Director Jeff Nichols’ great new film Take Shelter is a psychological thriller that stars Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire) as Curtis, a middle-class dad suddenly plagued by dreams of strangers taking his daughters and visions of a coming apocalypse. Are they hallucinations? Has he inherited his mother’s schizophrenia? In either case, Take Shelter has its fair share of scary moments, something The DLB asked Nichols during a recent interview at TIFF.
Archive for TIFF
The new horror film Insidious opens tomorrow (April 1). Will you be going to see it? Here director James Wan and screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannell discuss coming back to original horror, how the film has changed since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, and the creation of the screenplay
What was it like coming back to an original horror property which horror fans don’t always support.
James: Which is ironic. They always complain that there’s no original stuff, but when original stuff comes along, like Splice, no one goes and sees it which is so annoying.
It definitely is tough because the tough aspect of that is that a studio looks at that, right, or the financing company looks at that and goes, ‘Well, why should we finance original stuff when no one wants to go see it, when we can just make sequels that people are already aware of and has a built-in brand name?
So it’s definitely tricky, but that’s part of the reason why when we started making Insidious [we wanted] to make it as low-budget as we can so we don’t have any of those problems. There’s a big difference between making a film for less than a million dollars than let’s say making a movie for three million dollars, which is still super low budget…
Leigh: Or $15 million where all of a sudden people’s opinions count.
Toronto residents are in for a treat tomorrow night when Rue Morgue Magazine screens [Rec] 2, that rare sequel which is actually better than the original. Check out the original DLB review here: https://darklordbunnykins.wordpress.com/2009/09/19/final-tiff-review-rec-2/.
Unconvinced? Watch the trailer:
With the recent release of Saw VI to DVD, The Dark Lord Bunnykins thought you might like a refresher on how the whole torture porn genre began… before torture porn even existed.
So here, from the archives, is an interview with original Saw director/writer James Wan and his actor/co-writer Leigh Whannell, conducted in September 2004 during the Toronto International Film Festival.
They do look a bit maniacal, but let’s chalk it up to bedhead and a lack of sleep, not insanity. First-time director James Wan and his writer/star Leigh Whannell, the creative forces behind the much-buzzed-about horror film Saw, enter the restaurant of Toronto’s Intercontinental hotel a bit disheveled and tired, but who can blame them? They’ve spent the last few September days enjoying the spoils of the Toronto International Film Festival, shuttling from interviews to screenings to parties, much of it in their honour.
Wan who? Whannell who? Saw is a low-budget horror film concocted by a couple of twenty-something Aussies making their moviemaking debut. The duo met in a Melbourne film school and bonded over similar ambitions and their love of movies. They wanted to make movies together, and they got their chance by elaborating upon an idea of Wan’s and turning it into one of the most talked about fright flicks in recent years.
Saw (which opens October 29) began with one concept: two men wake up in a dingy underground washroom, chained to opposite walls. Between them is a dead man laying in a pool of blood. He has a tape recorder in one hand and a gun in the other. They don’t know how they got there or how to get out. From that idea, Whannell, a novice actor who had bit roles in the Australian-filmed Matrix movies, crafted a screenplay that would reinvent horror conventions and produce one weird movie.
Their villain would be Jigsaw, a maniac who places his victims into situations where they are forced to commit the most horrific atrocities in order to stay alive. One man must cross a roomful of barb wire in order to escape being buried alive. One woman must eviscerate a still-living man to find the key to the mechanical jaw trap which is poised to rip her jaw off. Their film would combine the surreality of David Lynch with the violent beauty of Dario Argento. The result would be a horror film that pushed boundaries, that would provoke more gasps than giggles.
The duo, determined to get their movie made, shot one scene from the film, packaged it with the script, and had their reps shoot it to Hollywood. Hollywood liked it. Arriving in Los Angeles, they were prepared for battle but avoided the typical difficulties associated with getting a movie made and instead found themselves shooting their debut feature just three months later with established actors like Cary Elwes and Danny Glover. Nine Inch Nails member Charlie Clouser would compose the score.
Lionsgate, the up-and-coming indie known for its expertise in marketing genre films, bought the film before its debut at Sundance earlier this year. Crowd reaction was ecstatic, with the online horror community stoking the buzz in the months leading up to the film’s release and, surprisingly, not revealing the film’s twist ending. Lionsgate capitalized on the enthusiasm by releasing a number of online teasers and trailers, and releasing a number of gruesome but evocative poster images.
