TOBIN BELL INTERVIEW
Interview conducted by Rosie Fletcher
Tobin Bell, actor and portrayer of scary men (most recently Jigsaw from the first three Saw films) is to meet me at the Rex Cinema just off Piccadilly Circus. When I arrive I’m told that the interview is to take place in the empty screening room. Tobin Bell is saying goodbye to another journalist — while I wait for his attention she shakes his hand for a second time and seems to be almost giggling as she leaves. It’s the second day of the press junket, and Bell has been giving interviews since 9.15 that morning. After asking for a cup of coffee, he turns to me, leads me to the back row of the theatre and gestures for me to sit down. We sit next to each other, like we're in the front seats of a car — it becomes clear to me quickly that I’m to be the passenger.
Bell is extremely softly spoken and very charming — far from intimidating, he has the air of a mate’s interesting dad. He repeats my name back to secure it in his mind, asks me where I’m from, tells me his mother is from Twickenham and says HorrorTalk must be a very gruesome site to work for (I tell him it is). His calm, polite manner and extremely soft voice immediately make me feel I need to lower my own voice to match. We’re sitting close together and almost whispering.
He speaks freely, intimately and at length. Listening to the tape of the interview later I realise that on a number of occasions he hasn’t actually answered the question I asked at all. He knows what he wants to talk about — and what he wants to talk about is Jigsaw.
"You have to stay on the side of your character," he tells me emphatically, "if you don’t you become... [Bell leans over and does an impression of a Scooby-Doo monster]... Vincent Price."
Despite having a plethora of TV work and a whole range of movie character parts under his belt, Bell is undoubtedly best know for his role in the Saw films as the villain who likes to play games with his victims. In the first Saw film, John Kramer (aka ‘Jigsaw’) has barely any screen time at all — we see him as a hooded figure, as a corpse and as a patient in a hospital bed right up until the very final moments. In the second film we see him full on — he’s frail and ill but still manages to make a formidable opponent — and he’s a fairly scary looking guy. Some fans are already welcoming Jigsaw into the folds of the horror-baddie-icon list and a further film in the franchise will only serve to secure that status.
Bell doesn’t see Jigsaw as a monster — "People say he’s like a horror icon, like Freddy Krueger or whatever, and if they’re talking about his size then I understand where they’re coming from. That’s up to them to talk about but I personally don’t view him that way."
Bell reportedly did copious amounts of imaginative work on Jigsaw’s back-story. He filled notebooks with character details, from what Jigsaw eats for breakfast to his religious beliefs and his major in college, and covered his dressing room with diagrams and additional notes inspired by the script.
"He’s basically a scientist, very detail oriented, well read and interested in the human condition".
"I think one of the reasons why the Saw thing has been successful is because it counterpoints the horrific with things that raise questions. I’ve had 15, 16, 17 year old kids come up to me and say:
"I really like the Saw films because they teach you stuff, like when you said ‘if you knew the exact moment of your own death you’d live your life differently’"
"To pose the question — and to have people think about it — is interesting to me, and I consider it an opportunity — it’s what actors are supposed to do, what artists are supposed to do, painters, musicians — they’re supposed to make you think; give you an opportunity to do that especially for something as... not as frivolous as a horror movie, but something that’s really geared for entertainment."
In Saw III Jigsaw has an apprentice — Shawnee Smith’s victim-turned-accomplice from the first two films. Their relationship forms the backbone of the third film and is reportedly a mix of mentor/student, father/daughter and quasi-romantic dynamics. Bell and Smith spent a long time working on creating a back-story for the two-year period before the movie begins. Bell speaks highly of both her and Donnie Wahlberg (Detective Mathews from Saw II), and it’s clear he spent a long time working with both to develop the on-screen relationship.
"Donnie Wahlberg and I worked for 10 days before we actually began to shoot — it’s the rhythm, it’s like learning to dance with someone. You have to play moment to moment. You can do all the background research you like, but if you’re disconnected from the person that you’re with, then the camera sees that."
