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
Creating Super 8 Horrors, Finding the Comedy and Owning the Blame (You Are Here)
Movies.com: What was the naming process of the actual movie like?
Derrickson: It was called Found Footage as a working title for a couple of reasons. The movie I was pitching to Cargill when we were at the Mandalay Bay was a found footage movie. And like a lot of people, I'm kind of burned out on that genre, but it was an original take on the found footage genre. And Cargill said to me, which was a surprisingly good sales hook, was, "This is not a found footage movie. This is a movie about the guy who finds the footage." Which I thought was interesting.
I also know the way that Hollywood works. Concepts like that, even if they're ultimately bullshit, they work and they get people excited. So we titled the movie that, and at that time a year ago, everyone was looking for a good found footage script, so we just called it that and it didn't do any damage. But then we realized we needed to change the title.
Cargill: Before that, though, it had another title. For a couple years, the idea did have a title, and it was called Super 8. And I was like, Oh, that's a great title, it's perfect! But, hey, what are you gonna do? So when he asked what it was called, I said it was originally called Super 8, but when I typed the name on the document it was just Found Footage.
Derrickson: And I got very excited about that.
Cargill: Everyone did. Everyone was like, "Found Footage? Found Footage! It's a great title!" Every where along the line. Then there was a shift about three months in and straight down the chain everyone said it wasn't a good title.
Derrickson: The issue was, and we knew this was going to the be the case, from the moment I saw it in my inbox and saw it was titled Found Footage, I knew it was going to help us sell the movie. But I also knew that unless you're a cinephile, you don't know what the f**k that means. Like, my mom was asking me what we were walking on, and I was telling her it was found footage and she was like, "What does that mean?" And I thought, that's most people. Most people don't know.
Movies.com: And when it came to deciding on Sinister?
Cargill: That was six months of going back and forth of sending emails going, "Hey, here's a couple of ideas."
Derrickson: For me, I was coming from the point of view of thinking about Ethan's character and thinking, over thinking it, really, but thinking about a title that would connect the fear in him to the fear in the movie, and I came up with the title A Sinister View and put it in the list I sent to Cargill, and Cargill emailed me back and was like, "What about just Sinister?" And I thought it was a great title.
Cargill: There was one point where I sent him a list of the runtimes of all the greatest horror movies ever made, because we were thinking about our runtime, and we noticed that over half of them have the word "The" at the beginning. So I was joking about it and asked can we call it The Sinister so we can just slide that though in there, but he was like, "No." So it was just Sinister, and everybody dug it so it stuck.
Derrickson: And it's funny, too, because there's a great story about that title. We came up with it a few days before we shot the Super 8 films in LA. We shot [redacted for spoilers] and there was a grip who was standing behind me who said, "Man, that is so sinister," and so I just thought, yeah, we've got the right title.
Movies.com: For the Super 8 footage, did you actually shoot Super 8 and was that an artistic challenge for you?
Derrickson: It's a near defunct medium, so it's not a simple thing to do.
Movies.com: Had you ever worked with it before?
Derrickson: I shot Super 8 films growing up, but I'd never integrated any Super 8 footage into any feature work I'd done, and the DP had never shot anything on Super 8. There was definitely some pressure from the line producer to just digitally create a Super 8 look, which people do, but I didn't want to do that because there is a real difference between a real and fabricated Super 8 look.
We just tested a lot. We bought various stocks. We did our research. I read a book on it, plus I'd made 5 films on it in film school. The best class I ever took at USC film school was the first class I took there, which was working with various stocks and making five short films. It really is a different medium. It's 16mm film cut in half, so all the variables you can get in 16, it's just a smaller piece of film. So Chris Norr and I, and I forget the range, but we bought maybe a dozen Super 8 stocks and shot different things with them, then we looked at what would be best for the film.
And I'm so glad we did it that way because I think as much as I like the way the Super 8 material looks, its impact is so strong because of how it differentiates between the look of our Alexa digital footage. There's such a strong contrast between them. Working with it is such a pain in the ass, though. It's a pain in the ass in production, it's a pain in the ass in post. The transfers were really tricky, especially because we were trying to light it with single light sources for most of them to get that spotlight effect.
