The juxtaposition between Scott Derrickson’s Hollywood arrival in 2000 – making Hellraiser Inferno for the Weinsteins at Dimension Films – and his latest endeavour The Black Phone for Blumhouse Productions couldn’t be any starker.
Speaking with STACK over the phone, Derrickson reflects on his time making that fifth Hellraiser instalment, perhaps one of the more underrated horror films of the time.
“You know I really love that film. It was personal in a lot of ways and it’s kind of had a nice little renaissance and people continue to discover it.” And when posed the question of how working at Dimension compared to his current tenure at Blumhouse, his response was as expected. “Oh God, they’re so different. I did a lot of script work for Dimension and I made that movie, but it was a horrible place. Bob and Harvey Weinstein were horrible people. Terrible human beings, and so I feel like I was very lucky to even get out of there alive frankly, and Jason Blum is the antithesis of that and he’s my closest friend in the business.”
In the years since his debut feature Derrickson has gone on to become a major player in Hollywood having directed films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil and Marvel’s Doctor Strange. When he stepped down from directing duties on the upcoming Doctor Strange sequel, Derrickson leapt at the chance to bring The Black Phone to life; a story he had stumbled upon over a decade prior.
“It’s a story that sends chills down one’s spine from the synopsis alone…”
Based on a short story by Joe Hill (son of the legendary Stephen King), The Black Phone tells the sinister story of a boy who is abducted by a terrifying child killer and held captive in a basement. An old disconnected black telephone mounted on the wall begins to ring and on the other end of the line are the voices of previous victims. It’s a story that sends chills down one’s spine from the synopsis alone, and Derrickson explains how the project came together.
“I read the book when it came out. I stumbled into a book store some 16 or 17 years ago, and I saw the book Twentieth Century Ghosts – an anthology of shorts – on the wall of horror books, and I read the first story standing there in the store and I thought it was amazing. I had no idea Joe Hill was Stephen King’s son, and I bought the book and I read everything in it and just thought that The Black Phone was such a great idea for a movie. And I always held on to that and I think I even optioned it from Joe at some point, maybe five or six years ago. So when I stepped off the movie I had previously been working on it seemed like the right time to make this.”
Set in the 1980s, the trailer presents a grim and harrowing tale that goes against the current wave of nostalgia that’s washing over Hollywood in titles like Stranger Things and Stephen King’s It. And while tropes like neighbourhood friends and BMX bikes do certainly feature in his film, Derrickson explains his motivation for creating an uncompromising and realistic 1980’s environment.
“I didn’t want to make a nostalgic movie. I find that most of the movies and TV shows that you see are nostalgic and not really looking back on how things actually were, but how the film industry portrays the way things were. And I really wanted to make something authentic, kind of like an American 400 Blows (Truffaut film). I grew up in this kind of violent working class neighbourhood in North Denver and experienced a lot of fear and a lot of bullying, and domestic violence, and it was a scary place to grow up. And I was talking to Cargill about it (C Robert Cargill, co-writer) and he grew up in a tough neighbourhood as well and then we got the idea to combine the specifics of the world we grew up in with Joe’s story.”
Even if you’re a casual horror fan there’s a good chance you have seen a Blumhouse movie. Having struck gold with the Paranormal Activity franchise Blumhouse Productions have gone on to produce a smorgasbord of titles, from the eerie supernatural stylings of the Insidious films to stranger outings like Happy Death Day, The Invisible Man and The Hunt. They are the company behind the dystopian horrors of The Purge series, the new Halloween trilogy, and as well as Jordan Peele’s runaway hit Get Out. And if horror wasn’t enough producer Jason Blum is also the force behind the celebrated films Whiplash, BlacKkKlansman and Split (just to scratch the surface).
Unlike the tyrannical control enforced upon creatives at Dimension, Blumhouse Pictures’ success is owed to Blum’s trust in filmmakers and faith in their creative pursuits. Elaborating on his collaboration Derrickson continues. “I’m sure every filmmaker has their own experience and in my case he is just one hundred percent supportive. He trusted me to make the movie that I wanted to make. I mean on a few occasions he told me he thought something should have been done differently and if I disagreed with him he’s say ‘okay, it’s your movie’. He never put pressure on me to do anything I didn’t want to do. What he’s good at is recognising filmmaking talent and story ideas, and he’s not a creative producer. He doesn’t think of himself that way. He is there to create the best arena for the storytellers to do their job.”
The Black Phone also reunites Derrickson with Ethan Hawke, who starred in Sinister back in 2012, and although Hawke’s creative choices as an actor have been particularly bold and unassuming in recent years, this film signifies his first actual bad guy role.
“When I offered the role to Ethan he told me that he would read that script but he was adamant that he doesn’t play villains. I guess they’re not all that interesting to him as an actor and he said that it would have to be something really remarkable for him to play such a role. So I sent him the script and then, he says while laughing, “I got a voicemail on my cell phone that night and it was him with a very menacing voice reading one of the prose lines from the script. And when I heard that I knew ‘Oh, he’s going to do it!’“.
The Black Phone will be in Australian cinemas from January 27, 2022.