Making 'SAW'

Interview with writer/actor Leigh Whannel and producer Stacey Testro

Q - What is your background?

Leigh - When I was a kid, my grandfather won a Beta video machine in a golf tournament and said, “What am I going to do with this thing?” So he gave it to my Dad. It was about the size of a fridge and I was instantly in love. I remember getting Jaws and was hooked on it from when I was five years old. I went through a film-obsessed childhood and took acting classes, performed in school plays and theatre outside of school. By the time I got to high school, I had a teacher that really turned me on to filmmaking more than acting. He introduced me to films like Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now. And then I started getting excited about the other side of the camera. When I finished school, I decided that I had more of a chance to make it behind the camera so I went to University to study filmmaking. That’s where I met James Wan. He was the only other filmmaker there who was more interested in The Evil Dead than Fellini, so we said we would make a film together one day. We finished Uni, went on separate jobs and five years later we still hadn’t done anything about it. So we were sitting down one day and I said the only way we are going to make a film is to pay for it ourselves. That was when Saw was born. James and I were going to pay for it out of our own pockets. Try to get a Blair Witch thing going.

Q - How did you guys meet Stacey?

Leigh - I signed up with her agency in Melbourne when I was a kid. I went in and auditioned and was precocious enough to make an impression on her.

Stacey - Yes. Leigh wanted to be an actor when he was a teenager and he had been acting for some time when I met him. So, I started managing him. Then he decided to pursue the writing area after he met James Wan at film school and they became partners. Leigh recommended James to me as a potential client and I took him on. They had an immediate attraction to each other in so far as the type of movies they wanted to make. They always had many and varied ideas, were very diligent, proactive and to this day both have a great knowledge of the history of the industry. They were also very educated in the area of the films that they wanted to make.

Leigh - Stacey has been there the whole time and knows our whole story of how I was bitching that James and I had this goal and it wasn’t happening and now she’s seen us realise it. It’s really good to have someone who’s on your side and been there from the beginning.

Q - How did Saw come about?

Stacey - Our production arm set about developing an idea or two with Leigh and James and we made a trailer of one of their ideas. But as it turned out, it didn’t go forward. And then James and Leigh really decided that they wanted to make a film and the only way they were going to do this was for them to write something for James to direct and Leigh to star. They came in the office one day and they talked about an idea which sounded great. They went and worked on the script for quite some time, really cultivating the plot and the characters, then came back and delivered the script of Saw.

Q - How long did it take you to write the script and how many drafts did you do?

Leigh - The first draft took awhile. When we first had the idea, I had never really written a script seriously before. I took a long time with the characters, writing bios for all of them, getting scene cards so I could have the whole script mapped out. So the first draft took me nine months to get it where I wanted it. And I was working a full time job and I had a girlfriend at the time to whom I was giving a lot of attention. I was trying to squeeze in this scriptwriting, so it took awhile. I am glad I had that long with it. After that we did about four or five more drafts. The whole length of the process from coming up with the idea to shooting the film was about two years. Which is fairly quick. But that is how I write. I like to let things gestate. I’m not good at just vomiting out something in two weeks.

Q - How did the writing process work with James involved?

Leigh - I finished the script. I didn’t want to show him anything. Once we had the initial idea, I made him wait for those long nine months. He had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t want to tell him either. I just wanted him to read it, and I’m glad I did it that way. It gave me a glimpse into that feeling a writer can have when they are confident in what they are doing. I have never been able to quite capture that since. I am sure I will someday. I hope I will. Whenever independent filmmakers ask me how I did it and what was the secret, I feel like, well, I’ve been in that position as well. I would go to screenwriting seminars and what you really want to hear is, what is the shortcut? What you want Robert McKee to really do is lean over and say, “Look, all this character and working hard stuff is bullshit. If you include a character named Agnes in your script, it will be guaranteed to be a million dollar blockbuster.” Human nature is the path of least resistance. You want the secret. You don’t want someone to tell you, “Well, the key to making it in Hollywood is hard work.” Christ. I didn’t have to pay $500 to learn that. People were scribbling in their notebooks the fastest when Robert McKee said here are the three things you need in a thriller.

Q - So did you take a lot of Robert McKee’s advice on board when you were writing Saw?