The introduction of a female antagonist isn’t something particularly typical of American horror, but a lot of Asian horror films originally marketed to young women, which have become successful in America and the UK over the last 10 years, have featured women and children as malignant forces.
"You know there are more and more young women going to these films and so I think that relationship and texture is important. 'Smart' has become more important to horror films.
"I think what was interesting about Saw II was that Jigsaw, who we will call a bad guy for now, is dealing with bad people. He’s dealing with a dirty, violent, corrupt cop on his own level and when I think about what he did to Amanda, what Detective Mathews did to Amanda it gives me a sense of satisfaction to beat him at his own game."
Bell seems to have forgotten that in the first Saw film, Jigsaw attaches a spring trap to Amanda’s head and mouth and makes her dig a key out of the stomach of a man who is still alive, to avoid having her jaws ripped open and killing her. Bell’s fluctuation between the third person and the first person when he describes Jigsaw is a little unnerving too, but then, he has been giving interviews since first thing this morning. After all that background work, does he find it hard to step away from the character, to let go and relax?
"No. Jigsaw is a technician and so am I. I consider him a hard working, committed, dedicated guy. It’s nothing that you need to work on or you need to play, quite the contrary. You need to invest in yourself and believe in the.. I don’t want to say 'goodness of his intention', but the justifiability of his intentions in his own psyche."
The first two films are structurally and stylistically quite different and hold different appeal. Where as the first was set mainly in one room and had strong horror sensibilities (a mystery, an unknown killer, shots to make you jump, others to make you peep through your fingers), the second has stronger action sensibilities with the crux of the film being the relationship between Jigsaw and Detective Mathews. I can’t get Bell to commit to saying which his favourite is.
"[The first film] is like a stage play. If we were to come in here and sit down and the curtain went up and there were three guys on the stage one of whom was dead, well that’s already a picture.
"There are people very close to the production, who I will not name, who felt that Saw was a better film than Saw II. Certainly it was ground-breaking on a certain level, so I understand why they felt that way. There are definitely those who like Saw and those who like II. Of course, there were two different directors. I thought there were some holes in Saw, structurally, that weren’t there in II, so I really appreciated that [about the second film]. [In the third film] the director is the same as II, but the texture and lighting is more like Saw I. Having not seen III I don’t know what to say in terms of which it’ll be most like.
"There’s a scene in Saw III that takes place immediately before I lie down on the floor in Saw I. So you get to see what happened just before that moment, which fans will like to see, and I can understand why. These bits of information are still being added to the picture. I have no problem adding those bits in a gradual way because it feels right — sometimes you like to take things slowly, you know."
On IMDB, the trivia on Bell states he’s not, and never has been, a fan of horror movies. I ask him about this.
"That’s why you have to be careful about what you say. I’m not a big fan of science fiction — like I find Star Wars kind of vacant, but I didn’t find Close Encounters of the Third Kind vacant because it’s more grounded, it’s more realistic, the characters are more fleshed out. The Dead Zone without Christopher Walken would be another plot-driven science fiction movie. How he plays the character drew me into him, that’s all I care about. I care about plot, too, and I care about being scared and I care about the surprises being there and the tension being there and all that, but not in the absence of caring about the people or being interested in the people.
"My saying that I wasn’t a horror fan meant that... When I was a child and when I was a teenager, was I drawn to horror movies? Did I want to go to the theatre and be scared? The answer is no. I never did, some people do, I never did. But there are horror films and there are horror films.
"A lot of horror has been sold out on. There’s been a lot that have had high standards, but there’s been a lot that haven’t. Somehow it was acceptable for a horror film for many years to just be a slash and burn situation. But now, if we keep the bar high, there’s any number of things that can be achieved within the horror genre. The same with any period piece or in romantic comedy or whatever, the job is the same. You just have to demand of yourself to be excellent and you will be."
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