Sinister Director Drops First Terrifying Trailer For The Black Phone
Sinister‘s Scott Derrickson and Ethan Hawke have reunited for The Black Phone, a serial killer chiller that’s just got its first trailer.
It’s been seven years since Derrickson made a horror film, having moved onto Doctor Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe after Deliver Us From Evil. While originally attached to direct the Multiverse of Madness sequel, he stepped down due to creative differences and eventually found solace in a dark, resonant tale destined for him and his trusty co-writer, C. Robert Cargill.
The Black Phone stars Ethan Hawke as The Grabber, a frightening kidnapper and killer who fools kids and shoves them in his van. When Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) finds himself in danger of becoming the sixth victim, a mysterious phone allows him to talk to lives earlier lost, and possibly help him escape.
You’re not imagining the Stephen King notes – the missing children; the small-town unease; the villain with balloons. The Black Phone is based on a short story penned by Joe Hill, the son of the master of horror. However, these should only be seen as nods; this is set to be its own frightening beast with a villain begging for Halloween masks.
Ahead of the trailer’s release, I sat down with Derrickson to talk about how he found The Black Phone in the first place, working with Hawke and ‘remarkable’ audience reactions ahead of it being unleashed early next year.
What led you to The Black Phone?
Scott: Well I read the short story the year it came out. I had gone to breakfast with a friend and just wandered into a local bookstore and saw it on the shelf. It had just been published, this book called 20th Century Ghosts. Of course, I had no idea who Joe Hill was, I had no idea he was Stephen King’s son – he didn’t want anyone to know that either, he wanted to grow his audience on his own merit.
I read that book and just thought the story of The Black Phone was a movie. I thought it was a really great idea for a horror film. It was only 20 pages long, so there was a lot to expand from it. But I essentially held onto that idea in my head as something that’d make a good film, and when I stepped off the last movie I was working on, I was thinking of trying to make an American 400 Blows based on the violent neighbourhood I grew up in; a lot of danger, blood, fighting and domestic violence.
It was in the burst of the serial killer age with Ted Bundy coming through in Colorado, and the Manson Murders had just occurred. My next-door neighbour’s mother was murdered when I was eight. There was just a lot of fear I grew up around, and I liked the idea of telling a story set in that world, realistically, and the idea of combining that with Joe’s story – that’s when it all clicked. My writing partner C. Robert Cargill and I wrote the script in about five weeks, we wrote it really quickly.
What’s your shorthand with Cargill like, given you’re regular collaborators?
Scott: We’ve been working together for a long time now, and we’ve got stuff we’ve had made, stuff we haven’t had made, rewrites of other stuff. He’s my closest friend. It’s also great the way we work together – the reason we write so fast is because he’s a night owl. He writes all night long. I write during the day, I send him pages and he’ll rewrite those and give me new pages in the morning, so we’re really in the thick of screenwriting – it’s like having a 24hr writer. Somebody is always working on it.
The ‘grab’ from the trailer seems like a key scene from the source material and movie. Was that an important moment for you to get right, in feeling the onus from the short story?
Scott: Yeah, it was an extremely important moment to get right. I really have to give a lot of credit to Joe Hill for that scene. It’s designed very close to what’s written in the book. That scene was written with very specific detail, and I remember the process of him dropping groceries near the van he had and using black balloons to obfuscate the attack. I thought it was harrowing in the short story, so my inspiration was to interpret it. I was really trying to capture what I thought Joe had captured in the short story.
What went into the design of the mask? I already can’t wait to see that being worn at Halloween in the future.
Scott: [Laughs] Same, man. It was exactly that. I felt like we had a great story and great villain who needed a great mask. He needed something that was expressive, and I thought a mask that had removable pieces to it that he could swap out by mood was really interesting. I hadn’t seen that done before, and Tom Savini got really excited by that as well. I probably spent more time on the details of the mask, getting that mask right, than any other thing during pre-production in the movie. I knew the movie would be sold on that mask, and if it wasn’t iconic the movie kind of wouldn’t work.
Horror is your thing, so to speak. For my generation, Sinister is a massive pop horror, and The Exorcism of Emily Rose is one of my favourites. How did you find the difference working in this realm of horror, which appears to be – by the trailer, at least – more grounded?