Leigh - It made me realise that when filmmakers ask me about the secret, I say if you are confident in the script you are writing, the script is where it starts and finishes. Of course, everything is important in film - it is a collaborative art. But you are telling a story and the scriptwriting is interpretive art. If you’re 100% confident in writing it, you will not need to ask anyone the secret for writing it or you won’t be worried anymore. With Saw, I wasn’t worried for a second. When I first finished it, I gave it to one our friends who was an independent film producer and he hated it. I remember him really giving it to me and I wasn’t worried in the slightest. That is how I knew I was confident in Saw. I always knew, and I can say this in retrospect, I always knew that Saw would get made. I never doubted for a second. I thought that it may take a while, which almost killed me because I thought I would be thirty-five by the time it got made. I would have been playing the doctor by then. But I always thought it would get made.

Q - So it was always the intention to have minimal locations and only a few actors for Saw?

Leigh - Exactly. The whole idea was born from the idea of what if two guys were chained up in this bathroom and couldn’t leave. Therefore the whole film gets to take place in one room with these two actors. That is something that you can visualise. That is something you can afford. When I went off and wrote the script, I found that it was really hard to contain the film within this one room as it felt more like a play than a film. So I expanded it to the point where James and I wondered if we could really do it justice with the very meager funds we had available to us. It sort of bounced around as things do with these independent films. They get passed from person to person and maybe a producer is interested. And you come up with a plan B. But it sort of just landed in the right people’s laps.
Q - Did you think about the commerciality of the story when you were writing it?

Leigh - Instinctually, we are pretty commercial anyway. We were never going to come up with a story that was an impenetrable art film. We wanted it to be something that we would see. I am very sort of concept based. I don’t base films by who is in it. ‘Ooo, the new Harvey Keitel film is out!’ That’s not me. Obviously people do do that. It’s the concept of the film that appeals to me. The last film that I read the concept for and I said I had to see it, was The Machinist. It really intrigued me; it’s concept - a guy who couldn’t sleep for a year. So that’s how we came up with Saw. I would write down my ideas as if it was a synopsis on the back of a DVD cover to see if would read intriguingly. I think I have it in a notebook somewhere. ‘Two men wake up in an abandoned bathroom chained to a wall on opposite sides.’ It’s fire in your belly when you have something good. You can’t wait to get started.

Q - As their manager, what did you think when you read Saw for the first time?
Stacey - On first read, the script was tremendous. And very soon after this, there was a request of several producers via the Writers Guild in Australia who had a million dollars and wanted to make a low budget genre picture. So we sent the script to these two producers in Sydney and they immediately loved it. They took an option on it and unfortunately, they couldn’t raise the money for it. It was a shame because it seemed that James and Leigh were genuinely going to get an opportunity to star and direct. So I started sending the script out of our LA office and the response was overwhelming to it as a spec. And I told James and Leigh that if the producers loved the script so much they are going to love them. But to amplify their position, we started talking about shooting a particular scene from the script to show their vision. They went away and thought about it and eventually decided to do it. We hooked them up with a great young DP from Melbourne, and told them to go away and come back to show us what they came up with.

Q - Did James have a collection of shorts or any other feature behind him?

Stacey - He had done some music videos and some shorts. But, the two of them lived, breathed and slept filmmaking so it wasn’t a big task for them to go off and shoot the one scene. I really and truly felt that due to the reaction of the script, they had to be given the opportunity to really and truly be involved.

Q - Which scene was it?

Leigh - It was the jaw trap scene. It was shot like a Nine Inch Nails video. It looked beautiful. It was the perfect selling tool and within a week we had the deal stitched up to make the film.

Q - How much did you spend on the short and what did you shoot it on?

Leigh - It was about $7k AUS. So $4k US. We shot on 16mm and James edited it.
It was great. I played the guy who was strapped into the jaw trap. Without that, who knows? I asked the producer once before if we didn’t have the short, would you have made the film? He said, “That’s interesting. We wouldn’t have probably let James direct and you star, but we probably would have made the film.” You can see the scene on our special edition DVD.

Q - How long did it take to make the short?

Stacey - It wasn’t long at all because I said to them that it was really worth getting this ASAP. They shot it in a day or two. They tried to get favours from everyone. I was on my way back to LA and James and Leigh were rushing to get this finished. I was so excited to see it when James delivered it to my house just before I left. I immediately put the DVD in and I was just so proud, overwhelmed and excited - I couldn’t stand it! I hugged James and said that he had given me what I can really work with and there is no way anyone else is going to make this film except you two.

