We chat to director Kevin Greutert about Saw X, crafting Saw traps and what the franchise’s future looks like.
After 2020’s Spiral: From The Book Of Saw turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, both critically and commercially, Saw had seemingly nowhere to go. The main character had been dead since Saw III, but instalments without John Kramer’s direct involvement clearly didn’t work.
Saw X, the 10th Saw film, debuted in cinemas in September and became the franchise’s first critically acclaimed film. On Rotten Tomatoes, Saw X comfortably sits at 80% critic score and 89% audience score. James Wan’s original Saw, from 2004, has a measly 50% critic score for comparison.
Now that Saw X has been out for a couple months, we chat to director Kevin Greutert, who has worked on almost every Saw film, about how Saw X did what no other Saw film has been able to.
Now that the film’s been out almost two months, how do you feel?
We felt pretty confident about it from a pretty early stage. As difficult as it was to shoot the film – because it’s a movie, they’re always hard, but this had a lot of challenges – I felt very good about what we were shooting as we went along. It was also very hard to edit it together, because it was just me alone in a room for 10 weeks. But once I started showing it to producers and the studio, everybody was really into it.
I’ve been kind of glowing inside ever since then and it is a great feeling. It’s a great period of my life. At this point, my main personal concerns are what to do next. You’ll probably be asking about the future of the Saw series. I can go straight to that and say, we’d like to do one, but only if we feel very confident that it’s going to be just as good.
I did want to ask about it, not just in terms of are there plans, but what kind of plans? Clearly, the takeaway here is that John Kramer is the heart and soul of this franchise. Would you just keep doing any future instalments as prequels?
It’s just too early to say. We all feel strongly that Tobin’s character is crucial, but how he’s kept in the film is undetermined at this point.
Especially as he’s been technically dead for years at this point!
It started to get ridiculous how many pretzels we had to make out of the chronology in order to keep him in the story. I’m not a baker, so I don’t want to go back to that if I can help it.
When did the decision to make this as a prequel come about? Was the lukewarm reaction to Spiral a factor?
Actually, no, because Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger wrote this script, while we were editing Jigsaw back in 2017 or something like that. They had come up with a concept and written it. It wasn’t exactly like this script, but there was talk of making it and then it got moved aside once Chris Rock was interested in making it so they wrote a completely new idea and then returned to this one after Spiral. So it wasn’t a reaction to Spiral, per se, but I think it probably increased the filmmakers’ confidence that it was a good idea to return to John Kramer and to serve up as much of him to the audience as we could.
It paid off, clearly! In terms of Saw as a franchise, it’s been going on for nearly 20 years. What’s the balance of giving people like me, who have been there since the beginning, what we want and also taking into consideration that there’s a whole new generation of people coming to this?
Well, that was the obvious beauty of this concept. We were able to present a very simple story compared to the others, because we simply focused on an episode in John Kramer’s life. There’s no flashbacking required there, because [this] takes place early in the series, we don’t have to address what we call legacy characters. We could just tell the new audience up front, here’s a guy who thinks of these traps for people that need correction. I think anybody could watch this movie and understand it. But at the same time, of course, we’re able to do the traps, bring in a little bit of legacy stuff, but nothing that is required knowledge for the new audience. This script was perfect for that.
The traps – or tests, as John Kramer would call them – how do you come up with them? How much of it is about what’s going to be practical on a film set?
It’s a process. It usually begins with the script, the writers will have thought through what’s an appropriate way of challenging the person in a John Kramer manner, that presents a possibility of surviving it. And, as you say, it needs to be practical enough that we can afford to do it. Ideally, it takes a minimum amount of CGI. Although we do use CGI a lot, it’s usually not in a 3D build [way], it’s more making stuff look real. So it starts with the script, then I discuss it with the production designer, and then we discuss it with the stunt team and some of the other departments that get involved in it. And we just brainstorm and we test the heck out of everything so that we get a sense of what it’s going to be like on the day that we shoot it, so there aren’t any surprises.
Do you have a favourite trap, in the franchise and in Saw X?
Prior to X, my favourite was the Carousel scene from Saw VI, which was a brutally difficult scene to shoot. It was my first film, so it made it even harder! It’s the one time I’ve significantly gone over schedule. There were something like 200 camera angles that needed to be shot in order to put that scene together.
But now, it’s the scene where Valentina has to do something with a wire. It was a very hard scene to shoot, but because Paulette Hernandez is such an amazing actress and treated it like it was her life’s work. She should get an athletic award, an Olympic gold medal, for the amount of times she had to play through that whole scene where she’s crying when John’s telling her what she’s up against, and then actually going through the motions of doing what she has to do.
Then, everything came together, the prosthetics team, the lighting team, the camera team – Nick Matthews, our cinematographer, was the camera operator for that sequence – the performances of everybody because they were all contributing energy and intensity to the scene. Even if we didn’t have them on camera, for every take, they were still doing their thing behind the camera to encourage the Valentina character to do what she needed to do. It was a very intense atmosphere all around. The camera was moving around a lot and everybody had to do everything every take. It was several days of work but I think because the camera’s moving and you feel everybody working together, it gave it a great organic, realistic sense. It took me two weeks to edit that scene which was a pretty substantial portion of my schedule. That’s, for me, my favourite scene that I’ve shot in any film.
I’m glad you brought up Saw VI, it’s one of my favourites in the entire franchise just because of how political it is, while also having all the spectacle you want in a Saw film. And in that sense, Saw X is quite similar, there’s similar themes of taking advantage of people. Is that built into the franchise’s DNA or is that more of a personal thing for you?
Making it personal for John is personal to me. When we were writing, and casting the character of William in Saw VI, there was a push to make him a really despicable guy, with the assumption being that it will feel more justified that John Kramer is putting him through what he’s being put through. I personally, though, felt that we wanted him to have a human side that the audience could relate to, so that they care about him somewhat, as he’s going through all this because I feel in some of the earlier Saws, we just didn’t like the characters, so there wasn’t as much as at stake, seeing them undergo the John Kramer treatment.
Cecilia [in Saw X], of course, is pretty nuanced. We see her as very good at the beginning, then we see her as pretty darn bad. But still, there’s an emotional connection between her and Tobin. Even in the case of Saw VI, where William is undergoing his trial long after John Kramer is dead, we still see in flashbacks their relationship, in particular in the piranha scene, as people call it. For me, that was really important in both these movies, that we see the personal illness, and we see John and the antagonists face to face a lot.
And you’ve got a great scene where we go back to the original bathroom again. How difficult is it to get that right, because we’ve been in the bathroom a lot. There’s a lot of dead bodies in there by now! Is it a logistical nightmare?
It’s hard. The bathroom set, we’ve had to rebuild every time and this is a completely new crew in a foreign country, so it was kind of a struggle to get all the material together to make it match. We were only able to build three walls of it, so it was very tricky to get all the camera angles that we needed for it. But ultimately, the fans really do like it whenever we go back to the bathroom, so it was worth it. We didn’t take down that bathroom set. It’s in the middle of that factory where the rest of the movie takes place. It’s still there, just because you never know.
Saw X is available to rent and buy on digital now.