Aussie actor and screenwriter Leigh Whannell is back, to a point, in Saw II, the sequel to last year’s mega hit. Whannell is the co-writer of the film but doesn’t appear in the sequel, as the new film takes on a different direction. In the new film, while investigating the bloody aftermath of a grisly murder, Detective Eric Mason [Donny Wahlberg] has the feeling that it is the work of Jigsaw, the notorious killer who disappeared leaving a trail of bodies – and parts – behind. And Mason is right. Jigsaw is at work again. But instead of two people locked in a room with only one unthinkable way out, there are eight. Eight strangers — unaware of their connection to each other — forced to play out a game that challenges their wits and puts their lives in jeopardy, including Mason’s own son.
Whannell, who re-teams with his Saw director and friend James Wan for Universal’s Silence, explained his return to Saw world despite initial misgivings, in this exclusive interview with Garth Franklin,
Question: How genuinely reluctant were you for a Saw sequel to go ahead?
Leigh Whannell: At first… and when I say at first I mean the weekend Saw I came out, I wouldn’t say we were reluctant. I would say we were resistant and saying no to Lions Gate and Twisted Pictures. I mean on the Monday after Saw came out they were hoping to get out a sequel. And to steal a quote from someone else, that I’ve used many times, in this interview and in ones before, it was a bit like asking a woman who’s just had a Caesarean section if she wants to have another baby in that I was all Saw’d out. We’d just been through months of press and interviews and two years in Sydney trying to get the film made and here they were asking about a sequel. And they weren’t doing it in a questionable pushy way, they just wanted to get the ball rolling, you know. And it was a quick lesson I guess in how Hollywood, for want of a better expression for the film industry here, works. And James and I both sort of stepped back, we threw our hands up and said, whoa, whoa, whoa – you know, we were well into sort of script mode on this other film we were doing with Universal and it all seemed a bit much at the time. It wasn’t until I had a bit of distance from it – a few months down the line when the sort of craziness and the hype of Saw had died down a bit and I had time to think about it that I got involved.
Question: Now did you intentionally decide to change direction from what was originally offered you – I mean was it originally going to be much more conventional kind of slasher horror film or…
Leigh Whannell: The script for Saw II?
Leigh Whannell: I mean it was… how it all came about was once James and I got really busy working on our other film, Silence, the producers needed a script and they found another script by a guy called Darren Bousman, who directed the film, and he came by their office one day and dropped a script off to them – they took one look at it and said, hey, if we change the character names this could be the sequel to Saw. It was very similar in tone and feeling, to Saw I. And it turned out for Darren it wasn’t as simple as just changing the character names. You know, capturing the feel and the essence of Saw I was a little bit more of a difficult task, and so they really needed, towards the end to bring me in. And essentially I took over the writing and wrote a new draft and sort of brought it closer to the Saw universe, and brought in some stuff. So I would say originally it wasn’t so much a slasher film as it was a different film. It had the same feeling as Saw but it just wasn’t Saw. If you had released it too early in the process without my involvement it just wouldn’t have felt like Saw, but like a bit of an alien sequel.
Question: So what do you think sets the sequel apart from other sequels to genre movies like this?
Leigh Whannell: Well I… I hope it’s several things. Firstly, I just hope that it’s good. If it was good that would be enough to separate it from most genre sequels, let’s face it. You and I both know that most genre sequels aren’t very good, and, I’m always willing to give a film the benefit of the doubt but I’ve just been disappointed… I’m like a dog that’s been kicked one too many times. I always expect the worst when I go into any sequel, but especially for a horror film. And I think our first mission was just to make it an equal to the first. We thought if we could make it equal to the first film that would at least take people by surprise; the people in the audience who had really low expectations would be taken aback by that. Then secondly, I hope that it works as sort of a companion piece to Saw I rather than a copy. I think a lot of the times the formula for a sequel is just to repeat with a little bit more – you know, be it, be it… off the top of my head I’m thinking of films like I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. You know, it’s like – okay, let’s take the girl, let’s put her in a different location, the killer’s coming after her again but it’s a different location. That’s a trap you can fall into with sequels – thinking that if you change the location, make it one year later and up the ante a bit all of a sudden you’ve got a different film. Really you’re just repeating yourself. You know, you’re making Teen Wolf II… (Laughter)
Leigh Whannell: I mean, let’s face it, it was just Jason Bateman doing the same thing. Michael J. Fox did. So what we wanted to do with Saw II was not repeat ourselves – which was tricky because how do you provide what the audience wants, which is stuff they saw in the first film, whilst being different. That’s a tightrope that’s really hard to walk.
Question: now you and James obviously spent more time working on Silence than you did working on Saw II – once the script was done. How much more challenging has it been for you to be very un-Sawlike on a bigger budgeted movie for a bigger studio?
