Movie Interview: James Wan shoots Saw on pure guts

By Peter Hemminger

On the phone from his Seattle hotel room, director James Wan sounds abnormally chipper. It’s baffling, not only is it 9:30 in the morning where he is, but he’s already done a number of interviews. Even more so, after seeing the gruesome crimes presented in Saw, Wan’s directorial debut, the sunny Australian voice coming through the line is laughably incongruent.

His cheery demeanor is fitting given the success Wan has found. In just a couple of years, he’s gone from a complete unknown looking to make a movie with some friends to finding himself with major studio backing and a growing cult following, even before the movie hits theatres. Most directors deny letting the press affect their outlook, so maybe it’s a sign of his freshness that Wan does keep an eye out.

“I was very interested to hear what people had to say,” Wan admits. “I guess because it was such a cheap film, and so quickly shot, I wasn’t very happy with what I got on camera, or primarily, what I did not get. That was a big percentage of what I had in my mind, so I got kind of down. But after Sundance played, people really took to it, so I lightened up a bit. Saw is definitely one of those extreme films where people either love it or hate it, and people seemed to be taking to it. I was really pleasantly surprised to find that the mainstream public is really digging it as well.”

When Wan says Saw was shot quickly he’s not kidding. The entire movie was shot in 18 days, the blink of an eye as far as most studio epics are concerned. Condensing a shooting schedule into three weeks is challenging enough, but it wasn’t the only obstacle Wan faced. Even one of the initial advantages of the movie­–its limited setting–ended up causing problems.

“People say it must’ve been an easy film to shoot, because it’s all one location,” the director explains. “Actually, I found shooting stuff in the bathroom really hard. All the stuff outside of the bathroom was much easier to shoot, for the very reason that it just gets really repetitive. For the director, how do you keep everything in such a small location and keep it interesting?”

Oddly enough, a low-budget Canadian genre flick provided the solution to that problem. Wan and friend/screenwriter Leigh Whannell both have a fondness for Canadian horror, from Ginger Snaps to Black Christmas. While Wan’s directing style is more influenced by surrealists like David Lynch and Dario Argento, Whannell’s writing was inspired by the Canadian sci-fi thriller Cube, which was shot using only one small, cubic set and a variety of lighting to make a big movie on a small budget.

“I know Leigh was influenced by Cube,” Wan says of the screenwriter, also one of Saw’s lead actors. “A lot of people say Saw was influenced by Se7en, and I know when people said that to him, he would always say no. The biggest influence on the writing, at least, was Cube. More than half the film in Saw takes place in one location. And because we initially set out to make a film we could do ourselves, make a guerrilla film, with our own money and friends, we wanted to come up with an idea that was really cheap. And I think Cube was a big influence on that.”

From guerrilla film origins to a major studio release, Saw is clearly an auspicious debut. Whatever the flaws it has overcome its small budget and limited shooting schedule to launch Wan into the mainstream. Maybe the cheer in his voice isn’t so out of place after all.

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