Saw franchise mascot Jigsaw

Kevin Greutert Discusses the ‘Saw’ Franchise, Explains Why Jigsaw Isn’t a Hero

Kevin Greutert is no stranger to the Saw franchise. The filmmaker has worn many hats throughout the series’ evolution, starting out as an editor before jumping to the director’s chair for Saw VI and Saw 3D. From the very first Saw film, all the way through to 2017’s Jigsaw, Greutert was a franchise mainstay, experiencing the highs and lows in the process.

In this interview, Greutert provides some deep insights into his involvement in the Saw series and explains why he doesn’t view Jigsaw as the type of philosophical anti-hero that some people view him as. (NOTE: This interview happened before Spiral was announced, so no discussion of later entries took place).

What do you think is the secret appeal behind the idea of the “traps”? Audiences connect with the idea of them, though they would never want to be in them. Does it come from the idea of the audience wanting to distance themselves from enacting the violence personally, or perhaps just a commentary on the perverse cleverness of the device (people like the “Rube Goldberg” complexity of the machine and the challenge of trying to figure out how to beat it)?

Thanks, Chris, I’m honoured that you’re interested in my opinion on all this. As you know, I came onto Saw as editor in 2003. It was my first real editing job, offered to me by the late Gregg Hoffman, a producer I had worked for as an assistant editor on a far different film called George of the Jungle 2. We were both newcomers to horror, but fortunately, the creative bosses, James Wan and Leigh Whannell were ardent fans, and of course immensely talented.

While I was very involved with the post-production of Saw and witnessed a lot of the process of getting from the start to the completion of the movie, I was not what you would consider a creative lead on the first film. When James left the series, Darren Bousman came in, Gregg Hoffman passed away, and with time all of the original creative team moved on except for me. By the time I directed Saw VI, I was of course much more involved in decision making besides where to make edits, but by then the producers who had previously delegated most of the creative decisions to Gregg were now closely involved in the casting and story process, which led to a shift in emphasis that ultimately led to Saw 3D.

So there were a lot of differing opinions about what did and didn’t work with the films, what was good that we should do more of, what was bad that we should do less of. With regard to the success of the traps in Saw, you’re right that audiences love the creativity and intricacy of the situations and mechanism, so much so that it didn’t really matter too much when they became impossibly large, expensive and complex. Jigsaw would need very deep pockets and a huge team to pull off some of the craziness we see from Saw III onward. More time, funding, and mental energy was put into brainstorming and creating these traps than any other aspect of the series since we knew that was the most original and iconic product we had to offer (with the possible exception of the Jigsaw character).

But to go beyond that and really get to the heart of the matter, you have to consider just what makes horror a popular form of entertainment in the first place. After all, executions and public mutilations have attracted cheering crowds throughout history. It’s obvious that on a gut level, we like to see bad things happen to other people that we are protected from by the privilege of being a spectator. Enjoying a violent horror film does not make one violent, or evil, or even suggest that on some level we want violent things to actually happen to other people. There’s a feeling of catharsis from watching violent horror that helps us come to terms with the anxiety of being a soft, fragile, failure-prone physical system in an imponderably vast and uncaring universe. It’s kind of like the role of dreaming in our mental lives – the brain simply must periodically tick through a range of procedures to release the backlog of doubts and fears that could render life too difficult to lead if they are allowed to build up in our waking minds. David Cronenberg’s exercises in “body horror” are probably the best expressions of this biological anxiety, so we owe a big debt to him. For this reason, I think violent video games are a very positive phenomenon and think it’s really crazy for some critics to think that artificial violent experiences like Call of Duty or the Saw films in any way make people more violent. I think the exact opposite is true.

That said, I hope to go much further in my work as a film director, beyond creating violent anxiety-purge experiences for casual audiences. I feel that somewhere out there is a horror film yet-to-be-made that actually helps people prepare for death. Most human cultures leave us in the dark with regard to our relationship with death. Religion is the most guilty foe here because so many of us are raised with a false impression of what death is. Our priests tell us it’s a gateway to the next life, an eternity spent with God, which actually sounds pretty scary for me. Yet even the most dedicated believer in religion will cry and scream for more life if suddenly confronted with certain death. Why is this, if they actually believe that a better world awaits them? The answer, of course, is that we all know deep down that death is in fact the end of all consciousness and experience for the individual, and that is a profoundly scary thought if you’re not prepared.

Yet death is natural, and modern humans live longer lives than we ever have, and tend to die after we can’t squeeze any more use out of our bodies. It’s possible that many of the thousands of people who die in America every day have found a way to come to terms with mortality, but it’s not something that’s discussed very much, and I think most of us are not going gentle into that good night.

