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Just when filmmaker Darren Lynn Bousman thought he was out of the Saw franchise, Chris Rock pulled him back in for Spiral, a spinoff that’s set in the Saw universe. Since Spiral is not a direct sequel to any of the previous eight Saw films, Bousman and Rock recognized the opportunity to do something a little different. The new chapter still has the franchise’s trademark death traps and gore, but the film is ultimately a psychological crime thriller about police corruption.
“When Chris Rock calls you, you can’t say no to that. There’s just no way to,” Bousman tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Honestly, that is 100 percent the truth. It was Chris Rock. I left after three number-one openings, and I was like, ‘The only thing that I can do from this point is fuck it up.’ So I stayed with that and felt that until the idea of a Chris Rock Saw movie. That, as a fan, even made me say, ‘Fuck, I want to see that.’ So when I met with him, I was like, ‘It’s a 100 percent yes.'”
Oddly enough, Spiral was Rock and Samuel L. Jackson’s first time acting together in a narrative feature, and Jackson certainly lived up to his reputation.
“The very first day that Sam was on set, his very first line, line number one, was ‘motherfucker,'” Bousman recalls. “And then after he did the shot, he looks directly at camera and goes, ‘There, you’ve got your one “motherfucker.” I’m done.’ So we got the full Sam Jackson experience because we ended up getting three ‘motherfuckers,’ I think.”
Because of the gruesome nature of the Saw films, securing an R-rating has been a challenge since the launch of the franchise. But even though Spiral has less total violence than previous Saw installments, it ended up being Bousman’s biggest battle yet with the MPA.
“I get so frustrated even thinking about it. They came after us really hard on the finger scene, actually,” Bousman shares. “The finger scene was much longer in my original cut. Much longer. And the skinning scene, yeah. It’s a hard thing because the skinning scene was a very important scene from a story standpoint. So I had to fight tooth and nail to keep it, and explain that if that shot is cut out, the reveal won’t work. So it’s a lot of giving and taking. It was probably the hardest of any Saw movie that I’ve done.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Bousman also discusses the future of Spiral, how David Fincher’s The Game nearly became a TV series and moonlighting in immersive theater.
After doing three films in the Saw franchise already, I have to assume that you had no real intention of returning. Was Chris Rock’s involvement just too intriguing to pass up?
Yeah, when Chris Rock calls you, you can’t say no to that. There’s just no way to. Honestly, that is 100 percent the truth. It was Chris Rock. I left after three number-one openings, and I was like, “The only thing that I can do from this point is fuck it up.” I was just scared that the only place to go after Saw 4 was down. I didn’t want to be the guy to jump the shark or do another one that crippled the franchise. So I said, “I have to walk away.” And at that point, I felt I had done everything. I’d killed a lot of people in gruesome ways, and I didn’t know what else I could offer to the franchise. So I stayed with that and felt that until the idea of a Chris Rock Saw movie. That, as a fan, even made me say, “Fuck, I want to see that.” That’s something that I would want to pay to go see. So when I met with him, I was like, “It’s a 100 percent yes.”
I presume you shot the script, but since you had Chris as your lead, would you clear the runway for him and just let him run wild with improv for a couple takes?
You let Chris Rock and Sam Jackson do whatever they want. (Laughs.) I mean, you’ve got those two guys in the movie. What’s funny is that we pretty much shot the script. However, the caveat to that is that Chris would have ideas. And sometimes, after we’d shoot a dramatic scene, Chris would come back the next day and he’d be like, “You know what, man? I can do better. We have to do that again.” And I’d be like, “Chris, it was great. It was fantastic.” And he’d be like, “No, man, it was too serious. We’ve got to go again.” So we’d reshoot it, and he would just change something by 5 percent. He’d add a joke or some levity in it, and then all of a sudden, that scene would work a thousand times better. So that was the way the entire shoot worked. We would shoot something, Chris would watch what he did, and then he would just constantly improve upon it. One day, while we were already filming, he came to me and said, “Hey man, my intro.” And I was like, “Yeah?” And he was like, “I can’t do that. We’ve got to do better than that.” Originally, Chris’ character was introduced busting a dispensary, a weed store. So I was like, “What do you want to do?” And he was like, “I don’t know. Let me think about it and get back to you.” And the next day, he walks in and hands me the Forrest Gump scene. So that’s how Chris would work. He was constantly trying to improve his role and the script, as a whole.
