From Psycho and The Shining through to A Nightmare on Elm Street, bathroom scenes have been a horror movie staple for as long as we can remember. But nothing could have prepared audiences for what James Wan and Leigh Whannell devised back in 2004 with Saw.
Fans have since been treated to eight instalments of the pain-obsessed franchise (plus an upcoming reboot), so Wan and Whannell’s macabre saga needs no real introduction. Saw kept us running back to the multiplex every subsequent Halloween to discover the series’ latest blood-soaked offering. But what gave the original its unique edge wasn’t so much the gore or deliciously-concocted traps. It was the mystery that kept moviegoers glued to their seats. The protagonists aren’t pitted against a supernatural force or evil entity. Here, John Kramer is a devious plotter, who devises all manner of cold-blooded “escape room” situations and takes pleasure in watching his victims suffer. He believes he’s doing them a favour: offering up a second chance to appreciate the lives they’ve been dealt, despite their misdeeds.
To mark the 15th anniversary of the original film’s release, we caught up with actor Cary Elwes (Stranger Things, The Princess Bride) to reminisce about his time as Dr. Lawrence Gordon in one of the most shocking films of the century.
Saw was shot in 18 days on a shoestring budget and spawned seven sequels – how does it feel to still be talking about it 15 years later?
“It’s still quite crazy. As hard as it might sound, every studio turned this movie down so Leigh and James eventually met with Oren Koules, who was my manager at the time, and also with Oren’s partner at Evolution. The two of them had put together a short fifteen-minute scene in which Leigh played Shawnee Smith’s role stuck in that reverse-bear trap. You could already tell just from watching that footage that this was going to be something really interesting and unlike anything else. I was already sold on the script alone but that short just really sold it.”
James and Leigh were fledgling newcomers when you took on this role. Did it require a leap of faith on your part?
“Very much so, but that’s why I think the short was such a smart move. They had been trying to sell the script for a while on its own, but nobody was really biting, especially because of the issue that they were newcomers and this town [Hollywood] is not always welcoming to newcomers, unless they can prove themselves. But in this case, they weren’t asking for a lot of money and they weren’t asking for a long schedule. I think that the fact that they had shot some footage to show what we could expect from the film is what sealed the deal for everybody.”
Saw almost tried to make audiences sympathise with the villain. Would you agree that it was a catalyst for a series of films that had us rooting for the lesser of two evils?
“Definitely. I think that what made Saw so different was that the audience was not being asked to empathise with somebody who was a complete sociopath. Jigsaw believed that he was righteous in that he was punishing people that he felt deserved to be punished.”
Saw did away with the ‘final girl’ in favour of a ‘final middle-aged man’. Was that intentional?
“To be honest, I didn’t see it like that at the time. I just think that if you’d had a woman chained to the wall, the film would have had a whole different connotation. I’m not sure. I couldn’t really tell you why I saw it like that. I’m glad that it wasn’t a male-centric film and that there were important female characters in it. I’m grateful for that and I think we were quite diverse. The idea of playing a ‘final man’ wasn’t really something that concerned me.”
Why did you never rehearse the bathroom scenes with your co-star, Leigh Whannell?
“Well, we just didn’t have time. At the moment the money and the window was green-lit, we just had to start working straight away. Don’t forget that we had certain actors who were working around other schedules. For example, we only had Danny Glover and Danny Emerson for a certain number of days. If we’d had to have moved just one day, we’d have literally lost the whole thing.”
James Wan never wanted to create a torture porn piece, but the franchise has become increasingly fixated on gore. What do you think of that?
“As I wasn’t involved in the sequels, I really can’t comment on those other than the final one that I did when I came back for Saw 7. What I can say is that I had to watch the other films in order to prepare for that and I couldn’t do it in one sitting. I had to pace myself with them. But, personally, look, the first one, in my humble opinion, was the first time since Hitchcock’s Psycho that the audience was asked not to reveal the ending. That was a refreshing thing for anybody to come up with.”
What are your hopes for the upcoming 9th film in the franchise?
“I haven’t been lucky enough to read the script and only know the folks involved so I can only hypothesise. All I can say is that I’m a big fan of Chris Rock and I hope they do well. They’re keeping it all under wraps – as they should – and I wish them well.”