The director and editor Kevin Greutert has been instrumental in delivering some of the most nightmarish, harrowing, and memorable moments from the Saw franchise, so he knows better than most filmmakers how to keep you glued to the screen as much as you want to look away from it.
Greutert has been part of the franchise since the original Saw in 2004, which he edited. He went on to cut the next four installments, as well as 2017's Jigsaw, and direct 2009's Saw VI and 2010's Saw 3D. Outside of the most diehard fans, few people know the Saw universe as well as Greutert. "I could say that I know it quite well, but sometimes, when I look at fan forums on the internet, they ask questions where I really have to think hard!" he admits. "There are all kinds of characters deep in the Saw series, and I forget things!"
"I'm just pleased that people care that much that they're still really talking about someone from Saw II," Greutert says. "After we finished Saw III and the saga went on hiatus for a while, I made a conscious decision to try and have a day in my life where I never thought about Saw. It took a few years before that happened, because it is such a big part of my life."
He eventually returned to helm Saw X. Set between the first and second Saw films, the movie relocates the bloody action to Mexico City, where Jigsaw — aka Tobin Bell's John Kramer — seeks out an experimental medical procedure to treat his cancer. When it turns out to be an elaborate scam, the perpetrators find themselves in the last place they want to be: one of Jigsaw's trademark traps.
A.frame: In this industry, we know the path from actor to producer, or from writer to director. But it's less common for people to go from being an editor to a director, especially within the same film series. What are the most transferable skills from one role to the other, and what were the hurdles?
There are only two real advantages to starting as an editor and moving into directing: one of them is having a really good idea of what coverage you'll need to make a scene work. If you're finding that you're not going to make your day, you realize at the halfway point that you're going to have to economize and rethink your shot list. The other thing is, even as an apprentice editor, I would often be in the cutting room with producers and directors as they were in a very self-exposing, raw, creative state, so I learned a lot from observing as a fly on the wall. The disadvantage, though, is pretty big. I have spent almost no time on film sets at all before Saw VI, and I still often feel like I'm the person with the least on-set experience, because even some of the PAs have probably spent more time on the set than me.
Saw X sees Tobin Bell's John Kramer truly become the main character for perhaps the first time in the series. Thinking back to the original, we only saw him as a physical presence at the very end.
That's right. Saw, in particular, is very oblique in its presentation of him. More than you would probably think was conceived in the edit, as we worked out the verbiage of the trap tapes and even some of the lines that we hear him say — like during the shootout in his lair with Detectives Sing and Tapp. In Saw II, we tried to present him not as the main character necessarily, but you definitely get to know him. For this film, it felt risky. Still, it seemed to me that one of the freshest things that we could do with Saw X is to go ahead and put him in the main seat and put the audience in his shoes as a protagonist in a twisted way, and just hope that the weird lightning in a bottle magic that we fumbled our way into it over the last 20 years would pay off. I think it did, and I feel really happy about it.
Was there ever a plan to show more of Kramer in the first film? Is there an earlier edit where that was tried out?
No, the film was constructed at the script stage to be exactly what it is — where it's a whodunit — and we didn't want anybody to suspect that the guy on the floor was the perpetrator of all these crimes. As we showed that movie to people in the course of working on it, it was very satisfying when someone would say, "Oh, I was sure Tapp was the bad guy," or "I was sure Cary Elwes' character was the bad guy." It seems like nobody ever saw it coming, that the unconscious guy in the hospital was Jigsaw. I think it was planned well, and it worked effectively.
Saw X is set between Saw and Saw II. The actors who play John Kramer and his accomplice, Amanda Young, reprise their roles, but this was shot almost two decades after those movies. De-aging actors is popular these days, but you didn't do that with either of them. Why did you make that creative choice?
When I read the script, I hadn't seen or met with either of them in a really long time, because neither was involved in Saw IX, and only Tobin was in Saw VIII. As I read it, I was like, "I hope they've been taking care of themselves," but when I saw them, I was very relieved, happy, and proud of both Shawnee Smith, who plays Amanda, and Tobin for being so fit after all this time. We definitely talked about whether there was some kind of digital work that we could do to create an even better match. We probably could have done that, but it would have cost a lot. Also, who knows how much it would have detracted from how we experience their characters if there was any buffer between their performance and the audience experience? I'm glad about, and totally fine with, the fact that we see them as a little bit older than they probably should look, but at least we get them fully.
Being set in a particular time frame in the franchise and time itself can create challenges with getting the right tech and materials for that era, especially when they are part of the fabric of the narrative at times. Did you come up against that at all?
