The Saw director tells all about his latest DVD release and his plans for the future
"I love it. I love being big balled, and being in your face. I want to approach every moment of filmmaking like that. From the emotional scenes, to the visceral action, to the really crazy camera work." - J. Wan
Stop what you are doing and go rent or buy James Wan's Death Sentence on DVD right this second. It is the most underrated film of 2007. It landed on both the Whoop-Doo! Nation's and Stephen King's end of the year top ten lists. It is a visceral screamer that delivers on all accounts. Action, excitement, gore! Thrills, chills, suspense! Kevin Bacon, John Goodman, and Leigh Whannell! This American adaptation of Brian Garfield's follow-up novel to "Death Wish" is the most accomplished film of Wan's career. It is a definite must see, and will surely become a miniature cult classic on the revenge scene.
Wan made his directorial debut with the crime thriller Saw, which has gone on to become a worldwide phenomenon. He has since directed the Hammer Film's throwback Dead Silence, and now this, his masterwork Death Sentence. James, always a gracious and friendly gentleman, stopped by our offices (i.e. I did this phoner in the bathroom at the Four Seasons) this afternoon for a chat about his latest DVD release. Here is our conversation. I hope you enjoy:
James Wan: Hey, Paulington!
James, how are you doing?
James Wan: Not too bad, bro.
Well, I've got to say, I saw your movie. And I loved it. In fact, it made it onto our top fifteen list for 2007.
James Wan: (Laughs) Well, I'm glad. (Laughs)
I noticed it also made it onto Stephen King's top ten list. How did you feel about that?
James Wan: Dude, when I heard that from Stephen King, I was like, "I don't care what any other critics have to say. Stephen King digs it!" I was excited to hear that.
Were you a little disappointed in the theatrical life of the film?
James Wan: Yeah. You know, any filmmaker wants his film to be really successful theatrically. I'm hoping this will become a film that is discovered by people on DVD. Especially now that the home entertainment part of the industry is as big, if not bigger, than the theatrical part of a movie's life. From a financial standpoint, I am excited. A film like this plays very much like a classical 80s exploitation flick. It's the type of movie you want to rent on home video. I really hope now that it is coming out on DVD, that people discover it. That's were it will live in perpetuity.
Did you do anything new for the DVD? Are we getting an Unrated version of the film?
James Wan: It is the unrated cut. I don't know which cut you saw.
I paid to see it in the theater.
James Wan: (Laughs) Essentially, I think there is only one version of the film coming out on DVD. Or, are there two versions of it on the one disc? I can't remember now. The unrated version has more of the emotional scenes between Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman's characters replaced. There are two or three more scenes between the two of them. I'm glad that we are putting that back into the film. There is also more emotional family stuff that has gone back into the film as well. Hopefully, people will like that aspect of it. It brings a lot more character to the movie.
Can you tell me a little bit about the look of the film. It seems to me that as the narrative progresses, a lot of the color is drained out of the negative. What was your thought process behind that?
James Wan: Hey, man. I am so glad you picked that up. That was basically what we were going for. We really wanted the film to start off pretty normalesque. But as the story progresses, it spirals directly into Hell. I wanted you to emotionally feel that on a psychological level. We wanted to show that on Kevin Bacon's face as well. We also wanted to show that in the atmosphere and environment around him. One of the ways we did that was through the saturation of the film. At the end of the movie, when he comes back home, we brought a lot of the colors back into the film again. It was just a fun thing to do from a visual standpoint. If people pick it up, that's great. If they don't, it doesn't ruin the story.
It almost becomes black and white.
James Wan: (Laughs) I guess. It does become very cold by the end of the film. I think that is a good reflection of what Kevin Bacon had to go through in the movie.
Was it your intention to make this sort of look like a graphic novel? You had those limited edition posters at Comic Con, and I was surprised that some of the cinematography actually takes on that certain stylized, comic book sort of look.
