Horrific Images: Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill on Sinister
Looking back on 2012, as far as I'm concerned, I think Sinister might have been the most pleasant surprise of the year. I expected nothing, just another horror movie, but what I got was an expertly crafted, smartly acted and genuinely terrifying motion picture that actually had something to say about the nature of horror itself. Sinister was a hit in theaters, grossing over $77 million from a scant $3 million budget, and making rock stars of its filmmakers, screenwriter C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson, who are now attached to the major motion picture adaptation of the hit video game Deus Ex.
What started as a ten minute interview quickly spiraled into a 40-minute conversation about the nuts and bolts of Sinister, the future of Sinister 2 and such an involved conversation about video game movies and their plans for Deus Ex that CraveOnline is splitting this into two parts. Come back tomorrow to find out all about Deus Ex. For now, stick around and learn a little something about how Sinister came together, what didn't make it into the film and the importance of Ethan Hawke's awesome sweater. (Scott Derrickson was a little late to the conference call, but don't worry, he shows up after a handful of questions.)
Sinister premieres on DVD and Blu-ray today, February 19, 2013.
CraveOnline: You got your start at Ain’t It Cool. You were “Massawyrm.”
C. Robert Cargill: Yeah.
And then you moved into screenwriting. Was Sinister one of the original ideas you had, or did that come together later?
C. Robert Cargill: Yeah, no, that was an idea that I’d been sitting on for a long time that I wanted to do something with, and I was trying to figure out how to do it. I could never quite get it to work right.
What was the initial germ of the idea that you were having trouble with?
C. Robert Cargill: I had a nightmare. I had gone to see The Ring, and I’d stayed up all night writing, so I was exhausted, and I was like, you know, I’m going to take a little nap before the rest of my day, after seeing this scary, scary, terrifying movie. And then sure enough I had this horrifying dream of going up into my attic, finding a box of Super 8 films, spooling one up, and it was the opening scene from the movie.
Was it the same murder, or same type of murder?
C. Robert Cargill: Yeah.
C. Robert Cargill: That was the idea. And then from then on it was, how do I tell a story that does that idea justice. So then it became trying to get it to work in a story framework. And I found the basic story of it, and the story that I ultimately ended up pitching is absolutely the film that we made. So it is the movie that I came up with, but there was a lot of connective tissue to make it work perfectly, and that’s where working with Scott [came in]. Scott really made that idea sing, and of course directed the hell out of it, and created something really, truly scary.
For the sake of historical posterity, did you see the Gore Verbinski The Ring, or the Japanese The Ring?
C. Robert Cargill: Well, that was the Gore Verbinski Ring, but I’d already seen Ringu. Verbinski, just the way he directed the hell out of that movie. It’s hands down, easily the second greatest horror remake of all time.
After The Thing.
C. Robert Cargill: After The Thing, yes.
Good. Then we can be friends.
C. Robert Cargill: Well, come on, let’s be honest:The Thing is the single greatest remake of all time.
[Thinks] Maltese Falcon?
C. Robert Cargill: You think The Maltese Falcon is better than The Thing? Then we can’t be friends after all! [Laughs]
It’s worth having a conversation about. It’s worth debating.
C. Robert Cargill: No, Maltese Falcon is a good one. One of my favorites to bring up in that conversation is The Magnificent Seven, because I think The Magnificent Seven is every bit as good, just different than The Seven Samurai, although The Seven Samurai I still think is my preferred [version].
[Scott Derrickson enters the conversation.]
Hey Scott. I was about to tell Cargill here that I think Sinister may be my favorite found footage horror movie.
Scott Derrickson: Oh, thank you. I’ll take that!
C. Robert Cargill: I’ll take that.
It was interesting to see, because we’ve got so many of these things, and I’m starting to feel that the tropes are setting in on found footage very quickly, and here we have one that twists it around by having it be about someone who actually finds the footage.
C. Robert Cargill: Yeah.
Scott Derrickson: Exactly, because I think these movies were, two years ago when Cargill first pitched me the idea for this movie, that to me was one of the reasons I jumped on it immediately, was that it seemed to be fitting what audiences are interested in in the genre, but it had such a different approach to it that it seemed so smart and worthwhile.
The actual footage itself, did you shoot that before you shot the scenes of Ethan Hawke watching it? Did he know exactly what he was reacting to?
