In the Audience’s Mind: Chris Cargill and Scott Derrickson on Sinister

The makers of the new horror film on creating a different kind of scare and transitioning from a film critic to a full-fledged Hollywood screenwriter.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Austin has been ground zero for the movie Sinister. It premiered as a secret screening at SXSW, and played again at Fantastic Fest. Screenwriter C. Robert Cargill is an Austin native, beginning as a writer for Ain’t It Cool News and He and director Scott Derrickson teamed up for interviews about the film. Ethan Hawke plays a true crime author desperate for a hit, who moves his family into the house that was the scene of a crime.

CraveOnline: Scott, is horror a little closer to your heart than sci-fi?

Scott Derrickson: That’s a really good question, that’s why I’m pausing. It’s not. I don't think so. Sci-fi is probably closer to my heart just because I’ve read so much of it, and I don’t read much horror. I read a ton of sci-fi so I have more science fiction lurking around my head during the average week. In terms of cinema, probably more horror than sci-fi just because there’s so much more good horror than good sci-fi.

Well, just looking at your resume there’s been more horror films.

Scott Derrickson: Yeah, and horror films are much, much easier to get made. It’s hard to get a good sci-fi movie made.

Chris, was the journey from my side of reporting to screenwriting a natural one?

C. Robert Cargill: Yeah, yeah, it was. I’d done that a lot for a long time. I started in 2000 and I always wanted to write fiction. I didn’t know if I was going to be a novelist, if I was going to be a screenwriter but I always wanted to write fiction. So I always treated being a critic as less of a career and more of an extended college education in which every film was a new class and a new assignment. I had to go break it down and write up an essay on it that was then going to be judged by millions of people on the internet and I would be graded by them. So I took every chance I could. Every interview I tried to learn something from the filmmakers. The few chances I got to do set visits, I was very much watching the filmmaker do their thing. I was trying to learn how to best tell a story. That’s where, if you go back through 10 years of critiques, all of that stuff is me talking story, more story and less technique of filmmaking. So when it came time to write my first screenplay with Scott, I was able to finally test out all these theories that I’d worked on for so long and believed in as ways to make films and to try it out for myself.

Did all your theories prove correct, or did any prove different?

C. Robert Cargill: The few that I was able to try out in this particular one all seem to have panned out. There were several things. Just to protect spoiler-wise, for example one of the theories that I had was that audiences see a big difference between child murder and family murder. That if you killed a kid on screen, that will disturb an audience to the point of revulsion, but if you kill a child as part of a family, that the audience looks at that as the murder of a family and while still disturbed by it, they’re disturbed by it in a different way. They don’t feel that you’re particularly preying upon the emotions of parents.

And we see that in the first shot so it’s not a spoiler.

Scott Derrickson: If the opening image was just hanging kids, too much. Hanging family, okay. Passable.

C. Robert Cargill: And there was a big discussion about that. There were people that thought we should crop the shot to where we just see the parents and we know the kids are there but we can’t see the kids.

Scott Derrickson: Part of what was challenging about the screenplay in getting investors and domestic distributors interested in the movie was you have to explain that you don’t ever really see any child violence in the movie. It’s in the story and you get that it’s happened, but you’re never watching anything on screen that shows that.

C. Robert Cargill: The other major theory that I was playing around with was this idea that you could make a super low budget movie and make it work on the screen and make it seem bigger simply by playing around with ideas that were so big and ideas that existed in the audience’s mind that it creates its own value. We have a very contained film but it feels bigger than it is because we have these ideas that the audience is rolling around with that seem like high dollar ideas, but they are creating all the special effects for us. We don’t have any gore effects in the movie of these families dying but people see it in their head. That seemed to pan out as well.

A lot of the frames are reduced further by the lighting and shadows. Was that an idea you were playing with?

Scott Derrickson: Absolutely. I think that the strategy was to go against the trends of a lot of Hollywood cinema now and not shoot with compressed space, long lenses and soft focus and selective focus but to shoot with real wide lenses. You get that in found footage but those movies tend to show everything and tend to have full exposure. So the idea was to shoot it like Klute. I gave Klute to the DP and what we talked about was how within a frame, when things go really dark, it adds a sense of space. If you have a small room like the room we’re sitting in right now and you shoot that and expose the people against at least two of the corners of the room, it feels incredibly claustrophobic. But if you have two people sitting close and the edges are black, that blackness feels like infinity. It feels infinite. It gives a sense of great possibility. Anything could feel beyond there so the result is that a lot of the darkness in the movie, shot with wide lenses and lots of black in the frame. It just feels big. It doesn’t feel cramped, doesn’t feel claustrophobic. The movie’s so claustrophobic but it doesn’t really feel that way and I didn’t want it to feel that way. I’ve seen lots of bottle pieces that are claustrophobic but that wasn’t what the feeling was supposed to be for this movie. And the DP got really behind that idea. He gave me a book of Caravaggio paintings which is exactly what I’m describing, single light sources with lots of darkness around the edges. That became his way into how to light the movie.

