'Saw' Franchise Director Launches Immersive Theater Production 'Ascension' in L.A.

After directing 'Saw' sequels II, III and IV, Darren Lynn Bousman turns his back on the horror series to launch 'The Tension Experience: Ascension' in a Boyle Heights warehouse.
Jason Alvino

When Darren Lynn Bousman arrived in Hollywood after graduating from film school, he was just another kid with a screenplay. It was called The Desperate, a horror-thriller that was often rejected, he was told, because it was too similar to Saw. Still, Bousman was surprised when he got a call from the producers of the horror franchise — Gregg Hoffman, Oren Koules and Mark Burg — who offered not only to make the movie, but to let Bousman direct. The catch was that The Desperate would be incorporated into the franchise as Saw II. It was the dream of any young filmmaker, and for Bousman, it led to Saw III and Saw IV, which collectively earned more than $450 million worldwide. After living and breathing the gory franchise for four years, however, Bousman says he was ready to move on.

In the years that followed, he made 2008’s ill-fated Repo! The Genetic Opera starring Paris Hilton, as well a numerous self-distributed horror titles familiar to few. But now Bousman is back with The Tension Experience: Ascension, beginning Sept. 8 in Boyle Heights in Downtown Los Angeles. It’s not a film, but an immersive theatrical event tailored to participants’ choices.

“I worked on Saw and learned how to tell a story,” Bousman tells The Hollywood Reporter about what went into his current monthslong project that will culminate in the 24-room labyrinth built for Ascension by producer Gordon Bijelonic. “I didn’t tiptoe in through the Saw universe. I dove in and did my first real movie. This kind of taught me to tell a story.”

Bousman hopes Ascension will join titles like Sleep No More, a site-specific Macbeth staged in a Manhattan hotel, as a major title in the emerging genre. Having seen the London import roughly 10 times, he lists it and others, like the Lewis Carroll-inspired Then She Fell, among his favorites. 

“I’ve made some extreme risks in my career, and hindsight is 20/20,” he reflects of the Saw franchise and years since. “I could be angry, I can be upset or sad I can’t get my movie distributed, or I can’t get money to make a movie, or I can do something about it. With me, I refuse to fail and I refuse to go away.”

Some participants of The Tension Experience also refused to go away. It began last February with players who dialed a mysterious phone number in small print on the logo of the Facebook page of the O.O.A., a secretive organization. They were given an address, a date and time. Those who showed up met for a consultation, marking the beginning of their part in a story about a missing girl who came to Hollywood and got taken in by the O.O.A. Along the way to this month's culmination with Ascension, some players took things a little too seriously.

“There were a few that were completely out of their mind that made some serious threats,” Bousman says with a shudder, recalling an incident involving the FBI. “If you’re calling and text messaging and showing up to locations, you begin to blur the lines a little bit. That’s not everyone, that’s a few people out of hundreds who had an issue. It was scary cause you’re dealing with a strange 'cult' and you have people who take what you’re doing to be non-fiction.”

Even scarier might be the prospect of diving into the movie world again after the modest showing of his most recent film, Abattoir. With the Ascension sets already built, the script written and the actors hired, only an idiot wouldn’t put it on film. The plan is to continue the production through Halloween, close it down to shoot the movie, then reopen as immersive theater again. After that, he’ll confront the real-life horror of finding a distributor and getting Ascension into theaters.

“It’s hard to compete. Every day it gets harder and harder cause you have so many movies being released On Demand, Netflix, DirectTV. You have so much content being produced,” Bousman says. “My success is in trying to bend and being outside the box and doing things that are so weird. I think it forces me to step outside my comfort zone. And the weirder and more risks that I take, the more people look. I get their attention.”

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