If you’re anything like me, Halloween is more than just an excuse to overindulge on sweets, terrify neighborhood children, and wear provocative costumes (though I’m the first one in line to show a bit of skin). It’s a tradition- and for the past seven years, the SAW films have been an integral part of that ritual. Since the original SAW film hit theaters in October of 2004, we’ve spent the scariest weekend of the year with Jigsaw and his victims, walking away from theaters knowing that the following year a new chapter would feed our souls. But this Friday, it all comes to an end. With the help of SAW co-creator Leigh Whannell, director Darren Lynn Bousman, and, of course, Jigsaw himself, actor Tobin Bell, I’m here to take you back through the franchise- and bring an end to the game that’s captivated us all… And oh yes, there will be blood.
I’m ashamed to admit this- but I missed the original SAW in theaters. I know, I know, but give me a break- I was a freshman in college and spent more time bar hopping than supporting my local AMC. I managed to catch it the one weekend I spent in my dorm, sick as a dog, and it played for 24 hours straight on our campus movie channel.
I watched it twelve times that weekend. Back to back to back… you get the point.
I still can’t explain what it was that caught my attention. Maybe it was the bad florescent lighting, the mysterious dead body lying on the floor, or the fact that the dude from Robin Hood: Men in Tights took his own leg off with a jagged saw- whatever it was, it revamped my undeniable blood thirst. And I wasn’t alone. The original SAW film brought in over $55,000,000 at the box office. Not bad for a flick that a couple of guys from Australia pulled together on a leap of faith with just over a $1,000,000 budget.
“He doesn’t want us to cut through our chains. He wants us to cut through our feet.” Dr. Gordon- SAW (2004)
Long before Jigsaw fought for nightmare space with Freddy Krueger, the SAW franchise began as an idea, an idea that was nurtured by co-creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell during their years at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. “We both shared the same taste in films,” recalled Leigh during our lengthy (and fun, mind you) interview, “which was probably more main stream than some of our other fellow students. We were both into zombie films, and horror films, and big Hollywood action movies- and it was weird, in that particular school being main stream made us outcasts.” But it wasn’t until after film school was over that James and Leigh caught the true filmmaking bug- and a quick dose of reality. “We were living out the narrative that most ex-film students live out. You go to film school straight out of high school, as we did, and after it all ends you’re just sort of wandering. Once you get out of school you realize you don’t have that environment to nurture you anymore. That equipment, those cameras that are all just sitting there at your disposal, disappear and all of a sudden they have to be bought and paid for, or rented.”
After watching the Blair Witch Project, James and Leigh had the inspiration they needed, even if they didn’t have the dough. “That really shook us up and made us realize that we’re probably going to have to [make a movie] ourselves with our own money. We were desperate to make something, anything, but had limited resources. We both worked at various jobs, but we just weren’t sure how we would get the money to make a film. That’s when doing it the Blair Witch way with just a video camera became our goal.”
At the time, independently made films were starting to take off. Eager to jump on board, they threw around different ideas. Unfortunately, at the time, Australian funds weren’t being used to finance genre films. “We were stuck between a rock and a hard place because we didn’t have the money to do it ourselves and we felt like the people who did have the money weren’t approachable. It was a terrible position to be in.” But it was these parameters that helped narrow down what they could and could not do, ultimately giving birth to the love child that became SAW. “I feel like that decision by us, to not try and write a film that needed a million dollar budget or more, to try and make something for five to ten thousand dollars at most, it helped us focus on what the story would be. James and I said, OK, if we’re going to shoot a low budget film, it should take place in one room with not many actors. It was those restrictions that forced us to be more creative with what the film could be about.”
With those conditions in mind, ideas were pitched back and forth. “I think at one stage, it was all going to be set in an elevator. The entire film was going to be shot from the point of view of the security camera.” Anyone who’s pursued anything creative knows that it’s all a process, and the materialization of SAW was no different. “When we would get together and talk about the film, it was like we were having a secret meeting. In a way, I guess we were.” Finally, after multiple discussions, it was James who set the wheels in motion. “One day James called me and threw around this idea. He said there are these two guys, and they’re in a room, chained to opposite sides of the room. And it’s a bathroom. And he said in the middle of the room, there’s a dead body, and they’re trying to figure out how they got into this room and who put them there. At the end of the film, they realize the person who put them there is the dead body- and he’s not dead, he’s alive, and he walks away.” Leigh admits to not necessarily giving James the monumental reaction he had been hoping for, but later it digressed into more than just a seemingly scant idea. “I’ll never forget that day. I remember hanging up the phone and started just going over it in my head, and without any sort of long period of pondering, I opened my diary that I had at the time and wrote the word SAW.” Neither had even mentioned a title when Leigh sketched out the word in a blood-red, dripping font. “It was one of those moments that made me aware that some things just really are meant to be. Some things are just waiting there to be discovered.”
