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Sharpening the Saw with Wan & Whannell

Source: Edward Douglas October 27, 2004

Unless you've been sleeping under a rock, you've already seen a poster, commercial or trailer for what is being dubbed the "Halloween event," the new horror-thriller Saw. But what do you really know about it beyond that? Maybe you know that it's about a serial killer that sets elaborate death traps for his victims, or that the story revolves around two guys chained in a basement bathroom by this twisted individual. But what do you know about how this movie came to be or the guys behind it? It's not exactly your typical Hollywood horror film, after all. The movie is the brainchild of two young guys from Australia, writer/director James Wan and writer/actor Leigh Whannell, who simply wanted to make a movie on their own. Little did they know that the project would snowball into being one of the most anticipated horror movies in a long time.

When the guys came to New York for the premiere of Saw, they were both excited about the amount of attention their little movie was getting, something neither of them ever expected, so ComingSoon.net sat down to chat with them about how they got there.

CS!: So how did the idea for this movie come about?

James Wan: The simplicity of the story really came out of us wanting to make a very low budget film in our backyard with our friends. We just wanted to make a cheap film and that's how we came up with this simple story of two guys stuck in a room. I'm a big fan of Spielberg's Duel, and I loved it so much that I wanted to imitate it in some ways. I loved the idea of two guys going against one another, but since we weren't going to be able to afford big car chases and stuff, we took out the cars. That, combined with no money, gave us Saw.

CS!: Did Leigh always plan to star in the film as one of the main characters?

Leigh Whannell:Yeah, that was essentially why the film was written, so that James and I could make a film. He wanted to direct and I wanted to act and the only way we were going to get a chance to do that anytime soon is if we wrote a film, paid for it ourselves and made it ourselves. That was the plan we saw. It didn't end up happening that way, but the first draft was written with the thought in mind that we would pay for the film ourselves and make it. That was like three and a half years ago now.

CS!: When you decided to do a film to showcase your talents, was horror the first choice?

Wan: We are very big fans of horror films to begin with, but the kind of films we want to make is really dictated by the story we want to tell. We don't really think of a genre we want to work in, and then come up with a story for that genre. Because we love horror and thriller so much, a lot of the ideas we come up with tend to gravitate towards each other.

CS!: Had you done a lot of work in Australia before coming out here?

Wan: Leigh and I literally came out of nowhere. We have no connections.

Whannell: Usually, people get famous in Australia and then come over here. We're not famous in Australia. We did it ass-backwards. We came to America first and made a film. We haven't done anything in Australia. It's not like we're part of an Aussie invasion. I haven't got Naomi Watts' number in my phone. We're literally just from Australia, wrote a script and somehow ended up over here.

CS!: How do you go from just writing a script to getting together such an impressive cast?

Wan: Our manager read the script and loved it. She sent it to an agent in L.A. who loved it as well, and wanted to meet up with us. Leigh and I thought that if we were going to L.A. to have an expensive meeting, we wanted to shoot a scene, so we shot a short film. The agents started sending out the package to producers and studios, and luckily, the right people got a hold of it and wanted to be a part of it.

Whannell: It almost like it grew out of our hands, rather than us forcing it onto the world.

Wan: That's pretty much how everything to do with this film has been so far.

Whannell: Seriously, when we wrote the first draft, we were militant about paying and making the film ourselves. It was our agent who suggested showing it to a few producers. When they called back and said they liked it, the attitude changes and you start investigating it, and then it grew into a bigger thing.

Wan: The producers we ended up with were the very first producers we met with. The very first guys said that they were looking for a low-budget film and they'd let me direct and Leigh act, and it was pretty crazy. We had many offers from other studios to just buy the script away from us, but we stuck it out. We'll go with less money but with the chance to make it. We're talking about very well connected producers here, and because they put their own money into the film, they really wanted to get it back.

Whannell: As if that separates them from all the other producers out there. (laughter)

Wan: But these guys put in their own cash, instead of the studio's. They essentially wound up getting their friends, and that's how we ended up getting such big names, but for them as well, the script and the short we made really pulled them in. Because the whole film was shot in 18 days, it was easy for them to get someone down for half a day.

CS!: What was in that original short film that you show when you came to L.A.?

Whannell: We shot "jaw-trap" scene, since it was self-contained and it almost works as a short film. I played the Shawnee Smith role in the short. It was always a female character, but I wanted to be in it. If you watch it, it's kind of weird, because it's exactly like the scene in the film, except that it's this guy in this detective office and then it cuts to him in the "jaw-trap."

CS!: Did you find the script and story changed a lot as they got involved?

Wan: Not really. The only thing that changed about it is that it went from being an Australian film to being an American film.

CS!: Why? Do they not have psychotic serial killers in Australia?

Whannell: Stuff like that is more feasible here. If you make an Australian film about two guys chained up in a room, everyone would say that we were watching too many Hollywood films. As soon as you set it here, Australians will buy it. They'll be like, "Ah, right. That happens there all the time."

