Spiral: Delving into the Saw franchise with director Darren Lynn Bousman

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A criminal mastermind unleashes a twisted form of justice in Spiral, the new chapter from the book of Saw. Working in the shadow of his father, an esteemed police veteran (Samuel L. Jackson), brash Detective Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Banks (Chris Rock) and his rookie partner (Max Minghella) take charge of a grisly investigation into murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past. Unwittingly entrapped in a deepening mystery, Zeke finds himself at the center of the killer’s morbid game…

Spiral director Darren Lynn Bousman (pictured above) has been part of the saw franchise for over 15 years – directing Saw II, III and IV before returning this year for Spiral. We spoke to the director about his Saw journey so far and how the latest installment will shake the franchise…

You’ve been part of the Saw franchise since 2005. How did it all start for you?

 I had actually written a script years and years and years ago in, well I guess 2003. I wrote about my desperation in Hollywood, it was called ‘The Desperate’, and it was a very vicious, mean- spirited script. It was like my own therapy, I was pissed off at everyone in the world. I wrote this script, and that script got in the hands of Twisted Pictures, who read it and was gonna make it as its own movie.

They were [also] going to try to make another Saw movie. Saw had just been shot. They gave James Wan like, a million or $2 million, and they were going to do the same thing for The Desperate. They were going to give me like a million and a half dollars to go make it. Then Saw goes to Sundance and does extremely well. Lionsgate called Twisted Pictures up and says: ‘We need another Saw movie, we’re gonna make a sequel to this.’ They took The Desperate and turned it into the next Saw film, and I was able to direct it, which I mean…  the balls on them to allow me, a first time filmmaker, to write a huge sequel! It was crazy but they allowed me to do it! Now a decade plus later, here I am talking about the ninth instalment of Saw!

What’s it been like coming back to the franchise?

It’s like a very uncomfortable pair of shoes [haha]. No, it was scary. I mean it was honestly scary because when I did my first Saw film, there was really no risk. Saw wasn’t a franchise, it was just a sequel to a popular Sundance movie. Now I’m coming back, and Saw is one of the most popular horror franchises out there! 

To me I equate it to gambling. So I go to Las Vegas and I put $100 down, which is all the money I have in my life on Saw II, and I get a blackjack, and I get $5,000. Then I should have walked away, but I said fuck it, do Saw II, let’s double down again, and I hit another blackjack. Now I’m sitting there with $100,000 I could lose all of it, but I double down again on Saw IV and it gets another blackjack!

So, this is me coming back to Vegas again, and it’s scary because if I’d have walked away, I would have walked away with three number one Saw movies, now I’m coming back to do it again. So there was a lot of pressure for me.

Some of the fans have grown jaded, some of the fans expected something because I’m coming back, I’m working with A-list actors, which I’ve never done before. So there was such a lot of pressure this time around that had not been there in previous incarnations of Saw, but that also kept me on my toes and I think that that is part of my driving force, the kind of nervousness. So me being nervous every day on set I think is what makes it fun and good.

The first Saw film came out in 2004 and now audiences are excited about a new chapter. What is it about these films that have us still wanting to see more of them 20 years later?

I think it’s a couple of things. First off: Tobin Bell [who plays John Kramer]. In the original Saw he is such a dynamic character and presence in the movie, and he was able to articulate a reason behind his madness that struck a chord with the audience.

My own personal reason is that when I was hired to direct Saw II, both of my parents, within months of one another, got cancer. Now they’re both completely okay now but in that time of doing Saw II, both of them had cancer. And I got angry, I got mad at people. I would see smokers on the street, or I would see morbidly obese people walking around and I’d be like: ‘Thank you for taking advantage of what my parents are fighting for their lives to survive’. His message of ‘appreciate your life, appreciate the things that you have’ really struck a chord with me. So I think that in subsequent films, the audience was able to relate tangentially to Jigsaw’s message. They might have disagreed with his methods, his violence, but he’s spoken a truth that we could agree with.

They were more than about the violence, they were more than about the kills. Saw became a magic trick that people knew they were going to get fucked with, we were going to pull the rug out from under them, but how that twist would occur and could they figure it out, there was that!

The last is the traps. I think that the traps were these Rube Goldberg devices that really struck the imagination of an audience in the same way as the Final Destination movies… you would wait to see how the person would die in an ingenious way. I think the traps were very neat so those three elements made for this perfect macabre horror stew that people loved. I think Spiral, hopefully, will recapture the nostalgia of going to see Saw, but put it in a new direction.

Bousman hopes Spiral will recapture the nostalgia of going to see Saw, but put it in a new direction…

For me as a filmmaker and a fan of the Saw franchise, we had to make some hard decisions and one of the first decisions was that this is not Saw IX. It’s the ninth instalment of the Saw franchise, but it’s not Saw IX. It’s Spiral: Book Of Saw, but I think what’s important is you can’t bring Jigsaw back. And why can’t you bring Jigsaw back? Because no one can compare to Jigsaw. There’s only one Tobin Bell, no one will touch him, no one will be Tobin Bell, so we had to cut that off right away. We literally, and figuratively, had to Saw him off to allow a new storyline to continue. The hope is that this film is successful, and Saw can continue – both as the Saw franchise, the true sequel to the Jigsaw legacy and the Spiral legacy. 

