Before he was chained up in a filthy bathroom opposite first-time screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannell in a little movie called Saw (2004), Cary Elwes was best known as the handsome brigand Westley in 1987’s The Princess Bride.
But Elwes, 48, who made his name with the likes of Bride and period pieces like 1986’s Lady Jane, has made his fair share of horror films and thrillers, including The Bride (1985), Shadow of the Vampire (2000) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Saw, though, brought him to an entirely new audience. In it, he played Dr. Lawrence Gordon one of Jigsaw’s very first victims, whose fate at the end of the first film was unknown.
While Gordon’s name was mentioned in the interim Saw films, Elwes declined offers to appear in earlier Saw instalments, deciding that if he was going to come back, it should be the final one, which he did, reprising Dr. Gordon in Saw: The Final Chapter, out on DVD and Blu-ray January 25th.
Rue Morgue recently spoke to Elwes about the Saw legacy and reprising his role as Dr. Gordon.
You had starred in a few horror films prior to Saw, all of which are period pieces. Do you have a particular affection for the genre and what was it like doing a modern horror film?
Well, I’m a fan of the genre. Period. I’m a fan of all genres actually. I don’t limit myself specifically to one over another. It was different in that it was a very small budget film, the first one, done in 28 days, and we had on average 13 to 15 pages of dialogue each day. And we basically shot the rehearsal and if we were lucky we got a second take. We all worked very, very hard on it, and it was a very rewarding experience. I had a lot of fun doing it. I obviously bonded with the filmmakers and we had a great time.
What did you think of the original Saw script when you read it? What attracted you?
When I met with James and I asked him, ‘How did you come up with this idea?’ And he told me it was born out of economics, really. They were going to make a film on a much lower, shoe-string budget back home if they had to. And they shot this little 10-minute short of one of the scenes with some of the money that they raised in the hopes that they could raise more and finish it. Because they had so little money, they couldn’t afford big sets. The concept of the bathroom, they chained them there, and that’s how they came up with the idea, and I thought that was so inventive. It was very much like a play, two characters stuck on a stage together.
Of course Saw not only inspired sequels but imitators too. What did you make of the whole torture porn genre that sprung up in the wake of Saw’s success?
Well, I don’t want to get into any kind of political discussion about whether we are responsible for other people’s completely gratuitous films and their moral value. I think what Saw did is that it made the studios sit up and take notice that these films could be made very cheaply, and the possibility of making a lot of money and the return to the investors was something that was obviously a very exciting prospect.
As far as them emulating Saw in terms of graphic violence, I think that ours at least had a kind of perverse morality tale to it or a kind of intelligent narrative and interesting plot points. In fact the fact that the whole series tied together was very inventive and really cool.
Given that up until Saw your best-known role was arguably in The Princess Bride, how have your interactions with fans changed since Saw came along?
Well, Halloween can be a problem. I have to really disguise myself. That’s a big night for fans, I guess.
But they’re great. They really campaigned. The die-hard Saw fans really campaigned heavily to bring my character back so I really have them to thank. And the filmmakers as a result of that wanted to bring my character back much earlier, but I felt it would be better if they came back to me when they were ready to wrap up the series. I thought that would be a nice way to bookend it.
There seems to have been quite a bit of enthusiasm in the fan community surrounding your return to the Saw franchise. Did that make the decision to take the job easier and what was the process of coming back to that universe?
Well, it was a different process in that we had a much bigger budget to play with and was a lot more relaxed in terms of the pressure and time, what have you. Essentially it was the same character. Like I said, they wanted to bring me back earlier, but I just felt it was more appropriate to wait until the last one.
Had you followed the series since the first?
I had followed them to a degree. I did have to catch up and review the other films. But, yes, I reviewed them so I could get a sense of the through-line of the whole thing. And I think this was the best one. I just loved seeing it in 3D. I went to see it with audiences the very first night. Their response was extraordinary, and I think the 3D leant itself particularly well, especially with all the traps.
How do you look back on your participation in the Saw films? Do you accord them any less respect within the context of your overall career.
Not at all. Look, it’s a different film to Lady Jane or to a lot of other films that I’ve made. Obviously what critics are referring to… The first one was critically extremely well received, at least the ones that I read. (laughs) Maybe they’re sheltering me from the ones I shouldn’t see. But most of the reviews that I read were very favourable in terms of the inventiveness of it and the writing and style of it. And I think that also, it’s one of the things that made the film series so successful was that it had its own look and its own style. The fans came to expect an event each time a new one was made.
My personal input is that it’s nice to be asked back. Like I said, I was very flattered by the fans that had campaigned so heavily to bring Gordon back. I had no idea they were so enamoured with the first one! [laughs] But clearly they were and so that always warms my heart that people enjoy something I’ve done and want to see it again. And I think this is an appropriate way to end the series. It really is. You get the chance to figure out who was behind everything that was going on. A lot of unanswered questions are answered.