Making a movie is considered one of the toughest artistic accomplishments one can pursue. They can take years to put together – decades, in some cases – only for the whole thing to fall apart days out from shooting (George Miller’s Justice League, for instance). Then there’s the Spierig Brothers, identical twins Michael and Peter, who have the kind of output that would make Terrence Malick weep.
In just 10 years they wrote, directed, produced, edited, scored and – in some cases – did the visual effects for three full-length feature films: Undead, Daybreakers and Predestination. With the exception of their debut, these were not little movies. They had big stars (Willem Dafoe, Ethan Hawke), big concepts (a post-apocalyptic vampire future, time-travelling secret agents) and a big reception (everyone from Variety to Empire touted them as ones to watch).
Now, in the space of just four months, the Spierig Brothers have two more films sliding into cinemas. The first is the ninth instalment in the profitable Saw franchise, Jigsaw, which opens globally this week. The second is a historic haunted house movie, Winchester, starring Academy Award-winner Helen Mirren. That kind of prolific output might be enough to put some filmmakers on the verge of a breakdown, but for the Spierig Brothers it’s the realisation of the one thing they have always wanted to do since they were kids growing up in Brisbane.
“Filmmaking is something we have been doing ever since we were really young,” says Peter, who is speaking on the phone from LA where he’s finishing “writing music” for Winchester, which is in post-production. “It’s just what we do. I think we’ll keep doing it until they have to wheel us both off the set.”
Laughing down the line from his home in Brisbane is Michael, who seemingly couldn’t agree more. In their own words, the Spierig Brothers are massive nerds. They grew up in the '80s and '90s obsessed with genre and horror movies – obsessions they’ve both been able to spin into fulfilling careers.
“You have to pay the bills somehow,” jokes Peter. “No, but seriously, we just get excited about certain material and it’s hard to let it go. That’s largely what drives us to make movies in that we get excited about a piece of material or a story or a character or whatever it is.”
The lads got their start in the business like so many of their heroes, by putting together a low-budget genre movie. Undead, released in 2003, was a zombie flick set in a fishing village, and saw Peter and Michael taking on most of the production roles. This DIY attitude that Aussie genre filmmakers have, Michael believes, is why they and their peers like Greg McLean, Leigh Whannell, James Wan, Cate Shortland and Jennifer Kent have become such hot properties in Hollywood.
“Often horror comes from low budget and I think the Australian film industry is nothing but low budget,” he says. “Aussies have become very skilled at stretching the dollar when it comes to filmmaking. We’re bred for it, I think that’s why. I think it’s such a creative genre, particularly when you’re making your first film. You don’t need big movie stars. Certainly when we made our first film, we made it with a whole bunch of students. It sort of lends itself really well to the first-time filmmaking endeavour in the fact you can make the genre the star, the monster the star, the scare the star. That’s a lot easier than trying to get a big name for a low budget movie.”
Peter and Michael say it’s a formula laid down by their heroes, yet one that is often forgotten among Aussie pop culture history.
“You even go back to the George Miller, Richard Franklin, Brian Trenchard-Smith kind of days, people like that. It’s not that this is new – it just got lost for a while,” says Michael. “There was a period of time in Australian cinema where the idea of doing genre – certainly doing horror – was just one step above porn. It was a lesser form of art if you wanted to do a thriller or a horror or a down and dirty exploitation movie. When you look at it, so many of the greatest filmmakers working today come from that place.”
It’s the same place the Spierig Brothers started out along with two of their closest friends in the business, Leigh Whannell and James Wan. The Aussie filmmaking pair turned their idea for a demented game into one of the most successful horror franchises of all time, with the Saw movies having taken over $837 million at the international box-office (that’s not even factoring in home entertainment sales, merchandise, spin-offs and games).
“We had known James Wan and Leigh Whannell since our first movie,” says Michael. “We’ve known them for a long time and have been friends with them for a long time. The crazy thing about Jigsaw – well, Saw too – but particularly Jigsaw is there’s a lot of Aussie components to this one as well. Our DP (director of photography) is the same DP we have always used, Ben Nott, and one of our lead actors, Matt Passmore, is an Aussie as well. He actually auditioned for us back when we were doing student films in Brisbane. We didn’t give him the role, but we’ve made up for it now.”
On paper, it seems like an unusual move, the brothers stepping into a known franchise with preexisting characters and rules, especially since they have spent the past decade making exclusively their own content. Yet it’s something they have been hoping to do “for a while”, says Peter. Back in 2010, it was announced they were spearheading a sequel to Jim Henson’s cult classic The Dark Crystal to be shot in Australia. After a few years, the project went into development hell and the Spierig Brothers moved on, only for the opportunity to direct Jigsaw to pop up shortly afterwards.
“Creating original material is a lot of work, and something Peter and I enjoy doing,” says Michael. “But we’ve always wanted to tackle other people's material as well; it has just never eventuated.”
Jigsaw was an attractive prospect for the brothers for a few reasons, besides their friendship with the original creators. They were massive fans of the Saw series as a whole, pointing to the sixth instalment as one of their favourites.
“Peter and I just want to be on-set a lot more, and we made a conscious effort to make that happen,” says Michael. “Jigsaw was a very familiar property for us. Obviously we’re fans of the series, but beyond that we knew everyone working on it really well.”
Only time will tell whether their “easy transition” into the series results in reinvigorating the franchise. In the meantime, fans only have to wait a few months until the next offering from the Spierig Brothers is out. Winchester, which arrives in February, is based on the true story of the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune and one that Peter says – with a chuckle – is going to be a “really, really creepy haunted house movie”.