How 'Saw X' Director Approaches Horror and Practical Effects for This Terrifying Gorefest
Saw X director Kevin Greutert talks with No Film School about his return to the director's chair for the latest entry to the Saw franchise.
It is hard to believe that two decades later, Jigsaw (an iconic horror in his own right) is still lingering in the minds of Hollywood and horror fans everywhere. Since debuting on the screen in 2004, the Saw franchise has delivered a level of horror that has lured fans to the gaillo-inspire moral corrupted world that is under the judgment of the serial killer Jigsaw.
Saw X returns fans of the franchise to the early, less convoluted days of Saw. Screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger bring John Kramer (Tobin Bell) back from the grave in a prequel that sits comfortably between Saw and Saw II, and see the angle of death seek revenge on those exploiting the weak and dying.
Directed by Saw alum Kevin Greutert, who has edited several Saw films and directed Saw VI and Saw 3D, returns to their directors chair to bring the franchise back to its roots. The highly stylized, updated 2000s look of the gorefest is grounded in a realty that the franchise lost sight of by delivering practical effects and fear that only a great director can pull from his actors.
Greutert spoke with No Film School over Zoom to talk about the return of John Kramer, working within the goresploitation genre, and the practical effects behind some of the most twisted Saw traps to date.
SAW X (2023) Official Trailer – Tobin Bellyoutu.be
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. THIS POST CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS FOR SAW X.
No Film School: Hi, Kevin, It's so nice to meet you. Congratulations on Saw X.
Kevin Greutert: Thank you.
NFS: I got to watch it with a group of people and it was really wonderful. I was squirming a little bit in my seat.
Greutert: You saw it with a group? That's great.
NFS: I did, yes. I saw it at Lionsgate with a few other people and there was a lot of groaning going on of people in discomfort.
Greutert: Groaning, love it.
NFS: You've been with the Saw franchise for a while. You've directed two of the movies as well as edited quite a few. What is it about Saw X that got you excited to return to the director's chair?
Greutert: It was the script because I always get dragged back into Saw, which is great, but I really approached this one with an open mind towards not doing it if I didn't like the script. I was really, really pleasantly surprised when [producers] Mark [Burg] and Oren [Koules] sent it to me. I was like, "Oh my God, this is nice. This is really nice."
It does things that I'd been wanting to do for a while. For one thing, bringing back John Kramer (Tobin Bell), of course, is the first thing. Then, I also wanted to focus just on one standalone story instead of trying to make this Byzantine maze of references to the previous Saw entries. I really wanted this to be something that a newcomer could walk into and totally understand and enjoy. I wanted to have a little fun with the tropes of the Saw series and maybe not present John Kramer as completely infallible, and, in fact, he stumbles rather badly a few times in this film, but hopefully the sacred aspects of the character remain satisfying for the audience. I know that we were creatively all really happy with what we did.
NFS: It's nice to have this prequel that tells you a little bit more about this character, who you don't get to see in the first movie all that much and then becomes this pillar for the next few movies.
Greutert: Honestly, I didn't know that it would work to spend this much time with him. They always talk about how the beauty of Ridley Scott's Alien and Spielberg's Jaws is that you hardly see the monster at all. That makes the audience lean into it and be more scared by their imagination than what's on-screen. Going so directly against that philosophy was a risk, but I think that it's because of Tobin's performance and his commitment to the philosophy and ethos of John Kramer that it works.
NFS: The funny thing about the specific genre of horror that you're in is that we've already seen who the killer is. We already know the face, we know the story, and the villain is more or less the system against the people. It's not really that he's a villain as much as he's like this weird archangel of death.Greutert: Yeah, yeah. That was important to Tobin as well, that it's not a revenge story per se, at least not in John Kramer's mind. That's why he has that, I think, very compelling monologue in the middle of the film where he talks about the 37 people that were victimized before him, which culminates in the line, "This is not retribution, it's a reawakening." Well, I think if this film was summarized in five words, the word revenge would be one of them, but not in the mind of John Kramer.
NFS: What is it about working in, say, the splatter genre or this, as it was called in the early 2000s, the torture porn genre–
Greutert: Don't say it [laughing].
