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Spiral Director Darren Lynn Bousman On Bringing Saw Back To Life And Working With Chris Rock And Samuel L. Jackson - Exclusive Interview

It's hard to believe it's been 17 years since Jigsaw snared his first unlucky test subjects in the original "Saw." When the first film was released, it would go on to haul in a worldwide total of $103.9 million at the box office, which of course ignited a whole new modern-day horror franchise as well as a new genre crudely labeled as torture porn. Between 2004 and 2017, a total of seven sequels would be released and, for years, the "Saw" franchise became synonymous with Halloween, as each new twisted chapter dropped in theaters like an annual October treat.

The sophisticated and methodical Jigsaw, aka John Kramer (Tobin Bell), was a whole new breed of horror villain. And he, along with his marionette messenger of doom, known to fans as Billy the puppet, would become the symbolic faces of the franchise and join the ranks of memorable horror icons such as Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Chucky, and Jason Voorhees. And much like his brethren, Jigsaw too has endured for years. When "Saw" first hit theaters in 2004, "A Nightmare on Elm Street" was celebrating its 20-year anniversary. In just in a few years, the "Saw" franchise will reach that same milestone, and it seems it isn't quite finished with shocking and terrifying us yet either. Not even death and alleged "final chapters" could keep Jigsaw down for good. After going dormant with "Saw: The Final Chapter," it looked as if it might've been "game over" for the franchise, but then it sprang to life once again with 2017's convoluted "Jigsaw," which revealed that the titular mastermind had yet even more disciples to carry on his work (as if his numerous proteges in previous films weren't already enough).

Now, Jigsaw's legacy will live on and the torch will be passed to a whole new villain in "Spiral: From the Book of Saw," but don't expect this to be "Saw IX" either. While this may be the ninth entry of the undying franchise and set in the same universe, "Spiral" aims to wipe the slate clean and introduce a whole new puppet master with no connective tissue to the original storyline. But you can sure as hell expect some of the series' most recognizable signatures, such as diabolical death traps, pig mask abductions, and, of course, bucket loads of gore and carnage — and there's a new freaky puppet too. One man who has been linked to the franchise for 16 years now is director Darren Lynn Bousman ("Saw II," "III," "IV"), who arguably created the best sequels in the franchise.

After a 12-year hiatus, Bousman is back in the director's chair, yet surprisingly, the experience wasn't like putting on an old pair of shoes. During a recent exclusive interview with Looper, he talked to us about the challenges of easing back into the "Saw" universe and the enormous pressure and expectations that comes with it. He also shared some of his favorite moments with "Spiral" stars Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson, and explained the origin (and revealed the name of) horror's newest marionette mascot. 

It's surreal that Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson are in a Saw movie

Word has it that Chris Rock is the guy who got the ball rolling on this new "Spiral" movie. What was your reaction when you found out that he wanted to produce and star in a "Saw" movie?

When they first called me about it and said, "Hey, we've got this script and Chris Rock wants to do it." My first reaction was, "Who's Chris Rock?" As in not putting together it was that Chris Rock, because, clearly, the Chris Rock would not do a "Saw" movie. And there was a long silence and they said, "No, it's that Chris Rock." So it seemed completely unbelievable. And I really even didn't believe it until I was sitting down, having breakfast with them and he showed up, and I was like, "Holy s***, it is the Chris Rock." It was crazy. I mean, even now, it seems kind of surreal that we have such stars like Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson in a "Saw" movie.

When it came to the dialogue, did those two follow the script, or was there a lot of improv? Did they ever just let loose and add their own flavor?

Coming from the comedic world, I was anticipating that Chris Rock would come down and just throw different takes every time, but he didn't. He would, however, suggest things before we started shooting. He'd be like, "I'm thinking about this, what if I did it this way?" There were a couple of times where, after we shot something and we'd look back at it, Chris would be like, "No, no, no, let me do that again." And then he would do it again and do it completely different.

