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Creating screaming fans; the rise of Saw

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One usually associates blood and guts with untimely death (or a butchery). But for two Melbournian film students, Leigh Whannell and James Wan, the descent into the gory and macabre signaled the birth of a franchise.

Competitive carnage

The Saw film series follows the fictional villain John ‘Jigsaw’ Kramer who kidnaps and tests his victims’ will to live through a series of medieval-inspired traps. With seven films in total, the seventh and last film Saw 3D released yesterday (28 October), the series has culminated a cult following and made its mark in film history.

While the subject matter might not be to everyone’s taste, the numbers don’t lie. Collectively, the six films have generated $730 million at the worldwide box office and sold more than 30 million DVD units and the final film is expected to match the success of its predecessors. Add to that the fact each film was made for under $11 million each (the original for just over $1 million) and you get the picture of just how massive the return on investment.

Every Halloween since the original in 2004 has marked the release of another film to the series. And despite late-October being the favoured release period for horror film, Saw has maintained dominance as number one in the Halloween box office figures.

“I knew I made it when Bob Weinstein made Halloween (2007) and released it in September,” Mark Burg, co-producer of the series, told the New York Post in 2008.

In fact, Saw has achieved more success than any horror movie series before. Earlier in the year, it received honours from Guinness World Records as the ‘Most Successful Horror Movie Series’, beating out other horror heavyweights in the cutthroat genre such as Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween (and managed to do so in less time with half the number of films).  

Drafting a killer script

While the series is now infamous within the genre, the original film had unassuming beginnings. Whannell and Wan, former students of RMIT University in Melbourne, concocted the original Saw script out of necessity – Wan needed a project to direct and Whannell something to act in.

“After years of trying to get a film off the ground, we realised no one was giving us any money to make a film with,” Wan told IGN in 2004. “We decided to sit down, write our own script and see if we could fund it ourselves.”

“Then we checked our bank balances and we realised this was going to be the first $40 movie in history,” added Whannell.

With these budgetary restrictions as a guide, the first draft of Saw was stitched together, with Wan and Whannell intending to fund and film the project independently.

“The fact we wanted to keep the film contained helped us come up with the ideas,” said Whannell. “What’s the cheapest thing we can do? Two guys in one room with no windows, we’ll chain them up so they can’t go anywhere.”

The final script was original and dark – both in subject matter and in a literal sense (no exterior shots were written or filmed; the budget wouldn’t allow it).

The pair planned to film in Australia shortly after finishing writing.

“We never aimed for the film to be made in America,” said Whannell. “America came to us.” 

Taking the bait

Upon the script’s completion, the pair’s manager convinced them to send it to several US production companies, a couple of which expressed immediate interest in buying the script.

“We figured if we were going to fly all the way [to LA] for this expensive meeting – a handshake, really – we wanted to make a short to show them that we’re not just writers but filmmakers as well,” said Wan.

The pair took a scene from the script – one of the most harrowing, involving an unconscious Whannell waking up with a ‘reverse bear trap’ hooked into his jaw which will activate if he cannot unlock it in time – and turned it into a standalone nine-minute short film. It was a risk; the project was self-funded for AU$5000 and Wan even made the puppet, one key feature in both the short and the film, from ping-pong balls and papier-mâché. The end result was impressive.

“We always say we haven’t done many smart things in our lives but that was definitely one of them,” said Whannell.

The short film attracted buzz in industry circles and negotiations began for film rights. However, having become personally attached to the project, they refused to simply sell the script.

“It’s a personal investment. [Wan] and I, with Saw, lived with it for years,” said Whannell. “It wasn’t going to be as simple as, ‘Let’s sell it and make some money’. And we did have people wanting that.”

The rights to the film hinged upon one condition; Wan had to direct and Whannell star.

“You shoot for the best first,” said Whannell during an interview at the Toronto Film Festival in 2004. “If nothing comes back, you go down a level. We shot for the best and [Evolution] actually bid.”

Evolution, a small production company, had faith in the franchise and offered Wan and Whannell creative control and 25 per cent of net profits generated, rather than a lump sum for their script and work. Wan and Whannell have been directly involved in the franchise up to Saw III and have roles as executive producers thereafter.

Creating a legend

The film was funded by Evolution for a meagre $1.15 million budget and optioned by film distribution Lionsgate Entertainment as straight-to-video. However, after packing three midnight screenings at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 and eliciting excitement in fanboy communities, it was given a theatrical release.

In its opening weekend, Saw brought in $18.3 million. Throughout its theatrical run, it managed to generate $102 million worldwide – the project had turned a profit 50 times its cost in the US alone before even being released on DVD (traditionally the moneymaking machine of the film industry).

Taking a stab at the horror genre is one thing but coming up against horror classics – and beating them – is another. So why did Saw hold such appeal? While the intricacies of that debate are best left to university film lectures, in short, it was a refreshing and realistic (almost bordering on the pornographic) addition to a tired genre, with a villain as mythic and primevally disturbing as Hannibal Lector. The series even spawned its own subgenre, the much-aggrieved torture porn category. The Saw franchise gave genre fans something serious, something intellectually stimulating and something truly horrifying.

“Take away the scenes of blood and you still have the movie,” explained co-producer Darren Lynn Bousman during Saw IV press conference in 2007. “A lot of horror films you take away the scenes of blood and there’s nothing left. That’s what the Saw films have done so well.”

Warning: Not for the faint of heart, check out the short film that began the franchise. 

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Important information: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

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Published on: Friday, October 29, 2010

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