Why the Twisted Minds Behind 'Saw' Brought the Series Back 'On Steroids'
Dressed in white button-down shirts and black suits, Saw producers Oren Koules and Mark Burg arrived at the Javits Center in Manhattan earlier this month looking totally out of place amongst the graphic-tee-wearing fans, decked-out cosplayers, and inked-up artists assembled for the New York Comic Con. Despite being the stewards of a series known for its grimy decor, the two could not look more professional. But they had a good excuse: Earlier in the day, the duo rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, along with series star Tobin Bell, in promotion of their new movie Jigsaw, the first Saw movie in seven years. Making a Saw movie is hard work, but it's also big business.
The pair's Wall Street detour is a potent symbol of how they transformed the original, a Sundance-debuting, low-budget riff on the serial killer thriller, into a $873 million-and-counting machine. Following the breakout success of the first movie, which established the career of blockbuster filmmaker James Wan (The Conjuring, Furious 7), Koules and Burg produced a sequel each year that would arrive with a batch of diabolical Rube Goldberg-like death traps every October, terrifying audiences, doling out harsh moral lessons, and inspiring debates in the press about the "torture porn" genre. For a period, Halloween was synonymous with Saw -- and Saw was synonymous with success.
Now, after seven years away, the producers return with Jigsaw, a back-to-basics reinvention of the series from the The Spierig Brothers (Predestination, Daybreakers) that attempts to sell the franchise to a new, young horror audience that might not even remember the increasingly convoluted plotting of the previous chapters. While the duo are somewhat vague about future plans -- "We don't worry about the next one until this one opens," says Burg -- they were perfectly willing to dig into the history of the series, the development of the new film, and exactly how two nice guys who could pass as mild-mannered bankers dream up all those sick traps.
Thrillist: This is an obvious question but it seems like a good place to start: Why bring back Saw now?
Oren Koules: For us it was more of a hiatus. It wasn't about bringing it back. There were a lot of things going on in the marketplace -- a lot of found footage movies -- and it just got really crowded. We'd done seven [Saw movies] in seven years, which had never been done before, and it was just time to take a break. It wasn't any big plan. We had kind of run out of ideas and we didn't have a plan to come back. But when the idea for this movie came along and the Spierig Brothers came along, it just felt like it was time to go. We'd never worked with somebody on the Saw movies that had the experience that the Spierig Brothers had -- and their whole package. They brought Ben Nott, who is an amazing DP. So for us, everything just came together. We said, "Let's rock and roll."
Mark Burg: Periodically, people would come to us through the years with ideas for Saw movies and we'd be like, "Nah, that's not great." The two writers that Oren knew called him up one day and said, "Hey we've got an idea for a Saw picture if you guys ever want to make another one." They came in and pitched the idea. Then Oren called me up because he heard it before I did and we met with them at Oren's house. We were like, "You know something? This idea is worth making." It's kinda cool to go online and see the hundreds of people surmising on what the movie is about.
Koules: It's incredible. If you go on Reddit ---
Burg: Or all the Saw fansites --
Koules: Charlie Clouser, who is our composer for all the movies and from Nine Inch Nails -- a great, great composer -- he did a video interview for a composer magazine of some type and he had some cue sheets with labels to remind him of different things like "wife dying." The fans have tried to figure out through his cue cards -- and literally they're not even cards, just one word, place-marks -- and what's in the trailer and what's in the poster, they literally have come up with ideas of what the movie is. It's wild.
So what was it about the pitch that the writers made that made you think this was the one?
Burg: It will be seven years between the movies. But we started seriously doing this new one about two years ago or 18 months ago. In those first 5 and a half years, we must've heard 100 or 200 different pitches from writers. This one was fresh, original, and it has a twist ending that's as good if not better than the first one. When you got to the end of this one, you're like, "No, no. I didn't see that coming." Even reading the script, you couldn't see what was coming next. When they pitched it, we were like, "If they can execute this, it will really work great."
Koules: Like Mark said, we kinda wanted to go back to the first Saw. It was our -- not favorite -- but the concept of Saw 1 was you have one big twist. When Tobin got off the floor in the first Saw, people literally leaned forward. We watched from the side of the stage in Vegas when we were testing the movie. Mark and I wanted -- really more Mark -- he wanted a twist and thought we should go back to [the first] Saw. Let's find a great twist, something that people are just going to go whoa. They had an idea that had a twist that we hadn't done and that was kind of how we got going again.
One thing people often forget about the Saw series is that the plotting is super complex. There are all these flashbacks and repeating characters. Does the new movie eliminate all that mythology? Is it a reboot?
Burg: It's not a reboot. It's not a remake. It's not a continuation. It's hard to explain. I've gone online and seen everybody writing about it and I'm like, "Not even close. Not even close." For us it's kinda fun because no one has figured it out.
