SXSW Dialogue: The Creators of 'Sinister' On How to Break From the Hollywood Horror Mold and What the Test Screening Process is Really Like

SXSW Dialogue: The Creators of 'Sinister' On How to Break From the Hollywood Horror Mold and What the Test Screening Process is Really Like

Mar 12, 2012

Sinister Ethan Hawke

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/co-screenwriter Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and co-screenwriter 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, TX 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:

How a Director and a Critic Met and Gave Birth to 'Sinister'

How to Break From the Hollywood Horror Mold and What the Test Screening Process is Really Like (You Are Here)

Creating Super 8 Horrors, Finding the Comedy and Owning the Blame What were you trying to do with this horror movie that you felt other horror movies hadn't been doing recently?

Derrickson: I think we'll probably have different answers for that. For me, it was primarily an attempt to create a character and a relationship that he has with his family that had a dramatic sensibility that you just don't typically get with the genre. There's a fight scene with the husband and wife where the deep flaws are finally laid on the table by his wife, and I can't think of a horror film that has a scene like that. So that was my main ambition.

And I think that I also was just really interested in making a movie about fear. Not just a movie that was scary, but a movie that was about fear and a character who was being confronted with the kind of fears that are really typical for a genre film – supernatural fears, fears of a killer, all these things – but in service of the drama and what the audience experiences, as scary as those things are and that he's the person experiencing them, he has an even greater fear than all of those scary things. More than he's afraid for his family, more than he's afraid of the noises in his house and the things that are happening around him, he's afraid of losing his status. He's afraid of not being successful. He's afraid of not reclaiming his fame and glory. I thought that was an idea that was really worth pursuing.

Cargill: Well, you've known me a long time. We've seen a lot of movies together and we both have seen a lot of movies before that. We are guys that immerse ourselves in genre. I love haunted house movies, I love horror films, but far too often people rely oncliches to tell the story because people understand a certain language of film, and there's all these shortcuts you can take. But people fall apart on the cliches, and I really like the idea of taking those and turning them on there ear. I like the idea of putting people in a haunted house and instead of having the parents say to the kids, "Oh, no, you didn't see or hear anything, and who try to rationalize what's happening," we have this guy who is just not paying attention because he's so focused on something else. I wanted to turn that whole dynamic on its ear, but at the same time we have a character who is trying to conceal from his entire family that their house could possibly be haunted. The idea that the audience can sit and enjoy the film and every time one of those rational question comes up, "Well, what about this?" There's a real answer to it, and I loved be able to play around with that, where while we're dealing with unlikely events, things that are fanciful, the audience can submerge themselves where the logic totally works within the framework of its own universe without having to rely on those scenes hardcore horror fans are tired of seeing.

How hard do we want to pull out our hair when we see someone take out a cell phone and they don't have bars, because, really, what world do you live in where you don't have some cell reception in the year 2012? So just being able to play with that kind of world is what really excited me. That's something Scott and I were real back-and-forth on, because I wanted to make sure every question had an answer, even the really subtle stuff. Because I wanted people to people to be able to go back a second time knowing what was going on to see if it all still made sense and was cohesive and could realize, "Oh, that thing there has a double meaning." That's what was most exciting for me. As a genre fan, what I respect the most are the scenes that aren't typical for the genre, especially their fight scene, which is my favorite in the movie. But at the same time, as a genre fan, what impresses me the most is how legitimately scary the movie is. I'm curious how you approached that and how you kept finding the fear and how and when you decided to dial things up. Because there's jump scares in the movie, but there's also a deeper trauma that leaves a lasting impression when combined with such haunting imagery.

Cargill: A big part of that is Ethan. We sat down at the very beginning and Scott's like, "I want you to make a list of everything Ethan's going to encounter in the film and I want you to attach a level of fear to it." So Ethan was given a list before we even shot and was able to always keep track of his fear level throughout the film, so that he knew how scared he was supposed to be. And he's just such an incredible actor, that that really translates. Even with all the ideas we wrote and all the incredible things Scott shot and came up with, at the end of the day, you're terrified because you're watching this guy who is purely rational and doesn't buy into any of this, really unraveling.

It's what you mentioned. It's rooted in reality. It's a real marriage with very real problems. He's relatable and believable and we're watching him unravel. He's not sure what's going on around him and he's losing control.

Derrickson: For me, and it was this way with Emily Rose, though I was a younger filmmaker then and much more inexperienced, so it was at a different level for this movie, but I don't, as a writer or a director, think of myself as a puppet master who needs to have fun scaring the audience. And I think a lot of horror directors are that and they think that way. They love what they're doing, and they should because they're good at that craft, and they're having a joyful time scaring people, but for me it just doesn't work that. What interests me about the genre is the genuine exploration of fear and going back to the characters, and even though he doesn't talk about his own fears, we know them. So when it came to the killings and the content of the films themselves--

For me, I'm a parent, the idea of children being victims of violence, all of that stuff, when I was working on the script, even when Cargill just told me the idea for it, it was upsetting to me. It's an upsetting movie! When he gave me that first document, I remember pitching the idea to my wife and her response was, "My God, why would you want to make something like that?" And I thought, Oh, God, I'm going to end up making this movie.

It was the same way on Emily Rose. Why would I want to spend so much time researching possessions, because it is upsetting? And in that case, it was a real girl who had died. And so if I'm not feeling genuinely upset during the creation process, why should an audience feel that way? If I can create imagery that maximizes my own fears and scares me and makes me upset, I have to assume that's going to connect with other people. And that's not the approach of a lot of genre directors, nor does it need to be the approach, that's just the way I do it. It's unlike a lot of recent, supernatural horror because of that. Once things go over a certain limit, there's a disconnect in the fear. You fall back into the real world and think, "Well, this isn't going to happen to me when I go home." But Sinister doesn't lose that effect. Even if you realize it's not going to happen to you, the ideas and the images still linger, they still have a powerful, lasting effect.

