MTV has invited various horror luminaries to wax poetic on their experiences with and love for the bloodiest of all genres. In the following, screenwriters Leigh Whannell and James Wan recall how their first collaboration, “Saw,” came about. Their latest effort, “Dead Silence,” opens March 16.
The young man approaches me warily, as if I’m wearing a suit made of razors.
“Hey, man,” he says. “Do you mind if I get a picture with you?”
“Sure,” I say, smiling, doing my best impersonation of someone who regularly receives this request. In truth, this never happens to me.
Not in the real world, anyway.
This, however, is not the real world. This is New Jersey — a Ramada Inn in New Jersey, to be exact. It is day one of the Monster-Mania convention, a tribal gathering for people who can not only name all of the actors who have played Jason in the “Friday the 13th” films, but could give you their astrological signs as well. And I am one of them. The only difference is that I’m sitting behind a table, and these other horror fans are asking this horror fan for his autograph.
The young man hands his digital camera to his friend. “I loved ’Saw,’ ”
“Thanks,” I say. I always get a kick out of the fact that “Saw” has managed to connect with anyone.
Then he lifts his shirt up, and that’s when everything changes.
This guy has a huge — and I mean huge — tattoo of Shawnee Smith’s face emblazoned across his back, wearing the jaw trap she was forced to endure in “Saw.”
I am humbled and amazed. How is it that a story James and I wrote many years ago, when I was still living with my mum in Melbourne, Australia, has managed to affect a kid from New Jersey so much that he’s decided to have an image from it painted across his back for life?
You could say “Saw” was an accidental horror film. When James and I first met in film school in Melbourne, all we wanted to do was make a film. Not a horror film or an action film. Just a film. It could have been a musical set in an underwater kingdom — it didn’t matter. We would get together regularly and talk about the movie we were eventually going to make. In doing so we became best friends and kept hanging out long after school was finished. I had a cool job on a TV show in Australia, and James worked at a production company, but we still wanted to make a film.
I remember going over to James’ apartment and talking for hours about movie ideas. We would talk for so long that one of us would eventually check our watch and see that it was well past midnight.
That’s when the ghost stories would come out.
You have no idea how many times I had to drive home from James’ apartment at 3 a.m. fearing for my life, checking the rearview mirror for a pair of dead eyes staring back at me. Scaring each other with ghost stories became our favorite pastime, but that’s not to say that we were easily scared. On the contrary, we were extremely tough critics.
I can probably count on one hand the number of films that have truly scared me. I wish the number were higher, but it’s not. I’m talking about movies that have wormed their way under my skin and refused to come out. The films that keep me awake at night. My list would probably go like this:
1. “The Shining” Still my benchmark for terror. I can’t get through it if I’m watching it late at night on my own.
2. “Lost Highway” Nobody creates fear out of mundane situations like David Lynch. He lives in his own world, and that world scares the
sh– out of me.
3. “Ringu” The Japanese film that got turned into “The Ring.” The Japanese really know how to underplay horror, and to me, subtlety is key.
4. “The Entity” Another one I can’t watch alone at night. A very powerful film.
5. “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” Did I mention my whole David Lynch thing?
And that’s it. James’ list is very similar:
1. “Jaws” I was on the beaches of Maui recently, and it was like an experience I’ve never had before. I thought, “Why has it taken me so long to enjoy the beach?” And then I realized, “Oh yeah, Spielberg’s brilliant filmmaking kept me away from the ocean for so long!”
2. “Poltergeist” Saw this movie at the age of 7 and it made me terrified of clowns and dolls for life.
3. “Black Christmas” (1974) This movie haunted me not with its slasher-style killings, but with its unnerving atmosphere and imagery.
Malignancy at its best.
4. “Profondo Rosso (Deep Red)” This is my favorite movie from director Dario Argento. He brings a macabre sensibility to his murder mysteries and gives the genre a surreal, fresh spin.
5. “Lost Highway” David Lynch put it best when he referred to this as a “21st-century noir-horror film.” I love Lynch’s ability to take everyday situations and give them such a frightening, alien quality.
As you can see, we were starved for terror. We had to resort to scaring each other with stories to get our fix.
Around this time, James and I came up with the idea for “Saw.” We’d been out of film school for a few years and decided that the only way we were going to make a film was if we paid for it ourselves. We tried to come up with the cheapest idea possible, and finally hit upon the story of two guys stuck in a toilet for 90 minutes. It suited our budgetary limitations perfectly. We decided it was going to be a taut “Panic Room”-style thriller. We got excited. I went off and wrote the first draft. James loved it. We got more excited.
And then something strange happened.
All the horror stories we used to tell each other late at night began to creep into the script. At first they didn’t really fit, but we forced them to. These stories needed to be told. Our taut little thriller was slowly becoming something else.
As I said, “Saw” was an accidental horror film.
Now, years later, as I stand next to a young man who has tattooed one of our nightmares across his back, I realize that James and I were not unique. There are many more out there like us — horror fans in desperate need of skin-crawling terror.
As I smile for the photo, I wonder where my next fix is coming from.
For now, though, James and I are only too happy to provide it for someone else.
This leads us to our second movie, “Dead Silence,” another film straight out of the ghost stories we would scare each other with. We wanted to make a horror movie that was different from “Saw” — less an in-your-face shocker than a creepy ghost story. The difference with this ghost story is that it involves what Leigh would call my favorite obsessions: ventriloquism, creepy dolls and old-women ghosts.
People ask me, “How can you be afraid of dummies and dolls?” And I say, “Well, I’m not the only one.” This is a common fear, so common that there’s actually a name for it: automatonophobia, the fear of ventriloquist dummies and other lifelike inanimate objects.
We wanted “Dead Silence” to smell like an old-school horror movie or an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” A fun movie with a macabre twist at the end. It’s more about the creepy atmosphere than the blood and gore.
Leigh and I never expected “Saw” to be so well-received that we’d be allowed to make a second movie. I just want to survive the so-called sophomore curse. We are very grateful for what “Saw” has given us (otherwise Jigsaw might come after us!), and all we want is to continue to share our dreams with our fans. Or should I say nightmares?
Check out everything we’ve got on “Dead Silence.”
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