Sneak Peak at Universal Orlando’s 'Saw'-sation!


Ah, Halloween.  The greatest time of year.  Forget Christmas; Thanksgiving can take a flying leap.  Give me Halloween any day.  One of the biggest Halloween events of the year is the Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios.  This year, the main attraction is the maze and scare zone for Saw.  We chatted with Oren Koules, co-producer of the Saw franchise, and Michael Roddy, Show Director for Universal Studios Orlando about what kind of scares we are in for this year.

What kind of new technology are you utilizing for the Saw mazes this year?

Michael:  First I want to look at the partnership with Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures.  Saw is a great brand, and Halloween Horror Nights is something we like to present in a very immersive, very aggressive, very intense scenario.  If you look at the Saw films, it is a perfect fit for Halloween Horror Nights.  We wanted to make sure people got to feel what it would be like inside Jigsaw’s lair.  We worked very closely with Lionsgate and the producers to make sure that as you walk through Jigsaw’s lair, you’re going to see the traps that you saw onscreen.  Our take on the maze this year is that, as you move through, you are actually causing the traps to spring.  You’re participation – just being in the maze – is causing these very intense traps.

Can you talk about any of the traps or technology in particular?

Michael: If you’re a fan of the Saw films like I am, we’ve kind of picked the “greatest hits” and in doing that, you are going to see everything you’ve seen before.  You’re going to see a reverse bear trap, you are going to see the hair-pull, you’re going to see barbed wire.  You are going to come face-to-face with Billy.  We’ve used a lot of techniques combining air effects, triggers, audio-activated triggers, so that as effects come to life, you feel the repercussions.

Can you give us more details on the Saw maze?  Will there be pre-shows or post-shows?  Where is it located?

Michael: We actually have found a place in the Jaws extended queue, which is the perfect environment to present Jigsaw’s warehouse setting.  You start hearing news reports, you will see a trailer teasing the next Saw film, and as you enter, you are actually entering Jigsaw’s lair.  You are seeing where he creates the traps, replicated from the movies, except you are walking through it.  Then you come face-to-face with Billy and you have the pre-recorded message, and it sets you on your path.  You then move through this labyrinth of traps and people who have been attached to these traps.  As you move through, you are causing them to experience the pain, just by your involvement there.  You become the ultimate voyeur.  As you progress further and further, things being to get even more intense.  Once the traps are set, these people react to you.

You mentioned that we will come face-to-face with Billy.  Will Tobin Bell actually be part of the attraction?

Michael: Here is what I will tell you: Mr. Bell has recorded specific dialogue just for Orlando.

Are there different challenges between producing a film and producing a maze?

Oren: Being a good producer means knowing how to delegate.  A great day on set is not having to do anything at all.  I didn’t actually produce the maze.  I am lucky enough to have great partners who are doing it.  I’m just here along the way to check up on things.  It is 100% out of [the film producer’s] hands.

What is coming up for the Saw franchise?  How long do you think you will keep it going?

Oren: It really relies on two things: great stories we believe in, and the audience keeps coming.  We are finishing Saw VI next week – we are in the last stages of post – and we are really excited about it.  We went some places we’ve never gone before.

Do you have a script yet for Saw VII?

Oren: Yeah, we are pretty far down the line.  We have a very, very fleshed-out treatment.  We are using the same writers from four, five, and six, so we are really comfortable with them, and where we are in the process.

How do you put mazes into development?  Do you have specific themes for each maze, along with specific designers and artists?  Or is it collaboration across several mazes?

Michael: We have a design team that out with a development team – I head up the development team.  We start with what our main ideas for the year are.  We knew going in this year that we had eight mazes, six scare zones, and two live shows, and we had to come up with the creative content for that.  Once we decided on the theme of “Ripped from the Silver Screen,” we started talking to great partners like Lionsgate and Universal, and the ideas started falling into place.  Then we turn it over to a design team, who actually draws the maze.  But there is just one team of people responsible for the entire event.  We have some of the most amazing artists and designers in the business.  A lot of them have film credits.  You know that if you come to our event, you are going to be immersed in film-quality sets, with amazing characters, amazing sound effects.  You are going to be walking through Jigsaw’s lair.  You are going to be walking through the woods and the Wolfman will attack you.  You will be walking along and come face-to-face with Chucky.  After that, you are going to be running!

