Quantcast ICONS OF FRIGHT presents TIM SULLIVAN'S SHOCK N' ROLL ISSUE 8: JAMES WAN - SAW 2004: THE LOST INTERVIEW

With SAW 5 hitting the video shelves this week, it hit me that five years ago I had done an interview with James Wan that was meant to be the first edition of SHOCK N ROLL. Horrifically, I misplaced the tape, and the interview never saw (ahem) the light of day. But just as Jigsaw always finds a way to resurrect himself, so too did this tape, mismarked in a draw as the soundtrack to DETROIT ROCK CITY. Imagine my surprise when, expecting some rock and roll KISS action, I instead was greeted to the ever exuberant Australian accent of none other than James Wan! The lost Interview!

It really got to me hearing James and I speak for the first time. Since then, we’ve become good pals who have each made several films and watched SAW become a major franchise and sub genre (dubbed, rightly or wrongly, as torture porn) that has spawned four widely successful sequels with no end in sight. It’s extremely hard to think of the horror community pre-SAW or pre- WAN, but when James and I spoke back in 2004, that was exactly the setting! So strap on the time machine- watch out for spikes, razors, needles and other contraptions, and read on. Oh, yes, there will be blood.

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TIM SULLIVAN: Hey, James, this is Tim Sullivan, you sick motherfucker I just saw your movie for the first time last night. I don’t know if I want to talk to you now.

JAMES WAN (laughs) Well, thank you, man that’s a big compliment.

I gotta tell you man, my hat is off to you. I sat in that screening room last night and I stayed all the way to the end, I just wanted to make sure after all the credits were over that it was really over. I love your film James…
Aww, thanks, dude!

I am so, I get so excited when I see a film like SAW it just validates what I want to do with my life (BOTH LAUGH) and it gives me hope that there are people out there who are actually contributing something new and not just, you know, re-hashing the old…

Rehashing the old, yeah. Aww, thanks a lot, thanks a lot Tim. So ah, you were at the New York premiere last night?
No, actually I was at a Lion’s Gate screening on Sunset Boulevard, it was really cool, there’s a little screening right on Sunset Boulevard right across from Tower Records.

Alright, okay…

And it was very small, it was a very small screening room, and I’ve been to screenings there before but it was packed to the hilt and I just really have to let you know a lot of executives were there checking you out, I think you’ll be getting some calls for some jobs and it was….

(LAUGHS) Oh dear, executives they’re scary…

Scarier than the movie. But people were gasping and people where cringing and people were clutching each other and you never see this kind of stuff. Industry screenings are usually so snobby.

Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean. Oh wow, that’s good to know.


I gotta tell you, I’m such a huge Argento fan, and your film just breathes his essence.

Back in the old days when he used to make films like that.

I know and yeah, a sense of danger in every frame. You never know at any given moment what is going on and I guess the thing to start off with, lot of thrillers all the way back to Hitchcock, the idea is that for the cop to catch the killer, the cop has to get into the head of the killer and almost become the killer. Does the filmmaker have to do that as well? Because as much as Jigsaw fucks with his victims I think you fucked with us.
Well, you know like, I think Bret Easton Ellis put it best when he said, you know, when he gets questions like, “How can you write such a sick story like American Psycho?” and he says, “Actually, only someone really boring could write a story like American Psycho.” And that’s how Leigh Whannell and I see ourselves. We’re just like two really boring guys who just so happened to with a pretty crazy story I guess. You know, it was something that was actually pretty close to Leigh’s heart because a while back he wasn’t feeling very well and he was going to see the doctors a fair bit, and when the doctor told him it wasn’t anything bad he felt so relieved and I think um, a lot of that went into the creation of the Jigsaw character, you know, that’s how he came up with the whole theme about appreciating your life while you still have it, you know what I mean?
Yes.

So that really did find its way into the screenplay and that became the heartbeat of the script, so to speak. And we just really embraced it because I knew from the very start that if I was going to make such a dark, such a hardcore psychological thriller I really wanted it to have something to say, I didn’t want it to just work on a surface level or a visceral level do you know what I mean? I wanted it to have something else underneath it.
Which I daresay as much as we love Argento a lot of his films just work on that visceral level.

