SINISTER Filmmakers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill Talk Influences, Children, and Audience Expectations
Sinister was a highlight in a year of strong horror releases at Fantastic Fest 2012. It's also an American made film with a well known cast that includes heavy hitter Ethan Hawke. I myself was rooting for it because I'm such a big fan of director Scott Derrickson. The last few years have seen an explosion of religious horror films, due in no small part to the success of his still underrated The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005). His writings on the horror genre and spirituality are eloquent and, I think, important. In short, he's willing to dig deep and mine the genre for more than simple thrills and chills. Derrickson is partnered here with longtime Aint It Cool News writer C. Robert Cargill (known on the site as Massawyrm) and the pair had time to sit down and chat about combining solid writing, character development and family drama with big time scares.
TWITCH: This is a remarkably elegant film. It's the thing I love most about it. It has a mystery that some people will solve ahead of time but it isn't really about figuring that mystery out. It is, for want of a better description, what I would call impeccably scary.
C. ROBERT CARGILL: Well we did our best to write it that way. From the very beginning we knew it was, at least partially, a mystery, but we also knew it would work even if you knew what the mystery was. It's still scary.
We talked last night about how it nods to TV horror in the seventies and movies like THE CHANGELING (1980), and BURNT OFFERINGS (1976). It also flirts with being a psychological thriller.
SCOTT DERRICKSON: Also The Legend of Hell House (1973). The Changeling is in my top horror films of all time. I think it's about more than atmospheric horror. Klute (1971) is in there, Blow-Out (1981). Argento really believed in bringing high cinematic qualities to the genre. Not a lot of directors have been attempting that lately, particularly in the found footage film. I wanted to do something with that but also have a score, and a less limited sound design. Horror imagery opens up such musical possibilities. I've always loved that.
The horror films I tend to love are really ambitious in their approach to set design and cinematography and then build imagery off of that, whereas found footage imagery can tend to be random and, again, somewhat limited cinematically. The single biggest influence on the script and the making of the film, though, was The Shining (1980). It's not a coincidence that an axe figures into the film LOL and it is about a writer going down this dark inner journey.
Children figure heavily into the film, which touches on some sensitive stuff. Did it make the film a difficult project to get off the ground?
SD: It made it harder to finance for sure.
CRC: A lot of people have used kids in horror movies in the last few years. It's primal. It scares everyone whether the children are in danger or somehow monstrous. But it really scares the hell out of investors LOL. It probably should. It can turn an audience off very quickly if those sorts of elements aren't handled well. Parents? They'll shut down right away. One theory I wanted to play with had to do with children vs. family. The first image of the film is an entire family hanging from a tree. If I had shown only the two kids there would have been much more of a problem for the audience. Somehow, the idea of the unit, the whole family dying, goes down easier even though it's still incredibly disturbing.
SD: We were also pretty deliberate about what's seen and unseen. Sometimes all you need to show is a pair of tennis shoes. You don't need to see a face, or a specific bit of violence. It would just get in the way of what you want the audience to be doing in their own minds, or emotionally. In fact we go to great pains in the films to showcase how disturbed Ellison is by what he sees. When he turns away, we turn away with him. That's enough. Even then, the hardest thing was getting a distributor. The studios were terrified of the child aspect. They loved us as filmmakers, they loved the script, but they were terrified.
So we'd be in these conversations and say, "Have you seen The Omen (1976)? The Exorcist (1973)? The Shining? The Orphanage (2007)? The Ring (2002)? These are the greatest horror films ever made precisely because they make you nervous."
Ever since Sadako crawled through the TV set we've upped the ante on what we expect. But as much as people talk about wanting to be frightened what they really mean is they want someone to jump out of a closet or into the frame and yell "Boo!" They do not want to be disturbed or made to feel nervous all the way through a film which is exactly what SINISTER does so effectively.
SD: I disagree somewhat about what audiences want. We tested this movie and it tested higher, consistently, than any of the Paranormal Activity (2007) films, Insidious (2010), The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Audiences loved being disturbed because, I think, they were invested in the characters.
CRC: It's funny, last night I a very good friend told me he hated it. He didn't want to talk to me about it. Other friends of ours were asking him why and he realized it was, at least partly, because he honestly didn't believe movies could scare him anymore and he didn't like feeling so rattled. He wound up writing a great review.
I'm left with that wonderful image of the bed sheet on the wall. Us watching Ellis, watching movies. There's so much in SINISTER about our relationship to film.
SD: That's what I'm left with as well. After working on the film for so long and watching cut after cut there's this enduring image of watching another man watching horror movies. In some ways it speaks to the value of the genre which I profoundly believe in. Horror is a dangerous endeavor but it can be so therapeutic. It can be cathartic. If a horror film makes it hard for you to sleep at night, why is that? What do you need to face?
There's that great moment when the deputy says, "I think you put yourself under immense stress and you're trying to process everything all at once." That is our society in a nutshell. It puts incredible degrees of sexual stress, lifestyle dissatisfaction, body image dissatisfaction on so many aspects of our personhood that our lives just slip away from us we're trying to cope. Great cinema, I think, brings us back.
SD: That's the great thing about the horror genre. It forces you back to the very things you try to deny.
Sinister is now playing wide in theaters across North America.