Lionsgate’s “Spiral: From the Book of Saw,” executive produced by and starring Chris Rock, was born as a kind of a reparation for a joke he made in his 2014 satire “Top Five.”
“I played an actor much like myself who’s got a movie coming out. And it’s going up against a Tyler Perry movie called ‘Boo,’” Rock says over Zoom. "Of course we lose out to ‘Boo’ in the movie but the thing is, I totally made up ‘Boo.’ I made up the artwork and it’s all my idea.”
“They made two ‘Boos,’” Rock says. “They even used the same artwork! Under most circumstances, people find ways to give you a check when you come up with something.”
So when he bumped into the studio’s vice chairman, Michael Burns, at a wedding, he joked, “Hey, where’s my ‘Boo’ check?”
“And I was like, ‘While I’ve got you here, I was just going down the list of Lionsgate properties like, Hmm, “Hunger Games?” Nothing there for me. Hey, what about “Saw?” Have you ever thought about inserting humor into “Saw?”’ It’s one of those things where you don’t know when you’re being heard, but I was.”
Three weeks later, studio executives reached out to set up a meeting between Rock and veteran “Saw” co-producers Mark Burg and Oren Koules. “A lot of the meeting was convincing them that I didn’t want to make ‘Scary Movie,’” says the comedian. “I didn’t want to make a broad comedy. I thought [something more] like ’48 Hours’ where you could get laughs and be scared at the same time. And they kind of went for it and here we are.”
“Spiral,” a spin-off of the popular and profitable “Saw” horror franchise, is tonally more like a police procedural than the grisly torture porn the series has evolved into over eight films and 17 years. Rock stars as a detective on the hunt for a killer targeting officers in a corrupt police department. Samuel L. Jackson co-stars as his father, a former police chief, and Max Minghella plays his rookie partner.
“It was quite an exciting and overwhelming experience to read the script for the first time, mostly because of the genre,” Minghella says. “I am a truly obsessive ’48 Hours,’ ‘Beverly Hills Cop,’ ‘Training Day,’ ‘Se7en’ fan. It’s probably my favorite genre, the two-cops-on-the-trail-of-a-killer movie. I never anticipated that Hollywood would start making them again, let alone that I would get to be in one, so it felt like a personal dream come true.”
As a result, “Spiral” is more like the earliest “Saw” films than the franchise’s more recent entries. “Our goal when we made the first ‘Saw’ movie was the movie ‘Se7en,’” says Burg. "[The series] then went in a different direction for a lot of movies.”
“They were getting gorier and gorier,” Koules says. “But I think this movie is much more of a thriller. It still has ‘Saw’ traps, but it’s much more of a procedural thriller than a gory movie.”
However, says director Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed “Saw II,” “III” and “IV,” “this is very much a ‘Saw’ movie. It’s dark, it’s violent, it’s bloody. But there are also moments of levity and you’ve got some classic Chris Rock in there as well.
“I would consider this movie to be a lot more commercial and accessible than the previous eight films,” he adds. “Before Chris got involved, we were very serious and everything was deadpan. I think the playfulness that he was able to bring was so fantastic. We never thought it was OK for audiences to laugh, but it’s something in hindsight I wish we would have done.”
Written by “Jigsaw” scribes Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, “Spiral’s” killer targets crooked cops, including officers who’ve killed unarmed people, lied on the witness stand and covered up corruption inside the department. But the filmmakers insist any resonance with ongoing protests against police misconduct is purely coincidental.
“The ‘Saw’ universe has always been about teaching moralistic lessons,” Bousman says. “We wanted to figure out what the natural progression of ‘Jigsaw’s’ message would be. That is, instead of trying to reform individuals, let’s look at reforming institutions. And since cops have always been a very important B-storyline in the ‘Saw’ universe, it was like the ultimate natural progression. But it’s an unfortunate circumstance that now in 2021 this movie has become more timely than it was when we shot it in 2019.”
“This movie was done way before George Floyd or the protests of the summer,” Rock says. “It was supposed to come out last May. That it’s out now is an odd coincidence. It’s sad that these circumstances exist but I think this is a great time for the movie to come out. It’ll definitely spark a conversation.”
At the same time, Minghella says, "['Spiral’] is very much designed as escapism and entertainment. I think that the movie absolutely touches on things that are prescient ... but I also don’t think it’s attempting to serve anyone their civic vegetables.”