NFS: Oh, I know, I'm so sorry. But it's like what is it that excites you when you're looking at it from a 2023 lens rather than the 2004 lens?
Greutert: I think that what's kind of cool about dismembering people and bleeding people beyond just exploitation or goresploitation or what have you is that there's a very ancient resonance to it. One of the things that excited me about shooting in Mexico City is that I've always been fascinated by the Aztecs and the mass human sacrifice that went on in the middle of Mexico City 500 years ago. I've always felt that the best of horror has a kind of kinship to Greek tragedy, which also spills a lot of blood. It also ends very badly for the main character consistently.
Filmmaking generally doesn't let you have that kind of tragic, horrific ending anymore. Hollywood loves a happy ending, and I think there are happy aspects of the ending of this film, but in general, Saw movies end with the protagonist screaming in dire agony or dying. Right? We need that as a species. We need to see that some. There's catharsis to it, but there's also, I think, some kind of bodily meaning to our lives if we see a demonstration of our biological fragility like this. To me, there's a lot to it. There is an artistry to it, and so that's why John Kramer and I resent the TP phrase that you brought up.
NFS: I think that phrase has been kind of outdated as it's been reassessed over the years because there is meaning to it, and I think just putting those two words strips it completely.
Greutert: Yeah, I think so. Look, I have nothing against any kind of filmmaking. Exploitation can be a blast. I'd just like to think there's more to this.
NFS: I agree. On the topic of blood, gore, and guts, I am very curious of how you approach working with your cast when you're setting up these life-threatening/self-mutilation games. What's your process working with the actors?
Greutert: It starts at the casting level, right? Because you can be a pretty great actor but not necessarily be able to accomplish that kind of performance where you're really projecting the dark emotions. Particularly in the case of male actors, fear, just that kind of pee in the pants fear that a real person would feel while they're in a situation like this, it's not easy to find and it's not always easy to coax it out of a person. I really want to hire people that have demonstrated that they can do that. That's where it begins. You want somebody who wants to be there.
There's two kinds of actors in this world, the ones that do want to be in a Saw trap and the ones that don't want to be in a Saw trap, and I've worked with both. In this film, I felt super, super confident that everybody was cast perfectly for this role, and they auditioned for the most part. Most of these actors auditioned for it, and I could just tell. You could just tell. It's not just their acting ability, it's also the nature of their face and body that they can do it.
They can show it because fear is indicated by a lot of different things, and some faces do it better than others. There was a TV show, I forgot what it was called, but it was kind of like a candid camera type show where they hide a camera and then scare somebody in real life, but it's more of a situational scare than just a boo. When you see people really this scared, they often are just kind of in shock. I won't try to demonstrate it myself, but they don't necessarily do the things that characters do in horror movies. If somebody actually tried to just use shock alone, and actually I have seen this plenty where actors are like, "Well, I think I'd be numb," it's kind of boring. You've got to find the movie version of fear that really pulls it off.
Now, a lot of these kinds of scenes in the Saw series, including this one, involve prosthetics. We had a team from LA called Fractured FX that built all this stuff. Most of the actors had to travel from Mexico City to Los Angeles to have their bodies cast, and that's a huge process. It's very intimate and it takes a long time, but the result is something pretty amazing.
I would say there's a very charged atmosphere on the set when you're shooting one of these scenes. A big part of that is that in many, many cases, you only get one chance to shoot it correctly.
When you're in a Saw trap where there's mechanical parts that have to be choreographed with what the actor's doing, with what the prosthetics team is doing, there's generally at least one person pumping blood, you've got lighting cues happening, there's a lot that can go wrong. If you've just cut into a prosthetic of which there exists only one in the known universe, it's a big deal. It's scary because as an actor, you don't want to get so distracted by something that you blow your performance at that key moment, so there's a lot of rehearsal involved and just a lot of pumping up. The actor has to really pump up to get to the right place, and then everything has to be like a ballet. When it works, it's great.
I know just from people giving me weird looks after we succeed and the blood flies, and I often will just start laughing and not realize I'm laughing uncontrollably because this thing that we've been stressing about for months literally just happened and it was great. That's demonstrated by blood splattering everywhere, splattering on me, splattering on the cameraman. The more, the merrier.
