The Saw franchise had an iron grip on the Halloween season in the mid-2000s and its not hard to see why. Created by genre icons James Wan and Leigh Whanell, the original 2004 Saw combined elements of mystery-thrillers with extreme graphic violence to create a new staple of horror and pop culture. Following the gruesome games of a serial killer named Jigsaw – played by Tobin Bell in an unmatched performance – and his select accomplices, the series has grossed nearly a billion dollars at the box office and stretches across 8 films, until now. The latest and 9th installment, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, comes from an idea from none other than Chris Rock, who also stars in, with filmmaker Darren Lynn Bousman in the director’s chair.
Bousman is no stranger to the franchise, having taken it to soaring success with Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV before moving on to cult success with films like Repo! The Genetic Opera and The Devil’s Carnival. He’s a significant contributor to the world of horror, and Spiral is a triumphant return to form for the Saw series that “just might be the best of the entire franchise.” We chatted with the director about what’s different this time around, collaborating with stars Chris Rock, Max Minghella, and Samuel L. Jackson, and what’s changed in the year since Spiral was originally planned to be released.
It’s very cool getting to speak to you. Saw II was actually my introduction to the franchise.
Darren Lynn Bousman: Oh, fantastic.
That came out when I was like, 12 or 13. I shouldn’t have been watching it.
Darren Lynn Bousman: You were too young to watch it.
Saw II, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Rob Zombie’s Halloween were sort of my gateway into R-rated horror.
Darren Lynn Bousman: Are you a serial killer right now?
You know, I’ll state for the record that I’m not. So what motivated you to return to Saw?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Chris Rock. That was it. I mean, when someone calls you and says that they have Chris Rock attached to a Saw movie, how can I say no? That is the most batsh*t crazy, amazing idea. That was all they had to say to me and I was 100% back in.
What do you feel has changed as far as audience expectations go?
Darren Lynn Bousman: It’s been longer than a decade for me, I finished the last one in 2007. Coming into this, I wanted to change it up a little bit. I wanted to have the look and sonic landscape be different. Also, with Chris’ addition, make it a little more fun. The Saw movies have been so vicious and have had that palpable sense of dread from the very beginning. I wanted to try and open the scope, make it a little more fun. By bringing Chris Rock in, and giving him those isolated moments where he can be fun, whether it be talking about Forrest Gump or his wife that left him, I think that it allows the audience to laugh. And they’ve never been able to do that in a Saw movie. At least, we didn’t want them to laugh. They might have laughed at us. But now, we’re welcoming the laughter.
How do you strike that balance between having the comedy bits in there without losing the seriousness that’s still needed?
Darrren Lynn Bousman: It was an ongoing struggle in editorial with Dev Singh, the editor. We would look at every scene and track the progression of where we wanted the audience to be. Chris would give us comedic stuff in every single scene – every single one, he would give us something. Then we would have to say, does this scene need it? Or is it taking it away? And we lost some Chris Rock bangers, I’m talking like full on number 10 laughing sh*t, that just didn’t work, that we thought would derail the film if we put it in. So there are moments that I just had to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’m like, “I love that line, but I can’t have him say it there!” So maybe if there’s a 62 disc Director’s Cut that’s put on laser disc, they’ll let me put some of those back in.
What do you bring from your other work like your immersive, augmented reality projects? Do you feel like you’re able to bring anything from those into your films and vice versa?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I think that every time I do something new, I learn about storytelling. To me, one of the most important aspects I’ve taken away from immersive is you need the audience to feel like a character. They need to feel involved in whatever it is you’re doing. So in the case of the Saw universe, the audience is guessing what’s going to happen. Guessing the killer, guessing the twist after the killer, guessing what’s going to happen is that idea of the audience becoming an active role in the telling of the story and are not just sitting there waiting. They’re like, “Oh, it’s gonna be this! Oh, sh*t, I bet this is gonna happen!” So it’s making the audience more active in the actual storytelling. But, you know, I’m a much different filmmaker now at 42 than I was then at 25.
How do you approach that now that we’re 9 films into this? How do you surprise an audience that’s expecting the unexpected?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Chris Rock and Sam Jackson. You throw “motherf*cker” in there and you have the audience go crazy when Sam says that a few times in the movie (Laughs). No, for me personally, who is a fan of the Saw franchise, the minute you see that early scene with Zeke in the hotel room giving a six minute monologue about how Jenny is a villain from Forrest Gump, cutting to a scene where he robs a bunch of drug dealers and goes down into a heist, that to me feels like a such different Saw movie than we’re used to. Also how the movie opens. Normally the movies are small, and we open with this huge firework thing with all of these hundreds and hundreds of extras. This is not the movie you think it is, we are not in that same confined, claustrophobic Saw environment.
My favorite shot of the film is definitely where Chris Rock and Max Minghella are walking through the subway tunnel and it’s a continuous shot.