In time, James and Leigh brought the finished product to their manager, who thought the film would benefit more from a richer source of funding. It didn’t take long to convince the stubborn duo that this was the way to go. “There’s nothing like flattery, it will get you everywhere. We quickly went from militant, making the film for $5,000, to batting our eyelashes.” A Sydney-based producer optioned the film for a year, but when the deal fell through after the twelve month period, James and Leigh found themselves at a precipice. “It was heartbreaking to think that we were going to have to go back to square one.” That’s when the idea of taking it to Hollywood entered the picture. “For us it seemed crazy. We felt like America was just too big of a market, there was just too much product and if we couldn’t get it done in Australia, what were the chances of getting it done there? We were just another couple of guys with a script.” But they took a chance. They booked a flight, set up a meeting with an agent, and shot a scene from the script. “We picked the jaw trap scene. We got our friends together and shot it, put it on DVD. The DVD arrived to the agent like the day before we got there. He was over the moon about it. I think the DVD really changed things for us. A script is just an annoying pile of white pages you have to read, but a DVD really caught their attention.”
By the end of the week, James and Leigh had made a deal with Twisted Pictures with James set to direct and Leigh promised the starring role of Adam. “For James and I, SAW began back in 1999 when we first watched Blair Witch. It was a long journey to get to the point where everything happened very quickly.”
And as they say- the rest is history.
“I don’t condone murder and I despise murderers.” John Kramer- SAW III (2006)
As simplistic as it may seem now, the bathroom scene was Jigsaw’s original trap (though chronologically there were others). Since the first film, there have been dozens of different tests, `puzzles’ if you will, that challenged our thought process and make us question Jigsaw’s thin line between right and wrong. In fact, Leigh compares the elements of those traps to the `would you rather’ game. “It taps into the human urge to sort of consider your options. I think that’s why it’s resonated so much with the public.”
Anyone who has ever seen even one of the SAW films has a favorite trap in the back of their mind. For me, the one that sticks out will always be the pig grinder in SAW III. Why? Because it made me physically sick. I might be a self proclaimed gore whore, but there’s something about liquid swine that makes me ill. That’s the beauty of it- it sticks out because it tapped into my subconscious and fed off of my apparent fear of animal guts. My boyfriend, on the other hand, cringes every time Amanda Young (portrayed by Shawnee Smith) is thrown into the pit of needles in SAW II. It’s so simplistic, there’s very little blood, and yet there’s something about the thought of being poked and prodded that sends chills down your spine. “One of those things we tried with every SAW film is to make them somewhat relatable,” said Darren Lynn Bousman, the director I hold responsible for my gut reaction. “They all start with a real fear.”
No matter how you play it, those traps wouldn’t exist without the franchise’s central most character, the monster behind it all. The one who sought salvation and in the end became one of the most prolific serial killers of our time, John Kramer- most commonly referred to as Jigsaw. “One of the nice things about John Kramer is that you knew nothing about him in the beginning except for what James and Leigh wrote in SAW,” recalled actor Tobin Bell, the man who, for the past seven years, has portrayed Jigsaw in such a way that just a tinge of his voice invokes fear. The most primal memory of Jigsaw is the body on the floor, and while all of us know now what makes him tick (for the most part), it’s the end scene where he rises from the dead and leaves Adam in the darkened bathroom that enters our minds. “I did SAW because I thought it was a fascinating location for a film to be made. These guys locked in a room, to me, was fresh. I did not anticipate the ending when I read the script, so I was quite caught by surprise and it was clear to me that if the filmmakers shot the scene well, the audience would be caught by surprise as well. The film was worth doing for that moment alone.”
Believe it or not- in the beginning, there was no John Kramer, let alone his complicated alter ago. “It was months after we came up with the central idea that I came up with the idea for Jigsaw,” recalled Leigh, who had never written a feature-length screenplay prior to SAW. “Was it a revenge game? Is it a serial killer? It was through that process of trying to figure out why these guys were in the room that I came up with the idea for Jigsaw.” Despite his lack of dialogue in the original film, Tobin feels strongly about Jigsaw’s initial presence. “I learned a long time ago, it doesn’t matter how much you say. It’s the position you occupy in the piece. Though my character had precious little to say, he was very central. He was the focus on which the seesaw operated. I liked the strength in silence.”
