After conquering the horror world with his and partner James Wan’s triumphant magnum opus of splatter ”Saw”, the writer and actor returns home to Australia for a very different kind of horror film. He spoke to Drew Turney about acting, writing and how the franchise just won’t let him go.
Question: You’ve come such a long way since ”Saw”, it must feel like a million years ago.
Whannell: It sort of does and it sort of doesn’t. It’s really interesting how it’s a combination of feeling like yesterday and feeling like it happened in another lifetime.
Question: You and James have exec produced each one since the first sequel. What does that involve from a practical sense?
Whannell: I wrote the second two and they sort of wrapped up the trilogy in my mind, at least. The producers disagreed. They thought it would be better to continue, which is fine, I’ve got no problem with that and it’s not my decision to make. I don’t hold the copyright. So after part three I just stepped away and now I feel little bit like a father who’s watching his child move out of home and go off and not need him any more.
You have a strange feeling of detachment. People keep coming up and congratulating me for the success of Saw V but the truth is I haven’t even seen it, I didn’t read the script. We’re very sort of outside the process. We’re still there as creators and our names are on the poster but it’s not really our thing anymore, it’s kind of it’s own little factory.
Question: It must make you proud as well though?
Whannell: It does. It makes me proud and it also bemuses me a little bit to see all these people talking about it. I saw an interview with Tobin Bell online who plays Jigsaw. He was talking away about Jigsaw and the character and the series and the myth and I was thinking, man I created this whole idea when I was still living at my mum’s house.
I was in my bedroom using a crappy old PC. I didn’t have a script writing program so I was literally hitting the Tab key across to what I thought was the middle of the page which meant that when I finally printed out the script all the dialogue was severely out of alignment, I didn’t know what I was doing. And now five years later Tobin Bell is talking about it like it’s this great mythology.
Question: It is but that just goes to show how strong the idea was from the get go.
Whannell: Yeah, I always believed in it. I’m not a hugely, new age, mystical type person but there has always been something about this film ever since we came up with the idea and I started writing it. I remember one day some Australian producers had optioned the film. Of course when a script gets optioned it means somebody has the rights to it for that period of time. And these guys had optioned it for one year. They were looking for money and unfortunately it didn’t end up working out.
And I remember getting the news that the option had ran out that it wasn’t going to happen with these guys. I just felt so deflated. I was in my car on the phone, which is probably a bad thing to admit here in an interview, but I was on my mobile phone in my crappy little Ford Escort. I was so devastated.
I hung up the phone and looked out the windscreen and there in front of me, the car in front of me, the number plate began with â€˜SAW’. I just remember it being so serendipitous that it was right there in front of me at that moment and I had this feeling that this would happen. Even if it didn’t happen here in Australia it would find a way and it did. So it’s been an amazing rise to watch something that existed only in my head come to life.
Question: Even if it wasn’t anything mystical, seeing that number plate it gave you the confidence to believe in it.
Whannell: Yeah, it was, as I said just a strange coincidence but it was one of those coincidences that happen in life that reminds us that there could be outside forces. There are things that tie us together. I mean what are the chances that that particular number plate would be right in front of me at that moment when I was so down about it not happening. So I don’t know, I don’t know. I think this story has a life of it’s own that’s much bigger than James or I.
Question: So as exec producers do you just sign off the story and that’s pretty much it?
Whannell: Essentially we’re just there to have our names on it. Most filmmakers will tell you that when they come up with a story they’re lucky enough to get financed, they don’t own the rights to it. It’s somebody else’s job. So if they want to make sequels out of it or recut it or do whatever they want they have the right to do that. So it’s more about us just standing back from it.
We still do have our toes in the pool. We’re working right now on a <em>Saw </em>video game which is a trippy enough. I thought I was sort of done with <em>Saw</em>, I wanted to move on and do other things and now here I am working on the video game. So it’s the old Michael Corleone line, â€˜Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.’
Question: Any fears that it’ll just go on too long and end up ridiculous? Saw VI is already on the cards…
Whannell: I know the films still are associated with me and I do have some trepidation about endless sequels retroactively tainting the first film, which I still think is really solid. But with Nightmare On Elm Street and Friday the 13th, these films have kind of become a joke. There’s just been too many sequels and it does dilute the power. Anyone will tell you they loved the first Nightmare On Elm Street.
So there is that fear, but on the other hand I did stop writing at part three so even if the series itself became a joke because of the endless sequels, I know within myself that I’m only really responsible for those first three.