Over a lovely lunch, the three of us discuss many topics, including Wan and Whannell’s love of Argento and Lynch, the origin of their killer Jigsaw, the good people at Lionsgate, Saw’s inevitable mainstream critical backlash, and the possibility of Saw II.
Q: I imagine you’ve had some interesting audience reactions at test screenings.
Leigh: Yeah, definitely. The good thing for us, after Sundance, we came straight back to Australia. We haven’t been living just off Sunset in Hollywood for the past months, we’ve been back in Australia back to our regular lives. So all the reactions we’ve been hearing about have been off the Net. We jump on the Net and have a look around, and I guess the Internet is driven by fans. The fans are the ones who are speaking.
So I think we’ve had kind of a biased view thus far. We’ve only seen the reactions of people who seek these films out and love them, and they don’t compare them to every film ever made; they compare these films to other horror films, other genre films. They have a knowledge of the genre.
Things will be different for us when the mainstream critics get their hands on it and suddenly we’re reading those newspaper reviews. We’re a bit worried about that, we always have been, but what can you do? We’re just lucky that we’ve got a film out there that people on the Internet are talking about. I guess you can’t worry about what people say.
Q: Thanks for making a good fucked-up movie.
James: Oh, cool. Thanks, man. Look, at the end of the day, Saw is the kind of film that I know people like yourself and the fans out there will truly enjoy, and that’s all that matters.
Leigh: I mean, it was actually our aim. So if the fans out there like it, we’ve fulfilled our aim. If any of the more mainstream critics like it, that’s just a bonus. That’s a bonus on top of it. But we’re not waiting for it.
Q: How many crowds have you actually seen it with?
James: We’ve seen it three times at Sundance. That was really, really good. Seeing the film for the first time with the general public was an amazing experience, and doubly awesome because people really took to it. People were really verbal about it. They really enjoyed it, and they just really got into it, you know. They screamed, cheered, they squirm in their seats in all the right bits, they jumped and all that, so it was really good.
Leigh: My favourite one was the second night screening. It was in a smaller theatre, and so we watched the start then we left and then we came back right at the end of course to see the ending. So we’re watching the audiences faces, and then when the screen finally goes black and it’s finished, there’s a couple of seconds of silence before the first credits comes out where the audience is trying to figure out ‘is it over yet?’ And as soon as the first credit comes out, the first thing I heard was this woman go [clapping] ‘fuck yes. Fuck yes!’ And I was like ‘Woo hoo!’ It was so cool.
Q: How long did it take to come up with the twist ending?
James: That was always in the original premise that I pitched to Leigh. Because essentially what I worked out was… Because Leigh and I are big fans, not so much for twist endings but films with good endings. Because it’s the last thing that you see when you step out of the theatre, right? So we want it to have a pretty solid ending. So we spent months coming up with ideas. Some ideas were good, some were too big, some were pretty crap. But we felt that whatever idea we come up with, it has to be really strong and it has to be achievable on a very low budget.
So the original pitch that I pitched to Leigh was pretty much the set-up about the two guys in a room and there’s a guy watching them and the ending itself, and everything else was what Leigh put into the screenplay.
Q: So describe the sessions where you came up with the Jigsaw scenarios.
Leigh: Essentially James called me one dark and stormy night, and I’d actually been thinking about, Mad Max obviously being Australian is one of my favourite films, you know, and that last scene where he throws the hacksaw to the guy and goes, ‘Cut off your foot. Either you can try to cut through the chain or you can cut your foot.’ And I was thinking about that and I love that scene, and around that time is when James pitched me this set-up, and so I started thinking… I don’t know, for some reason that scene from Mad Max sparked my imagination, and then of course James’s pitch was essentially the beginning and the end and my job as the writer was to build a bridge between the two.
I guess when I answer this question for you, I have to let you know that the film was conceived with James and I thinking we were going to pay for it ourselves, and I’ll tell you this: between us, we would have had about $30,000. So we would have had to shoot it on 16 mil or video, we would have been using a tiny crew, our friends would have been the actors in the film. No one would have been paid. It would have been an indie in the truest sense of the word.
So when I was writing I actually was intending to shock. I was like we have to come up with something because how else are you going to get people’s attention if you don’t have Tom Cruise in your film? You have to have a talking point. The talking point can either be brilliant dialogue or a great drama, or at the age James and I were at — we’re horror fans — we wanted our talking point to be new and twisted horror conventions. And so what we wanted to do was take the standard stalk/slash stuff and kind of twist it to the point where I feel like — I hope, I don’t know if I’ve achieved, and it will be impossible for me to know unless I erased my memory and went and watched the film — but I hope that the stuff like the jaw trap in the film feels really new to audiences, like they haven’t seen anything like it really in a film of this type.