Cargill: That is entirely Scott. In the original premise and the earlier drafts of the script there were more supernatural occurrences earlier in the film. And Scott was like, "No. We do not want to reveal that too early, we want to structure it." And he was very much into keeping that structure and making sure that the films that we had ramped up in intensity as the film went because he wanted to build intensity. So we ended up excising things early on that could have prevented that, and it was totally an incredible call. It was one of those things where looking at it after I was like, How did I not see that from the beginning? It was one of the greatest lessons I learned working on this thing.

When you restrain yourself a certain amount and restrict yourself a certain amount, you just twist the knife as you go along, you really reel the audience in. And ultimately when he did that, it took me back to a film called Swordfish. It has one of the best opening scenes you've ever seen, then it can't ever live up to that. And even though the film isn't bad, because that opening is so good-- it's like going to bed with one of the most beautiful women in the world who is whispering in your ear all the awesome things she's going to do to you, whips and chains and whipped cream, and then you just end up doing missionary. That's the Cargill-type of answer I was waiting to come out!

Cargill: [Laughs] There's the Cargill answer for you! But when you think about it, it really is about building and teasing and let the audience think it's one thing, then building it to another level where they think it's that, then building it to another level. And doing it in such a way that when they circle back around and watch it again, none of it is counter to what you've learned by the end of the movie.

It's something Scott said early on, that we need to track this not as a horror movie, but as a mystery from the beginning to the end. And because we set it up as a mystery, that's how the audience follows along and just gets scared along with Ethan. When it comes to the design of the supernatural elements, how many iterations did you go through or was it always a clear vision from the beginning?

Derrickson: I'm gonna tell the story.

Cargill: Tell the story.

Derrickson: If you watch the credits, there's a single name for concept artist. I've never met the guy. I knew how well the movie would work would depend on how it would look, so I was obsessing over how he should look but I didn't have any ideas. I did like the idea of black metal art, I looked at a lot of black metal art and album covers, so that was a bit of a start. But what I did was I went to Flickr and I typed in just the word "horror," and there were thousands of results of images. And I looked at all of them. I made some folders and clicked through, and every time I came across something someone had made that was scary, I saved in the folder.

I was looking for nothing but inspiration. I whittled it down to 6 or 7 images I really liked, then I took those 6 or 7 images and sent them to Cargill. They were all very different, and I said, "Which of these did you really like?" And I still remember that the image was called just "Natalie." And he said, "I really like this Natalie image," and I started thinking about what if he just looked exactly like that. What if it's just that?

So we bought the image from the guy and gave him a credit without having to design it.

Cargill: His face was, everything else wasn't there.

Derrickson: Yeah, we had to design the hair and everything else, and there were some details we altered, but if you saw the photograph, you'd think the connection was pretty clear. We loved it so much we just bought it and didn't hire a concept artist, we just paid him and gave him the credit.

Cargill: He was just some guy on Flickr. You probably blew that guy's mind.

Derrickson: I hope we do, but he hasn't even seen the movie. I think he'll be pretty shocked that there it is. It's up there. I'd like to talk a bit about the test screening process. Is that something you enjoy?

Derrickson: No, it's the f**king worst thing in the world. I'm going to die at a test screening some day. My heart level was literally elevated the entire screening.

Cargill: The entire screening? More like the entire day.

Derrickson: Thank God Cargill was with me because he helped calm me down. He said let's go see a movie, so we want and saw Haywire and I loved it. It was the best thing I could have done, honestly.

It was so unnerving in this case not because it was a question of whether or not people were going to like the movie, but because we were in a situation where Summit had bought the movie and the movie had to score beyond a certain level in order to guarantee us wide release distribution. So my heart rate elevation was because of not knowing if all that hard work was going to pay off because of that one screening. It was a lot of pressure. Aside from the pressure of it, do you ever find the comments beneficial?

Derrickson: It's a terrifying process when you don't have final cut, but I had final cut on this movie. So every time I heard a stupid comment, I was just like, "Pfffft, that's never gonna happen." You know that Academy Awards skit they did about the test screening process this year? That's not an exaggeration. That's really what it's like, only even more ridiculous.

What was funny to me about this test screening was they watched the movie and it was clear that people liked it because of the way they were reacting to the movie. But then they collect all the forms and start tabulating them, and all I care about is the number. If it gets past a certain number, I get a guaranteed wide release and everything is fine. But the moment that made me relax was when they brought the 20 people forward for the focus group and the first question was, "Okay, so how many of you liked the movie?" and all 20 people raised their hands.

What was funny was I immediately felt release, but as soon as they did that, I looked around at all the studio people, the producer, everybody else, everybody pulled out their Blackberries and just stopped listening and started responding to emails. Nobody listened because regardless of the things they were saying, no one seemed to care.

There was one thing the focus group was very helpful on. There was a shot toward the end of the movie that they unanimously felt didn't work, and so we did take it out. And it works better without it.

Cargill: My favorite part was the guy who clearly wanted to be a filmmaker and understood film terms, but didn't quite understand what they meant.

Derrickson: Oh, the guy who kept talking about the "MacGuffin"?

Cargill: Yeah. And then there was the guy who was like, "Alright, well, in one scene it's like clear and the next scene it's raining. Where did the rain come from?"

Derricksion: [Laughs] Oh, yeah! The "Where did the rain come from?" guy! He's like the "It needs more monkeys" guy.

Cargill: Yeah. "It needs more monkeys because I like monkeys." It's just like, if you have to be shown the rainmaking process, I can't take you back that far.


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