Koules: I'm going to take a stab. My stab is that it's the Saw movie we wanted to make. It's not a continuation. It's different color, different sound, different script. There's a new DP so the color palette is completely different. A lot of it's outside, which we've never done before. It's a Saw movie that still keeps the vibe and the feel and cloth of Saw, but nothing you saw before relates to this Saw.
Did you feel like at a certain point the density of the sequels was weighing you down?
Koules: Yeah. We needed to do it.
Burg: Fresh writers. Fresh directors. Fresh actors. It's hard to talk about without giving away stuff.
Koules: It's a Saw movie that's been --
Burg: It's Saw on steroids.
You two have shepherded this series for over a decade and the horror film landscape has transformed quite a bit since then. How do you think horror has changed since the first Saw?
Koules: I actually think it's come back in a weird way. When we came out in our first year, we had The Grudge, which was a big behemoth for a movie back then, and it's interesting because we followed The Grudge and I think now we're following IT. And IT isn't found footage or a slasher. The Grudge was also more of a thinking film. For us, it feels like it's come full circle back to where we started.
Burg: The horror market is two or three times [bigger than] what it was 13 or 14 years ago. We made the first movie in 2003.
Koules: It came out in '04 and we made it in '03.
Burg: So you're looking at sixteen or seventeen years and now [the audience] is way, way bigger.
Koules: Also, so much of the stuff you see now is a Marvel movie, a DC movie. To have something that's not one of those, I think people will be happy. It'll be a good escape.
The first Saw movie was a small, brainy Sundance thriller. The series didn't arrive with the reputation it has now.
Koules: Mark and I have talked about this a lot. We thought we were making Seven. We really did. We looked at the script as a cool, little twisted version of Seven. Tim Palen was the one who said, "No, it's a horror film." He's the chief of marketing and branding at Lionsgate. We've been really lucky. We've had the same executives, which never happens at studios. We've been really fortunate.
Many critics and academics have written about the Saw movies in relationship to post-9/11 America and the Bush era. Is there anything telling about Saw coming back with Trump as the President?
Koules: It's interesting. We were both in Toronto for the last week of shooting when the election happened and he won. It was pretty bizarre. Even in Canada, the next day on the set it was all the crew, who were local Canadians,it was all they could talk about. "What do you think? What's going to happen?"
Burg: We're thinking of putting Trump in a trap if we do another Saw movie. We think we should put him through some of the pain that he's putting the rest of the world through.
On the subject of the traps, how much do you guys participate in the brainstorming of them?
Koules: 100%. There's only two constants from the first movie to today and it's us.
Burg: And the executives at Lionsgate. We all do it together. We'll go into a restaurant, sit down, and talk about it like, "Well, have we ever killed anybody this way? What about that way? What about water? Fire? Smoke? Hey, let's put somebody's hand in a garbage disposal and make them go get a key and see what their hand looks like when it comes out!"
So it's that casual? Just brainstorming traps at lunch?
Koules: We talk about them all the time.
Burg: People at the tables around us will be like, "Wait, what are they…"
Koules: We've also kept ideas. I think it was on V or VI we had a trap that we literally tried to put in for three movies but it couldn't fit. But we finally found a place for it. We have ideas and different things that won't fit for this movie that might fit in another movie.
Is there a master-list of unused traps?
Koules: Unfortunately, it's in our twisted heads.
Have there been traps that were too complicated or just too bizarre to pull off?
Burg: When we get an idea and everyone agrees on it, it's like "Let's go." We figure out how to manufacture it.
Koules: I think production-wise, there's been some -- in this movie especially -- there have been ones that are a lot more complex to produce. But we've never bailed on one once we start it.
Burg: Our only rule is that it needs to be something Tobin would be able to engineer and build. We often say, "If he can buy everything at Home Depot for the trap, then we're good."
Do you think of this movie as the start to a second franchise?
Burg: In our minds, we have ideas. When we make a movie, we put a bunch of things in it and there are a lot of questions in this movie. If this movie is a success, we'll answer them in the next movie. In our mind it was 8, 9, and 10. We want to do three more. This is the first of another three.
Koules: This grouping of actors would be a cool 8, 9, and 10. A cool trifecta. That's how we built it. The movie stands on its own but there are 10 or 15 nuggets in there that if we do a next one, they're already laid out there.
When the first Saw movie came out, there wasn't the same emphasis on building things like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now, Star Wars movies come out once every year on Christmas, almost like Saw movies used to come out near Halloween.
Koules: Except they fire their directors.
Burg: Everything is changing. You ever binge-watch TV? You didn't do that ten years ago. You see a show you like now and you want to watch them all.
Is there a drawback to being known as the producers of the Saw movies? Do people ever try to pitch you weird traps when you're like trying to buy a coffee?
Burg: No, not really. It takes a really special horror movie for people to say, "Great, let's go do another horror movie." We've got Saw. We're good.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.