Somehow, Spiral is Chris and Sam’s first time working together in a narrative feature. Did they comment on their long-awaited collaboration during filming?
Yeah, it was funny. Here are these two titans that have never been together, which was shocking and crazy to me. But the entire experience of working with those two guys just felt surreal to me because I am a film lover before I call myself a director. There’s a picture of me that Lionsgate released and I have the dumbest smile on my face because I’m standing in between Sam Jackson and Chris Rock. I’m standing next to Jules from Pulp Fiction, and I’m standing next to who I consider to be the greatest living comedian of our time. And I was directing them in a movie franchise that I kind of steered a decade and a half ago. So it was just a surreal, surreal thing for me.
And you really got the full Sam Jackson experience as he was saying all sorts of Sam Jackson-type things.
(Laughs.) Funny story… The very first day that Sam was on set, his very first line, line number one, was “motherfucker.” It was when he threw a glass against the wall in a flashback, and he goes, “Motherfucker!” And then after he did the shot, he looks directly at camera and goes, “There, you’ve got your one ‘motherfucker.’ I’m done.” So we got the full Sam Jackson experience because we ended up getting three “motherfuckers,” I think. There’s also the Fitch flashback one, and then there is the, “You want to play games, motherfucker? All right, I’ll play.” So we actually got three — three for the price of one.
The movie is about police corruption as Chris’ character is suffering the consequences of turning in a murderous cop years earlier. As the events of 2020 unfolded, did the movie start to hit you in a whole new way?
Yeah, definitely. When you’re watching the news and you’re seeing the protests and the riots that are taking place with regard to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, it framed what we shot completely differently. But the sad reality is that this isn’t new. This has been going on for years and years, but more of the spotlight got put onto it during the pandemic. So yeah, it was a crazy thing to watch, but it’s also a sad thing.
Back in 2019, when we were making Spiral, one of the things that was most important for myself and the writers was to ensure that we weren’t trying to deliver an overly weighted political message. And a critical thing for us was that if we were going to focus on corrupt cops, then it was paramount to us that the hero be a cop, as well. Because not all cops are bad. Chris’ character had to have done the right thing, and that’s his whole backstory. He did do the right thing by turning in the wrong officer, and that’s why everyone’s against him. So it was important for us to just keep the balance.
After eight previous films, there must be instances where you and your writers struggle to come up with unique death traps. If and when that happens, do you turn to some dark corners of the Internet for inspiration?
(Laughs.) I am on every government watchlist for the amount of shit that my Google history has in it. Yeah, I’ll tell you that I’ve accidentally clicked on some pictures that I wish I had not. But it’s more laborious than people realize because it’s not just, “Let’s think of another way to kill someone.” It’s more, “How does a trap work mechanically, and what would it really do to a body?” The tongue trap went through so many different incarnations of what we thought it would do versus what it actually does to a body. And then you have to alter it. So I’ll give you an example. The tongue gets ripped off because he jumps off of a ladder, but it was originally written that he had fish hooks around his lips and tongue. But if you actually go through the process, which we do, of looking at what would really happen, the weight of his body would just tear through the flesh if he jumped off a ladder. All it would do is just tear his tongue and lips. So we were like, “OK, that doesn’t work.” So then we have to go down this rabbit hole of, “What would tear out a tongue? And what does that actually look like? Where would the tongue actually rip out?” So even though these are gory scenes, there is a lot of effort in making sure that what we depict is actually what would happen.
The MPA gave Spiral an NC-17 rating eleven times before finally approving an R-rated cut. Did they object most to the skinning scene?
