Not that long ago, Australian film students James Wan and Leigh Whannell were these two aspiring film makers from Melbourne. They were the best of friends and like all film students had an idea to make a commercial thriller, part horror, and then be allowed to make their dreams come true. They did, and what began as a hopeful, low-budget Australian film, morphed into a low-budget and equally terrifying Hollywood film. Still as young and idealistic as ever, the result, Saw, received initial attention at Sundance, then more recently at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival.
The buzz has been infectious, and nobody is more surprised as the enthusiastic director James Wan and co-writer and co-star Leigh Whannell, whose film is the toast of Hollywood. Literally fresh off the plane from Melbourne, tired but ebullient, Wan and Whannell sat in the corner of Toronto’s Intercontinental Bar with Paul Fischer to talk about the film and what its imminent success might mean to these guys who were more impressed at the sight of director Todd Solondz, than any movie stars who happened by.
Question: It’s not easy writing genre films, so how do you go about writing something that’s going to be a little bit different, within that genre?
Wan: Well I guess initially when we started to make the film, we wanted to make it as an Indie film, actually a guerrilla film that we wanted to make ourselves, so we actually wanted to come up with an idea and eventually a script, right, that basically gave us the leverage to actually do things that will actually get us noticed. If you’re going to do a guerrilla film, you have to stand out in some way.
Whannell: Yeah, exactly, I think what James; I think it goes ten-fold if you’re going to do a guerrilla film. All you’ve got is your script because your friends are going to be the actors, some guy you know from a job we had at the ABC is going to be the DP, so all you’re going to have, if you’re going to make a guerrilla film for people to go: Have you heard about this movie, is your story. So we actually spent a really long time trying to come up with something original but at the same time, because we’re genre fans, we didn’t want to be one of those film makers that shy away from the words horror or thriller, where we really embrace it, so we wanted to have our cake and eat it too. We wanted it to be really original but also give the genre fans what they wanted like blood and gore.
Question: There doesn’t seem to be a lot of blood and gore.
Whannell: It’s not, it’s not. I guess if we wanted to make a blood-soaked film, we could have made a zombie film but actually because of what we decided to do, we were trying to come up with something a little bit smart. I don’t know if we succeeded but that’s what we tried.
Question: You definitely succeeded.
Wan: We aimed for it! That’s where we were aiming. If we even get there, then
Question: How’d you both meet?
Wan: We met back at University, MIT. [Melbourne Institute of Technology].
Question: And were you studying communications, film making?
Wan: We were studying an arts course, called Media Arts where we specialised in filmmaking.
Whannell: It was like, you’ve got AFTRS, VCA and then you had Media Arts which was kind of like, for James and I, the film school you go to when you don’t get into VCA.
Question: So if you flunk getting into anything else, it’s the only place that felt sorry for you?
Whannell: What makes it good though and different to those other courses is that it doesn’t just specialise in film, but you actually do sound, photography and all these types of things. So I went in not quite knowing what it is I wanted to do, and met James.
Question: Leigh, did you kind of think to yourself that you’d like to create a character that you could play as well, or simply that you were the cheapest person available?
Wan: We were killing two birds with one stone.
Whannell: Well see, here’s how it works, Paul. Basically, James and I finished university, as you do, and we wanted to make a film and had zero money, absolutely none. We were very atypical students: Poor but ambitious. So for many years we toiled around: I worked at the ABC and various jobs and James worked in advertising agencies and blah, blah, but always we would meet up and talk about this film we were going to one day make and we’d come up with these script ideas and in some cases we’d even start writing a script, always way above our means. So finally, maturity started kicking in and we realised that if we wanted to make a film we’d have to pay for it ourselves and what we wanted that film to do was provide James an opportunity to direct, and me an opportunity to act, because I’d always been interested in acting, so in a way, the script was almost a means to an end. I love writing but really, I wrote the script so that we could make a film that would showcase him as a director and me as an actor.
Question: And both of you as writers?
Whannell: And both of us as writers. That’s why we were so happy with the outcome because the producers producing the film said rather than just selling the script, you can direct and you can act.
Question: How did it change from the first time you started working on it?
Wan: You know what, it didn’t change much from the original first draft. I get a feeling that it took a more drastic turn, in its tone. Initially the script was going to be made in Australia so it had a lot of Australian themes to it, but it became an American film.
