They came, they watched, they ‘Saw’

EVERY FRIDAY NIGHT, the producers, directors, writers and, sometimes, actors of new movies drive around Los Angeles to see how full the theaters are and whether audiences are laughing and screaming at the right places. Actually, they’re pretending to do this while furiously checking their Blackberrys as the grosses trickle in.

Last Friday night, I tagged along with the “Saw III” team. If you think watching a woman submerge her hand in a beaker of hydrochloric acid for the key to unlock a metal cage attached to her through the inside of her rib cage is tense, you should be there when the British per-screen average arrives.

Not only was I shocked that you can get into any movie for free if you tell the usher you’re from “the studio,” but also that people in line never recognized the movie’s four stars. J. LaRose, standing in the aisle, told a bunch of kids with popcorn to hurry to their seats as he was on the screen being tortured to death. Nothing. Even an exiting audience failed to recognize star Shawnee Smith. And she wasn’t even being inconspicuous. By not being inconspicuous, I mean that she was wearing a “Saw III” T-shirt.

After posing for a group photo under the theater’s marquee, 13 of us got into a black Hummer limousine to hit the next theater, because a white Hummer limousine would have been ostentatious. As we drove to the Bridge, where the movie is showing on three screens, 27-year-old director Darren Lynn Bousman kept bugging Peter Block, president of acquisitions for Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. for numbers: East Coast finals, matinees. Luckily, Bousman was distracted by a prank caller from Utah who kept accusing him of thinking he’s such a big-time director that he can kick rocks in his rock garden. Everything seems a little creepier when it happens to a horror director. And when it comes from Utah.


Carrying around a crumpled newspaper with show times, the Lions Gate execs, who do this about once a month, seem like guys at the track. They know the weather on the East Coast (bad, but not too bad -- perfect) and sports scores (the World Series game wasn’t rained out as they hoped, but the Cardinals clinched, which bodes well for Saturday’s receipts). Add a bad suit and a stained fedora and these guys would be dressed a whole lot better.

At the Bridge, Bousman picked two audience members to focus on. “Critics aren’t going to like the movie -- it’s violent and it’s disturbing. So the only way to judge it is by the audience reaction,” he said. They laughed at a line he didn’t know was funny and jumped at a moment he didn’t expect to be scary. A week from now, he’ll go to a screening, sit in the middle of the audience and stare at them for 107 minutes. Again, everything seems creepier when a horror director is involved.

Watching people get tortured can build up quite an appetite, so we grabbed a bite after the movie. Block announced that even without all precincts reporting for the night, “Saw III” grossed between $13.5 million and $14 million -- exceeding the $12-million opening day for “Saw II.”

Elated, we headed back toward the stretch Hummer to go to the midnight screening at the Arclight, where we were supposed to meet the screenwriter and his posse, who had been doing the same thing we had been doing all night. During the ride, Bousman, high on the $14 million, pushed Block to let him do “Saw IV” as an NC-17 film. When that failed, he tried to exploit his newfound power in a different way: “Have I pitched you my movie idea: ‘Stripper Camp?’ ” he asked. “You just did,” Block said.

An accident blocking La Brea caused a change of plans, and we headed to the Grove for the midnight show. Bousman’s girlfriend asked him if he’d introduce the film. He dismissed the idea as corny.

“I’m Darren Bousman! I directed this movie! Thanks for coming!” he yelled from the front of the theater, flanked by his stars. Then he paused. “Why don’t we start this thing?” Block told me that he’s going to get Bousman public-speaking training.

Bousman saw a guy whose hands were over his eyes. “People laugh and have drama through they lives, but to freak someone out, to disturb them, it’s great,” he said.

Bousman’s need to witness it for himself is all about reaching past the technology that stands between the guy with the proverbial lute and his listeners. Authors set up readings, and journalists put their e-mails at the end of articles. And people who make movies sneak in and watch us.