Filmmaker Scott Derrickson returns to his terror roots and partners again with the foremost brand in the genre, Blumhouse, with a terrifying new horror thriller The Black Phone.
The film’s screenplay is by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill (Doctor Strange, Sinister franchise), based on the award-winning short story by JOE HILL from his New York Times bestseller 20th Century Ghosts.
Scott Derrickson Q&A
How did this project come together?
Well, it came together as a result of a few things. I’ve been in therapy for a couple of years, mostly dealing with my childhood, and then I got excited about this project when I combined Joe Hill’s short story with my own experience growing up in North Denver in the late 70’s. That’s essentially what the screenplay is.
What appealed to you about the story?
I believe Joe is a very unique writer. I can’t think of another horror writer who can approach such dark material from the point of view of love, with great compassion and empathy. And he doesn’t compromise on the scariness because of that. I read the short story The Black Phone when it was first published 18 years ago, and it always stuck with me. Then I thought it would be a great idea for a movie because I had never seen anything that combined a serial killer and abductor with the supernatural, but also because of the empathy I felt in the writing. I really felt that the author cared about the kid in the story. So, a very important aspect for me in making this film was to retain that point of view of compassion and love, while telling a truly terrifying and otherwise very grim tale.
And you have a terrifying villain in The Grabber. What did an actor of the calibre of Ethan Hawke bring to that role?
I didn’t write the script with Ethan in mind, but when I finished it with my writing partner Robert Cargill, he was the first person I wanted to send it to because of the uniqueness of his voice, which is very distinctive and has real range. He can make his voice low and gravely but also high and light, effortlessly moving it around, and I felt that could be a very important and valuable aspect of the character. And then tailoring to him the mask he wears was important too. Initially, I think all we wrote in the script was that it was an old leathery mask with the devil painted on it, either smiling or frowning; but once Ethan signed on, I felt inspired to do something more elaborate with the mask, like splitting it in half so he could show just his eyes or his mouth. For me, these aspects were interesting, but in the end how The Grabber actually functions in the movie is all thanks to Ethan. He came to the set with an understanding of the character that exceeded my own.
It’s unnerving how his mask constantly changes…
Yes, and we were very specific about how and when he wears it. So, there was a revision of the script once I came up with the idea of splitting the mask, trying to imagine in each scene which one he would wear and why, and how it would impact what he says and does. Masks are scary and obviously a huge iconic component of a lot of horror films, and I was trying to expand upon that. I just tried to do something that felt like an evolution of the idea of the masked killer. That was one of the ambitions of this movie.
And Ethan delivered an extraordinary performance, making sure The Grabber was a complex villain.
He definitely got the complexity of the character that was in the screenplay, and then he added some extra layers. And I give him the credit for trusting the mask to do what The Grabber wanted it to do because wearing a mask was a way for the character to be himself and honest with what he felt and did.
Several aspects of Finney and his life are drawn from Derrickson’s own childhood memories. One of the first scenes in the film sees Finney watching the 1959 William Castle horror classic The Tingler.
“I built haunted houses in my basement as a kid. I was that kid watching The Tingler, and I never forgot it. It was the first horror movie that I remember stumbling on, on my own. It’s a black-and-white film and that scene when, suddenly, bright red crimson blood appears, that burned into my brain and I never let it go. Not a week goes by that I’m not thinking about the images from that movie. Children have a fascination and innate need to take those horrific things in. I think it’s an instinctive reckoning with how scary it is to be a human being, especially for a child.”
There’s a scene with Robin and Finney talking in the bathroom at school that is word for word what I remember a good friend of mine saying to me when I was in elementary school. He was the toughest kid in school and for some reason, he took a liking to me. I think it’s amazing how those moments that you have when you’re that young can make such an impression on you.
After having abducted several young kids in the town where the action takes place, with fatal consequences, The Grabber targets the teenager Finney Shaw, who struggles to survive and outwit him. There is a fascinating and terrifying cat and mouse relationship going on there, right?
Yes, and much more so than The Grabber intended there to be. I think Finney was constantly surprising him with his intelligence and willfulness, and also with the ghosts of the kids that are calling him on this mysterious black phone. I think that what makes a movie like this work depends on how it plays on the audience’s suspense and fear because there is not a guarantee in the genre that the hero is going to get away. Sometimes, horror films can end very badly; so, one of the things that add to the suspense of The Black Phone is that you don’t know where it is going.