Q: The Lionsgate marketing materials with the jaw trap are spooky.
Leigh: They’re one of the few companies that really understand genre stuff.
Q: How did the relationship with Lionsgate happen?
Leigh: How it happened was the producers who made the film essentially saw it as an independent film. It’s weird, it was shot near the literal suburb of Hollywood, but it’s not actually a Hollywood film. Movies shooting over in Romania with $100 million budgets are more Hollywood than our film, which was shot a two-block ride from actual Hollywood.
This film is very independent, but the producers come from a Hollywood background. One of our producers, Gregg Hoffman, he used to work for Disney. These guys had a lot of connections. It’s almost like a bunch of major league baseball players deciding to play on the weekend or something. They actually wanted to make a film that was independent, and the reason for that was so that they could totally own it; they weren’t beholden to a studio. Because they’ve spent their whole working lives having some head honcho above them tell them what to do. This time they wanted to be the head honcho, and what that meant was they were very well-connected. They had access to Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, and it also meant they had good relationships with people like Lionsgate.
So it was actually earlier than Sundance that the producers, actually knowing full well Lionsgate would be the right people for this film, gave them the early sneak preview screening before anyone else, and Lionsgate just went for it. They were like ‘yep, no brainer, let’s do it’. So they actually got in a little bit early, and it was good because it meant we could relax at Sundance rather than doing that thing where like ‘are we gonna sell?’ We just showed the film and had fun.
Q: Have you been happy with how they’ve marketed the film?
Leigh: It’s pretty hard to argue that they don’t know what they’re doing.
James: Yeah, I think they definitely are very smart with attracting the hardcore fans. That’s what they did with the Internet, with the trailers, the teasers in the first place, and now they’re going for the more mainstream public, so they’re trying to get the two sides as well. So I think that’s really smart what they’re trying to do.
See, the thing is Leigh and live in Australia, and we’re really removed from that whole marketing side of things. So a lot of times we find out a lot of things just through the Internet. Leigh and I will be like, ‘I can’t believe they’re trying to do this!’
Leigh: I don’t how the hell they marketed films before the Internet.
James: And this is our first film as well so I can’t say I’m really an expert at how a film is marketed. I trust these guys and I believe they’re doing the right thing.
Q: How surprised were you by how easy it was to get the film made?
James: Yeah, it’s really surreal. They always say, ‘Don’t believe that a film is up and running until your first day on set shooting the film. Then you know for sure it’s happening for real.’ And even up to now I guess I still find it… I still don’t know how to take to it. The film’s going to come out in about a month’s time and I just don’t know how to take to it.
Leigh: Yeah, it is strange. You use the word ‘easy’, and I would agree. I would say the writing of the script and the journey we went through in Australia to refine the script and look for funding there was hard; that was an uphill slog. But I’m amazed how… We prepared ourselves. When we got off the plane in LA, we were preparing ourselves for warfare, we were preparing ourselves for a lot of condescending pats on the head: ‘Ah, you’ve done well. Nice script, nice scene. Well, give us a call if you ever do anything proper…’
First meeting on the first day was with these guys. So this was our first meeting, and we sat down and these guys went, literally, straight to business, no chit chat. It was like [pointing at James] ‘do you want to direct?’ James is like ‘uh, yeah, of course!’ And then he’s like ‘do you want to act?’ And I’m looking around going ‘is the camera on us?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ ‘Let’s do it.’ And of course the reaction to that is ‘what’s the catch?’ But these guys were serious. I’m really amazed that it was so simple to walk in and get… But again it was right place, right time. You can’t expect things like that to happen all the time.
James: We were told that we would have a better chance at winning the lottery than for what happened to us to happen.
Q: How important is mainstream acceptance?
James: We definitely want the mainstream people to take to it as well, and the really interesting thing is the couple of test screenings that they’ve had with mainstream people, the general public, have been amazing. It’s — I don’t know if I should say this — but it’s Lionsgate’s highest-testing film ever. And that’s above comedy, dramas that they’ve had in the past, which always tend to test better than horror films. Horror films tend to test not as well as other films, and this was completely the opposite. It tested really well, so I guess for the first time it’s actually given me confidence that the general public might take to Saw. And if it’s marketed well to the mainstream public then maybe we might get something out of this.
