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Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill (Sinister)

Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill: The Interview (Sinister)

Shakefire sat down with Sinister director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Day the Earth Stood Still) and writer C. Robert Cargill about their venture into the horror film. Sinister revolves around true crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) as he stumbles upon a mysterious box of Super 8 footage of gruesome deaths and the horror contained within them.

Shakefire: How did the inception of the film come about?

C. Robert Cargill: It came from a nightmare. I went and saw the movie The Ring. I made the mistake of falling asleep afterwards, I was really tired and took a nap and had this terrible nightmare of going into my attic and finding a box of Super 8mm films and a projector and then spooling up one of the films of the projector and it was the opening shot of the film. That really terrified me and messed with me. As a result, eventually I said that would make a really good film. So I tried to figure out how to make it a really good film and kicked it around a few years until I had the idea that I had developed a pitch.

Me and Scott both ended up in Las Vegas on the same weekend and Scott saw through Twitter that I was there. He was like, "Oh, we should get together for drinks." So we got together at the Mandalay Bay at 2 in the morning. I had knocked back five White Russians and he had bounced an idea off me to get my professional opinion. I was like, "Well, you bounced an idea off me I'll bounce one off you." He was like, "Okay, everybody pitches me once. You get one pitch. Go ahead, pitch me." I pitched Sinister to him and he said, "I want to make that movie." A week and a half later we were in Jason Blum's office and he said, "I want to make that movie." That was January and by September we were on set filming. It happened very quickly.

At first, the idea was we would write two scripts together and see how it worked out if we enjoyed writing together. Two weeks in, Scott calls me up and says, "I really want to write with you, we should be partners from here on out." We've been working together ever since.

SF: Was Sinister always the title for the film?

Scott Derrickson: No, when he pitched me the concept there was no title. Before I went and pitched it to Jason or anybody else I wanted to register the idea with the Writer's Guild so I told him to write down a page of what the movie is. He wrote down six or seven pages and then sent it to my inbox and the title was Found Footage, which I was happy with because at that time no one in Hollywood was making anything but found footage movies. But the pitch he gave me started with, "This isn't a found footage movie. This is a movie about the guy who finds the footage." He had just titled it Found Footage; it was a temp title. I think that helped generate the excitement around it in terms of getting it set up and financed and all that. As we were moving into making the film, Cargill and I knew all along that we were going to need to change that title. He and I just batted some emails back and forth and came up with the idea of Sinister and that stuck.

CRC: Before I pitched it to him, in my head for several years it had another title. That title was Super 8. For years, it was like, "That's my project Super 8." Sure enough, six months before I pitch it to Scott, J.J. Abrams makes Super 8 and it's like, "Well, shit."

SD: And you know, Sinister, that's a horror movie title.

CRC: Definitely.

SF: In the past you've mentioned that you've had a lot of freedom to do the movie you wanted to do. How was working with Summit Entertainment? Did that have any stipulations you had to follow, etc.?

SD: They didn't have stipulations. I love those guys, love them. It is easily my favorite place I've ever worked as a professional and to their credit, the big studios that balked at the project who were interested in it but ultimately didn't want it because they wanted us to change the ending or they just wanted us to change things. Summit had no stipulations. They knew that the deal I made with Jason and with Alliance, who's financing the movie. The movie would have been made without distribution in the states because based on foreign financing the movie was already green lit. They came in and said, "No, we'll take it. We want this movie. Make the movie you want to make." They were great and they gave us some suggestions. They made some really good suggestions so it wasn't like they had no input. It was just really nice to be able to hear input from a studio knowing that I wasn't required to take it. I took some of the suggestions and I didn't take others and they were fine with that and the suggestions I did take make the movie better.

SF: The film has a very Shining-like quality with a writer who has this falling into madness quality. Was that an inspiration for the film?

CRC: One of many. It wasn't drawn from The Shining but once the ideas started falling into place and we realized what we had, we did draw a couple of notes of inspiration to hone that. The reason he's a writer is because that's the profession that makes sense. When I was just work shopping the idea originally, the real question was, "What type of character wouldn't immediately turn that box over to the police?" Because most people would. Most anyone in their right mind would take that box immediately to the police and that's a much less interesting story. I even played around with that idea of a police investigation into this and it just wasn't working. Then it dawned on me; a true crime writer who had moved into the place is exactly the type of person who would keep it for themselves. The Shining is in a nice long list of films that are just in Scott and I's DNA; films that we love and films that you could do a lot worse than to aide in certain moments.

SD: While directing the movie, it was definitely the beacon film I had in my mind the most while I was shooting. In fact, I gave clips of the scene of the axe coming through the door and Shelley Duvall reacting...I gave clips of that to Ethan to watch. He doesn't really watch horror films because they scare him too much but I said you got to watch this because I think that moment with Shelley Duvall is the most frightened I've ever seen anyone on film. I gave it to him and said, "This is how scared you are by the end of the film." I also gave clips of the little boy as he's recoiling in fear and covering his eyes to Michael D'Addario, who plays Trevor. I said, "When you come out of that box, the look on your face needs to be like this." If you watch the film, his eyes are really crazy in that scene, and that's not a digital enhancement. That's the actor.