Question: You’re right, most horror franchises end up with sequels that are just more outrageous copies of the one before it. But Saw was a complete story, it could almost be one big six or eight hour movie. Does the series have that very strong narrative because you’re a writer yourself?
Whannell: For sure. I was actually happy with the first two Saw sequels, especially part two. You know, by all reasonable circumstances it shouldn’t have been good because it was made very quickly. It was made surrounded by outside pressure, people wanting this and that and everyone suddenly with an opinion. Nobody had an opinion about Saw I, I just wrote it by myself. When the time came to make the sequel all of a sudden everyone was submitting their 2 cents.
In fact, one person that shall remain nameless said to me, â€˜you know a Saw movie has to open with a trap?’ And I was sitting there thinking â€˜you’re talking about the film I created and you’re telling me what the rules are?’ Sequels definitely need to follow a pattern but I really felt like it was important to me to have a link between the first three films.
And a lot of the young Saw fans really appreciate that. I’ve had them say to me â€˜this is like the Star Wars of horror films’ which is the greatest compliment I could ever get because there’s that soap opera aspect, that serial aspect.
Question: Was it a bit exciting or thrilling or even a bit scary putting your heart and soul kind of into somebody else’s ideas and someone else’s editing and writing with Dying Breed?
Whannell: Yeah it was. It was exciting to me to not to have to wear that writer’s cap and not have that pressure. When you act you’re more of a hired gun, you come in and do your job and if you do it well enough you can relax.
When you’re a writer you’re an architect for this house being built. If the house turns out bad everyone is going to look at the architect because it’s all falling apart. Acting it lets you be more of a laser and just focus on one thing.
Writing’s very solitary and quite torturous. You have these rare moments when it’s going well and the clouds open up just for a second and this beam of sunlight comes in and everything seems to be going well. With acting you get to wear a costume and pretend to be someone else. I feel like I’m a kid again when I’m acting because I’m essentially just playing around.
Question: But the flip side of course is that you’re leaving your image to the mercy of somebody else’s editing and ideas?
Whannell: Exactly. So it’s two sides of the same coin, it depends what you value more. You value that solitude and that control of writing or you value the visceral onset experience of acting. Some people can’t sit still for five minutes let alone sit in a chair for months at time and tap out a story. So each one plays up to a different side of my personality. I think I have a little bit of both in there.
Question: It’s good that you’ve been able to do both.
Whannell: It’s a blessing. I hope I can do more acting. I feel like I’ve got the writing thing under control because I don’t take assignments, I don’t do rewrites. I’m offered a lot of rewrites in LA and I could easily go down that path but I’ve said no to every job around. My nickname at my agency is Dr No because I say no so much. I’m only really interested in doing my stories. It’s the only way to keep myself interested, keep myself passionate. The second I get out of bed and wander over to the computer and it feels like a job I’m dead in the water. I’ve got to keep it fresh.
Question: Do you think Dying Breed will fly with audiences?
Whannell: I wouldn’t dare to even guess at why people go and see films. Most of the time I think it’s awareness, kids rock up to the cinema on a Friday night, they don’t even know what they’re going to see yet. They just look at what’s showing while they’re waiting in line and then decide when they reach the ticket counter. You’re really competing for awareness.
It’s a very crowded market place and American films have the money to bombard you with white noise. If you pummel someone over the head with something enough they may not like it but they’re away of it and that’s hat they’re going for. So I don’t know why any film is successful, I just hope that people go and see this film and give it a chance.
Question: Are you hoping for a good reception in the US given that your name’s attached?
Whannell: I’m not pushing for anything in particular, because I feel like that’s so far outside my control. I do want to direct one day and when I do I think I’ll be shitting myself when my film comes out. But because I was an actor in this film, I feel pretty relaxed about it. I like what everyone did in it and I had fun and that’s really all I want to get out of it. Now it’s just up to the movie gods.
Question: Did you have a different approach from Nathan Phillips, maybe because he’s stayed in Australia and you and James were more moulded by Hollywood?
Whannell: I really approached it from the perspective of my character. Nathan is quite gregarious in the film, so I thought â€˜okay, I can’t repeat that’ so I took the approach of being much shyer, quieter guy. That kind of carried off the set as well. Usually I’m the one cracking jokes at the dinner table but I kind of let Nathan take that role on and off the set and I was a little bit quieter. So it was interesting to play that role in the film and outside.
Question: So you guys went a bit method?
Whannell: Yeah, a little bit methody. Not over the top but it definitely affected my behaviour. So that would be the only thing I think that really affected my approach. It wouldn’t be anything to do with the Australian or the American film industry.