The commentary track for the horror thriller Saw, released yesterday on DVD, turns out to be an enjoyably self-deflating hybrid of the Smith and Soderbergh approaches. Director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell (who also has a major role in the film) come at the DVD commentary game with no illusions that they've created a work of art, or even that their low-budget creation works on all cylinders all the time. But if there's good credit to be given for not taking oneself too seriously, while refraining from taking a dump all over the work in question so as avoid implication in its shortcomings, then Wan and Whannell's laugh-filled track must be generously tagged as this week's best example of the fine interpersonal art of self-deprecation on public display.
The writer and director actually come off fairly charming in their initial apologies for the possibility of sounding "stupid" as the track unfolds, and they're remarkably up front about the process of on-the-job training they went through to get the movie made. Much hay is made of the fact that they shot the entire movie, exteriors as well as interiors, inside a downtown L.A. warehouse, and even when the resulting sets often belie their origins (the same ugly brick adorns a hospital, a police station, a hospital parking garage, and the interior of Cary Elwes' house), it's heartening to hear the writer and director waxing enthusiastic about how those location restrictions challenged them as filmmakers, and especially about the efforts of their production designer Julie Berghoff to be as creative as she was within such budgetary limitations. At one point Whannell exhorts filmmakers faced with the same challenges to consider the efficiency of building those limitations into the aesthetic of the project, as they were forced to do. After all, what could be cheaper than this film's initial setup of two men chained to the wall of a dingy industrial restroom at the mercy of a moralistically Machiavellian murderer? It's good advice that often gets lost on filmmakers as they find themselves with more and more money to play with, and less creative inspiration on tap, on subsequent projects.
But for all the insight into the process of low-budget filmmaking that Wan and Whannell offer up, what really sells the Saw commentary is their easygoing rapport (though it is never elaborated upon, these two obviously have some history) and absolute insistence on seizing every opportunity for a self-deprecating jab. Wan frequently delights in pointing out specific events in the narrative as obvious plot devices, deriding his own film as "plot-driven," and Whannell's deft deflation of his own intentional overacting during a fake death scene, spoken over the scene itself, of course, is a cracking bit of a priori film criticism. The director's predilection for mentioning throughout the track the fact that he had only 18 days to shoot the entire film becomes a kind of comically haunting refrain, and at one point it inspires Whannell to create "The Saw 18-Day Drinking Game"-- viewers are challenged to take a shot of their favorite hard liquor every time Wan mentions the grueling two-week-plus-four-day schedule, with the writer readily predicting that participants will be "heavily pissed" by film's end. In truth, Whannell frequently displays the quick, sharp wit of a natural comedian, and his track-ending impersonation of a BBC announcer-- "For this quiet neighborhood, the fruit of peace has become the jam of war"-- is nasal pinched-perfect, apropos of nothing regarding Saw, and absolutely fall-down hilarious. Both men seem agreeably inclined toward their craft, though they sometimes fall into the DVD commentary trap of navigating among the obvious-- upon encountering a scene in which one character finally saws off his own foot at the ankle, one of the fellas (I fail to remember which) earnestly puts forth this observation: "For some reason, the scene of (this guy) hacking his foot off really seems to get to people." But they always return to more solid ground by continually expressing an apparently genuine enthusiasm for the efforts of their crew and their actors, without whom they know their film would've likely been less successful aesthetically as well as in the marketplace.
Which brings us to those actors, every one of which, from Danny Glover to Cary Elwes to Monica Potter, is singled out for praise as excelling at their craft, as well as being of a relatively elevated stature in regard to a gory low-budget thriller of this sort (one can't imagine, had they been solicited, too many Hollywood stars lining up to be cast in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). But it's very amusing indeed to hear respect for the likes of Elwes and Glover give way to the very respectful fan-boy enthusiasm that erupts from the duo upon the appearance of Shawnee Smith.
In much the same way as Smith's brief appearance in Saw elevates the movie's game to an entirely different level (one it unfortunately retreats from once she exits the film), the already zippy energy level of the commentary track spikes noticeably when her scene begins. Whannell and Wan (especially Wan) greet her appearance with a mixture of awe inspired by the actress's talent and unabashed puppy love and admiration obviously based on years of seeing her in movies while growing up in their native Australia. Whannell even outs the crush Wan carried for her even through the film's production and revels in the fact that it was, to the director's great disappointment, apparently unrequited.
But in addition to their starry-eyed pronouncements of amazement over being able to cast her, her performance is the only one of all the actors mentioned that inspires a kind of reverence that goes beyond her stature as a good sport or a well-known name to be used in elevating the movie's profile. The wisecracks halt long enough during Smith's grueling episode for Wan to simply proclaim her work as "really good acting," and that's certainly the unadorned, boiled-down truth. Getting another look at the intensity Smith packs into her five-minute appearance in this movie provided sure and steady reinforcement of my initial reaction to her work when I saw the film last November, and even more so when Wan and Whannell reveal just how little time (less than a day) Smith was on set crafting the kind of performance that most horror directors-- hell, any director-- would slice and dice to have in their movie. I can honestly say that if I were dictating the Oscar nominations, Shawnee Smith would occupy a slot right alongside Sandra Oh, Cate Blanchett, Virginia Madsen and Irma P. Hall for Best Supporting Actress, and it was nice to hear the writer and director of Saw recognize the quality of what Smith gave to their film. Would it be too much to hope that these guys would be smart enough to cast her, and craft a meatier role for her, in the inevitable Saw 2?
Movie: ** (out of four) Commentary Track: *** (out of four)