INTERVIEW: Expanding Saw with ‘Spiral’ Director Darren Lynn Bousman

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Spiral From the Book of Saw
Chris Rock in promo art for Spiral: From the Book of Saw.

SAW is a long franchise with many ups and downs, even for its fans, let alone its critics. But as the ninth entry in the series, Spiral: From the Book of Saw set out to subvert expectations and change the formula, all while embracing the heart of what made the franchise a staple in horror for the past two decades. In the film, a criminal mastermind unleashes a twisted form of justice. Working in the shadow of his father, an esteemed police veteran (Samuel L. Jackson), brash Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock), and his rookie partner (Max Minghella) take charge of a grisly investigation into murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past deeply rooted in the police department’s corruption. We got the chance to sit down with director Darren Lynn Bousman to discuss Spiral: From the Book of Saw, the film’s traps, working with Chris Rock, and how the film has changed Jigsaw’s message to the institution, not just the individual.

If you’re not someone who checks the credits of films, then you might not know that Bousman isn’t a stranger to the franchise. In fact, he directed SAW II, SAW III, and SAW IV. It has been 15 years since he stepped into the franchise. But he was more than happy to jump back into the director’s chair,  “Anytime that they give me the ability to change things up and change directions and subvert expectations is exciting.” Bousman explained, “So, coming back in now, 15 years after I left, Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson as a moviegoer and a fan of the franchise, I want to see that. I want to see what a Chris Rock version of SAW looks like. So to have the opportunity to be involved in that, it was impossible for me to pass up.”

On working with Rock, Bousman explained, “Chris Rock was on top of knowing where he was going and where he’s been in each scene. We shot this out of order, so the first scene that was shot was the last scene with Samuel L. Jackson. So Chris had to go to that place right away and then had to backward engineer it into the humor of the beginning. I’ve never had a more collaborative person than Chris Rock. From the beginning, he knew the movie he was making, and he leaned in.” And that lean in is what helps push Spiral: From the Book of Saw to not only capture the things we love about the franchise but also push it to new grounds.

And that new ground is a morality system that has been moved from an individual person to an institution, in this case, the police department. “That’s my favorite thing about this,” Bousman explains, “Jigsaw’s message was about reforming an individual. Taking a drug addict and changing them. But the problem with that is: how is me taking one person going to affect someone six states away? The idea of going after a corrupt institution, whether or not you’ve picked, you become the focus. You make national news, and it puts a spotlight on the entire institution and not just a singular individual. It also shows that his message is growing. Even though there is no John Kramer in this movie, his message is very much alive. And I think that’s the natural progression of where the SAW series had to go.”

This expansion of Jigsaw’s mission is where Bouseman subverts expectations, and it’s also what makes it hard to root against the new killer. But that is the point, as Bousman explains, “Any great killer [in film] has a message of truth. And even if it’s a macabre nature we don’t agree with, whether that be Hannibal Lector, John Kramer, or this new killer. When we made it in 2019, Geroge Floyd had not happened, Breonna Taylor had not happened, but people still knew about this. There were still incidents all over. So we made sure that there was a message. But it was also important that the hero had to be a cop as well, the one who did the right thing, who turned in the bad ones, and he’s the person trying to stop it. ”

This new take on an old message didn’t come without its pressure, as he explains, “There was a lot of pressure. I had Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson, it’s the biggest SAW budget, and  I had been away for 15 years. So the pressure was for me to subvert expectations yet still try to give fans who loved the franchise something to cling onto. It’s got a lot of the DNA of SAW in it. It’s got the traps, it’s got the music, it’s got the twists, but it’s a completely different movie.”

With Spiral: From the Book of Saw, viewers get a very clear message and look into the corruption of the police, and to do that, Bousman broke the film’s three acts into individual film genres, looking to show the narrative that evolves over time. He pulls together buddy-cop comedies, detective noir, and finally SAW itself, and by doing that, he had to pay attention to where his inspirations were coming from and who they were. He explained, “The traps are for the fanbase, a complete homage to SAW. But we set out to make three movies; we see each act as one movie. It starts out as a buddy cop 48-Hours that turns into Seven and ends in SAW. I wanted the minute that the audience thought they knew what it was doing, it turned its tone a little bit. The movie starts off a little humorous, Chris Rock being Chris Rock. Then it turns into a hard-boiled detective thing. And then it ends with the classic SAW mentality—that music, that style, those edits. It was trying to balance those three movies so that it felt cohesive.”