Question: What was that? I think it works beautifully the way it is. Did you in some way regret not having done it as an Australian movie?
Whannell: Well, it’s hard to say, because it’s almost like saying: Can you imagine, would your life have been better if you hadn’t gone to Spain for Christmas that year, because we don’t know what the alternative is. We always intended for this film to be made in Australia because that’s where we lived. We wrote it as an Indie and then when we finished it, our agent showed it to some producers in Australia and we shopped it around. Wan: We tried to get it off the ground in Australia, spent about a year with Australian producers and I guess it’s just the way it is with funding bodies, finding money.
Whannell: It was an accident that our manager said, when we were at the end of our rope, and totally depressed, who works over in America, said that she knew a literary agent over in America. She’s our manager, so she says, there’s a lit agency in America who’s read the script and liked it, so why don’t we go for broke? I know that America’s a big long shot, a billion-to-one chance but you know, let’s just do it and so we did and it was just an accident. Best way to summarise it is that we never aimed for the film to be made in America; America came to us.
Question: That clearly is a double-edged sword. Presumably you wanted to have as much control over the film as possible. America is not very good at doing that for film makers. How were you able to make the film more individual within the American film industry?
Wan: I guess the really interesting thing was, at the end of the day, even though it was made in LA, it wasn’t a Hollywood film. It was still such a low budget Indie film that my producers really gave me a lot of creativity, and freedom to play with so we didn’t have to stick to the rules as such. I guess the only thing I was really fighting against and ironically enough it wasn’t with the producers, was the amount of budget I had to work with, since it was a really small film.
Whannell: But even as a writer, there were hardly any notes. As you were saying, you’re probably used to the idea of the producer ringing up and saying, let me just pick up my notes here, and Greg, one of the producers, rang me, James was already in America doing pre-production, he called me, he had a few notes here and there. As James said, the time constraints and the budget dictated that even if they wanted to mess around with it a lot, which they didn’t because they liked it, they didn’t have the time, because they wanted things to happen so quickly. So that’s how James was able to direct without having them over his shoulder.
Question: What about casting, because, Leigh, you never really acted personally in your life. for you to get a lead in a movie is pretty big.
Whannell: See basically this is how it works Paul. Basically, as I said before, our manager had sent this script to this guy. We then rocked up over to America with this short that we had made which was one scene from the script that we’d shot and we’d shown it around to various people and when the producers who ended up shooting the film met with us, actually already knew from our agent what the deal was. They knew if they wanted to get involved, James had to direct and I had to play the lead. It’s like that old expression, shooting for the best. You shoot for the best first, and if nothing comes back, you go down a level. We shot for the best first and these guys actually bid. They actually said OK, and the most outrageous thing we could offer, they said yes to, which was I needed to play the role of Adam. Other companies weren’t so generous. Other companies were saying maybe James can direct but Leigh definitely can’t do the lead. We want Orlando someone. Maybe we’ll buy the script but James can’t direct. But this particular company Evolution agreed to all of our terms, which was incredible.
Question: When you originally made your [inaudible]. Your cast was Australian, right?
Whannell: Yes. All of the characters were.
Question: Leigh, since your character was originally Australian, how difficult was it for you to get into the skin of an American character?
Wan: I think it might have been what Leigh did, wrote the part to his strength. He wrote it for himself essentially. He was like a punk kid.
Whannell: And also I think the characters in Saw, are not anchored, culturally, to Australia. Sure, back when it was an Australian script, the cops said, ‘don’t bloody move’ instead of ‘freeze asshole’ or whatever, but essentially they’re universal characters. We’ve got a doctor who’s going through marital problems, we’ve got a kid who’s angry at the world, and so all I really had to do in terms of becoming an American was work on the accent and hope that the universal qualities of the character would work through. If my character was an outback jackaroo then I’d probably have some trouble, but he was just a kid who lives in the city which I think you can put anywhere, from Tokyo to London to America.
Question: Was it gratifying to persuade actors of the calibre of Danny Glover and Carey Elwes, to be a part of this project? And how do you set about casting those guys?