But I think the tonal comparison, yeah, I don't want to be compared to The Shining because I think it's one of the two greatest horror films ever made, but certainly the uniqueness of a dreadful tone that runs through a lot of dramatic scenes as well as the scenes of horror is something that surprisingly not a lot of horror films have. So that film and The Changeling, the Canadian film The Changeling, were probably the two biggest influences on me from a horror point of view while shooting the movie.

SF: Where there any other non-horror influences?

SD: Yeah, there were a couple of them. Klute was a big influence visually. Just Gordon Willis' photography and recognizing...that's a compressed space movie so it's shot with very long lenses, which we didn't, but I really liked how much blackness he had in that film. I gave that to the DP and said, "I want to go this extreme with it."

Blowout, the Brian De Palma movie, was a big influence. I gave that movie to Ethan to watch as he had never seen it. John Travolta trying to piece together a mystery at his desk with his equipment, you know, all these scenes of Ethan using film equipment and video and his computer trying to piece this mystery. I think that movie is so compelling in places where it shouldn't be and I like the conversation as well.

And then the other one would be, well, there are two others. Manhunter was a big influence; the obsessive desire to uncover this mystery and there are some shots in the movie that are taken straight from Manhunter. And then the last one is a movie that Cargill gave me that had a surprising influence on the whole film and on the making of the film and certainly on the writing of it because he had already seen it which is a 70's exploitation movie called Devil Times Five starring Lief Garrett when he was in junior high school. It's about these five kids who are killing people and turning them into toys. It's not a great movie. I called Cargill after I had seen it and said, "You know, this is not a good movie...but it's a great movie." You know? There's something crazy about that movie that really stuck with me. The feeling it gave me was a feeling I felt a lot while I was shooting Sinister.

SF: Robert, you're originally a critic but have now switched sides. What was it like being a critic and then going to the creator side?

CRC: It's surreal. You spend so much time analyzing from the other side. At the same time it was really eye opening. There's so much common wisdom in film critique and in modern film blogging and discussion that is just wrong and kinda ass backwards. When you get into the room, you realize there's so much more going on than anybody realizes is going on. The things that are wrong are the things that nobody's paying attention to, and the things that a lot of people are writing about being wrong aren't happening. It's a very strange world to find myself in. It's almost hard to describe at points cause you see why bad movies happen. You see why great movies happen and you see all the flaws in the blogosphere; they're amplified. You see where bad information gets distributed and you see why no body corrects it. It's been a really weird experience but overall it's also been really great. I love creating and I love working on projects. I love working with Scott and this whole experience of making Sinister and putting it out has been really fantastic. It's a hell of a thing.

SF: Scott, what was it like for you working with a film critic in the creating process?

SD: Well, it was awesome. You know, our relationship began because Cargill was my favorite online film critic. He was the only online critic I was reading regularly. We became friends because I kept reading his reviews, which I thought were really creative and really well written, and I so connected with him in his opinions about film. Cargill always says we connect on a cellular level about cinema and it's true. So what kept happening is I kept seeing the things I felt expressed really well about film but I also kept seeing him reviewing movies that other people were panning and I would go see the movie based on his recommendation and I loved them. After the fourth or fifth time that happened he recommended the William Friedkin movie Bug when everyone else was panning it and I went and saw it and thought it was incredible. I sent him an email thanking him for his criticism and that's just how we became friends. We only met once in New York and then we ran into each other in Vegas but by that time we had become real email friends. He had sent me chapters of his novels to read and I had the highest respect for him as both a writer and a critic. The result was I had confidence, an unusual amount of confidence, in his opinion about things. I insisted he be on set the entire time. I knew we would be doing some writing on set; he did do that. There was only a limited amount of that. I think his presence on set was more about me wanting the opinion of that guy, whose opinion I've been admiring for all these years. And also it turns out we just like each other. We just get on really well.

CDC: Yeah we do.

SF: The Super 8 films themselves are some of the creepiest aspects of the film. What was the process of shooting those films within the film?

SD: It was unbelievably fun. It was so satisfying to shoot material so down and dirty. There's a recklessness about the way we shot those films and I wanted there to be because they're supposed to feel reckless. I'd shot five Super 8 films in film school at USC. I had a class where I did it so I loved the format. Chris Norr, the DP, and I bought a ton of Super 8 stock and we went to each of the locations and explored with the camera. We tried different stocks at different exposures. You have to get it right in the camera because there's not a lot you can do to manipulate Super 8. There's not a means to do that. There's no film negative so you've got what you've got.

The music for those films I had already picked out and purchased for the movie so while we shot the Super 8 films I had big loudspeakers on set so anytime we were rolling footage the music was actually playing so that everybody had the mood of it. Chris had the ear buds in his ears during the lawnmower one so he could feel the rhythm of that music. That was kinda guerilla film making at its best. Then everything else is HD digital and it's such a contrast between the two. For me, part of that is what made it a really exciting experience and experiment. I'd like to shoot an entire movie on Super 8 now. It blows up beautifully on the big screen and it doesn't look like anything else. So many people make fake Super 8 and fake Super 8 doesn't look like Super 8 because nothing else looks like it.

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Matt Rodriguez
Interview by Matt Rodriguez
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