Do these guys ever get time off?  I guess after November 2nd?

Michael: Nope.  We are actually well down the path of Halloween 2010 right now.  Halloween has become a year-round design for us.  Oren, what is your development time on the Saw movies?

Oren: I don’t want to give much away, but we do already have a start date for Saw VII.  Between the video game coming out this fall, and merchandising, this is absolutely a full time job.  We signed off on the Saw VII treatment on Tuesday; we fly out this Monday to finish up six, then we are polishing the video game on the 15th.

What is it like to see your film transferred into a theme park attraction?

Oren: It’s pretty surreal.  I have homes in Tampa and Los Angeles, so I plan on visiting both [Universal] mazes.  It’s pretty surreal.  It’s hard to imagine that seven years ago, we were shooting in a place with dirty floors – you can’t imagine the conditions we shot Saw 1 in, plus we were using our own money.  It just doesn’t feel real.

Michael: Now here we are, seven years later, replicating those dirty floors to scare the hell out of you!

How does the theme park environment, especially around Halloween, affect what you have created with the Saw franchise?

Oren:  We never want to “sell out.”  For [the producers], there is no money involved.  For us, it’s about getting people to experience the movie, experience the traps.  To me, it’s just a great extension of the brand.

How different are the Orlando and Los Angeles Haunts going to be?

Michael: They will be different, but they are both based on the same theme: Jigsaw’s lair.  They will have the same basic design, but we decided on different traps at each park, for different reasons. 

How big of a role will The Usher, the host character, play in this year’s Haunt?

Michael: The front arch of Universal Studios will be transformed into the Palace Theatre.  You will come face-to-face with The Usher there.  Once you come into the park, you are literally in the moments that have been 'Ripped from the Silver Screen'.  There is a maze that tells the back story of The Usher, he will be on the street to make sure you don’t disobey the rules of “the theatre,”  you will feel him everywhere.  We are using building projections, we’ve shot so much footage with The Usher, we’ve kept him a pretty well-hidden secret, and we are very proud of him. 

Since this year is a movie theme, why not bring back The Director?  Why the new character?

Michael: The Director was about making films.  This is about being trapped in films.  The characters are ripped from the silver screen, and you are in their environment.  This isn’t about making movies; it’s about experiencing them.

Which Saw installments will we see these traps come from?

Oren:  I think we have every film covered.

Michael: I know for a fact that, here in Orlando, we run the gamut.  You will see an experience from each of the Saw films, all the way up to Saw VI.

Touching on your upcoming horror films, The Tortured sounds a lot like Last House on the Left.  How are you going to differentiate it?

Oren:  You probably aren’t going to like this answer, but I’ve never seen Last House on the Left.  So I honestly don’t know.  I kind of live in a bubble.  We see scripts that we like, and we develop them in house.

Have you always been a horror fan?

Oren: Not at all.  [Twisted Pictures] has made everything from urban movies to romantic comedies…. We didn’t see [the first Saw] as horror movie; we saw it more as a thriller.  We read the story, and they sent us a seven minute video.  When we saw the video, and the filmmaking ability, and the script was so amazing that we just had to do it.  I live in a world where I am working on Two and a Half Men one day, and Saw the next.  It’s really just about finding a story that makes us want to work.

How much work is left on the mazes?

Michael: We’re about 95% done, across the board.  But that last 5% is always the toughest.

When do you do your first walk-through of the mazes?

Michael: I start walking through the houses right after they begin construction, which is normally around the end of May, then I go through them weekly until September, when I usually go through twice a week, maybe three times a week.  Some of that is necessity, and some of that is just because it’s really cool.  We are always taking photographs, looking at lighting cues, finding the best place for scare-achters, it’s really just an amazing piece of theatre.