During a time when he was experiencing persistent migraines, Leigh began to weigh in on the `what-ifs,’ creating an initial motive. “They sent me in for an MRI and I started to think about what it would really be like if the doctor called and said hey, you have a tumor. It’s something that happens every day. Right now while we’re having this conversation, there’s a doctor somewhere telling someone you’re terminal, you’re going to die.” This thought unveiled the tip of an everlasting iceberg. “The mistreatment of the terminally ill by the medical community is very clear in SAW,” recalled Tobin.
In the sequels, however, Jigsaw had plenty to say. “They’ve taken the story so much further after the fact,” said Leigh. “We weren’t thinking about that when we were creating the first film.”
Between the blows being delivered by Detective Eric Matthews (played by Donnie Wahlberg) to an ailing John Kramer, SAW II was the first to dig into the mythology of Jigsaw, which has since spanned over the remaining films. “I have a special place in my heart for SAW II because this was the first film that you really got a look at who John Kramer was,” said Tobin. “It was kind of a break for me and helped to springboard the SAW story forward.” And it didn’t stop there. With each new SAW film, the tumultuous world of Jigsaw has made us almost feel sorry for him, making us hate those who have everything but appreciate nothing. Even in death, his immortality lives, continuing in its castration of the unappreciative human race.
From the first film to the last, Tobin has made his character into something more than an engineering genius with a bag of tricks. “Tobin Bell is such an amazing actor,” boasted Darren. “He continually thought to add more depth to his character. He continually thought, how can I make this character deeper than we’ve seen him thus far?” Darren spent countless hours working with Tobin on the development of Jigsaw’s mythology. “He’s a perfectionist. He does not accept mediocrity. I can’t begin to tell you how many dinners that I had- 10, 12 hour sit down conversations with Tobin where he called bullshit. He would call bullshit on things that weren’t real or didn’t make sense. Those times when he called bullshit, it made the film what it was. If he would have just accepted what was put in front of him, we could have gotten cliché, we could have gotten generic, but he didn’t.” Darren went on to give Tobin more than just screen credit. “He is the backbone of the franchise. He is one of the reasons why the films are so successful.”
I think the puppet on the tricycle may disagree. But then again, I wouldn’t want to challenge Jigsaw- would you?
“By creating a legacy, by living a life worth remembering, you become immortal.” Amanda- SAW II (2005)
When Darren was tapped to make his feature screenplay The Desperate a reality, the last thing he expected was to be at the helm of the highly anticipated SAW sequel, let alone the third and fourth installments. “Originally, I wasn’t going to direct SAW II. I was going to direct The Desperate. But when they started testing SAW at all of these screenings and creating a sort of buzz and a stronger word of mouth that was when [my film] turned into SAW II.” The Desperate was a project close to Darren’s heart because “it was how I was feeling at the time, my life, my career, everything. It was based on my own desperation.” In fact, The Desperate was supposed to be its own film, a follow-up, if you will, to the original SAW. “When SAW became successful, they were like, well, wait a minute. We could turn this into the sequel.”
Though it was somewhat heartbreaking to watch the script he had spent years creating slowly morph into what would become SAW II in October of 2005, he has no regrets. “In retrospect, it’s the best thing I ever did. Agreeing to make The Desperate into SAW II was a gamble. No one had any idea SAW was going to be as big as it was. Now, it’s the best thing I ever did- and it’s because of that I’m now a part of this huge franchise.”
Darren also stayed on for both SAW III and SAW IV, blending his filmmaking talent with Jigsaw’s twisted world to create an incomparable continuation. The challenge with the SAW series became making them all link together in some way, a challenge that Darren welcomed with open arms. “Everyone who’s been involved with SAW loved the idea of the horrific nature of these movies. We all loved it. I think that our love and passion kind of shined through. It came to a place where we were as excited as the audience hopefully would be when they saw the movie.” And excited they were, which of the films grossing millions and millions of dollars when it was all said and done.
Obviously he was doing something right.
