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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

‘Saw: Rebirth’: Writer R. Eric Lieb Revisits the Comic That Gave Us Jigsaw’s First Origin Story [Blood/Ink/Staples]

Welcome to Blood/Ink/Staples, a recurring column which will shine a spotlight on creepy comic books new and old. Here, we’ll be taking a peek at forgotten graphic novels and hot-off-the-press floppies, buried indies and newly-released big labels. Some articles will be historical deep dives, others will feature interviews with creators, but all will attempt to steer our readers to the very best fearsome funnybooks to be found out there in the wild.

The lethal traps. The microcassette tapes. The gravelly voice. The pig mask. The wizard’s robe. The last minute twists.

These are all intrinsic facets of the Saw franchise, which currently sits at seven films, an in-continuity reboot [Jigsaw], and an upcoming spinoff in the form of Spiral: From the Book of Saw. On top of the series’ cinematic output, there are also two video games which play with the iconography while unraveling tales set firmly within the world of the movies. Add to that a few action figures, some Halloween masks, and a themed Las Vegas escape room, and you should have an idea as to Saw’s considerable reach and the variety with which it’s presented.

But before the series began exploring other avenues to travel down with its striking villain and thrilling concept, the Saw franchise initially widened its scope in funnybook form, with IDW’s 2005 one-shot Saw: Rebirth. Meant as both an expansion of the original film and a lead-in to the rapidly approaching first sequel, Rebirth focuses its attentions on John Kramer before he became the Jigsaw Killer, charting his downfall as a disengaged toymaker who discovers he has cancer, to his rise as the notorious serial killer we were introduced to in the original film. Along the way, the comic book provides some fun connections with that initial movie, illustrating how John selected some of the victims on display throughout his inaugural outing. But beyond the easter eggs, the comic stands as a fascinating portrait of a monster-to-be, earning our empathy for a man who is meant to eventually chill and terrify us. While the later films would disregard elements of John’s origin as presented in the comic, Rebirth nevertheless stands as essential reading for fans of the film series, or great horror comics in general.

Discussing Saw: Rebirth with us today is writer R. Eric Lieb, who crafted the one-shot comic’s story. Mr. Lieb was kind enough to speak with Bloody Disgusting about Rebirth’s origins, his approach to working within an established world, and the comic’s ultimate canonicity within the Saw franchise.

Bloody Disgusting: So, how was it that Saw: Rebirth came to be?

R. Eric Lieb: I was working at the time at Lionsgate. I had gotten there because I had been working at Artisan, which I loved. They did The Blair Witch Project, all these cool movies. When Lionsgate bought them, I transferred over to the company. By the time we released the first Saw, I was working in a couple of different departments, and this opportunity came about because they wanted to essentially do kind of a marketing piece that would help promote Saw II.

But instead of just a marketing piece, I wanted to do something that helped bridge the gap and flesh out the first movie, because the first movie was such a surprise in so many ways, right? It was a small movie, very small budget, very quick production, but it really resonated and caught fire with people. I think the movie is so clever in so many ways, and it does so many smart things. In the lead up to Saw II, when we were developing that, we knew there were some interesting ways that Saw II planned to tease out a little bit of John’s backstory. We knew then that the comic could explore things that the movie wasn’t gonna touch upon, and also connect the dots for people, such as with the traps in the first movie, and to just find out more about him as a character, too.

BD: Did you have any contact with series co-creator Leigh Whannell? I believe he’d noted that the moment where John shaves his head was something he’d intended to be filmed, but it wasn’t – and he was happy it was worked into the comic book.

REL: In terms of the story, we were mainly working from the script that was being developed for Saw II. At the time, when the first Saw came out, the second one was immediately greenlit and it was going to be a pretty quick process to turn it around. So the script was coming together pretty quickly as I recall, but a lot of the scenes that we were working with were coming out of those drafts. So I put together the story based upon the script that was being developed, and then we would send it over to Leigh and everybody else over on his team to basically make sure it aligned with the creative vision and everything else.

But that’s a good point about the head-shaving scene, because there flashbacks that were designed to be in Saw II like the car crash and the cancer diagnosis and that sort of thing that were quick shots, that were planned to be in Saw II. In the comic, we wanted to take those moments and show them, but not give anything away. We didn’t want to spoil anything, obviously. The script was under super lock and key, as you can understand because they didn’t want any leaks. So, the comic ultimately became a fun way to flesh things out.