The idea is that we’ve split now into two different franchises. I was allowed to experiment more and do more this time because I was not trying to adhere to the previous eight films and the complicated mythology. This is a fresh start for a new audience. However, if you’re a fan of the Saw franchise, it also fits in the timeline. Jigsaw was real in this story, we’re not not-addressing him. He’s 100%, he was alive and he killed those people. Now here’s another story in that franchise.

Was there anything in particular you wanted to do differently for Spiral?

Tone was a big thing for me. The earlier films, they were mean, they were harsh, they were violent, they were gory. I wanted to take a more commercial approach with this. First off I’m dealing with two superstars. I had huge actors that were going to bring in a whole audience a Saw film has never had. So I wanted to make sure that it felt bigger, more commercial, but I also had to pay service to what it was, and it came from a long line of very violent films. So the traps had to be in there, but I just wanted them to not be as vicious as they were. Or at least not make that the forefront. I mean, terrible things happen in this, tongues get ripped out, fingers get ripped off, I mean it’s bad, but, to me, I wanted to make it feel more commercial.

I think there are some consistencies though. We still have Charlie Clauser – that music that people have come to know and love of the franchise. We still have the demented doll, it just is not that doll. It’s a different doll. We still have the traps. But the tone is different. Chris Rock really helps shift the tone to be something that’s more along the lines of a thriller, that does have some very comedic beats, I mean, while it’s not a comedy there are definite Chris Rock moments in this movie that I think fans are really going to enjoy.

Speaking of which, what was it like having Chris Rock and Samuel L Jackson in the movie?

I think Sam Jackson is the most terrifying presence I’ve ever met! He’s bigger than life. He’s Sam motherfucking Jackson. So… you know… He came in and the only way I can say it is, he does not suffer fools lightly, which means he would question everything, and you had to have an answer for it because he has responsibility for his own acting and his character and his audience. So he kept me on my toes, which I really liked.

Chris came at it from trying to open up the audience, and bring in a more diverse, wider audience than would normally see a Saw film. There were a lot of conversations with Chris and I about different ways to approach scenes. Chris is a filmmaker in his own right; he’s a writer, he’s a director, and so he was instrumental in elevating the movie. We were really lucky to have him on set. 

Then you have Max Minghella, he is just an incredible actor, as well as a filmmaker, so it was an interesting creative process, going through things with literally four filmmakers on set and hearing outlooks from them that I never would have thought of because I’m so one-track minded!

Chris Rock and Samuel L Jackson brought different elements to Spiral, says Bousman (pictured, centre with the two actors).

Spiral is a little different in that the victims are corrupt policemen in the same precinct. How has that affected the tone of the film?

One of the ideas that the creators had was: how do you further Jigsaw’s message? So while this is not a Jigsaw killer, he was inspired by the teachings of Jigsaw and John Kramer and what he did. John Kramer wanted to rehabilitate flawed individuals, and give them a second chance at life by putting them through the most excruciating tests of their life. So you take a drug addict and you hold a mirror up to the drug addict’s face and say you’re wasting your life, get through this, you will have a new appreciation. So it was about changing the individual.

This movie takes on, in some respects, a bigger thing which is how do you change an institution? While this one police force was picked (because these are the ones that were involved in a crime that kind of created the killer), it is the idea that it’s going to get national news because it’s an institution. It is a brotherhood of officers that are being targeted for being corrupt, and I think that there’s something cool about that. It shows Jigsaw’s message expanding and getting bigger in the way that no longer are we taking individuals, we are taking an entire institution!

Spiral is based on the logo left by the killers in the Saw films. Why is this movie called Spiral and why emphasise that particular element of the previous films?

First off, when you look at Billy [the Puppet] or any of the Saw things, the spiral is so prevalent, it becomes an iconic thing, it becomes something that… I think it was Saw VI that had the carousel, so spiral became a thing. You get it. You remember it from Saw. I didn’t want to use Billy and I didn’t want to use John Kramer, so we had to find that iconic thing. We could have used a jigsaw piece but again the jigsaw piece goes more with Jigsaw.

Also with spiral references means ‘rebirth’, a ‘reckoning’. To me more than anything, it was a symbol of change. In the same way that a symbol has power, sigils have power. I have a sigil tattoo and a sigil gives power to a symbol. I think that it is a symbol that will immediately connect with the fan. It will immediately connect with a viewer and the police who’s witnessing a new series of crimes… it will bring up in their mind. 

