Why ‘The Black Phone’ Director Scott Derrickson Returned to Horror After ‘Doctor Strange’
Scott Derrickson knows his horror, as he most superbly confirmed with 2012’s Sinister, a thriller of demonic fiends, snatched adolescents, and celluloid nightmares. Following his stint as the director of Doctor Strange, he revisits those harrowing themes in equally unsettling fashion with The Black Phone, his new film about a child abductor named The Grabber who imprisons kids in a basement chamber (with a mysterious black phone that rings despite a severed cord) while wearing one of cinema’s all-time scariest masks. The psycho behind that façade is Derrickson’s Sinister leading man Ethan Hawke, and their partnership continues to pay disquieting dividends. Based on Joe Hill’s 2004 short story of the same name, their latest collaboration proves to be a disturbing period-piece affair about abuse, vengeance from beyond the grave, and the need for (and capacity of) kids to stand up for themselves and fight back against those determined to do them grievous harm.
The Black Phone plays like an extension of Derrickson’s favorite preoccupations, as well as reconfirms his status as one of the few Hollywood directors capable of crafting unique big-screen nerve-rattlers—not to mention staging effectively jolty jump scares. Mining parental anxieties, childhood vulnerabilities and generational trauma for intense suspense, Derrickson (teaming with screenwriter C. Robert Cargill) delivers the menacing goods in spades, in part by maintaining consistent focus on his villain’s unforgettable face—a visage (designed by Tom Savini) marked by a monstrous ear-to-ear grin that would make even the Joker jealous. Thanks to both the director and his star, The Grabber feels like an immediate candidate for the modern scary-movie pantheon.
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Ahead of The Black Phone’s premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival—it’s now playing in theaters—we spoke with the filmmaker about his fondness for filtering terror through a Super 8 lens, the creation and design of his killer’s mask, and whether the horror genre offers more freedom than franchise filmmaking.
Between this and Sinister, you seem to have a real thing for Super 8 as the format for your nightmares. Where does that come from?
We shot with Bolex Super 8 cameras, and yeah, I have real love for that format. First of all, my dad had a Super 8 camera when I was a kid, and I think a lot of my love for filmmaking started by me messing around with that camera. I didn’t really have much interest in the video cameras that were around later in the ’80s. But my dad’s old Super 8 camera—I used to use my own paper route money and buy Super 8 film stock and shoot little movies. I loved what it looked like. I loved how it felt. And what I really love about 8mm film is that the film stocks are all very different, so on both Sinister and The Black Phone, I tested a lot of the different Kodak Super 8 stocks for what we would use for each of the sequences.
Especially when Super 8 is projected in a big theater, it looks magical. It doesn’t look like anything else. The grain and the quality that it takes on at that size is so distinctive. And personally—and maybe this is because my childhood was so marked by feelings of fear—I just find Super 8 film creepy [laughs]. I think that if you find a Super 8 film that your grandmother has in her closet somewhere and put it on, there’s going to be something a little eerie about it. So, I have a real affection for that in the genre, for sure.
Speaking of creepy, The Black Phone’s signature element is unquestionably The Grabber’s mask, which was crafted by Tom Savini and Jason Baker. How did the design come about?
I knew it had to be [the signature element]. And I didn’t realize that until I was in pre-production. There’s no mask in Joe’s story, so in the script, we described The Grabber as having two masks: one that is a leathery old devil mask with a smile, and then a leathery old mask with a frown, and that was it. After I cast Ethan Hawke, two things happened. In prep, I realized, first, I have Ethan Hawke, and I’d like to be able to see some of his face some of the time. That led me to think about the masks themselves, and how people were going to sell the movie based on how good the mask was. I realized: these masks have to be iconic. So, I thought, how can we move forward past Michael Myers, past Jason, past Ghostface? The idea became, what if we had three masks? He’s got three masks, and then what if you could disassemble them? What if they were split, so he can wear the top piece or the bottom piece of any of those masks? That creates nine different versions of what The Grabber can wear in any given scene.
That became, conceptually, very exciting to me. Then it became a smile mask, a frown mask, and a mask with no mouth, with no expression—all split in half. I came up with that concept, and I referenced for Tom Savini The Man Who Laughs for the grimace of the smile mask, and that was really it. I gave all that not only to Tom but to five different effects companies that are experts in mask-making, Tom being the oldest and the living legend that he is. I kind of expected one of the younger companies to come through with something innovative, but they all gave me concept art. Tom gave me the simplest concept art, which was just a sketch of all three masks, split in half. As soon as I saw it, I was like, oh my god, that’s it. What he drew in a single drawing is what we made. Once I had the drawing, the challenge then became: what’s the texture, what does it feel like, how worn is it, how old is it, that sort of thing. Jason Baker and I worked for a long time on the actual construction of it. During preproduction, it was easily the thing I spent the most time on. I think I had the idea of it, but it was the drawing by Savini that just had all the power, and then I was like, “It has to look just like Tom’s drawing!”
You’ve worked with Ethan Hawke before, but this is obviously a very different role than his Sinister protagonist. Was it easy to convince him to sign up for a villainous part, and what were your conversations like about The Grabber, who—despite his scary mask—is not a typical rampaging-demon villain?
