According to longtime Saw editor and now first-time director Kevin Greutert, coming up with new and interesting ways to kill people is not as easy as one might imagine, especially when you've already come up with a gauntlet of gory deaths in not one but five previous films. "There's no point in trying to hide it," Greutert said in a roundtable interview in Los Angeles last week. "I think the films have this longevity because we've managed to rise to the task, somehow. But, it made me want to cry sometimes, sitting in a room, brainstorming and pounding my head against the wall. You can think of cool ways to kill people, but it still has to fit in with our story."
"It's very complicated, he insisted. "We want to always push the envelope to the end, in terms of insanity and mayhem, but if you go too far, it becomes campy or silly. It's a really tough balancing act." Ironically, Greutert is only the guy who has to bring those death traps to life; screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan are the guys who have to actually develop and design them, making sure they're not only inventive and interesting, but that they actually reflect the personalities and storylines of the characters in each film.
Cinematical recently sat down with Dunstan and Melton to discuss Saw VI, the latest installment in the long-running horror franchise, to find out where they get those wonderful – and terrible – toys. In addition to describing their creative process, they talk about challenges of collaborating with a cast and crew filled with Saw experts, and reflect on why and how their debut on Project Greenlight didn't result in a dead end for their careers, as was the case with their predecessors.
Cinematical: When you're this deep into a franchise, is there a responsibility to keep it on course, or do you have any freedom to jump off and go in a new direction?
Patrick Melton: For these movies, there's a lot of cooks in the kitchen. There's Mark [Burg] and Oren [Koules], who own the franchise, Jason Constantine, who's with Lionsgate, Peter Block, who is on now as a producer, whoever the filmmaker is, and then us. So we often do have ideas, but it does need to follow a certain path, which is often good though, because if you look at sort of all of the other horror franchises, by Six most of them had fallen way off the rails (laughs). A lot of gimmicks were pulled out of the hat, 3-D being one of them, and often the lead characters had sort of been devolved; in the Halloween movies, to just kind of a wild dog, and then Freddy was cracking one-liners. Having all of these people involved, it has helped to keep Saw consistent tonally so that we don't do something that is so leftfield that you lose your core fan base. So we're given a certain amount of freedom, but it has to fall within the world and the rules and just the aesthetic feel of the previous films.
Marcus Dunstan: Another way to answer that is there has always been an endgame in mind – literally about where the series is going. So it's like, surprise, then spread a delta of storylines but always keep in mind that this is where it stops in the distance. So the nice thing is if you have that awareness, it's not just thinking about surviving the next 90 minutes, it's like, no, the next 90 minutes is going to be there, so what can you plant now that makes the subsequent entry all the more satisfying? So a character's tick in this entry might pay off as a flaw in the next one and ultimately end in their demise in a subsequent one. It's been nice, too, to think that every single character, every person cast, has to understand that you might be the main character in the next one – you never know. And we're also responding to what an audience says [about] each entry, and we're trying to refine that process. We've been very fortunate: people came and watched this Saw film so we get to tell that next chapter, so what's been working, what could be better, and how do we kick their ass?
Melton: These movies are totally serialized and they're not standalone like most other horror films are. When we came on for IV, there was sort of a endgoal – we pitched three movies, IV, V and VI. It definitely has changed quite a bit since then based upon how someone is in the movie, or we just don't like this character, but there was an endgoal. So we knew we needed to get to that point, and now we had to build a bridge to get to that point, especially because we're also doing VII now, too. Coming out of VI, we knew how VII needed to end, so it was just getting to that point.
Cinematical: How tough is it for you guys to continue to come up with these gigantic set pieces?
Dunstan: It's all built on the soil that every single person has a vice or a flaw, of some kind, whether it's revealed or not, and these movies are saying, "What if we put you in a dark room, strapped it onto you, and turned a timer on? Could you survive the worst?" That provides an endless array of inspiration to give someone some intimate damage.