So I think perhaps there’s a horror film that actually brings the audience to the Kübler-Ross state of acceptance of death in a way that I think is neglected in popular American art and entertainment. I’m still trying to figure out what that film is, a kind of cinematic Bardo Thodel, a Tibetan Book of the Dead for the masses.

Actually, there is a mass-entertainment treatment of this theme, in the unlikely climax of Toy Story 3, when Woody, Buzz and the gang are descending hopelessly into the maw of the hellish incinerator. Despite their terrible fear in the face of inevitable death, they reach a touching state of acceptance in their last moments, hold hands and look into each other’s eyes. It’s one of the most profound moments in cinema, in my opinion, and it’s in the second sequel of a kiddy movie series! I’m jealous. Visually and thematically the scene is very Saw-esque, with infernal flames and lighting, a doomsday mechanism delivering its victims into a funnel of unimaginable pain and destruction, and terrifying lighting and sound design. In a sense, this is the true conclusion of the Saw series, in which we see the most heroic behaviour yet in a trap, presented to children as part of their formative experience, arguably preparing them for a life in which private thoughts of death are not quite as terrifying as it was for their parent’s generation.

The hero from Saw 2004

How is working on a film series that comes out yearly different from the typical franchise style of doing one film every few years or so; the rhythm of the work, as well as the ability to plan in advance for new instalments? This film series was much more of a tight narrative with a continuing story than most horror franchises.

There’s no question that it was very challenging to create a new Saw movie every year in time for the inevitable Halloween release date. Usually, the plot wouldn’t be locked in place until a month or so after the previous film came out, so it was generally around Thanksgiving that we started to get a sense of what the next film was going to be. Despite statements to the contrary, there was no smart planning in advance what the storyline would be for the subsequent instalments. Internal politics had more influence on the overall storyline than anything else. Writers Marcus Dunstan, Patrick Melton, and I pitched many different ideas to the producers that were shot down while we developed the plot of Saw VI. Gradually small aspects of our pitches would survive these meetings, and eventually, an actual plot accreted from these residual ideas. It’s a hell of a way to make a movie, but there it is.

Because we used the same production staff every year, we had an advantage over most other horror franchises. The Toronto team knew the schedule in advance and kept props, sets and designs in storage for the inevitable January opening of the offices and sound stage. I believe that the Paranormal Activity films have a similar model, though based in Los Angeles, in which the same team comes back again and again, almost like a TV show. The Saw producers are loyal to the team members who stick with them, and this makes it easier to conceive and shoot the films quickly because everyone knows each other and has been thinking about the films for a long time. Despite the complexity and difficulty of making the Saw films, I feel sorry for the team, who had come to rely on the annual job.

I think the soap opera-esque nature of the Saw series was part of its audience appeal, especially since the Jigsaw character continued to intrigue long after the other elements of the franchise got tired. While it was of course difficult to come up with continuous storylines that still managed to deliver a good twist at the end, I think the serial nature of Saw in some ways made it easier to deliver an annual film on schedule. We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel with every movie. The films are more or less stuck to an established style, which I think the audience preferred, so that’s another advantage we held over other horror franchises.

Though none of the actions of any of the “Jigsaws” were right in the real world, do you have an opinion as to whether or not, unlike Amanda and Hoffman, John was actually doing something positive in his role as Jigsaw before he died?

I thought it was a little silly when the producers themselves started buying into Jigsaw’s so-called “philosophy” without any irony at all. In the early films, he was a crazed and embittered psychopath who indulged in ornate self-delusion about his murdering ways, but over time there was a strong push to make Jigsaw more of a cult leader who somehow attracted a range of people into his sphere of influence, and in some instances seemed downright cuddly. I was okay with Amanda joining him, because there are truly broken people out there who will gravitate toward anyone who will have them, but not Hoffman, and definitely not Jigsaw’s wife.

Jigsaw was a murderer, though in his mind he was judge, juror, and executioner for his fellow man. And while it’s true we could probably all use regular wake-up calls with regard to appreciating our lives, I think Jigsaw did more harm than good.

Were there ever conversations by the creative people involved regarding the parallels between the story in the film (a man with a message of torture as a cleansing ritual) and the real-life events happening in the world (Guantanamo Bay, the Abu Ghraib photographs and the war on terror)?

In the months after 9/11/, there was a lot of talk in Hollywood about toning down movies with dark themes, because, in the aftermath of national tragedy, audiences are going to want to be consoled. In retrospect, the years that followed contained some of the most violent horror movies in history, spearheaded by torture-themed fare like Saw, Hostel, Martyrs, etc. We of course discussed all this a lot while making the films, and Leigh compared Jigsaw to President Bush at the Comic-Con panel for Saw III.