As part of his pitch, Rock submitted a treatment outlining his vision for the spin-off. “We kind of had an agreement more or less where I was in charge of the comedy and Oren and Mark were in charge of the drama and the gore,” he says. “Basically I could say almost anything I wanted to but I couldn’t undermine the scariness of the movie; I couldn’t say anything that would make something not work as far as the horror was concerned. There’s no moment where I’m making fun of the movie [and] I think that’s important for it to work.”
He also handpicked Minghella to play his partner, something the “Handmaid’s Tale” actor still finds hard to wrap his head around. “I met Chris at a party and he kept saying to me ‘We’re going to work together,’” Minghella remembers. “So by the time I got the script I was pretty hyped. I didn’t know what kind of narrative it was going to be but I was thrilled that I was going to get to be a part of it in a meaningful way.”
“I had a good time with Max,” Rock says. “I like him in everything I’ve seen him in. I always respect a guy that’s in hits. I wanted somebody that when people saw him they thought ‘Oh this is gonna be good,’ and Max is one of those people.”
“I’m still not convinced he chose the right person,” Minghella jokes. “I’m pretty sure he thinks I’m Alden Ehrenreich or somebody else and he’ll realize [his error] at some point.”
An early version of the script had Rock’s character related to Danny Glover’s detective David Tapp from the first film. But “it just didn’t pass the smell test,” Stolberg says on The Production Meeting podcast. So Burg reached out to Jackson to play retired police chief Marcus Banks.
“We were surprised that [he and Rock] had never worked together,” the producer says. “It turns out that Sam’s a ‘Saw’ fan and knew of the franchise. He was like ‘Playing Chris Rock’s dad? Sure why not, I’m in.’”
“It’s so funny people keep going ‘It’s so odd he’s playing your father,’” says Rock. “Sam is 20 years older than me. Sam absolutely can play my father. I loved working with [him]. Honestly, probably the first day or two I was just so in awe of him that I didn’t relax.
“ I know we’re technically peers but I look at him like this all-time great actor next to Sidney Poitier,” he adds. “And it’s weird, we started in movies around the same time. He brought this up to me, [that] I was doing ‘New Jack City’ around the time that they were doing ‘Jungle Fever.’ Literally, Wesley Snipes was going from one set to the other. But my god, that guy’s done 1,000 more movies than me in that same amount of time.”
Rock got his start as a stand-up comedian before breaking out as a cast member on “Saturday Night Live” in the early ‘90s alongside Chris Farley, Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider and David Spade. He amassed four Emmys and three Grammys over the course of his nearly four-decade comedy career but now the 56-year-old comic is ready to turn his attention toward more dramatic work.
“You’ve got to make adjustments as you get older,” he says. “You can’t do the exact same things you always did. I think it would be silly to be in my 50s and have on Air Force Ones and a football jersey chasing bad guys. So as I got older I was like ‘OK, I’ve got to pivot. I’ve got to branch into more drama.’ Even when I do comedy it needs to have dramatic undertones so I won’t even read silly things anymore.”
“Top Five” was an early step in that direction. He also starred in the 2011 Broadway production of “The Motherf-- with the Hat” alongside Bobby Cannavale and Annabella Sciorra and made a rare dramatic turn in the fourth season of the FX series “Fargo,” released last year. “So I’ve been trying to do work outside of my stand-up with more substance for a few years now,” he says.
He hopes to continue exploring genres, including more horror, but “a lot depends on how this one does,” he says. “If this one’s a hit, then hey. [Let’s do] ‘Nightmare on Chris Rock Street.’”
Initially, Rock had planned to direct “Spiral” but he was unable to make it work with his “Fargo” schedule. But if there’s a “Spiral” sequel, he’d “absolutely” be interested in directing. “I think Darren did a great job so I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes but especially if I can think of an even more original take than we just did I’m definitely open for it,” he says.
“You just don’t want to be the guy that kills it,” he adds. “Like ‘Ugh, this was fine until Chris Rock showed up.’ I didn’t want to be that guy. I wanted to be like Michael B. Jordan with ‘Creed.’ Like ‘Oh, we’ve got a whole new thing here. This has got a new life.’ So I hope I ‘Creed'-ed it.”