Aussie actor and writer Leigh Whannell was an unknown when we first met at the Toronto Film, Festival on the eve of the premiere of Saw, which he co-wrote with university buddy James Wan. Little did he know that this Saw universe which he helped to create would evolve into a successful franchise and cultural phenomenon. Whannell, who is currently acting in Wan’s next film, is sitting in a Los Angeles hotel room, recounting why it is he ended up involved in what is likely to be the last Saw – at least for the time being. He spoke to Paul Fischer
Question: How reticent were you to do another Saw?
Whannell: It’s an interesting question. What happened with Saw III and why I got involved with it is really an example of how sometimes life makes decisions for you. A couple of things happened, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to do Saw III, and you’re right, I was ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’, I thought I’d maybe been there, but then a couple of things happened. The first thing that happened is that Greg Hoffman, one of the producers, passed away, like it was really tragic, it was really sudden, it was in December last year, it was so out of the blue and so sudden and shocking that it just threw us all for six. That really helped me come to the decision that I wanted to be involved, it was like our tribute to Greg. So it was like let’s do one more for Greg, and dedicate it to him. The film is dedicated to him, so there was that. Then on top of that I was talking with my agent about, whether I should get involved and I remember thinking, that trilogies are respectable these days. I think Peter Jackson has gone a long way towards making the trilogy respectable…It’s almost like if you go past that number three then you’re getting into sort of gratuitous sequel territory. I remember saying I’d love to have my name on the box set as they inevitably will with all three films in a little box and then after that see where the franchise goes – meaning that I’m not sure if I’ll be involved in IV or any other future sequels…
Question: Which apparently could be a prequel is what they’re saying.
Whannell: It could be. The good thing about the Saw universe is that it’s so non-linear. You know, we wrote the Saw film, it was this fractured narrative that bended in and around itself, which means that you have the freedom to go back and forth in time. So if somebody were to ask me well where do you go from here after Saw III my answer would be anywhere; you could go back in time, we could go forward in time. I mean it’s… there’s just this myriad of choices to make so…
Question: Now when I met you guys in Toronto, you had no idea this was going to be the big film that it ended up being. I mean these two guys from Australia got together and made a film. How surprised are you by what’s happened and how important is it for you now to say, okay, we’ve done the Saw thing it really is time to move on and show we can do other things?
Whannell: We’re really surprised by it. It’s hard… Human nature means that you don’t always count your blessings; I think a lot of human beings have a habit of looking up the ladder rather than down the ladder to see how far they’ve come. But every now and again I have this wave, this realization of how far we’ve come and what we’ve done. Essentially James and I are living our dreams. A lot of people in the world have dreams but hardly anyone gets to live them out and in most cases surpass them. We’ve surpassed a lot of the things we wanted to do and intended, so when those realizations happen it’s an amazing experience. Having said that, though, we realize that now that we’ve had the good fortune to wedge our foot into this door, the door of this exclusive club that you call Hollywood, whatever you want to call t, the film industry in L.A., we know that it’s just as hard to keep your foot in the door as it is to wedge it in there. To keep our foot in the door I think we are going to have some different turns. I think if we keep repeating ourselves and just flog a dead horse to death creatively we’ll start drying up because we’ll just be painting with the same brushes, but also in the eyes of the industry we’ll just be seen as one-trick ponies, and that’s something James and I are determined not to be. We’re determined not to be ‘the Saw guys’. I mean that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. If it all ended tomorrow and I went back to Australia and opened a fish and chips shop I would be fine with that being my epitaph, ‘the Saw guy’. I mean how many people get to create a film that becomes this franchise and sort of becomes this sort of cultural phenomenon. But having said that, I want to keep my foot in that door and I’m starting to think about other avenues. I’m working on a children’s fantasy at the moment, much more of a sort of Tim Burtonesque kids’ film. James is doing a film right now which I’m acting in, which is why I’ve got the shaved head, called Death Sentence.
Question: Who do you play in that?
Whannell: I’m one of the gang members being… Spink. It’s a revenge movie done in a very sort of 70s French Connection / Death Wish type way. It’s still a genre film but it’s very far removed from Saw. It’s an action film.
Question: You’ve got a mainstream lead actor too…
Whannell: Yeah, you’ve got Kevin Bacon. So James is really spreading his wings, and it’s been great watching him direct Death Sentence because it is so different from Saw. And the scripts that I’m working on right now are so different from Saw.
Question: Are you two collaborating as writers on something as well?
Whannell: We are going to in the future. I didn’t write Death Sentence, the film he’s working on right now, but I know that we want to work together. I think we always will. I think what will happen with us is that we’ll go off and do our own separate things occasionally but then we’ll always come back together. We’ve been talking about a film, you know, an idea that we’d actually love to go back and do in a low-budget way. We were saying, you know, it’d be great to go back and do another Saw, real low-budget balls to the wall film that you could go and get financed by a small company and just do it and have the creative freedom to really do what you want.
Question: Do you want to work in Australia?
Whannell: Yeah. I mean I’d love to. I feel like I’m in command of this huge ship; that’s not how I feel at all. If anything I feel like I’m on my own in a rowboat at night in the middle of this storm trying to navigate my way. Not to go overboard with the metaphors, but I guess what I mean with them is that I’ll go where the work is. I’m not steering this ship. If somebody called me tomorrow and said, listen, we want you to come back to Australia, we’ve got this great script and we want you to work on it with us and act in it, I would be there in a heartbeat. It’s just that hasn’t happened. I’m just sort of going where the current takes me at the moment, and at the moment the current is here in L.A.
Question: Are you also pursuing acting, an acting career?
Whannell: Yeah, I want to. The thing is, if acting and writing were like two children, writing has been spoiled over the last couple of years and acting has been locked in the basement and fed dog food. I’ve really neglected that side of me. An interesting thing happened after Saw, I became a writer. All of sudden there was this demand – at least from some people – for me to go and work on horror films, and I spent a couple of years working on scripts and I wasn’t really auditioning. I wasn’t even in L.A. The best time for me to be out there pursuing my acting career would have been immediately after Saw came out, but the whole year after Saw came out I spent back in Australia. So I wouldn’t say I really capitalized on the acting thing, but now I’m really starting to. Like, as I said, I’m playing like a small role in James’ film, but it’s enough… it’s like a few drops of water on a parched man’s tongue. I feel like I’ve gotten this taste of acting again and I’ve realized how much I love it and I really want to pursue it next year.