Sinister – Scott Derrickson interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
SCOTT Derrickson talks about some of the appeal and challenges of directing critically-acclaimed horror hit Sinister and getting Ethan Hawke on board. He also talks about his career in general, bringing The Exorcism of Emily Rose to the big screen and why he loves that film’s legacy.
Looking ahead to future projects, he also reveals a little about new films with Eric Bana and Charlize Theron and a new sci-fi film that’s set in the Middle East. Sinister is available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday, February 11, 2013.
Q. I read that you have to be disturbed yourself by a horror concept before taking it on. So, what disturbed you about the concept for Sinister?
Scott Derrickson: Well, without giving any spoilers away the most disturbing thing to me was the ending and what is revealed as being behind it – who was doing the killing and why. It was conceptually so disturbing that a lot of major studios didn’t want to buy it because they thought audiences would be too upset by it. I also found the idea of the Super 8 films to be immediately compelling and something that could be scary. I think there is a voyeuristic quality in that particular medium… there’s something very creepy about home movies. If I went into your mother’s attic and found her mother’ Super 8 films, I don’t care what’s on them it would be creepy [laughs].
Q. Did making the film independently of the studio system enable you to keep the integrity of Sinister intact? And is that something you’ll continue to do more of?
Scott Derrickson: Not necessarily to the latter part of your question. In this case, it was what I was offered – if I could keep it at a low budget and set up I could make whatever I wanted. And I’d get final cut. I was at a place in my career where that’s what I wanted more than anything else and I wanted to see what would happen.
Q. What about striving to keep final cut on your projects?
Scott Derrickson: It’s unrealistic to think that you can get that very often. But what will always be a priority for me is having at least a certain measure of creative protection where I know that I’m not blindly entrusting a film that could take me a year and a half to two years to make to someone who doesn’t love movies or is only concerned about the bottom line. I never want to do that again.
Q. Does the success, both critical and in terms of audience response to Sinister, mark something of a vindication for you?
Scott Derrickson: Yeah, I think so. But I try not to think too much about what critics say about something that I’ve done. I have to judge for myself whether I think it’s good. That said, the critics that I care about all seemed to like Sinister, so that pleased me.
Q. And audiences? Did you enjoy watching the film with them when you got the chance?
Scott Derrickson: You know, I don’t do a lot of that. I was at SXSW and at Fantastic Fest, so I watched it twice in Austin, which was great, and I’ve seen it a few times at other screenings. It’s really quite satisfying. But I normally don’t like to watch a movie I’ve worked on with the audience because it’s too nerve-wracking. In this case, however, you could really feel the tension enter into the room almost upon the first shot. It never quite leaves. And the two things that I found most fun were the really shocking moments, like the lawnmower scene… it’s always fun to stand in the back of the theatre and watch 400 heads jerk back at the same time! And the second favourite thing is watching an audience discover an opportunity to find some comic relief in the deputy character and listen to audiences laugh at his manner.
Q. How easy was it getting Ethan Hawke on board?
Scott Derrickson: Ethan Hawke was my only choice for the movie. He was the only actor I saw in the role. And it turned out that Jason Blum [producer] was best friend’s with him. He is literally godfather to Ethan’s kids, so that was a complete stroke of luck when it came to thinking of who I wanted. It made getting a meeting with him and getting him to read the script easy. But he has never done horror before and he never watches horror, so he took a little convincing. But after our first meeting I think he understood a little more about what it was that was motivating me and what Sinister was really about and he got very excited and came on board. I explained to him that it was about the very emotion of fear and what a complex emotion it is. His character goes through many iterations of it but the driving fear in the movie, the one that trumps it all, is the fear of losing his status… his fear of not regaining his past fame and fortune. It’s even more incredibly intense in his own subconscious life than the actual conscious fear that he’s experiencing. And Ethan immediately responded to that and found it intriguing.
Q. Character and story do seem to play as equal a part in your films as the horror, especially with regards to Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Is that another essential component of taking something on?
Scott Derrickson: It’s the only kind of horror I can see myself making. Horror films that do that are as good as anything that gets made. It’s so wonderful to see a horror film that takes aesthetics and characters as seriously as it takes scariness. When a horror film does that, it showcases the best of the genre. But that’s not the case with the majority of horror films. The majority are focused on scaring the audience and making a small profit.
Q. Or laying on the gore… something Sinister avoids for all of its ability to disturb…
Scott Derrickson: Actually, there’s a lot less gore than you think in Sinister. When we went to the ratings board I really didn’t know what expect and we got an R rating for ‘disturbing images and terror’. So, I asked what that meant and they said: “It’s just too scary. The images are too disturbing.” There is not much on-screen violence in the film. It’s the manner in which it’s executed that makes you imagine worse in your mind.
Q. You’re a past master at doing that – leaving lingering thoughts. I remember not being able to sleep comfortably for a good few weeks after seeing Emily Rose… or rather, not being able to get out of bed for a good hour if I happened to wake up at 3am – which I invariably did!
Scott Derrickson: [Laughs] I’ve heard that from literally hundreds of people. There’s not many people that I meet, who subsequently find out that I directed Emily Rose, that don’t tell me that exact same story. So, I guess the 3am thing is the great legacy of that film and I love it. I did my job!
Q. I think Emily Rose is one of the great under-rated horror films. What attracted you to that and how easy was it to get made?
Scott Derrickson: It was an easy film for me to make because I wrote it outside of the system but getting people to buy into it wasn’t easy. The first handful of places we took it passed because they said it was a courtroom drama and a horror story – and that’s two different audiences. It made people nervous. I think I got lucky that Clint Culpepper, at that point in his career, was looking for something like Emily Rose to market as something that had more to it than just cheap horror thrills, so when it came across his desk he jumped immediately and green-lit it straight away. It was the right project at the right time. But the thing about Emily Rose, and it’s what I explained to the people who passed on it, is that it is 100% courtroom drama and 100% horror.
There is a certain rhythm to horror films – you have your shock and super scary moments, but then you drop back down into something not scary and that not scary section is usually yammering teenagers. So, it’s nothing – it’s usually stuff that’s pointless. In fact, I was talking to Ethan about that very same thing when we were making Sinister and he said it’s like the dialogue scenes in a porno movie – nobody cares because it isn’t saying anything. You’re just waiting for the next scene. So, with Emily Rose I said: “Why not make those scenes say something as good as the horror scenes?” And that’s where the courtroom element came in and that’s why the movie works because it gives you everything you want from both elements.
Q. Are you still attached to the Poltergeist remake?
Scott Derrickson: No. I did a re-write on a draft of that script but that was some time ago, before MGM was bought out. But my friend Roy Lee is now producing that film and I think they have started over. I have nothing to do with that movie. I’ve tried to get it taken off IMDB because so many people ask me about that.
Q. So, without wanting to ask anything else inaccurate based on IMDB research, is When Gravity Fails still going ahead?
Scott Derrickson: Yeah. When Gravity Fails is a script that I’ve co-written with my Sinister partner, C Robert Cargill. We did a big re-write on it for IM Global, who also produced Sinister. It’s awesome. It’s a really innovative sci-fi movie set in the Middle East.
Q. And what’s it about?
Scott Derrickson: I’m not sure how much I’m supposed to say about it, to be honest. I’ve not vetted the details of that movie yet. So, I guess I would say that if somebody’s interested in finding out more they should look up the novels. We’re about to start casting on it.
Q. What draws you to sci-fi and horror?
Scott Derrickson: I think the extremity of the genres. They’re both very cinematic and open up a lot of visual possibilities… both of them are very open to big ideas. They really invite the kinds of big concepts – philosophical concepts, ideological concepts, religious concepts – that normally would be over-reaching in other genres. But they fit really nicely within sci-fi and horror. It’s also what I tend to read. I read a lot f sci-fi literature because it is mind expanding. It’s really like a collision of ideas and highly visual cinema, so if that’s what you’re into…
Q. We always hear directors talk about the magic of finding the perfect chemistry in rom-coms or genuine, spontaneous laughter from comedies. So, what makes the perfect scare in horror?
Scott Derrickson: You know, it’s funny because Ethan was nervous about dong Sinister because he had never done horror before. First of all, he thought it would be too scary to make. But I quickly dispelled that fear and said: “Look, it’ll be the most fun you’ll ever have!” And that’s because there’s something about the nature of the material that’s always fun for the crew. The first really scary scene we shot was the one where he’s walking along the dark hallway and finds his son, Trevor, in the box. We blocked the scene, he came down the hallway and saw the box, and I told him what he needed to do. It was like: “When you first reach the end of the hallway, take two seconds to stare at it.”
I gave him some marks and told him where to stop… here’s when it [the box] starts to shuffle. So, after a little bit of that ‘coaching’ he came up to me and said: “Oh I get horror. I get horror now. It’s just like comedy. It’s about timing.” And that’s exactly right. If you understand that good comedy is all about timing, then good horror is all about setting up the right tone and then firing at the right moment. And just like comedy, you either know how to tell a good joke or you don’t – and I guess this is the kind of ‘joke’ that I have a knack for telling [smiles].
Q. Just before time beats us, are you still doing the movie with Charlize Theron?
Scott Derrickson: Yeah, Two Eyes Staring is a remake of a Danish movie that her company bought and came to me with for Charlize to play the lead. When I saw the original movie, it certainly has its flaws, but I was pretty blown away by the last third. I thought it had some originality. So, I’ve been working on the script for that but I’m not entirely sure what’s happening with the movie because Charlize and I have different schedules. She works hard and is constantly doing pictures. But we’re hoping to get something sorted.
Q. So, what is ready to go next for you? Are you working on something at the moment?
Scott Derrickson: It’ll probably be Beware The Night, the film I’m doing with Jerry Bruckheimer. I actually started working on the script for that back in 2004 and it was while doing the research for that screenplay that I found the Emily Rose story. But that is most likely going to be next.
Q. Is that with Eric Bana still?
Scott Derrickson: Yeah, Eric Bana will play the lead role. It’s based on a real guy that I know – a foul mouthed, hard-as-nails Italian police sergeant in the south Bronx who became an assistant to an exorcist. Again, Eric was the first person that came to mind when I was looking for someone for the role. He’s an amazing actor who is very picky with his role. But I knew this was the guy that I wanted and, fortunately for me, I got him.
Q. That has an Exorcist-style vibe…
Scott Derrickson: When Jerry first came to me with the material he asked me if I wanted to make Serpico meets The Exorcist. And I thought what could be cooler than that [laughs]?
Sinister is released on Blu-ray and DVD on Monday, February 11, 2013.