Tobin Bell on Jigsaw, creating John Kramer and why we can’t get enough of Saw

We talk to the man behind the traps about making a murderer and why Saw is more relevant than ever

What makes an iconic horror villain? It’s not just about having a killer costume, or a distinctive murder weapon. To create a seriously scary, enduring baddie, you need a motive, a personality – and an actor who’s willing to fully inhabit that character, even if it means going to some dark places.

Saw’s Jigsaw definitely ticks all those boxes. Which might be why sitting opposite actor Tobin Bell in a plush central London hotel – about as far as you could possibly get from the grimy bathrooms and warehouses Jigsaw usually sets his lethal traps in – is a little bit nerve-wracking. “John Kramer’s a great character to play,” Bell smiles, not entirely putting us at ease. “He’s so dimensional. There’s a certain touch of philosophy, a touch of theology, and he’s an accomplished mechanical engineer, and an architect. He’s a multi-faceted guy, and getting the opportunity to develop someone like that over seven films – eight, now! – is rare.”

And though no-one could have anticipated, back in 2004, just how massive a phenomenon the Saw movies would go on to be, it turns out Bell always had strong opinions on who Jigsaw should be. “When they came to me with a script for Saw II, I thought ‘oh, interesting, now we get to find out what’s on his mind,’” he remembers. “I knew from the beginning that he was a really fascinating guy, so when we were doing Saw II, and I had all those scenes talking to Donnie Wahlberg, we spent ten days working on those scenes to get them just right.

“I’d throw in things like Darwin and his trip to the Galapogos, because of the whole survival of the fittest idea. When people heard that, they think ‘oh, that’s what he’s going!’ And then they realise what’s really pissing him off, which is the treatment of the terminally ill by the medical community, or people who use others to advance themselves. I like the karma aspect of it. In Saw IV, I say something like, ‘people can lie and cheat and still get elected’, so is there karma? It gives people something to think about.”

And though all of the films earned themselves 18 certificates (for what the BBFC calls “very strong bloody gore and violence”), and were dismissed as ‘torture porn’ at the time, Bell reckons fans saw past all that, and understood the underlying message Kramer was trying to convey. “I’ve had kids come up to me, they’re 11- or 12-years old, and they’ve seen these films,” he says. “When they talk to me about them, they don’t talk about the scary parts. They talk about the concept. I say, ‘what do you like about the films?’ And they say ‘they teach us stuff!’ People tell me that the films have changed their lives. They’re often people who have been in dire personal situations, and I’m always like” – he puts his hand on his heart – “Wow. That makes it worth doing. I don’t think Saw is, you know, some sort of cure, but it resonated with people.”

John and his troubled protege Amanda (Shawnee Smith)

Kramer’s relationship with his apprentice, Amanda (Shawnee Smith) was something Bell worked particularly hard on. “The character of Amanda is extremely powerful for many young women: her drug addiction, her cutting, her struggle with herself,” he explains. “There wasn’t a lot of dialogue around that, but Shawnee and I worked very hard on it in Saw III. We created moments between us that, small as they might be – a look, a touch – suggested their connection. That’s the level I work on in these films.”

It’s been seven years since Saw 3D, and Bell’s clearly delighted to be able to step back into Kramer’s blood-spattered shoes for Jigsaw. Directed by the Spierig brothers, Jigsaw is both a sequel and a reboot; different, but the same. “It has a completely different look,” Bell explains, “Michael and Peter wanted to give it a texture that departed slightly from the previous Saw films. Even the way music is used is slightly different. It’s a fresh approach to the franchise while still being recognisable as what it is. It’s complex, but it’s standalone. You don’t have to have seen all the other films to understand what’s going on.”

Whatever else might’ve changed, though, Jigsaw’s appreciate-your-life value system remains very much intact. Bell made sure of it. “There are concepts in this film that have been there since James Wan and Leigh Whannell created the project,” Bell insists. “Like the idea of appreciating life. That resonates very strongly with so many fans, because it’s true! It’s so much easier to get wrapped up in negatives than to be aware and grateful of how lucky we are to be sitting in this room right now. Saw I through VII set a certain foundation with those concepts, and I think they’re very clear in Jigsaw, too.”

John put Hoffman through his paces over the course of the sequels

At this point, you might be starting to worry that Bell sees John Kramer – the villain of the Saw movies, lest we forget, the guy who kidnaps people and shoves them into sometimes unwinnable traps to try to teach them to mend their ways – as a kind of moral crusader, a heroic vigilante. And, well, while Bell doesn’t endorse his character’s methods, he does think he’s got a point.

“We live in a world where people are upset about so many things, and they do nothing about them,” he says. “We see things happening, and we do nothing. Whether you agree with what John does or not, he doesn’t do nothing. He has an MO. He knows where he’s going and why he’s going there and what he’s doing, and you could say he’s making himself judge and jury, but he’s not really, because he doesn’t really kill anyone. He always gives people a chance.”

Feeling safe enough by now to challenge that, SciFiNow points out that some of Jigsaw’s games were so difficult to escape that his victims didn’t stand much of a chance. Bell leans forward in his chair and fixes us with that steady, terrifying gaze. “I understand why you would say that,” he says, and grins. “I wasn’t consulted on all the traps!”

Jigsaw is in cinemas today. Keep up with the latest horror news with the new issue of SciFiNow.