But I think the torture that was made real by the war on terror is in a completely different category than the torture audiences experienced in Saw. More than anything, I think Abu Graib was about humiliation and the dark titillation of seeing our enemies degraded.

Were there any conversation about a specific intent to create a new iconic slasher for this series, in the same tradition as the great ‘80s icons? This series latched onto key aspects of slasher franchises, including the iconic theme, the iconic mask, the catchphrase (“I want to play a game”), the calling cards (the puzzle piece and the puppet), etc.

James and Leigh are encyclopedias of horror history and references, and of course, they wanted to create iconic imagery and characters. Surprisingly, a few of the most successful iconic elements of the first film evolved gradually in the post-production process under the tutelage of the Lionsgate executives Peter Block and Jason Constantine. For example, the Jigsaw tapes were continually rewritten after filming was complete, to focus them thematically on the notion that the victims were suffering because of errors they had made in life, and the lack of appreciation they had for life’s gifts. This theme was present in the script, but on a more subliminal level than in the final film. I believe that “I want to play a game” became a repeated refrain only after filming was complete as well. James was resistant to John Kramer being called “Jigsaw,” and he was not referred to as such in the script, But this name came out anyway in an added line by Kerry in one of the crime investigation scenes. The editing style and presentation of the flashback montage evolved a great deal in the course of post-production, and in some ways, this is an icon of the series.

But of course, the really obvious iconic elements were part of James and Leigh’s original conception of the movie, and they succeeded brilliantly.

This is one of the few horror franchises that lasted as long as it did and never strayed into the supernatural (even Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers eventually went supernatural). Was there ever a question as to how to continue after Jigsaw died in the third film, and if it might take on a supernatural shift?

Twisted Pictures not only didn’t want to take Saw into a supernatural direction – they have a virtual mission statement to never make any supernatural films at all. This was certainly a good decision with regard to Saw.

Without a doubt, there was a lot of debate about what to do with the series after Saw III, in which Jigsaw dies. It was generally agreed that somehow Tobin Bell’s character needed to stay in the films no matter what (although he had gotten pretty expensive by then, so there were dissenting opinions on this matter…) If you really look at the post-Saw III sequels, there is a lot of evasiveness on this matter. For example, Saw IV doesn’t really move the story forward in a traditional sense. We learn in the end that it’s just an embellishment of the drama we’ve already seen in Saw III. Saw IV ends on the very weak note of revealing that Detective Hoffman has taken over the Jigsaw legacy without any indication of why a cop would join forces with a crazed serial killer. Saw V existed purely to play catch-up with Hoffman’s motivation. By the time we get to Saw VI and VII, we really start to push credibility, with all the secret envelopes and new hidden lairs and death traps that keep popping up from beyond the grave. The problem is that we just never came up with a villain who was compelling enough to take over from Jigsaw, so the story motivations had to keep coming from the dead guy!

There was a strong desire not to resort to time travel, copycat killers, or any other easy devices for keeping Jigsaw around. When we shot and edited Saw III, we all assumed it would be the last one. It was only at the end of the post-production process that the producers and studios decided to keep going. They should have reshot the ending and kept Jigsaw alive. Hindsight is 20/20.

Can you discuss the motivation behind the stylistic choice of the “speeded-up” footage interstitials that moved the story from one location to another (that fast, blurry effect that is similar to the way the ghosts moved in House On Haunted Hill)? Was that decided before filming or brought in during the editing process? Also, what was the origin and motivation for the location changes that happened “in-camera” (characters literally walking into other locations and other people’s scenes) throughout the series?

James shot Saw in 18 days on a million-dollar budget. The entire film was photographed in just a few rooms of a warehouse, with one corner of a room functioning as Dr. Gordon’s apartment, another corner as the lawyer’s office, etc. There simply wasn’t the time or money to shoot any interstitial scenes whatsoever, so we were caught in a tough place in the editing room when we wanted to indicate to the audience where we were in the story.

So James got the brilliant idea to take a still camera (my Pentax K-1000) and go shoot black and white shots of warehouses, police stations, hotels, etc., around downtown Los Angeles, and build them into dynamic, stuttery montages in Adobe AfterEffects. With a little sound design craziness, we gradually had our transition sequences. We liked it so much we did it more and more, even when we didn’t need to, and it started to influence the look of the rest of the film. By the time we made Saw II and III, we were doing it because we wanted to, not because he had to.