I'll give you an example. So there's a moment in the movie where Chris's character has just found out that he got the Boswick case, and he goes into the police station, and he's like, "I know some of you hate me." And then he looks, and he goes, "Some of you are mad that I f***ed your mother." That's not what the script said, he just redid the take. He's like, "I can make this better." Chris would look at the opening scene, and he'll be like, "No, no, no, no, no. We have to have a better way to introduce Zeke." And then, he came back the next day and handed me a "Forrest Gump" monologue. And I was like, "Holy s***, this is hilarious." So Chris was great like that. And Samuel Jackson is, I mean, not only is this guy a legend, he's done 180-some movies, so he is so exact in what he does. With someone like him, he would usually nail it on the first take. He would come in, and he would just, boom, lay it down. And it was perfect.

Jigsaw is someone's Freddy Krueger

Samuel L. Jackson is now the biggest star to ever star in any of the "Saw" movies. Do you have any favorite on-set memories with him that you want to share?

I mean, I'll just tell you that he is a very intimidating presence, because I didn't have a chance to meet him prior to him showing up. And so I grew up being affected by his movies in a way that I cannot articulate. I mean, I remember in high school sneaking out to see "Pulp Fiction" again and again and again. So when he walks on set, he's bigger than life. He's just this f***ing presence. And it was one of those things that, again, I did not believe it to be real until I actually saw him on set. I was like, "Surely, I'm being with f***ed with. Surely, it's not the Samuel L. Jackson." No, but I mean, he was exactly who you would expect him to be in all those movies. I'll tell you one funny story. One of the first things we shot with him was his line where he says, "You want to play games, motherf***er? All right, I'll play." And he did that scene, and then he looked at the camera and goes, "There ... you got your one 'motherf***er,' I'm done." It was pretty funny.

You're known for directing some of the best sequels in the franchise. This is your first return to the 'Saw" universe after a good 12-year break. Was it like putting on an old pair of shoes or saying hello to an old friend? Was it easy for you to ease back into the franchise?

No, it was not. Because in a lot of respects, it felt to me almost identical to "Saw II." Where there was so much riding on it, for me, personally, I was nervous, because it was the first time I've worked with actors of this caliber. And there was pressure as well, because I think they were looking for something new out of this film. And so knowing that I was coming in and I had this huge legacy that I had to ensure didn't jump the shark, working with these huge actors, and the expectations of the fans. It was intense, to be honest. That said, it did feel good knowing that I did help steer the franchise to where it is now. So I did feel competent, in that respect, but I was also nervous every day. Every day, I kind of felt like it was my first film all over again.

The original "Saw" came out in 2004. Are you kind of amazed that this franchise is already a few years away from its 20-year anniversary? Isn't that crazy?

I was talking to someone the other day about how I don't think I realized the impact that "Saw" actually had when it was happening, because I was so close to it. I made "Saw II," "III," and "IV" back-to-back in Toronto. I was never really in Los Angeles, so I never saw the fandom. I never saw the insanity that surrounded it. So it wasn't until a few years after I left that I realized how big this thing really was, and the kind of cultural impact it had on horror cinema. I was going to say, in ten years from now, but it's actually happening right now. I'm looking at you in your "Nightmare on Elm Street" shirt, and there are kids walking around with "Saw" shirts on and it's crazy. Every day someone tagged me in a post that's got like "Saw" tattoos or "Saw" whatever. And it's crazy to think that we have now hit the kind of pinnacle of what some of those movies that we grew up in the '80s watching, whether it be "Friday the 13th" or "Nightmare on Elm Street." We are someone's Freddy Krueger, and that to me is crazy.

The new killer is targeting institutions, not individuals

What's your favorite "Saw" movie out of the ones you did not direct? Do you have a personal favorite?

I don't. Because you know what? I mean, I liked them all, but I'll say that I really liked Kevin Greutert's. But it was always like a really hard pill for me to swallow going to see a "Saw" movie, because I was with two different emotions pulling me — jealousy and rage. Jealousy that why wasn't I here doing this? And the rage of "I would have done it differently. I would have done it like this." And so I think that it was always a hard thing for me to sit back and watch, because I was so close to it, because I felt so much a connection to it. They were always hard for me to sit back with.