Wan: Well I mean, I guess one of the best things I had going for the project was that my producers were very well connected in that respect. They came to me with ideas and suggestions. And I was like, really? These are pretty cool ideas. I’ve been a fan of people like Danny and Carey and all that, so it wasn’t very hard to convince me to go with these people. I guess the really good thing for us, the biggest selling tool I had to work with from a directing point of view, was the script, which was the biggest thing I had to back me up. That basically gave the actors confidence and a chance to see what kind of film I would make if I were to make it with them.
Question: What makes it unique amongst the genre film of that type? It’s not even a film you can categorise, part horror, it’s part psychological thriller.
Wan: What makes it unique? I think it’s a combination of elements here and there. I think one of the biggest things about it that makes it stand out amongst other genre films is that it’s cool, the idea’s really simple but the idea’s really different. It’s simple at the same time. It’s essentially a story about two people who wakes up and they have no idea how they get there so it’s very gimmicky in that respect. Yet it’s the little influences that inspired me that I’ve put into the film as well like the Italian horror film makers that I admire, down to the music of Nine Inch Nails. I guess it’s a re-fusion of the different elements I love, and added to.
Whannell: And also the victim thing. The fact that the film is essentially the story of two victims. I think the film kind of, to some people, obviously from reading, people’s reactions, looks and smells like a serial killer film but it’s really not in two respects. In one respect, the villain, we don’t think, is not a serial killer. His aim is actually for people to live. He wants people to go through these little games but he wants them to come out the other side alive but also the other thing is that the primary story focuses on these two guys in the room, which is what the whole story is. A lot of the time in these kinds of films, the victims are sort of relegated to the side and you see them for one scene and then they’re dead, and you’re always following the police or the bad guys. In this film, it’s all about the two guys in this room and their psychology and I think to me that separates it a lot of other films that made me look and smell like this film does.
Question: I think you’re one of the very few Australians that have made or said they’ve made their first picture in America. What’s that like for you in terms of the future? Are you interested in an American film career or an Australian?
Wan: I guess we’ll go anywhere where they’re willing to give us a film to make.
Whannell: Our “We’ll work for food” sign that we made from our student’s days, can bust out of the wardrobe again.
Question: Are you two joined at the hip now, a collaborative form?
Wan: Until I feel it’s the right time for me to break away from Leigh but
Whannell: When the money’s right. James and I, I always say we were friends first, we wanted to make a film, we decided to put our talents together i.e. we make up for each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Things like we both come up with ideas and I’ll go off and write it, James will direct, I’ll act and it just so happens, that this film happened, and now people are saying are you guys going to work together. I think it’s best to leave it almost as an organic thing. We are working on another film at the moment and
Question: Another genre film?
Whannell: Yep, another horror script we’re writing which is sort of going along at draft stage and then there’s another idea we’re working on so both of those are things to work on together but we’re definitely attached at the hip as in terms of an actor, I might go off and pursue something as a director, but we’d both like to think that we’ll always come back and work together. Kind of like, Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson do their separate thing and then come back and work together.
Question: The Owen and Wes of horror?
Wan: We don’t see ourselves as horror guys. We see Saw as a thriller, this one is a supernatural horror film but after that, we’re going to do other stuff.
Whannell: We’re more like film buffs. We’re just film buffs, full stop. You’ve got your saviours of horror who come out and it’s horror whereas we love John Carpenter, we don’t want to have John Carpenter’s filmography where it’s so genre related. I mean James loves romantic comedies and he wants to make a teen romantic comedy one day and he’s promised that I can star. This is the way this breaks down.
Question: A gay theme for a romantic comedy or would it be.
Wan: We will do whatever it takes.
Question: I’ve heard that.
Whannell: How do you think I got this role?
Question: We won’t go with that any further. I mean I’ve heard about people sleeping with the director so I don’t know. Tell me about what kind of deal you guys have with Lion’s Gate after the movie? Does it look for deals with you for future stuff, or is one only?
Wan: We don’t really know. We love what Lion’s Gate is doing with our film. We definitely want to work with them again. In terms of the actual paper contract, we’re not actually sure. We don’t know.
Whannell: We’re not tied up for the next two films or anything like that. The script we’re working on now is with Universal so we’re actually pretty free at the moment I guess to have a look around. As James said, whoever wants to work with us we’re like, that’s cool.