Scott Derrickson: It’s a great question. The answer is yes. I shot the Super 8 footage, I shot it on Super 8 and I shot it here in Los Angeles over two days, kind of did it guerilla style. Very small crew. I did that before we got too deep into pre-production, so I had time to edit it. I had already picked out some music for those pieces so that when Ethan’s watching the footage, he’s getting the full experience. He’s watching actual film.
Were there other murders in that series that you discussed, or maybe even filmed, that were too hardcore, or were just unnecessary, or is everything you shot in play?
Scott Derrickson: Not too hardcore [but] there was one that I really wanted to do, that took place surrounding a family at Christmastime, and it was out in the woods, it’s freezing cold. It was in the script, and it was even in the schedule, but we were running up against our budget. It was the one big cut I made during principle photography to keep the movie on budget.
C. Robert Cargill: But on top of that, there really were a number of story elements to it that Scott pointed out, like where it was in the movie, we had this kind of ramping up of tension, and the thing that we created was grimmer and a bit more dark and grisly than it was frightening. It was a little out of step with everything else, and I think ultimately it was a good cut for the better of the movie, because it was just a little too dark, and there wasn’t a creepy element of waiting for it to happen, like there were in several of the others, where you’re kind of just…
Scott Derrickson: It was very morbid.
C. Robert Cargill: Yeah. More morbid than scary, probably.
That’s one thing I really like about Sinister, is that it has an excellent balance of suspence and mood and tone, and it does kick in when it needs to. I can be f*ckin’ scary at the right moment, as opposed to just one or the other. If that makes sense.
C. Robert Cargill: It does!
Scott Derrickson: It does. I remember having conversations with Cargill in the very beginning phases of writing the script, where we talked about that very thing. That that was the kind of horror film that this was supposed to be, and if we did it right it would be the experience. I do think we did we did a pretty good job of getting that on film.
Is Sinister 2 a “go” at this point?
Scott Derrickson: No.
C. Robert Cargill: No, people are talking about it, but Sinister 2 isn’t a “go” yet.
Because I was thinking about this movie, and it’s got such a reveal, and such a mythology, and such a great sense of discovery, that if it did go forward and you guys did stay on, even in a producorial capacity, what would your concerns be on how to keep it fresh and scary?
C. Robert Cargill: Well, I mean the biggest thing is just to avoid just repeating and telling the same story over again. That would be the big thing to avoid. You don’t want another family moving into a house and just slowly developing the same film, watching the same films over again, while creepy stuff happens. It would have to go in a somewhat different direction if it were to happen. The benchmark that I use, the way I thought about such things, is from Final Destination to Final Destination 2. Final Destination 2 is the perfect example of how you do a sequel.
Yes. I love that movie. I’m so glad you said that.
C. Robert Cargill: Yeah! Well, when you see Final Destination, if we someone were to come up to you after that and go, “Do you need to see a second one?” You’d be like, “No. What are you going to do? It’s just more people avoiding death.” But what they do is, they expand on the mythology, they tell a story that not only is a great film, but makes the first film better. And going back and watching it with the perspective of the second film, you have a much bigger appreciation for the first film, and now that they are these two horror sequels that work so well together. And it’s why I don’t like any of the follow-up Final Destinations, because they fall back into that formula of doing exactly what we expected the second one to do, [which] was just, here’s another group of people who avoid death and now death is coming for them, with these Rube Goldberg-like devices. So none of them really build on the mythology of the first and second, and make them better films. Ultimately, if we ever did another one, that would be what we would want to do. We’d want something that does that.
Now I’m wondering about the mythology. Is there any mythological basis for Bughuul at all? Where did that come from?
C. Robert Cargill: Scott and I just created it. I’m a novelist as well as just a screenwriter now, but I have an office full of reference books on folklore and the occult and fairy tales and mythology and such. So we had a lot of discussions on what we did and didn’t want to do with Bughuul, and then Scott just turned me loose to go through my research and find the common threads in stories that are like what we wanted to do with Bughuul, and then find those elements and incoporate them into Bughuul so that they felt like they could be a real story. We’ve gotten that question a lot, where people are like, “Is Bughuul real? Where can I find that? Is that the real name of the Babylonian god?” And it’s like, “No, no, no, we made all that up, but if you go in and study Babylonian mythology, and how Babylonians treated demons and deities and the powers and abilities that they had, and how they existed, you’ll find that Bughuul fits right in the pocket of what they were doing, because that’s what Scott and I set out to do.
