In the new horror film “Sinister,” Ethan Hawke plays a struggling true-crime novelist named Ellison Oswalt, a writer who, in the name of research and cheap rent, moves his family into the same home where a couple and two of their children were hanged, their third child declared missing and never found. Before long, Oswalt stumbles across a box of disturbing home movies stashed in the attic, each of which depicts a gruesome murder that might be the work of a supernatural figure, sending him down a dark path as he tries to uncover what really happened to the family.
Director Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose”), who wrote the screenplay for “Sinister” with C. Robert Cargill, saw the concept as an interesting way to play with the “found footage” conceit that’s remained wildly popular with genre audiences — his protagonist is the one who finds and watches the footage of the mysterious murders — but he also set out to make a compelling study of a character so consumed by his determination to return to professional glory that he inadvertently places himself and his loved ones in harm’s way.
The $3-million movie was shot on Long Island last autumn, and its release this weekend marks a new chapter for Derrickson, a filmmaker for whom true crime has been something of a recent preoccupation. He adapted Mara Leveritt’s 2002 book “Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three,” which recounts the now infamous case in which three young boys were murdered in Arkansas, and three then-teenagers — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. — were convicted of the crime, despite a lack of direct evidence of their guilt. Derrickson’s script will serve as the basis for the upcoming Atom Egoyan film “Devil’s Knot,” a dramatized account of the arrest and conviction of the so-called West Memphis 3.
Derrickson recently spoke to Hero Complex about his new film, what horror movies inspire him and how it came to be that (spoiler alert) respected PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley makes a cameo in “Sinister.”
HC: You have a background in horror. Is that intentional? Are you attracted to the genre?
SD: I do love the genre. I think more than comedy, probably more than straight drama, I like horror. And horror I think I’m particularly good at. It’s a mistake a lot of directors make, especially young directors. They always want to make the kind of movies that they most admire and aren’t necessarily sensitive to what they have the best skill set for. I have a pretty good skill set for horror. I also love the idea of trying to elevate the genre beyond the norm. Unfortunately it’s a genre that’s fallen into a bad reputation because of the extensive use of sequels and the slasher craze of the late ’70s, through the ’80s and into the ’90s. I really love the possibilities of the genre and trying to put real actors into it and have real performances and real relationships. Those are the horror films I like, those are the kinds of horror films that were being made in the late ’60s and ’70s and early ’80s.
HC: What are some of your favorites?
SD: My very favorite horror film is “The Exorcist.” I think it’s the scariest movie ever made, but it’s great when you listen to William Friedkin talk about that movie in his introduction on the DVD, the first thing he says is “ ‘The Exoricst’ is a movie about the mystery of faith.” It really is. If you measured out the screen time of the actual possession scenes and the exorcism, it’s really not that much and it’s a very long movie. It is really a patient character study in a struggling individual and his crisis of belief, it’s beautiful. After that would probably be “The Shining,” I know that’s typical. These two are not surprises. Then No. 3 would probably be “The Changeling,” the Canadian film with George C. Scott, I think that’s the best ghost story film that’s been made.
HC: You mentioned the idea of elevating the genre. It’s interesting that “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” was part horror film, part courtroom drama. “Sinister” is certainly a horror film, but it also plays as a character study of Oswalt.
SD: There’s a certain rhythm that most horror films abide by. It goes back many decades, of atmospheric scariness that rises into scenes of real shock and surprise and intensity and then you drop back down and give the audience some relief. That sort of peak and valley flow you can see in almost all horror films that have been made in the last 30 or 40 years. Unfortunately, I think the bad reputation of horror films is because after that peak when you drop down so often it’s just yammering teenagers talking about nothing or family relationships that don’t feel authentic. I couldn’t make something if the valley parts of the movie weren’t just as interesting as the real horror aspects of it. In “Sinister,” it’s the marriage relationship obviously that’s very compelling — I love their fight scene, it’s probably my favorite scene in the movie — but it’s also an investigative procedural. You drop down into the mystery of a guy trying to solve these crimes. I like that. I think that’s what good horror does. The thing I’ve always said when I’m working on a script, when I was working with Cargill on this, I would say to him, “You have to imagine that if you took all of the horror out of it, would you still have a movie worth watching?” If the answer is yes, then you might be onto a good movie.
HC: How did you and C. Robert Cargill come to collaborate on the script?
