The diabolical twisted thriller Spiral marks a new chapter in the book of Saw and originated from the mind of stand-up and comic actor Chris Rock, a “massive fan” of horror films in general and the Saw series in particular.
The slasher horror franchise Saw was created by James Wan and Leigh Whannell in 2004 and satisfied the appetite of ardent fans with nine feature films and additional media.
Inspired by the way the franchise blended a variety of popular genres, Rock wanted to create something entirely new and came on board to the franchise as star and executive producer of Spiral, putting his encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise to good use: to pay homage to what’s come before and take it in a new direction.
“My idea was to take that up a notch this time, and to chart a new path forward,” says Rock. We keep everything that defines a Saw movie, but we also delve deeper into the psychological and suspense thriller elements that have always been there, beneath the surface – we’ve got the traps, we’ve got the gore, but we’ve also got a story and characters that will keep people guessing. That’s why I really don’t look at Spiral as the next Saw film. We’re actually starting over and heading in an entirely different direction with this movie.”
Rock’s conceptual idea for the film involved him portraying a detective from the world of Saw – a cop who is fully aware of the serial killer from his city’s past but considers it history – who becomes embroiled in a bizarre murder investigation where the killings seem eerily reminiscent of Jigsaw’s notorious handiwork.
A criminal mastermind unleashes a twisted form of justice in Spiral. Working in the shadow of his father, an esteemed police veteran (Samuel L. Jackson), brash Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock) and his rookie partner (Max Minghella) take charge of a grisly investigation into murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past. Unwittingly entrapped in a deepening mystery, Zeke finds himself at the center of the killer’s morbid game.
Bringing Spiral To The Big Screen
In a curious twist of fate, the journey to bring Spiral to the screen began during one of the most joyful occasions imaginable: a wedding. Michael Burns, the vice chairman of Lionsgate, was attending a friend’s nuptials in Brazil and found himself seated next to Rock. The comedian leaned over to Burns during the ceremony and revealed how much he enjoyed the Saw films and that he would love to appear in a fresh chapter that takes the series in a bold new direction.
After the wedding, Burns reached out to longtime Saw producers Mark Burg and Oren Koules, who have produced the entire franchise of films, and said they should contact Rock to arrange a meeting about a possible new film set in the world of Saw.
“So we called Chris, and a few weeks later Oren and I met with him to discuss his ideas for a new chapter,” says Burg. “And about a year later we were on a set together shooting Spiral.”
“The first idea I had was, what if I was a cop who woke up in a trap, or had one hand chained to a pipe and a saw in the other,” Rock recalls. “That spurred all of our conversations, and as we talked, everybody got excited about what this movie could be.”
Although Rock was eager to offer his own original story ideas, one thing he left entirely up to the seasoned filmmaking team was the infamous traps that are so much a part of the franchise’s history.
“I told Mark Burg that I didn’t want to have anything to do with the traps,” Rock says. “In fact, I didn’t even want to see them until I got to the set. Mark and his team know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to artfully killing people on screen, so I told them, ‘I’ll handle my part of the detective story, and you guys handle all the gore, because you do it better than anyone.’”
This was not a problem for Burg and Koules.
“It’s always fun to come up with gruesome new traps and creepy new storylines, and then figure out how they connect to the existing world we’ve created,” says Burg. “The good news was that Chris had some really great ideas and a solid vision for Spiral.”
Koules admits when he and Burg first began working on the original Saw back in 2004 they couldn’t have imagined they would be adding to the legacy more than 17 years later. “We were happy just to make one truly amazing movie that people around the world loved,” says Koules “That’s all we were hoping to do back when it all started.”
And the filmmaking team was fully on board with turning the page for a new chapter in the Saw legacy. “Our devoted audience wants films that are bigger, better and scarier,” adds Spiral executive producer Daniel Jason Heffner, “so that’s what we’ve delivered with Spiral.”
Koules says that’s due in large part to everything Rock has brought to the film. “Chris is great in this movie and shows so much range. Audiences will see a side of him here that they’ve never seen before. He’ll cause you to laugh sporadically, but make no mistake: Spiral is dark, disturbing, and extremely brutal.”
Rock expects horror fans will love the ride that Spiral takes them on. “It’s a genuine roller coaster that works on all of your senses,” he says. “It has drama, cop action, a touch of comedy, and a ton of extreme horror. Basically, it’s got everything you could want, including some amazing traps. I mean, those traps are what separate Saw from all other series.”
