James Wan Details Rope Creation Of His Gory Horror Classic (Exclusive)

Two strangers, who wake up in a room with no memory of how they got there, soon discover that they are pawns in a deadly game perpetrated by a notorious serial killer.  Saw (Lionsgate)

Two strangers, who wake up in a room with no memory of how they got there, soon discover that they are pawns in a deadly game perpetrated by a notorious serial killer in Seen. (Lions Gate)

“The whole production was put together with spit and glue,” laughs horror maestro James Wan, taking us back to the gritty creation of his debut film: 2004’s gory horror thriller, Seen. “I’m shocked that it worked as much as it did or enough to actually get played because this movie is so tough. Just from a technical standpoint… It’s so independent.

These days, it’s hard to look past the grizzly, overflowing “torture-porn” themes that have since become synonymous with the Wan-born horror franchise and co-writer Leigh Whannell’s gripping debut. However, revisit its first episode and what you find instead is actually something far more contained and compelling; a crime thriller that uses very little to deliver a lot.

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There are two men (Whannell and Cary Elwes) chained to opposite ends of a shabby bathroom with what looks like a corpse lying between them. As they try to figure out what’s going on, they quickly learn the bloody lengths they’ll have to go to survive and ultimately escape, as the mysterious and calculating Jigsaw killer (Tobin Bell) and his creepy puppet watch over the emerge from the shadows, testing their intelligence, integrity, and limits of self-harm.

Australian director James Wan arrives for the opening night of Universal Studio's Halloween Horror Nights in Universal City, California on September 8, 2022. (Photo by LISA O'CONNOR / AFP) (Photo by LISA O' 39 ;CONNOR/AFP via Getty Images)

Australian director James Wan talked about his early success on a shoestring budget. (AFP)

“We basically took a page from Sam Raimi’s book,” says Wan, looking back as the film celebrates its 18th anniversary. “Sam said the fastest way to break into the movie business is with a horror movie, and luckily for us, it’s our favorite genre.”

Starting the project in their native Australia, Wan and Whannell started making something they could make cheaply while packing a punch. “At the time, we thought we were going to be competing against big filmmakers or rookie directors who had done a lot of Hollywood commercials, so we knew we had to find something that would cut down on that noise,” Wan recalls.

“At the end of the day, we just wanted to tell a good story, no matter what money we had. It was really nice to have a limited sandbox to play in. It helped design the story of Seenwhich is basically two guys stuck in a toilet.

That said, the writing process didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it took Wan and Whannell about two years to finish writing. Seenwith the series’ key character, Jigsaw, halfway through the process.

“I knew how I wanted the story to start and I knew something happened in the middle and I kind of figured out what the ending was going to be, so I pitched that to Leigh,” recalls Wan.

“He was like, ‘Oh wow, that’s really cool’ and then he said, ‘So what’s going on in between?’ and I said ‘I have no idea, that’s your job,'” he laughs. “Leigh went off and really fleshed out the movie.”

Two strangers, who wake up in a room with no memory of how they got there, soon discover that they are pawns in a deadly game perpetrated by a notorious serial killer.  Saw (Lionsgate)

Seen was dictated by trying to keep costs down – creating a style of horror that fans loved. (Lions Gate)

Rumor has it that a trip to a doctor’s office led Whannell to imagine Jigsaw, however, it was Wan who suggested his infamously creepy puppet pal. “Leigh would give me the scariest, most suspenseful scene and I would come and say ‘What if I put a puppet in it?’ he’s laughing.

“Leigh always tells this story where he says ‘Not only does James say ‘What if I put a puppet in it?’ but he says, ‘what if this puppet rides a tricycle!’ Wan laughs. “I’m a big fan of ventriloquism and ventriloquist dolls and thought this would be a really cool visual element. For most of the movie we tried to hide Jigsaw’s identity, so I thought it might be really weird and scary to have a puppet that uses a puppet to speak on his behalf,” explains he.

“I felt it really tied into the thematic concept of the film: Jigsaw puppeteers his victims, so I thought using a puppet to portray him was cool. Plus, it allowed me to indulge to my obsession with dolls.

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After struggling to start Seen in Australia, Leigh and Whannell moved to Los Angeles and raised enough money to do a stage example showing what they could do. It was enough to get the green light and just enough money to go into production on their first feature film.

However, Wan’s struggles as a first-time director were just beginning. “The film was made for such a low budget… Every day on set, I was just like, ‘Oh my God,'” admits the filmmaker. “I had all these really grand visuals that I really wanted to do that I just couldn’t achieve with $700,000, which is why we shot the movie. On set, my memories are actually quite dim with the technical aspect of the film.

In reality, SeenThe brief production schedule was so tight it forced the future Aquaman helmer to be inventive in order to not only realize his horror dreams – but to finish the film. “We were flying so fast. We shot in 18 days. It’s a very complex film and sometimes I would be lucky if I could get two takes. I would be lucky if I could get a hold,” he tells us.

“Obviously I was very grateful to have the opportunity to make the movie and finally fulfill our dream, but every day I struggled to make sure the movie didn’t get too shitty.”

These questions really came to a head during SeenThe Jigsaw finale and its editing process: “I remember when I got to this big Jigsaw finale reveal rising from the ground. My executive producer/first assistant director – that was my first AD but also the executive producer, so he actually had more power than me,” Wan laughs, “he came up to me and said, ‘You only have one take to do this shot.’ I was like, ‘What? A take? This is the movie finale!’ I shot it all in one fell swoop.

The film's sequels have all tried to emulate the same clean style, even with larger budgets.  (Lions Gate)

The film’s sequels have all tried to emulate the same clean style, even with larger budgets. (Lions Gate)

However, he still lacked a few shots: “I started flashing on other moments in the film. People think I was going for the MTV style of that period; I didn’t do it on purpose because aesthetically, I was aiming more for a Hitchcock film, but out of necessity I had to cut the shots very quickly because they weren’t good,” admits Wan. “Sometimes I would see a moment when an actor was resting against the set and the whole set was shaking,” he laughs.

“My memories of seeing him with a crowd for the first time are how nervous I was about releasing a film that, at the time, didn’t really reflect my full vision. I think I probably got 30% of what I wanted.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 26: Director and producer James Wan attends Warner Bros. Pictures

James Wan launched a huge Hollywood career off the back of the horror classic. (Wireframe)

Of course, hindsight heals all wounds, and today Wan is more than a little puzzled that the film’s eight sequels mimicked that accidental style. “I would say to producers and directors, ‘You don’t have to follow this stuff. I did it because I didn’t have enough money. In fact, you have an appropriate budget!’ , he smiles. “People picked up on the style and the look and it became the aesthetic language of the film, which is a lot of fun for me and Leigh.”

Despite its rocky creation, Wan and Whannell’s first horror film was a quick hit when it hit theaters on October 29, 2004. Besides becoming synonymous with Halloween, it also managed to do the impossible and to shatter pop culture consciousness.

Seen came out during the height of the Gulf War and after 9/11. Torture was constantly in our news and a lot of people saw that connection and it really jumped into the air of that moment and that’s how it became what it became,” Blême suggests.

“Then the fact that it became the go-to Halloween movie with the tagline, ‘If it’s Halloween, it’s Seen,’ – that’s really cool,” he smiles. “For it to have had such an impact on a global scale, it’s pretty incredible.”

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