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October 2004
Saw: An Interview with Cary Elwis


Saw: An Interview with Cary Elwis

By Todd Gilchrist

Back in 1988, Cary Elwes' signature line in "The Princess Bride" was Ćas you wish.' With "Saw", his latest, his signature line might as well be Ćas you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.' In the film, Elwes plays a doctor who wakes up under mysterious circumstances to find that he and another man (played by screenwriter Leigh Whannell) are chained by the ankle to opposite corners of a dingy, filth covered room, with but one instrument available to free themselves: a hacksaw. In this interview with blackfilm.com, Elwes discusses the prospect of being chained to the set of his project day in and day out, manipulating the conventions of a genre into new text, and discovering passion when actors are no longer inspired by their paychecks.


What made you want to do this movie?

Cary Elwes: The money. No, I didn't get paid on this movie, and I don't think any of the other actors did either. It was about passion, really?


Did you have any reservations about doing a horror film?

CE: I don't consider it a horror film, per se. I like to look at it as more of a- and that's not to pooh-pooh horror, because I'm a big fan of horror- but I like to think of it as a psychological thriller that happens to be very graphic. I think that's a fair assessment if you look at the story and the plot and the characters and the way the thing is made. So I was drawn to those aspects of it, and the character I read was very well drawn and well thought out by the filmmakers and I think that's all you can hope for as an actor when you read a script, that after the first thirty pages it has some meaning to it. This one happened to have a morality tale to it, albeit a very distorted one. He's a killer who's trying to teach people the meaning of life by torturing them.


Did your character change much through the development process?

CE: As far as his breakdown is concerned, that was not in the script. That was something that James and I worked on- we said we have to take this guy from being the paternalistic character who was trying to calm Adam down at the beginning of the film and by the end, they have swapped roles. I said to James I thought that would be an interesting dynamic if we did that, so we worked on that until there was a nice balance there. I tend to not think in terms of likability for the character. I think they grey areas are much more fascinating to play because we're all grey. No one is black and white or good or bad or happy or sad or what have you. [we all have] particular idiosyncrasies that make them fascinating and that's how I tend to approach a character. I try not to judge them because if you get into the area of judging the character you're playing you're getting into a sticky area.


How did you reach that kind of madness by the end of the movie?

CE: I worked very closely with James on how far to take that manic trauma, and we didn't want to make him by any means pathetic, but by the same token we felt that given the circumstances he was under with his wife and child being kidnapped, I think that the way it was written it was not nearly as traumatic as what we ended up shooting. I think that if any of us had anyone near and dear to us kidnapped we probably would behave somewhat the same way, especially under the circumstances.


Why do you think this genre is so hard to get right?

CE: I can't speak for other psychological thrillers. I just know that this one had a level of intelligence to it, and I think that perhaps in the movies that you're talking about, the filmmaker might have pandered to the audience. I think a lot of psychological thrillers want to delve into horrific areas like this one does, but I think they tend to be gratuitous. I think the victims end up being so one dimensional, or women who are objectified and are wandering around waiting to be slashed by some type of killer. I think there are very few and far between that have any real depth to them. And I don't know of any type of psychological thriller that's this graphic. People are not sure whether to call it a thriller or horror or what, so that in and of itself make it unique. I think audiences are ready for that. How rare is it that two young filmmakers from Melbourne, twenty years old, to come out of film school and go Ćyou know what? I think we've got something unique here.' I couldn't be more encouraging of that. I think that's fantastic that these guys have figured out something that these studios with all of their money can't seem to figure out.


How eager were you to sort of invert or raze the cliches of the genre with this film?

CE: I think we're seeing a lot more of that in film. If you look at what Mel Gibson did with "The Passion of the Christ", he took a flagellation scene that is one of the most well-known stories to mankind and pushed it to the limit of our endurance. I think there tends to be a correlation there. I see that audiences are getting more and more voyeuristic, and I think this film taps into that. Maybe it's just me, but I think that's the case.


Were there any CGI shots used to enhance your character?

CE: They couldn't afford them. It was a 28 day shoot.


What was the biggest physical challenge for you with this role?

CE: Being chained to a wall for an extended period of time. That caused some quite serious lacerations to my ankle. Other than that, not really. I so enjoyed being with the other actors and working on the project.


What was your initial experience with Leigh and James like?

CE: I had lunch with [James] and he showed up with a portfolio under his arm, and he had drawings and painting that he had done- sketches, watercolors- of the costumes and the sets. He'd already drawn the basement with the toilet and himself, the doll, certainly a blueprint of the reverse bear trap mask, and I said Ćthat's certainly very... intricate.' He said, Ćoh no, it's operational.' And I said, Ćokay. This guy's done his homework.' So not only did this little DVD present to me a guy who clearly had a very unique visual style, and on top of that a script that I didn't have to mark with my pencil hardly at all. Here he was with the ideas that he had designed himself. Now I can't think of a more complete filmmaker than that. He had drawn a copy of the one-sheet poster already. I loved that.


