To coincide with the trailer launch of The Black Phone, the latest horror film from Blumhouse, detailing the abduction of a young boy who learns he is able to communicate with the voices of his captor’s previous victims through a disconnected black phone, Peter Gray chatted with the film’s director, Scott Derrickson, discussing the origins of this horrific tale, his love of the horror genre itself, and the importance of casting.
Before I get to The Black Phone, I just want to say I think Sinister is one of the best horror films of the last decade.
Oh, thank you so much. You might think filmmakers get tired of hearing that, they don’t. It’s still surprising every time you hear something like that. Thank you so much.
The horror genre is one that’s quite ingrained in your career. Where did that love originate from?
I think my love ultimately originated in my childhood. Growing up and feeling a lot of fear as a kid and understanding that emotion. Into adulthood, watching horror and making horror, for me, has always been about confronting something that I’m afraid of. I love the non-denial in the genre. Looking into the eyes of something unspoken or that’s unspeakably scary in the world or in nature. I’ve always found it an incredibly cathartic experience, both as a viewer and as an artist.
I understand this is an adaptation of a short story? How did Joe Hill’s short story, The Black Phone, come on to your radar?
I happen to stumble into a bookstore 16 years ago or so, around the time the book came out. I just saw it on the shelf and I had no idea who Joe Hill was, let alone that he was Stephen King’s son. I stood in the bookstore and read this short story from this anthology of short stories and though this guy is great.
I bought the book and The Black Phone was one of the shortest stories in the anthology. It’s only about 20 pages long, but I thought the concept was fantastic and such a good idea for a movie. I never forgot it. I’d bring it up on occasion and thought about turning it into a film but the timing was never right. About a year and a half ago, it just felt right, so my writing partner and I optioned the title from Joe and we wrote the script.
You’ve worked with Ethan Hawke before. Was he someone you had in mind for the role during the writing process?
No, actually. I don’t tend to think about actors during the scriptwriting process, because you just never know if they’re going to do it or not. I really try and create the character as the character. When I was done I really thought Ethan was the perfect actor to play this character though. He was my first choice, so I sent him the script and he said yes, thank goodness.
Leading a horror film and facing off against Ethan Hawke as that character looks daunting. How was the casting process in finding the right child actor for the role of Finney?
Well there’s really two co-leads opposite Ethan. Finney and his sister Gwen. The movie, in a lot of ways, is about their brother-sister relationship and how they protect each other. We ran a lot of kids, saw a lot of different tapes, and it wasn’t just those two (characters), there’s a lot of kids in the film as well. Finding Mason (Thames, Finney) and Madeleine (McGraw, Gwen) was really good fortune. There were a lot of kids that were good but Mason and Madeleine, and I’m not just being hyperbolic, they are extraordinary in this movie. They are astonishing. You’ll see, and I don’t mind building that up (laughs).
Mason really carries the film with a very nuanced, very specific performance. It was very demanding. And Madeleine kind of steals the movie with her character. I felt so strongly about her. We were supposed to start shooting in the fall, but her Disney show (Secrets of Sulphur Springs) started shooting again after being shut down and she wasn’t available. I was told we had to recast that role. I went to Jason Blum (producer) and told we can’t recast, we have to move the shoot. We rescheduled the movie for the new year, in February, just so we could keep her on the film.
Speaking of Jason Blum, I’ve been fortunate enough to speak with other directors who have worked with him and the Blumhouse banner, and it seems he’s someone who doesn’t interfere and lets his directors be creative. I think in the horror genre that’s one of the most important aspects, to not have your creative vision stifled. Can you expand on that experience?
Oh yeah. Jason has become one of my closest friends in this business. Sinister came out 9 years ago, so it was 10 years ago that we first met and I pitched (that film). He came to me. At that point he had acquired Paranormal Activity and had just made Insidious. He told me “I’ll give you $3 million and final cut if you make this movie fir me” and I said “Done”. He kept his word. I had final cut and he was super supportive. When I wrote (The Black Phone) I didn’t go anywhere else, I told him I would love him to produce this. Instead of responding he just sent me a rotary black phone in a display case (laughs) which was his way of responding to the script.
Going off your previous films, I can only imagine the intensity that is created within The Black Phone. When tension and atmosphere are executed so effortlessly – which is something I think you have mastered – it seems like such a genre staple that’s quite easy to achieve, yet a lesser director could easily squander that. For you, is there a difference in writing set pieces knowing you’re going to direct them?
Yes, I think so. You know, I haven’t really successfully written horror screenplays for other people (laughs) now that I think about it. I think most of what I did didn’t turn out so great. Writing as a director I’m really able to feel what material needs to be present. In an individual scene, that’s hard enough, but to keep it going scene to scene is the real challenging part. A lot of that is in the writing, but it’s also in the directing, and I feel that The Black Phone is another levelling up for me (as a director). It’s much more emotional than any other film I’ve made.
The Black Phone is currently scheduled for an Australian theatrical release from January 27th, 2022.