Q: You’ve cited David Lynch and Dario Argento as influences on Saw, and those filmmakers create surreal worlds where almost anything can happen. But Saw also has elements of the police procedural, which is more conventional. How conscious were you of balancing the surreality of your influences with the rules of the cop drama?
James: As I was saying before, Leigh and I really set out to want to write and make a film that has a pretty traditional conventional thriller storyline that people are familiar with, yet put stuff in there that’s a bit different, almost to give the film a somewhat surreal, supernatural edge to it. And even though it’s not a supernatural horror film, I like to think there’s this supernatural presence throughout it all, after the work on the villain. And I just think the constant atmosphere that you get in the film, that’s what you get from a lot of Dario Argento’s films is — not just Dario but David Lynch as well — how you create this really alienating environment, and it almost feels like it’s from another planet but it supposedly takes place in the real world. So I think that was one of the biggest things.
Leigh: Yeah, if you look at something like Twin Peaks, it’s a procedural thriller about a cop who comes to a small town to investigate a murder. But yet that log line has been used by about 50 billion different things, but when Lynch does it, it looks and smells like a small town, but there’s something weird going on beneath the surface. That’s what he’s an expert at is creating surreality; he creates that within a world that’s supposedly based on reality. The complex thing that you’re saying is to balance the two so it doesn’t tip too much to the side of surreality and become something that is not taking place in our world. ‘Cause what we need to do with this film anyway is have you believe it.
Q: Describe the creation of your villain Jigsaw.
James: I think a lot of Jigsaw’s personality came through the theme of the film, the theme of the film which is essentially about people not appreciating their lives. I think Jigsaw really extrapolated from us wanting to get that message across.
Leigh: It’s hard to talk too much about it, because as we mentioned before, I had an experience when I started writing the film where I had to just go to the hospital to get some things checked out, and it was scary for me because I’d never been in one before, and it just so happened that that occurred at about the same time as I was writing the film.
There was nothing seriously wrong, but it shook me up and it bled into the script, and I think the film is about the notion that you don’t appreciate something until it’s taken away from you. In Jigsaw’s case, he’s threatening to take someone’s life away, and you’ve seen the film so you know what I’m talking about. His problems are what has led to his way of thinking. What Jigsaw is going through has given birth… I mean, he was probably an unstable personality to begin with, but what he’s suddenly being faced with has given birth to this way of thinking.
It was really important for us to have a great villain; a great villain who really had something different to say. And I felt like that whole thing… The lead character’s a doctor and you’re looking at different things. I think it’s trying anyway to examine some different issues.
Q: Was it strange writing from the perspective of a killer?
Leigh: Someone far smarter than me once said, ‘To write a villain, you need to love the villain.’ You need to be in love with your villain. You can’t hate him. The Terminator, all great villains, they were written with love. Someone loved John Doe from Seven, someone loved The Terminator, someone loved Darth Vader. When you’re doing different characters, you’ve got to see each one’s world view. If you see their world view, you can write for them. If you hate them… I mean, what will a writer do if he doesn’t like a character? He’ll give him crap lines, he won’t pay attention to them. To write a character well, you have to be in love with them, and I just love the ol’ Jigsaw!
Seriously, when I was writing for him, I could see his point, especially after what I’d gone through. I went through a phase where I looked around and I was like… It was a great feeling. It actually came out of a positive thing, because of course… Let’s say you wake up one morning and you’ve got a strange headache and it keeps repeating for two weeks. Eventually you go and get it tested and everything’s fine, it’s cool, whatever. For probably about a week you’d feel really good. Everything would be cool. The world would be a great place no matter what happened to you. You miss the train, you get a parking ticket, it doesn’t bother you. It only lasts for about a week, then it goes away and you go back to being the miserable people that we all are in terms of thinking the world’s against us. ‘The reason I got this parking ticket is the world hates me.’
So I thought that that positive feeling that I had was something that Jigsaw is trying to give to other people. So actually he sees himself as someone who does favours for people. Or he helps people. He’s teaching them, really. Actually, that should be the word. He sees himself as a teacher, and if you don’t survive one of his games you’re a failed student.
James: And I think it’s important too to point out that he isn’t actually punishing people for their sins. Because it’s not about that. It’s not like Seven where the villain in Seven punished people for their sins. It’s not about that. If you sin, but then if you’re living your life to the fullest, he’s like ‘hey, that’s cool! I have no problem against it.’ At least you’re fully appreciating what you’re doing.