There’s a movie I was thinking of, when I was thinking about how Bughuul works and the rules of this demon, and it’s another one of the best horror sequels, which was Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. But in that one, the demon is trapped in fiction, it’s trapped in a film, and here he sort of lives on and remains scary because of it.
C. Robert Cargill: Yeah.
Were you thinking about the metatextual element of that, how horror lives on, when you were coming up with that, or was it just “cool?”
C. Robert Cargill: That’s a good reference, the New Nightmare reference, but I think that in this case it was specifically the context of making a horror film about a guy who’s watching a horror film, and how there’s a certain kind of question that that contextually raises without the film having to textually raise it at all. Which is, be careful what you watch. Be careful what the children watch. How dangerous are these things, these horrific images that we put in front of our eyes. What’s the consequences of seeing all the things that we see? And I thought the movie was inevitably an interesting commentary on…
Scott Derrickson: Yeah, that was very much on our minds while we were writing it.
C. Robert Cargill: Scott and I are always look at, while we’re writing, what the meaning of what we’re writing is, and trying to extrapolate themes from that. Because we believe that genre is a great tool for telling great human stories filled with drama, and that’s one of the things that people leave behind when they think about genre, is they think it’s just all about the special effects of it, the visceral nature. But really, genre is just a jumping ground for great ethical stories, where you get to create new rules and watch how people play out in those environments, and it’s a great way to explore what makes us human. And that’s what attracts Scott and I to these kinds of things, and so when we were working on this it was all very much on the forefront of our minds.
I think one of my favorite things in this film is James Ransone and his character. By all rights he should be comic relief, in more of a typical, less ambitious genre film, and in that scene where he’s talking to Ethan Hawke, and Ethan Hawke finally unloads his burdens on him, Ransone’s response is priceless. And it’s funny without diminishing the suspense, without making the story seem less important.
Scott Derrickson: I think that that character is, more than maybe anything I’ve ever worked on as a filmmaker, I think that character and getting to that scene you’re describing is the best example of how, in moviemaking, some of the greatest character moments are impossible without just the right contribution of writer, director and actor. Because we had the idea for that, it was in the script, all those lines were there, but there was also a nervous feeling that I had as a director: how the hell am I going to pull this off? How the hell is that tonally going to work? I couldn’t quite picture it. And even Cargill and I were in the casting – I was in New York casting in the role, I think he was still in Austin at the time but I sending him videos of the different people who were auditioning for the role – and I discovered in that process that even Cargill and I saw the scene somewhat differently. It was not easy. And then the casting director brought up James Ransone, because we had run out of people. All the New York actors I thought of, I knew none of them were right. And I knew James Ransone from the HBO stuff he did for “The Wire” and “Generation Kill” and “Treme,” and I did a Skype session with him. He never read for the role, but when I did the Skype session I just knew that this was the guy. This was the guy who should do it. And when he showed up, he just brought the right comic tone to it. He understood the role from the inside out.
C. Robert Cargill: He understood it better than we did, in fact.
Scott Derrickson: I think that’s certainly true. And what we did with every take that we would do, I would get a big, medium and small comedic version. So there was a range of material for the editor to work with. And sometimes we used the bigger takes, and sometimes we used the really minimal takes, but it was a character that was very carefully constructed by a lot of people contributing to something that they could feel, and it was a tough target to hit. But I think ultimately James hit it.
C. Robert Cargill: He did. But my favorite moment with him was… When we sat down to write the role, we had a discussion about this deputy character, and what we kept saying to each other was, “We don’t want to write Deputy Dewey” [from Scream]. And we don’t this to just be the idiot, but there’s a certain element of what you need to get out of that character, and ultimately we ended up coming up with the ideas we did. When I met James on the set the first day, we were talking about it and he was just thrilled about the character. He’s like, “I think that’s the best character in the movie,” and I’m like, “Really?” He goes, “Yeah, I’m Chris Farley from ‘The Chris Farley Show.’” And he goes, “Yeah, I’m the guy who knows exactly what he’s talking about, but the minute I get in front of Paul McCartney, all I can do is go, ‘Hey Paul McCartney, remember the time you were in The Beatles? That was awesome.’” And that‘s how he played it. That was how James played it. A very smart guy who is just completely and totally geeking out over this hero that he’s built up in his head.
