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‘Saw’ comes, conquers

Lions Gate: No flaw in Wan-Whannell 'Saw'

Lions Gate has made a preemptive distribution deal for world rights to “Saw,” a first film by director/writer James Wan and writer/actor Leigh Whannell that will make its debut Jan. 19 at the Sundance Film Festival.

Wan and Whannell have followed that by a Universal deal to write their thriller pitch “Shhh.” It was only seven months ago that the 25-year-old Australian tyro team even got a deal to make “Saw.”

The duo’s startling trajectory is attributable to a creepy three-minute sample scene from “Saw” that they sent to Hollywood as a calling card last summer. The Wan-directed scene depicted Whannell with face encased in a steel bear trap device timed to tear off his lips unless he opened it in time with a key. The key happened to be in the stomach of a nearby person.

Shot in a style that crosses “Seven” with a Nine Inch Nails video, the scene prompted Evolution Management partners Mark Burg, Oren Koules and Gregg Hoffman to put up a second mortgage on their Highland Avenue headquarters so they could fully finance and own the film. Production only began on Sept. 22, but they managed to get a rough cut ready in time to get accepted into Sundance’s midnight screening program.

“Saw” revolves around a series of killings by a psychopath, who has shackled two men (Cary Elwes and Whannell) to a wall, where he tests their capacity for terror and survival. Pic also stars Danny Glover and Monica Potter.

Evolution’s Hoffman happened to be at the Genesis Talent Agency on other business in late July, and the duo’s reps showed him the tape before sending it financiers, just as the filmmakers were boarding a Hollywood-bound flight from Australia. By the time Wan and Whannell landed, the Evolution trio had the financing ready and offered a piece of ownership and a quick start date. Thrilled to even get a meeting, the filmmakers embraced the deal.

Among the buyers disappointed to not get a shot at the deal was Lions Gate acquisitions prexy Peter Block.

“To their credit, the Evolution guys got the financing right away and kept the director under wraps,” said Block, who in turn got a preemptive look at the pic and bought world rights.

“I felt like a shunned lover that first time, where the more unattainable something is the more you want it,” he said. “We haven’t even seen the finished film yet, but we liked the concept and it’s so rare to find a genre film where world rights are available. We didn’t want to miss out again.”

Lions Gate’s Tom Ortenberg and Block made the deal with Burg, Koules and Hoffman, who are the “Saw” producers. Stacey Tesiro, who hatched the idea for the sample “Saw” scene, is exec producer.

The Evolution trio is also producing “Shhh,” a Universal pic that will be shepherded by exec Allie Brecker Shearmur. It is a supernatural thriller about a man who’s called home by his dying father. Tongueless corpses begin piling up all around the young man, who enlists a female friend from his high school days to figure out who’s doing the gruesome killings. Wan and Whannell said they were shocked by the way Hollywood has embraced them.

“We didn’t think there was a chance in hell this could happen so fast,” said Wan, whose experience consisted of some short films. Whannell had an equally undistinguished acting resume, and they wrote “Saw” out of desperation, determined to finance a small film themselves.

“We made that scene and got on the plane figuring we were financing a $5,000 handshake, where we’d meet a few people who might watch the film after we finished it,” Whannell said. “We hoped we’d come back with ‘The Blair Witch Project,’ and we got this mad scientist friend of James to build the mask I wore in that scene. It felt like my head was in a vice and that I was being hit across the head with a golf club, but it was the best thing I ever did.”

Next challenge will be to get Wan a shot at directing “Shhh,” and Whannell a big role.

“Australians don’t write things for other people, they write things for themselves,” said Wan, who’s still laboring over “Saw” but will finish in time for its Sundance bow at the Egyptian Theater.

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