Did you have the option at one time to direct "Saw V"? Or did you choose to stay away? Was it because of personal reasons or other projects you wanted to do? Or was there another reason why you stayed away for a while?

Yeah, I mean, for me, when I did "Saw II," "III," and "IV," we obviously had the same producers, the same crew, the same cast, everything was so the same that everyone knew their jobs so well, and they were so good at what they were doing, I felt like myself as a director, didn't matter as much, the further we went on. Meaning that it was such a well-oiled machine that I felt like if I stepped away, the franchise would continue on full steam ahead. And so that stopped being as challenging for me. I wanted to know that I could f*** it up. I wanted to know that I could ruin it, because that anxiety is what fuels me and pushes me. So I had to step away, because I felt like they were on course to do awesome without me. And So 10 years, 11 years, 12 years passed, and I'm like, "You know what? I could do something." I could correct some of the kind of missteps, and I could, hopefully, put it on a course to be something new and exciting. So that's what eventually brought me back.

"Spiral" sort of wipes the slate clean. The only connective tissue is really that one photo we see of John Kramer, and then of course there's the symbol and the pig mask. As far as the new Jigsaw killer goes, I don't want to spoil who he or she is, but what's your favorite characteristic about the new killer that stands them apart from John Kramer? What's the thing that makes them unique?

This going to be a really cerebral answer. But John Kramer had a task that he was setting out and that was to change, to reform an individual, to take a drug addict and say, "You are f***ing up your life. You were taking advantage of what you've been given. And I'm going to put you in this insane test to reform you." But what is the progression of John Kramer's message? He's been dead for years, what is the progression? Not reforming an individual, but reforming institutions. SoI like that [the new Jigsaw] is not just going after a singular person, he or she is after an entire corrupt institution. So to me, I think that was something, because I wanted to see John Kramer's message evolve. And that, to me, is the evolving — no longer going after individuals, but now institutions.

Spiral is not Saw IX

There's that old saying, "Fear the man who has nothing to lose." John Kramer had that clock ticking. He had an expiration date, because of his terminal illness. The new killer, as far as we know, doesn't, so do you think that makes them less or more dangerous?

Well, one thing that I'll say is that no one, no one will ever be John Kramer. No one will ever be Tobin Bell. Tobin Bell is, in my mind, one of the most iconic, horrific, dangerous, and beautiful villains onscreen. And that was one of the main reasons that I elected to make sure that he was really not a part of this movie, because no one can compare to John Kramer, no one. If you put him in the movie, you're immediately comparing him to the other person. The hope is, as we continue on, and hopefully there's more of these, you will see the backstory of who this person is. And there is a charted-out backstory, in the same way that we did "Saw II." We charted out John Kramer's entire history. We did the same thing early on this one. And I think they're completely different in it. And I think that they are both dangerous in their own ways. And I think that, hopefully, and again, the first one's got to work, "Spiral" has to work, before we even talk about a sequel. If you remember in the first "Saw," John Kramer was only in it a few minutes. He was Dead Guy on the Floor, until he wasn't, until he stood out. And I think that you really learned about him as the franchise progressed. He was a mystery, the entire first time. And I hope that the same thing will begin to happen with our killer in this one as well.

Another thing I liked is that there was no mention of Dr. Lawrence Gordon or Logan, or any of Kramer's proteges and successors. When you were working with the writers, was there ever any talk about shoehorning them in, or maybe putting in little Easter eggs? Or was it your goal to completely wipe the slate clean?

Here's one of my big problems with the "Saw" franchise — it's so complicated, it is so dense in its mythology, that it's very hard for a new viewer to come in and watch "Saw VIII" without knowing "Saw I," two, three, four, five, six, and seven, because they are so interconnected, they are so interwoven. And I think that is also what makes them really unique and fun. They are an ongoing horror soap opera, and I can't think of another horror franchise that's done that. Usually, like "Nightmare on Elm Street," or "Friday the 13th," they stand alone. They're almost, there's a word, anthology-esque in a way that there might be some loose connections. You have your central villain that continued, but usually they change the villain. The Jasons change. The Michael Myers change. 

