THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS HEAVY SPOILERS.
This year’s Spiral: From the Book of Saw marked a return to the Saw franchise not only for director Darren Bousman but also writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, who previously wrote 2017 sequel Jigsaw. This time around, they worked alongside Chris Rock to rejuvenate the franchise with a Jigsaw-less sequel, which went through several different iterations.
In fact, there was one point in time where the movie that ultimately became Spiral was actually going to be a follow-up to Jigsaw that was entirely centered on John Kramer.
We had a chat with Stolberg this week, who recapped how we got here and answered one big burning question we’ve been pondering: Was Jigsaw *ever* going to appear in Spiral?
Bloody Disgusting: For starters, how did you end up writing Jigsaw?
Josh Stolberg: “Pete [Goldfinger], my writing partner, and I had been working in the horror genre for a few years. Piranha 3D was the first horror film we wrote, and Sorority Row was our second film… and second remake. We were both HUGE fans of the Saw franchise, having seen it on opening night in Westwood at the midnight showing. We were blown away. When John Kramer stands up at the end… holy crap… the crowd ERUPTED. It was epic. And that franchise was always a bit of a white whale for us. But they stopped making them. For years.
“Much later, we got a phone call from our agents saying that Twisted Pictures and Lionsgate were tip-toe-ing around the idea of bringing the films back and we were asked if we were interested in pitching on it. Which was a no-brainer. We thought it was D.O.A. and then several months later, we got a call from Mark and Oren saying that they heard a TON of takes, and that there was ONE tiny element in our original pitch that they really fell in love with… but that everything else had to be scrapped.
“As a fun side-note, our original pitch [for Jigsaw] took place on an oil derrick in the middle of the ocean… and when the game player escaped from the tiny room they were trapped in and escaped out into the world, thinking that they could get away… they found themselves in the middle of the ocean with no way out. Yeah, I’m still bummed we didn’t do that. Anyway, that’s when the project went from “cattle call” to “ours to lose”. And we spent months and months and months going in to Twisted and Lionsgate with several different pitches. Each one we loved. Each one got shot down. Until we landed on the time shift story-line that eventually became the back-bone to Jigsaw. It was something that the franchise had used before, but not in this manner. And the idea got greenlit. And then came the months and months and months of writing and rewriting and polishing.
“Our first draft of Jigsaw took place ENTIRELY outside. Pete and I thought it would be fucking cool to have all the traps take place in a world that was unusual to the Saw universe and setting them outside instead of inside a claustrophobic environment was exciting. But at the end of the day, it didn’t work and we moved to the barn.”
BD: And then came Spiral. How did that project come to be?
Stolberg: “So, Pete and I were knee-deep in an ENTIRELY different Saw film at the time. After Jigsaw, we still had to pitch a story that resonated for Mark and Oren and Lionsgate. And after a few months of pitching around ideas, we FINALLY landed on something that everyone was immensely excited about. Hell, I was THRILLED. I loved, loved, loved the new story. It was deep and resonate and I felt that Saw fans would really respond to it (we took some heat from Jigsaw because we kind of pushed aside a bunch of the history of Saw in the storytelling… no Hoffman, no Gordon, not Amanda). But I was so pumped about the story for this one. It was ALL JOHN KRAMER. While working on the new script, when we got a call from Oren and Mark saying, “Chris Rock wants to make a Saw movie… stay by your phones… he’s calling you in a minute.” At first, I thought it was a joke. I mean… CHRIS ROCK!?!? Wanting to make a Saw movie?!?!? And then Chris called and it was clear almost immediately that this was REAL! Chris loved the genre, loved the franchise, and had some really big ideas about how he’d want to approach it.
“We were given an initial pitch and were told by the producers… “Go come up with a pitch for Chris”. Which we did. We went to Lionsgate and Twisted with our take. They said yes IMMEDIATELY. Chris approved. And we went off and wrote the first draft of the screenplay which was greenlit within a week of turning it in.”