Q - What was the response?

Stacey - I took it to LA and handed it to a literary agent at Genesis called Ken Greenblatt. I didn’t oversell it at all. Then I get this phone call about two hours later from the agent who said that I was the type of person who over-delivers and under-promises. I thought that was hilarious because it is completely the opposite of what that line really is. He really wanted to work with these two guys. Then it was this whirlwind. The eight-minute DVD went out to all the people who had the script all over LA. James was in Australia. Leigh was in London. I called them and said ‘you’re coming to LA’, this was June of 2003, ‘and there are going to be a rush of meetings. You’re going to meet on the basis of being attached as creative key personnel.’

Q - How did Evolution Entertainment come on board as the producers?

Stacey - We had these meeting with studios, mini-studios and production companies. And the first meeting we had on the first day was with the head of production at Evolution Entertainment.  These guys were really gung-ho and they really wanted to make this project. They promised that if they get the project then James would be the director and Leigh would star. That was really encouraging. Then, we went on all the other meetings and there were lots of different options in terms of opportunities and some deals were on the table. But in the end, it was Evolution’s guarantee that James would direct and Leigh would star and a guarantee of certain amount of creative control in terms of casting and all the other important elements that sealed the deal. So looking at it as their manager, it was really the way to go to fulfill their creative goals. Even though there were a lot of attractive offers made, this one was head and shoulders above the rest. And then later that week, we were talking to lawyers and the deal was getting done. James and Leigh got back on a plane to Australia to pack their things, and while they were in flight, the film was officially put into pre-production.

Q - Did Evolution give you a lot of notes on changes to the script?

Leigh - Not many. The great thing about how they wanted to do it was that they just wanted to dive right into it. Now if you have $100 million dollars riding on a film, it has to be this vanilla fucking piece of shit. Evolution didn’t want to fuck with the formula too much. They felt like they had stumbled onto this kind of gem. They felt like if they put their fingers in there, they would fuck it up. So they let us go. It was great!

Q - Were Cary Elwes and Danny Glover always in mind for the leading roles?

Stacey - Not at all. The film was originally going to be made in Australia. The only attachments were Leigh to star and James to direct. It was going to be low-budget, and it was going to be an opportunity to advance their careers. But it was a script of such high standard and written in a style that was very appealing to the American market, so it was possible to attract Hollywood stars. Once Cary Elwes and Danny Glover saw the short and read the script, they were convinced.

Q - So you wrote Saw knowing you were going to star in it?

Leigh - Yes. I was doing some acting over in Australia, but not as much as I would have liked which is precisely why we did Saw. So that was part of the deal of doing the film in America. Again, it comes down to the budget. If Evolution had spent more money, they would have said, “We should really get Josh Hartnett for this role.” But because it was low budget, they could take the chance on me acting in it. It was awesome.

Q - What was it like acting with Cary Elwes and Danny Glover?

Leigh - It was awesome. These huge actors speaking lines that you have written - it’s a huge honor. I did all my scenes with Cary and he was just a great guy. It was an all around good experience. From the writing process to the making of it through doing the publicity tour to the release, Saw was this blessed thing. It felt like our child that has grown up and has a life of its own. I envy Saw, it’s good luck. Everything works out with it. The company that released it was the right company, as they knew exactly how to market it.

Q - During casting, were Cary Elwes and Danny Glover keen right from the start?

Leigh - Yeah. It was the short that did it. That DVD is what got every one of the actors turned on to it. I’d always advise new filmmakers that if you can manage to get that script written and it’s the one that you are utterly confident in and you love; take a scene from it and instead of spending $10,000 to make an inexpensive feature film and selling your script short, spend the money to make a very expensive eight minute demo reel. It will look good and it is such a good selling tool. A script is just pages with words on it. There is not much you can do to sex it up. Of course, if it’s good it will stand out, but if you want it to stand out more in a crowded marketplace, you strap this little DVD to it. It will take you all night to read the script, but it will take you eight minutes to watch the DVD. If the scene makes them flip out like the scene from Saw did - I mean people flipped out. They said, “That was the sickest thing I had every seen!”

Q - When did you start principal photography?