Saw II/III/IV director Darren Bousman is a big fan of in-camera scene transitions. Considering how much of a drain on production resources this is (you have to build two sets right next to each other, no matter what the floor plan inconvenience might be for the production designer), and how risky it is that this sort of artifice might pull the audience out of the movie, it’s not something that I chose to pursue when I started directing, but it was fun that James, Darren and David did it.

Hoffman in Saw

The “cleansing” that Jigsaw put people through took on somewhat of an Old Testament biblical connotation, which was further solidified when he died and his “disciples” continued in his name. Were the religious allegories fully intentional as the series progressed, and was that there from the beginning in the first film?

Darren Bousman is very attracted to religious themes, so I think that allegory you’re alluding to can mostly be attributed to him. True, Jigsaw wore a robe in Saw that is evocative of Catholicism, but this theme got pushed a lot harder in episodes II and III. These movies are pretty successful among fundamentalist Christians, who spend a lot of time thinking about punishment, hellfire, and retribution, so I think it was a pretty smart direction to take the series.

Do you think this series is inherently positive (in the respect that it believes everyone has a chance to face their mistakes and survive them), or inherently negative (in the respect that it believes almost everyone we meet has done something horrible and is usually just selfishly attempting to save themselves)?

I think the series was more successful for having not dwelt too deeply into parsing out what it all means. I’m a pretty misanthropic soul and am attracted to art and ideas that explore the Dark Side, but Saw is a corporate, commercial enterprise, and I think we would have stumbled sooner if we gave too much weight to what it all means.

Unlike most horror franchises that pretend the police are stupid or non-existent, the world of Saw is almost entirely focused on the police and FBI. Was that a conscious choice from the second film on, given that it was established in the first film? And does the inability of any organization to capture Jigsaw reflect in any way as a commentary on authority figures in general (the police, the government, etc.)?

While I really liked the dynamic between Jigsaw and Detective Matthews in Saw II, I think it’s unfortunate that so much of Saw became a police story. I think it was a conscious choice on the part of the producers because it worked so well in Saw II, so why stop? I think the cops couldn’t stop Jigsaw because it would have ended the cash cow that is the Saw franchise!

To my knowledge, there is not a strong anti-authoritarian bent to the other Saw directors. Regarding the cops: my main focus with Saw VI was to create a tension in the Hoffman/Erickson relationship that would lead to that cool Dostoyevskian climax in the audio analysis scene and at that moment solidify Hoffman as a dark anti-hero.

A great icon of the series is the montage explanation, where the audience is shown the truth of the situation, and the characters realise that they had it wrong all the time, and if they had done what Jigsaw asked, they would be fine. Was that visual moment written into the first script, or was the information revealed initially through dialogue, and the montage technique was found to be more effective after filming?

The first incarnation of the reveal montage in Saw was a gradual process of discovery. James knew he wanted to do something like this, and always planned to use the grandiose main theme from Requiem for a Dream as musical inspiration for editing and composing. I think what we did, in the end, exceeded even what he had planned, by adding a blizzard of two frame edits from throughout the film, and through the magnificence of Charlie Clouser’s final score.

The reveal montage became my favourite part of editing all the rest of the Saw films. While each of the sequel scripts calls for a certain amount of material to be shot for use in these montages, I took it upon myself to embellish and add material from throughout the films, even using footage from previous scenes in subsequent movies, to create an evolving mythology and ever-greater sense of climax.

Why do you think that this film, amongst a huge number of other films with somewhat similar concepts (Nine Dead, Captives, Turistas, etc.) made the connection with a film-going audience and continued for as long as it did, while most of the others failed or never had any sequels?

Saw was just a really good movie. It didn’t hurt that it had some famous faces in it either – this really helps to get a studio interested in the huge risk of spending $25 million marketing a movie that only cost $1 million to make. The Sundance audience loved the film, and it gave the studio faith in the project, and they were smart enough to hold off the release for eight months so that the movie could be presented on Halloween.

A lot of creative passion went into these films, and I also think it didn’t hurt that the key creative people were all young and at the beginnings of their careers: James, Leigh, Darren, Marcus, Patrick, etc. They’re all really well versed in horror and know the perspective of the young, hip horror audience perhaps better than some of the more experienced but older filmmakers out there.

To your knowledge, were these films in any way influenced by the classic murder mysteries and whodunits like Sleuth and Agatha Christie films like Ten Little Indians and Murder On the Orient Express (they have the same mystery-solving aspect, as well as the single and claustrophobic location)?

James and I have talked about “locked room” mysteries in general, and I’m sure he knows Sleuth, Ten Little Indians, etc., though I can’t remember if we discussed these movies while we made Saw. He and Leigh I don’t think are deep literary types, but their familiarity with cinema makes up for this — if there’s any making up that needs to be done.

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