If you haven’t seen it yet, you might want to not read this interview with Saw star Cary Elwes, simply because some minor spoilers follow. But if you’re interested in how two indie filmmakers from Australia managed to bag a few well-known talents, and get some pointers on how to impress stars enough to agree to have ‘em work with you for free, you’ll dig this a lot.
Q: So what made you want to do this film?
Cary Elwes: The money. (Laughs) No, actually I didn’t get paid on this movie and I don’t think any of the other actors did either. It was about the passion really.
Q: Did you have any reservations doing a horror film?
CE: I don’t consider it a horror film per say. I like to think of Saw as more of a psychological thriller that just happens to be graphic. Now that’s not to put down horror because I am a big fan of horror. I was drawn to those aspects of it and the character I read was very well drawn and well thought out by the filmmakers. I think that is all you can hope for as an actor when you read a script, that after the first thirty pages that it has some meaning to it. This one happened to have a morality tale to it, be it a very distorted one. He’s this killer who is trying to teach people the meaning of life by torturing them. (Laughs)
Q: Did your character change significantly from when you first read the script to what actually appeared on screen? It seems like your character could have been much more likable.
CE: Right, good question. As far as his break down is concerned, that was not in the script. That is something James and I worked on. We figured that we had to take this guy from being the paternalistic character that is trying to calm Adam down at the very beginning of the film, but by the end they swap roles. I said to James that I thought that would be an interesting dynamic if we did that. So we worked on that.
For the second part of your question, I tend to not think in terms of likeability for a character. I think the gray areas are a much more fascinating to play because we’re all gray. No one is black and white, good or bad, happy or sad. Everyone has their own particular idiosyncrasy that makes them fascinating and that is how I try to approach a character. I try not to judge them. I think if you get into of an area of judging a character you are playing you are getting into a very sticky area.
Q: What kind of preparation did you do to play that state of madness?
CE: It’s not hard. (Laughs) As I said, I worked very closely with James on it and how far to take that manic trauma. We didn’t want to make him by any means pathetic, but by the same token given the circumstances he was under with his wife and child being kidnapped, I think that the way it was written was not nearly as traumatic as what we ended up shooting. I think that if any of us had anyone close, near and dear to us kidnapped we would probably react somewhat the same, especially under those circumstances.
Q: It has been a particularly bad year for psychological thrillers. What do you think that Saw did right that the others didn’t?
CE: I can’t speak for the other psychological thrillers, I just know that this one had a level of intelligence to it that the others didn’t. I think that, in the movies you are talking about, the filmmakers might have pandered to the audience. I think a lot of psychological thrillers, certainly ones that delve into horrific scenarios like this one does; tend to be gratuitous. Victims end up being so one-dimensional that women are objectified and end up wondering around waiting to be slashed by some hidden psycho killer. I think that there are very few far and between that have any real depth to them. I don’t know of any psychological thriller that’s this graphic. People are not sure whether to call it a horror or thriller or what. So that in of itself makes it unique. I think audiences are ready for that. I think it’s great that these two young guys have figured out what all of these big studios with all of their money couldn’t seem to.
Q: How much did you enjoy the fact that they removed all of the usual clichés from the genre and gave the audience what was more of an endurance test than the same old thing?
CE: Exactly, I think we are seeing much more of that in film. Look at what Mel Gibson did with the Passion of the Christ. He took one of the most well known stories known to mankind and pushed it to the limit of our endurance. I think audiences are getting more and more voyeuristic this film taps into that.
Q: With it being such a physical role what was the biggest challenge for you personally?
CE: Being chained to a wall for an extended period of time. That caused some quite serious lacerations to my ankle, other than that nothing really. I so enjoyed being with the other actors and working on the project and James is such a great guy.
Q: Speaking of James could you tell us about your first meeting with him and what intrigued you about the project?
CE: I had lunch with him somewhere and he showed up with a portfolio under his arm. He had drawings and paintings he had done of the costumes, the sets. He had already drawn the basement with the toilet… the doll. He showed me a blueprint of the reverse bear trap mask. I said, “That’s very intricate.” He goes, “It’s operational.” And I went, “Okay… (Laughs) this guy has done his homework.” Not only with this little DVD did he present to me a guy who clearly had a very unique visual style and on top of that a script that I didn’t need to mark with my pencil hardly at all. Here he was with these designs that he did himself. Now I can’t think of a more complete filmmaker than that. He had drawn a copy of the one-sheet poster already. I love that.
Q: What do you think the final outcome of your character was?
CE: I know! I was asked that at Sundance. I don’t think he made it as much as the tourniquet worked, unless he got immediate help.
Q: If they wanted to bring you back for a sequel is that something you would be open to?
CE: With prosthesis? I don’t know. (Laughs) It depends. Again I am weary of sequels. They so rarely work and more often than not you’re trying to cater to the audience that came to the first one and trying to recreate scenarios that might be similar. It’s tricky. However, having said that, these guys are very smart if they were to present me with a project that was as an exciting a read as this one was, I would certainly consider it.
Q: What was it like being chained to the wall for most of the movie?
CE: I certainly relished my breaks. I certainly appreciated being able to walk around outside. We shot this whole thing in one location. It was the only way we could do it financially. We shot it in a disused warehouse in downtown Los Angeles, and the warehouse was amazing. We found that in this warehouse we had all the locations we needed. This was not by chance. This was by contrivance by the filmmakers. They knew that being first time filmmakers that they would have a limited budget so they wrote the piece with that in mind. Because we didn’t have to change locations it allowed us to work within the time constraints that we had.
Q: Were you surprised by the enormous buzz this film received?
CE: Extraordinarily surprised. I was blown away by the box office numbers in London and astounded at the fact that we beat out Sky Captain and others.
Q: Were there any scenes that you filmed that were cut?
CE: No. We had twenty-eight days and did about ten to twelve pages a day. There was no room for error. No room for adding scenes. If anything they would want to cut them but there wasn’t anything you could cut out of this that wouldn’t affect something down the line. It was such an intricate script as far as the plot and the characters interweaving with one another. With myself, Danny, Adam, Monica…if you pulled a string here it would affect something down the line. So there wasn’t really much room for shifting and changing.
Q: How did they handle the pressures of such a tight shoot?
CE: Extraordinarily confident and relaxed for first time filmmakers. I’ve worked with first time filmmakers who were insecure. This is nightmare for an actor to show up on set with a director that has no clue. That’s why I take it upon myself now to take long meetings with directors who are first timers to get a good sense of their preparation so I never find myself in that situation again. Like I said, these guys couldn’t have been more prepared.
Q: Dealing with the time restraints are there things you look at now and wished you had more time for?
CE: Oh, for sure… for sure. I think that with any movie I do. (Laughs) That’s why I can’t watch them more than once. Sure, sure. I’m sure James would tell you if he had more money he would have painted that room differently or had a different plant or painting on the wall or what ever. There are all kinds of things that you would like to do but we all knew what we were getting into. Like I said none of the actors got paid on this gig. The crew worked harder than we did. I mean I would come to work while it was still dark out and find the scenic artists and the painters still painting for a set that we were going to shoot that day and they were up at it all night! So there was an enormous amount of dedication with everyone involved, my hats off to them. That’s unique. You know I’ve been in the business a while and when you come across a crew and a cast that are that hard working and dedicated it really does something to you.
Thanks to Cary for chatting with us, and to Lions Gate for giving us the chance to chat. And if you haven’t yet…see Saw!