Melton: It's a huge group effort. It's everyone. It's not only what would be cool and what we haven't done before, but it's also what can actually be made and constructed. There's a huge crew in Toronto that has to actually build this stuff, and they'll often go to junkyards and find some bizarre contraption, and then we'll build something around that. All the traps work. There is no CGI involved. There are all these working parts and pieces. So, it is a challenge to conceive it, but also to actually be able to build the thing.
Cinematical: Do you have one that you feel is definitive for you, or that is just your favorite?
Melton: The needle pit is pretty darn good. It's hard to beat that one. In terms of the ones that we've done, the Wheel of Death is a pretty good one. That's in Saw 6, and it's a pretty crazy one. That's one of my favorite ones.
Cinematical: You guys began your career on "Project Greenlight" and it's pretty indisputable that you have been the most successful of any of the winners on that series. To what would you attribute that success?
Melton: It definitely helps because out here the horror community is a niche group and it's not as broad as just a straight drama, so that was helpful to a certain extent, that we specialized in this type of film that has a built-in audience that everyone recognizes and they all seem to show up at the box office. These movies are always going to get made, so that helped as opposed to just [making] a straight drama, which if you go to the movie theater, there's not a lot of straight dramas. The first two films in "Project Greenlight" were both kind of coming of age stories, but those movies kind of come and go.
Dunstan: With horror films there does seem to be a baseline of acceptance, where even if you are the worst horror film, the most despicable, there are people that really want to see that. And if you're great, well, everybody wants to see that! There seems to be a safety net [with horror]; I don't know a lot of people who actively seek out the most boring thing ever (laughs).
Melton: But we worked, really, really hard. Once we won "Project Greenlight," we never sat back and thought that was the end-all be-all. We won an internet contest, big deal. So we worked our asses off to get the Saw jobs, which is sort of our second big break, so we have continued to kind of fight and fight and fight. Because we saw how the people in the first few movies acted after they won, or sort of thought that they were now accepted as [if] they had made it. We never saw that as necessarily "making it," we kept on working harder and harder to get to that next step. And we're doing well within the horror genre, but I don't think we necessarily feel all that comfortable where we are yet. You're constantly trying to prove yourself.
Cinematical: Have you found that as the series progressed, the number of, as you put it, cooks in the kitchen has thrown off that master plan for the three films you wrote? For example, can a filmmaker's personal priorities what he wants to emphasize or ignore throw your narrative structure out of whack?
Dunstan: Well, using Kevin Greutert as an example, he's a tremendous director, and he's been a storyteller in this universe since the first entry because he's been the editor. So when he came on to VI as the director, he delivered a story that was so airtight and nuanced throughout, and that was a joy to work with. That was a joy to work with and it was inspiring because it made every person focus on the minutiae of the moment and make sure that it hit harder, and that was great. So the cooks in the kitchen are there to guide, but it's also very helpful; if you're sitting next to the producer that's ultimately writing a check for the movie, he'll go yea or nay right there. That cuts a lot of time down, so if we can do it, we'll define it with this gentleman and put it together and see if it can be built, and if not, we know immediately that we can refine that idea or come up with something else, and it actually cuts a lot of bad road out of the relationship.
Melton: Most movies are painful to get through, just the development process, the notes, [because] there's so many people involved. But with the Saw movies, it's like an old studio system, because there's a really one opinion that counts at the end of the day, and that's Mark and Oren, who own it and pay for it. so throughout the development process, we're sitting in a room with them, and then Jason with Lionsgate and Peter Block [come in], and if it doesn't get through that room within a minute, it's not going in the movie. Moviemaking doesn't need to be a difficult process, and with Saw, it isn't because the same people are involved each year. You know what you can and can't do, and going in each year with the same people you have a shorthand with everybody. So going in you know what you can and can't do, and we know the stage that we're going to be shooting in in Toronto, and we know the constraints of the traps that can and can't be built. Everyone involved understand the restrictions of the movie and then understands, once you accept those restrictions, you can get to something that's a little bit more interesting.
It's a benefit in terms of being economical and trying to do something within the world that feels consistent with the past films but feels just a little bit different – and with VI, it came together very well. We understood what we had done in the past five films that may have been tired at this point, so let's try things that are a little bit different but a part of the same world, and it came out very good.