Black Phone: Scott Derrickson and his extremely personal horror

Black Phone, the new horror film by Scott Derrickson starring Ethan Hawke, arrives at the cinema on June 23: an extremely personal film that touches on universal themes, as the director told us in this interview.

Seeing Black phone it is fully understood that it is not a horror like all the others. It certainly wasn’t for hers director Scott Derrickson: taken as a canvas a short story written by Joe Hill – son of Stephen King – the author has drawn from it, together with his trusty F. Robert Cargill, one story with enormous dramatic depthwhich mixes various genres and relies above all on a specific and very effective setting – something Derrickson had already developed in his previous, underrated Deliver Us From Evil. Speaking with the filmmaker, it is fully understood how much Black Phone was in fact not a project like any other…

Let’s start with the star: how he convinced Ethan Hawke to play the first “monster” of your career?
Ethan immediately told me he wasn’t interested in playing psychopaths unless it was something really special. Memorable characters in this category are those who have allowed the actors to develop their own variations on a theme. I’m thinking, for example, of the way Anthony Hopkins speaks in The Silence of the Lambs: the script was magnificent but he brought that tone, it’s his work. Ethan did the same with The Grabber, he realized the challenge was wearing the mask all the time and let that be the scary part of the character as he crafted a way of speaking that was unique to the character. He built something new that we’ve never seen before. That’s what great actors do.

What are the major differences from Joe Hill’s story?
In Joe’s text there is only one ghost using the telephone, we have included four more in the script. We then gave greater depth to the figures of Finney’s sister, Gwen, and her father: we had to compose a precise family picture. I think one of the main souls of the film has become the character of Gwen. The setting comes from my desire to tell a story that harks back to my childhood. Before deciding to do Black Phone I was thinking of making something close to 400 shots. I grew up in North Denver and was 12 years old in 1978. My neighborhood life was pretty much what you see in the movie: a working class neighborhood, pretty violent both outside and inside the house. And that was a time when serial killers were really scary, with Ted Bundy captured and then escaped right in Colorado and John Carpenter’s Halloween just out in theaters. When I was nine then my neighbor’s mother was kidnapped, raped and killed, her body thrown into a lake. When I realized that I could merge my story with Joe’s story, something special was born for me.

Could we therefore say that this is his most heartfelt film?
The predominant feeling that I associate with my childhood is fear. Mainly for the reasons we see in the film, which is the violence I saw both inside my house and outside. I lived on a block with thirteen boys and I was the youngest, I was bullied all the time. I was a neurotic child and suffered some major traumas in my youth. I went through a few years of therapy to come to terms with all of this, with some of the roots that are why I am who I am today. Black Phone is an extremely personal film for me. I believe that a narrator who manages to tell something truly personal has a better chance of touching on universal themes.

Do you feel that you are a different director than the first collaboration with Ethan Hawke, aka Sinister?
First of all, I’m a different man. This is also a personal story: when I made Sinister I was in the same condition as the protagonist Ellison Oswalt. I had done a big hit like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and then the remake of The Earth Day which turned out to be a very expensive disaster. I was scared of losing my reputation and not being able to work anymore. I tried to tell my fears, after all it is a film about ambition. Ellison is more worried about losing his status than the horrors unleashing his house. With The Black Phone I found myself in a totally different situation: with therapy I finally faced the traumas of my childhood and I finally began to feel hope and happiness, elements that are found in the film. I feel that, in his own way, it’s the most hopeful product he’s ever made. I don’t think a director necessarily has to work this way, it’s just what I’m most comfortable with.

Did you have difficulty with Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw and their dramatic roles?
Through the casting process we found two young actors who are truly capable of playing the toughest moments. I always make sure that those I choose have a stable family life so that I am properly supported. I would never want to introduce a child into the workings of the Hollywood industry without the necessary psychological preparation. Before shooting any complex scene I always warn them in advance, as I did with Madeline McGraw about a scene where she is beaten by her father. I did the same with Mason Thames when he has to cry his eyes out. I give them the necessary time to prepare psychologically, but at the same time I address them as adults, I try to be direct and specific about what is happening and the emotions that must emerge from the scene in question. I’m sure young actors can understand and support these moments like adults, you still need to make them feel safe and secure. They repay you by bringing great truth to the performances, the way my two leads did with Black Phone.

What’s the secret to making a horror movie that actually works?
I’ve always been good at creating tension, scaring people. It’s kind of like comedy, you either know how to tell a joke or you don’t. Of course there are tricks you can learn, but if you don’t have that spark it’s unlikely to work properly. And as with truly creative people, the more you practice the better you become. But the secret always remains the same: the suspense only really works if you care about the characters. When we wrote the script the first twenty-six pages were basically just a brother-sister story for him. I knew from the start that if I could create a real bond between the two young characters, Black Phone would work. A lot of people asked me to remove the belt sequence from the film, but that was the heart of the film, where you understand how much Finney and Gwen care about each other. What really creates tension are hope and fear. In the end what matters are human beings and their emotions.

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Has American horror changed since it started making genre films?
Certainly today it is more difficult to make the viewer jump on his seat. But that is craft. What is really needed is a fresh perspective, there are many more authors making horror successfully. I’m thinking of Hereditary by Ari Aster for example. Or Robert Eggers’ The Witch, which really terrified me, for a few days I felt tainted by evil after seeing it. The novelty of Black Phone is that it combines the serial killer dimension with a ghost story, something I hadn’t seen before. Joe Hill’s story had proposed it in such a simple and effective way that at first I didn’t realize they were two very different genres. All then set in a basement, which adds to the authenticity.

Black Phone: Scott Derrickson and his extremely personal horror – our exclusive interview with the director