38 Things We Learned from the ‘Saw’ Commentary

Saw Movie Bathroom

Lions Gate Films

“If it’s Halloween, it must be Saw.” That was Lionsgate’s tag line to the Saw franchise for years. It all began in 2004 when then-unknown horror director James Wan delivered a very low-budget but very grisly thriller about a new killer named Jigsaw who didn’t actually kill people… he simply set them up to kill themselves. Fine line, there.

The rest was history. Wan went on to direct other iconic horror films, including Insidious and The Conjuring. Star Tobin Bell and his sidekick Billy the Puppet became as recognizable as Jason’s hockey mask. Torture porn (a bit of a misnomer for the earlier, better Saw films) became its own sub-genre. And for nearly a decade, most studio horror movie releases cleared the way for Lionsgate to drop a new sequel in October just before Halloween.

However, before it became a full-blown phenomenon, director James Wan sat down with the film’s writer and co-star Leigh Whannell to talk about the original for the DVD release. Now, for the film’s 10th anniversary, it’s time to look back at this new classic and learn.

Saw (2004)

Commentators: James Wan (director) and Leigh Whannell (writer/actor)

1. The very first shot of the film where Adam (Leigh Whannell) wakes up in the tub of water was shot on the first day. Even though he wrote the script, it was only when he was on set that Whannell realized they didn’t have the money in the budget for a stuntman to do the underwater scene.

2. All of the scenes of Adam and Lawrence (Cary Elwes) in the filthy bathroom were shot in chronological order over the course of six days. This helped the actors stay in character through the reveals and avoid continuity jumps, like the spreading pool of blood under John’s (Tobin Bell) body.

3. Especially in the early bathroom scenes, Wan made sure most of the shots of Lawrence were very controlled and steady while the shots of Adam were handheld and shaky in order to match the characters’ personalities.

4. The shackles around Elwes and Whannell’s ankles had a rubber lining which stopped the metal from cutting into their skin but was still very painful.

5. All the shots of John on the floor were actually of Tobin Bell. The production could not afford to buy prop dummies, and Wan did not want to “cheat” the film by not having the actor in the scenes.

6. In Wan’s original cut he took to Sundance, when Adam pulls the tape recorder from John’s hand, his finger slowly lowers to the floor. It wasn’t very noticeable on the small editing monitor, but blown up to the big screen, it was. Several people mentioned it to him as possible foreshadowing that John isn’t really dead, so Wan cut the shot from the theatrical version.

7. Wan cast Tobin Bell primarily for his voice because Jigsaw is rarely seen.

8. The feces in the toilet bowl that Adam fishes through were made of partially-melted chocolate.

9. At one screening a female audience member complained to Whannell that his character used his “smoking hand” to fish through the feces-filled toilet.

10. Many of Jigsaw’s victims in flashbacks were played by friends of the production. For example, Jigsaw’s first victim killed in a mesh of razor wire was played by a guy who used to play hockey with one of the producers.

11. The charred corpse of Jigsaw’s second victim is the only dummy that the production could afford to build. (Which works out, since no one would let themselves be set on fire to play the part.)

12. The entire movie was shot in 18 days, not including $400 in reshoots that Wan and Whannell did on their own.

13. In order to save money in set design and props, some of the sets ‐ specifically the police station ‐ were shot in locations where other productions had built similar sets.

14. Wan has had a crush on actress Shawnee Smith since he was a teenager. When his casting director asked him who he wanted to cast as Amanda, Wan offhandedly suggested Smith, and she ended up being available.

15. In order to pitch the film to producers, Wan and Whannell had both the jaw trap and Billy the Puppet created to shoot one scene for proof of concept. When it came time to shoot the movie, they used the same puppet for the production rather than building a new one.

16. The scene in which Amanda escapes the jaw trap was shot in less time than the actual proof of concept short they shot while raising money for the film.

17. During reshoots of the jaw trap scene, Whannell was the stand-in for Smith’s hands as well as her shadow on the wall.

18. What were the guts of Amanda’s victim? A pig’s uterus they bought at a local Chinese grocer.

19. If people walked out of the film, it was usually during the jaw trap scene.

20. The hidden camera in the bathroom with Adam and Lawrence is a cheat. No camera would have a wide enough lens to see the entire room with one shot, which is why on the monitor the room appears to be angled. Shots from both sides of the room were spliced together in order to have Adam and Lawrence in the same frame. This is, incidentally, one of the few shots of the film in which the characters actually share the frame.