Scott: Yeah, it’s a very different tone from the other films I’ve made. It’s still very scary and suspenseful, I think, but it’s much more emotional than anything else I’ve made before.
I think that’s what separates it from my other films; it was told from an emotional place, emotional memories I have, and with these two extraordinary young actors we were able to create this very emotional bond that feels very truthful and believable. That’s the centre of the film, and all the horror is surrounding that. It’s a different type of film; there’s a lot of love in this movie, for a horror film.
It’s been seven years since your last full-on horror movie with Deliver Us From Evil. Did you want to take a bit of time away from horror, or was it just because the MCU came swinging?
Scott: I made a decision back in 2008 that I would never again make a movie… you know, I did The Day The Earth Stood Still, and I felt at the end of that process that it wasn’t my movie, and I found myself at the end of someone else’s film. I thought it was a strategic choice to make a big studio movie at that time. After that I swore to myself I would never make a movie for strategic reasons, and I would always make a movie as though it would be the last movie I’d ever make – because someday it will be!
Each film I’ve done, I’ve done because it was in me at the time, it was the thing I was able to do at the time. This one… I’ll be frank about it, I’ve been in therapy for three years and dealing pretty deeply with my childhood experiences, so there was a lot of that. There was a lot that had been surfaced that was ready to be channelled into some kind of creative work. That’s how I tend to work: finding things I’m afraid of, curious about, or working through my own life as a way to tell a good story. That’s a lot of where The Black Phone came from.
Well, you certainly come through in the trailer for The Black Phone. Thinking of Sinister… as I say, it was a big pop horror – but I think it’s been a while since one of those big horrors that’s captured the zeitgeist in the same way, similarly to the first Conjuring, Insidious and Paranormal Activity. Do you think The Black Phone will bring people into the cinemas for that collective ‘oh sh*t’ word-of-mouth experience?
Scott: Well, based on my experiences with the screenings – I tested it twice for test audiences and I screened the finished film at the Fantastic Fest in Austin, and I just screened it in Los Angeles at Beyond Fest – the audience reactions are pretty remarkable. I think that’s probably gonna happen, I think it’s a movie that’s going to connect with people this time.
I think a lot of it comes from the uniqueness of Joe’s idea, the uniqueness of the time and place, the performances are brilliant, and there’s a lot of tension in it. But I also think it’s coming from a place of love, and there’s a lot of hope of it. I think there’s something about that that was a little unexpected for the audiences in a good way. People who wanted to pack into a theatre and see a good horror film definitely got that, but also got more than they bargained for. That’s been my experience so far, we’ll just need to see if that plays out in the grand scale. I hope it does.
Speaking of unexpected, do you think Ethan Hawke has ever delivered a performance anything like he does here?
Scott: He’s very, very creepy. He’s never played a role like this. He doesn’t play many villains, it’s not something he does often or wants to do. I think he always felt he likes the challenge of this role and he’s very, very effective in the film.
What were your conversations like working together on Sinister, and how did you guys end up reuniting for The Black Phone?
Scott: I got to meet him and know him because he’s so close to Jason Blum, because they’ve been best friends for years, so I got an easy introduction. I think he saw what I was trying to do with Sinister and realised that I was very serious about the genre. He hadn’t done a horror film at that point in time, and I really convinced him that there’s no separation between high art and low art.
A scary genre film can be high art, just as well as whatever Oscar bait fall movies there’s gonna be. The performances can be just as note-worthy. I also challenged him and said, ‘Lead actors don’t tend to do horror films.’ He said, ‘Why do you think that is?’ And I said, ‘Because it’s not sexy to be scared. But it’s so human.’ I think actors who are interested in portraying fear, one of the primary human emotions and driving forces in our world, especially now, are taking on something important.
In The Black Phone, it was something else – he was taking on true villainy, which he hasn’t done much of. What he told me is that the bar’s very high for him, it has to be something that he thinks is really remarkable for him to do it. Once he read our script, he wanted to do it, fortunately for me.
Do you think this is something which could evolve into a franchise?
Scott: I certainly think there’s potential for a franchise there. I have a few thoughts about it already… there’s certainly a way to continue the mythology of this particular story, yeah.
The Black Phone hits cinemas on February 4, 2022.
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