Interview: Leigh Whannell and James Wan, creators of the Saw franchise
The creators of two big-earning films with an average budget of $1m want to spread their wings a little and see what they could do if Hollywood gave them some leeway
IT MAY sound like an odd thing for the creators of the Saw franchise to admit, but screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan don't much care for extreme horror.
"Our favourite kind of horror is the stuff that scares you and tries to get inside your head," says Whannell, sitting alongside Wan in the downstairs bar of Glasgow's Malmaison Hotel. "We're not really interested in films that are trying to gross you out." Though this admission may have something to do with the fact that their new film Insidious is an intensely creepy riff on the classic haunted house premise (one that ratchets up its considerable scares via clever use of stillness and darkness), it shouldn't be taken as an attempt to distance themselves from their first creation.
Made when they were just 26 - and still relatively fresh out of film school in Australia - Saw launched the most successful horror franchise of all time (surpassing Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street), but the series' subsequent notoriety as a catch-all for the kind of twisted, morality-threatening cinema that moral guardians always seize upon has obscured the fact that the original was actually a fiendishly inventive little shocker.
It certainly wasn't subtle, but nor was it as gory as its reputation would have you believe. Its gleefully outr premise - revolving around a cancer-ridden maniac called Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) who gets his kicks trussing up victims in elaborate contraptions and placing their survival in their own hands (his perverse aim was to make them appreciate life more) - was fuelled more by the everyday "what would you do?" dilemma underlying a lot of the limb-severing. In short, it got inside people's heads - like a horror movie version of the recent 127 Hours.
But if Saw was also unmistakably the work of brash young film-makers showing the world what they could do with a single location and a gleefully twisted imagination, Insidious (their third collaboration and Wan's fourth film as a director) is the work of more mature minds who have mastered their craft. A psychological horror film starring Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne as stressed-out parents whose lives are tormented by spectral forces after their son slips into a coma, it's a movie that is unafraid to take its time building tension, and places as much emphasis on creating believable characters as it does on unleashing ghouls and ghosts. The results are genuinely frightening and unsettling.
"We've got a lot more experience under our belts, both in our personal lives and in our work life," says Whannell of the change of direction.
"I was able to write something that was more mature and reflective of real relationships because I've lived a lot more, and I think that James was able to direct the film on such a low budget and in such a short number of days because of the experience he's accumulated."Not that they've gone all respectable. Insidious may have the kind of intensity and grounded-in-reality performances reserved for art-house lauded chillers such as The Orphanage, but it also has plenty of the surreal, gonzo energy that made Saw such a blast.
"We can't help ourselves," laughs Whannell. "We want to have our cake and eat it. We want to start in a more controlled and classic way and then end it in a Grand Guignol way."
That they have a unique sensibility probably has a lot to do with the fact they grew up in Australia on a steady diet of American blockbusters supplemented by viewing more outrageous home-grown exploitation films (the ending of Mad Max, for instance, was the jumping-off point for the infamous limb-hacking gag that kicks off Saw).
"I think you can't help but write in your own voice," says Whannell. "Saw definitely had an edge to it that wasn't American. James was born in Malaysia and came over to Australia when he was young. I grew up in Melbourne. There's just a certain attitude in our films that's Australian and it's interesting how it comes across subliminally."
It certainly helped transform Saw from being just another low-budget Sundance film (it premiered there in 2004) to a $100 million-grossing worldwide hit. Arriving at time when American horror meant bland 12A-friendly teen movies and toothless J-horror remakes, it really was like nothing else. What's more, in Jigsaw, it unleashed a horror icon for a new generation of genre fans who continue to be subjected to the previous generation's bogeymen via glossy re-boots of 1970s and 1980s slasher films.
"I'm really proud of that," says Whannell. "Freddie Kruger, Jason, Michael Myers - they're all our generation. I think the kids wanted some new guys that they could take ownership of and Jigsaw was that guy. He's the Freddie for this generation."
In this context, it's not hard to understand the success of the Saw franchise and, even though Wan and Whannell effectively stepped back from the films after the first one ("They needed to release a new one every year so for us to interfere would not have been ideal for them at all," says Whannell), they both love it when Saw gets referenced or parodied in TV shows or in other movies and they're philosophical about its association with "torture porn".
"That's really just a catchphrase for the media so they can write about certain things," says Whannell. "I don't dislike it because there's nothing I can do about it… Though I'm sure for James as a director it's harder because you get pigeonholed."
"You do get pigeonholed," confirms Wan. "And that makes it difficult for me to go and do the kind of films I want to go and do.There was a period there where people wouldn't even give me a supernatural thriller to do because they though I can only make these blood-and-guts films. But with Insidious, it's different enough that people are actually saying, 'Maybe he's able to start doing other kinds of movies.' But that just goes to show how Hollywood works: you have to keep proving yourself in the area you want to make films in."
Indeed, there seem to be few free passes these days, which is why the pair, now 34, found themselves collaborating on Insidious with the makers of Paranormal Activity - another incredibly successful, low-budget horror hit - in order to make it for the decidedly un-princely sum of $800,000 (485,000). To put this in perspective, that's $400,000 less than the budget of Saw.
"We basically made an A-list quality production for zero money," beams Wan.
"Yeah, we got champagne for a beer budget," adds Whannell.
Given this, one might expect the film's healthy US box office takings - $44m (27m) and rising - would lead to champagne corks being popped, but as they're discovering, even this kind of profit-generating success leads to pigeonholing.
"The worst thing about making low-budget films that are successful is that people go, 'Hey, you're the guy who made a lot of money for no money at all!'" laughs Wan. "So the films that come back to me are the films that have no budget. And because I've done it twice now, it's a bit limiting. It would be nice to make a film with a real budget."
Whannell: "Are you listening, Hollywood?"
• Insidious is in cinemas from 29 April.
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