But the varying tones and theme of the film have left it in a weird spot when you look at score aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes, which Bousman explains, “What I find the most interesting of what I’ve seen is the polarization of the critics and fans. You want to make a movie that everyone loves, but you want to make a movie that is doing something different. And I think that half the reviews I’ve read are utter hate as in ‘this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen, they’ve killed SAW.’ And the other half is ‘Holy shit! SAW is back; it’s awesome, I love it.'”

And while there is a stark division between critics and fans, you can’t argue the scope and impact of the traps in Spiral: From the Book of Saw.  “We wanted the traps this time to go back to the basics, where I think as the films progressed they became more over the top and grandiose,” Bousman said, “I wanted to go back to some of the more simplistic ideas that you can buy this from home depot, find it in a junkyard, and it would work. I made sure there were no more laser beams and stuff like that. It had to be more simplistic.” And it’s that simplicity that brings viewers back to the early days of SAW, and it’s also what makes these traps even more brutal than extravagant ones we’ve seen in the latter part of the franchise.

Spiral From the Book of Saw
Samuel L. Jackson in the final trap of Spiral: From the Book of Saw.

Bouseman added some detail as to why these traps feel even more vicious, and the answer was simple: because they’re real. “In the case of the fingers [trap]…it really works that way, he can’t get those off himself. So when we put that actor in there, he had [metal] mesh around his fingers, and when they were attached to the cords, he couldn’t pull them off because of the pressure. The only way to get him out was that someone would have to take those cords to push them towards him, and then he would have to push himself to release the tension. So when he is in that trap, he really can’t get himself out. So, if we were to really pull, [the trap] would really do that. That’s why they’re so horrific because they really are working the way we say they are.”

He continued, “They go through a progression, and they take weeks. It takes the production designer, the effects artists, the engineers, the writers; it’s a whole team of people for each trap. But the most important aspect is: it has to work how we say it works. If it doesn’t work that way, then we don’t do it.” Even in their simplicity, the traps aren’t easy to execute. Bouseman walked us through the opening tongue trap—which you can watch here, I dare you—”The trap progression is fun but arduous. We basically look at the character, and we say the character of Boz, the first one who dies, is a police officer who lied under oath. So, okay, how do you amplify that in a trap? Well, he used his mouth to say things, so we know the trap has to involve a mouth. Which then you look at, what is the organic material you can f**k with? You can f**k with lips, teeth, and tongue. We were like, okay, we’ve tried to do teeth in the past, and it doesn’t work; it’s a very hard thing to do. So then, going from teeth, we looked at tongue and asked, well, how do you remove a tongue? Well, you can use pliers. But that’s not visual. So, let’s have him remove his tongue and throat by jumping off. ”

Overall though, when you watch Spiral: From the Book of Saw, one trap stands out on top, the finale, the moment that summarizes not only the evil deeds done by the cops but the trajectory of the film. Specifically, in this last trap, Bousman and team bring us back home to SAW. On the final moment, Bousman added, “That trap was the hardest. It was completed to shoot. It’s Samuel L. Jackson, and he’s in a harness. You have prosthetics, you have special effects, you have pyrotechnics, you have all of these things at play, and they have to act on top of all that. To me, you knew something bad was gonna happen. The killer hands [Zeke] a gun, and we know there is a bullet in it. He could just kill the killer, but it’s not that easy. We wanted it to feel like a moral dilemma. Do I shoot the killer who has done all this crime? Or do I shoot my dad down to try to save him? It was making sure that [this trap] played on numerous levels. On an aesthetic level because it looked good. On an emotional level by showing the stakes. And then, the mystery level of ‘what the f**k is he supposed to do?'”

And that’s all there is to say. Spiral: From the Book of Saw is a film that was made with two things: a love of SAW and an eye for something bigger. By pushing our expectations, shifting Jigsaw’s message, and delivering traps that bring back the glory of the franchise, Bousman was able to show us the future of the series, and damn am I ready.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw is playing in theaters nationwide.

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