James Wan: Hey, man. I guess that is a compliment.
It is a compliment.
James Wan: I am a big fan of graphic novels. Was it meant to look like that? In the back of my mind, maybe psychologically. I don't think I set out to make it look that way. I'm not quite sure. But I definitely did want the film to be a very stylized looking film. I wanted the action to be very gritty and realistic. I also wanted the visuals to be gritty as well. On that same note, I wanted it to be stylized gritty. I guess growing up with graphic novels and comic books, a lot of that did filter its way into the film.
I really did mean that as a compliment. Out of all the films I saw this year, I thought this one really had a unique look to it. I was kind of taken back by some of the cinematography in it.
James Wan: One of the things that I really wanted to do was bring a lot to the cinematography of the film. I felt like, as a revenge story, a lot of people will feel that they have seen this type of movie before. The theme of revenge has been around forever, right? I wanted to bring something different to the genre of revenge films. The ones that we are very familiar with. The two ways I found to do that were to make the camera work really kick ass. And I needed to make the revenge scenes really scary. I thought in doing that, I could bring something different to the film. That's what people are waiting for. At the end of the day, Death Sentence is a very low budget film. It is an independently financed film with Fox distributing it. Right? I am very excited that I got to make the film that I wanted to make. Obviously, I wish more people had seen it when it came out at the movie theater. Hopefully more people will get a chance see it now that it is out on DVD. I feel it is my best work as a director so far. I want people to see it, for sure.
Can you talk a little bit about the casting of John Goodman? This is a guy that seems to be a little bit in hiding right now. How did you get him in the film and what was it like working with him?
James Wan: I don't know why, but that does seem to be true. I think you are right. He is very selective with the films he makes these days. Huh? I don't know about you, but I am such a big John Goodman fan. I love the guy. Especially in all of the Coen Brothers films that he has done. I did have a tricky time at the start convincing people that John Goodman would be really good for this part. Every time I brought up his name, people would say, "But John Goodman? He is so likable, and adorable." I'm like, "Go back and watch some of the earlier work he did with the Coen Brothers. He is pretty scary in those films." I really believed that John Goodman could pull this character through. Without giving too much of the film away, Goodman plays the guy that has a strong stranglehold over the rest of the gang members. Right? I felt that the character needed to be played by someone that could be physically intimidating. And John Goodman has that physic. You look at this guy, and you go, "I don't want to cross paths with him. He looks like he could beat the shit out of me." At the same time, the character needed to be played by someone that was getting cast against type. We haven't really seen John Goodman in a film like this before. I really hope people look at him and say, "Wow, it is really cool to see John Goodman in a movie like this." He is playing such a prick of a character. I don't know if you feel that way, but that's what I was going for.
He was one of my favorite parts of the movie, actually. I enjoyed his performance quite a bit.
James Wan: I'm glad. I put some of his scenes back in there. They were cut out for the domestic theatrical release. I'm really happy that we will get to see those on the DVD.
Like you said earlier, we don't want to give anything away before people get a chance to watch the film on DVD. But, you really don't pull any punches throughout the course of this story. Some pretty dirty stuff happens in this film. Did you ever consider making the movie a little less harsh? Or are you a fan of the unhappy ending?
James Wan: This is the kind of film where, when we all signed on, we knew ultimately what the outcome of the film should be. It is a movie about spiraling into Hell. Kevin Bacon's character makes those choices. And he makes those decisions. And he goes after it. Guess what? He has pretty hard repercussions. These are pretty high prices that he has to pay. I feel, if you are going to go in saying that, you better say it strongly. Sympathy is definitely not one of my strengths as a storyteller. I love it. I love being big balled, and being in your face. I want to approach every moment of filmmaking like that. From the emotional scenes, to the visceral action, to the really crazy camera work. Ultimately, I want to take that through the way the film finishes. I think, if you are going to do that you should go all the way. You shouldn't fuck it up. You should say that this is what the film is. If you want something that is lighter, find a different kind of film. I think Kevin Bacon gave his character some sympathies, and I am glad for that. It was a real fine balance.
