‘Saw’ Filmmakers on 20 Years of Games, Twisty Timelines and Tobin Bell | Digital Cover

How a Sundance surprise spawned an iconic, one-of-a-kind horror franchise

'Saw X' TheWrap Digital Cover
'Saw X' Digital Cover – Photo: Jeff Vespa/ TheWrap

When you think of Sundance movies, you usually think of quirky, optimistic or melodramatic coming-of-age stories. Films like “Manchester by the Sea,” “CODA” or “The Big Sick.” But the movie that spawned the most successful franchise from its Sundance debut is none of those things. In January 2004, Sundance audiences were knocked on their collective butts by “Saw,” an out-of-nowhere horror flick from two unknown Australian filmmakers.

Director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell’s “Saw” offered a deceptively simple premise of two desperate men chained together in an empty room with little idea of how they got there or how to get out.  

Starring Cary Elwes and Danny Glover, Monica Potter and a pre-“Lost” Michael Emerson, “Saw” inspired a new wave of grindhouse horror, films that reveled in old-school gore and a certain Rube Goldberg mentality to the kills beyond just attractive teenagers being picked off one by one. 

Nine movies later, with over $1 billion at the global box office, “Saw” is still going strong. Thirteen years after the so-called “Final Chapter,” a tenth installment — aptly named “Saw X” — hits theaters this Friday.  

Billy the Puppet goes Hollywood for his Digital Cover shoot with TheWrap, and parodies another iconic franchise from 2004, HBO’s Entourage. (Produced & Directed by Jeff Vespa)

For whom the Bell tolls

“Saw X” producer Mark Burg, who has been with the series since the start, credits its longevity to one element. 

“It’s endured because we cast Tobin Bell in the first ‘Saw,’” Burg told TheWrap of the actor who would personify the diabolical killer, Jigsaw. The character, mostly hidden from view in the first picture, made his mark by placing flawed people into ghoulish traps during which they could save their lives but only through either self-harm or doing harm to others.  

Kevin Greutert edited the first five features of the series before directing the sixth and knocking it out of the park. He would also direct “Saw: The Final Chapter” and, now, “Saw X.” The filmmaker agrees that Bell’s almost accidental casting (he spends most of his very limited screentime in the first film in a hospital bed or, spoilers, lying dead on the floor of a scuzzy bathroom) was the magic that made “Saw” more than just a momentary success.  

Tobin Bell in Saw X
Tobin Bell as John Kramer / Jigsaw in Saw X. Photo Credit: Lionsgate

Bell, a character actor previously known for bit parts as baddies in films like “The Firm” and shows like “24,” spent six days of filming lying on a floor just for a climactic shocker during which he stood up and explained that he was the mysterious villain known as Jigsaw. When “Saw” became a studio-defining hit for Lionsgate, earning $104 million worldwide on a $1 million budget, Jigsaw became a movie star. That meant the then-62-year-old Bell was one too. 

“He created such an iconic character with an elaborate code and a set of rules for what his character would and wouldn’t do,” Greutert explained to TheWrap for our “Saw” digital cover story, presented by Lionsgate. “We’ve put a lot of creative peoples’ imagination into realizing this world, including people like [production designer] Anthony Stabley who built the traps. It’s all tentacles coming out of Tobin Bell.”  

Not unlike the “Star Trek” film series, it was the first sequel that set the template for the overall franchise. “Saw II,” released the following October, a year after “Saw,” featured corrupt cop Donnie Wahlberg sitting across a table from a captured – but still in control – John Kramer (Jigsaw’s real name) while a group of strangers navigated a house of Jigsaw-created horrors.  

Greutert said “Saw II” showed that “Tobin Bell could carry a film. It also highlighted the series’ pinball continuity, the notion of several victims concurrently figuring out how to survive elaborate traps, a quasi-war between Jigsaw and the local police along with a mix of quick-kill booby traps and painful endurance tests.  

“Saw II” earned $152 million worldwide on a $5 million budget, solidifying Jigsaw as the biggest Hollywood boogeyman since Ghostface from the “Scream” movies. A year later, “Saw III” did the unthinkable and killed off both Kramer and fan-favorite apprentice Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith). Impressively, both anti-heroes have remained dead in the franchise continuity.  

“You think it’s over just because I am dead, but the games have just begun.” 

Shawnee Smith as Amanda Young in Saw X. Photo Credit: Alexandro Bolaños Escamilla / Lionsgate

The events of “Saw IV” introduced a new apprentice in the form of Detective Lieutenant Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). It also took place concurrently with the onscreen events of “Saw III,” introducing a new staple of the franchise: unreliable continuity. Sequels would twist backwards in time, taking place between prior installments, and “Saw VI” used flashbacks and past-tense exposition to keep Tobin Bell front-and-center in a deeply personal A-plot.