CS!: How was it working with such big actors on the set?

Wan:I was definitely nervous to begin with, because I get star struck.

Whannell: He always has been like that since he met me. (Laughter)

Wan: And it would be my first film as well, but because the shoot was so quickly done, that I didn't really have time to think about anything else.

CS!: How closely did you work with Charlie Clouser on the movie's soundtrack and sound effects?

Wan: He saw a very rough cut and just totally loved it and thought he could do something fun with it. I go into it knowing exactly how I want to cut it, and that's dictated by the kind of music I want to go with the vision, so we worked very closely with Charlie.

Whannell: I remember you saying that there were five different composers to choose from and one was Charlie, and trying to decide which one to go for. And I thought that anyone who works for Trent Reznor must be used to working for a perfectionist.

Wan: I worked with him very closely to try and get the right sound and all that. Because it was such a short amount of time for him to write the music, it really helped having me there every step of the way. He wrote the entire score in three weeks.

CS!: Could you talk a bit about the main bad guy, "Jigsaw"? What is up with that pig mask and that weird doll?

Whannell: I could bullsh*t you that the pig mask is something deep and meaningful. As much as we want to make a film with a theme that resonates and all that sort of stuff, we're also fans of cool stuff like that! He's a comical villain that wears a cloak, like a Batman bad guy. He's the type of bad guy you might read about in a comic book. That's part of our influences too, besides wanting to make something that works thematically, we're also influenced by cool comic book villains. Some of the stuff we put in there just cause we like it like the doll. We've always loved creepy dolls, and James has had a lifelong fascination with clowns ever since he saw Poltergeist. Saw was always going to have one in it, but it was just a matter of how to squeeze it in.

CS!: Have you had any problems with the MPAA in getting an R Rating?

Wan: Initially, we got the NC-17 rating, so I had to trim some little stuff out. The initially had problems with the "tone" of the film, which is dark and intense. But how do you cut "tone"? It's a horror film, it's supposed to be dark and intense! It's like saying your comedy is too funny! They don't want to tell you what to cut either, because if they do, then they become a censorship board, and they don't see themselves that way. It's a really weird thing, so you have to guess. It wasn't too bad. We only went back twice.

[CS!: Other than Duel, what are some of your other horror influences?

Wan: We definitely love the recent crop of Japanese horror movies. I'm a big fan of Battle Royale.

Whannell: People asked us if Saw was influenced by Battle Royale, but we didn't see it until after we had the story and everything.

Wan: The two biggest influences would be Dario Argento and David Lynch, because we love the surreal quality in their films and the weird set pieces that they come up with. We thought it would be good if we could take all that and put it into a much more accessible mainstream context.

CS!: What did you do exactly to try to make it more accessible?

Wan: Well, mainstream enough so that people can get into it. What you guys have to remember is that Leigh and I never wrote this film ever thinking that it was actually going to get out there. We really made this film thinking that if we were really lucky, it'll get out to a very small niche market that will understand these sorts of films. We never thought it would be breaking out into the mainstream. For it to be getting the kind of attention it's getting now, it's really weird.

CS!: How has the reaction been to the film when you've seen it with audiences? Do you get any laughs that you didn't expect?

Wan: We always get laughs that we didn't expect. We just watched The Grudge recently and people were laughing through that as well. That tends to happen when you're making horror film. When Hollywood sets out to make horror films, they make lots of in-jokes, so it lets the audience know that the filmmakers know that you think it's funny. What was so smart about Cabin Fever is that he made a horror/comedy. I think it's dumb to make a smart horror film, because if you aim too high, there's a long way to fall.

Whannell: People think it's funny now if a zombie got an axe in their head. Look at Shaun of the Dead. It's gone from being what Romero did in the 70's being so hardcore. You couldn't play that now. Now, you see the remake of Dawn of the Dead, and it's a horror-comedy to me. When the guy is taking out the zombies from the rooftop, people were losing it laughing. I guess we've come a long way, but kids these days find it funny to see someone's head cut off.

CS!: Now that your movie is getting a lot of attention, you'll likely get chased by a lot of Hollywood studios to make movies for them. Do you still want to take the independent approach?

Whannell: It depends on the story. James might want direct a film if it had a really good story. In terms of Hollywood, money gives you a bigger brush. If you're working for a studio, you can do anything you want, but then you get less creative freedom, so it's a trade-off on what you value more, creative freedom or money?

CS!: And you guys would choose creative freedom?

Whannell: Oh, money every time! (laughter) There's no question.

CS!: Are you two going to keep working as a team?

Whannell: It's not like we're a co-directing team. James is a director, and I'm an actor and a writer. With us, it's good because we can work together and then do stuff separately. Because we're friends, when we hang out, inevitably we'll be discussing ideas as we always do and end up making something.

CS!: Have you started brainstorming at all for a Saw 2?

Wan: The producers are. (laughter) They're brainstorming about all the money they can make if this film does alright.

Saw opens nationwide on Friday.

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