Oren Koules is a gifted man with razor sharp business instincts. Starting out as a professional hockey player turned commodity trader in the Midwest, Oren moved to the Golden State to pursue film production, where he hit the jackpot with the Saw franchise. Over an incredible lunch at Terroni in West Hollywood, Oren reveals how the legend that is Saw came to be and shares the useful advice and clever tricks he's picked up along the way.
You are originally from Illinois. What inspired your move to California?
I am from Chicago. I grew up in the city and like most people in 60’s, we moved out to the suburbs. I lived a very normal middle-class suburban life.
Girls were the inspiration for my move. Absolutely. Every time I'd meet a pretty girl, they lived in L.A., and I thought, "You know what?”… I was trading commodities on the floor in Chicago in the late 80's, early 90's, and then the markets really changed. I thought "I'm going to move out to California and see what else I can do".
You dove head first into the film industry at the age of 31 with no prior experience. What attracted you to the business of filmmaking? What life path were you on before making this change?
Telling a story. There are few professions in the world that everyone wants to do, whether it be sports, music, film… I seemed to have a very common Midwestern take on things. Those common tastes are what you need to relate and thrive.
I used to play pro hockey. I spent a couple of years in the minors, but every summer, I worked at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, starting as a runner and then working my way up to pit clerk, and then all the way up as best you can be as a non-trader. When I got sent down to the minors again, I thought "You know what, I'm going to give this try." I sold my car, borrowed enough money, got a seat, and traded for eight years from '83 to '91. To me, trading was a means to an end, not as a career. It's very physically demanding and very mentally demanding. Eventually, I just thought there had to be something more fun to devote my time to. That’s why I moved out here.
That's incredible! How did you develop such sharp business acumen?
Part of it came from being a commodity trader on the floor, which is a cutthroat business. A lot of it is from my parents. My mom and dad are both incredibly intelligent in opposite ways. My dad was a very street smart guy from inner-city Chicago and my mom was much more book smart. It was a great combination that informed my upbringing.
Circling back, working at Paramount was like going to school for free. It’s funny because most of the executives would hate the business affairs meetings, but I found them fascinating. I learned so much. We were in there making rights deals, whether it was acquiring Benjamin Button, the book, trying to land a three-picture deal with Mel Gibson, or negotiate a writer deal. It was boring for almost everybody in there, but for me, it was actually better than free school because I was getting paid.
You were the Senior VP of Production Paramount Pictures. How did that manifest?
It's like anything in Hollywood. I became something hot for a brief nanosecond. I did a movie called Set It Off with Gary Gray directing. All of a sudden, it became a bit of a zeitgeist for a moment. Instead of a big bloated movie, this was about four black girls, who rob banks, who did the whole movie union, full studio union, for $9,000,000. We were presented with platinum records at the premiere of the movie for the amazing soundtrack.
That was back then when they were sold for $17.95 retail, so there was a lot of commerce surrounding this movie. All of a sudden, people started asking me to come work at a studio and I was absolutely ill-suited for it for a number of reasons. I took the job mainly so I could see behind the curtain. Because as someone who's only selling to studios, I didn't really understand what their thought process was. So, it was great. I only lasted 14 months, but it was fantastic for me to learn why. I learned a ton about the business side. As a studio executive, you have to sit two or three times a week in business affairs meetings, because at any time, you're probably juggling 30 or 40 deals, involving scripts, actors, rights…I found that part of it fascinating.
Saw is one of the most successful horror franchises in history, both culturally and financially. How did it all begin?
Well, my partner, who passed away, Gregg Hoffman, came to me and my partner, Mark Burg, with a seven minute tape. It was actually on VHS and it was so cool. It was actually two scenes out of the movie, that the two guys from Australia did as kind of their thesis. We found it incredibly compelling. After we'd seen the tape, they actually had a script, which was pretty complete outside of a couple of location dependent scenes. We read what would become Saw I and went nuts, then decided to use our own money to finance it. The guys, James Wan and Leigh Whannell were flying over from Melbourne to meet different studios, who wanted to option a typical deal, which would have likely ended in bumping them both off right away.
