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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: JAMES WAN on 'DEATH SENTENCE'

Interview by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for RadioFree.com
July 28, 2007

In the revenge thriller Death Sentence, a mild-mannered, white-collar everyman (Kevin Bacon) is pushed over the edge when he witnesses the senseless, cold-blooded murder of his son. Driven by rage, he sets out to kill those responsible, but soon discovers that vengeance is not so simple a game when his actions endanger the rest of his family. This tale of blood ties and unforgiving justice co-stars John Goodman, Kelly Preston, and Garrett Hedlund, and is directed by Saw's James Wan.

We first met James Wan and his filmmaking partner Leigh Whannell (who has a cameo in Death Sentence) nearly three years ago, just before the release of Saw. At that time, they were new to the Hollywood system and unsure how their work would be received by the public. But all of that changed once Saw made its wonderfully monstrous debut. Almost instantly, the duo that met in film school went from struggling students to the masterminds behind one of the most successful horror franchises in recent history. Their rise in the movie community remains one of our favorite success stories, and we love that they started out as earnest storytellers with a great idea who diligently shopped their "little horror movie" around town on homemade DVDs.

Despite his sudden status as a director revered by genre fans, the still-affable James Wan graciously took some time to speak with us about his latest project, Death Sentence. In this exclusive interview, he gives us some background on the vengeance drama. But naturally, we couldn't resist the temptation to open things up by razzing him about Saw star Shawnee Smith...




RadioFree.com: We first met you and your Saw filmmaking partner Leigh Whannell nearly three years ago. We've spoken to Leigh since then, but you've been ever-elusive...

JAMES: I know. [jokes] Listen, that's my way of keeping my mystique. You know, if I put myself out there too much, it's just not the same.

From what Leigh tells me, we have at least one thing in common: we both have a crush on Shawnee Smith...

[laughs] That's a great segue! I surely did. Especially when I was younger, I had a big crush on her. [jokes] That's why I cast her in the film. If you can't exploit your power as a director, what the hell good are you for, right?

So what prompted you to make your latest film, Death Sentence? Are you a longtime fan of the action/revenge subgenre?

Yeah, I've always been a big fan of the revenge genre. I mean, I think a lot of us love the revenge genre. I guess it's such a guilty pleasure to some degree--like we all have this dark side that we wish we could just go out there and do the things that we can't usually do, and I think movies like this [are] a very cathartic way of letting you release some of that, I guess, fantasy, you know? [laughs] But at the same time, I felt like Death Sentence was a very natural progression for me to segue out of the horror genre--you know, do drama, do the action thriller thing, which I really love, and for me to try something different. Because I think it's important to do different things as an artist.

What do you think makes the avenging angel archetype so appealing, and how did you approach the themes of vengeance?

A lot of people love to cheer when the bad guy gets it, right? But one thing I definitely tried to do with this film is...I want to give the audience the stuff they are going to enjoy, but at the same time, I did not want this film to be a movie that glorified vengeance. I did not want this to be a film that makes you go, "Hey, let's go and do that. It's okay to go do that." Because the story has the theme of vengeance in it, but I try to show the other side as well. And by the other side, I mean I try to show the repercussion of what happens when you try to do that.



How do you set up Kevin Bacon's character, and what kind of transformation does he go through?

Kevin plays this mild-mannered office man...He's a loving husband, a great father as well--a very white-collar kind of guy, like who's never once got into any kind of physical altercation in any way. So one day, his son is killed right before his eyes, and he's so shocked and angered by this tragedy that he decides to go after the bad people that hurt his kid, right? But what he ends up finding is the idea of revenge can cut both ways. So now he's got the gang members coming after him as well, and the rest of his family. And that's what I think is unique in this particular film, that sets it apart from all the other revenge films. And then this becomes like a thriller, you know? It becomes like a cat and mouse game between these two people that are from different sides of the track, so to speak.

Is Death Sentence an idea you've had since your film school days, or one that is more recent?

There are elements in this film that I have had in my head for a long time, like how I wanted to shoot particular action sequences, or how I wanted a certain emotional aspect to play out. So I thought that this film was the perfect vehicle for me to try and incorporate some of these elements that I've had in my head for a long time.

Was The Crow an influence to you in any way?

I love The Crow. I think The Crow is definitely one of my favorite revenge stories out there. I love the comic book, actually, and the film as well.

How did you approach the violence in this film stylistically?

I wanted to keep it very gritty and real. I was very much influenced by movies from the '70s, and photography artwork from the '70s. So [visually], I really did try to apply a lot of that old school aspect into this particular film. I wanted to show the violence in this film to be ugly and scary. You know, guns are scary, and I wanted to depict that. And I think that comes across in this film. When people see it, they're not going to go, "Wow, that was so much fun!" because their heart is, hopefully, going to be in their throat. [laughs]

Well thanks very much for your time! Hopefully it won't be so long before we speak to you about your next film...

Michael, it's like a leap year, right? Like once every four years or so. [laughs]

Best of luck to you, and continued success...

Thank you so much.


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