The Jigsaw Is Family: Saw X Producers Explain What Makes a Saw Movie

Mark Burg and Oren Koules look to the future of the franchise

"For 20, 25 minutes of the movie, he's John Kramer, which we've never done before." Producer Oren Koules explains why Saw X is about the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell) in a way no other Saw movie ever was. (Photo by Lionsgate)

Saw X may have been the least secret Fantastic Fest secret screening ever, but it still held some surprises, not least the appearance of producers Mark Burg and Oren Koules at what turned out to be the world premiere.

The producing partners are a rarity, in that they have been involved in every single Saw movie since the 2004 original, and not just in a "contractually obligated credit" way. With the latest installment being both a box office success and a return to form for the franchise after the disappointing soft reboot of Spiral, the future of the series, especially with the return of fan-favorite Tobin Bell as the devious Jigsaw in his meatiest performance yet, seems brighter once more.

Austin Chronicle: There are certain things that make a Saw movie. There are the obvious elements, but then there are some less obvious constants, like a Charlie Clouser score. So, when you're coming at a new Saw, what are the things were you go, 'If we don't have this, it's not a Saw film'?

Mark Burg: Well, Charlie's not allowed to say no to us.

Oren Koules: We've had six people there right from the start.

MB Charlie Clouser's been there right from the start. (Saw X director) Kevin Greutert has been there from the very beginning, as he either edited or directed or edited and directed every single movie. Jason Constantine has been our executive at Lionsgate for 20 years. And Dan Heffner has produced every single movie. So it's really a group of people who have stayed together for a long time.

OK: We really try to have consistency. The other thing we do in our process is we don't really talk about the traps when we're doing story. We check story, and check continuity, because there's so many characters bouncing around in different movies, different stories. So we really check story and continuity, and we have a placeholder in "Trap A." That's literally it. And then we work backwards with the production designer about what that trap will be, how will it relate to the movie.

MB: And we'll be like, 'This trap's too close to that trap, we did that in Saw III, we can't do that, we did this in Saw V.' It's a process, but it works.

And we never talk about a future movie until a movie's opened. There's been times when we haven't talked about Saw until Thanksgiving. 'OK, let's do it.'

Mark Burg and Oren Koules at the world premiere of Saw X at Fantastic Fest (Photo by Heather Kennedy)

AC: Because there was that period when it was the Halloween annual event.

OK: Seven in seven.

MB: We did seven movies in seven years.

AC: How brutal was that?

OK: It was brutal, and in between those seven we did eight years of Two and a Half Men.

AC What was the mental whiplash?

OK: Well, the only good part about was that we were so busy that we didn't have to do a lot of the Hollywood breakfast, lunch, dinner screw-around. We were too busy to even bother.

MB: And we also didn't want to do any other movies. Oren and I aren't the kind of producers that want to do 10, 20 movies a year, 'Let's just keep cranking out horror movies,' y'know? And yeah, you make two or three hits and the rest go straight to video, and that's just not who we are as people. We were more than content to make one movie a year and make it as good as possible.

AC: I guess that was one of the pluses of doing a TV show like that: you have the downtime, but you also had stability. It's hard to see anyone being able to have your kind of career any more.

MB: Not many people are doing 24, 26 episodes a year. Most shows are like eight to ten episodes, and that's one of the things the writers are striking for. 'You guys used to pay us for 24 hourlies. How do you expect us to survive?'

OK: One of the other things is to have the same studio executive for 20 years. Jason's always been the head of genre at Lionsgate. They did Haute Tension, they did Cabin by the Lake, Eli Roth's Hostel, Open Water. They were just killing it, and it was a fun time to be around there, and in our early days of Saw hopefully we contributed to some of that.

He's baaaack. Billy the Puppet is just one member of the constant core team that has always been part of the Saw movies, including producers Mark Burg and Oren Koules who attended the world premiere in Austin last week at Fantastic Fest. (Image Courtesy of Lionsgate)

AC: The Saw movies have always had this weird moral problem of how far you follow John Kramer down his rabbit hole. His legacy, his moral code he leaves behind for his acolytes, you're always going, 'Well, did this person really deserve it?' He's never had a nemesis, and this time you've gone, 'What if there's somebody in the room who plays as rough as he does?'

MB: And finding Synnøve Macody Lund in Norway, to be as physically imposing as she was, she needed to be super-smart to play a doctor's daughter who you believed was smart enough to play a physician, and smart enough to go toe-to-toe with John Kramer, which she does.

OK: There's a scene where she starts mocking him. 'Do the voice. Do the voice.'

MB: She was a real find.

AC: This is the first time where you really feel that there's a character who is not constantly one step behind John.

OK: We show early on, in the second scene in the film, that he's dying. We know he's dying, but to hear 'months.' So obviously his guard is down in terms of his logic, so he hears about this experimental treatment, and he goes blindly for it. All of a sudden, you see him, he's in an airport, he's in Mexico City. So, for us, he was exposed to have a challenger.

There's something else you said. I remember Mark and I were doing Comic Con for maybe Saw III, doing a big panel and Q&A, and they started talking about John as the protagonist. Both Mark and I were like, 'Wait, he's the protagonist?' and people really looked at him as the hero of the movie. It was a little shocking to us.

MB: We thought he was the antagonist.

Mark Burg and Oren Koules at the world premiere of Saw X at Fantastic Fest, accompanied by Billy the Puppet. (Photo by Jack Plunkett)

AC: It's the Hellraiser problem. Clive Barker saw the Cenobites as side characters and Julia as the villain, and he tried to keep up with that in Hellbound: Hellraiser II, but the audiences wanted the Cenobites. So when did you realize that it was John, and you couldn't fight against that?

OK: That's why we gave him this movie. For 20, 25 minutes of the movie, he's John Kramer, which we've never done before. Especially with him dying in Saw III, we had flashbacks and snippets of him, his credo, whatever you want to call it. So for us to actually have him, follow him in his mission to extend his life, was pretty cool.

AC: And we have to talk about John's games. As the films go along the timeline, they get more complicated, but in Saw X these felt like early, more primitive traps.

MB: We started thinking that the traps were getting too far away from what Saw really was. Early on, it was that John could go to a Home Depot or a Lowes and build these traps.

OK: He's an engineer.

MB: So the traps in this Saw movie, we made a conscious effort early on to go, 'Could he have done this? Where would he get the pieces? How could he build these' Yeah, they're a little bit complicated, but we think he could have pulled it off.

Saw X is in cinemas now. Read our review and get showtimes here.

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