How real-life and fictional horror seeped into ‘The Black Phone’
By Elisabeth Vincentelli
After scoring a hit with the Marvel movie “Doctor Strange” in 2016, director Scott Derrickson started working on its sequel, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” In January 2020, however, he abruptly left that movie because of creative differences.
For his next film, he started with a short story by Joe Hill, which he layered with autobiographical material. “I had been in therapy for a couple of years, dealing with a lot of childhood trauma issues,” Derrickson, 55, said in a video interview.
The result is “The Black Phone,” out Friday, in which Derrickson and Ethan Hawke reunite 10 years after their collaboration in the terrifying horror movie “Sinister.” Now Hawke plays the Grabber, a masked psychopath who kidnaps and kills children in 1978 Colorado. Until, that is, he sets his sights on the resourceful 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames), who gets unexpected help from the Grabber’s previous victims — their ghosts communicate tasks for survival via a derelict landline — and his own sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw).
Considering how personal the film is to Derrickson, it comes as little surprise to hear him start off with his own story when asked to list five influences on “The Black Phone.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
“The Black Phone” is set in North Denver, where Derrickson grew up. “It was a working-class, kind of blue-collar neighborhood, half-Mexican, half-white,” he said. “There was a lot of violence. Everybody got whipped by their parents. There was fighting on the way to school, on the way home from school, at school.”
In the film, Finney is always on edge: His dad has a temper when drunk, and there are all these mysterious disappearances. “I think I was 8 or 9 years old when my friend next door knocked on the door,” Derrickson said. “He was crying, and he said, ‘Somebody murdered my mom.’ His mother had been abducted and raped and killed and wrapped in phone wire — I remember that detail — and thrown in the local lake,” he continued. “So the serial killer who could just grab you out of nowhere was a real thing for us in that neighborhood. That was always in the air.”
‘The 400 Blows’ (1959)
François Truffaut’s debut feature retraces much of his upbringing — via a cinematic alter ego portrayed by 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud — in a way that is warm yet also devoid of sentimentality. “The first idea I had was to take a lot of the traumatic events of my childhood and try to make a kind of American ‘400 Blows,’” Derrickson said. “It’s a movie for adults about children that I wouldn’t describe as nostalgic — that’s a really interesting way to approach one’s own childhood experience as a filmmaker.”
And yet Derrickson was also keen to show that fortitude is hard to snuff out. “It’s a really wonderful picture, and somehow, as bleak as it is, it also shows the resilience of children,” he said. “There’s a lot of joy in that movie, too. Even as this kid keeps getting blow after blow, his spirit is very strong. And I think that shows in both Finney and Gwen.”
‘The Devil’s Backbone’ (2001)
Derrickson is a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro’s supernatural horror film, which is set in an orphanage in 1939 Spain, and he initially brings up the way it visually represented ghost children, as well as the communal relationship between the orphans. “From a storytelling point of view, it was a really influential movie on me,” Derrickson said.
But he also picked up tips from the commentary the Mexican filmmaker recorded for the movie’s DVD release. “One of the things that Guillermo del Toro says in that commentary is that when he casts a child actor, he makes sure that the child can imitate him, and this has been so helpful to me,” Derrickson said. “If you’re giving them a direction and it’s just not working, you need to be able to do it for them and have them just do it back for you the exact same way.”
‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968)
Derrickson gets granular in his admiration for Roman Polanski’s classic shocker, in which a pregnant woman (Mia Farrow) begins to suspect she might be surrounded by Satan worshippers. In particular, he zeros in on a scene in which we watch Rosemary call her therapist from a phone booth.
“I remember watching the scene and being immediately struck by the distorted phone filter on the psychiatrist’s voice — and her voice had the same filter,” he said. “I was very struck by how powerful and strange it felt. There was an otherworldliness to it, and somehow it felt scary to me.”
Derrickson started by putting a similar filter on Finney’s voice when he’s talking to the Grabber’s victims on the black phone. In postproduction, though, he slightly modified that approach so the filter is applied to the dead children when they manifest. “It creates a real tactile feeling of ethereal unpresence and presence at the same time,” Derrickson said. “And all of that was the result of me thinking about the phone filter that’s in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ in that one shot.”
‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’
On the surface, there is not much linking “The Black Phone” to John Irving’s novel from 1989, in which the title character is convinced that he has a connection to God and his life is building up to a preordained event. But it inspired Derrickson when he and co-writer C. Robert Cargill were trying to figure out what to do with the characters they were adding to the original short story. “The big expansions were Gwen and adding four other kids based on kids I knew in middle school,” Derrickson said.
But then he was stumped: How would those children fit in the plot? “When I thought about ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany,’ I thought, ‘Oh, that’s it: They’re giving Finney missions,’” Derrickson said. “And when I did that, I felt, ‘OK, I know how to do this movie. I know how the structure works.’”