BD: Can you tell us a little bit about Chris Rock’s pitch?
Stolberg: “On that initial phone call, it was SIMPLE. Almost ridiculously so. He basically said that he LOVED the movies… but he said: “Okay, that guy in the bathroom. Chained to the pipe. What would it be like if that was ME? If I was given a choice to cut off my foot… what would I do?” We chatted for a bit about who he might portray in the film… and we decided that him being a cop who was ostracized from his colleagues would be interesting. And he said, “go play”. I don’t want to minimize Chris’ influence on the film… because it was HUGE. But that first draft was me and Pete doing what we always do. Sweating over story. Figuring out plot. And then, once we got the greenlight, Chris came in and made EVERYTHING SO MUCH BETTER. He really dug in, focused on his character and we spent weeks and weeks rewriting. One of the greatest joys of my professional life was sitting with Chris, writing, rewriting, and rewriting again and again and again the beats of the story… the dialogue. The man is a fucking God. I love him so much.”
BD: Was Jigsaw (aka John Kramer) in your original script for Spiral?
Stolberg: “That’s a really tricky question to answer. When you start a script, EVERYTHING is on the table. EVERYTHING is possible. The truth is that we didn’t know that Tobin (John Kramer) wasn’t going to be in the film until… well, until the last day of filming. And even after that, we were talking about it. John Kramer was always in the discussion, all the way through editing. Hell, I think we even had discussions about him after the first test screening. But… at the end of the day, we decided that we were making a film that was NOT about John Kramer, and that by adding him into the film, it would only complicate things. This killer is NOT John Kramer. And if we tied him too directly to John, it would take away from HIS thing. AND John’s.
“Look, I’m the first person to say that there is NO REPLACING Tobin Bell. That fucking guy is a legend. He’s incredible. The way he plays that part, and the way it’s been written for two decades… it’s incredible. And once we put him in the film, it would alter the DNA of what we were trying to achieve. This is a different story. It doesn’t take away from the Saw franchise. It doesn’t diminish who John Kramer is. It’s a new direction. But it’s not meant to replace him.”
BD: If Jigsaw was going to appear in Spiral, what would that have looked like?
Stolberg: “So… “Was John Kramer ever in any version of your 30-plus draft of the script?” NO. He was not. Kramer was NEVER in any written version of the Spiral screenplay. But was it talked about? Was it discussed? Yes! AD NAUSEAM. We were ALWAYS talking about it. Because why the hell wouldn’t we be? John Kramer is one of the best characters ever written in the horror genre. Tobin Bell is one of the best actors, in one of the most incredible roles, ever written in a horror. OF COURSE we talked about it. I had dreams about it. What WERE those scenes?
“Well… if you look at the timeline of Kramer’s death, we knew that IF they had a connection (John and William), it would have HAD to have been when William was a child because of the dates of Kramer’s death and the age of Max’s character. At one point, we proposed an after-credits sequence where John meets Young William after the boy’s father is killed. And in that scene, John bonds with William… a moment occurs between them that means something emotionally to both of them… we even discussed that John might give William a doll (Billy… Mr. Snuggles…). BUT I WANT TO MAKE IT CLEAR! THIS IS NOT CANON… IT WAS NEVER WRITTEN AND IT COULD CHANGE IN THE FUTURE. (SIDE-NOTE: This is ALL ME, not the studio, not the producers, not any of the directors… NOBODY BUT ME… and this isn’t real or a scoop or leak because it’s just some excited screenwriter talking… but HOLY FUCK how cool would it be to bring ALL these stories together?!?!? And believe me, I’ve thought about it. All the intricate relationships in the first seven movies, Logan and Eleanor from Jigsaw, Zeke and Marcus and William from Spiral… if Mark and Oren called me tomorrow for Pete and me to write a “Saw Universe” script… I’d spend the next year of my life locked in a room with Pete trying to break that story!).