I saw this little bit of trivia about the brand on the TV at the end of the film being COULD U. What is the story on that?
James Wan: I just thought it was a great way to bookend the film. It starts with the home video. It introduces you to the whole family. And this is a great way to finish off the story. Some people have complained that it is very sappy and melodramatic. You know what? I make no bones about that. This is a very melodramatic movie. It reminds me of the John Woo movies he used to make back in the 80s. There was a lot of melodrama between his action scenes. I felt like this was a poetic way to finish the film.
That's pretty cool. How closely did you stick to the novel?
James Wan: I actually stayed away from the book. I was introduced to this project through the script. And I know that the screenplay writer, Ian Jeffers, did take it in a different direction from the book. I did not want to be swayed by the book in any way. I think one of the things we did capture was the essence of the book. I read an interview with Brian Garfield. He said that, even though the movie is different from the book in terms of story, it kept with the theme that he was going for. It also kept the theme of what he was aiming at with the "Death Wish" novel. He always felt that the "Death Wish" movie didn't stick to the message of the book. But this movie brings it back for him. I am really happy that he said that. I feel like, even though it is different from the book, the message is very strong and it is right there.
Death Sentence has elements of Saw's visual style, but at the same time, it is a very different looking film. Do you plan on taking elements of both Death Sentence and Saw and moving that into a different genre?
James Wan: I lot of people have pointed out that the three films I've made all look different. Even Dead Silence had such a different look to it. That was supposed to be a throw back to the old Hammer Horror films. I like to think that as a filmmaker you grow with everything you do. You mature, and that is reflected in the kinds of films you make. Hopefully your visual palate grows as well. I hope that is the case. I hope that every film I make is a bit different from the last one, both from a visual and storytelling standpoint. I hope I keep that going.
From what I understand, you decided to take a break after shooting Death Sentence? Are you done with that break, and are you currently working on anything new?
James Wan: I am currently on that break now. It is just as well, because the writers' strike is still going on. This is a break I can take without feeling to guilty about it. No one is working. Having said that, Leigh and I have finished writing our next script. And we are very excited about that. We'll see when we can get back to pitching our script around town. This next project that we are working on is a film noir thriller. We are very excited about it. It is very reminiscent of our mindset when we started out shooting Saw. And that was to go away and come up with a really cool, kickass thriller that no one has seen before. We are going to try to make it as commercial as we can, and get it out there. We'll see what happens.
And I won't even bother asking you what it is about, because I know you guys are keeping it under wraps. Tell me, how do you like being considered a member of the Splat Pack? Is that something you are trying to move away from, or do you embrace that title?
James Wan: I am indifferent to it. I think it is fine. It is what it is. I think its cool. There are worse things to be labeled as. But, I don't want to be known only as that.
This will be my last question. Do you plan on doing any more work on the Saw films?
James Wan: I think I am pretty much finished with it for now. I wouldn't say no to coming back and doing one more Saw story, but we'll see. For now, I have other projects that I would like to explore and get out there with.
Saw seems like something that could go on forever.
James Wan: Hey, man, if it's going to keep making money, they are going to keep making it. Whether I like it or not, its not going to make much of a difference.
But once we get to Saw XX, do you think you'll come back for the anniversary?
James Wan: Like what Wes Craven did with the last A Nightmare On Elm Street? I'm not brushing that aside. But for right now, there's a lot of other stuff I'm more interested in pursuing.
Cool. It was nice chatting with you this afternoon. I've got to let you get on with some of the other interviews you got going on today. Hopefully we'll speak again in the near future.
James Wan: Thanks, Paulington!
The Death Sentence DVD hits store shelves this Tuesday, January 8th, 2008.
Dont't forget to also check out: Death Sentence [Unrated]