Crafting a Ghoulish Twist
To flesh out Rock’s concept for Spiral, the producers tapped screenwriting duo Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger.
Experts in the genre, the pair had previously penned the script for Jigsaw, as well as horror hits like Piranha 3D and Sorority Row.
“As soon as we got the call from Mark and Oren saying Chris Rock wanted to make Spiral, Pete and I started brainstorming what the story could be about, and then we spoke to Chris to get his take on it,” says Stolberg. “Pete and I have been writing horror for the past 20 years, so we bonded with Chris over our shared passion for the genre.”
Dreaming up elaborately gory murder methods like the ones depicted in Spiral is a skill that comes naturally to Stolberg and his writing partner, who enjoy coming up with creative ways to kill one another.
“For instance, we’ll go on a cruise with our wives and families, and I’ll be sitting on the deck thinking what might happen if I took the ship’s anchor and tied it around Pete and threw it over the side,” Stolberg laughs. “It’s a great way to spend your free time!”
Stolberg splashed onto the scene writing the Nickelodeon series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and Passion of the Ark, which, after a seven-studio bidding war, was eventually developed into Evan Almighty. Stolberg soon made a name for himself in horror, co-writing films such as Piranha 3D, Jigsaw, Sorority Row, and the CW Halloween special “Kappa Kappa Die.” He is currently writing the feature Teddy and the Guardians of the Night, to be produced by Dwayne Johnson, and the upcoming Queen for a Day, about a week in the life of Prince.
Pete Goldfinger penned Jigsaw for Lionsgate, which was released in 2017. He also wrote the horror films Piranha 3D and Sorority Row as well as the 2020 CW Halloween special “Kappa Kappa Die.”
Stolberg says one of the most challenging aspects of writing Spiral was the speed at which the project developed.
“When Chris came to Lionsgate and said he wanted to make Spiral, he had a very small window of opportunity to actually shoot it before he went off to do another project, so we had to really buckle down and come up with ideas quickly. But when you’re working under pressure like that, you often come up with the most exciting concepts because you’re just throwing everything you can think of into the mix.”
In addition to the ghastly traps and macabre storylines, the Saw films are famous for their shocking twist endings, and Spiral continues in that vein.
“The trickiest part of the writing process on Spiral was honing the plot down to figure out what the big twist would be, because there’s always an amazing twist in the world of Saw,” Stolberg says.
“The crazy thing is that the entire audience knows a twist is coming, so writing the script is almost like doing a magic trick. You have to figure out a way to fool the audience into forgetting that there’s going to be a twist coming if you really want to surprise them. Crafting that twist was definitely the most challenging part of writing Spiral.”
The Vision of Darren Lynn Bousman: A Connoisseur of Terror
To direct Spiral, the producers brought back filmmaker Darren Lynn Bousman, who had previously helmed three of the most popular and successful movies in the franchise – Saw II (2005), Saw III (2006) and Saw IV (2007) – making him the first horror director to have his first three major Hollywood features open at the top of the box office.
“This is the fifth movie I’ve produced with Darren, so I have quite a bit of experience working with him,” says Heffner. “He’s been a part of our team since the early days, and he’s matured as an artist considerably since Saw II. He’s gone from being a young man in his 20s to a 40-something father of two, and he brings stability to a project like this because he knows how it all originated. And of course, he understands exactly what audiences love about the world of Saw.”
Bousman was born and raised in Overland Park, Kansas, where he was heavily involved in the theater community. He majored in theater and film at Kansas University and during his sophomore year he left KU to attend Full Sail University in Florida, a film school near Orlando. It was there that Bousman began writing and directing short horror films. Shortly thereafter he moved to Los Angeles, where he began his career directing music videos and commercials. During this time, he was introduced to Twisted Pictures producers Gregg Hoffman, Mark Burg and Oren Koules, who had read Bousman’s script The Desperate. They hired him to direct Saw II, which was hugely successful and helped launch the continuing franchise. After three Saw films Bousman went on to direct and produce his “passion project” Repo! The Genetic Opera (2008), based on the original stage play he directed in 2002.
Bousman didn’t expect to return to the franchise after finishing Saw IV, but watching new filmmakers add their own mark to the Saw legacy had an unanticipated effect on him.