The first film started a chain reaction of detailed, twisted follow ups that Darren took and made his own. With SAW II, as previously mentioned, it was when the audience first had the opportunity to get a real look at who John Kramer was. In SAW III, the game became more complex. “SAW III was probably a bigger high for me because, at that point, I did it again. I thought that maybe SAW II was just a novelty that people just wanted to see what could happen with the second. Having the third film be successful again, that was amazing.” John Kramer, now on his death bed, forces a doctor by the name of Lynn (played by Bahar Soomekh) to keep him alive while test subject Jeff (played by Angus Macfadyen) completes a series of `forgiveness’ tests. But it’s that ending the SAW films have become famous for, where we discover that the doctor is married to the test subject, and the real test is actually for Amanda, that left us breathless. “I would say it’s a more emotional film. It kind of blended the SAW violence with back stories. It was also a very well thought out film. It was violent, it was crazy.”
SAW III was also a challenge when it came to getting past the ratings board. “There’s governing bodies for everything we do in life. With food, with medication, with politics with everything- and with movies, they have a governing body that decides what is acceptable and unacceptable. Part of me completely disagrees with the MPAA, but I understand their purpose. I don’t have any kids, but if I had a seven year old kid I wouldn’t want [him] going to see SAW. With that being said, it is also extremely hard to hear that I’m going to get an NC-17 when I didn’t think it was any worse than the other stuff out there.”
Darren’s SAW connection ended with SAW IV in 2007. Jigsaw and Amanda are both dead, but when a tape is discovered during Jigsaw’s autopsy, the game begins. Detective Matthews is alive, and Riggs (played by Lyriq Bent) has to follow his own set of tests in order to save both Matthews, and Detective Hoffman (played by Costas Mandylor). As Agent Strahm (played by Scott Patterson) and his partner, Agent Perez (played by Athena Karkanis) begin their own investigation, they discover through John Kramer’s estranged wife Jill (played by Betsy Russell) even more secrets, and another twist- the fact that Detective Hoffman isn’t who he appears to be.
“I don’t know if there was anything I could have done that I didn’t already do with the first three,” said Darren. “It became safe. And when it became safe, I knew it was time to move on.”
“You think it’s the living who have ultimate judgment over you, because the dead will have no claim over your soul. But you may be mistaken.” Jigsaw- SAW VI (2009)
Rounding out his SAW career with the fourth film, Darren stepped down, giving an opportunity for other members of the SAW family to add their touch to the franchise. That’s when directors David Hackl (SAW V), who had been involved since SAW II in 2006, and Kevin Greutert (SAW VI and SAW 3D), an editor since SAW in 2004, took over, leaving their mark.
And finally, you can’t mention SAW without crediting screenwriting duo Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan who stepped up to the plate after the third film, helping the new directors take a completely different, tasteful, and somewhat beautiful direction. With the fourth film rounding out the Detective Matthews saga, the fifth and sixth films then focus on Detective Hoffman, following his own quest to make a mark as the now unchallenged Jigsaw killer. By the end of the sixth film, Jill believes that he’s left for dead, the product of one of her husband’s many traps, but instead, he escapes- which leads to an obvious, much awaited power struggle in the final film, SAW 3D, which I will be watching alongside the rest of you this weekend.
Leigh has nothing but high hopes for the grand finale. “I just hope that people will like the last one and that someone will come up with something new that people will love.”
“Vengeance changes a person. It can make them realize what they’re capable of.” Jigsaw- SAW V (2008)
“It’s an honor,” said Darren when I asked him about his mark on SAW. “To be a part of something that so many people have responded to and has spawned so many sequels and has launched other filmmakers’ careers as well, it’s great. It’s great to be a part of it.”
“SAW has many fathers, but this thing began in a bedroom in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Australia,” said Leigh, who is very modest when it comes to his success. “It’s incredible; it’s amazing to think that something that James and I created is now a part of the cultural conversation.”
“It’s been such a successful series,” said Tobin. “There’s so much energy around it, that’s always a great thing. I’ve appreciated being a part of it. I’ve gotten to know a lot about horror fans and how enthusiastic they are, in a way that a lot of fans aren’t as interested in other genres. That part of it has been great; it’s been a real revelation to me.” He went on to say that “anytime you can be a part of something that successful, it’s always a great experience- certainly a different experience. A very special one.”
I think one of the biggest concerns is what’s next? What will become the new SAW? “I wish and I hope that more films come out that continue to take risks,” finished Darren. “Movies, in my mind, are great when they take risks.”
After all, if it wasn’t for two guys who took a risk, SAW wouldn’t even exist.
And what better way to end the franchise the way it began- with two simple words that have since been uttered by many characters, in different films, facing different puzzles masterminded by one of the most intelligent serial killers around. If it hasn’t crossed your mind yet, let me spell it out for you-