I get so frustrated even thinking about it. They came after us really hard on the finger scene, actually. The finger scene was much longer in my original cut. Much longer. And the skinning scene, yeah. It’s a hard thing because the skinning scene was a very important scene from a story standpoint. It was a story-driven thing. I didn’t care necessarily about the gore, but there’s one particular shot, without giving something away, that was critical within the movie. It’s one shot in the skinning scene, and they wanted that out. So I had to fight tooth and nail to keep it, and explain that if that shot is cut out, the reveal won’t work. So it’s a lot of giving and taking. You’re like, “OK, I’ll cut this shot out, but I have to keep this one.” So yeah, it was a hard time for sure. It was probably the hardest of any Saw movie that I’ve done.
Even though it’s make-believe, do some of the actors still get overwhelmed and anxious in those traps, especially after numerous takes and long hours? Having a wax-like substance poured on your face must be pretty unpleasant after a while.
Oh my God, it’s terrible. That’s really Marisol [Nichols] in that wax trap. The actors are in the traps. Marisol is literally tied down, and she is at an angle in which everything’s going to go up her nose and down her throat. So that’s really hitting her. There has to be a level of trust in doing these things. And there is a lot of fear because not only do you have to emote, you have to scream, you have to thrash around, as you are getting some horrible liquids or glass shot at you. They’re intense. We go through very rigorous safety protocols to ensure that everything is safe going into it. Fitch and the finger trap scene. He was probably in that for 12 or 13 hours. Now, he is actually in it; his fingers are in that thing. It works exactly as we say they do, and you can’t pull your fingers out. If you try to pull your fingers out, it would skin them, and there really are gears turning. So this actor is basically sitting in water for 12 hours and having to scream for 12 straight hours. It’s harsh. And it’s harsh to sit in the sound stage and hear it, as well, because hearing grown men scream like that can take years off your life.
Was the New Jack City reference Chris’ idea?
Chris would always do these hilarious and quick ad libs that were very meta. Whether he’s in the car with William (Max Minghella) and talking about different rappers, or doing the New Jack City line or The Wire line, he just had all of these hilarious one-liners. If this movie’s successful, there is a director’s cut version of this where you’d get a lot more Chris Rock being Chris Rock.
Did it take forever to manufacture the perfect mystery voice?
Oh my God, that’s so crazy you ask that. That was an agonizing process because fans that are coming into this have spent eight years getting to know and love John Kramer/Tobin Bell. And Tobin Bell has such a unique sounding voice that it was very easy to make those tapes terrifying. So knowing that we were kind of starting over again, we needed the tapes to not remind people of Jigsaw. It had to be its own thing. So we went through 200, maybe 300, different ideas for the voice. From a kid’s voice, to female voices, to old man voices, to computer simulated voices. And it wasn’t until we were on the mix stage, two days from finishing, that we actually decided on that voice.
The photography is distinct from the rest of the franchise. What was the philosophy of you and your DP?
So, Jordan Oram, who is the cinematographer, is a kind of cool story. In the office of the pre-production place, I always had music videos playing. I’m huge into music. I just love music. So I just had music videos constantly playing on a loop. And when we were out meeting with DPs, I wasn’t really responding to any of them. I just knew what I wanted. I wanted someone young, someone hungry, someone that had a more unique vision. And in the background, I hear this Drake song that I love called “God’s Plan.” So I just said to my assistant, “Find out who was the DP of this.” So she came back to my office and said, “Not only is he a Toronto-based DP, he’s two blocks from here.” And I was like, “You’ve got to get this guy in the office right now.” So Jordan came in and met with me, and I hired him right then and there. He’s a very young kid that was so talented and brought such a different energy to the movie. It definitely has the Saw feel, but it’s its own unique thing 100 percent.
Do you know the broad strokes of where the surviving characters could be headed?
The answer is yes. We’d first knock on wood and hope that people go see this film. If they do see this film and they like this film, there is definitely a plan of what would come next and what would happen next. We haven’t written anything on it. There’s nothing like that. But one of the things we do on all the Saw movies — and what we’ve done on my three Saw films — is you set up things that you know you’ll pay off in a later film. So we definitely had that discussion going into this movie: “What do we want to set up that we’ll pay off later?” So if we do get greenlit for a sequel because people did respond to Spiral, we’re not starting from square one. There are seeds that have been planted.