The “Saw” franchise was the unchallenged king of Halloween until another outta nowhere indie breakout, the home movie ghost story “Paranormal Activity,” became a blockbuster in October of 2009. One year later, a 3-D boost and the return of Cary Elwes set the stage for a “Saw” series finale. 

On why the seventh film, also titled “Saw 3-D,” didn’t quite click with fans, Koules offered a brief explanation: “We tried to do a movie where we do a million close and fast in-your-face shots in 3-D. That is the opposite of what you want in that format. We tried to fit a square peg in a round hole.” 

spiral from the book of saw chris rock john kramer never targeted cops
Chris Rock as Det. Zeke Banks in Spiral: From the Book of Saw. Photo Credit: Lionsgate

A new kind of sequel

Since “Saw: The Final Chapter” failed to live up to its title, Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures have since thrice resurrected the franchise. The Spierig Brothers directed “Jigsaw” in 2017, a relatively straightforward installment that took place before and after the previous films. Chris Rock’s self-professed fandom of the series got him put in charge of 2021’s “Spiral: From the Book of Saw,” which starred Rock and Samuel L. Jackson. Darren Lynn Bousman would return to the director’s chair after helming the first three sequels.  

Neither were breakout hits, but both have their fans. Besides, when your franchise averages a budget of around $10 million each you can afford to keep rolling the dice. Which brings us to “Saw X.”

The tenth installment is pitched as a “Saw” for general audiences and a love letter to those who never stopped playing Jigsaw’s games. It’s a sequel to “Saw” and a prequel to “Saw II.” The dying John Kramer shells out for an experimental cancer treatment only to realize that he’s been conned. Spoiler: Johnny K takes issue with being scammed and much blood is shed in an extended act of righteous retribution. 

Director of Photography Nick Matthews and Isan Beomhyun Lee as Janitor in Saw X.
Photo Credit: Alexandro Bolaños Escamilla / Lionsgate

The film makes a point to recreate the look and feel of the first few “Saw” films. It eschews the digital aesthetic of “Saw 3-D” and the “not your average ‘Saw’ movie” palette of the previous entries. It’s an old-school “Saw,” with Bell taking center stage for the first time since “Saw IV” in 2007.

Koules and Burg both agreed that the goals with “Saw X” were two-fold. First, it is a self-contained “Saw” film that will make sense to those who never got into the series or left after the first sequel or two. It takes place in Mexico, the first time an installment has had a specific location and occurs over a specific period, sans flashbacks or retcons. Second, it’s positioned as an acting showcase for its top-billed star. In the first act, Bell gets to be a friendly older engineer desperate to survive his grim cancer diagnosis and spends the first act or so not as Jigsaw but as regular old John Kramer.    

Game (not remotely) over

Greutert argued that the new film deals with the Trump-era notion that “it’s become more OK in the minds of a lot of people that they can publicly lie. They know that even if the majority won’t believe them, core members of the citizenry will. That’s corrosive to society.”  

Moreover, if this film is a success, there now exists an in-continuity way to make “Saw” films starring Kramer. As Burg explained, actors who have died in the “Saw” movies can still pop up in future installments.  

Burg declared that “as long as Tobin [Bell] wants to continue, as long as the audience goes to see them, we’ll be happy to make them.” 

Koules echoed that sentiment, stating “We’re going to keep doing them until people stop showing up.” 

Greutert and Stabley promised not to partake in “a science fiction gimmick with cloning or a supernatural gimmick with ghosts,” and they both firmly promised that “Jigsaw will never go into space.” 

To be fair, the director acknowledged that promises are made to be broken.  

“George Lucas once said, ‘I promise you all I’ll do a lot of things for money. But I won’t sell sugary cereals to kids.’ I have some Yoda cereal in my kitchen that proves the lie,” he said.

If it’s Halloween, it must be “Saw”

Those first seven films were released in late October, seven years in a row, from 2004 to 2010. They represent a still-unprecedented achievement in lightning-fast production and hitting that seasonal release date. And the overall esteem of the series has only risen within the horror community.  

“There’s such a huge fan base,” declared Stabley. “Audiences say to themselves ‘Could I survive this trap? What would I do?’ There’s also, with all horror films, this feeling of catharsis. You step out of the theater and you’re like, ‘My life is not too bad.” 

Or, as a prophet once spoke nearly 20 years ago, “Most people are so ungrateful to be alive. But not you, not anymore.” 

SAW X (2023) – We Come to this Place…
TheWrap Digital Cover: Saw X: 20 Years of Murder and Mayhem
‘Saw X’ Digital Cover – Photo: Jeff Vespa/ TheWrap

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