Mason Thames delivers a powerful performance as Finney.
It’s very rare to find an actor as young as him with that kind of raw talent, which involves a real powerful, thorough, and emotional understanding of what a character would think and do in a certain circumstance. So often I didn’t have to give him any direction at all, as he just knew how to process Finney’s thoughts on camera. When you watch him, you realize that he doesn’t have an untruthful beat in the whole movie. This way, in every scene you can sort of seeing what is happening inside: how he is thinking about the situation; how is reacting to things; how he is plotting things. And the more I worked on the movie in post-production, the more I marvelled at his performance. It is flawless.
And his character’s connection with his sister is also key in the story.
Oh yes, more than anything else, the movie is really about the bond between Finney and Gwen. And the pressure I felt had to do with the fact that we only see them on camera together for the first 25 minutes or so of the film because I had to make sure the audience cared about them as characters and also about their relationship. The biggest challenge of the movie was getting that to work so that when they were separated you felt the impact of that and the importance of Gwen’s role.
What can you say of Madeleine McGraw and her performance in that role?
Madeleine is a young star. She was astronomically better than any other actress that read for that role. I was so amazed by her audition that I moved the whole production for her, after finding out that she wasn’t available for our initial shooting schedule. So, I called producer Jason Blum and told him that we had to shoot later because I needed her to play Gwen, and even though he probably thought I was crazy, he supported me and agreed.
The siblings have their own problems at home with their father, played by Jeremy Davies, which is another important part of the story.
Yes, it is. There are a lot of things going on there about overcoming trauma and the resilience of childhood, as they have to survive him, the bullies at school, and this abductor and serial killer.
You clearly didn’t listen to that old saying in the industry about trying to avoid working with dogs or kids, as you have both in the film.
I love working with kids! The important thing is to find the right child actor, and I dedicate a lot of time to interviewing them and meeting their parents too, as I need to know that the kid has the right emotional support. I just love how honest and truthful kids are, and I never talk down to them. Regarding the dog scenes, I left them to my beloved second unit director, Maggie Levin. So, I direct the kids, but the animals go to the second unit – which in this case did a great job.
This movie is truly haunting, without having to rely on easy scares to capture the audience’s attention.
I love a good jump scare, but it’s like cotton candy in the sense that it creates a little spike in your mouth and then it is gone without leaving a real lasting impact. I think what makes an effective horror movie is tone and suspense because they create enduring experiences that stay with you after the film is over. There are no jump scares or much gore or even violence that I remember in Robert Eggers’ movie The Witch, but it took me days to shake off the feeling of it. That’s when you know you have seen something remarkable.
So, do you believe that watching a film like The Black Phone can cathartically help us navigate our fears?
Yes, which is precisely why I work in this genre. Good horror taps into the unspoken and unspeakable fears that we carry, and I believe that experiencing it with a movie leads to a sort of live inoculation, helping your system build up immunity to take on the real thing if you encounter it. I think horror art and cinema work like that because they can bolster your capacity to survive the real evils that are in the world. Referring to the cathartic effect of it, Wes Craven said that good horror movies don’t cause fear but actually help release it, and I agree and really like that idea. It has been my relationship with the genre both as a film viewer and a filmmaker.
That mysterious black phone that keeps on ringing in the basement where Finney is being held captive, even though The Grabber insists is broken, adds to the suspense and brings the supernatural element of the story into play.
Yes, that was Joe Hill’s idea, and I remember that when I first read the story, I thought that just a black phone in a basement by itself was something simple and creepy. Funnily enough, right after the film debuted at a film festival last Fall, I moved into a new home in Los Angeles, and when I was in the living room with Jason Blum, I heard a phone ringing in the basement and thought, “Oh my God! What’s happening?” So, I went down and discovered that Jason had installed a black phone there that he was calling…
Have you kept it?
Oh yes, it’s still there. It’s great!
Producer Jason Blum and his company Blumhouse Productions continue, year after year, to be a key voice in this genre. What can you say about him?
Jason has probably become my closest friend in this business. He just loves the genre and is very protective of his directors. I think that everything he has been able to accomplish flows out of his passion for watching and making movies.
So, what should the audience expect from The Black Phone then?
A very suspenseful and original supernatural thriller with a lot of heart and soul.
A Universal Release © 2022 Universal Studios.