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Two young Australian filmmakers just out of film school, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, made the impossible happen; they barged into Hollywood with a script and a sample scene on DVD – and got the greenlight for their horror hit, Saw, exactly as intended, they tell Andrew L. Urban, as the film takes some A$80 million in the US and UK.

People – that ubiquitous gang who go round saying things – told emerging (or at that stage wannabe) filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell that it was impossible in Australia to get their first feature script made with Wan directing and Whannell starring, especially as Saw is a horror film, a genre not much befriended by Government funding in the past. And it was “beyond impossible” in Hollywood.

Just out of the RMIT film school in Melbourne, the friends were thus unprepared and sceptical when on their first day in Los Angeles, at their very first meeting with production company, Evolution Entertainment, the executives gathered round the table told them, ‘we’re going to produce it.’ 

“That was so quick, we thought there must be a catch,” says Whannell, “because you know, there’s nothing worse than coming THIS close to making a film you’ve been trying to make…”

" blessed by knowing the right person"

Wan and Whannell are sitting next to each other on a swank sofa in a Sydney hotel, cramming a dozen media interviews into their day on an uncharacteristically wet late November day. Their debut film, a low budget affair that the US distributor, Lions Gate had released on October 31, 2004 (no doubt with fingers crossed), on 2,315 screens around America, had by this time grossed over US$50 million and another US$12 + million in the UK (that’s a total take of about A$80 million – with the rest of the world to come.) 

What Wan and Whannell will quickly acknowledge, is that they were blessed by knowing the right person to make the right connections. “At first, because the quickest way to make a movie you want to do is to finance it yourself, we were going to try and fund it. Then we tried finding finance…but then our agent (Melbourne based) Stacey Testro read it, and she knew someone in Los Angeles who’d like it, she thought.”

That was Ken Greenblatt at Paradigm, and yes, he did like it, and he’s now their US agent. But at this stage, it was just a script, in a genre that has potential: horror. Dr Lawrence Gordon and Adam (Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell) wake up chained to the rusted pipes of a giant disused bathroom. They have no memory of how they got there and there’s a dead body in the middle of the floor clutching a .38, lying in a pool of blood. As they begin to piece together the clues that have been left for them, a microcassette each with instructions, a key and two handsaws – too flimsy to break their steel shackles, but strong enough to cut through flesh and bone - Gordon realises they are in the deadly lair of an infamous serial killer “Jigsaw”. A killer obsessed with teaching his victims the value of life, he is abducting morally wayward people and forcing them to play horrific games for their own survival. Faced with impossible choices they begin a race against time while outside, a detective (Danny Glover) suspects Gordon, whose wife (Monica Potter) and daughter (Makenzie Vega) are drawn into the trauma.

Each victim in Saw is faced with a horrific choice on which his or her life rests. A man must escape from being buried alive by forcing himself through a web of flesh-cutting wires; a woman must kill another man to free herself from a steel head casing that is timed to tear off her jaw ... It's these games, masterminded by Jigsaw, which elevate Saw beyond traditional serial killer territory, lending a shocking sense of the macabre to the pervading atmosphere of terror.

"we were the baggage that came with the script"

“When we had the idea for the film,” says Wan, “it was always meant for us to do it. But for the agent, it was just a script to sell; they didn’t realise we were plotting … that we were the baggage that came with the script,” he adds with a laugh.

And perhaps it could have ended up in the ever-churning Hollywood production mill, looking for the right director and the right cast, if Wan and Whannell hadn’t done one crucial thing. When they were invited to go to Los Angeles to discuss the project, they thought, “if we’re going to go all the way to Los Angeles, we should use this rare opportunity to the maximum.” With $6,000 odd that Whannell had saved up, the filmmakers shot one of the most haunting scenes from the script.

They asked for permission to use the boiler room in the basement of St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne – a suitably dank and brown place - and shot the “jaw-trap” scene, with Leigh (cheap labour) playing the role of the female victim. After adding some temp music, they burned it onto a DVD. Wan’s direction in that one scene was enough to show he had cinematic style. 

When Gregg Hoffman at Evolution was dragged aside by Greenblatt to show him the DVD, Hoffman was floored. “About two or three minutes into it, my jaw hit the floor,” he says. “I ran back to my office with the DVD and the script and showed it to my partners.” So it was that by the time Wan and Whannell stepped off the plane at LAX, Evolution had already made the offer to finance the movie – with Wan directing and Whannell starring as Adam.

“I think the DVD showed we were prepared,” says Wan, who impressed his friend Whannell at film school by making zombie movies, while the other students worked on more traditional, perhaps more ‘arty’ projects.

"told it with the stylistics of a horror film"

For Wan, Saw was an opportunity to meld the hard-edged scares of a horror film with the convoluted plot of a high-quality thriller. “For me, the horror genre is one genre that allows you to play outside the boundary of established conventions,” he says. “I've always approached the project like a whodunnit, a puzzle movie. I took a thriller storyline and told it with the stylistics of a horror film.”

Producer Greg Hoffman agrees: “If you're going to do a genre film, I always think you have to twist it, shake it up, surprise people. Elevate it in some way. Saw is a classic Hitchcock film if Hitchcock had watched too many Nine Inch Nails videos."

Although there’s nothing formal in their working relationship – albeit a shingle reading Wan & Whannell is tempting – the two filmmakers are “co-ideaing” a new screenplay. “It’s a ghost story,” says Wan. “About a ventriloquist,” adds Whannell. 

Published December 2, 2004

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Leigh Whannell + James Wan


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