Leigh: If you’re robbing banks every day and stealing cars, you’re living life to the fullest. He’s got no problem with you. He’s got more of a problem with the apathetic people…
James: And plus I feel like the people that Jigsaw chooses, his victims aren’t random. They’re people he knows. As often, with a lot of psychopaths or whatever, it’s the world around him that affects him. He’s not a superhero. He only knows his immediate environment. So I feel like, as James said, he doesn’t pick morally wrong people. He looks at the people around him and picks out those who he deems to be ungrateful with the gift of life. They’re just living life as if totally unaware that one day every single one of us will die. It’s not something that you think about when you’re younger, I guess, because it seems so far away. It’s gonna happen.
Q: How much of that world view do you empathize with?
Leigh: Look, it depends on what are your beliefs. My firm belief is at the moment… I don’t know what happens. I hope there’s an afterlife. I really do because it would be cool if this wasn’t the end. But let’s say this is the thing: it’s a blink of an eye! You’re here for such a short time. And where I differ from Jigsaw is I don’t construct devil puppets and speak through them…
James: But he sets up a room full of barb wire!
Leigh: Where I differ from him greatest is that I have that feeling but I don’t inflict it on others. I don’t go around going, ‘You! Start appreciating!’ I only do it to myself. I don’t put myself in a room full of barb wire, but I try to — and I really do do this ever since all this stuff — I try to, when things get down or you’re getting stressed, I’m like, ‘Come on, you’ve had a pretty good run.’ You summed it up before. The last year for us has been a dream run. You’ve got to appreciate it.
I think if you have a world view, you should direct it inward most of all. No one likes a vegetarian who’s constantly telling other people that they should stop eating meat.
Q: Speaking of which…
James: Here comes your hamburger!
Leigh: The best thing you can do is stop eating meat yourself and believe that just you doing it is enough.
Q: James, how was it directing your first movie?
James: Really exciting. It’s almost like a weight off your shoulder. You spend all these years wanting to make a film. I’ve wanted to be a film director since I was 11-years-old. So to finally get the chance at the age I got it… I felt like a veteran. I’ve waited so many years for it to finally happen. Definitely I would have to say relief for it to finally happen.
Q: How old are you right now?
James: I’m 27 right now, I was 26 when I made the film. And it was a really good experience. I finally feel like I’ve been given that chance. So I went into the film wanting to give it everything I’ve got. Sure, it’s a low-budget film at the end of the day. Sure, I didn’t have the big toys to play with and time to really craft some scenes properly and all that. But I guess I’m grateful that I’ve been given a chance. So I feel very fortunate.
Q: How did you get along with your actors?
James: I’ve never really made that many big films, I have to be honest. I don’t have a huge credential behind me. So it’s not like I’ve made many short films or made any commercials or music videos behind me, so I guess it was a bit intimidating at first. But once I kind of got in there I felt very comfortable. Because I’ve had this film playing in my head for so long, now that when I got into it, I felt very comfortable with everyone, and I just tried to stick to the vision I had in my head and hope for the best.
Q: Was it a tough shoot?
James: It was an extremely tough shoot.
Q: How long did it take?
James: I shot the entire film in 18 days. I cannot talk about the budget, but that will give you an indication of how cheap it is, or the size of the budget, the size of the resources I had to work with.
Leigh: Yeah, I think our producer described it as a retail film made at a wholesale price. All those years working in the studio system and everything means they could pull in a lot of favours.
James: Because as you can imagine, people like Danny Glover, Cary Elwes, Monica Potter are not exactly cheap if they were to pay them their full price.
Q: There seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm amongst the cast. Which scene did you film that helped you get the feature?
James: We shot the jaw trap scene. Instead of with Shawnee Smith it’s with Leigh. In a wig and a dress.
Q: It seemed like you got a lot of great reaction based just on that one scene.
James: Yeah, we did. That along with the script got us a lot of attention, and I guess it landed us the actual feature. So we feel that was one of the smartest things we did, shoot that one scene.
Q: Have you learned anything about dealing with Hollywood?
James: Well, the really interesting thing is, despite such big calibre name actors like Danny Glover or Cary Elwes, Monica Potter or Shawnee Smith, is, at the end of the day, it’s an independent, small film made outside the Hollywood system. So I was really fortunate that I did not come against other Hollywood B.S. as you would usually, so I feel very lucky. No one really interfered at any stage of the way. The actors were great, the producers were really cool. They were like, ‘James, we said to you you can do whatever you want. Go and do whatever you want with this film.’
Q: What’s your background as horror fans? Who are your favourites?
