Producer: Heather Buckley
Stars: James Wan, Leigh Whannell, Darren Lynn Bousman, Kevin Greutert, Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Cary Elwes
Cast and crew recount the making of the first “Saw” movie and discuss the series’ impact as a blockbuster franchise.
Definitive documentaries are a recent rage for horror film franchises. “A Nightmare on Elm Street” has the excellent four-hour retrospective “Never Sleep Again” (review here). “Crystal Lake Memories” (review here) trumps that length with its nearly seven-hour look back at “Friday the 13th.” “Leviathan” goes longer still by spending eight hours breaking down just the first two films in the “Hellraiser” oeuvre.
With more than a half dozen movies and the Guinness world record for “Most Successful Horror Movie Series,” “Saw” is beyond ready for an equally exhaustive examination/celebration of its genesis, impact, and legacy. Yet rather than receive a comprehensive creation like those mentioned above, “Saw” has to settle, at least currently, for “Game Changer: The Legacy of Saw,” a cursory documentary scratching so lightly at the surface, it barely leaves a lasting groove.
There’s nothing wrong with Lionsgate stitching together a behind-the-scenes bonus initially intended to accompany the unrated iTunes edition of “Saw.” But with only 73 minutes to cover seven years and seven movies, “Game Changer” is a marshmallowy nostalgia piece driven more by marketing than any desire to delve deeply into the series’ inner machinations.
Being fluffy isn’t necessarily bad. “The Trap Is Set,” the first chapter of the doc’s three parts, highlights director James Wan and writer/co-star Leigh Whannell’s early enthusiasm with inspirational reverence. By the film’s conclusion, Wan and Whannell are painted, accurately and admirably, as two fresh out of film school kids from Australia with an idea about two men trapped in a bathroom who launched a billion-dollar juggernaut on $1,000,000 and an 18-day shoot. If that isn’t a pants kick to remind that Hollywood dreams can come true through persistence and passion, nothing is.
Wan recalls having a compromised vision for the first movie. Restricted by scheduling, several scenes went unfilmed while others were left with slim coverage. “Game Changer” reveals that a lot of the series’ distinct style, from frenetic camera swirls to creative editing techniques, arose out of necessity to work around lack of footage and resources.
These anecdotes bring to mind similar stories from “Star Wars,” such as the Tusken Raider menacing Luke Skywalker with a gaffi stick, the result of an editor rocking the same frames back and forth because there wasn’t enough available footage. Wan is not unlike George Lucas in that the movie he wishes he made is surprisingly not the movie that audiences fell in love with. It’s funny, and again inspiring, to recall that the brief vehicular chase scene from “Saw” consisted of grips rocking stationary cars against a black backdrop, yet Wan would go on to direct “Furious 7” on a budget 200x higher than that of his breakout feature.
Other anecdotes of note include Shawnee Smith’s reveal of initial disinterest in the role of Amanda. Smith’s presence in the series became so intrinsic that it is difficult to imagine her not being part of it. Tobin Bell shot for eight days, six of which were simply the actor lying on the floor. Producers wanted to use a dummy or a double, but Bell insisted on being in the room with Whannell and Cary Elwes the entire time for the sake of realism.
Second chapter “The Game Continues” briefly touches on where “Saw” went after the first film’s success, with heavy emphasis on the word “briefly.” Cough too loud at the wrong moment and you’ll miss everything said about “Saw III” through “Saw V.” The last two sequels receive maybe one interesting comment each. This entire segment is where it becomes clear how much is skipped or missing content-wise. Bell, Whannell, Elwes, and Smith are the only actors interviewed in “Game Changer.” Others like Costas Mandylor and Betsy Russell featured in more “Saw” films than the latter three names, yet are nowhere to be found.
Chapter Two concludes with fond recollections of late producer Gregg Hoffman. Hoffman died only two months after “Saw II” was released, making it odd that discussion of his influence is included out of sequence chronologically as a bridge into the third and final chapter.
