Right now the hottest thing in horror is Saw. Horror fans everywhere are wondering, “Who are these guys that have come from out of nowhere to take the horror world by storm?” Well they’re director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell (who also happens to play the role of Adam in the film). Both Wan and Leigh are natives of Australia, they both clock in at the tender age of 27, and they’re both still trying to adjust to the surreal experience that is Saw. Recently I sat down with the two of them and was greeted with a warm welcome as their publicist introduced us.
Publicist: This is Sean Clark.
Leigh Whannell: Hi, I’m Leigh.
James Wan: Sean…I know your name.
Sean Clark: You know my name?
JW: You’re from Dread Central right?
SC: Yeah, and the Horror Channel.
JW: But originally you wrote for Creature Corner right?
SC: Yeah that’s right, we were originally Creature Corner but we joined forces with the Horror Channel and formed Dread Central.
JW: Cool! Have you seen the film Sean?
SC: Yes. I’ve actually seen it twice. I saw the uncut version at the San Diego Comic Con screening and then I saw the ‘R’ rated version at Lions Gate.
JW: Oh okay. Why did you see it twice? (Laughs)
SC: Because I liked it. I liked it a lot. You have a fan here. I wouldn’t have brought my poster along to have you guys sign it if I thought it sucked.
JW: (Laughs) Cool man!
(Another man enters the room)
JW: Sean this is our producer Oren Koules.
LW: Dread Central man.
Oren Koules: Hey how you doing?
SC: Nice to meet you.
(Oren begins discussing James and Leigh recording the audio commentary for the eventual DVD release of Saw and mentions some specifics about the release but asks me to keep it off the record.)
OK: Sorry to interrupt. Nice meeting you. (He leaves the room.)
JW: He is a great man Oren Koules. Sorry Sean.
SC: No problem. Okay, so let’s get going here.
JW: Oh you’ve had this on the whole time?! (Laughs)
LW: Lucky we didn’t talk about the cocaine and the goat. (Laughs)
SC: But we will be bringing that up. (Laughs)
LW: (Laughs) Oh no!
SC: Well first off, does all of the hype surrounding Saw worry you that it may not live up to the expectations of the fans?
LW: It’s really weird because in one section of the world, IE the horror fans, it’s kind of hot but in the other section of the world, IE the average movie goer…
JW: The mainstream general public type that don’t know anything about the film. (Laughs)
LW: So when you say hot you’re not talking about Matrix Reloaded hot. You’re just talking about a certain section…
SC: The genre. As far as horror fans are concerned there is huge hype. Yeah but Joe Normal has probably never heard of it.
LW: Joe Normal yeah. That’s a weird dichotomy to us because here you’ve got one section of the world that is maybe vaguely aware of it if at all and one section of the world that, to them, it’s kind of like the next Matrix film that is so hot and everywhere.
We know the horror fans are pretty brutal so I guess that aspect of it makes us nervous because the type of people this film has been hyped to are critical people.
JW: Definitely for me it’s scary only because… I will say this because it’s for you Sean. It’s for Dread Central. (Laughs) Because when I was shooting the film I really felt like I didn’t get everything I wanted to get with the film because it was made so tightly and with such a small budget. It just came together so quickly as well. So when I was making it, it was really tough. I had such a great script and I felt like I was fucking it up because I felt like I didn’t have the right resources to work with and the right budget to work with and all that. Plus the thought that it would probably end up going straight to video. (Laughs) It’s actually getting such a huge wide release and everyone’s talking about it. So in that respect it is really surreal because I look around and think, “This is really weird. Why are people talking about my film in that respect?”
SC: So how did the project come about? How did you two come together and how did you get this big release your first time out?
JW: The genesis of the film started with Leigh and I really wanting to make a movie. We’re film geeks just like everyone else out there. (Laughs) We love horror films and we just wanted to make a film with our own money. You know very Clerks style; really guerilla with our own money with our friends in our backyards. So we spent a long time trying to work on the script and come up with something that was a bit different so we could stand out. I guess we realized that if we are not going to have any big stars, then the script needed to be tough, you know pretty out there.
LW: That’s the only way to stand out.