So if Sean Penn wanted to teach someone to lighten up a little bit, you’re the guy to call, right?
(Laughs.) The Game is my all-time favorite movie. Yeah, I moonlight at night by doing crazy, fucked-up immersive theater experiences for people. People don’t seem to realize that The Game is real and I run it. (Laugh.) I really do. So if you’ve ever seen the David Fincher movie, I can do that to your life. It’s good times.
How has The Game not been turned into a TV series by now? You could do an anthology series where each season is a different game. And instead of the player’s perspective, it could be told from CRS’ perspective since producing the experience is likely ripe with conflict.
So there actually was. USA… this made me so mad. I’m going to vent for half a second. So I’m a filmmaker. I’ve made some successful movies, and I also run an immersive theater experience. So you would think that when they were making The Game TV show, they would call me and say, “Hey dude, come pitch us.” But that never happened. A friend of mine did get called to do The Game. He had to write a show bible and everything. It never ended up going anywhere, but I know that there was a process a year ago. I don’t think it ever got greenlit where they were trying to make it into a TV show. To me, that movie is the perfect thriller. I’ll watch it at least every six months. It’s one of my favorites.
Fincher’s style is felt across the entire franchise, but The Game must’ve been a key influence on the first Saw given the life-threatening challenges and creepy doll.
Oh yeah. David Fincher’s Seven is an inspiration on this movie as well. As a filmmaker, I would call him one of my top influences because I love how he just does different and insane stuff. It’s not the same movie told again and again and again. He’s doing different things each time. But the thing that I love the most about my career is the fact that I have been able to make movies and then leave making movies for a few years to go do these insanely intense immersive theater experiences. It’s something I feel very lucky about. I was actually in New York when I got the offer to do this movie; I was setting up a huge New York-based Broadway immersive theater experience. And then I got the phone call to come back and direct Spiral on the same day, literally the same day that I got the contract for this Broadway thing.
What helped you realize that you could turn to immersive experiences as a way to fill the gaps between movies?
As a filmgoer, I find myself so distracted, and I think, as people, we are distracted. We walk around with supercomputers in our pocket. We have access to anyone and everyone at every second of the day, and most people are constantly on their phones. My kid does martial arts. I was at a martial arts class the other day, and there were 30-something parents there watching their kids. And when I say “watching their kids,” they weren’t watching their kids. They were all staring down at their phones. Not a single one of them was looking up at their child. And that was my whole desire to get into doing these immersive theater things because it forces the audience to be active. It forces the audience to play a pivotal role in a narrative, as opposed to something like Spiral, which you will go see in a theater and sit there for 90 minutes. And that’s if you see it in a theater. There’s a chance you’ll just watch it on VOD, and when you’re watching it on VOD, you can be doing twenty things at the same time. Immersive experiences force you to be present; you have to be active. There is an energy to immersive theater and a connection with the audience that you very rarely feel. So it just seemed like a natural progression for me to try to do these shows and to try to reconnect with an audience member. And there’s no way to even articulate that relationship. When you have an audience that is literally embroiled in a mystery that involves them — that they are the centerpiece of — it’s a fantastic thing. And I’m doing the same thing as I’ve always done. I’m still telling stories; I’m just telling them in a different way.
So I heard about your crazy Death of Me experience and that wild location scout. Have you considered turning the latter, at the very least, into a feature?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I’ve had some crazy stories on different productions, from going to Japan and shooting in these small villages, to Thailand, to a haunted location. I have equally as insane stories about shooting in Barcelona with everyone and the crew either getting violently ill, being pushed down staircases or quitting because they would see unexplainable things in this house that we shot in. So I think there is a great book, at least, that I can write out some of the insanity that I’ve experienced in some of these unique locations.
Spiral is now available in theaters.
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