TORONTO--What if two men woke up in leg irons on opposite sides of a bathroom and instead of a key, all they have to free themselves is a saw? It's not strong enough to cut chain but it can probably cut bone. There's also a dead body in the room--and a tape-recorded message letting the men know that if they're not out by a set time, they'll be killed too.
Three years ago, director James Wan phoned his friend Leigh Whannell to suggest that was how they should open their first movie. Wan had a cool idea for the ending too. "What happens in the middle?" Whannell asked.
"That's your job," Wan said. "You're the writer."
Sitting in the lounge at the Hotel Intercontinental to promote the Canadian premiere of their film, Saw, at the Toronto International Film Festival, Wan and Whannell are happy to discuss the movie's beginning, end, and middle--and how their plans to create an ultra--low budget horror flick with friends back in Melbourne, Australia, took a wild turn that led them to Hollywood, a major movie release, and a cast that includes Cary Elwes as one of the men in chains and Danny Glover as an obsessed investigator.
Wan and Whannell met at a media-arts school in Australia when they were 17. Wan had dreamed of directing since learning at age 11 that such jobs existed. Whannell was an actor who liked to write scary stories and figured he should learn a bit about how movies were made in case acting didn't work out.
The two friends took several shots at getting films made but could never score the funding. Their reaction to that rejection should be read with a thick Australian accent and tacked to the bulletin board at every film school on the planet. "We spent like years and years trying to get projects off the ground and I think we finally realized that no one's going to give you that chance. You know, if you want to get a film off the ground, write a script yourself and try to finance it yourself," Wan says.
"And we realized that if you're not going to have any big stars or big special effects on your film then the script itself needed to be the star. And when we realized that, we spent a long time honing the script and crafting the script to the point where finally other people read it and said, 'Hey, guys, this is a pretty decent script. Don't just do it as an indie film; let's see if we can get a bit of money behind it.' And it kind of grew from there."
Whannell had a manager to handle his acting career. She took the script to Los Angeles and scored the guys some meetings. But they didn't want to sell the script--they wanted to sell themselves. Wan says: "We thought, 'If we're going to go all the way there to talk to anyone about the script, let's show these people that we're not just writers but we're filmmakers as well.' So we decided to scrimp every penny we had saved and shoot a short with it. We just had to pick a scene, and we picked the jaw-trap scene."
The jaw-trap scene features a woman locked in a metal helmet who has to pull a key out of a corpse before a timed release mechanism snaps her jaws wide open and rips her head in half.
"We shot it very quickly--in two days--cut it in three days, and then we just jumped on the plane with it."
Whannell finishes the story of their demo DVD. "We needed to stand out because we were only going to be there for a week and we didn't have the time to sit and wait for feedback on the script and notes. We needed to get people's attention quickly....James didn't have any time to edit or anything, so we were kind of trepidatious about what the end result would be. And all the way out, until we handed it out, we still didn't know what the end result would be."
The end result was that jaws snapped open all over Hollywood and they landed a deal for Wan to direct and Whannell to star opposite Elwes. Both were 26 at the time. "Leigh and I were ecstatic that people wanted to make this film with us," Wan says. "Our dreams were finally coming true. But I guess at the end of the day, despite the fact that I've had such high-calibre actors in my film--and the fact that it was shot in Los Angeles--it wasn't really a Hollywood film. It was still a low budget film. It was still an independent film. I still felt like I was making the film with my mates back home."