Leigh: James and I are film fans. We are big fans of horror but we don’t strictly focus on that. I always say there’s only two genres: good films and bad films. Maybe there’s one other genre: okay films. It can come from anywhere and we just love it. We never set any rules to the films we watch. The things that got us interested when we were kids, obviously, are the types of films that a lot of kids around the world love, like Star Wars and Jaws. I became obsessed with films like that.
And then at a certain age you realize people get to make these things as their job and you start broadening your horizons. You know, I started getting into films in high school like Apocalypse Now and Taxi Driver, and then you go to university and you see films from all over the world, not just American films.
And just been huge fans of David Lynch…
Q: What’s your favourite Lynch film.
Leigh: I’d say Lost Highway, but I love Blue Velvet. I bought that the other day…
James: Lost Highway and Twin Peaks. We love Twin Peaks, big time.
Q: Fire Walk With Me or the TV series?
James: The TV series, but I do love Fire Walk With Me as well.
Leigh: It’s one of those things where you can’t really go wrong. I mean, Mulholland Drive’s great, Blue Velvet’s great, Wild At Heart.
If I turned into a non-rambling sound bite for you, I love filmmakers of any genre who have an individuality that can be seen in the film. It doesn’t look like it was made in a factory the way biscuits are made on a conveyor belt. If you can watch a film and see footprints, and that can be anyone. There seems to be a lot of Davids in that genre: Cronenberg, Lynch, Mamet.
And that can be commercial filmmakers, too. James and I feel that even someone like Steven Spielberg… he has a footprint that he puts on it. It just so happens the type of films he loves and wants to make are very commercial and connect with the mainstream in a big way.
Any filmmaker, and I feel James is like that as well as a director, you know, and I hope as a writer I can do the same thing, I feel like both of us want our films to be films that fall into that category. We’ve only made one so we can’t really tell yet, but maybe if we’re lucky and get to make three more, maybe four, five films down the track, people will say, ‘That’s a Wan-Whannell film, or a James Wan film. You’re probably the same; just filmmakers who have their own style.
Q: James, what did you see in Leigh as a film-making partner?
James: I didn’t really see much. I’ve had to extract it out of him. [laughs]
Leigh: His dad had some money so I knew it would be easy.
James: And he was an easy guy to team up with. Leigh’s one of those guys who will really settle only for originality, and those people are really hard to find. Most people just settle for ‘whatever, we’ll go with this.’
But having someone who has a strong unique vision and who will strive to want to do something different every time is so important. Especially in this world where films are made all the time because they’re so formulaic and people are comfortable making films that you’ve seen before. It’s really good to meet someone that you can collaborate with who really wants to make the effort to try and do something a bit different. And plus the fact that he’s a really great writer. I really admire that, and he’s a funny guy as well so that helps to swallow the bitter pill!
Q: Did you ever wonder where the ideas come from, especially the Jigsaw scenarios?
Leigh: James is a great ideas guy. Our dynamic, I feel a lot of the time… James is a director who will have an idea for something, a story, and it’s me who he lets take it away and flesh out and put my stamp on it. I see James as a writer, too. Maybe he doesn’t sit down and do the actual dialogue, blah blah, but he has a great mind for stories that can work. So a lot of the time when we write we’re working as co-writers. What I hope is that my ideas I come up with, like Jigsaw and these crazy things, do justice to what James wants to make as a filmmaker. He sees them as original stuff. We put a lot of effort into making Saw original.
Q: Saw has a lot of rewatch value, partly because of the ending. What films do you go back to again and again?
James: The Usual Suspects is definitely one of them.
Leigh: The Usual Suspects is one of the great ones, yeah.
James: I think certain films you rewatch for certain reasons. Smart, intricate plot films like The Usual Suspects and Sixth Sense you want to go back and learn something else, or other films you want to go back and watch again because you just enjoy them. Like Star Wars, again and again and again.
Definitely for me the films I really love to go back and watch again are some of the early Steven Spielberg films, because I just love Duel – Duel and Jaws are two of my favourite films – and I like to go back again and again just to study it as a filmmaker and see what it is that Spielberg did was just so amazing with these two films.
Leigh: You love the simplicity of Duel. And when James talked to me about the original idea, the simplicity of it… I love things that have that simplicity. Like you’re mentioning films with a good ending in the thriller genre, even the old French film Diabolique has a great ending. That, to me, it was the closest film I could draw to Saw because it’s a great simple ending, and that was the thing for me I liked with Saw. I ended up in the plot mechanics making the film in a non-linear way; it doesn’t appear very simple. But the ending and the basic premise to me is very simple, it’s straightforward; there’s not much to it. And that’s what I love about films like Diabolique. That’s a cool old film that has a real sting in the tail, and it’s a cool thriller. You use films like them as a model, you can’t go wrong.