The script was really spearheaded by my boss at the time, John Hegeman. He was at Artisan on The Blair Witch Project. He did a ton of stuff on that, and was just a really creative guy who understands the value of really being creative in how you approach anything that you do with a movie. I remember one of the things that he did on Blair Witch, they released the soundtrack for the movie which tied into the whole storyline by presenting it as the tape they found in one of the character’s cars that was abandoned before they went into the woods [Josh’s Blair Witch Mix]. It’s not just, “Oh, we’re going to release a soundtrack. Oh, we’re just going to release a comic.” It’s like, let’s do things that are additive and really make things extra touchpoints, and really just respect everything that you’re doing, too. So he was the driving force behind wanting to do it. And basically, him knowing that I’m just a huge horror and comics nerd, he put me in charge of that. So we ultimately worked with IDW and Kris Oprisko over there, who was the writer with me. I came up with a story, and he did most of the writing on it in terms of fleshing it out based upon the story that I put together.

It was essentially just intended as a one-shot. Then, once it was released as a one-shot, something else that I thought was really cool and really kind of novel for the time was the animated version that we put together. A guy by the name of Jeff Shuter directed it, and essentially took the comic art, cut it up, then added layers, soundtrack and voices to it. Really kind of interesting approach. I still catch it on YouTube every now and again, and it was on the DVDs.

Ultimately what we all did together was take the pieces, no pun intended, introduced Saw, and what was planned for Saw II, and really kind of fleshed out a story that gave Jigsaw an interesting backstory. A lot of it was retconned obviously, but a lot of it they kept in line with what we had. You know, horror falls apart when it’s just shocks-for-shocks sake. Horror is about exploring character, revealing human nature. To me, that’s why Jigsaw is such an interesting villain, because he’s not your stereotypical slasher or anything like that. I’d argue that he doesn’t even view himself as a killer. He’s trying to help people in his own way. That’s really kind of what we wanted to explore with the comic, exploring his backstory, seeing someone who lacked purpose. He lacked meaning, and ultimately through things that happened to him and what he saw around him, he found his purpose. By dedicating himself to helping people, as he sees it, that gave him the purpose and the direction that his life was lacking.

I really think he’s one of the best horror villains in a long time, because he just has a lot of layers to him. Obviously, the casting of Tobin … you just listen to him talk, just him alone, his presence. He’s just an interesting guy. It’s the perfect marriage of character and actor. I mean, that voice just brings him to life. And, you know, so much of the first film obviously hinged upon the twist. The fact that he was there the whole time is one of the most brilliant twists in a long time.

And again, that was part of the fun of exploring that story, too. What would drive a person to ultimately want to do that, to just lay in the middle of this dank room the whole time as you’re putting these people through these horrible paces?

BD: You mentioned you were working from the screenplay. Jigsaw’s ex-wife Jill makes her first appearance in the franchise in this comic, and then later on in the film franchise. Was she your creation, or was there a plan to include her in the comic before her eventual first appearance in the films?

REL: As far as I can recall, she did not have a place in the screenplay. Obviously, they fleshed her out in so many different ways in the subsequent movies. But in the comic, she was kind of introduced as a way to show where he was as a character at that point in terms of not having a direction. Her wanting more, and him lacking that purpose and meaning.

You know, she loved him. She wanted to be with him, but he just wasn’t at a place where he knew what he wanted at that point. She was introduced to help push him along the path to where he needed to be. But no, I don’t recall her being in the script, so I think her first appearance was in the comic. If she wasn’t in the screenplay, then she would’ve come up between the [Kris and I] as we were working the story. That’s one of those things where I’m almost positive she wasn’t in the script, but I just can’t call with a hundred percent fidelity at this point, but I’m pretty sure her first appearance was in the comic.

BD: I noticed that you were given sole story credit, while Kris Oprisko was given the sole writing credit. Does that accurately reflect the collaboration? What was the writing process like?

REL: That was a lot of fun. Kris is a really, really great guy to work with. You know, a lot of it in terms of coming up with the story … on the studio side, there are a lot of moving pieces, clearly. Because we’re working within a franchise, we’re working with this film that’s barreling down to just get into production so they can release it. So a lot of it in terms of coming up with a story was just making sure that we had an interesting story that really respected and honored the character, and had a cool story to tell for him in terms of his origin. And that it connected properly to the first film, but also set up the second film.

That was the framework that I created in terms of having that story in place, so that all the stakeholders going into it, between Leigh and James and everybody on the Lionsgate side, was comfortable with what would be ultimately presented out there. Then I handed that off to Kris, and then we worked together to just kind of beat out what that story could be. As he would come in with different drafts, I’d revise them and send them back. It was a very collaborative process with him because he’s just a super smart guy and he really took the story and ran with it in some unexpected directions. But yeah, it was a very, very, very good experience working with Kris.

BD: Renato Guedes’ artwork perfectly suits the story, I think. Very grim and gritty, and just nailing the features of the actors we’d seen in the first film. Could you talk a bit about that work, and did you have any input on the artistic direction of the comic?

REL: I definitely had a say in choosing the artist, because Kris and IDW presented us with a few options. Renato was, to me at least … there was no other choice. He has since gone on to do a ton of great stuff at DC, did great work on Superman. The style that he brought to it, even just the rough images that he sent were just incredible. It has that visceral, grainy quality. I think that really shows through, and part of the reason why the comic works so well. Everybody’s recognizable as themselves from the movie, but it feels so real.

