Equal turns creepy, funny, sad, and heartwarming, Sinister is a seriously goosebumps-inducing horror film that doesn’t skip character development for the sake of dumb jump-scares. In fact, it may stand among the most well-rounded horror films I’ve seen in years, so I was excited to catch up with screenwriter C. Robert Cargill and fellow co-writer and director Scott Derrickson at Fantastic Fest last month. Together we discussed the care they took with child actors, why ‘great horror is great character,’ how they prefer practical effects, and much more. Check out our conversation below.
The Film Stage: One of the things I’m really intrigued by is the child actors here. You are setting the rules and can say, ‘I don’t want children to be a dramatic part of this movie.’ Or, ‘I do.’ Was there any hesitation or did you not think about that until you got on set?
C. Robert Cargill: There was no hesitation on our part. There was hesitation on the part of people who were looking at distributing the film. Several people were very nervous about how much children were involved. But no, on our part? No. A lot of great horror… in fact, some of the greatest horror ever made all involve children. The Shining, The Exorcist, The Omen, The Ring. Look at the list of the top 20 horror films of all time and the ones that don’t involve teenagers involve children. It’s very rare that you have an adult-centric, really, truly great horror film.
So them being a part of it was always integral to what we were doing. The only problem was people who work in studios forget that. They forget that The Ring is about a child ghost putting a young boy in danger and that it’s a mother racing to save her kid who’s watched something he shouldn’t have watched. People forget that The Exorcist was about a girl being possessed by the devil and that the bad guy in the movie is inhabiting this 12-year-old girl. They get nervous and think that people don’t want to see that and totally forget that no, people are totally fine watching that as long as you’re tasteful and respectful of it. And sometimes not. I mean, The Exorcist is not exactly tasteful. [Laughs] It does a terrible thing with a crucifix that no studio would ever let us get away with in this day and age and yet if you ask them what the scariest movie of all time is, they’d all say, ‘The Exorcist.’
But in terms of pre-production and things like that, you didn’t have any qualms about that?
Scott Derrickson: Dealing with the actual children?
Derrickson: No. It’s funny because they love it. They love it. The kids who worked on this movie had the time of their lives.
That’s always great to hear.
Derrickson: I mean, they cried on their last day of shooting. They were sad to leave. They were having so much fun and it’s not like they didn’t know what the movie was about. I mean, Cargill was in the basement of the house when all the kids met each other for the first time. And they were [curious about each other's roles in the film]. What’s interesting is, look at all the American holidays. Adults celebrate all the holidays except Halloween. That’s a kids holiday. Because they love it. They have an immediate interest and fascination with the gothic and horrific and it’s scary but it’s also fun. As long as you keep it fun for them, they have the time of their lives. And in terms of the subject matter being something that they shouldn’t see?
I don’t think the kids who made the movie should see the movie. But those are conversations I have with the parents. The auditioning process is as much of an audition for the parents as it is for the kids. I know that I’m dealing with precious material here. For Ashley and Trevor, the casting of those roles, especially Clare [Foley], who played Ashley, she had to do some pretty serious things. When I talked with her mom and I talked with her, she loved it. I mean it was Halloween. It was October 31st. She was ready to go trick or treating. I also go out of my way because I have kids. I have a nine-year-old and a seven-year-old, so it was important to me that this was a really great experience for them and a memorable experience for them. So I placed tremendous value on their experience as kids and their safety and not exposing them on set to things they shouldn’t be exposed to.
I thought the interpersonal relationships — the relationship between Ethan Hawke and his wife — were tremendous. Especially their fight in the middle. It works in such a different way than you’re expecting a horror film to work.
Derrickson: When we finished shooting that scene, by the way, the first full take, Cargill and I were standing at the monitor and I turned to him and I said, ‘Name a single horror film in the history of cinema that has a scene like that in it.’ He looked and he thought about it and said, ‘I can’t.’
Cargill: The key is, again, it goes back to what we were talking about before. You look at great horror and great horror is about real characters. It’s about family drama. The Exorcist is not a film about a girl possessed by the devil. The Exorcist is a film about a mother worried about her daughter and a priest who is questioning his faith. You look at The Shining and that isn’t about people who move into a hotel. It’s about the dissolution of a family and a guy struggling with alcoholism. Great horror is great character. In order to be scared you need to be invested in the characters. So these characters had to be very real and that was something we knew from the beginning: in order for this to work, we had to care about Ellison and his family.
Can you talk about the practical effects used?
Derrickson: There’s actually a good number of effects shots in there. You just don’t know that they are. It’s a lot of cleanup stuff and…
Cargill: Well, it’s practical mixed with digital. We don’t have any truly digital creations.
Derrickson: That’s exactly right. You can make anything with CGI now. But making it look seamless and totally real is the challenge. The best visual effects movies never get credit because you don’t know they’re visual effects.
Cargill: Yeah, one of the greatest visual effects movies ever made is Forrest Gump.
Derrickson: In my opinion, the greatest visual effects movie ever made is Master and Commander.
Derrickson: It’s like 1,600 visual effects shots and nobody really thinks of it as a visual effects movie because it’s all so seamless. But in this case, we didn’t have the budget for it. We didn’t even have the budget to do green screen burn-ins for the computer. [Laughs] We had to do all of that on set. And it is just a general rule that every director should tattoo on their wrists: if you shoot it real, it will look better. Always. I don’t care if it’s a $300 million dollar Jerry Bruckheimer movie, if you can shoot it real it will look better. And that’s why [Christopher] Nolan‘s movies look better than anybody else’s big budget movies. Because he has that mantra in his mind. He doesn’t like CGI. He wants to shoot it real.
And I think that’s part of the reason he loves the IMAX format because he can basically say, ‘Hey, look what I did and you can look at it in high resolution. Go ahead, zoom in. Do whatever you want because you’re not going to be able to poke holes in it.’
Derrickson: Because it’s real.
It’s funny because I was looking at the credits as they were rolling last night, and I know this is an out of left field question, but I noticed BlackBerry was thanked in the film. But I noticed throughout the film, Ellison has his iPhone.
Derrickson: I have no idea why BlackBerry was thanked in the film. Couldn’t tell you.
Cargill: I have no idea either. That’s gotta be something tied in with the money folks.
Derrickson: There’s no BlackBerry product placement.
I didn’t think so either.
Cargill: We had all the Apple stuff, but how the Apple stuff worked was they really have their brand under control. If you come to them and say, ‘We want to make a movie,’ they’ll say, ‘Hey, let us give you this stuff. You can use it and use all the logos.’ They don’t pay. But they also don’t obscure. So you can use Apple stuff all over the place. They love it. So we were able to use Apple products all throughout the movie and have it look real and authentic. Which is a big deal because so many movies have to create their own version of Google or their own version of this because they don’t want to pay or Google doesn’t want to be involved with their film. Apple is just like, ‘Hey, we like the project. Here, have this stuff.’
Derrickson: And by the way, there might be a BlackBerry thing in there somewhere I just don’t know where it is.
I really don’t think there is. I think the only real focus on any kind of phone is his.
Derrickson: Yeah, which is an iPhone.
Sinister is now in wide release.
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