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Still cutting their teeth

After the success of the `Saw' series, young filmmakers aim for more sophistication with the creepy `Dead Silence.'

March 16, 2007|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

It would seem like the dream of any fledgling filmmaker: A movie made for barely $1 million becomes an accidental franchise that takes in more than $400 million at the box office.

Then comes the hard part -- what next?

For James Wan and Leigh Whannell, director and writer, respectively, of the original "Saw," the answer is "Dead Silence," opening in theaters today.

As with the grubby and violent "Saw," their latest collaboration is not likely to win favor with critics, and "Dead Silence" was not screened in advance for reviewers.

"Dead Silence" is a ghost tale involving a town cursed by an old vaudevillian and her battalion of ventriloquist dummies. As in the "Saw" films -- Whannell wrote the subsequent sequels, but Wan did not direct -- there's a creepy doll with a red squiggle on its face, and actor Donnie Wahlberg. But this time around, there's more suspense than gore, more fog than blood.

The mix is intentional as the filmmakers try to navigate the shift from being dynamic wunderkinds to career-minded pragmatists.

"Leigh and I are fans of all kinds of films, but after 'Saw' we felt like no one was going to give us a romantic comedy to make," says Wan. "So we had to do something that was still in line with what we're known for. So we knew it was going to be something in the horror genre, but we didn't want to repeat ourselves."

Their second full-fledged collaboration, with Wan directing, Whannell writing and both receiving story credit, "Dead Silence" is also their first time making a picture for a major studio (Universal), with a budget that Wan admits is roughly 17 times greater than that of the first "Saw."

"We call 'Dead Silence' our film school," says Whannell. "We met at film school in Melbourne [Australia], but our heads were just in the clouds. And 'Saw' itself was just a cosmic accident. I'm amazed by the good luck we had with 'Saw.'

"In that sense it almost wasn't real, like you won the lottery with your first entry. 'Dead Silence' was where we had a glimmer of the inner workings -- "

"The reality of filmmaking," interjects Wan.

With the bigger budget came bigger expectations and responsibilities and the need to navigate situations and broker compromises that were entirely unknown to the filmmakers when they were working on the level of scrappy, small-scale independents.

"It's a hard thing to admit," says Whannell, "because we don't want to sound like ingrates or spoiled brats, but it was tough for us to suddenly do things their way. We wanted to do 'Saw' again, to do what we want. And the people at Universal were great, but they have a set way of doing things. So I think when you get into a studio you can't always do what you want. They have ideas, they have notes. It's not like they're bullying you, it's just the reality."

Regardless of the fate of their foray into studio filmmaking, they always have their roots to fall back on. The fourth "Saw" is scheduled for release this year.

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