And I guess the great things about having a film with a rewatch value, especially if it’s a puzzle movie like this – where as soon as people finish, they want to go back and watch it again to see what they missed – is more than one viewing. The best we can hope for is people seeing the film two, maybe even three, four times.
Q: Do you have a sense yet of Saw not belonging to you anymore, of it being a property to be criticized?
James: Yeah, really. I feel like the moment I screened it at Sundance it was no longer my film. Just the way people have taken to it and run away with it, whether they like it or not like it. I just feel like it’s now out in the public and it’ll be even more out in the public when it opens October 29.
Leigh: It’s only just the first trickle at the moment because a lot of stuff on IMDb is not opinions but questions: ‘When does it come out? What’s it about?’ Once it goes out into the public then what you’re saying really takes hold and the public takes ownership over it. And they don’t ask questions, they just give opinions. Once someone’s got an opinion of your work, you can’t fault them. I don’t think anyone surely would say any artist would say to someone ‘that’s wrong.’ I certainly wouldn’t. If someone came up to me and said, ‘This is what I think Saw’s about’ and it wasn’t what I thought, I wouldn’t say, ‘You’re wrong.’ I’d go, ‘Cool.’
That’s the coolest thing about other people taking ownership of it is them interpreting it through their own experience. I guess that’s what film should do at its best, is you feel like the film was written for you. Like a good song. You’ve just broken up with your girlfriend, you hear a song on the radio, whatever it’s about, and you’re like, ‘This song was written just for me.’ And that’s pretty cool.
It can be pretty harrowing with the Internet these days because people walk out of the movie, go home, log on and if they hated it, man, they spit bile like you’ve never seen it. And James and I are film fans so we look on the Internet a lot and we really do feel pain for some of the filmmakers out there.
James: Especially some of the recent crop of horror films out there.
Leigh: Like, you look at Alien Vs. Predator. People don’t hold back. The Internet’s so immediate. It’s not like writing a letter where you read it back to yourself and do another draft. People type, it seems, while they’re doing ten other things, there’s so many spelling mistakes. They just let ‘em out. It’s a stream of consciousness thing. The next day they might actually think back and go, ‘Oh, actually, now that I think about it I didn’t mind it.’ But last night at five past midnight they banged this thing out and sent it out into the ether, and now it’s out there. It’s never coming back, and, God, it’s scary!
I hope we don’t get on October 30 a stream of people… I always used to think when I made a film, even if it was hated, I wouldn’t care because I’d be so happy that I got to make a film that [that] would override any critical reaction. So not true! You ever make a film, you’ll realize quick that as soon as you make it, all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh, my God. Please, everyone like it! Please!’
James: You spend so much effort and time on it, you just want people to take to it.
Leigh: And that’s what’s so harsh about these films getting bagged. When you’ve been behind the curtain, as we all have, you’ve seen how a film gets made, the effort. I mean, a lot of people out there, like we used to when we were younger, they don’t take any regard to how long it takes to make a film and the effort. If they hate it, they just say so. It must be pretty hard to take when you’ve spent months working on something you poured your heart and soul into, and then at three in the morning some kid from Ohio jumps on his laptop and writes a three-page diatribe about how it’s the shittiest thing spat into existence.
Q: And crushes your soul in the process.
Leigh: Yeah! And you can’t get revenge on these people. Unless you’re Kevin Smith. Then you go and make a film about people who bag you on the Internet.
Q: There’s something disquieting about the film which I can’t put my finger on. Was there a point during the filming or editing where you thought, ‘This is working’?
Leigh: Tell him what you told me when you were editing.
James: I don’t know if I should. Because the vision I had in my film was much more expensive than the budget I had to work with. So every day on the set was a big struggle between me even trying to come close to what I had in my head vision-wise, and I just felt at the end of the shoot… I just felt I did not come anywhere close to what I wanted. I’d see the rushes at the end of the day, right, and what I had captured was really good, but I felt that because it wasn’t what I wanted in the first place, I didn’t take to it. I didn’t like it at all.
And even when I was editing as well, every day it was a tough slog, trying to get through it. And when I cut the first rough cut together, I looked at it and I just turned to Leigh and go, ‘Hey, Leigh, man. I thought I had set out to make a horror thriller and I’ve ended up with a psychological drama film.’ And I was just not happy.