LW: If you’re making a film for fifteen thousand dollars on 16mm and you’ve got no access to distribution, how are you going to make people want to see it? When you give them a tape of the film, which is all you have because you can’t afford to make prints of the film, how are you going to make them go, “Oh this is good.” ?
JW: The script needed to be the star.
LW: Also we wanted a script with a hook, something gimmicky you know.
JW: Something very calculated. That isn’t how all screenwriters want to work but for us it was planned because we wanted to break out some how. So we spent a long time working on the script for that reason. Ironically, because we spent so much time working on the script, other people read it and really got into it. We were like, “Hey this is actually pretty half decent.” Before we knew it our script found its way to the states. Our manager back in Australia knew someone here in L.A. and sent it to an L.A. agent and we started shopping it around in te States. Before we actually came out here for interviews and meetings with people and all that, Leigh and I took a scene out of the script and shot it.
SC: I had heard that you guys had done a little short or something.
SC: Any chance that might be included on the eventual DVD?
LW: We’ll see how it goes. It is always difficult when you’ve had people helping you, you know. There are some legalities with it.
SC: Are some of the legalities with the music?
JW: Yeah, that as well. So that’s what we did. We picked a scene.
SC: What scene was it?
JW: The jaw trap scene.
LW: With me playing the Shawnee role. It was essentially a short film with a guy in a police station being interviewed by the cops and we cut back and see him in the jaw trap and what happens in the film happens in the short. It was a bit of a lethal combination. People responded to the script so we already had their attention with that. The script I guess essentially is what got the film happening. The short is what convinced the people that James could direct and was the right guy for the job. That was the evidence that proved this film was going to get made, but we didn’t just want the film to get made, we wanted the film to get made by us. I wanted to play the role of Adam and James wanted to direct.
SC: Was that a hard sell?
JW: Without the short it would have been tough but people liked the script enough to give us the chance.
SC: I have seen both the uncut and the ‘R’ rated versions and I didn’t really see a huge difference. How much did the MPAA actually make you guys cut to get the ‘R’ rating and will we be able to get the uncut version on DVD?
JW: I don’t know, I guess it comes down to whether or not it’s worth it. If people like the film and would be willing to spend more money to get something with only a couple of shots put back , then we probably will. It was really just a couple of trims here and there. I have to say I can’t quite decide which version I like better. The uncut one obviously has more stuff in there but the theatrical version is actually a lot more refined. When I cut something out of a film I have to go back into the sound post and mix it again and stuff like that. So it’s actually more refined because I had a bit more time to work on it and now I can’t decide which print I like better. I think I like the theatrical one.
JW: If I had to choose.
SC: About how much do you think was actually cut time wise?
JW: Were talking seconds. Thirty seconds tops.
LW: It’s not like you’re gonna have a half an hour of extra footage. (Laughs)
SC: Were there any other ideas or concepts that you didn’t have the time or budget to use in the film?
LW: There was the iron cocoon. Originally one of the characters was going to be killed by these two things that come out of the wall and snap shut on either side and then fold down, like into a box. (Laughs) When I told James about that he was like, “Uh, and we are going to do that with what money?” (Laughs) He actually tried to find a way to do it. He built a wooden model. Remember that wooden model you had where you pushed the walls in and then you fold it? And then eventually James was just like, “How’s about just shotguns?” (Laughs)
JW: Shotguns work every time! (Laughs)
SC: What are your influences as a writer and a director?
LW: Um, as a writer it’s hard for me to decide because I’ve read a few scripts but I’m not a voracious script reader. Anyone with an original kind of voice or a trademark I like to call it. There are certain filmmakers when you see their work or you read their work you instantly know it’s them. Like you go, “That’s a Tim Burton film”, as soon as you see it. It’s like a band with a certain sound. A lot of filmmakers, like David Lynch and David Cronenberg, just people that have a distinct style to them. I would say more than having a favorite writer, I have favorite scripts. Like the script for the Usual Suspects and scripts like that I really like. Charlie Kaufman, that’s a writer I really love.
SC: How about you directing wise?