So, they came in, they met with us third or fourth, and in the room, we offered to let James direct and Leigh star. Even though Leigh was the writer, he was featured in the scenes in the short. They were both kind of flabbergasted. Thank god, they had really great representatives. The whole team was fantastic, but it was their lawyer who really got it. We offered them ownership of the movie. We said we're gonna put our money up, we're not gonna take a fee, you guys don't take a fee, but if this works, all of us win. Long story short, it worked for all of us.
James and Leigh have both gone on to have great careers. They did the Insidious franchise together. James also has the Conjuring franchise and directed Fast and the Furious. He's gone on to be a billion dollar box office director.
The first Saw film was shot in 18 days on a budget of less than a million dollars that you and your partner, Mark Burg put up personally. Did you have a gut feeling that this would be the start of something incredible? Did you have any fears at the time?
We thought it was a cool little movie. A friend of ours, who was a studio executive at the time, gave us a tip that horror was getting hotter. He said if you can do this movie for a million dollars and make sure it's in focus, you can probably get two million out of it. We showed it to four or five studios, but everybody passed. So, we owned the movie and Lionsgate, who has been an amazing partner for us, handles our distribution. We have a license agreement with them and it’s been an incredible relationship. The same two chairmen, the chief legal, the chief creative, AND the head of marketing. They've all been there for all eight Saw movies, starting in 2003. I can’t think of a studio alive that has any two of those, let alone five of them, all being the same.
The first film did 50 or 60 at the box office. We did 65 million in domestic video, and then our paid TV deal at Showtime was like 14, then foreign was brilliant. I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me, but overall, I think the total budget comes out under 70 million for 8 movies.
What do you think is the primary reason for the long-term popularity of Saw?
I think it’s because we’ve always used logic. It’s been our mission to try and put people into situations of "What if?" What if you and I were suddenly attached to this wall with a chain and only one of us could leave? Those are the thoughts that we try to project. People almost don’t believe us, but when we do the development of the script, we literally just put place cards in the script for "a trap". We’ll spend months working on the logic, refining the trickery, tweaking the red herrings, and finessing how to throw people off.
For many of the films, our production designer was David Hackl, who had an engineering background. He would conjure these great traps, both elaborate and simple. We literally just kept place holders in the script for "a trap". We never spent much time on the traps themselves, but nearly all of the time on the logic underpinning them.
The sheer terror and suspense of the Saw franchise is magnified by Charlie Clouser’s haunting, industrial approach to scoring. What are your thoughts on the sonic palette of Saw?
We strongly believe that the music in Saw serves as a main character. It’s also a little scary for the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). In fact, we kind of made a rookie move by sharing Saw I with them. Our composer, Charlie Clouser is originally from Nine Inch Nails and he created an incredible, pounding, late 90’s inspired industrial soundtrack that is terrifying as hell. It’s a very hot and violent score. When we took the first film to the MPAA, they immediately gave us an NC-17 rating. Soon after, we realized that we scared the shit out of them.
We dialed the music way down in the subsequent Saw movies, but if you can recall, in the first Saw, there was a scene towards the end where Cary Elwes cuts his ankle off. We didn’t have a dollar to spend on effects, so we had this little bloodline in the back of a rubber hacksaw blade and that was it. The intense music, flashing lights, people screaming, and the visual of the sawing. That scene was too much for them. I literally drove to Reseda to meet with them and had to go through it frame by frame on the old dock for them to realize we never actually cut anyone’s ankle off.
The music really screwed up their minds, but it was great for us. When the movie came out, the impact was tremendous. It has been our honor to have Charlie Clouser on board. I would have been lost if he had turned us down or just wanted to do one film. I’d have no idea what to do. His contribution has been invaluable. There are only two characters that have survived this long, Charlie’s music and Jigsaw.
In your opinion, what is the most gruesome scene of all of the Saw movies?
It’s interesting that one of the traps that really gets to people is probably one of the simplest ones we did. In Saw II, the character of Amanda is thrown into a pit of dirty AIDS contaminated hypodermic needles. When she comes out, she’s got needles sticking out of every body part. It was one of the easiest traps to conceive, but it scared the heck out of everybody. For me, it was Twisty Tim in Saw III. The guy is locked into this cross-like contraption that twists each of his limbs in opposite directions.
If you were just beginning your career in film producing today, where would you start?
Everything has changed, but it would be my objective to find great stories and trust my gut along the way.
How do you know when a project has potential?
