Following our recent interview with SINISTER screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, we continue our build-up to the DVD and Blu-ray release by putting some questions to the films’ co-writer and director, Scott Derrickson.
Derrickson burst on to the scene with the 2005 acclaimed courtroom drama-turned-existential horror, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, following his early years working on straight-to-video sequels in the HELLRAISER and URBAN LEGEND franchises. Three years later he took the reigns on the big budget remake of science fiction classic, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, featuring an all-star cast led by Keanu Reeves, but the production was plagued by studio interference.
However, Derrickson is back in the driving seat with SINISTER, and here’s what he had to say when we spoke with him:
What was it about C. Robert Cargill’s story that drew you in?
I don’t know if he told you this, but I ran into him in Las Vegas and we’d met each other once, and we were friends online. So, we were having drinks and he just pitched me this story, and I thought it was pretty amazing. What made it interesting was it how it taps into this movement that was happening in the horror genre, this whole found footage idea, but it was a very new approach to it. It wasn’t really a found footage movie in the regular sense, it was about the guy who finds the footage, which I thought was compelling. I liked the idea of the Super 8 films and I thought I could do a lot of interesting things with that, so we just decided to go for it.
Speaking to Cargill recently, I asked for his take on where the found footage subgenre direction was going. Where do you stand on the matter, and do you think it has run its course?
I think it’s kind of like the slasher genre in the 70s and 80s. You have the great ones that usually start it, in this case THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the original PARANORMAL ACTIVITY and REC, and sometimes you get a lot of knock-offs, but they can be good as well in some cases. This year V/H/S came out which I thought was really a good found footage movie, and I just saw LOVELY MOLLY, which I also enjoyed. There are some bad ones but there are some good ones as well and it’s an interesting movement. It’s not my favourite era for horror just because I like the full range of cinema. I like musical score, I like editing, I like traditional filmmaking. I don’t think I’d make a straight-up found footage movie but I don’t have anything against them in principle either.
Horror seems to run throughout you’re own work. Can we ask where you feel that comes from?
I’m very interested in the power of fear and how it affects an audience. I’m also interested in the philosophical side of it because there has been a lot of it in my life. It is a good emotion for invention. I try to do things that are different, both traditional and new, and horror is the perfect genre for that exploration because it’s not too expensive. Another thing I’d say is that it’s a highly cinematic genre, and I really like that you can explore visually and cinematically, things you can do with the camera and the sound design. It’s something you can’t do in say a comedy or a drama.
How tricky was it going from a blockbuster film like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL back to a smaller production like SINISTER?
It wasn’t tricky at all, it was terrific because I made the decision because of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. There are things I like about that movie a lot, but I didn’t feel I was able to make the film I wanted to. There was a lot of studio involvement, a lot of cooks in the kitchen, so I didn’t care what the budget was on this picture. I just wanted to make something where I had total control and SINISTER is the first movie I’ve made where I’ve had final cut, which makes all the difference in the world. Nobody can tell you what to do, you just go ahead and make the film you want to make. There are a lot of things in this movie that no one would have let me do, and there are a lot of things about this movie that a lot of people thought would not work. And they were wrong, but the only way I got to prove that was by having that creative control.
How did you collaborate with your co-writer?
Well, his idea wasn’t a long pitch that he had for me but it was pretty complete. There was definitely a beginning, middle and an end to the story and I think that is one of the reasons why I responded to it, because you could tell there was a movie there. My response was pretty quick and in that respect he works the way I do. We both work really hard and fast, so we ended up writing the script in only five weeks, and part of that was because we keep different hours. He’s a night owl, whereas I work during the day, so when he would stop working on it, I would start. It’s almost like having a 24-hour writer.
Was Ethan Hawke on-board from the beginning or was he someone you pictured in the role and brought in?
He was my first choice for the role. I went to Jason Blum, the producer, and said Ethan Hawke is the guy I’d really like to do this movie, and he sent me back an email saying ‘he’s my best friend and his children are my god-children’. So, I was very fortunate that I had an nice ‘in’ with him. But, you know, he still needed some convincing. He doesn’t really watch horror films, and he’s never been in one, so I flew to New York and I met with him. He really liked the script and the character, and when he heard from me what kind of movie we were making, he was in. He gave a thousand per cent on this movie too.
Being a writer yourself, were there any of the characteristics of yourself brought into Ellison’s character?
A lot of Ellison is autobiographical. His position of feeling like he was hot then not was certainly how I felt going from THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE to THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. I think the reason I wrote the character the way I did was I was surprised at how bothered I was by what was my perceived loss of status and respect. I was really surprised at how much it was affecting me, and I think it revealed that we’re driven by status more then we like to admit. So, I think Ethan played the kind of character who I could be, but cautiously tried not to be. I don’t judge him because I ‘get’ him, and while it could certainly have been me, in this case, he’s certainly this obtuse guy. My favourite thing about him is that he’s a character who is driven by fear. It’s a horror film where he is experiencing all kinds of fear, but his greatest fear in the movie is losing his past fame and fortune. It’s because his fear of that is so extreme, that all these other things don’t convince him to leave the house and I think that’s very interesting.
Can we ask how responsible you were for the design of the villain because he’s quite striking?
I’m responsible but I did not design him. I searched the internet for a long time for inspiration and I found an image online. The image of the ghoul. It was just a photograph that someone had created and I thought it was so striking that I bought the picture and slipped it into our film. I’ve never met the guy who did it, but I did give him a concept artist credit on the film.
What are the chances we’ll see Mr Boogie return?
We’re in the middle of trying to put together a deal to do a sequel. We’d like to do that but I don’t know if I’m going to direct it. I’m certainly open to it, and I definitely want to write it. I want to see that the franchise goes well and has an interesting life. I think he’s an exciting villain, and I think it’s a concept worth exploring in future films.
We wanted to ask about your screenplay work on the upcoming DEVIL’S KNOT. Was it the fact that it’s a true horror story that ultimately drew you too it?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, I have kids so the idea of losing a child in a violent fashion is the ultimate horror. I can’t imagine anything worse, literally. I spent a very long time on that script and I’m very invested in that story. The angle to that story is what, in my opinion, has not been explored enough; the angle of the parents being the actual victims. It’s a tragedy that Damien Echols has been on death row, but what happened to him was not as bad as what happened to the mother of one of those boys. It really is a story about religion, and for me it’s about religion in America, and how the bible-belt religion infects the police process. I know I’m a religious guy, so that’s not a disparaging statement about religion, I just think that when religion affects the judicial and police process, it can have some pretty catastrophic results, as it did in this case.
What project are you currently working on and what can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I’m writing DEUS EX with Cargill right now for CBS Films and that’s going really well. It’s a cyberpunk movie based on a very popular video game which I love. Jerry Bruckheimer’s BEWARE THE NIGHT is most likely my next film. Eric Bana has signed on to play the lead in that. It’s a police procedural and exorcism movie. THE BREATHING METHOD is a Stephen King movie that I’m attached to, which I very much want to make, and that’s from a script by Scott Teems. Cargill and I have a science fiction spec that we have written but not sent out yet, so I’m very excited about that too. We did a sci-fi adaptation re-write of a script called WHEN GRAVITY FAILS, based on a novel that I’m looking to make some time in the future. It’s with IM Global. So, there are a lot of projects in the mix.
THN would, as always, like to thank Scott Derrickson for his time.
SINISTER is available to buy on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK from 11th February.