‘Spiral’ Director Darren Lynn Bousman on Reinventing ‘Saw’ and the One Scene That Was a “Big Problem” for the MPAA [Interview]

Director Darren Lynn Bousman didn’t create Saw, but he arguably defined it. Following the success of the first film, Bousman was handed the reins of the series and transformed it into a decade-defining horror franchise with Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV. The elements we remember most – the increasingly gruesome traps, the ensemble of victims ensnared in a series of brutal challenges, the shockingly tight continuity – were all born on his watch.

And after over a decade away from the world of Jigsaw, Bousman is back with Spiral: From the Book of Saw. Less of a direct sequel and more of a separate story set in the world of the previous films, the ninth entry in the series is a police procedural starring Chris Rock as a detective on the trail of a Jigsaw copycat killer targeting cops. This new approach allowed Bousman to make a Saw movie without making a Saw movie, keeping just enough to tie the film to the larger franchise while forging its own identity.

/Film sat down with Bousman to discuss the meeting with Chris Rock that got him back in the director’s chair, the film’s big shift in style from the rest of the series, and the one scene that had to be trimmed to appease the MPAA.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The opening scene is big departure from past Saw movies. Fireworks, open city streets, crowds. The first eight movies, even when they open up a little bit, turn claustrophobia into an aesthetic. They very intentionally lean into that low-budget style. Was this a chance to reinvent the language of what a Saw movie could be?

Yeah, I think when you end up with Chris Rock or Samuel L. Jackson in a movie, you’ve gotta change it up. I left Saw 4 and I said I was done because I had felt that I’d done everything. I had done the claustrophobia, I did that. Having a chance to come back and do Spiral was a way for me to come back and basically reset everything I thought it needed. I had been watching all of the Saw movies since I left, and they maintain basically the same look, the style, the editing – except Jigsaw. Jigsaw is its own thing. I wanted to reset it again and say, “This is a different Saw universe.” So it’s got familiarity. You’re going to see the traps, you’re going to see the blood, you’re going to see all those crazy whip-pans. But it’s also going to be bigger. It’s going to be more outdoors. It’s going to be in the daylight, it’s not going to be at nighttime. So yeah, it was a chance to reset the look and the aesthetic of the film.

There are certain elements that remain, like the speed-ramps. There are just enough touches in there to feel connected to the style of the previous movies. Did you ever sit down and say, “Okay, these are the five things that make a Saw movie that have to be in here”?

It one hundred percent was. But it was actually the other way: what are the things we’re not bringing back? Knowing that this was its own thing, and I say this a lot: this is not Saw 9. It’s the ninth installment of the franchise, but not Saw 9. I didn’t want to put Jigsaw or the Billy doll in it because they are so iconic to Saw. They are Saw. So you take those away, and what are you left with? What are the most important things? You’re left with the traps, you’re left with the kind of twisty-turny plot, and you’re left with the Charlie Clouser music. So I knew I had those three things. That was how we started the palette off. Charlie Clouser, the traps, and the twisty-turny kind of – hopefully we do a twist you didn’t see coming. Those are the three things you’re left with, and then we kind of build on top of that.

The structure is a crime procedural. It has a lot more in common with Seven than it would with a traditional Saw movie. I know Chris Rock was involved with the story. Was that sort of his angle, to tell this as a detective story?

Yes and no. Chris’s big desire going into this was, he wanted more of the tone of 48 Hrs. I remember 48 Hrs. being a comedy, but it’s not. 48 Hrs. is gritty. It’s a gritty crime cop drama that happens to have Eddie Murphy being funny in it. But if you were to take Eddie Murphy out, it’s balls to the wall vicious violence, with Nick Nolte being a badass and drug dealers and prostitutes. So we wanted to lean into the 48 Hrs. aesthetic a little bit. But I’ve kind of come to this realization over the past couple of days: Spiral is three different movies. It’s 48 Hrs., it’s Seven, and then it becomes Saw at the very end. So you start off in the 48 Hrs. world and it’s kind of like a buddy cop movie. It becomes Seven through the investigation, and it ends with Saw.

Spiral was initially Chris Rock’s story idea and he’s a producer on the film, so how did you enter this? Was it a case where they said, “We need a Saw guy here,” or did you say, “I want to come back”?

No, I didn’t even know it was happening. I got a phone call one afternoon from Mark Burg, who is the producer, and said, “Hey, I need you to come in town and meet Chris Rock.” I was in New York, and I was like, “Chris who?” I didn’t even process that it was that Chris Rock. My mind just couldn’t wrap around that he would want to do a Saw movie. So I flew in town and met with him, and I realized Chris was an actual fan of the Saw franchise. He was a big fan. So I talked to Chris for like two hours, left, and got a text message right away from Mark that said, “Chris demands you direct this movie.” I was like, awesome. That is so crazy that Chris Rock, probably one of the world’s top living comedians, was asking me to direct a movie. It was something I couldn’t pass up.

On the set, were you deferred to as the guy who was there for Saw 2, 3, and 4? If anyone had a Saw question, you’re the guy?

