With the 2006 MTV Movie Awards on the horizon, we thought we'd bring back some of our favorite interviews and features from the past year to remind us why we got so excited about these films in the first place. So join us as we take a fond look back — and then get on over to the Movie Awards site and cast your votes.
— by Larry Carroll
A group of strangers thrown together in a small space. Crazed, unsympathetic eyes watching their every move, waiting for the prisoners to do themselves in. With time running out, they must piece together clues before the plug is pulled on the sadistic game, and on their lives. It's a situation that the characters in "Saw" encountered last year — and that the actors in "Saw II" experienced onscreen and, to a certain degree, off-camera while shooting the film.
"I was fearful of making the sequel," admitted star Donnie Wahlberg, who plays hard-drinking Detective Eric Mason in the highly anticipated horror flick. "The audience from the first film wanted the sequel so bad, [and] it could give careless filmmakers a great amount of liberty to just say, 'Hey, there's going to be an audience for this, no matter what.' "
"There was nothing we could do," remembered Beverley Mitchell, the "7th Heaven" star who appears in the sequel as another of the twisted, masked villain Jigsaw's targets. "We just did our best and made a movie we truly believed in. We put 100 percent and more into the film."
In a high-pressure situation that Jigsaw himself could appreciate, the studio that owned the rights to the grisly franchise announced on November 2, 2004 — a mere four days after the first film's release — that a sequel would arrive in theaters by Halloween, 2005. The original, a low-budget gore fest whose demented killer forced participants to maim and/or kill themselves, grossed more than 50 times its budget, making it one of the surprise blockbusters of the year. The announcement of such a quickly produced sequel, however, left the film's fans feeling only slightly less terrified than if they woke up wearing a face-obliterating death mask.
"There are the 'horror geeks' or the 'Internet geeks,' or whatever they're called, and they do pay attention to every detail," Wahlberg said, acknowledging his fears and those of the fans. "That's my thing: I don't want to be the guy who comes aboard for the sequel and trashes the franchise by just doing some ridiculous movie where there are now 900 people locked in the bathroom."
The fear was particularly relevant because so many genre fans still seethe with rage over another beloved, close-to-no-budget film whose sequel was rushed into production for Halloween of the following year.
" 'Blair Witch' was more of a gimmick than a film," Wahlberg remembered of the 1999 breakthrough and its despised 2000 sequel, "Book of Shadows." "I asked 10 people who had seen the first 'Saw,' 'What do you think, man? I got offered the lead in "Saw 2." ' And people would either say, 'Yeah, man, that movie was incredible. You've gotta do it!' Or they'd say, 'I don't know, man. "Blair Witch" part two — you don't want to be part of that kind of thing.' "
" 'Saw' was a film that was made for short money," Wahlberg continued. "It came out of nowhere and its meteoric rise to the top of the box-office reminded people of 'Blair Witch,' but at its core were some pretty cool and smart young filmmakers who kind of reinvented the genre."
That filmmaking team, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, both a mere 27 years old, had to take a far more limited role in the sequel, with Wan leaving to direct a different project and Whannell sharing co-writing credits with new director/writer Darren Lynn Bousman. One of the advantages of the new blood, however, was that Bousman brought with him "The Desperate," a horror script that he would use as the seed for the sequel.
"Yes, it was based on a script that Darren already had, and that they definitely transformed and made more 'Saw'-like," Mitchell said of the script — a script that evidently helped quite a bit during the cast's quick-filming time crunch. "It stays with the same 'Saw' genre and does everything that 'Saw' did, but you don't have as much of the time-jumping in 'Saw II.' You get to know the victims better, and you get to really understand the personalities you're dealing with."
"Darren wrote a script that was not really like 'Saw,' but it was an easy transfer," Wahlberg said, laughing at the thought that anything could possibly be easy for this project. "It was tireless work, to make all the pieces add up. Taking a script that wasn't intended to be the sequel to 'Saw' and making it make sense, and making it as intricate as possible, and making it track and be interesting, honest and true to the first film — it was a lot of work."
Naturally, though, all the hallmarks of the original "Saw" had to be included.
"Definitely Billy, our freaky little man — Billy the doll," Mitchell giggled, referring to the sinister clown from Jigsaw's home movies. "He is definitely a 'Saw' trademark. And the creepy traps, the frightening notes and definitely Tobin Bell's Jigsaw voice. Those are must-haves in any 'Saw' movie. His voice just brings chills to me, it freaks me out. He's so spooky."
And although their names won't show it in the credits, the actors often did some writing of their own to help the film meet its target dates.
"Every day on set, [Jigsaw actor] Tobin and I were relentless," Wahlberg said. "With all our scenes together, we were rewriting and rewriting and rewriting, and trying it different ways to make all the pieces add up. And not just say, 'Hey, it's going to make $50 million anyway, so who cares?' We didn't take that approach; we really wanted the hardcore fans of the first film to say, 'Yeah, man, this is cool.' "
And although the "Internet geeks" might need to feast their own monitor-weary eyes on "Saw II" before they'll believe the buzz, the film's crazed production schedule might, in fact, have yielded a sequel worthy of the "Saw" name. With Jigsaw this time setting his sights not only on Wahlberg's crooked cop but also on a house full of other characters who have incurred his wrath, the first movie's gruesome action — and unexpected smarts — are back.
"I think it has tremendous guts," Wahlberg grinned, "and I don't mean that literally."
"You leave talking about the movie, and you're not walking out saying 'What a piece of crap; what a waste of money,' " Wahlberg continued. "If you put up crappy movies that don't challenge [people] and make them think, then they won't go. They don't watch horror movies the way they used to. You can't just have ten kids at some summer camp getting hacked up and moviegoers are gonna dig it."
Ultimately, if fans of the first "Saw" head into the sequel with "Blair Witch" fears and instead get their worlds rocked all over again, they might want to remember that one of their own helped to shepherd the production away the fate of that earlier film's cursed sequel.
"I fit in with the overly analytical geeks out there," Wahlberg admitted, wearing the badge proudly. "I'm one at heart."