JW: I’m a big fan of David Lynch but I definitely would have to say that my favorite would have to be Spielberg. I really admire his earlier films, like Jaws and Duel. Duel is my all time favorite film Duel and Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, the French version. I really love those two films. For Saw I think the two biggest influences were Lynch and Argento. I am also a huge fan of the film Black Christmas. It such an underrated film, I love it.
SC: How do you feel about the comparisons to the early Argento films as well as Seven?
JW: Well I’m honored with the Argento one. (Laughs) Seven, as Leigh would also point out, is flattering to be compared to such a big well known classic great film, but I, as a director, find it really hard to take to comparison because Seven is like this forty million dollar film. I keep saying that David Fincher could afford to give his actors up to like thirty takes to get a shot right on that film. On Saw we had eighteen days to shoot the entire film. Eighteen days. I was lucky to give my actors like two takes.
LW: It’s like comparing Open Water to Jaws.
JW: Or Open Water to Titanic because they are both set on the water. I’m sure the guy who made Open Water would be flattered to be compared to Titanic because they are two different things. (Laughs)
SC: How do you feel about the state of the horror genre today?
JW: I’m not a very big fan of horror films that come out of the studio system, they’re just too safe. I don’t like my horror films safe, I just think it is so wrong. It’s the one genre that allows you leeway to play with things and experiment and do things that are a bit more out there, but with a studio you just can’t do that.
SC: Are you afraid of that now that you are becoming a part of the studio system? Afraid that may end up happening?
JW: Well let me just say this: I don’t know if I can say this but after we handed in our first draft to Universal of this next script the guys read it, the execs read it and loved it, but they were looking at the script going, “We don’t quite know how to fit this into our film roster. We don’t quite know what this film is. Is it The Ring? Is it Seed of Chucky?” I just took that as the biggest compliment that they considered it kind of out there enough that they didn’t have a clue how to classify it.
LW: Unless they’re extremely good actors, all of the people we have met within the studio system, when we go and do these meetings with studios like Universal and Warner Brothers, are all really nice. Sure you are only meeting them for five minutes so it’s doubtful that they are going to leap across the table and slap you. (Laughs). They’re all so happy for you and want to work with you.
SC: They’re all just good actors. (Everyone bursts into laughter.)
Speaking of good actors there have been some early knocks on Cary’s performance. Earlier you had mentioned that you all were under tremendous pressure and an unbelievably tight schedule…
JW: Yeah, it’s just not fair you know. What you are seeing are Cary’s rehearsals. We were shooting rehearsals. But that’s stuff you can’t put a disclaimer on, like the poster saying, “Hey guys when it comes to this keep that in mind.” (Laughs)
LW: You know it’s art and it’s out there. I think people need to calm down a lot with this sort of stuff. I mean they’re films, it’s entertainment and that is what we meant to do. If we wanted to make a statement about something specifically, we would have made a documentary or something. We’re just out to entertain with a great story.
JW: But more importantly it’s just the restriction you know. That’s why I like to tell people like yourself stuff like this.
SC: Do you two plan on working together again as a team?
LW: For sure.
JW: There’s a script we’re writing right together right now. We just got tons of ideas.
SC: Is this new script in the horror genre as well?
JW: This next one that we are writing is a supernatural ghost story.
SC: If the film does well enough that the studio wants to do a sequel would you guys be up for it or would you be willing to hand it over to someone else to make?
JW: You see Leigh and I are very superstitious. We don’t like talking about sequels because that would have meant that the first one had done okay to warrant a sequel in the first place. Do you know what I mean? But hey, if the film does okay there is no doubt that Lions Gate will make a sequel. As to whether or not we will be involved once again we are really superstitious. (Laughs)
SC: But would you want to be involved if it did well enough?
(Producer Oren Koules re-enters the room)
LW: It’s a very interesting question because in some way you feel like the lid has been closed on that story. We feel like the ending for Saw was a really good final ending, so whether we want to be involved or not just have to wait and see.
JW: We’ll see.
OK: Nonsense, they’re involved in the sequel! (The room bursts into laughter.)
Big thanks to Wan and Whannell for taking their time to chat with us and for already supporting Dread Central in their own way! As I’m sure you know, shortly after this interview took place, Lions Gate announced that a sequel to Saw would be hitting theaters next Halloween, which you can read about here. And if you haven’t already…See Saw!