Stacey - In July we did the deal, August we started pre production and September we started shooting. It was so fast. And that was one of the attractions, too. Everyone wanted to proceed and they didn’t want to wait. It was private equity so the quicker the better that this could happen. James went back to Australia to pack and Leigh had a commitment for an acting job in Australia. When James came back to the US, he had visa issues and was up in Canada while the film was in pre-production. When he finally returned to LA, he hardly had any time for pre-production. He was doing casting via telephone. It was really tough. The whole thing was shot in Los Angeles in one big warehouse. We shot it in eighteen days and there was enough time to get it into Sundance. It was amazingly electric on set because there was a sense that everyone loved the script and project.

Q - Did any of the dialogue change during shooting?

Leigh - Of course there were some changes, but for the most part we stuck to what I had written. I found that because the shoot was so rushed, they really stuck to what I had on the page.

Q - What was the budget for the film?

Stacey - $1.1 million US. And theatrically in the US, it grossed $55 million US.

Q - Did you ever think that you were going to have problems with the violence as so many of the studios nowadays want PG-13 movies?

Leigh - When you’re making an independent film you want to stand out. There is no use sitting on the fence. The reason the studios make these vanilla films is because they are trying to be all things to all people. The dream is to be E.T or Titanic. The dream is to have the old ladies, the middle aged ladies, the middle aged men, the teenagers, the kids, the babies - everyone to love the film. You get a market share of everything but you get these bland movies. When you’re doing an independent film, I don’t understand why anyone would fence sit? Then again, if you’re such a great writer that you can make Rushmore or The Graduate, go for it. We did Saw because we wanted it to stand out. We wanted to make people go, “Ugghhh, holy shit!” For them to be scarfing in the aisles. We wanted to make a thriller, but we didn’t want to make Kiss The Girls. We wanted them to be psychologically affected. We wanted people to be sitting around saying, “Have you seen that film where the guy saws his foot off?” I guess it is a very pointed way of getting people to remember your film. Sometimes films need a gimmick. The Blair Witch Project, Run, Lola Run, Memento - the films that stand out in the independent world are the ones that mainstream films cannot offer. So it might be valuable to spend time thinking about what can I do that isn’t being offered by the mainstream at the moment. What is a bit taboo? As long as you are smart about it - it is easy to shock - it is harder to shock in a smart way.

Q - Did Lion’s Gate see Saw at Sundance?

Stacey - Lion’s Gate saw it just prior to going to Sundance 2004, and were made aware of the film before that. Right up until that point, there was no sale. People were excited to see it, but they were very much waiting for a finished product. Then just before Sundance, Lion’s Gate acquired it and did an extraordinary job of marketing the film. Then it got into the Toronto Film Festival in September. Then it was released widely on Halloween, October 31st, 2004.

Q - Which do you love more - acting or writing?

Leigh - I love both of them, but they are different. At the moment, my desire to act is stronger because I haven’t done that in so long. So the acting side of me is starving. It is a lot harder because it’s not up to you. Unless you’re writing your own films and plays and put them on yourself, you are relying on someone else’s decision. It’s like hoping to win the lottery. You are relying on a huge mixture of luck. Are you the right look? Are you the right age? Acting can be very soul destroying. I mean everyone reading Hello Magazine and hearing actors bitching about why they can’t have a parasail without someone taking their pictures. And you’re like, “Oh, shut up. You break my heart!” What you don’t read about are the thousands of actors who are constantly rejected. Acting is a series of constant rejections. Unless you are lucky to be one of these actors that is constantly working, it’s really soul destroying. I am getting to the point where I just want to write another film for myself because the chance of getting a part via auditioning is so slim.

Q - Even after the success of Saw?

Leigh - Yeah. You can’t plan for anything in this industry. All you can do if someone is not giving you a job, is create your own job. Go and put on your own play. And if you’re not a writer, find one. It is the only way to do it without going mental. Right now, I’m writing and developing ideas.

Q - Did you make any mistakes during the process that you learned from?

Leigh - Mostly the things came from me. I look back on some of the things that I did as an actor and maybe I would have made some different choices. Overall, obviously, it’s not flawless, but I am proud of it and its flaws. I think it’s a great film.

Q - What advice would you give to a new filmmaker?

Leigh - Look, I don’t believe in all the film guide bullshit of pushing and pushing for your project to happen. If you have a great script and a great little scene shot to send out to five companies, you will get five calls. So, story, story, story is the key.