Scott Derrickson: And then when it’s time to actually be a cop, which is in the scene in the living room, he’s a smart guy who sees more than anybody else!
C. Robert Cargill: Yeah. It’s definitely true. When I first met him… He’s friends with Ti West [the director of The House of the Devil], James is. And he said he told Ti West, “Oh, I got this amazing role in this movie. It’s a horror movie, and I have a four minute dialogue scene just sitting on a living room sofa with Ethan Hawke.” And Ti West says, “Oh, that’s going to make a great extra on the DVD.”
That’s f*cking great. It’s funny, because I was looking at some of the special features on this DVD, and Angela Bettis got cut out of this movie entirely, right?
Scott Derrickson: Yeah. That’s a heartbreak for us, you know, those scenes are really good. I’m very proud of those scenes. […] We wrote the role for her. She’s a good friend of Cargill’s. I’m a big fan of hers as an actress. And when we were putting the movie together, it didn’t take long to realize that those scenes were just scenes that didn’t need to be in the movie. They weren’t contributing enough story, and when I cut them out I realized we didn’t need any of the information they gave us, and they were bright daylit scenes, which broke the kind of dark style of the movie. Ethan leaves the house in one of them, which broke the claustrophobic feeling of the movie, and it just became very clear that the scene needed to go. But I’m so glad it’s on the DVD because I really like the scenes in and of themselves.
There’s a sort of a familiar dynamic that we start off with, with a husband who’s obsessed with his work, a wife that wants him to focus more on the family, and in this movie in particular she’s kind of completely right. Over the course of the film we see his arguments lose more and more validity, and it comes to a head in this really great, complex argument scene towards the end of the film. I was wondering if you could talk to me about that balance.
Scott Derrickson: That scene is my favorite scene in the movie. I remember when we finished the first master take of that, Cargill was standing with me at the monitor, and I turned to him and I said, “Name a horror movie in the history of cinema that has a scene like that.” And just kind of paused for a second and said, “I can’t.” It’s such a realistic husband-wife have it out drama scene, and the biggest laugh the movie gets every time, by far, is when she says, “Wait, you’re saying it didn’t happen here?” And he says, “No, it happened in the back yard!” And it was unexpected for me. At the first test screening the audience just lost it, and that’s happened in every screening I’ve seen. And the reason why is the scene is the final payoff for exactly what you just described. He continues to rationalize, continues to justify doing what he’s doing and staying in this house because he wants this thing so badly. He wants to recover this status so much. It’s the great fear in his life, and so when it’s all exposed it’s hysterical. It’s ridiculously funny. And yet, it very quickly moves from that comedy to a very authentic and real sight. It’s just what happens when you unleash actors as good as Ethan and Juliet [Rylance], to let their characters go at it.
I need to hear the story of Ethan Hawke’s sweater in this movie.
C. Robert Cargill: [Laughs] That’s a weird little thing that a lot of people have really kind of taken to. That was all Ethan and wardrobe. That wasn’t even something that was in the script, or something that we had initially talked about. He was kind of doing his impression of the various writers that he’s known, and he really loved that sweater, and made a big deal about “This sweater is Ellison. This is who Ellison is. He’s in this sweater.” There’s even a couple of moments in the script that needed to be massaged in order to allow for the sweater to exist…
How so? How does that work? What needed to changed in order to get the sweater in the scene?
Scott Derrickson: I was talking to Ethan about it, and to Abby O’Sullivan, the amazing wardrobe person who came up with that sweater, and I remember having a conversation about it and saying, “Well, why don’t we keep him in this the whole time?” And they both kind of looked [at me], and I said, “Look, I have a writing sweater. If I’m writing, I have this one sweater that I wear every day.” You know, because I like my house a little cool, and if you get hot, there’s nothing worse than trying to write while the house is warm. You keep the house cool, and you keep the sweater on, and it tells the story that he’s a housebound writer. That’s what he is. That’s why he’s got this on. And it wasn’t a story idea in search of a sweater, it was a sweater in search of a story idea. You know?
Come back tomorrow for the second half of the interview, all about the upcoming film adaptation of Deus Ex!