Leigh Whannell: It’s been a very interesting experience. It’s been our trial by fire with the studios and how the studio systems work. They have a very particular way of working and if you’re a fan of films then you’ve read about it and seen films about it for a long time. I think people wouldn’t write books about the studio system or make films about it or write magazine articles about it if it wasn’t true… all the rumours you’ve heard are true – in case you didn’t already know about the studio system. They make things in a particular way… it’s filmmaking by committee, and you’ve just got to hope that the people on your committee are good people and not sort of stapler throwers and these guys were good people. I don’t want to say too much about how Silence is going to turn out because it is in the early stages and James is cutting it together – but it’s very different for us. It’s a risk for us. …
Question: Is it more a thriller than it is a horror film?
Leigh Whannell: No – Silence if anything is more of a horror film. I’d say Saw was a thriller. Silence is a real throwback to the horror films of yore. Like your Hammer horror stuff – you know, the fog bound street with the full moon hanging overhead. We love that stuff, the really Sleepy Hollowesque style of, The Hound of the Baskervilles filmmaking, and we wanted to make something like that set in a modern context. So, believe me, the fog machine got a workout on this one…
Question: Do you have another lead role as an actor?
Leigh Whannell: No, not in Silence. I really concentrated on being a write with Silence, because I was working for the studio and the pressure was on, they have a lot of notes, they have a lot of ideas about where the script should go, I really had to put my writer’s cap on and throw the actor cap away. And I wrote a film once again with a very small cast – just like Saw. Even though it’s a studio film it’s still a very small cast, a very small intimate film, and there just wasn’t the leeway to get a role in it. I’m definitely looking out for the next acting role and, you know, I’m thinking about writing something for myself really soon.
Question: Oh, really? When is Silence coming out – is it like early next year?
Leigh Whannell: Yeah, early next year some time.
Question: So are you happy with the way that you and James have developed as filmmakers…
Leigh Whannell: I think you learn at the coalface, that’s what this industry is. You know, you can practice all you want but there’s nothing to really practice for – this art form is very particular. I always say that I definitely think you get better writing the more you write, but one thing at least I don’t get better at – no matter how much time goes by – it never gets any easier to come up with original ideas. I mean that is something intangible, which is the frustrating thing about writing. If you’re a piano player you can be pretty sure that if you put in the years, put in the time, you learn to play, you do your homework, you study the notes, eventually one day you’re going to be a good piano player – but with writing I find that you can’t really practice coming up with ideas. It’s an unconscious thing. Something bubbles up from the swamp of your subconscious and pops into your conscious mind and it happens at the most unexpected times – when you’re doing your shopping or walking the dog, bang, an idea hits you and… and you fly to the notepad and pen when it happens. It’s not the other way around. I don’t sit down with a pad and pen and will an idea to come to me. In fact, when I do that, when I do sit down and go, all right, ideas, I need ideas, it never comes. It’s such an elusive thing and, and I don’t think that gets any easier. But I think James as a filmmaker has progressed greatly in terms of how to tell a story in front of the camera, and I’m progressing in terms of how to put that story down in words. But at the idea stage, it doesn’t get any easier.
Question: Is Silence as original a film as you were hoping it to be when you sat down to write it?
Leigh Whannell: Yeah. it was an interesting experience with Silence. I tried a different approach of writing. I sort of tried to organically form the story rather than, as I just said, sort of walking the dog and going and shopping until one day the million dollar idea pops into your head. I tried to sort of force it out of there by writing. I literally sat down and wrote the story into existence rather than letting it write itself. People talk about that a lot and it sounds like a cliché, but Saw definitely wrote itself in terms of this great idea was born – James and I come up with this great idea and I couldn’t wait to put it down on paper. With Silence I had the semblance of an idea. I really had an image in my head of an old woman with a ventriloquist doll in her lap – and I loved that image and I wrote a film around the image. It was a very different way of working for me. Is it going to be successful? I’m not sure, you know. I don’t want to critique that. But, certainly it was a different experience for me.
Question: And do you know what you’re doing after that yet?
Leigh Whannell: I’m kicking around a few ideas for writing. I really want to get back into acting and, and, you know, get another acting role. I’m really keen on that. So… I just kind of want to see where it takes me. I think…
Question: Back in Australia or here?
Leigh Whannell: Well – yeah, there’s a certain careerism I guess that goes on here in L.A. and, you know, they get shit done, in that you have an opportunity but eventually, you know, once the success or the memory of your success has passed in the minds of the people around you, you need to do it again. It’s like, Saw was great, you did very well, pat on the back, and now what’s next. That’s kind of shocking to have, just when you’re ready to sit back and bask in the glory of your past success for the next five years the people around you say, well, what’s next. They demand that you constantly create and I’m trying to get myself into that mindset of really sitting down and trying to be more of a worker bee, where I force the ideas out if I just walk my dog and do the shopping and wait for a good idea to hit me I could be waiting another ten years. As you know, Paul, that’s a scary option because believe me, as you know, in this town ten years is nine years and 340 days too long. They want your next thing now and I just can’t wait. That great idea might hit me next week or it might be five years from now. So what I’m trying to do is attack it from a different angle and try and find a way to will these ideas into existence.