Darren Lynn Bousman: What’s funny about that, in the movie I shot three oners that lasted over four minutes, and none of them made the cut. They actually continued the conversation and then they jumped down onto the subway tracks and continued to walk and it never cut. So it went from outside to all that stuff in the tunnel. But pacing wise, it just took too long. So we had to cut it about halfway through, but that shot went on for another two minutes.
When you initially jumped into the franchise, your budget kind of steadily got bigger and this must be the biggest budget yet?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I don’t know if it’s the biggest budget. I don’t know what they had on Saw 3D, but you know, you never have enough time or money. I remember when I did Saw II, I think we had around $3 million. Then on Saw IV, it was like $10 million. And I’m sure this is more than Saw IV, but the same struggles exist in this movie that existed in II. So in Saw II, I had 24 days to shoot, in this I had 40 days to shoot. But in Saw II, I needed five more days. In Spiral, if I had ten more days, I could have done this, this, and so forth.
So the struggle is always the same, no matter what the budget is – you always want more. I think Biggie said it best, “Mo Money Mo Problems.” You weren’t expecting a Biggie quote were you? No, you were not. What made this hard is you have more crew, you have more people, and that means it takes longer to set shots up, right? Normally, it would take us 20 minutes for a lighting change. Now it takes an hour and 10 minutes for a lighting change. So while I have 40 days now, it also takes longer to set up shots than it ever did on Saw II. You always want more.
With television rapidly expanding with higher budgets and bigger franchises moving there, do you see a place for Saw in a series outside of film?
Darren Lynn Bousman: I know there’s talk right now of doing a TV series. I don’t know anything about it. It’s funny, I learn about stuff at the exact same time you do. I literally open up the internet and I’ll be like, “Oh sh*t” and I learn something new. I know they’re working on a TV show, and I think the idea is that they will continue the Saw franchise as long as people keep going to see the movies. As long as people show interest and continue to march to the theaters, they’ll keep making them. So I think a lot of it depends and hangs on the success of Spiral. So hopefully, if you liked it and people like it, they’ll talk about it and get others to come see it as well.
This was made before the the historical Black Lives Matter protests of last year, but it definitely still deals with some of the same issues. Spiral isn’t exactly about race, but it’s definitely about issues with policing and abuses of power. What changed in the year that this film got delayed?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Everything changed. Everything and nothing and that’s what is sad. We made this movie a year and a half before the whole world blew up, but it was still going on when we made it as well. It was a little sad but, honestly, it wasn’t a political statement when we made it. The police have always played a role in the Saw franchise from the first one all the way to 8. So it seemed like a natural progression to take the B storyline of Saw 1-8 and make it the A storyline of Spiral.
How do we further Jigsaw’s message? Well, his message was about reformation. He wanted to reform. He wanted to take a drug addict like Amanda and say “you can be something better” and he holds up a mirror to their face by putting a face trap on them and says “you can be better if you appreciate your life”. So what’s the progression of that? It’s reforming an institution, a corrupt institution. In this first one, we decided to go in and make the police the characters we focused on. It’s important to point out that while the villains in this movie are corrupt officers – well, the villain is actually the serial killer but we’re focusing on the police – the hero in the movie is also a detective as well. Zeke is a police officer himself, and he’s trying to do the right thing throughout the entire movie.
Did the year-long delay allow you to go back and tweak the film more? Or was it already finished?
Darren Lynn Bousman: We finished the movie 1-2 weeks before the national lockdown. That was crazy, we literally finished the movie and we didn’t know what was going to happen. We didn’t know that we were going to be pushed a year. So the movie kind of stayed where it was because it was in Toronto, the borders were closed. But no, we never went back in. We finished it in February of 2020 and it’s stayed that way ever since.
I read about how casting Max Minghella came about because your wife loves The Handmaid’s Tale.
Darren Lynn Bousman: My wife gives zero f*cks about any movie that I do. I could be like “I’m working with Robert De Niro” and she wouldn’t care. So I was like, “Laura, guess what? I got Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson.” I don’t even think she woke up, I think she just turned over. But the minute that Max’s name got thrown out, she perked up. She’s like, “You’ve gotta cast Max”. And I’ll tell you what, she only came to set the days that Max was there.
By the way, my wife is a beautiful woman, but she very much doesn’t give an F about anything. But when she showed up on set when Max was there, she’s in like a pristine evening dress, high heels, she had her hair done at a dry bar, and then to even make matters more frustrating to me, her friends would fly in and there would be like a gaggle of girls that would show up. They wouldn’t even talk to me, they would just go straight to Max. So yeah, that was my wife.
Are you ever glad you don’t have to act in these films and scream your ass off for multiple takes?
Darren Lynn Bousman: Dude, I could never do it. In fact, I’ll tell you the one that was the most intense was the guy whose fingers got ripped off. He had to scream so much and so loud with this thing on his face, and his fingers really being pulled. It got to the point that he would literally be like, “I need 10 minutes. I can’t scream anymore. I need 10 minutes.” I think we went back three times to keep shooting more footage for that and he would just lose his voice and we would have to go again. Yeah, I couldn’t do it. I would just die. That’s it. I’m not playing the game, I’m dead.