Yeah, yeah, exactly I guess ah, I guess that’s why Leigh and I tried to be a bit different. You know we tried to take all the elements we love from Argento but I guess give it a bit more of a heart. You know, give it something to say and have a storyline for a start.
(laughing) Right, right, right. Well, it’s kind of cool because in a way it goes back to Hitchcock and then Argento played on Hitchcock by adding more of the gore and then you played on both of them by adding the heart so it’s just like the new progression of the thriller…

Yeah. Thank you. I’m glad you saw that.
You also leave wondering, is it a horror film, is it a thriller? Traditionally you think of horror films as a bit more supernatural. How do you view it, James?

The way I see it is Leigh and I wrote a thriller story, except I shot it like it was a horror film. Does that make sense?

Absolutely.

So on paper it was a thriller but when I set out to make it I made it as a horror movie. So it’s a weird hybrid of thriller and horror. Kind of like all the giallo films Argento used to make that were essentially murder mysteries.

Yes, yes. A modern giallo, that’s a great way of putting it. I, it, I mean you don’t get much more scary than that dummy or the pig mask. I mean that’s the kind of stuff that haunts you. Where did you guys come up with those kind of things?
Well, the pig mask, I don’t know, I find pigs really grotesque, I guess. Initially, that’s the thing with SAW. It’s a very low budget film. I had a much bigger, grander vision but my budget just would not allow me to go that way so I had to tone a lot of things down. Like the pig mask ended up just being a, you know, like I guess, literally a mask and my original vision was to put a real pig’s head. And in terms of the ventriloquist’s puppet, I’ve always had a fixation with creepy puppet dolls ever since I saw POLTERGEIST at the age of seven. That film has scarred me for life, to the point where now I’ve got this really weird fetish with, um, creepy dolls in that, ah, I find them really repulsive but I find myself really attracted to them at the same time.


So I guess you must really dig the puppet sex scene in TEAM AMERICA!

Strictly non-sexual of course. (laughs)

I kind of have the same fixations. What is it about the grotesque that we feel both attracted and repulsed. As frightening and disturbing as SAW is, at the very end, and I won’t give it away, but at the very end I got an adrenaline rush like a shot of heroin. I’ve never done heroin but I was so excited, I was so exhilarated I was like fuck yeah! Because you totally fooled me, you know?

Oh good, so you didn’t see the ending coming?

I thought I second guessed you, you know? And I thought it was one of those movies where, like POLTERGEIST, after they, you know, they bring Caroline back you think the movie is over and you’re fully satisfied. Well with your film I thought the twist with Danny Glover was so genius I was like totally satisfied. I felt great, this is fantastic. And then you took it to that whole other level and I was just like holy shit. You know, and so what do you think it is, that duality, that fascination and repulsion with the grotesque in horror films?

I think it’s human nature. You know, I mean the best kind of correlation I can make is when you go to the zoo and you go into the reptile section. People are so afraid of snakes, spiders and shit like that but yet we’re so drawn to it at the same time, you know what I mean? You know those creatures cannot hurt you because they’re on the other side of the glass tank and it’s safely locked away so you can actually study it and look at it and go ooh, that thing’s disgusting and yet know that you are safe from any danger and I think horror films are really like that. It takes you on this really wild, visceral roller coaster ride but at the end of the day you go hey, it’s a movie, I’m safe you know? I can watch a movie about some guy being stalked by a crazy killer and sure, it’s scary but once the lights come on or once I step out of the movie theater it’s all cool again. So I really think you get to enjoy the visceral ride of something really thrilling or scary but at the end of the day you get to do it in a very safe context.


That is very true. Unlike the reptile cage at the zoo though this film does come home with you. It stays in your head…

Yeah, that was the whole point. If you get that impact from the film then I feel like I’ve succeeded.

In the production notes, you said your job was to have everybody leave shattered. Where does that come from, your desire to shock people? As a filmmaker, what made you choose to shock people?