NFS: The more blood that splatters on you, the more you know you're in the Promised Land.
Greutert: Exactly, yes. Yeah, it's fun. It's very cathartic.
NFS: I love that. Not to be cruel towards the other horror films that do this, but I'm glad there's not a lot of CGI blood in this Saw. It makes me very happy to see it is mostly practical effects.
Greutert: Yeah, you're absolutely right. It's very hard to do CG blood. We had to do a little bit of it, but it's mostly real. There are some significant shots in this movie that don't have any digital work at all. If I were watching the movie, I'd think, well, that must be digital, so I won't spoil anything, but yeah.
NFS: Can you give me an example of your favorite practical scene to shoot that somebody might think was CGI?
Greutert: Well, the first trap scene, once we've kind of established where we are in the middle of the movie, if you know what I'm talking about. There was a tiny bit of just cleanup work done by the digital effects team, but mostly what you see is what we did on the set.
NFS: It's so beautiful. It's so gnarly, too.
Greutert: That has become my favorite scene I've ever shot in any film.
NFS: I'll tell you, the brain surgery sequence, oh, I couldn't. I had to cover my eyes the whole time.Greutert: Even that one, because we'd stressed over how to do it so much once we were actually shooting it, it had very little digital work. That is one where there is some digital blood at play, but once I saw that we could pan back and forth between the open skull cap with the brains getting dug out and the video screen and you couldn't really tell, I don't think, that it's a fake head and the real actor's just standing next to his fake head doing his thing, I was very pleased with how that came out.
NFS: This film takes place right after the events of Saw. What kind of visual references were you taking from those first few movies and bringing into Saw X?
Greutert: Well, at least for the gnarly bits, there is a lot of handheld for sure. I wanted to pay homage to James Wan's trick of putting a circular dolly track around somebody, and then just under cranking and zooming in and out and using those kinds of little pieces, even if they might only be one to five frames long, to interject extra energy into it. The lighting is much more overt in the sort of giallo reference way that James did Saw, and that continued for a while into the Saw series.
Even though we shot digitally, we roughened it up with grain and post-production a bit, and the general aggressive handheld style. Our DP, Nick Matthews, not only lit the whole film, but he shot it as well. He was holding the camera and really got into the action there and made the camera kind of a character. At least that's what it feels like to me. I definitely wanted this to feel like one of the original Saw movies.
NFS: It does. It has that, I think there is a particular energy that overwhelms the audience with what is at stake. I also know that you're the editor on this movie as well. I was curious how you're setting up those quick shots of the person in the trap. How do you plan these shots?
Greutert: I make a shot list for the whole movie before I begin shooting, and then modify that the night before. I storyboard a lot. When you're working in a handheld world, there's a lot of improvisation involved, but it's still a shot list. We need Valentina (Paulette Hernandez) for talking to John for this part of the scene, and then Valentina for talking to Cecilia (Synnøve Macody Lund) in this part. You know what I mean? So that all has to be planned out very meticulously, but the cameraman gets some freedom too, as do the actors.
NFS: When you go to Mexico, I noticed that you kind of lean into this aesthetic of the orange Mexico filter–
Greutert: Because if you don't do that, then it might not feel like... I know it's kind of ridiculous, but it does when you're in Mexico sort of feel a little bit different than when you're in the other parts of North America. We needed some kind of visual language to delineate between the scenes that are supposed to be in the US and then the Mexico scenes, so we definitely talked about it a lot.
At one point we even thought about using an actual filter on the lens, which is your Tony Scott look. We're like, "No, let's keep it neutral and then we'll play with it in post." We don't want to get locked into that look. It's not a Rob Zombie movie or something. I'm sure we'll get dinged a little bit by some people for going for the yellow look, but you know what? I don't regret it.
NFS: I think it leans into this very specific era of horror filmmaking or just thriller filmmaking in general. Do you have any advice for any directors who are looking to work in genre-specific work?
Greutert: For anybody trying to make films at all, just shoot as much as you can. Even if it's just with your iPhone, tell stories. Tell five second stories, tell one minute stories, tell 10 minutes stories and you'll be well on the way.
Saw X is exclusively in theaters on Sept. 29.
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