“The whole production was put together with spit and glue,” laughs horror maestro James Wan, taking us back to the ropey creation of his first movie: 2004’s bloody horror thriller, Saw. “I’m shocked that it worked as much as it did or enough for it to actually play because that movie is so f***ing rough. Just from a technical standpoint… It’s so indie.”
These days, it’s hard to look past the grizzly, gut-spilling ‘torture-porn’ themes that have since become synonymous with the horror franchise born from Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell’s attention-snatching debut. However, revisit its first instalment and what you find instead is actually something much more contained and compelling; a murder-mystery thriller that uses very little to deliver a hell of a lot.
In it, we find two men (Whannell and Cary Elwes) chained to the opposite ends of a grotty bathroom with what looks like a dead body laying between them. As they try to figure out what the hell’s going on, they soon learn the bloody lengths they’ll have to go to in order to survive and ultimately escape, as the mysterious and calculating Jigsaw killer (Tobin Bell) and his creepy puppet watch over them from the shadows, testing their wits, integrity and self-harm limits.
“We basically took a page out of Sam Raimi’s book,” says Wan, looking back as the film celebrates its 18th birthday. “Sam said the quickest way to break out in the filmmaking world is with a horror film, and luckily for us, it’s our favourite genre.”
Starting the project in their native Australia, Wan and Whannell began crafting something they could make cheaply while still packing a punch. “At the time, we felt we were going to be competing with big filmmakers or first-time directors that have done lots of Hollywood commercials so we knew we needed to come up with something that would cut through that noise,” recalls Wan.
“At the end of the day, we just wanted to tell a good story, regardless of how much money we had. It was actually good to have a limited sandbox to play in. It helped design the story of Saw, which is basically two guys stuck in a toilet.”
That said, the writing process didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took around two years for Wan and Whannell to finish writing Saw, with the series’ lynchpin character, Jigsaw, coming halfway through the process.
“I knew how I wanted the story to start and I knew something happened in the middle and I’d kind of worked out what the ending was going to be, so I pitched that to Leigh,” remembers Wan.
“He was like: ‘Oh wow, that’s really cool’ then he said, ‘So what happens in between?’ and I said ‘I have no idea, that’s your job,’” he laughs. “Leigh went off and really fleshed out the movie.”
Rumour has it that a trip to a doctor’s office led Whannell to dream up Jigsaw, however, it was Wan who suggested his infamously-creepy puppet pal. “Leigh would pitch me the most scary, suspenseful scene and I would come along and go ‘What if I put a puppet in it?’ he chuckles.
“Leigh always tells this story where he says ‘Not only does James say ‘What if I put a puppet in it?’ but he says, ‘what if this puppet is riding a tricycle!’ laughs Wan. “I’m a big fan of ventriloquism and ventriloquist dolls and I thought it would be a really cool visual element. For the biggest part of the movie, we tried to hide Jigsaw’s identity so I thought it could be really quirky and creepy to have a puppet that uses a puppet to speak on his behalf,” he explains.
“I felt that it really tied in with the thematic concept of the film: Jigsaw puppeteers his victims so I thought using a puppet to represent him was cool. Plus, it allowed me to indulge in my obsession with dolls.”
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After struggling to kick-start Saw in Australia, Leigh and Whannell relocated to Los Angeles and gathered enough money to make a sample scene showing what they could do. It was enough to secure a green light and just enough money to enter production on their inaugural feature film.
However, Wan’s struggles as a first-time director were only just beginning. “The movie was made for such a low budget… every day on set was me just going ‘Oh my God,” admits the filmmaker. “I had all these really grand visuals that I really wanted to do that I just couldn’t achieve on $700,000, which is what we shot the movie for. On set, my memories are actually being quite disappointed at the technical aspect of the film.”
In fact, Saw’s brief production schedule was so tight, it forced the future Aquaman helmer to get inventive in order to not just realise his horror dreams – but finish the film. “We were flying so fast. We shot in 18 days. It’s a very complex movie and sometimes, I’d be lucky if I was able to get two takes. I’d be lucky if I was able to get one take,” he tells us.
“Obviously, I was very grateful for the opportunity to make the movie and finally realise our dream but every day was just me struggling to make sure the movie doesn’t get too crappy.”
These issues really came to a head during Saw’s finale and its editing process: “I remember when I got to that big ending reveal of Jigsaw rising off the ground. My line producer/first assistant director – he was my first AD but also the line producer, so he actually had more power than me,” laughs Wan, “he came up to me and said, ‘You only have one take to do this shot.’ I was like ‘What? One take? It’s the finale of the movie!’ I shot that whole thing in one f***ing shot.”
However, he was still missing some shots: “I started flashing away to other moments in the film. People think I was going for the MTV style of that period; I wasn’t doing it on purpose because aesthetically, I was going for more of a Hitchcock movie but because of necessity I was forced to cut shots really quickly because they weren’t good,” confesses Wan. “Sometimes, I’d see a moment where an actor was resting against the set and the whole set would shake,” he laughs.
“My memories of seeing it with a crowd for the first time are just how nervous I was to put out a film that, at the time, I felt didn’t really reflect my full vision. I think I probably got 30% of what I wanted.”
Of course, hindsight heals all wounds and today, Wan is more than a little bemused that the film’s eight sequels have mimicked this accidental style. “I’d tell producers and directors, ‘You don’t have to follow this stuff. I did it because I didn’t have enough money. You guys actually have a proper budget!’” he smiles. “People embraced the style and look and it became the aesthetic language for the film, which is very amusing to me and Leigh.”
Despite its rocky creation, Wan and Whannell’s horror debut was a quick success when it hit cinemas on 29 October, 2004. In addition to becoming synonymous with Halloween, it also managed to do the impossible and crack the pop-culture consciousness.
“Saw came out during the height of the Gulf War and post-September 11. Torture was constantly in our news and a lot of people saw that connection and it really leapt into the zeitgeist of that moment and that’s how it became what it became,” suggests Wan.
“Then the fact that it became the staple Halloween movie with the tagline: ‘If it’s Halloween, it’s Saw,’ – that’s really cool,” he smiles. “For it to have had such an impact on a global scale is pretty incredible.”