The Inception Of Saw Began With The Design Of Billy The Puppet

Would you like to play a game? Again? For the tenth time? To kick off the Halloween season and hopefully provide a spike in the Fall box office, "Saw X" marks the return of everyone's favorite horror morality play. Set just three weeks after the original "Saw," the latest franchise entry messes with the timeline a bit to tell a more intimate story that further humanizes the main villain of the series, John "Jigsaw" Kramer (played by the illustrious Tobin Bell). And don't worry, Billy the Puppet is also back, still squeaking along on his cute, tiny tricycle. After eight sequels and a "Spiral," all the melodrama and betrayal we've come to love (and loathe) about the series is still very much intact in "Saw X." 

Since the daringly original first entry hit theaters in 2004, franchise creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell have watched their little indie movie (and little puppet) become the horror genre's version of a long-running soap opera. Franchise producers Oren Koules and Mark Burg have been there from the beginning, too, and "Saw X" is coming to theaters almost 20 years to the day since they first started shooting the original. 

The first film is basically a chamber piece thriller, with only two characters trying to make it out of the game alive. The budget for "Saw" was just a little over a million dollars and was shot in only 18 days. It was a true labor of love for Wan and Whannell. And it all started with Jigsaw's proxy puppet that Wan affectionately referred to as Billy when he first designed it two decades ago. 

To celebrate the release of "Saw X," let's take a look back at the origins and history of Billy the Puppet, the automated apprentice that's almost as famous as Jigsaw himself. 

James Wan loves puppets and we love him for it

Billy the Puppet first popped up in Wan's 2003 short film starring Whannell and has continued to play a fundamental role in the ongoing series. Reflecting on "Saw" a decade after its release, Wan seemed a little nostalgic about the early days, telling Collider in a 2014 interview:

"The whole thing started in our bedroom, where I designed the doll. And the first film almost feels homemade. Which actually, to dovetail slightly, is what Leigh and I wanted when we went off to make 'Insidious,' that homemade freedom and quality you get with 'Saw'. There's something very cool about that indie spirit that I try to hang on to even now with the bigger films that I'm working on."

It's hard to believe that a blockbuster horror franchise like "Saw" began with Wan's simple but effective DIY clown design that he came up with in his room. The red spiral symbols on Billy the Puppet's cheeks and its nutcracker mouth have become a lasting character in the horror genre. Not only did it serve the purpose of scaring Jigsaw's victims, it became a clever way to deliver exposition and the clown allowed Jigsaw to stay hidden and protected from any attempts to arrest or kill him. In our own way, we've all grown to love the little guy over the years.

As an interesting bit of "Saw" trivia, if you go back and watch every entry (which is its own kind of torture), no one ever says the name "Billy" in the entire franchise. That doesn't change with "Saw X," either. In a sense, Billy was Wan's baby and the name just serves as a term of endearment that cements Wan's personal connection to his original creation. Wan's underseen killer puppet movie "Dead Silence" also features a puppet wearing the same outfit as Jigsaw's marionette minion. 

The many faces of Billy the Puppet

Originally, Billy the Puppet was crudely made out of papier-maché, lumps of clay, and black ping pong balls were used for the eyes. The red, beady irises were simply painted on completing the look. The body was filled out using paper towel rolls that were hidden by Billy's dapper, badly tailored black tuxedo and red bow tie. In the original "Saw," the puppeteers just used fishing line that wouldn't appear on camera to pull Billy along to hit his mark. The limitations and cheap design of Billy in the original made him even more disturbing. To hide how basic the construction was, Billy appears over a monitor during the first reverse bear trap test, only appearing in person on his tricycle after Amanda (Shawnee Smith) frees herself with the key from her stomach. 

In "Saw II," Billy got an upgrade that included some mechanical alterations so he could be operated by remote control, allowing his unhinged jaw and bulbous eyes to move. The original puppet was used as inspiration for the prop crew on "Saw III," but the doll had deteriorated too much to be able to be used in the finished film. As an alternative, waterjet-cut foam was used for the body along with attached magnets to make sure Billy stayed sturdy on his trusty tricycle. For "Saw IV," metal rods were added and stronger magnets were attached so Billy would be able to move a little more freely on whatever metal surface the production decided to place him on. Onward in the series, Billy has pretty much remained the same, staying consistent to the incredibly effective DIY design from "Saw."

"Saw X" finds John Kramer in a crunch for time, making the return of Billy and his design feel almost haphazard which adds to its ghoulishness. You can almost imagine Jigsaw speedily working away. Billy does appear larger in the latest entry, but it's surely supposed to be the same puppet that appears in "Saw II."

Wait, so are Jigsaw and Billy the Puppet good guys now?

Depending on how you like your "Saw" movies, "Saw IV" stands out as the sequel that allowed the franchise to continue moving forward while still arguably taking away a significant part of what made the trilogy before it so successful. By flashing back in time to focus on John Kramer's wife, Dr. Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), "Saw IV" provided the origin story for Billy the Puppet. Instead of that adding to the puppet's mystique, the tragic reason for Billy the Puppet's existence immediately makes it a lot less frightening. 

Essentially, Kramer started down the path of becoming the self-righteous game master Jigsaw after Jill, who was seven months pregnant, loses their unborn child after Cecil, one of her drug-addicted patients, accidentally slams a door into Jill's stomach. The miscarriage causes the couple to divorce after Kramer is also diagnosed with cancer. Before the tragedy, Kramer crafted a wooden doll to give to his son, whom the couple had decided to name Gideon. So, Billy the Puppet becomes a placeholder for Jigsaw's grief. 

That's precisely where the "Saw" series went from a gore-filled house of horrors with a conscience to becoming a soap opera disguised as a horror movie. "Saw X" unequivocally paints John Kramer as the victim and the hero this time around, enacting a quickly planned revenge plot against a shady group of con artists. When Billy the Puppet reappears, it's still terrifying in the eyes of Jigsaw's contestants as they're forced to cut and saw their way through their own body parts. But if you already know the backstory, is Billy the Puppet's blank stare really all that menacing anymore?

"Saw X" premieres in theaters on September 29, 2023. Read the /Film review here.