“Game Over,” with an ominous question mark threatening at the end of that second word, winds down “Game Changer” with a somewhat-extended treatise on the phrase “torture porn” for anyone still interested in that debate. “Saw” sequel co-writer Marcus Dunstan is the main head-shaker regarding the term’s misleading sexual connotation. Editor and sequel director Kevin Greutert level-headedly points out that “porn” in that context is merely a metaphor for something someone is really into. Whannell sums up “torture porn” succinctly as shorthand for a concept, not unlike “grunge” or “splatterpunk.”
Normally, I might dismiss “Game Changer: The Legacy of Saw” as an unessential DVD extra, which it is, and not rate it critically at all. However, Lionsgate chose to give the documentary a theatrical screening as part of Screamfest 2015, notable mainly for a mildly bonkers mid-movie Q&A.
Eerily on cue as the film faded into its second chapter, flashing strobe lights suddenly illuminated the dark of the theater. While initial thoughts confusedly wondered if this was part of some weird live supplement, a prerecorded voice of calm announced a fire alarm and asked the audience to evacuate, which we did in slow but disorganized fashion. No one even bothered to leave the lobby, opting instead for a bathroom break or trip to the concession stand bar for a cocktail.
Upon returning to the theater, even though no one announced it was safe to do so, we were told it would be a while before protocols allowed the projector to boot up again. The man with the microphone made a joke about someone capable of stand-up entertaining us in the meantime. Leigh Whannell and “Saw” sequel director Darren Lynn Bousman accepted the invitation to kill time for us. The drinks in their hands did not appear to be their firsts for the afternoon, and the audience was better off for it.
Whannell and Bousman launched into a series of recollections involving nights of drunken revelry while making “Saw II” and “Saw III.” So steeped in alcohol were those nights that Whannell and Bousman were banned from the Metropolitan hotel in Toronto after Whannell launched a mini-bar across Bousman’s room and rained Sunday morning newspaper pages down the entirety of the hallway. Another story involved throwing pizzas out a 20th floor window in an attempt to hit a neighboring building, a feat that remained unaccomplished. Whannell returned to the lobby bar years later on an unrelated project and the bartender regaled him with stories from the sequels Whannell was not involved in, including the tale of a tequila fire-breathing contest that sent bar curtains up in flames.
Kevin Greutert recounted cutting the first film in the living room of Whannell and Wan’s temporary apartment on Fairfax and Beverly in Hollywood. Greutert was hesitant to name names, although Whannell did (let’s just say this person’s stage name starts with “DJ”), in recalling how a potential composer came to the apartment for a rough-cut screening. Greutert and Whannell listened as this person took a phone call and said out loud, “they want me to score this movie about two guys in a bathroom … (pause) … yeah I know, f*cking bullsh*t!” and left halfway through.
Probably less than 50 people were in the theater, including a homeless woman likely interested only in a cushioned seat and air conditioning. Couple this sparsely attended free screening with the disappointing box office performance of the first film’s re-release in 2014, and it cannot appear to Lionsgate as though anyone is terribly eager for a sequel or a reboot. Though the low turnout did lead to a hilarious moment when Whannell imagined what a newscast might sound like had the fire threat been real: “17 Saw fans tragically burned to death in a fire at the Chinese theaters…”
Although gossipy to say the least, bits like these are far more interesting than the self-congratulatory back-patting onscreen in “Game Changer.” At one hour and 13 minutes, “Game Changer” was never going to be comprehensive in coverage, and it is likely to be eclipsed in relevance whenever someone decides to give “Saw” the same due as “Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th,” and “Hellraiser.” In the meantime, “Game Changer” satisfies some mild curiosities and hits enough meaningful notes to renew a bit of interest in the “Saw” franchise, albeit in a primarily passing and mostly perfunctory manner.
Review Score: 65