SD: Cargill was a film critic for Ain’t It Cool News. He wrote under the name Massawyrm. He was my favorite online film critic. I kept going to movies that he would recommend …. I wrote Cargill and told him how impressed I was with him as a reviewer and his way with words. We became online friends and I followed him on Twitter. I was in Vegas meeting my brother about a year and a half ago and I saw on his Twitter feed that he was in Vegas. I said, “I’m in Vegas, let’s get a drink.” We met at the Mandalay Bay at 3 o’ clock in the morning and he drank five white Russians — I counted because I was so impressed he could do that. He actually is a lot like “The Dude.” He said, “I have a horror film idea for you,” which I hear a lot. He pitched me the idea for this movie. He got the original inspiration for the idea, it came from a nightmare that he had in the afternoon after he had seen “The Ring.” He saw “The Ring,” and he went home and took a nap and he had a nightmare about going up into his attic and finding a box of Super 8 films with murders on them and he puts on the first film and it’s the opening of “Sinister.” He had been noodling around with a story based on that. He pitched me in five minutes the basic beginning middle and end of the movie as we made it. I brought [producer Jason Blum] the idea that week, and he bought it immediately. Cargill and I wrote the script in five weeks, mainly because we work very different hours. He works all night, and I have kids so I write all day. It was kind of like a 24-hour writing machine. From the time I heard the concept to the finishing of the film was less than a year. That just never happens.
HC: The Super 8 home movies lend immeasurably to the atmosphere of “Sinister.”
SD: We shot all five of them, including the whole ending of the movie, on Super 8, which was really fun. The rest of the film is high-definition video, I really love the contrast between those two formats, that was part of my general approach to the movie that I thought would be really interesting. Super 8 is such a fun, exciting, volatile format. The cinematographer and I went to each location with a big bag of Super 8 film stocks and we would shoot a roll of film at each location at a bunch of different exposures just to see how each space reacted and then we made our selections of which film stock and at what exposure we would shoot them at. It seemed to work out well. There’s a lot of fake Super 8 out there and the difference between the fake Super 8 that you see on films, and on television especially, and real Super 8? It’s a big difference. You feel it. Real Super 8 is creepy. If you went into your grandmother’s attic and found her Super 8 films and watched them, I don’t care what was on them, there would be something a little creepy feeling about it.
HC: What does having an actor like Ethan Hawke in the lead bring to the film?
SD: After I wrote the script, I loved it and I was very excited about it. But then I kind of had a panic attack and I thought ‘this guy is so unlikable, he’s so flawed, is the audience going to turn on this character and just not like this movie because they don’t like Ellison Oswalt?’ I really racked my brain trying to think of an actor who the audience wouldn’t turn on and would find consistently interesting even though he was making bad decisions from the beginning. It really came down to Ethan. I thought Ethan was the right guy for the movie above anybody else.
HC: Did your experience writing and researching the “Devil’s Knot” script influence your depiction of Oswalt as a true crime writer?
SD: I definitely had the true crime experience in my head for a period of time. I suppose that probably did have some influence at least on how it was made. Truth is, to give credit where it’s due, that was a part of the original concept, that was not my idea. It was Cargill’s idea. He didn’t have a lot of detail to the character but he did have the idea of him being a true crime writer. The simple genius of that idea is by him moving into the house because of these crimes and as somebody who’s familiar with grisly material and because he’s a skeptic, there’s justification for him not leaving. He’s staying because as much as he’s afraid of what’s on those films, as much as he’s afraid of the weird things that are starting to happen, he’s much more afraid of not regaining his status as a great true crime writer.
HC: Tavis Smiley has a memorable scene in the movie — it’s a rather unusual flashback in a way, in which he interviews Oswalt. How did that come about?
SD: Tavis was not in the script. We had no other African American actors except for the medic who shows up and has one line. I told the casting director, “Can we find someone African American or Latino [for that role]?” I watch Tavis Smiley. I really like that show. I said, “You don’t think Tavis Smiley would do it, do you?” She said, “I’ll ask. He’s in New York.” It turns out he’d had Ethan on his show and he said sure. It was one of my favorite experiences on the entire shoot — the day that we shot him, we shot it at this little TV studio in New York and he brought [prominent author and cultural critic] Dr. Cornel West with him, who’s one of my heroes. It was fantastic. Cornel West is in the credits of “Sinister,” I think that’s hilarious, he’s in the thank you section.
— Gina McIntyre
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