Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you have to admit one thing about the SAW franchise: it has managed to avoid the pit that sucks so many horror sequels down into box office oblivion. The first SAW was a sleeper hit, considered a success because its tiny $1-million investment netted nearly $50-million at U.S. theatres; both SAW II and SAW III expanded on that number, each earning over $80-million.
This trajectory is of considerable consequence with SAW IV in the can. Graphic horror is having a rather weak year at the box office, and recent results (the disappointment of GRINDHOUSE, the bomb that was HOSTEL PART II) suggest that splatter appeal no longer draws viewers, who may be turning toward more traditional, spooky horror (witness the relative success of 1408). Despite these ill omens, SAW IV director Darren Lyn Bousman (who has been with the franchise since Part II) thinks he has nothing to worry about.
“First off, if you look at a lot of movies that went from I to II, whether it be TEXAS CHAINSAW, THE GRUDGE, whatever it is – most times, the sequels drop off,” says Bousman. “SAW II we raised. So I think we were able to show, right away, there’s something different here with the SAW films. Then with SAW III we did it again. So if I was coming back, and HOSTEL II had done what it had done, and all these films like 28 WEEKS LATER, I think I would be a lot more nervous doing SAW II if it was coming out right now. But I think we’ve proven ourselves. Does that mean that SAW V and VI aren’t going to feel it? No. But I think that SAW IV, right now, we’ve not duped the audience. It’s when we dupe the audience, as the other films have, that we have to worry. But someway we’ve [found] the loophole to sequels dropping off. So I’m not concerned about it right now.”
To what does Bousman attribute the SAW sequels box office longevity?
“I think that a couple of things make SAW continue to work. First off, we proved ourselves right away on II. II came back and it helped us with III. But there’s a lot of things people can relate to in the SAW films, and I hate to call them gimmicks, but there’s a lot of things people come to expect: the twists, the traps, the puppet, the Jigsaw soliloquy. There are al l these things that – love or hate it – you know you’re going to get when you go into a SAW film. I think that’s built in a huge fan base. Also, love or hate it, there are themes in the SAW films that a lot of horror films don’t have. There are messages. In SAW III it was about vengeance versus forgiveness. It’s not just gore for the sake of gore; there are message in there, and I think that’s really helped us. Also, I think people were really looking down on us when we released SAW II a year after SAW I. ‘How can they do it? There’s no way this is humanly possible. They’re just churning it out.’ And it worked. The same thing with III: we did it a year to the date, and it worked.
So I don’t think we duped the audience yet; we haven’t jumped the shark yet. A lot of horror films jump the shark on the second or third one. I think we’ve been able to maintain credibility.”
After directing the two previous sequels Bousman was reluctant to climb on board for yet another installment.
“Did I think I was going to come back on III or IV? No, I thought III would have been the end for me, and definitely III was the end of that story. But there was always envisioned to be separate stories going on in SAW. [With] this, I just happened to take part in the beginning of the next story.”
So what pulled Bousman back into the world of the Jigsaw killer?
“What it boiled down to is two things. Unlike starting from scratching and having no idea where to go, I had been with this for two years. I knew the people involved: the crew, the cast…the production designer, the costume designer. So it wasn’t starting at square one; it was picking up where we left off. That’s exactly where we came into it. From the day that I left Toronto to when I came back was months – we’re talking a couple of months. The production offices were the same; the hotel was the same; the sound stage – everything was the same. So we came to our first meeting; it was like, ‘Where did we leave off on SAW III? Let’s begin.’ We never set where SAW IV is being filmed; it’s anywhere. But one thing we try to do is create a community. The die-hard fans will pick it out: they will see that we are in the same locations; we use the same actors.
“You look at a lot of sequels – they try to take a different route; they try to put new characters in,” Bousman continues. “Everyone [in the SAW sequels] is the same. A fun fact that not a lot of people know is that we use the same extras from year to year; we have the same SWAT Team. If you look at the nurses in the hospital scenes, everyone is the same. So it completely is a family. My favorite is there’s a police detective in SAW III that has half a line; he’s back in SAW IV saying half a line. That’s exciting for us, to bring back the exact same people. That’s why it’s not like coming back for IV; it’s like continuing III. This continuity brings credibility to the project; we’re not changing over from year to year. So definitely there’s continuity to it. If you look at the successful franchises – like LEATHAL WEAPON – those films continue to succeed because they had the same people. Whether you liked them or hated them, they did do well. The movies that fail are the ones that have completely new people come in every time and try to reinvent it.”