21. During the scene in which Lawrence tucks his daughter in, the boom operator was clearly visible in the mirror, and no one noticed, so he had to be digitally painted out of the scene. This was one of the only two CGI visual effects in the movie.

22. The score, written by Nine Inch Nails’ Charlie Clouser, was completed in three weeks.

23. Zep’s (Michael Emerson) eye in the closet before he kidnaps Lawrence’s daughter Diana (Makenzie Vega) is an homage to the original Black Christmas.

24. Many of the scary elements of the film ‐ including creepy clowns and waking up to discover someone is watching you ‐ are personal fears of Wan and Whannell.

25. The scene in which Zep is tormenting Alison (Monica Potter) and Diana originally included him rifling through her underwear drawer, but it was edited out of later drafts.

26. The text of the newspaper clippings on Detective Tapp’s (Danny Glover) wall have nothing to do with their plot-driving, grisly headlines. One of the articles is about Stanley Kubrick, and another talks about the ACLU warning citizens against the government spying on them.

27. Almost the entire film was shot indoors, including the poor-man’s car chase near the end. Obviously this was done for budgetary reasons as well as to give the movie a sense of claustrophobia. Only three shots ‐ all of them involving a vehicle driving up and parking in front of a building ‐ were shot with the camera outside.

Saw Game Over

Lions Gate Films

28. “Stygian Street,” which is where Jigsaw’s warehouse lair is located, pays homage to the short film Stygian that Wan worked on in college. Also, probably, the river Styx.

29. Whannell doubled for actor Ken Leung for the shot of Detective Sing entering the warehouse with a shotgun. In the widescreen version of the film, only Whannell’s chin is seen at the top of the frame, but in the full frame version, his face is completely visible and it’s clear that it’s a different actor.

30. Jigsaw’s cloak was originally supposed to be red, but Wan didn’t like the way it looked on set. So he had wardrobe turn the cloak inside out to use the black interior as the outside. This is why the seams of the cloak are clearly visible.

31. The glow-in-the-dark X painted on the wall was actually a projected X with regular light cut from a black cloth.

32. For the scene in which Lawrence was kidnapped by the pig’s head character, the schedule only allowed for three shots.

33. Wan and Whannell don’t consider this a horror film but rather a dark thriller set in a horror film world.

34. One scene in the bathroom called for Adam and Lawrence to cut through a pipe on the wall. However, this was dropped, not just because they didn’t want to start suggesting the characters could cut through the pipes they were chained to, but also because the set would move a lot when they started sawing.

35. In order to direct young actress Makenzie Vega, Wan gave direction to her parents who would then relay it to her.

36. Someone threw up during the movie at its screening at the Toronto Film Festival. Wan and Whannell never found out during which exact moment this occurred, but they suspect it was during the scene in which Lawrence cuts his foot off.

37. Only men are killed in this movie. All the female characters survive.

38. When Adam is beating up Zep at the end, Whannell accidentally connected with Emerson’s jaw.

Best in Commentary

  • Whannell: “Remind me next time I write a film, James, in which I intend to play a main role. Have it go, ‘Fade in: A young man finds himself on a beautiful cushioned mattress being serviced by buxom wenches who feed him grapes as if he were a prince.’ Not, ‘Fade in: A young man wakes up in a bathtub and spends the entire film dripping wet chained to a wall next to a disgusting toilet.’”
  • Whannell: “So I had to bring this thing [Billy the Puppet] over from Australia in my suitcase, and I’ve never wanted to have customs search my suitcase more in my life.”
  • Whannell: “For anyone out there who’s an independent filmmaker or writing your own script. Use your budgetary limitations to your advantage. Make it part of the aesthetic.”
  • Wan: “There were many days in the editing room where I just wanted to fuckin’ shoot myself.” ‐ Wan

Final Thoughts

While the sequels blow hot and cold, the original Saw remains a classic. I don’t blame it for starting the torture porn trend any more than I blame The Blair Witch Project and later Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity for kicking off the awful found footage trend. The films that ruined the genres came long after these originals.

It’s interesting to hear Wan and Whannell talk about the film less than a year after it was released, ignorant of what the series would become and where their careers would take them. There’s a certain humility there that is refreshing to hear.

There’s a bit too much doting over some of the actors here, particularly Cary Elwes (who isn’t as good of an actor or as much of an A-lister as they say he is). However, their stories of Elwes’ humor on set sound like they definitely had a great time with him.

This commentary for such a relatively short film (with a 103-minute running time) is entertaining and informative. Wan and Whannell are pretty funny to listen to at times, to the point that you have to keep looking at the grisly images in the film to remind yourself that they’re talking about a horror movie.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives