Dialogue: How a Director and a Critic Gave Birth to 'Sinister'

Dialogue: How a Director and a Critic Gave Birth to 'Sinister'

Oct 08, 2012

Sinister Ethan Hawke

[Because Sinister is hitting theaters this week, we're rerunning our interview series from its SXSW world premiere earlier this year.]

 

Sinister is white-knuckle terror. I'm not talking simple jump scares mixed with some creepy images that induce an automatic armchair-gripping response (though it has those, too), I'm talking legitimate, sleep-depriving, scary material that clings to the back of your eyelids. I'm such a fan of the film, which stars Ethan Hawke as a true-crime writer whose latest book hits a little too close to home, and the original and mature things it offers horror fans, I sat down with director/cowriter Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and cowriter C. Robert Cargill for an interview that lasted nearly 90 minutes.

Now here's where I disclose that I am friends with Cargill. But, as John Gholson outlined so eloquently in his review of the film, if you live in Austin, Texas and write about movies, knowing Cargill is less some exclusive privilege and more a casual side effect. I hope you believe me when I say my admiration for and fear of Sinister would be just as strong even if I didn't know him as a colleague or as a friend.

Note: Since the film doesn't come out until October 5, I've redacted all spoilers. So if you want to just know how a film critic made the transition to a screenwriter, what problems the pair think plagues Hollywood horror these days, or any number of other topics, please know you're not going to have the movie's plot spoiled for you. Since this is such a massive interview, we've broken into into three sections, with each link added as they go live:

How a Director and a Critic Met and Gave Birth to 'Sinister' (You Are Here)

How to Break from the Hollywood Horror Mold and What the Test-Screening Process Is Really Like

Creating Super 8 Horrors, Finding the Comedy and Owning the Blame

 

Movies.com: The obvious place to start is how did you two come together? Was it for Sinister or was it for something else?

Christopher Cargill: It sounds better if you start off, because essentially you wrote to me.

Scott Derrickson: That is true. I did write to you. I had been reading Ain't It Cool for a couple years and Cargill's reviews were uncannily reflected in my own opinions in movies. I was always amazed at the movies he loved that I loved, and the movies he didn't love that I didn't. I really began to respect his opinion and when he praised something I hadn't seen, I would go see it. And time after time I would really enjoy it, and that's really why you read certain critics, to figure out what's worth going to so. I think that had happened so many times, that finally-- I think it was Bug.

Cargill: Yep.

Derrickson: So many people had hated it, but Cargill had written this great review of Bug, so I went and saw it thought it was amazing. I love, love that film. So I thought finally, "I'm going to write this guy." So I wrote him to just let him know how much I appreciated his reviews, how great that particular review was, and time and time again he'd sent me to great films. That was the beginning of an email relationship that lasted quite a long time.

Cargill: We talked for several years, then one day he wrote me about a certain thing that had happened in the blogosphere. So I gave him my advice and it sort of eased his concerns and he said, "Thank you so much, how can I thank you?" I said he didn't have to, but he asked if I wanted to come out and see his new movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. I was like absolutely. So that was the first time we met. I flew out to New York to see The Day the Earth Stood Still. We had dinner and met face to face and started exchanging even more e-mails after that.

Movies.com: At what point did the idea of collaborating on something come up?

Derrickson: That's actually a great story. There was no idea of collaborating on anything. It was complete, random happenstance. I love to play poker and my brother is a poker player who lives in Denver who happened to be going to Vegas to play poker. So he e-mailed me in the middle of week and said, "I'm going to Vegas this weekend. Do you want to fly up and meet me?" I said sure, so I flew up to meet my brother.

I follow Cargill on Twitter and I saw on his Twitter feed that he was in Vegas. So I tweeted him saying, "Dude, You're in Vegas? I'm in Vegas! Let's get together." So we got together at the Mandalay Bay at two o'clock in the morning. Keep in mind, this was the end of last January. This was just a little more than a year ago.

So we meet at the Mandalay Bay at two o'clock in the morning and my brother and my nephew and Jess [Cargill's wife] and some other friends were all there. Cargill drinks five White Russians. Five Vegas White Russians, and they do not skimp on the booze. For me, it was sort of awe-inspiring, because I would be in a coma if I had done that. So we talked science-fiction film. I remember we talked Blade Runner for awhile. I had met Jason Blum and I was considering doing a low budget film on an idea I had. So I talked to him a little bit about my idea and he does one of these after five White Russians, "Hey, I've got a good idea for a horror film."

And when you're a horror director, that happens about every week. And especially at this point, at two in the morning, after five White Russians, I thought, this is when the night takes a bad turn. But I said, "Okay, let's hear it," and he proceeded to pitch me Sinister. And by the time he finished the basic idea for the movie, I said, "That's the best idea for a small horror film I've ever heard and I can get that movie made." So I woke him up the next morning--

Cargill: Well, that's the very director-ly way of saying it. What you really said was, "Holy f**k, I want to make that movie."

Derrickson: Is that what I had said? [Laughs] I'd been drinking, too.

Cargill: We did actually talk about your film quite a bit before it, we bounced some ideas around--

Derrickson: And then you said, "Yeah, but I've got a REAL movie idea."

Cargill: [Laughs] That's not what I said, but it's an approximation.

Derrickson: So I scrapped my idea and called him the next morning. He was hungover and I told him to just write down a page of ideas so I can register it with the WGA so I can go pitch this this week. And then I called him again on Monday.

Cargill: Yeah, that was Saturday morning. You had told me right then "This what I want you to do. Go home, write up a three-to-five page synopsis so I can register it with the WGA then go pitch it this week." So I went home, then Sunday morning I'm in bed, I'm Vegas'ed, I've been in bed for 20 minutes, the phone rings and Jessica's like, [whispers] "It's Scott!" He's like, "Look dude, I know you're Vegas'ed, you're wiped out, but I just want to remind you to write a three-to-five page synopsis I can register with the WGA."

Derrickson: At that point I was only asking for a page.

Cargill: No, no. You said three-to-five pages. The thing was, it was beautiful in that you said the same thing every time. So by the third time you said it, I thought, "Okay, this dude is f**king serious. That's what I'm doing tonight." And I did. By Monday morning you had it in your inbox, but Wednesday you were pitching it to Jason Blum, by the next Wednesday I was out in L.A. There was that whole big debacle where Kevin Smith had called me out on Twitter. He was showing Red State to a bunch of bloggers and somebody had said, "Hey, you should invite Massawyrm," and he said very publicly, "How funny would that be? We should have Massawyrm out to show it's all water under the bridge, but I understand if Massawyrm wouldn't want to come, so the balls in his court." So I called up Harry [Knowles, founder of AICN] and he said, "Sure, we'll fly you out for that story."

So I flew out to L.A. We had already agreed beforehand that Scott was going to let me crash in his guest house, so we were already set up. So when we were there we decided to go out and shop it, and that's when we actually pitched it to Jason Blum.

Derrickson: And to Cargill's credit, the document that he had written up was the movie. It's the story. It's the beginning, middle and end of that story.

Movies.com: And how long had you been sitting on that story?

Cargill: It originated from a dream I had the day I went and saw The Ring. I came home, was tired, made the mistake of falling asleep and had a dream where I was going into the attic, that I didn't have in my house, and finding a box of Super 8 films that murders on it of the families that had lived in the house previously. That idea stuck with me for a long time and had been bouncing around ever since.

Movies.com: Fast forwarding to the actual production and having already gotten the green light from Blum, was Ethan Hawke always the actor you had in mind for Ellison? What was the casting process like?

Derrickson: The way we cast Ethan was actually pretty funny. It started with me thinking pretty long and hard for that role. There was really no consideration for casting until we had written the script. I try not to think too hard about actors while writing, so when the script was finished I kept compiling lists. It started with a long list that kept getting shorter and shorter. Cargill and I would talk at length about it and the conclusion that we reached was that the character of Ellison Oswald, the critical thing about the actor, aside from being a good actor, was what actor can play both the flaws of who this guy is and not have the audience turn on him?

He's such a flawed character and there's so many things he does that are unlikable and it's so easy to put actors in that role where the audience will just turn on the character and then turn on the movie because it will not have an emotional response for them because they will not have an investment in the character. Eventually I just came to the conclusion that Ethan – I think it came down to three actors on the list and Ethan was my number one. I just determined he was the guy that people will want to watch in the story and they won't turn on him. They won't approve of the choices he makes, but they won't turn on him. 

So at that point, once I'd reached that conclusion, I e-mailed Jason Blum. I'll never forget it. I sent him an e-mail that just said, "I really think Ethan Hawke should play Ellison, do you have any connection to him?" And he came back and said, "He's my best friend, his children are my Godchildren." [Laughs] So that was the beginning of many serendipitous things about this movie.

Movies.com: Obviously you had full confidence in Cargill, but was there ever a point where Jason Blum or Summit said--

Derrickson: Summit didn't get involved until they read the script and it was already finished. So Jason and Brian Kavanugh Jones at Automatic were the two people who had come to me first to do a film. Their model is, "Look, we trust you. As long as it's low budget and genre, we'll let you do whatever you want."

Movies.com: So at no point there was any push back like, "Who the hell is this blogger guy?"

Derrickson: No, nothing like that.

Cargill: In fact, the few meetings we did, they were all Ain't It Cool readers and all already knew who I was.

Derrickson: Yeah, everyone involved already knew who he was. And I just said, "Look, I've read a novel he's written. He's a great writer, just nobody's used him like this." And everyone believed me.

Movies.com: Did you have any reservations or concerns about being seen as a blogger wanting to shoehorn your way into screenwriting when the ball really started to roll on Sinister? Is this the first script that you've written that's even come close to production?

Cargill: Yes, yes. And this was the first script that I've written that was even production worthy. I was working on something locally and that never came together. I'd written another script that later turned into my novel, which just got picked up by Harper Collins, and this was the first one that was really ready. And it was an idea that I knew was makeable and that I knew with the right people could go.

I didn't start doing this because I wanted to make movies, I was doing it because I love being a critic and I love movies. But I really loved Exorcism of Emily Rose and I knew that Scott was a really great guy. We'd become great friends and I knew that with him in control, this could be something really different and special. So when he felt confident I could do this, because he had read my book before anyone else and gave me notes on it, and so when he said "I love your writing, I want to try working with ou on this script," I had total faith in him and realized I may never get to do this again. Nothing else may ever come of this, but I'm going to do this and do it with gusto. Even if it's just one film, I'm going to try to make a great film with this guy. And halfway through the process we just both realized that we need to be writing together.

It was one of those things where we both just said, OK, we'll try this. We'll write your script then we'll write my script. Scott said early that we abandoned his idea, but really we still wanted to write that script. Because he has a great idea.

Derrickson: Yeah, we temporarily abandoned it in favor of his idea.

Cargill: His idea is great and we do want to work on that. It's one of those things where I just realized I really wanted to work with this guy. He balances out the problems I have as a writer, and he feels I balance out the problems he has a writer. And we have a really great dynamic and both have faith and trust in one another, so the disagreements we have aren't fights. They're arguments in the purest sense of the word, where the best side ones. Whoever can back it up with cinema history and with theories of storytelling we end up siding with.

It's such an enjoyable process that I didn't even think what anybody else cared about it because I was just in the zone working with him.

Movies.com: Did the script take much massaging once it went to Blum or the studio?

Derrickson: Nobody ever gave us notes. We wrote the script really fast. We wrote it in five weeks, and I've written a lot of screenplays, but that is the fastest I've ever been involved with the writing process. And that's pretty much the movie we shot. The changes that were made to the script where all for production purposes; realities of shooting locations, things like that.

We got a few notes from Alliance, who financed the films. There were a few ideas that were good, a few that weren't, and we took the ones we liked. But it was not a development process in the traditional sense.

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