It’s a story like many, many others before it. A director has a vision, and scrapes together whatever cash he can beg, borrow or sell his blood for and makes a movie. Armed with, often, little more than a handful of amateurs and borrowed equipment, or whatever off-the-shelf material he can afford, an independent film is built on the strength of blood, sweat, a few tears, and all the sheer grit and determination the production can muster.
At the end of this long, hard road of struggles and sacrifice, with a few triumphs mixed in, the production is regularly shopped around to distributors, or taken to film festivals and shown to the public in an attempt to raise that necessary cash to launch the next film.
Imagine the shock, the sheer horror, as perhaps the greatest nightmare of independent filmmaking rises before a director: to see a movie, shockingly similar to his own, make the same rounds of film festivals…
…and ultimately, get the distribution his own so eagerly sought.
It’s happened before.
Back in 1999, a film called The Blair Witch Project was released on a groundswell of audience enthusiasm, but clever viewers remembered a film they’d seen some time beforehand called The Last Broadcast. And though the director of The Last Broadcast, Stefan Avalos, never initiated legal proceedings against the people behind The Blair Witch Project, allegations of theft continue to circle up to this very day.
And now, it’s happened again.
This is the kind of nightmarish scenario that filmmaker Greg Arce woke up to not so very long ago. In 2001, Arce completed and released a film called Den, the story of a madman who kidnaps and locks several young people in an abandoned theatre and plays a series of deranged mind games with them. The film was released to reactions as mixed as they were surprisingly widespread. Its fans and detractors alike hail it as “sick” and “demented”. The reaction is so strong that, on July 12th, 2001, according to Arce, a fistfight breaks out at the Laemmle Sunset 5 during a question and answer segment. Its next appearance at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival requires a police response to control rival groups of protestors.
Indeed, all was looking well for Den—it had been honored with coverage on CNN during Oscar season, profiles in various magazines, and choice reviews as widespread as they were effuse in their praise.
So therefore, it came as a complete shock to Arce when, in early 2004, as he was shopping around Den to various distributors, he began to hear word of a film making the rounds at Sundance in January 2004 called Saw.
Arce says of the similarities between Saw and Den: “When Saw first came out at Sundance, I started receiving emails and phone calls from people that had seen my film, Den, and were saying, ‘Have you seen the film Saw? It looks like a rip off of your film.’”
Which lead me to ask a few questions of Greg Arce.
Do you know if Wan and Whannell, the guys who wrote Saw, know you exist?
Greg Arce: I have no real proof other than we played at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival and my actress won Best Actress there so we were known… and they are from there. Using a basic timeline, we would have played there around the time they were probably film students.
Is there any way to tell if they were at that film festival watching Den?
Greg Arce: My lawyer is looking into the film festival and will find out the specifics.
Do you know if there was a previous version of Saw that was adapted to be more like Den, like in the Blair Witch Project / Last Broadcast affair, or do you believe that they built Saw AFTER they saw Den?
Greg Arce: Curious. I saw Last Broadcast and know that story of how Blair Witch took that idea. I don’t know of any early versions of Saw… I only know that I wrote Den in the mid-90s and was almost accepted by Preferred Artists Agency because of it. I then went to shoot it in September of 2000 and had it screened by June of 2001… then went onto the film festivals.
Based on the messages you’ve left in various forums online, you decided to start legal proceedings in November of 2005, almost two years after Saw’s premiere at Sundance and over a year after its US theatrical release. Why so long a wait?
Greg Arce: I was collecting information and seeking legal counsel. Unfortunately, Den broke my bank and I had to declare bankruptcy so I had to slowly plod ahead as to what to do. All the time getting constant emails and phone calls from people who had seen Den years before and were outraged by the similarities of Saw. It was those people that first brought Saw to my attention because a few had seen it at Sundance before it was known to the public.
Arce asserts that there are many similarities between Saw and Den—in fact, he sent me a list of seventeen such similarities that he spotted between the two films. His list reads as follows:
1.) The overall idea of a serial killer who puts one victim against the other so that they kill each other.
2.) Hidden secrets that each victim has that ties one to the other.
3.) One of the main characters is a doctor in Saw…in Den we have a psychotherapist…
4.) …and in both the characters have a secret that deals with infidelity.
5.) The idea that the killer must have been either watching or collecting information on the victim’s lives to know so much about them.
6.) And I think the most telling is that the main scene that wraps the whole movie is the two victims chained up so that they can’t reach each other. Plus, although Saw is in an old bathroom & Den is in an old theater, the look of the walls, pipes & chains looks a lot like ours.
7.) These are the two loglines from the films… see how interchangeable they are:
DEN LOGLINE: A madman, with a religious secret, captures his future victims and plays a deadly game of Q & A. No one comes out alive from this “wreck” room where truth, sins and religious faith are questioned and scarred for life.
SAW logline: Saw follows a madman who, obsessed with teaching his victims the value of life, abducts morally wayward people and forces them to play horrific games for their own survival. Faced with impossible choices, each victim must struggle to win back his/her life, or else die trying.
8.) The main story of Saw has two men tied to chains who wake up in a strange place… In Den the captives also wake up in a strange place and are tied in
9.) In Den, the killer picks people he believes have some immoral secrets or past…. Same is true of the killer in Saw.
10.) In Den, killer plays psychological games that pits each captive against each other… same is true in Saw.
11.) In Den, the killer tries to make the captives make decisions that will require someone else to die…same is true in Saw.
12.) There is a key scene in Saw where the killer says, “Make a choice” and this line is used in the trailer… we have a similar scene in Den with the same line repeated over and over.
13.) We have a tub of water next to one of our captives in Den… in Saw there is a bathtub next to one of the captives.
14.) The opening scene in Saw when the captives wake up is very similar to Den’s where they are asking each other where they are & what is this situation all about.
15.) Both films have scenes showing how the captives were picked up by the killer
16.) In Saw, one of the characters talks about himself as being on a “leash” due to the chain… we have the same speech in Den.
17.) We have two types of posters for Den and in one the character shown is very similar to the killer’s doll that talks to the captives plus some have said that the doll looks similar to the look the killer has at the end of Den.
So at the end of it all, is Saw the first great film franchise of the twenty first century, stolen property? Have Leigh Whannell and James Wan, creators of Saw, been unduly influenced by an earlier film to create their own? Are Twisted Pictures and Lions Gate aiding and abetting?
There are certainly similiarities between Arce’s Den and Wan and Whannell’s “Saw” series. There can be no denial that they share several common elements, and even similar plot elements. But as to whether or not the Saw series is the biggest ripoff of the twenty first century, well…that’s for a judge to decide.
And there will be such a decision soon. Arce has begun consulting lawyers on a best course of action, and they believe he has a very strong case. Until a court of law makes its decision, however, we can only close on Arce’s own statement:
“Everyone who has seen both films has said the same thing, ‘they ripped you off!’. I originally had wished they would have just come to me and settled out of court without all this craziness, but I guess they feel it’s okay to rip off the little guy…and even though I’m fat, I’m still a little guy in this business.”