Getting him to do the movie, I just called him and said, I’ve got a new script and I’d love for you to play the villain. And I said, you probably won’t want to, because he’s a sadistic child killer, and he’s in a mask the whole time, so we won’t see your face. He told me, I probably won’t do it, because I don’t really play villains. He said it’s got to be some real Jack Nicholson-in-The Shining thing if I’m going to do it, but send me the script and I’ll read it right away. The next morning, he left me a voicemail that was in the voice of The Grabber, saying one of the lines from the script. That creepy voicemail was his way of telling me he was going to do it. So, I just gave him the script and, based on that and the good experience he had on Sinister, he said yes.
Surprisingly, I did not talk a lot with Ethan about the character. I felt that giving him the masks was the main thing I needed to do. I made sure he saw them early, and I knew that when he saw them it would formulate a lot of his thoughts about how to play this character. I think that what’s in the script that he picked up on, but then he built many layers upon it and formed a greater role than we even wrote, was—he said to me before we started shooting, I know that one of the ways this is going to work is I’ve got to let the mask do the work that the mask does. And I said, yes, exactly! I knew what he meant by that, which is: the mask is intimidating, the mask is scary, the mask is terrifying. So, he didn’t have to work for his performance to be frightening, because the mask was already doing that.
In some ways, what I realized he was doing was, the mask was a way for The Grabber to be himself; a way for him to be vulnerable, almost. Ethan gave me different versions of lines all through the shoot, but the main baseline is what you see in the movie, and when I cut it all together, I didn’t even look at any of the alternate takes that he did. I was like, this is it—this is the character. He came in and just fluently understood how to do that. The other simple idea was, we’ve got Michael Myers, we’ve got Jason Vorhees, we’ve got Ghostface—what about an iconic mask killer who’s very chatty? That just seemed like a good idea to me.
The film never digs into The Grabber’s backstory or explains the black phone itself. Is it vital in a horror film to embrace the unknown and irrational?
Yes! For the creation of a good iconic horror villain, I think it’s a requisite. You know, Heath Ledger’s Joker is a guy in a mask, essentially, and when he says to the people he’s terrorizing, “You wanna know how I got these scars?”, the answer is no! I want to hear the multiple lies. I want to hear five different versions, so we’re never going to know how you got those scars. That’s scarier, because it causes you to infer or imagine something, and whatever you might infer or imagine or just feel is the worst possible thing. Imagine if there was a scene in The Silence of the Lambs that explained why Hannibal Lecter eats people? It would ruin that villain. There’s mystery that you need, and there’s mystery to characters like this.
When we test-screened the movie, everybody in the audience said, we want to know more about The Grabber. The studio really asked me, can you at least try writing something that we could reshoot that would explain him more? And I said no, I won’t do that. I said, it’s great that they want to know more about The Grabber—that’s wonderful. But I said that if you explain who he is, he’s going to be way less interesting.
You made this film after Doctor Strange. Is there more creative freedom—and/or were you seeking more freedom by—working on a non-franchise “original” project such as this?
Not particularly. It’s about the story I wanted to tell. When I made the first Doctor Strange, I was fortunate to make a Marvel movie that didn’t have to tie in anything from the MCU. It’s a stand-alone movie with no other MCU characters or MCU references. That was wonderful. The process of working with Kevin Feige in particular was a really wonderful one. He’s an artist. He’s the only producer, and definitely the only studio head I know, who I would say puts himself through the torturous process that an artist does, in an attempt to make the thing as good as it can possibly be. He was a great creative partner, and the movie was so big that working with him was like working with [C. Robert] Cargill. We were making it together and it was very organic, and it didn’t feel constrictive at all.
But the difference is that when you go do something like The Black Phone and you have a protective producer like Jason Blum—who will back anything that I wanted to do; he’s never forced me to change anything that I didn’t want to change—that gives you a feeling of autonomy that is a kind of different satisfaction. The satisfaction that it’s all up to you, and that you’re going to live and die completely on your own sword. There’s a kind of control and precision and cleanness to the end result that can only happen when a filmmaker is allowed to execute their own vision perfectly.
How difficult is it to get a horror film like The Black Phone made in Hollywood these days? Is horror the one genre where originality is still prized—since, after all, nothing is scarier than something new?
I think that it is, but I think the larger reason is because of the limits and expense of it—that it’s a genre that people like and is popular, and it’s a genre that people still go to theaters for. They go to see event movies and they go to see horror. People like seeing horror in a movie theater. And the fact that you can create a really heavy visceral experience for an audience without spending a lot of money is why horror invites innovation. It’s still very hard, though, to come along and create a story with imagery or a concept that is powerful enough for the audience to be like, great, I love this, let’s make five more. But they did it with A Quiet Place. That was an incredible movie, and I thought the sequel was quite good, and I’m sure there will be more of those. So, it is easier to birth a franchise in horror than in anything else, simply because you probably have more opportunities because of the expense.
One thing that sets your horror films apart is their effective jump scares. What’s the secret to making one work?
It’s a little bit like telling a joke—you either have a knack for it or you don’t, you know? It’s a hard thing to even understand. You just know how to do it if you know how to do it. But I think part of it is either really being able to defy audiences’ expectations so that it comes when they’re really not expecting anything like that to happen, and not foreshadowing it—or foreshadowing it and elongating that foreshadowing enough without them knowing what’s coming. They can feel, oh man, something’s about to happen—that was the lawnmower jump scare in Sinister. That was, I think, the flashlight moving across the room in The Black Phone. You know that something bad is going to happen, you just have no idea what it’s going to be. So, I think either that or something coming literally out of left field in a scene when the audience wasn’t expecting something scary to happen at all—those are the two requisite tricks of the trade.
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