Despite Box Office Tumble, 'Saw' Still Reigns

The sixth installment in the Saw horror movie franchise hit theaters this weekend — and it finished second at the box office to the creepy sleeper Paranormal Activity. Still, the Saws hold the upper hand, with more than half a billion dollars collected in the five years since the series was born. Guy Raz sorts through the blood and guts with Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, who've written the last three chapters, some of the goriest films ever seen in American multiplexes.

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GUY RAZ, host:

From one low-budget indie film now to another, only this one has a somewhat different perspective.

(Soundbite of film, "Saw")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) There is only one key to open the device. It's in the stomach of your dead cellmate. Live or die. Make your choice.

RAZ: That's from the first installment of what's become a Halloween movie tradition, the annual horror films called "Saw." The first one was made for $1 million but went on to earn $100 million worldwide.

This weekend, "Saw VI" hit theaters. Today's box office numbers show it had the weakest opening in the serieus, but it still made almost $15 million.

Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan have written the last three chapters of the "Saw" series. They got their big break on the HBO reality series, "Project Dreamlight," as the writers of the horror screenplay "Feast," and they're in our studios at NPR West.

And gentlemen, please, can you keep the blood and guts off the microphones?

Mr. PATRICK MELTON (Screenwriter): We'll try.

Mr. MARCUS DUNSTAN (Screenwriter): Well, yes. It is Sunday so we're going to keep it easy. We have had a difficult weekend.

RAZ: Now, I know this may be a little hard to believe, guys, but not every one of our listeners is up to speed on all things "Saw." So Patrick, can you briefly describe the concept of the series for us?

Mr. MELTON: At its core, it's about a man named John Kramer, and he finds out in the first film that he's dying from cancer, and then he sort of, it changes his perspective upon the world, seeing how so many people take their life for granted. And it just, you know, in his - as he's dying, it rubs him the wrong way, and so he starts teaching these moral lessons that people should cherish the life they've been given. And you know, this is what - it steps into a bit more of the macabre, where, you know, it's a life or death struggle for these people who are knocked out, put in some sort of a trap, and they're given a dilemma to either, let's say, cut off your arm or die. And that'll certainly hopefully teach them to respect or, you know, cherish the life they've been given.

RAZ: I should explain that when audiences go to see this film, they're often laughing in the theater.

Mr. DUNSTAN: Oh, absolutely.

RAZ: And so did you guys sort of laugh when you - I mean, you're writing these incredibly gory scripts, I mean, but you guys are kind of laughing as you're kind of writing these scripts?

Mr. DUNSTAN: Oh, of course. They're all, like, very, very dark jokes in the sense that the punch line of a comedy will elicit a laugh. But the punch line of one of these horror sequences is that sadistic punch.

For example, the opening scene of "Saw VI" features a woman who makes such a brutal choice, but she does it with such ferocity in the face of an unwinnable situation that the entire crowd started to clap, to go yes, yes, yes, because that's something - it's the machine telling her to die and her looking and, in so many words, F it. I am not, whack, whack, whack, and then with every whack, her eyes get bigger and bigger and bigger, and the red sprays, and you're like, okay, and a primal release happens.

RAZ: Okay, now I've got to ask you about the critics, because, as you know…

Mr. MELTON: Yeah.

RAZ: …some critics have called these movies torture porn, right? I mean, they're just simulated torture and gore with no redeeming value. It's a cynical ploy to make money for these studios. What do you say to that? Is there any redeeming value to these movies?

Mr. MELTON: I think any form of entertainment that provides a positive release or makes you feel better about your situation because you just saw someone get smeared into a shadow is of absolute redeeming value. And this - in this chapter, this particular chapter, "Saw VI," I, you know, I watched it last night with someone that had not been familiar with the series at all, and they picked it up immediately. It's got its own story, and it's taking advantage of a very timely topic.

Mr. DUNSTAN: Yeah. I'm not sure who exactly coined the term torture porn, but when I first heard it, I wasn't sure that it was actually supposed to be offensive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DUNSTAN: Then I guess it was. So now we take great offense to it. And so, we don't really - we can't read the reviews, and most horror movies really can't read the reviews because generally, critics will object to them from a moral standpoint, as opposed to saying, this clearly has a huge following, it's connecting with a huge audience, so maybe I should try to find what people are - like in it, and then is this one successful.

RAZ: You mentioned timely topics…

Mr. MELTON: Yes.

RAZ: …in "Saw VI." What do you mean by that?

Mr. MELTON: It means that the opening scene features two predatory lenders that deal with the saw mechanism. What do they have to give back for what they've taken from the innocents? Oh, and at one point, John Kramer, aka the Jigsaw, is faced with an - well, a health care industry professional who kind of is into denying claims for those who really need it.

RAZ: So a not-so-subtle political message in this movie.

Mr. MELTON: Mm-hmm. Oh, no. I don't think it's - yeah, it's definitely not so subtle, but the nice thing is…

Mr. DUNSTAN: As subtle as being stabbed in the eyeball with a knitting needle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELTON: Subtle as that one.

RAZ: Do your family members ever see the films and just sort of call you up and say, I didn't realize you were capable of coming up with such disgusting things?

Mr. MELTON: It's funny because, you know, we just had the premiere this past week, and my family came out, as they always do, and Marcus' does, as well. And my sister is a criminology professor at the University of Utah. And when I told her we were coming on NPR, your show, she said, oh, I should come on as sort of, like, the…

Mr. DUNSTAN: And now for an opposing view.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELTON: Yeah.

RAZ: Like I'm going to come on and talk about how disgusting you are.

Mr. MELTON: Yeah, like what's wrong in those and, yeah.

(SOundbite of laughter)

Mr. MELTON: And where that all (unintelligible). But yeah, I think they were…

RAZ: I mean, you had - both of you had normal childhoods and all those things?

Mr. MELTON: Oh, completely.

Mr. DUNSTAN: Yes.

RAZ: Yes. Loving homes, and…

Mr. DUNSTAN: Absolutely.

Mr. MELTON: Loving homes, too much freedom and, you know, a video store that ignored the R-rating system.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan are the writers of the "Saw" series of horror films. Their latest one is called "Saw VI." It opened this weekend, and Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan joined us from NPR West.

Gentlemen, thank you so much.

Mr. MELTON: Thank you.

Mr. DUNSTAN: Thank you.

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