What about the possibility of a sequel?

CE: I'm wary of sequels. They so rarely work and more often than not you're trying to cater and pander to the audience that came to the first one and trying to recreate scenarios that might be similar. It's tricky. However, having said that, these guys are very smart and if they were to present me with a project that was as exciting a read as this one was, I would certainly do it.


What was it like being chained to the wall?

CE: I certainly relished my breaks. I certainly appreciated being able to take a walk around outside. We shot the whole thing in one location. That was the only way we could do it financially. We shot it in a warehouse downtown and the warehouse was amazing. We found that in this warehouse we had all fo the locations we needed. That was not by chance, that was by contrivance by the filmmakers. They knew that being first time filmmakers they were going to have a limited budget, so they wrote scenes with that in mind, and because we didn't have to change locations, it allowed us to work within the time constraints that we had.


Your accent seems to have disappeared completely?

CE: I don't know. I tell you, I'm so not aware of it. If I spend time in France, I start sounding like a Frenchman. I don't know what it is. I'm just a person who adapts to his surroundings. I'm kind of like Zelig in that aspect.


Were you surprised by the reception of the film at Sundance?

CE: Extraordinarily surprised. I was blown away by the box office numbers in London. It has been astounding, and the fact that it beat out "Sky Captain" is an extraordinary phenomenon. I just think people had a visceral experience watching the film and we're asking people not to reveal the ending or any other details that might give away the plot and that's what makes it exciting.


Were there any excised scenes?

CE: Like I said we had 28 days, sometimes ten to twelve hours a day, and there was no room for error. There was no room for adding scenes. If anything, they would be wanting to cut them, but there wasn't anything that you could cut that wouldn't affect something down the line. It was such an intricate script as far as the plot and characters interweaving with one another, with myself and Danny, myself and Adam, myself and Monica, so if you were to pull a string here it would affect something down the line. There wasn't much room for shifting or changing. It was only delineation of the character and how far we could take him in terms of his mental breakdown.


How did James and Leigh handle their first film?

CE: They were extraordinarily confident and relaxed for first-time filmmakers. I've worked with first-time filmmakers who didn't know where to put the camera or had no shot list. These are nightmare scenarios for an actor when he shows up on set and the director has no clue. So that's why I take it upon myself now to take long meetings with directors who are first-timers to get a sense of their preparation so I never find myself in that situation again. And like I said, these guys couldn't have been together.


Did you see anything in the finished film you think was maybe compromised because of the time restraints?

CE: Oh for sure. I think that with any movie- that's why I can't watch them more than once. I mean, I'm sure James will tell you if he had more money he would have painted that room differently, or had a different plant or painting on the wall. I mean, there are all kinds of things that you would like to do, but we all knew what we were getting into. Like I said, none of the actors got paid on this gig. The crew worked harder than we did. I mean, we would come to work while it was still dark out and find scenic artists and the painters still painting for a set that we would shoot in that day. They had been up at it all night. So there was an enormous amount of dedication with everyone involved and my hat's off to them. That's unique. I've been in the business for a while so when you come across a crew and a cast that are that hard-working and dedicated, it does something to you. It gets you right there.


What's next for you?

CE: I did a film called Edison, with Justin Timberlake and Morgan Freeman and Kevin Spacey, and that will be out next year. And I did a comedy with Jon Bon Jovi called The Trouble With Friends.


What do you play in Edison?

CE: I play a corrupt D.A. for a fictitious town called Edison. Justin plays a young, idealistic reporter who discovers corruption at the highest levels and works for Morgan Freeman and the downtown Gazette, and obviously once he discovers corruption and realizes it goes higher, he wants to expose it, and Morgan, being his mentor and a perfect character, attempts to dissuade him and it's a very well-written piece, written by the director, David Burke, and extremely well acted. A wonderful cast- LL Cool J.


Do you see any of yourself in these first-time filmmakers you work with?

CE: Oh sure. I was less confident than these guys starting out. I think the business is such that I love working with people who are dedicated and professional, even though it's their first time out. It's as rewarding to me to work with first-time actors and directors as it is to work with people who are well-seasoned. I consider myself a student, both in my work and my life, and I'm constantly learning and I'm constantly grateful for that.


Do you mean the actors literally didn't get paid? Was there any kind of back-end deal for grosses?

CE: Literally. These kind of back-end deals for actors are rare. It's rare that actors get to see anything on these back-end deals unless you're one of the two Toms or Mr. Travolta or something where you have a percentage of the film.


What happens if the film goes on to make $100 million?

CE: Then I do have to contact my lawyer. I don't know. If the studio is fair then I'm sure they will be generous. This is my fifth film with Lion's Gate so I'm assuming that they don't want to piss me off. They've been very generous, so I imagine they will [compensate me]. I've done a lot of free projects, but there's no such thing as free. Free comes out of your pocket, and that can be tricky when you're confronted with bills, so I try not to do that any more if I can help it, but this one was just too good to pass up.


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