“I got jealous!” he says. “I thought, that should be me doing it! And, of course, I got stopped frequently by fans who wanted to talk about the series. The interesting thing about those fan interactions is that it wasn’t the traps, or the twists, or the blood and gore they asked me about. Instead, they wanted to know about the backstories and the characters. That’s what really affected people, which tells you something. So when the opportunity arose to come back and direct a brand-new chapter in a completely different way, I was all in.”
The director believes the Saw franchise remains beloved by fans because each film respects the audience’s intelligence.
“The writing goes through a very intense and rigorous process,” he says. “We know what the fans want, and we know what they think we’re going to give them, so we’re constantly trying to fake them out and stay one step ahead. It’s like a game we play with them, and the only question is if they’re going to outsmart us or if we’re going to outsmart them once again.”
Reflecting on his long history with the franchise, Bousman points out an interesting parallel between Spiral and the very first Saw film he directed a decade and a half ago.
“When I initially signed on to make Saw II, I told the producers that I wanted to do something different than what Saw did, because I didn’t want to copy James Wan’s movie. I was happy to pay homage to it, but I really wanted to do my own thing with the sequel. And a similar thing happened when I agreed to direct Spiral. I decided it was time to do something completely different again. Everything is new this time, from the way I shot it, to the way I approached the actors, to the way we’ve designed the traps.”
Bousman acknowledges that returning to helm Spiral feels like an unexpected gift in his life. “Not very long ago, I never would have thought I’d be back to direct a brand-new chapter in the book of Saw, so there were plenty of moments during production when I looked around at all the familiar faces and I couldn’t believe it was happening. It had been 15 years since we last worked together and there I was, back again. It’s like I came full circle… or maybe a spiral is a better description.”
Springing the Traps
For many longtime Saw fans, the diabolically gruesome traps are the true stars of the series. Each movie features an assortment of elaborately designed murder-machines that would make the Marquis de Sade wince in horror, and Spiral includes some of the grisliest devices in the entire franchise.
“Traps are the signature element of the Saw films, and they’ve really evolved over the years,” says Heffner. “At first they were things that could conceivably be built in a garage out of items found in a junkyard. But they grew more complex because our audience wanted them to be bigger and better. So when we started conceiving the traps for Spiral, we made a conscious decision to go back to the basics and come up with ideas that could be built by an individual out of things that were lying around in a workshop.”
Bousman felt it was time to update the look and feel of the traps for this fresh reimagining. “The killer in Spiral is brand new, so I wanted to take a different approach to the way the traps function,” he says. “Jigsaw was an experienced engineer with an ability to create intricate mechanisms, so my idea in Spiral was to think about how a less-experienced killer might approach building traps. What would that look like on screen?”
Creating traps that could conceivably exist in the real world is a goal Bousman set for himself on Spiral.
“One of the things that’s important to me is making sure all the traps work the way we show them to. I never want to take creative liberties when it comes to depicting them. If it doesn’t do what we say it does, I don’t want to shoot it.”
Production designer Tony Cowley, who also worked on Jigsaw, helped translate Bousman’s trap concepts into workable versions that could function effectively on screen.
“The best job you can have on a film like Spiral is to be part of the art department, because it’s all about visualizing the traps, and the sets, and the creepy mechanical designs,” Cowley says.
Eager to give horror fans what they crave, Bousman promises a plethora of grotesque gadgets in Spiral that will haunt the audience’s nightmares for years to come.
Updating the Visual Language of Saw
To give Spiral the distinctive visual flair that Bousman envisioned, the producers sought to find a cinematographer whose eye could transform tableaux of horror into strikingly artistic compositions. Once again, the decision was made to think outside the box and look for someone not normally associated with the genre. Typically, when Heffner meets with potential crew members for the first time, the interview process is brief and to the point. That was not the case with 28-year-old director of photography Jordan Oram.
A newcomer to the franchise, Oram spent time during preproduction researching previous movies in the series to learn the visual language of Saw. To capture the disturbing look Bousman was after, the DP shot the film digitally using a monochromatic color palette emphasizing rotting greens and mustard yellows, and occasionally relied on old-school moviemaking techniques like applying Vaseline to the lens in order to achieve a dreamlike image.
Having directed Saw II when he was still in his 20s, Bousman felt an understandable connection with his under-30 DP. “Jordan brought a sense of youth to Spiral, which feels funny to say because I still remember being the young guy on set when I directed my first Saw movie. Back then I was just out of film school, and now I’m the old dude among all of these young talented kids. But that’s what I wanted on this movie, someone who is hungry and talented and keeps up with all the cool new camera toys. And that describes Jordan to a T.”