["Saw"], one through eight, is the same across the board, mostly. So I wanted to basically restart the franchise saying you don't need to know anything that came before it. If you did see the movies that came before it, there are a few Easter eggs in there that you'll enjoy. But I want to be vocal on one part, just because this doesn't connect really to "Saw" one through eight. That doesn't mean "Saw IX" won't happen. This is not "Saw IX." This is the ninth installment of the "Saw" franchise. There very easily could be a "Saw IX," where you're back in that world, you're back with Jigsaw, you're back with Costas Mandylor and the new killer. There is a world in which that is entirely possible. This is a completely different story that makes a right turn. Both of these stories can continue on. The "Saw" series can continue on and the "Spiral" series continue on. And I think that is the hope of what I came in to do, is that don't invalidate the previous films, start a new chapter. And I think why it's called "From the Book of Saw" is that this is a separate novel in the "Saw" universe, and that's not to say that there will not be other stories and other characters that we will continue on and follow.

The pig puppet has a name: Mr. Snuggles

I want to talk a little bit about the puppet. I didn't catch a name for him in the movie, maybe he doesn't have one yet, but he's the pig puppet. One, I wanted to ask, does he have a name? And two, how quickly did you guys settle on that design?

That is something I'm really proud of. So in the original script, there was not a puppet. And that was one of my big things I mandated. I said, "You have to have that iconic personification of what this movie is." And the movie is a story of police and the corruption of a police force. And so we wanted to think of an image that embodied that, that the killer was using to taunt. So I really wanted a pig puppet. I personally went out and hired an artist and came back with a bunch of different designs. He's never referred to by name. We on set called him Mr. Snuggles. That was just his name, "Someone bring out Mr. Snuggles." So yeah, Mr. Snuggles is what we call him on set. But no, he went through a couple of different designs until I thought he looked cool. And then I presented him to the producers and I said, "This is what we want." I think it's cool because, he is different from Billy, but he's got very similar features, from the kind of crazy dead eyes, to the spirals, to the material he's made out of.

I do want to touch on the law enforcement thing. Crooked law enforcement is a heavy theme in the movie. There are scenes with trigger-happy police officers. "Spiral" was supposed to come out in May 2020, before the George Floyd incident happened. It got delayed because of the pandemic, and now it's coming out while this is such a boiling hot topic in the news, do you think it's going to resonate more with audiences because of that?

It's a good question. I don't know. When we made the movie ... Listen, sadly, every time you seem to open up the news, there is a bad miscarriage of justice. We didn't make this with the intention, or even the knowledge that what happened in the last 18 months would have happened. Our intention, originally, was, let's go after different institutions. And so we literally looked at what are the different institutions? Well, there are the big banks, there's big pharma, politicians, the police. So we picked the first one that was the most "Saw"-centric. But we did talk, we had numerous conversations very early on that we wanted to make sure that we did not villainize these people. Meaning that there are corrupt officers in this, but also our hero is an officer as well. So I think it was important that it was him going after the corruption, not the good people. The good people that are left alone, they're going after the corruption. If this continues, and if there's more of them, I would bet that we're going to see more of what we consider corrupt institutions. And I think that's just an interesting thing to kind of take what Jigsaw did and multiply it.

How much creative input did "Saw" veteran producers Leigh Whannell and James Wan have? Did you consult with them at all?

James and Leigh, I think they deal more with Mark and Oren, who are the film's main producers from Twisted Pictures. Both of these guys could not be more busy. James is creating multi-bazillion dollar franchises, and now Leigh is directing multi-bazillion dollar franchises. It was funny, I remember Leigh called me when Chris Rock was announced, and kind of busted my balls a little bit. And he was like, "Of course, you get Chris Rock on your 'Saw' movie." So I texted Leigh throughout the shooting, but James is so goddamn busy, I don't think I've talked to James in years.

Darren Lynn Bousman would love to do a Goonies-like movie

If this does reignite the franchise, do you see yourself on board for sequels? Do you want to direct another two or three films? And do you see this one going on for eight sequels like the original John Kramer story? Or do you think "Spiral" should go more in the direction of a nice and tight trilogy?