Okay, well look, I mean the thing is SAW really did come about from a very indie start. Leigh and I wrote this film wanting to make it in our backyards with our friends but as it turned out, we were very lucky and we ended up making it with a bigger cast in LA and we were very fortunate to get the types of actors that we did and crew that we did but at the very heart of it, it was still an indie film, okay, that was the origin. And we knew that initially when we were going to make it that way you really need to stand out, you know, you really need to stand out because so many indie films are made and when you don’t have Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt in your film, you know you need to shout so people can hear what you have to say so I think that’s why we put in all these really extreme elements so that when people watch it they’ll start talking and say, “Hey, have you seen that film where in the ending so & so happened or have you seen that film with the puppet in it or the pig guy or all this weird shit?
I think that’s so true, I think in a way the greatest horror films have all been independent films because I think the challenge in the budget breeds a creativity that a bigger budget might numb.

Yeah, and studio films, studio horror films I find are just too safe. I don’t like them because they’re just too safe. I like my horror non-safe.


I know, well, just you know, not that I would ever knock fellow filmmakers but you know, The Grudge just made fifty million, forty million dollars this weekend and quite honestly it’s amazing but it’s you know, seeing The Grudge on the weekend and then seeing Saw yesterday, it’s the difference between safe and dangerous, you know, I mean you really walk the edge on SAW and like you are shouting to be heard, shouting to be noticed and the film does get its notice.

Well I hope The Grudge isn’t taking away too much of my audience when we open this Friday.

I don’t know, who knows but I think SAW is the type of film that, like Seven, will be discovered and rediscovered and dissected and it’s, it’s also what I would consider the thinking man’s horror film. What really got to me too is the scene where the girl really felt that he, Jigsaw, helped her. That’s very disturbing.

Yeah, yes. He means to be a good guy but he ended up saving essentially a heroin addict from continuing with her lifestyle. So like, how is he a bad guy then? He’s actually doing community service in that respect, in a strange way yeah. His heart’s in the right place, we just don’t agree with his message.


Exactly. Well, in a way he’s almost like Batman gone wrong you know?

Batman gone wrong, right! I like that.

Because what’s, you know, and in a weird way the world that we live in today, it almost is the natural response. Just like how you made Saw you want to shout to be heard, how else could a message like Jigsaw’s be heard unless he uses those kinds of methods?

That’s right, actually that’s a pretty good analogy right there.

Tell me about the DVD trailer you did. I heard about it but no one ever says what the scene was that you actually filmed with Leigh.

Oh, okay. Well when, after we finished the script we tried to shop it around Australia for a while, we couldn’t find any money and then our manager said he’d pass it on to an agent he knew in LA and then the agent read it and loved it, wanted to meet up with us so Leigh and I thought okay, if we’re going to fly all the way to LA for a handshake you know, we wanted something to showcase that we’re not just writers, we’re filmmakers as well so we picked the scene, the jaw trap scene. In the feature it’s with Shawnee, right, but in this one it was with Leigh playing the part, so, showcasing myself as a potential director and showcasing Leigh as a potential actor as well. And yeah, that is what we did.
So it was that scene with Leigh as that character?

Oh yeah, we picked the most extreme scene because, you know, once again, like Leigh and I thought we could be competing in Hollywood with all these other directors who had shot 20 Nike commercials and like 20 Britney Spears music videos. We felt like we needed to stand out so we picked the most extreme scene.
What would have happened if they would have said we love the script, we want to buy this but sorry Leigh, you’re not playing Adam and sorry James you’re not directing but here’s a check for the script, what would you have done?

Look, we were definitely made offers to buy the script from us but we hung onto it. Basically, we were too naïve and ignorant to know any better so we were very lucky that the right people came along.


Tell me about your out relationship with Leigh. Are you going to continue to write together? It’s a very unique relationship in terms of writer, co-writer, he wrote the script and you wrote the story together, right?

Yeah, I come up with ideas with Leigh and then I’ll let him go off to write the screenplay, you know…and what I do as a director is I come in during the writing process and I give him ideas from a directorial standpoint, whether it’s visually, whether it’s an angle to take it from and then I’ll leave him up to it because I really trust him as a writer so I’ll just leave him up to it. Leigh and I are good friends and we would love to continue working with one another in the future, definitely. We love horror films but we don’t want to solely be making horror films but the next one we’re writing right now is a supernatural ghost story so yeah, we’ll see.

 


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