So I went back and I re-thought my editing process, and thought about how I can approach the sound design and soundtrack and all that. Because what I had to do was, when I was shooting it I realized that the style of filmmaking I was initially going for was not going to accommodate the budget I had to work with, or the budget could not accommodate what I wanted. So I literally had to throw my vision out in the second or third day and pretty much think of everything else from scratch, and that’s pretty nerve-wracking when you’re right in the middle of production.
Leigh: Filmmaking on the fly. We were editing in our apartment. So I would wake up every morning, walk out, and James and the editor would start going at it in our living room. So I kind of had this outsider’s perspective of looking through the glass at what they were doing because I wasn’t sitting there every day cutting. I felt like what James had got wasn’t bad, just different. What he had in his head is one thing. He didn’t get it, so I think his first reaction was to go ‘this is bad,’ but it was actually just different. I really felt like it was good. By the end of it I was like ‘this is really good.’ And then probably, slowly, after people reacted well to it, James has probably come around.
Q: Do you like your movie now, James?
James: It’s a hard one. It’s a real tricky one. I definitely don’t hate it.
Leigh: It’s hard when you’re so close to something.
James: I’m too close to be able to make any sort of judgement on it.
Leigh: I felt the same way. Because I, through the writing process, I’ve got a little more of an outsider’s perspective than James had because I wrote it but didn’t direct it. After I did my acting, I was there for some writing, but that was it. And so there’s no pleasure. The unknown factor is long gone for us, unless we could erase our memories somehow and watch the film. But there is little pleasures in the film that I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m really proud of it.’ I reckon we’ve got a really good start. No matter what anyone else thinks, I reckon we’ve got a really good start.
Q: How important was the film’s sound design to making it scary?
James: Oh, it’s extremely important. And especially for me, I’m one of those filmmakers who hold visual and sound design [in the highest regard]. ‘Cause at the end of the day, cinema is a cinematic medium.
Leigh: It’s an audiovisual medium. It’s not a visual medium with audio added.
James: Yeah. It’s so important. I feel like for my vision to work the sound has to work just as strongly as well. So I put a lot of emphasis on it. Even through my first rough cut I had a lot of sound design in my rough cut, which you don’t usually put in your rough cut. Because what you do then is you turn the film over to the sound guys and then they just put the sounds that they want on it. I knew how I wanted the film to look and sound from the very start. So when I got to the editing I made sure I stuck true to that. So I put all this sound design and music, a temp sound design, so that by the time I passed it on to the music people and the sound people they really understood it.
Leigh: I should just say that Charlie [Clouser] did the score and the sound design was done by someone else.
Q: Would you guys want to make a sequel?
James: Well, let me just say that if it’s commercially successful, with or without us, it would definitely get a sequel.
Q: Do you have a deal in place where you could do it if you wanted to?
Leigh: I know that the producers would definitely come to us and want our input. We want to have input. We definitely wouldn’t just wander off and make whatever, because we want the second film to stay true. If there does end up being one, we want it to stay true to the first and still have our footprints on it. Because I guess we created… if it has a sequel it’s like a franchise then so you want to keep your stamp on it. What you don’t want to do is have that situation, I guess. You look at someone like Wes Craven. He doesn’t like the other Nightmare films.
I don’t know if we would want to make it, though. Maybe we’d want to move on. Because, as you said, we feel like that story’s been told. Okay, if they want to make a sequel, whatever, but for us that’s story’s been told.
Q: What do you guys have coming up?
Leigh: We’re working on a script at the moment. It’s a more straightforward horror film. When I say straightforward, it’s a horror, it’s not a thriller. Couple of other ideas that we’ve got floating around. It’s in the pretty early stages. Pretty early baby step stages.
The important thing is when you’ve got a good start like with something like Saw is to… You know, people like the film. Some people seem to like it, so that means that you’re a little bit more safe. You don’t have to go, ‘Oh, my God. Quick, attach me to something before the door shuts!’
Many people make a film, but not all of them are good. If the film is good, I think the door stays wedged open a little while longer than it would. So we’re kind of, I guess you could use the word choosy. We’re being a bit choosy and looking around at scripts. Being choosy with our ideas just as we were with Saw. And also the release of Saw will dictate a lot of our future as well.
Q: Although the risk with this is less than if you had made a $50 million film.
Leigh: Yeah, lives don’t hang in the balance.