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Saw VI’s Tobin Bell on Torture Porn and the Barren Frontier of the Jigsaw Killer

Is it nearly Halloween? A check of the calendar reveals "Yes," which means that it must be time for another Saw movie to hit the multiplexes. Ever since the first Saw film surprisingly grossed an impressive $55.4 million at the box office back in 2004, horror fans have carved out a spot in their October itineraries to revel in the sadistic delights of the titular Jigsaw Killer. And although the franchise has shown some signs of slowing down, the logically titled Saw VI is almost certain to draw hordes of people looking for a good scare to the theater this weekend. In order to help get you psyched for another go-around with one of the horror world's most maniacal (yet still extremely dead) villains, Vulture spoke with the man behind the puppet, Tobin Bell, about whether he considers these films to be "torture porn," what it's like to lie in a pool of blood for three weeks, and the Shakespearean undertones of his character.

We're now six films deep into the Saw series. What sorts of things differentiate this most recent outing of the franchise from the previous five entries?
I think it's the scariest of all, in some ways. It's got some amazing special effects.

Sad to say, we haven't seen the film yet. What can you tell us about this film? Lionsgate hasn't yet screened it for critics, and they're also keeping a very tight lid on plot details.
They always do, they always do. I can just tell you that there's some interesting flashbacks to some of the things that made John Kramer the way he is.

Okay, totally understood: You're not about to give us any spoilers. How about this, then? Considering that your character technically died three films ago, what can we expect from your performance in this film?
[Laughs] That's right, you did see me die in Saw III. But John Kramer put a lot of things in place before he died, some of which have amazing twists and surprises in them. It's an extremely compelling story line that explains how John Kramer became Jigsaw. He made a journey from being a successful engineer to being someone who, you might say, lives on a frontier. A very barren frontier, to say the least. Apart from whether you like what he does or not, he has a number of complaints about the world and the human condition. And he doesn't just complain, he does something about it. A lot of us just complain about life and the world and do nothing, but whether you agree with him or not [Ed. Note: We DEFINITELY don't agree with him], he has taken a course of action that has springboarded the story to where it is now.

Why do you think that horror fans have such an affinity for your character in these films?
Well, he's an interesting guy because he's deep. He's a bit of philosopher, he reads an enormous amount, he's very interested in society. Basically, he thinks the world is going to hell in a handbasket, mainly because it used to be survival of the fittest and it's now become survival of the mediocre. And he's disturbed by that. [Pauses] Some people may say he's disturbed anyway. [Laughs]

Where do you think Jigsaw stands in the pantheon of the silver screen's greatest villains? Is he more devious than, say, Hannibal Lecter?
I have to reserve judgment on that, because the story has not finished. It hasn't played out. When we're done — and, of course, we always wait and see how the current film does before making any decisions about whether to move forward and how to move forward — I have high hopes that this will be a remarkable package. It's all about storytelling. You gotta tell a great story, and when all the puzzle pieces fall into place, I think people will be amazed.

Speaking of the story not yet being finished, how much longer do you think you'll be associated with the franchise? After six films, are you tired of playing Jigsaw?
It all has to do with the quality of the material. I take it a film at a time. And if I can keep it interesting, then I'm interested in continuing to create this guy because he's a man of great dimension. It's like playing King Lear, in its own way. He's a powerful guy, and a guy with great conflicts and with his finger in many pies. You can do marvelous things with a character like that.

It's been a few summers since the media got worked up about films like Saw and Hostel, which were, at the time, labeled as "torture porn." How did you feel during the time when that was a hot-button issue, and what did you think about the groups of people who derided your work on cable talk shows?
I understand it, I'm not stupid, I know where they're coming from. But as an artist, my job is not to make moral judgments. Violence has existed in art since the dawn of time. Look at Guernica and the Spanish Civil War. Whatever exists in the human condition, whatever is possibly true, it's fair game for someone to take a brush and put up a canvas and interpret it. It's up to the viewer whether they want to go see it or not. Frankly, I'm much more concerned with the violence in the real world than I am with violence in art. If you don't want to see it, don't go! And, of course, it's always up to parents to make decisions regarding what they want their children to see. I talk to people who have 8-year-olds who have seen these movies and they're fine with it. And I talk to other people who wouldn't have their kids look at it in a million years.

No matter what the critics say about the Saw films, the fact of the matter is that the franchise has one of the most loyal fan bases of any film, ever. Do you ever go to the wildly popular midnight screenings and mingle with the fans?
I have seen a couple of them with live audiences. I usually go in late, sit in the back, and wear a beanie and duck out at the end. One of the most fascinating moments I've ever had was near the end of the first Saw film when my character got up off the floor. The audience, almost as one, rose, let's say, four inches out of their chairs and gasped. When I did Saw, when I realized I would have to lie in a pool of blood for three weeks, I did it for that moment. I didn't anticipate that happening when I read the script, and I was shocked when I got to the end. So I thought, "Well, if they do this well, it's going to be an amazing moment."

What was your experience on that shoot?
It was rough, physically rough. We were working in a little studio in downtown L.A. It was difficult to get to, it wasn't exactly particularly comfortable conditions. But then again, a dirty old abandoned bathroom is never going to be comfortable. It was a rough shoot, it was a fast eighteen-day shoot, but I loved working with Danny Glover. [Pauses] You know what sold that moment? It wasn't me getting up off the floor, it was Leigh Whannell's reaction. It was CLASSIC. It was a combination of terror and being awestruck, and that was what sold that moment and the film in general.

Did you ever give any thought to having a stunt double lie in a pool of blood on the floor for three weeks for you during that shoot? If we would've been in your shoes, we would've totally suggested that alternative to the director.
I felt that I had to be the one lying there because I knew I had to get up. And if you have to get up, you better have been lying down there and experiencing what it's like to be unconscious for three to four hours. I thought, "You better be stiff. And you better feel cold. And you better know what you're getting up from." I wanted to sell that moment, I wanted that moment to work a lot.

Photo: Courtesy of Lions Gate