The other artists were really good, but there was just that quality that Renato had that just nailed not only the likenesses, because that’s clearly important in terms of connecting it to the film, but just tonally. He nailed the look of everything. It just really felt like it was in the same world.

He took the script and really ran with it. The quote-unquote camera angles that he’d use, and just the presentation to the storytelling that he used. He’s just a phenomenal artist. We felt so fortunate to work with him at the time, because he really just brought it to life. I can’t say enough positive things about him. Just, across the board, it was a fantastic experience working with everybody on this.

BD: The events of the comic were eventually rendered non-canon with the films, beginning with parts of Jigsaw’s backstory in Saw IV. At the time you’d written the comic, was there an understanding that it was canon and would stay as such, or was it always understood that the events might eventually be rewritten by the films?

REL: In terms of its status as canon … I think there’s always kind of the main line in these types of franchises that the films are obviously the canonical ones. When we came up with it, it was just a fun way to flesh out what he was and to connect the dots in a lot of ways. But ultimately, when you do any sort of creative endeavor, it has to work as the strongest example of what that creative endeavor is, in my opinion. So you do a comic book, make it the best comic book possible. Make it a movie, then make it the best movie possible.

So by the time they got to IV, obviously they had to tell the story as it worked best in that film. It’s about making the strongest piece of work possible. And to be honest, my involvement in the franchise is really just the first and second film. I had left Lionsgate to go over to Fox by the third film.

So by the time they got to the fourth film, in terms of its canonicity … I believe he’s an engineer, and not a toymaker [as in Rebirth]. They changed some things, but a lot of it felt like they clearly were referencing [the comic], especially with the Jill of it all. It felt like the broad outlines had a similar shape to it in both, but the details obviously changed.

I think at the end of the day, it was about giving a purpose and a meaning to why Jigsaw does what he does. That is the most interesting part of his character, why he does these quote-unquote horrible things, that he probably doesn’t view as horrible things. He views it as him doing something good.

BD: How was the reception to the comic? Was it a success? Was there every any talk of doing more one-shots, or perhaps an ongoing Saw comic book?

REL: We sold out, as I recall, of every single printing that we had. But it was designed to live within that space of the buildup to the second movie coming out. So, in many ways … it was a creative piece, obviously, but it was also a marketing piece, too. But across the board, the reception was great. Again, I left the company not long after that, but it’s something that, from the horror side, I continued to do. When I got to Fox, I was in charge of a division there that started doing comic series and graphic novels for our horror properties [including 28 Days Later and The Hills Have Eyes]. But as far as I know, for IDW and Saw, there was no talk of doing more series.

BD: Would you ever be tempted to write something else again in this world? Do you imagine there’s a chance that another Saw comic could eventually be made?

REL: I mean, it was a really kind of fun place in time, both in my career and in my life. And that’s why I’m really interested and curious about Spiral coming out, because I think the series has such a purity of an idea. I know that sounds like a weird word, but it’s just a villain who does what he does for certain reasons. Again, to my earlier point about horror exploring character, and human nature … the people who get put into these situations, they have to find out something about themselves.

I think that’s why John doesn’t view himself as a killer, because the people who are put in that situation, if they survive, ultimately the idea is that they’ll improve something about themselves. So with Spiral coming out, I’m curious to see if they’ll return it to that. Because by the end of like Saw 3D or some of them, it gets to the point where you kind of need an entire team of engineers to be building some of these traps.

So, at the end of the day, yes. I would definitely be interested in playing in that sandbox again, because I think it’s fascinating. The creators behind it are all wonderful people. It’s a very, very inventive world that I think speaks to the best part of horror, the human nature of it. Be it both the quote-unquote villain, and the people who are his quote-unquote victims as well. But right now, I’m working on a horror video game, so I’m tied up for a while.

BD: Horror video game?! Tell us more!

REL: Oh, it’s really exciting. I’m beyond the moon over this one. It’s called The Callisto Protocol. Glen Schofield, who was one of the creators of Dead Space, is running the studio. It’s set in the future, and it’s part of the PUBG universe, but we’re telling a story in the future there that focuses on a deep space prison.

Because Dead Space is one of my favorite games of all time, it perfectly masters this horror vibe … to be able to work with members of that team, it’s a dream come true. We have a teaser trailer out there, go check it out! It’ll give you a good feel of what we’re going for.

BD: All these years later, what are your final thoughts on Saw: Rebirth?

REL: I’m very proud of it. I think it’s just a really interesting addition to the Saw universe, and I think something that really kind of helped contribute to a lot of the exploration of one of the best horror villains of all time. I was just honored to be able to play in that sandbox as much as I could. As a fan, I’m looking forward to Spiral as well to see where they take it from here.

Special Thanks to Mr. Lieb for his time and insights.


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