You know what’s funny is, I’ve been out for fifteen years. So there’s a lot of things that have taken place from when I left to now. Dan Heffner, Mark Burg, and Oren Koules are the three guys who have all been with it from the very beginning. They were all on set every day. So there were a lot of times where I’d want to do a trap, and they’d be like, “Oh, we already did that in Saw 6.” And I’d be like, “What about–“ “No, that was in Saw 8.” “Fuck!” But I think that they did trust me to do something different. I think Saw had been either so much the same or so much different in Jigsaw, they knew that I would bring the right aesthetic. I’m a fan over a director. I am a Saw fan, I am a movie fan, and I’m a fanboy. I hang out on the chat rooms, the Discord servers, the reddits, and I read what people want, what they like, and what they don’t like. So I think I’ve got my finger on the pulse not only as a Saw fan, as a reddit person that’s into horror, as well as a director. I think I was the perfect mix for them to know that I would change it just enough but still have enough of the DNA of Saw that fans would still like it.

Speaking of the traps, this is the first time in a while where a some madman could have gone to Home Depot, bought the supplies, and built these. Was that your goal?

A hundred percent. I remember sitting in the theater and watching Jigsaw, and I was like, “That’s not a fucking laser. Are they using fucking lasers? God damn it, you can’t use lasers in a Saw trap!” What made Saw cool to me, in the first one – I mean, I got kind of ridiculous towards the end, but in Saw 1, 2, and 3, they were anything that a person with an engineering background could go to a scrapyard or a Home Depot and build and construct. Then as later films started going on, they started getting more complex and more sci-fi. I wanted to go back to the basics and say, it’s a clamp. It’s just a clamp on a guy on a ladder. The wax is just hot wax being poured on someone’s face. The glass thing is a real thing that exists in glass factories. We just took off the tube and the chute the glass goes into. These are all real things. I think that was important for us, to try to bring it back to more of a basic Saw trap. Today, I still think the needle trap holds up to be everyone’s favorite trap because it’s simple. You look at it, you know exactly what it is.

I talked to horror director Mike Flanagan about why he likes to injure hands in movies, and how it’s because everybody’s hurt their hand. Not everybody’s been in a massive trap that twists your body. When a needle goes into your skin, you know what that feels like. It’s more visceral, even though it’s smaller.

A hundred percent. Those are the scariest. I still remember one of the most graphic scenes in a cinema that I saw that sticks with me was a very small moment in a movie called Stir of Echoes with Kevin Bacon. A girl is getting pulled on the floor and she reaches in, and as she gets yanked, her nail comes off. I can feel that in my gut, what that feels like, a lot more than you can getting all of your organs ripped out and dumped on the ground. But you know what getting a fingernail ripped feels like. I think those are the ones that always resonate with me the most.

The most effective gore sequence in Spiral, without spoiling it for people who haven’t seen the movie yet, is a scene involving fingers being stretched. I think we’ve all slammed our thumb in a car door, so we have a frame of reference for how this may begin to feel.

Yeah, that was a scene that was much longer. That was a big problem with the MPAA. Originally you saw every finger break, every knuckle crack, every bone come out. That was a rough one. Again, I love that trap because it’s all practical. We had this amazing designer, François Dagenais, who has done Saw 2 through this one, build the hands. So they actually all broke apart the way we show them doing, which was just gnarly.

Was there ever any pressure to use CGI for the blood? The movie feels very practical, it feels very gooey.

We use very little CGI in this. It’s only there to augment – we’ll remove blood lines, for example. We will get rid of some beauty touches. But it’s all practical, and we have a great effects team that does it all real. Even the guy getting hit by the train, that’s all real. He has a prosthetic tongue that he’s biting on to, and when he gets hit, that’s a real guy exploding. We have a mannequin that we built that actually is hit that explodes. So I’m really excited about that. We try to stay away from as much CGI as possible.

We recently ran an article on the site about Saw’s legacy, and our writer astutely pointed out that when people were saying Saw is just violence fifteen or twenty years ago, we were living in a post-9/11 world. People were thinking about torture. People were thinking about feeling trapped. Saw was reflective of its times in a way that people didn’t give it credit for at the time. Spiral is wearing its social messaging on its sleeve, with its story about police corruption. How much did you lean into that in this movie, having your message on your sleeve in a more vivid way than the original movies did?

It’s crazy how timely the movie has become in the last year. We wrote it in 2018, we shot it in 2019, and it sat on a shelf in 2020. In that time, we have all these insane tragedies take place, whether it be Breonna Taylor or George Floyd, that none of us could have imagined. But then again, maybe we could have imagined it, because it was happening back then as well. In any of the messages of the early Saw films, it was Jigsaw [and his apprentices were] trying to reform. They would say, “You’re a drug addict, and we’re going to put you in this horrific situation and show you to appreciate your life, individually.” We wanted to elevate that message and progress it…in an institution. So we said, “What are corrupt institutions we can look at?” Instead of taking an individual, we’re taking an entire institution. So even though it is individual cops, it is all the police now who are putting up a mirror: have I done anything? Am I a target for this? I think that was a much more interesting idea as we move forward: moving away from individuals and looking at institutions. Whether that be Big Pharma, or Wall Street, or banking systems, or the church. I think that, to me, is where we will see Saw going, hopefully if this thing continues.

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Spiral: From the Book of Saw is in theaters now.

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