For sure. As far as phones go, we had to use flip phones, and I think one of the characters has a Blackberry. Finding those things wasn't easy, especially getting working versions that would behave. Cars were another problem. Whenever we were on a public street, we had to make sure, or at least do our best, to have the models we needed. There was one scene that was deleted from the film that involved John Kramer on a street, and when we got to the location, none of the cars we planned to use had shown up. It turned out to be because it was a particularly smoggy day in Mexico City, and they have a law that you're not allowed to use cars before a certain vintage on smoggy days. We waited about two hours and finally found out why none of our cars showed up, but we shot anyway with what we had. That kind of stuff can bite you. We also had to create a whole lot of taxis that used the green-and-white color scheme from that period in Mexico City. That wouldn't necessarily mean anything to non-Mexican viewers, but it was a detail we wanted to get right. Again, most of those scenes didn't make the final cut, but we thought about all this and tried to do our best.
While the core color palette of the Saw movies is similar, each one has a slightly different visual tone to it as it evolves. Because Saw X is set between Saw and Saw II, how did you settle on finding the tone and the colors that worked for this point in the franchise?
You're right, and it's something we put a lot of thought into. Anthony Stabley, the production designer, Nick Matthews, the cinematographer, and I discussed it a lot. We looked at many other movies as a reference to try and hone in on it. In many genre films these days, you see some repetitive color looks, so night is very cyan with a lot of orange accents in it. We were trying to get away from that and make our yellows a little more green and less orange. When we made Saw, the director James Wan had some green light in it, but he tried very hard to avoid anything that might evoke thoughts of science fiction. When Darren Lynn Bousman started to direct the films, we probably went more into greens. Overall, we tried to keep the colors simple in any given shot. This film has a range of colors, but we made each set piece feel specific to a color or two. We pulled it off, but the overall goal was to try and make it feel like one of the early Saw movies.
I want to ask you about the traps, although I like to call them tests.
So do we, actually! That's funny.
What is the process of creating one? Is it a little like a creative version of the chicken and the egg? Does it come from a cool or gross idea, or is it driven by what is logistically possible?
It's actually the most challenging part of developing and shooting these films; there's no question about it. In the case of this film, most of the tests were pretty much thought out at the script level. However, you want it to feel like something that John Kramer could have conceivably done with the materials available to him, and you want it to be a survivable trap or test. It's not as easy as saying, "Oh, what is a really cool way to kill someone?" It still needs to make sense in our narrative. If possible, you want it to feel metaphorically connected to the sins of the subject inside it, then you need it to be safe, and you need it to be something that can be pulled off within our budget. We spent a lot of time brainstorming and working it all out. It's often the production designer and his team, but the stunt coordinators can get very involved at the conceptual level, as can anybody who has something to offer. So, sometimes that includes the actors as well. We do need to consult with the actors to make sure that it's something that they're comfortable with. There are lots of different factors.
What about shooting them? Do you have just the one that you use on the set? Or do you have alternative versions for close-ups and working parts? Do you shoot them all in situ?
As much as possible, you want to do them in the order they occur in the script, especially in a story like this one where a lot of the gnarly stuff happens in the same environment. As you make a bigger and bigger mess over the course of both the story and the shoot, it's a lot easier. You don't have to think ahead to what the aftermath of one of these nightmares will be like. We didn't have the privilege of a second unit on this film, but in the past, a second unit would typically go in and shoot the details that you didn't have time to do during the main production, or that weren't worth doing on everybody's time when you've got actors and all that.
We want the traps to be functioning devices as much as possible, but frankly, they're often not. It can take more than 20 people to make one of these things behave on set. In this movie, we would have people operating with wires and levers, so we'd have stunt coordinators calling out different lighting cues that had to be coordinated, blood being pumped, and prosthetics being cut that had to be coordinated. Also, we'd have translators, because it was a Spanish-language crew. It's very complicated, but the tests are the most fun part of all this. We still challenge ourselves and try to outdo what we'd done in the past without making the traps ridiculously overcomplicated or beyond the idea that one or two people could put them together. It's a real production to pull one of these off.
How long does it take to clean up and reset after a particularly bloody trap?
It can be a big deal to clean up, so we try very hard to get things in one take. But our production designer, Anthony, put a lot of thought into it and the kinds of places where we knew blood would land. In some cases, it's a great deal of blood. He would cover them with paint that was easily cleaned, and we had a lot of linoleum that we could pull away and put back in to freshen it up. Again, a lot of thought went into it.
Out of all the traps in the franchise, which one would you like to see displayed in the Academy Museum?
I think the one that would be best suited to a display like that would be the Carousel trap from Saw VI, particularly if you include the hexagonal cage that the carousel was within. It would be pretty fun if you had it rotating around and the shotgun moving around, too.