So it creates a sense of familiarity with the fandom and for the police in the movie. It is something they will immediately realise relates back to an old case. So there’s a lot of different reasons for the spiral. We wanted to give a sigil, something that has power. I think the more that the crimes are committed and the more the sigil appears, the more power it has. We did some research on the actual spiral and I didn’t even realise all that it meant. So I think it was just a great image to use for the film!

What is the reasoning behind the rest of the title ‘Book Of Saw’ – is this the start of a new spin-off franchise?

If you can figure that out let me know! No, I think that this is the big picture, and the only way the big picture works is if the small picture works. Meaning if Spiral works then the bigger picture will work, which is the idea for Saw was always a world, a universe. This is one page of a book, one page of the story of Saw. This is the story of this killer in this city, with this police officer, but theoretically if this is successful, there would be another page of the book. It might be a female serial killer in London, for example, there might be another one in Australia, so this is the idea that you always hear about when you have something in your life – you can say I’m closing one chapter and beginning a new chapter in my life. This is a page out of the book of the Saw universe. So I think that is the intention behind it and if this is successful if this one works, then I think you’ll see more books of Saw featuring different stories.

Spiral is one page of the story of Saw

What is it like shooting the scenes with the traps?

They are a pain and they’re fun. It is a lot of agonising and yelling and compromising. They’re never in the script, whatever you read in the first script is not what the traps end up becoming. So it starts with the character.

I’ll just walk you through one of them [in Spiral], with Boz, who’s the first one to die. So we look at who is he? He’s a police officer. Okay, what was his crime? What did he do wrong? Well he lied under oath, okay, he’s a liar. So how does someone lie? Well they use their mouth, they use their tongue, they use their vocal cords. Okay so we need to trap that involves the mouth. And what haven’t we seen in a Saw movie? Well, we’ve seen a head trap that could rip a mouth off. Okay, removal of a tongue that stops you from lying. How do you remove a tongue? Well you could rip it out. How do you rip it out? Pliers. Well pliers isn’t visual, how do you rip it out to make it a Rube Goldberg device? Well what if he had to take a leap, he had to jump, and that would just rip his tongue out?

So it starts with one thing and that becomes a series of things. It starts with the writers writing the characters and then the production designer and myself sitting in a room, then the producers get involved. Each trap takes us weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks to figure out!

How realistic are the traps? Could they actually kill you in the way they’re shown?

All the traps work the way they say they will. We have an engineer named Jason Ehl, who’s been with us since Saw II. So, going back to it again that first trap [in Spiral], the tongue trap. We had to change it based on engineering. Originally in the script it was written as fish hooks. He had fish hooks in his tongue. He had to jump off, but that didn’t do anything because if you jumped off with fish hooks, the weight of your body would just rip through your tongue. Your tongue would stay in place, but you would just rip your tongue, it wouldn’t tear it out. So then we had to figure out, how can you tear out a tongue… Well, you would have to be in a vise. But then how do you get enough pressure? Well you have to jump. You have to have at least 100 pounds falling. So engineers will develop weight, gravity, all that kind of stuff, and then create very complicated CGI mock ups, and then do numerous testing in their shops, and then come back and show us, but every trap that you see works the way we show it working.

What is it about horror that really pulls audiences in?

I think it’s fear and disgust. It’s such a guttural feeling that imprints itself as a reminder in your body. So if I watch a comedy film, I might laugh, but I’m also not 100%. No one ever pays attention anymore. So when you’re watching the movie, odds are you have your cell phone with you, you might be checking Instagram. Oh you got a notification on Twitter, you got an email, you have to respond to and you half pay attention. Even on shows I love, I half pay attention, but on a horror, if there is something disgusting or horrific, you’re glued, you stay and you look in suspense, and then when you see it, you look away because it is something guttural in you. 

Those imprint themselves and stay with you and usually it’s what you talk to your friends about. You’re like, ‘oh my god I saw the most fucking disgusting thing’ or ‘I saw the scariest thing’, you don’t really talk about jokes. I mean if you look at funny comedies like There’s Something About Mary, when you go back and talk about those main moments in that movie, it’s the masturbation scene with the cum in her hair. It is his scrotum being zipped up in his zipper. Those scenes are disgusting, and so they stay with you. Those are the scenes you talk about. So I think that when you can do something that is truly suspenseful or disgusting, it resonates and stays with an audience longer than something that is just dramatic or funny.

“On a horror, if there is something disgusting or horrific, you’re glued,” says Bousman. “You stay and you look in suspense”

What would you like for audiences to take away from Spiral?

For 90 minutes you’re allowed to escape. We’ve had a shitty last 18 or so months. We’ve had a tremendous amount of tragedy, and isolation. I think that, first and foremost, this is an escape. See two badass actors going head to head against a crazed serial killer in fun and inventive ways. 

But I think the movie is more than just gory or fun. I think there’s a message at its heart, like all the Saw films. The hope is that this revitalises people’s love for the Saw franchise, it really brings them back to the original franchise, and hopefully paves way for more movies in the franchise…

 Spiral is out on digital on 13 August and on physical platforms on 16 August.

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