One thing I've learned after doing "Saw IV" is never say never, because I said I would never come back. I'll tell you this, it kind of reignited my passion for "Saw," obviously, coming back here, working with those people, the producers. So yeah, I would absolutely come back as long as it continued to stay challenging. Meaning that, again, the reason I left "Saw" was, I felt in a box by the time I did "Saw IV." The look had been established, the tone had been established, the music, everything was the same. What was exciting about doing "Saw II," and what was exciting about doing this was, I was able to experiment. I was able to try new things. I wasn't locked in. So I think as long as the stories are fresh and it allows me to play around and experiment, then I would absolutely come back.

You're known for doing mostly horror and thriller movies. I'm trying to think of a good example. Like the time when David Lynch did "The Straight Story," he did this randomly different movie.

A G-rated Disney film.

Yeah, and he pulled the rug from under our feet. Have you ever had the urge to do something completely different and outside of the box like that?

Yeah. You know what's funny is that I have children now, and when I made "Saw II," I was single, I was in my early 20s. Now, I'm middle-aged, I've got two kids, a wife, two dogs. And the thing that sucks is that my kids love TV. They love movies, and I can't show them anything I've done. So every time my son comes in my office, he's like, "When are you going to make a movie I could see?" So I think that I would really like to make a dark family film, a la "The Dark Crystal," "Labyrinth," "Legend," something that's PG or PG-13, more something that is not just kid-based, but families can enjoy. But some of that, like early Jim Henson stuff that they were doing. I would love to do that, a "Goonies"-like movie. So that's something that I would really, really like. I've been very lucky in my career, though, and I think the "Saw" franchise allowed me this luxury that I was able to go off and make passion projects. I wanted to be a musical director, and I went off and made three musicals. I loved J-horror, and I got to go to Japan and shoot a Japanese horror. I wanted to do immersive theater, and so I went off and did these immersive theater things. So I've been lucky, but the thing that I've not been able to do that I want to do is something that my kids could see.

Darren Lynn Bousman's dream project? A new Leprechaun with Warwick Davis

Can you name a couple of recent directors or horror films that have blown you away?

I have a few movies. And you know what's funny, it changes daily, because one of the problems now is that there's so much content. And I watch so many movies now that I forget about them. I'll tell you, though, the movies that have stuck out to me, recently. Anything that Robert Eggers has done, be it "The Witch" or "The Lighthouse," because I feel those movies take extreme risks. I feel like they're not necessarily commercial. They're not for everyone, and they're ballsy. I really, really, really loved "Hereditary." I loved "Midsommar." I think Ari Aster is doing amazing work. Anyone that's taking a chance and not doing carbon copies or anything like that, I am a very big fan of. 

So, I think those two filmmakers, right now, I really, really like. I'm trying to think of other movies that I've seen recently that I'm like, this is amazing. You know what movie I loved recently? I loved the remake of "Suspiria," because I'm a huge fan of the original, but I thought that it had such insane visuals and it was its own movie, yet, still paying massive homage to the original. I thought that was great. I really liked that movie called "Cam." Daniel Goldhaber directed it. I really liked that movie. I mean, there's just so many, I can't even think, because I watch so much content now.

What's your absolute biggest dream franchise that you would love to get involved with? Maybe you have a desire to take part in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or maybe you want to remake "Nightmare on Elm Street." Is there like a dream project you would just love to get your hands on?

Well, I'll tell you, there's one that I constantly joke about, and I'll give it to you in two answers. I would love to go back in to do "Leprechaun" with Warwick Davis, make a new Warwick Davis-based "Leprechaun." And that's owned by Lionsgate. And I've been saying that since f***ing "Saw II," and no one will let me do it. I would love to go back and do "A Nightmare on Elm Street" with Robert Englund. Not the Jack Earle Haley redo, but go back into the original, and what made those great. There's a couple of books that I really love, and I don't want to mention them because I've been trying to get the rights forever. But the "Leprechaun" franchise is something that, I don't understand what I have to f***ing do to get the "Leprechaun" franchise.

"Spiral: From the Book of Saw" is in theaters on Friday, May 14.