In 2003, two Aussies went into a basement with a serial killer called Jigsaw. They came out the proud creators of the biggest horror franchise ever...
The Saw series has become the highest-grossing horror franchise in history, spawning four sequels, a mound of merchandise and, most recently, a rollercoaster ('Saw – The Ride'). But how did a little movie achieve so much?
James Wan and Leigh Whannell met at film school in Melbourne in the late ’90s. “A really arty film school with lots of black nail polish and berets and guys making films about sand,” remembers Whannell (above, right).
“James would get up and show his films, and they’d be about zombies. I knew he was going to become something big.”
Together they fleshed out their own low-budget horror idea. It was designed to be ultra-cheap: no huge cast, no fancy sets, just three actors locked up in one dingy room and a handful of fiendishly nasty torture sequences.
The two friends maxed out their credit cards to shoot a 10-minute test short, featuring 'Billy' the puppet and Whannell himself wearing the Jigsaw killer’s 'jaw-trap' torture device.
Producers Mark Burg and Oren Koules at Twisted Pictures were two of the first Americans to see the calling-card short and were blown away by its fiendish intensity.
“When they walked into the office,” says Burg, "Oren looked at James and said, ‘Let me get this straight – you want to direct it?’
"Then he looked at Leigh and said, ‘And you want to star in it?’ They were like, ‘Yep.’
"Oren said, "Well, if you can do it for a million dollars, it’s green-lit. Go ahead and get started.’ They both looked at each other and were like, ‘Wow, America!'"[page-break]`
The “ultra, ultra low-budget” 18-day shoot itself proved arduous. Cramped in the derelict basement bathroom that was the film’s central location, Wan was constrained not just by the walls but by the tight budget and scheduling strictures.
“I was really bummed by the time post-production came around,” he confesses. “I felt like I didn’t really make the film that I promised myself I was going to make and I was ultimately going to blow my opportunity as a filmmaker.”
For the three main actors, the shoot was equally gruelling as they found themselves trapped on a single cold set for 12-hour stretches.
As the screenwriter, Whannell only had himself to blame. “Leigh could have written a movie like Clerks about two guys in a supermarket talking,” jokes Wan. "But instead it’s two guys in a dingy basement...”[page-break]
Every horror film needs a villain, but Saw’s game-playing serial killer Jigsaw - played by Tobin Bell - is rarely glimpsed on-screen.
“You may think there’s not much there for a guy lying in a pool of blood on the floor but there’s a lot of power in that,” explains Bell.
"He’s a slow, deliberate speaker and even out of character he exudes a cerebral kind of creepiness.
“When I read the final scene it took my breath away. So, as an actor, do you read a script and say, ‘Let’s see, I have 120 lines and I’m in this scene and that scene...’ or do you approach it from the point of view of, ‘Oh my god, this film is worth doing just for this scene, just for this moment, just for this touch'?”
“Jigsaw thinks the world’s going to hell in a hand basket,” explains Bell. “It has become survival of the mediocre as opposed to survival of the fittest.
“As a result we have weak leaders, weak legislators, weak people in almost every walk of life. Those weaknesses are reflected in people who have everything and appreciate nothing, which disturbs him.” [page-break]
From the original budget of $1m, the original Saw grossed over $100m worldwide. So what made it such a hit?
In part it’s the fact that it’s a proper horror movie: cheap, disreputable and seedy.
“I think one of the things that horror fans will embrace the most is a film that’s not typical, conventional or mainstream,” reckons Wan.
“The cheapness is what makes it special in the same way as the cheapness of the first Evil Dead film makes it special as well.”
Whannell agrees: “Horror fans are a strange breed. I think I’m allowed to say that because I’m one of them.
“You don’t wear zombie make-up and go around wearing a Hellraiser T-shirt if you’re the most popular kid at school.
“They’re outsiders and they really want to take ownership of something and know that it’s theirs and no one else’s.
“What they grabbed onto with Saw was that it was this cheap little indie film that screened at the Sundance festival and no-one else knew anything about it except them. It was their dirty little secret.”
But what of the criticisms of the franchise? Diminishing returns, predictable and cartoonish, shock by numbers...
“It’s flattering that they made sequels to our movie but at the same time it feels like the sequels have given the first film the wrong perception,” says Wan. “Now people refer to ‘the Saw films’ in a derogatory way.”
"What's funny is that a lot of people think of us as these two sick guys. But, like Bret Easton Ellis said of American Psycho, only a boring guy could write that kind of story. That's all me and Leigh are - two boring guys who happened to write a pretty crazy story."
The Saw series is out now on DVD/Blu-ray.
Saw - The Ride is open to the public from Saturday 14th March at Thorpe Park, UK.
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