Chris, do you especially feel a kinship with a character who’s an author?

C. Robert Cargill: Yes and no. Personally, I’ve always disliked the using of writers as protagonists because I always think it’s kind of a weak choice. It’s an easy choice, but here it was the only choice to be able to tell the story properly. I didn’t choose it because it’s like, “Oh, I want to write someone that’s myself.” The idea is what kind of character would actually pursue and investigate this box rather than just giving it over to the police? That was the one natural thing. The kinship that I feel is that Ellison is very much the guy that Scott and I are afraid of becoming. We both have wonderful families. We’re both madly in love with our wives and the idea of sacrificing that for our careers scares the crap out of us. That we could become those guys and we know those guys, we’ve seen those guys. History is full of writers who go through wives like tissue paper. We very much are frightened by that so I don’t so much feel a kinship with Ellison as I’m afraid of that’s an alternate future. He’s the parable. He’s the cautionary tale that I’m afraid of becoming.

And it seems very reasonable when his wife says, “If the third book fails, that’s it.”

C. Robert Cargill: That comes very much from I was a film critic, in the very early days of blogging, there wasn’t really a financial model of it and most of us were doing it for free. I was writing for Harry for free for years as were most of the guys at Ain’t It Cool and I wanted to become a film critic for a living. I was tired of working in video stores and my wife said, “Look, I’m going to give you a year and you get one year to be a film critic and make a living at it. If by the end of the year you’re making a living that is somewhat in keeping with what you were making at the video store, then you can keep doing it. If not, then it’s time to give up the film critic thing and let that be a hobby on the side and you get a full 40 hour a week job and become a professional.” That was the deal and that’s very much rooted in this is your chance, get this right and it also adds an extra ticking clock to Ellison in that he has to get this right. It’s that extra fuel that just makes the choice that much more obvious to him but that ultimately damns him.

And you did make a full time living as a critic within the year?

C. Robert Cargill: Yeah, within six months I was getting paid for Ain’t It Cool and then I started getting poached by other sites, and then I helped create another site, with a couple friends. Inside of a year I was making more money than I was making more money than I was making before. The next year I was making three times the money I was making before. Finally three years in I was making as much as my wife was making and she was like, “Yes, this is clearly your career.”

I trust you were fans of Blow Up and Blow Out. Was there an opportunity for new technology to investigate images now?

Scott Derrickson: I like both those films a lot. I never really thought about Blow Up in relationship to this movie but Blow Out was a big source of inspiration. I gave Blow Out to Ethan to watch before we shot the movie. It was less about content connection in terms of Blow Out is about sound, but it was about how compelling the minutiae of that movie is. For me, once the script was written, I felt that one of the most challenging things about the movie directorially was how do I make all these scenes of Ethan sitting at a desk with a laptop exciting and interesting. Blow Out was the inspiration for that. That was kind of the beacon movie because you’ve got all these scenes of John Travolta sitting at a desk dealing with technical film minutiae and sound and syncing and it’s so compelling, him trying to solve this mystery at his desk. That was definitely one of the big inspirational films.

And coming up with scary stuff that happens on the computer screen?

Scott Derrickson: That was original. I thought that was one of the things that we hadn’t really seen done before. I think that’s one of the reasons the movie connects with audiences, because it’s such a familiar space now, all of us spend probably more time than we should sitting at our desk late at night at our computers doing whatever. I think that’s such a relatable dynamic now, the idea that something horrific gets inside these images and is making its way into your life and into your mind is a scary concept.

How did you come up with the original crime that would be the basis of the horror?

C. Robert Cargill: That was actually in the original nightmare that I had. I had a nightmare that I found a box and that I was watching one of the films through the projector, and that’s the image I saw, this family hanging from a tree. It really impacted me and stayed with me and that image haunted me for years. It was so bizarre to be there on set and be there recreating my own nightmare. It’s very strange. That’s where that came from. Building the entire mystery around an image from a nightmare was just a very strange but wonderful process.

Did the way Scott manifested it reflect what you saw in your dream?

C. Robert Cargill: Yeah, very much so.

Early in your career you got to do a Hellraiser movie. How many heads did Pinhead rip apart in your Hellraiser movie?

Scott Derrickson: [Laughs] How many heads?

That’s how I count a Hellraiser movie. How many heads does Pinhead rip apart in this one?

Scott Derrickson: There’s a face ripping pretty early on. Boy, I’d have to go back and count. There’s a head found in a bed, a decapitated head, so I guess that counts.

How do you look back on Day the Earth Stood Still?

Scott Derrickson: You know, really mixed feelings. I can’t say it was the movie I wanted to make, for a lot of reasons. I take responsibility for that. I have to, I’m the director. It’s a flawed film. There’s things about it I really like. I like the first 40 minutes of that movie quite a bit. The visual effects are pretty uneven. I wish that I had been able to make a movie that connected more with audiences. That’s really what I wish in that one.