doe thing from Se7en where somebody is disgusted by the lack of virtue in the world wasn’t really Jigsaw. He was a guy who was terminally ill and he felt that everyone around him, without that death clock that he had hanging over his head, he felt that they were unable to really appreciate their life and to live in the way that people should live. So he felt that he was doing society a favor by waking them up, snapping them out of their comatose existence and being like, “No, if you fight for your life and you survive, you’ll be reborn.” He’s almost like a cult leader more than a serial killer. We liked that aspect of it and tried to steer away from the morality.
James Wan: He doesn’t care at the same. It’s up to you. It’s your choice. The whole movie’s about your choice, but we do like the fact that we see a glimpse of the positive side of his work in the first movie with the Shawnee Smith character, because she is the product of his game that actually benefited from being through the system so to speak.
Until Saw 3.
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, of course.
James Wan: Hey, I had nothing to do with that.
Leigh Whannell: He’s like, “I wipe my hands of the sequel. Ask this guy.”
James, you know I was really happy you got a film like The Fast and the Furious 7, and that’s become such an emotional, complicated film to finish, can it still be the film you set out to make?
James Wan: Yes and no. Coming in on the sixth sequel, the seventh movie already meant that you’re coming into a franchise that is very established. So there’s a certain language and rules that you have to play by. I couldn’t just go in there and change it up, but my plan was always to go, “Okay, here is the sandbox that you guys have for me, but within this sandbox, I’m going to create my own sandcastle.” Still keeping the smell and the aesthetic of what people love about the franchise, so I got to shoot the film I wanted to shoot, but then there are certain things I just had to be mindful there are many, many other parents involved with this to begin with. Then of course add to that the emotional complication with Paul’s death, just took it to a whole different level. It’s the toughest movie I’ve ever had to make.
Thank you for discussing it. You know my quote is always, “There won’t be a faster, more furious movie this year” but I’m worried now that might be insensitive. Will it still be okay to say that next year?
James Wan: Yes, definitely.
Leigh, directing Insidious: Chapter 3, will it be a fairly seamless transition from the two that James directed?
Leigh Whannell: I hope so. Similar to what James was just saying, I wanted the film to exist within the universe that James has created in the two films that he’s directed without adhering to them slavishly. I didn’t want it to just be a copy of what James has done. To borrow his quote, I tried to build my own sandcastle within his sandbox. The way I watch the film now is I feel like it’s very much within that universe, but just a little bit different. It’s my take on it.
James Wan: Leigh has definitely put his own stamp to it which I’m super proud of what he has done on the film. It looks different, it’s unique but yet it still feels like it’s part of the Insidious world.
Leigh Whannell: And I think because it was such a strong foundation that James had built, I think that gives you the freedom. There was so much strong stuff to play with that James had created that I felt very safe working in this universe.
Since this is the 10th anniversary of Saw and it is how you got your start, last year you said you were done making horror movies and I understand you have to distance yourself because of the industry’s and fans’ tendency to typecast you. But do you really think you’ll never ever want to come back and make another horror movie, in 10 or 20 years? That seemed like a very drastic statement.
James Wan: A statement that I could be eating very soon.
Leigh Whannell: Never make any statements. It’s forever in the age of the internet.
James Wan: I will say this. What I needed more than anything was a break from the genre. I needed a break to go and do something different and Fast 7 could not be any more different than that. The fact that it’s taken me two years from when I started preproduction on Fast 7 to where I am now and to when the movie’s going to come out next year, that’ll be, like, two and a half to three years since my last horror film basically. So that is a good enough break.
I will say this. When I was blowing up cars, gunfights, martial art fights and all that, there’s moments amongst all this filmmaking that I yearn for the very slow burn days of my horror films, my thriller films. I miss that very design-y, slow pace filmmaking that obviously is not applicable to a movie like Fast and Furious. The title is Fast and Furious so I couldn’t take it slow and tepid. I’ve got to say, I miss that a lot. I miss that kind of filmmaking a lot.
Leigh, The Mule played at SXSW. When might others be able to see it?
Leigh Whannell: It was picked up for distribution in the U.S. It comes out in Australia and the U.S. on November 21. It will be a day and date release, in some theaters and also iTunes and on demand. So look out for that. It’s going around film festivals right now. It played London Film Festival right now so I’m really monitoring the tweets coming out of London. I’m seeing a lot of positive stuff. I’m really proud of that film and people’s reactions to it seems to be really strong.