Spiral director calls making Chris Rock-starring horror movie a 'surreal experience'

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Brooke Palmer/Lionsgate

Horror fans were surprised two years ago when it was announced that Chris Rock was expanding the Saw franchise with a new movie based on an idea from the actor and comedian. Although filmmaker Darren Lynn Bousman had directed the first three Saw sequels, he was similarly shocked to find himself shepherding the movie — titled Spiral: From the Book of Saw — to the screen. "I was just like, what the f---?" says Bousman. "How did this happen?"

Bousman's surprise was partly inspired by the quality of his film's cast. Spiral stars Rock as a cop named Zeke Banks, who is investigating crimes seemingly inspired by Saw series big bad Jigsaw. Samuel L. Jackson plays Banks' ex-policeman father while Max Minghella is Banks' new partner.

"Darren is like a kid," says Minghella of his director. "He has this very child-like personality, which is really wonderful on set, especially for somebody like me, who has a tendency to take himself too seriously. He has so much imagination and really is excited to be there. It's important to have that on movies like this, to have somebody who brings up the energy and makes everyone happy to be on set really."

Below, Bousman explains how he got trapped into making another Saw movie and working with his A-list cast.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved in Spiral?
DARREN LYNN BOUSMAN: I was approached by Mark Burg (co-founder of the Saw series-producing company Twisted Pictures). It's funny because I really thought my days of Saw were behind me. I'd gone in once before and pitched mark on a reboot idea. Didn't happen. So I kind of lost faith in me coming back was going to happen. I got a phone call out of nowhere. Literally, it had probably been a year since I'd heard from those guys. They called, and they asked where I was, and I was in New York. [Mark Burg] said, "I need you to get back to LA, I've got something for you." He didn't tell me it was Saw. He just said, "Check your email, I sent you the script, and you're going to meet with Chris Rock tomorrow. I'm like, "Mark, I'm in New York and Chris who?" It didn't compute with me that he meant that Chris Rock.

I buy a plane ticket, I'm on a flight reading the script. On page 14 or 15 I was like, holy shit, this is a Saw movie. I had no idea when I started reading it. The next morning, I'm sitting at breakfast with Chris Rock. It was so crazy to me. I've listened to all of his comedy specials, seen all of his movies, and now he's talking to me about Saw II and Saw III and Saw IV. It was just a wholly surreal experience. I met with Chris, and I left the meeting, and my phone rings and it's Mark Burg. He said, "Chris is adamant that you direct this movie. I was like, "I'm in, I'm in. It's Chris Rock, how could I say no?"

Did you ever talk with Chris Rock about how he got involved with the Saw franchise?
Yeah, very loosely. I ask him about the origins and it basically came down to he was a fan of the Saw franchise. He was always bummed out on Saw II that there was not a joke. He kept saying, "I loved Saw II, but what would have made Saw II better is a joke, if Donnie Wahlberg said something ironic, just once, just twice, just a little levity." He goes, "A little levity goes a long way in a movie like this." He said that to some of the higher-ups at Lionsgate and it started there, it started with a seedling of an idea and then Chris eventually met with Mark and Oren (Koules, another Twisted Pictures co-founder). As I understand it, he had an idea for a movie that was not this, and the conversation kind of steered to, "You know what, that could actually be a Saw movie." He met with [screenwriters] Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg and they beat out a treatment. I was brought in and then from there we would sit in a hotel for days at a time with Chris, Pete, and Josh, go through every scene, and Chris would just throw out ideas. He was very involved. He was a very big champion of this entire thing.

How did Samuel L Jackson wind up in the film?
Samuel L Jackson's name was thrown out on the first meeting with Chris Rock and I laughed, as in, Samuel L Jackson's never going to do this movie. Then I realized, if you were to ask me if Chris Rock would do this movie, my answer would have been, never in a million years. So literally two weeks after my first meeting with Chris, I get a phone call saying, "We got Samuel L. Jackson." I didn't believe it until he showed up on set. I think up until the moment he walked on I thought I was being punked. I was like, it's going to end up being like Gilbert Gottfried or someone. It's not going to be Samuel L Jackson.

Could I just say, I would watch a Saw movie with Gilbert Gottfried.
That'll be the next one. I think we're going to go out for unique talent for each Saw movie from this point on, so I'm going to pitch Gilbert Gottfried as the next killer. But, yeah, then Samuel L. Jackson walks in and it was just like, holy shit, I really am making a Chris Rock-Samuel L. Jackson movie.

Brooke Palmer

What about Max Minghella?
Max's name came up early on and I wasn't familiar with him. In retrospect, I've seen a lot of stuff that he's done. I was talking to my wife. She doesn't care what I do. I was like, "I've got Samuel L Jackson and Chris Rock" and she's like [adopts unenthused voice] "Great." Then I was like, "And they're talking to this guy named Max Minghella." She jumped out of bed, and she grabbed me, and she was like, "You cast Max Minghella! You cast that man!" It was literally the excitement of my wife that made me go back and watch Handmaid's Tale and realize that this guy's a powerhouse. He's dreamy. I have a man-crush on him, I'll admit it. But he's a fantastic actor.

Obviously, the traps play a big role in the film. Are they described in the script?
The traps are one of the hardest aspects of making these movies. They're really not in the script. It will say "Insert trap here." Or it will have a placeholder trap. It's only once the script is finished — meaning the narrative part is done — that we'll go in and we have to figure it out. We look at numerous aspects. What was the crime? So let's say the crime was, he lied under oath. We say, how can we personify that in a trap? Well, if you lied, you used your mouth, your teeth, your tongue. Okay, we've done teeth stuff, let's do a tongue. Okay, how do you rip a tongue out? And then we look at the location. Okay, we're in a subterranean tunnel. What if we made it a subway instead? What if we hung someone by a tongue? So they go through a process. They change up to the very last second. The wax trap which is one of my favorite traps in this film, that kept changing up until the day we shot it. So they constantly change and shift.

Brooke Palmer/Lionsgate

What was it like directing Chris Rock and Samuel L Jackson?
Well, Samuel L. Jackson directs himself. He's Samuel L Jackson! He was great but, for me, being a huge Samuel L. Jackson fan, he was an intimidating presence. When he comes in, me, the mid-West movie fan, looks at him and goes, oh my god, that's Jules from Pulp Fiction. I was just starstruck. Chris could not have been more collaborative, trying things different ways, and then workshopping the words. Let's say we shot something and it didn't sound right. He would walk away for ten minutes, and come back, and be like, "Let me try it this way with new words." The whole thing just seemed like a surreal dream to me.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw is released May 14.

Watch the trailer for Spiral: From the Book of Saw above.

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