the writing studio
Celebrating the art of storytelling and the craft of writing


Daniel Dercksen

If you look up the words torture and sadism in the dictionary, you'll most probably find references to the film Saw, an independent horror that injected a refreshing Hichcockian formula into the genre and opened up a vein for a flood of sequels, with Saw III opening nationwide on January 12.

Talking to Australian screenwriter and actor Leigh Whannell, who wrote all three Saw films and starred in the first one, it is interesting to discover that the seed for these films was planted and one of the most monstrous killers in cinema was born, when he was only 25-years-old facing his own morality in a hospital.

"I was going through a bit of a tough time health wise and suffering anxiety," says Whannell. "The anxiety manifested itself in physical ways. I was suffering headaches everyday for nearly a year.  It was serious stuff and really started affecting my life."

He did not believe that anxiety caused the headaches and went to the hospital for a cat scan. 

"It was weird to be 25 and sitting in a neurological ward and I'm surrounded by people who actually had brain tumours. It was very scary and it was my first proper look at mortality. I really wanted to get my health back and it really hammered it how important good health is. If you've got that, you've got everything"

It was during his visits to the hospital that the malevolent character of Jigsaw of born. In the Saw saga, the character ironically seeks revenge on those who take good health and life for granted.

"I think Jigsaw represents the dark side of my viewpoint that I don't think everyone appreciates their lives and what they have," says Whannell, who received a clean bill of health after his tests.  "I certainly wouldn't make them realise what they have the way Jigsaw does, but he kind of represents a certain viewpoint of my humanity."

"I'm not a morbid person trafficking these horror films," he says. "I'm not a type of person who revels in the dark side of life. I revel in the light side of life and want to enjoy all facets of life."

When talking to Whannell one becomes aware of the two distinct personalities of actor and writer. The conversation is an entertaining balance between the writer who ponders, and the performer who enjoys acting out his thought and bringing words to life.

"I have a lot of facets and many different layers and emotions and I'm constantly struggling with who I am and the world," he says. "I'm a very flawed person like anyone else. I'm sort of just a big mess of emotions and feelings."

He began his career as an actor appearing in Aussie series like Neighbours and Blue Heelers and landed his first role in The Matrix Reloaded.

An absolute film buff who enjoys going to the movies, he is also a fan of horror films although he finds that he is "very hard on horror films".

"I'm not one of these horror fans who will just watch anything as long as it's branded a horror film and has a little bit of gore.  There are very few horror films that I watch," he says, referring to films like The Shining, Poltergeist and Jaws.

He is intrigued by fear and how people respond to horror films. "I think people just like to be scared, they like that tingle up their spine."

"I love hearing ghost stories and hearing about the unknown," he says. "There's this whole universe out there that humans know nothing about. Ghost stories intrigue me because it's a window into the world and think horror films do the same thing. Being scared reminds me that I am human."

Whannell has always dreamed of being a storyteller, "be that through writing or acting." he said.

Whannell, who has had an affinity for storytelling since the age of 3, most probably something he inherited from his mother, who is also a great film buff, and his father, who worked behind the camera in the television industry.

"I'm inspired by people with integrity," he says. "People who strive to do something for artistic reasons rather than promotional reasons and those who are brave enough to fail."

As a young filmmaker living in Melbourne, Australia, who has not been taken in by the celebrity status of Hollywood, filmmakers like Spike Jones and Darren Arronofsky who "are pushing the envelope" also inspire him.

"They are breaths of fresh air that make you realise in today's world, where everything seems so commercial, there's still some true artists out there."

It was Memento and The Usual Suspects that became a model for Saw, thrillers that are "intricately plotted and are like labyrinths with twists, turns, and blind corners."

"You get to interact with the film. If a film makes you laugh, cry, think, jump with fear or if it pulls the rug out from underneath you."

With Saw I & II having grossed more that $250 million in worldwide box office, and Saw III steadily climbing the box office charts abroad,  Whannell believes that it is the result of a good story.

"I think we have definitely given the Saw fans a great continuing story," he says. "A lot of time with horror films the formula for sequels is to take the villain and put them in another situation where he will be killing another bunch of people off rather than actually having a story that continues and that you can follow through. I wanted the first 3 Saw films to feel like a trilogy you can watch as one big movie."

"What it's proved to me is that if you have a good story you believe in, then someone else out there is going to like it to, he says. "You have to remain very passionate about what you are doing. Passion carries you through. Your enthusiasm will be infectious. The reaction to Saw proved to me that my ideas are worth something and valid."

Is there going to be a Saw 4?

"I think in terms of outdoing ourselves, we definitely went further with the violence in Saw 3 but for me, this is why I am bowing out now. I am not going to work on Saw 4."

He recently wrote the screenplay for James Wan's Death Sentence, and will also star in Whan's film Silence - he has been a friend of Wan since they met at film school and they collaborated on the first Saw, with Wan directing the film.

"I haven't really changed through this Saw experience," he says. "It's not like I am now living in Hollywood and hanging out with celebrities. I just like being and staying human, trying to experience life."

Copyright © 2007 Daniel E. Dercksen
Published with Permission in the Weekend Argus, January 13, 2007
Published with permission in the Sunday Tribune, January 21, 2007