“But YES, to answer your question, Jigsaw… John Kramer… was ALWAYS part of the discussion all the way through post-production. Darren had an interesting idea (even AFTER we decided that we were NOT filming that post-credits scene with Tobin) — he suggested that we might use one of Tobin’s songs for the final credits of the film. Tobin is an amazing singer, and he recorded this incredible version of a Johnny Cash song that Darren pitched using for the end credits. He tried it. It was a way to get “John in the movie… without him being in the movie.” But it just felt a little gimmicky at the end of the day. Especially since we went in a slightly different direction with the needle drops in the movie, with the cool 21 Savage songs. So, yes, those are a few of the ideas that were floated… but again, like a sculptor chipping away at the rock, all those ideas found their way to the cutting room floor. They just… didn’t feel right.”
BD: Was Jigsaw’s iconic voice ever going to be used in the film?
Stolberg: “Again, that was a question that we tried to answer for MONTHS, even after the filming was done. Did we think about using the “Jigsaw” voice? Fuck yeah! It’s iconic. IT. IS. SAW. Yes. Yes. Yes. We agonized over it. But at the end of the day, we decided that using that voice was TOO iconic… it created too many questions about the connection between John and William. It made it feel that William was just another disciple of John Kramer. Which he isn’t. Now… I will say… the discussions of WHAT the voice should be went on for a LONG time as well. Everyone had different ideas. We kicked around the idea of it being a child’s voice. An early draft of the script had John’s voice, but IN THE STORY WE WROTE, the voice was analyzed and found to be a digitally altered version of John’s voice (but we already used that for Jigsaw). At one point, Pete and I even wrote all his speeches so that we were using PAST RECORDINGS of John’s voice, using the words in a different order, to show that the killer had digitally rearranged the words to create different tapes. Anyway, yes… we workshopped a LOT of ideas… and I know the current voice is controversial in “Saw world”… in Reddit World… but it made the most sense for the film that we were making.”
BD: Outside the Saw franchise, did you ever work on developing a third Piranha movie?
Stolberg: “I really loved working on that film. Alexandre Aja was the PERFECT person to direct it. I loved that film so much. And I would have LOVED to have worked on the sequel. The Weinsteins owned the franchise and decided to go low budget with it and cut us out of the process (partly because our sequel deal was too rich for the low-budget movie they decided to make). Which fucking hurt. BAD! Pete and I had SO MANY ideas where to take a sequel. And we WANTED to do it. But they cut us out. We got a co-producer credit on Piranha 3DD (but we had NOTHING to do with it). Well, kind of. We had written a sequence for the original film (it was actually the FIRST scene that me and Pete wrote for the original movie) that was cut for budgetary reasons. In our script, it was a car that sunk into Lake Havasu, with people inside. Although they cut it from our Piranha 3D, they decided to repurpose the scene for Piranha 3DD and they shot a version of the scene in the sequel. (NOTE: I posted our original version of the scene on my website at www.joshstolberg.com if you’re interested in reading the original version that was cut from Piranha 3D).
“Anyway, we did not get a chance to talk sequel, although we had some ideas. Piranha holds a special place in my heart because it was the first horror movie I wrote with Pete. I was a HUGE horror fan growing up. Halloween was the first horror movie I ever saw as a kid and it changed my life — getting a chance to write a Halloween movie a few years ago (Halloween: Asylum), although it was never made, was one of the coolest things that I’ve ever worked on… getting a chance to write kill scenes for THE Michael Myers was INSANE. Anyway, Pete and I wrote Piranha on spec, hoping and praying that the producers would like our script enough to make it… and it worked. (NOTE: I don’t suggest taking this approach for anyone because it’s sort of like playing the lottery… but it worked). BUT… and I’m sorry to bury the lead… we really wanted to continue our Piranha 3D with the idea of following the Mama and Daddy piranhas… we established that the piranhas we saw in THAT film were “the babies”. Or maybe our story would be about how Jerry O’Connell’s penis comes alive and attacks spring breakers the following year. (JK).”