One of the best pieces of advice I got was from a man named Jim Wiatt, who was the president of ICM, the agency. I knew Jim socially before I got to California and one of the things he told me was to read as many scripts as I could and put them into two piles, the ones that are getting made and the ones that aren’t. He said if you did that enough, you could feel a cadence and a rhythm. That was something I adopted very early on.
Sometimes, it’s just a bit of luck. For example, I went to see the movie, The Bodyguard with a very successful big-time writer here. We were at the premiere and throughout the whole movie, he was complaining, saying things like "Ah, of course, they're gonna do that.”. Later that week, I spoke to my sister, who is married with two kids back in Chicago and at the end of our call, she said, ”Hey, I gotta go, I'm going to see The Bodyguard." I replied, "Oh, you're going to love the movie." She said, "Love it? We saw it Friday. We're going again." There is a stark difference between being in LA and seeing a movie that did, with sound check and everything, 700-800 million dollars. I think it still must be one of the most successful soundtracks of all time.
Yes, it was kind of predictable and of course, they fall in love and so on, but my point is that it’s important to step out of the big metropolitan mentality and realize that this country is so much bigger than that. In this business, you have to consider the tastes and interests of everyone in between L.A. and New York.
What lessons have you learned as a film producer that have applied to your everyday life?
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that it doesn’t matter where a good idea comes from. People in Hollywood often say things like, “Oh, but that person’s an assistant”. Yes, that person may be an assistant, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are dumb. At Evolution, we made a point to talk to everyone we could about our scripts, ideas, and so on. Good ideas don’t come easily. If you come across a great idea, you’re like holy cow! You’re definitely not concerned by who came up with it.
In life, I’ve learned that you can never pigeonhole someone as smart or stupid. Some people I thought would be assets turned out not to be. You can never judge people based their looks, their social standing, or their career. None of those things define intelligence. They just represent where they are at that given time. You have to give them an opportunity to show their value.
You played for six Western Hockey league teams, formerly owned part of an NHL team, and your eldest son currently plays professionally. Can you tell us about your passion for hockey and the role it plays in your life?
When I was a kid in Chicago, the Chicago Blackhawks were the biggest thing in the world. They had Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Keith Magnuson, and Tony Esposito. That made me think, "Hey, I want to play hockey!”. I had the flattest feet. I had to wear these special, ugly black shoes to try to create more arch. The doctors told me that if I could figure skate, I could play hockey, so I took that up for a few years. It wasn’t really “my thing” as much as a way in which to improve. It was more like dance, but it helped me a lot when I started playing lower level hockey because I could already skate as an eight year old. When I played pro, skating was one of my most dominant skill sets.
Yes, my son plays professionally. Now, there are a lot of Los Angeles kids in their late teens and early 20’s that have evolved into great players. I think it’s because Wayne Gretzky played here in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
If you had an unlimited budget to produce the film of your dreams, what would the narrative be?
I’ve always had this idea in the back of my mind to do a high-tech heist movie. Probably my favorite movie growing up was Thief, which was Michael Mann’s first film, starring James Caan and Tuesday Weld. That film is what got me into the music aspect of film. I literally think it has the most incredible soundtrack ever for a movie of that type. It’s by Tangerine Dream.
The film itself really shows Chicago. At the time, I was playing junior hockey in Spokane, Washington. When I saw the movie, it made me homesick and I thought, “This is it!”. Michael Mann shot scenes off of the hood of a black Cadillac El Dorado, you could see the action. That is my favorite movie I’ve ever seen, so if I ever had an unlimited budget and an unlimited amount of time, I’d try to figure out a great heist film that could capture that feeling.
In your opinion, what makes a great script?
I've never been asked that question. A great script is one that holds your attention. Maybe it educates you about something you don’t already know about. It comes from passion. Regardless of the genre, a great script makes you care about the characters. You love Ben Affleck, you love Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, and even Christopher Walken because of the story they are telling. You learn from a great script, you fall in love with it, and it takes you on a journey. You drop into an alternate universe.
At the end of the day, it’s all about the writing. Everything else you can fake, but you can’t fake the writing.
Don't miss Jigsaw, the 8th film from the Saw franchise. Out in theaters on October 27th.
Interviewer | Paul Goldowitz
Research, Editing, Copy, Layout | Ruby Gartenberg
Extending gratitude to Oren Koules.