One of the things I learned was how much of a scam flashlights were. Flashlights are actually built to burn out real f**king fast. We'd mount this big flashlights on there thinking we'd have 30 minutes or so, and they'd burn out in 5 minutes. You use them for 30 seconds at a time and you think they last for 5 years, but they last for 5 minutes. I remember shooting some of those and going through 12 flashlights and realizing we didn't have enough light to shoot the film, so we had to jury rig sh*t on there. It was all really messy, but I think that messiness adds to the energy of it, you know? The films are meant to feel like that. Super 8 films were made by amateur filmmakers, and it's supposed to feel that way, so I think it's great.
Movies.com: Another one of my favorite elements is the comedy, and honestly, not a lot of that came across on the page. So much of it comes from the actors, in particular James Ransone, who is from my favorite show of all time, The Wire.
Derrickson: The best show in the history of television!
Cargill: That guy is incredible. PJ Ransone is just incredible.
Movies.com: Did that take any massaging? How much of it was in the editing room, how much of it was premeditated?
Cargill: That was all Scott and PJ. Scott had really wanted this level of comedy in this bit, and I agreed with him, but he knew what he wanted and when it came down to actors, for the deputy he insisted that we go with the weirder choice. It came down to two guys, one was PJ, and PJ just nailed the comedy. He really got where we were going and he was really excited about the character. We were cracking up on set. Is it the editing? No, that was Scott's direction and James Ransone acting in that scene. We're in the next room with our mouth's muzzled trying not to ruin the take, because he and Ethan are just being so damned funny.
Derrickson: I do want to give some credit to Fred Thoroval on those, because I definitely thought he was the right guy for the role. I'd seen him in The Wire, he's really good on Generation Kill, he's good in Treme. I'd seen him in three different HBO shows and knew what a good actor he was. When we shot it, though, we did bracket his performance, though. For each shot I tried to do the big, medium, small version in terms of the comedic level. And Fred our editor did a very good job of picking when to play things a little bigger. Most of the takes we use are actually the small ones, but he did find the right moments to use the funnier versions. But he really is just such a good actor.
Movies.com: He should get more Hollywood roles.
Derrickson: I think he's going to, I think both because of his talent and his work ethic he should. He's as prepared an actor as I've ever seen. He really came with some hard, disciplined ideas that were good ideas ready to go. It was really solid.
Movies.com: Moving on to future projects, what are you guys up to? Are you working together on anything, separately on other things?
Cargill: We are working together indefinitely. We really enjoyed the process and are actively pursuing and developing projects right now. We have no plans of breaking off and going in different directions.
Derrickson: Cargill is a good partner for me because already I've seen him completely unafraid to pass on opportunities that are appealing financially and commercially, but he makes it an easy pass when it's a not. It's surprising how many people in the Hollywood community are unwilling to do that.
Cargill: And I like working with Scott because he's just f**king awesome.
Movies.com: How much of it was a wake up call for you being on the other side making it? Was there ever a point where you were like, "No! My words!"
Cargill: No, not at all. The thing is, Scott had me on set so I could protect the integrity of the script so that we wouldn't ever have to have that call of, "You know that scene you really loved? I chopped it today." So none of that had to happen.
The big wake up call is just how much is going on all at once that you get swallowed up in. As critics, we berate filmmakers, we say, "How could you take your eye off the ball? This one little moment ruins the entire film," but when you're in it...everyone knows what's going on, but when you have two hours for an actor and you're losing sunlight and everything else, you have to make the best call for the film based upon the limitations we have.
Once you've been in it and you start talking to your friends in the industry and they open up to you in ways they didn't when you were just a blogger, you start finding out about, "Yeah, well, we talked about how great it was working with that actor, but we signed him for 6 weeks, then he got a TV show, so all of a sudden we had him for 6 days. And we have to shoot a main character in a film in 6 days, what are you going to do?" And you start to understand that from a very different perspective of, "Oh my God, how the f**k did you pull that off?"
Movies.com: It's a miracle to me that any film gets finished.
Derrickson: That's true, but I also think that's the way bloggers and critics should be in the end. If you're willing to take the paycheck and status and the experience of the guy who has the Directed by or Screenplay by credit, then it's your nuts on the table. If it doesn't work, it's your fault. Even if it's not your fault, it's your fault. And I feel strongly about that. I think when directors blame the studio or anyone else for the problem, it's wrong. You're the guy who agreed to do it. You're the guy who met these people and read that script and agreed to do it, it's still on you. If it's good, take the credit. If it's bad, take the credit.