They Came, They SAW: How Leigh Whannell and James Wan Got SAW Made

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by Fin Wheeler

Leigh Whannell and James Wan met back in film school. After graduating, Wan focused on his directing while Whannell tried to make headway as an actor and film critic. He scored a gig as the resident film nerd on the hugely popular Australian music show Recovery, an MTV-type program for the Alt/Grunge generation.

After years as the nerdy guy on Recovery, forever picked on by the cooler-than-cool presenters, Leigh left the show to get serious about his acting and writing career.

During his formative years he’d heard of the two best friends, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who’d got their big break writing and starring in a work of their own. Hell, they’d even won Oscars for Good Will Hunting.

Leigh and his film school buddy James decided to nut out the story for their own film. Not some drama — they simply didn’t have the funds or experience to star in and direct a sprawling movie with an ensemble cast.

But a thriller or horror with a small cast, mostly shot in interiors… that was a real possibility. Plus, with James’ solid directing experience, and Leigh’s recognition as an Aussie TV personality, surely that could get the project a greenlight.

Scream had proven hugely successful with audiences. And the horror genre is always popular with low-budget filmmakers. James and Leigh worked out a super-gruesome horror tale with underlying moral questions.

Leigh took their story and wrote it into a feature screenplay.

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Finding a Producer

When it was finished James and Leigh pitched it to several producers in Australia. Despite Leigh’s high-profile and their connections within the industry, not a single producer or production company would touch it. It wasn’t just that the Australian screen industry is a small one (their “gore porn” project was seen as too much of a risk). Administrators and execs in the Aussie industry just didn’t like their attitude. Who were these young local upstarts with their slick project concept and their eyes firmly on LA!?

[Read How to Write Horror Scripts: The Guys Behind Saw 4, 5, and 6 Share Their Secrets]

Like Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean) and Shane Brennan (NCIS) before them, Leigh Whannell and James Wan were told there wasn’t a place for them (and their ambitions) in the Australian industry. They should pack up and leave. Maybe try their luck in LA.

It’s never fun to be on the receiving end of “helpful” comments like that. But they took it on the chin. They travelled to LA to pitch their film there.

While Leigh had been a recognizable talent back home, he wasn’t in LA. Their plan had been to pitch their project as a package: for the purchase price the producers would not only get the script but also the director and one of the lead actors.

James and Leigh needed a new plan. How could they prove to LA producers that they had the experience and talent to work on a project of this scope?

They decided to shoot a short film. Essentially a few scenes from their Saw screenplay that would showcased the directorial abilities of Wan and Whannell’s dramatic acting chops.

With the short in hand, they pitched Saw around town and landed Evolution Entertainment as their producer. The project was given a very modest budget, allowing for an 18 day shoot just outside of LA.

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The Casting Process

While Evolution had agreed to make the film under their new horror genre label, Twisted Picture, Saw still didn’t have distribution. Wan and Whannell knew that the vital key to getting distribution in America (which almost always leads to international distribution) was somehow getting above-the-line talent attached.

Taking a tip from Quentin Tarantino, who famously cast Bruce Willis and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction when neither had had hits for a long time, the lads decided to rack their brains for stars experiencing a similar career slow patch who they could approach.

For most people, Cary Elwes’s finest work will always be his lead role in The Princess Bride, and Danny Glover is best known as part of the Lethal Weapon duo, work he completed long ago.

Though their Saw project could only afford to pay industry minimum, Wan and Whannell decided to approach these actors.

(Please don’t consider this permission to get out there and start harassing stars that you want to work with. James and Leigh had each already achieved considerably in their fields. They’d spent years refining the script. They’d moved to another country, and shot a high quality sample to prove their worth. The project already had a green light. Before they even thought about approaching an actor, they had well and truly done the hard yards.)

The well-known actors were of course dubious. Every day a million wannabes try and desperately grab at the coat tails of someone who has worked hard and made it. But James and Leigh asked for meetings in the correct way, through the right channels, so the actors listened to their Saw pitch.

James and Leigh were clever in their pitching. They pointed out that the shoot was short and close to the actors’ LA homes, so they wouldn’t be away from their families for much time at all.

And there was the killer script; the actors’ agents had already read it. Plus, they pointed out, look at what starring in Pulp Fiction had done to revive the careers of John Travolta and Bruce Willis…

It was a ballsy strategy, right on the edge of what up-and-comer’s can say to established artists without being disrespectful, but it worked.

Both actors signed on. Saw was made.

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Screenings, Distribution, and Lots of Money

It was first screened in January 2004, and based on the audience reaction to that screening, Lionsgate picked up the rights and released throughout North America.

When it opened, October 2004, it immediately became a cult hit, polarizing audiences and critics. It performed so well (and off such a small budget) that Lionsgate greenlit the sequel not long after opening weekend.

Saw went on to take more than $100 million at the box office internationally. The massive Saw franchise has made money for everyone involved. Lionsgate also re-released Saw in cinemas in 2014 to celebrate its decade anniversary.

Leigh Whannell continues to write and have his work produced. He has written one produced feature (or video game) every year since Saw was released. Few screenwriters can boast such a track record.

So even if some folks laugh at your ambitions and dismiss all your hard work as a waste of time, keep dreaming big. And work diligently to realize them.

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Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

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