The second deciding factor was the new script by FEAST scribes Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton.
“Patrick and Marcus are great,” Bousman enthuses. “In between SAW II and III, I was working out of this building, and Patrick and Marcus were working a floor beneath me on one of their movies called MIDNIGHT MAN or something. I was going to my car one night and these two guys – FEAST had not come out yet – go, ‘Oh, you’re Darren! We’re huge fans of SAW.’ They gave me their phone numbers; now two years later, they’re the writers. It’s strange fate. They did a great job. The thing that’s hard about coming into a SAW film is that there are rules. Not a lot of people realize this, but we try to stay true to them. Jigsaw doesn’t lie, Number One. The traps have to be anything that can be found at Home Depot or found in the environment. We gave the writers the rules sheet; the rules sheet was a thick book. We’re like, ‘Here, just don’t fuck it up!’ They did a good job; they really did.
Dunstan and Melton wrote their first draft before Bousman came on board; in fact, reading their script is what changed Bousman’s mind about returning.
“I was adamantly against coming back,” he insists. “The first card to get me to come back was, ‘Just look at the script.’ When I first read it, I was on page 85 and I didn’t feel any way about it; I wasn’t pissed or excited, really. Until I got to page 87. When I hit page 87, it was ‘Goddamit, they got me!’ I fuckin’ have done this for the last three years, and they got me!’ That’s when I knew I had to come back. Everything before then took a whole different light to it. I’m not saying there’s a huge twist, but there’s something in the end of the movie that made it all [worthwhile]. I think the SAW films are like magic tricks. You go in there and you’re looking for the way they’re going to do it. You’re doing this, this, this, and you do the trick, and they’re like ‘Shit, we missed it,’ and they go back to see if you can see it.”
Bousman does express some concern that the quest to provide unguessable twists could lead to a formulaic rigidity that becomes predictable – like, for instance, in the films of M. Night Shyamalan.
“This is my LADY IN THE WATER!” Bousman jokes, then adds, “It’s always hard for me to call it. Is it a twist, or is it just all wrapped up in a cool little box? We did some fucked up shit this year that is exciting to me. The other thing that’s exciting is that we’ve been able to keep the SAW secret this long on IV; nobody has any idea what the plot is. There’s constant reveals that are going to be happening in the movie, because everyone thinks it’s about X when it’s really about Y and Z over here. That’s very cool.”
There have been rumors about how SAW IV would continue the story, but Bousman claims none of them are true.
“No one knows anything about IV. All of these rumors going around – no one has any clue what IV is,” he states. “We’ve taken a much different approach this year than we have in the last two films. It’s much more complicated. You have to read it again and again. I’ve been watching the edit. It’s extremely easy once your visualizing it, but it’s the most complex. There’s four separate storylines going on. That’s exciting to me. It’s not just simplistic of ‘Oh, I’m torturing people; Oh, I’m dying; Oh, I’m dead!’ There’s a lot of shit going on this year.”
Eager to keep the secrets, Bousman avoids specifics. He will only say that SAW IV is “a combination of all the films. I would say it’s more I and II. I’ve killed off everybody. I had to bring in new characters. In III, there was a vested interest in those people: you knew Shawnee; you knew Tobin. Now we’re kind of bringing back some new characters this year, so you’re not going to have the emotional impact like when Shawnee and Tobin are going through this, but there definitely is much more character stuff than there ever was in II.”
Bousman reveals that the storyline will follow two new characters, named Perez and Strom. “With Jigsaw, we’ve always had cops. Again, this year they’re cops, but I didn’t want to play them as cops. We’ve seen that story, so we try to take a different spin. The cops are secondary to who they are. We try to focus on these quirky characters. We have Scott Patterson in it, from GILMOUR GIRLS. We’ve never really had people ad lib on the SAW films, because it wasn’t that kind of platform. Scott Patterson, the first day he showed up, said, ‘I’m going to do something a little different here.’ I’m like ‘All right.’ We yell action, and all of a sudden he started improvising, and it was gold. He’s insane, and it really works well for his character – which is something we haven’t seen before. There’s a whole new life to this one, which is exciting.”
You can’t talk about the SAW movies without addressing the question of intense violence, explicit or implied, which can lead to run-in with the MPAA ratings board.
“It’s touch-and-go with the MPAA,” says Bousman. “You never know what they’re going to be offended by. A lot of what they were offended by in III, I never would have thought. It’s watching people cry – that’s what they get pissed off at. My thought going into III was ‘I’m going to shoot a ton of violence I know will never make the movie.’ There was a scene where Dinah is ripped apart; the intestines fall out; the stomach breaks apart. They didn’t care! But that girl crying in the freezer – you gotta get rid of her!’ It wasn’t the nudity; it was that she was crying and balling. This is what pisses me off. They don’t get pissed off if comedies are too funny or dramas are too serious. But if you get someone too horrified, red flags are raised all over the place.”
Bousman thinks the MPAA’s relatively lax attitude toward explicit gore is the result of increasingly graphic images broadcast on television crime shows. For example, he points out that the autopsy scene in SAW III was passed without making any cuts:
“The MPAA said, ‘Whatever, sure.’ Because they show autopsies on CSI all the time. I was watching the other day, and they did an autopsy that was more graphic than anything we showed in the brain surgery: they showed body parts being removed; they showed blood hitting the floor. That’s what I said to the MPAA: there’s nothing more graphic than you see on CSI.’ They have more problem with emotional torture; they have a problem with people crying and screaming than with someone on a bed getting their brain operated on. If you watch TV, any of these shows – CSI, LAW AND ORDER – you see some fucked up stuff. There was a LAW AND ORDER SVU – the one about sex crimes – they had a three-minute non-cut sequence where someone was getting raped. They didn’t show the actual penetration; they showed her face. That’s as bad in some way. We really are competing with TV now, which is crazy.”
Bousman says the budget for SAW IV is exactly the same as its predecessor. He claims the production is able to circumvent inflation thanks to the efficiency of an established crew.
“It comes back to the fact that everyone knows everyone. There’s a short hand involved. There’s not a lot of wasted time or energy explaining things. There’s no wasted money. We have an amazing crew and I will continue to work with them; in fact, they’re the same crew that’s coming to work with me on REPO.”
REPO is a musical that was pre-recording its song track while Bousman was directing SAW IV. Having been with the franchise since SAW II, Bousman is ready to move on to something completely different, but it sounds as if his fans will find plenty of familiar elements to please them.
“It’s a horror rock opera,” he explains. “It’s more violent than SAW in every aspect. It’s the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW on acid. There’s nudity; there’s violence; there’s tons of hot girls; there’s breaking out in song while ripping spinal cords out. It’s great! It was based on a stage show that’s been performed for the last six years. If you took all the violence in SAW and mixed it with ROCKY HORROR and BLADE RUNNER, that’s kind of what it is. I’m starting at the end of August in Canada. We have to turn SAW IV in by that point, to get all the prints made. That’s another reason why it fit to come back: I had this gap of time when I wasn’t doing anything. With REPO, we had to record the songs, and there’s 77 songs. If you look at RENT, there were 19. It’s singing from beginning to end. Look at JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR or TOMMY – it’s along those lines. If you look at TOMMY, it’s completely songs. When I saw 77 songs, it’s not three-minute songs. One song might be twenty seconds; one song might be five minutes. So all of this is being recorded right now; while it was being recorded, I went and did SAW. The time fit perfectly. When I turned in my director’s cut of SAW, then it’s pretty much out of my hands. They have to start making prints. That’s when I start doing REPO. “
Does the director feel burned out on the genre? “I kind of am,” he admits. “Not tired of horror. But I don’t know how much different I can get than doing a rock opera. Without doing a romantic comedy, this is as extreme a difference as I can get. This is my way to sidestep out of the horror genre. Yes, it’s still violence as fuck, but people are breaking out into song; I don’t know if people can compare it to SAW anymore.”
Still, Bousman will probably be involved, though probably not as director, in the inevitable SAW V (assuming IV doesn’t suffer the fate of HOSTEL PART II, of course).
“It’s funny. James [Wan] and Leigh [Whannell] were extremely involved in IV, although they say they’re not involved. I mean, Leigh would call all the time on set; so would James. I will definitely be involved somehow. I can bet the house and farm that I will not be directing V. I said that last year; this year, I promise I will not do V – double or nothing!”