Interview – Scott Derrickson, director of ‘The Black Phone’, on how the horrors of his own childhood helped form this terrifying thriller

Finney, a shy but clever 13-year-old boy, is abducted by a sadistic killer and trapped
in a soundproof basement where screaming is of little use. When a disconnected phone on
the wall begins to ring, Finney discovers that he can hear the voices of the killer’s previous
victims. And they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen
to Finney.

To celebrate the Australian release of The Black Phone – in cinemas July 21 – the awesome team at Universal Pictures gave me the opportunity to attend a roundtable with the film’s director, Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange, Sinister) to chat about injecting his own life story into the film, expanding on Joe Hill’s short story and what it takes to scare an audience in 2022!

Nick: I’m very interested in the screenplay side of things! With The Black Phone being based on Joe Hill’s short story, what were some of the key elements or plot points that yourself and C. Robert Cargill (co-screenwriter) added into the screenplay that expanded on Joe’s story?

Scott: Well, I mean, the main thing that we expanded was that in the short story, there was one ghost that calls in the phone – we’ve got five. The sister, Gwen (Madeline McGraw), who I think is an older sister, and not much dealt with in the short story, she becomes really the soul of the movie. And the father and seeing more of his home life.

The expansion of that was, I think, really born out of my desire to tell a story that drew on my own childhood, you know. Before I had decided to make The Black Phone, I was thinking about making a movie that was really rooted in my own childhood memories. Something like an American version of The 400 Blows. I grew up in North Denver, I was 12 in 1978. And, you know, my home life and neighbourhood life were not– it was very much what you see on screen. It’s, sort of, a working class, blue collar, pretty violent, both in home and out of home environment. There was a lot of fear of serial killers. Think about that era, and especially in North Denver in 1978, the Manson murders had happened. Not long before that, Ted Bundy had come through Colorado, killed a bunch of women and then was arrested and escaped in Colorado. You know, Halloween had come out.

And also, a personal anecdote, my next door neighbour, my friend who lived next door when I was nine years old, knocked on my door. I answered it, and he said, somebody murdered my mom. And his mother had been abducted and raped and wrapped in phone cord and thrown in a local lake. The presence of the ominous serial killer, who could take you from your bed or take you on the way to school was just a very real thing for those of us, you know, that age in 1978, Denver, it just was a real thing. I think a lot of the desire I had was to tell a story in that environment. And then when I thought about merging it with Joe’s short story, which I always thought was a great idea for a horror film, I just always thought it was such a unique story. That’s really how The Black Phone became what it is, it was the merging of those two things.

You have some very young actors in some very intense scenes in this film, how is that for you as a director? Do you work with young actors and actresses when they are heading into such intense scene like we see in this film?

Scott: It’s a really good question. I mean, I think it starts with the casting process, you know, you’ve got to find kids capable of doing that. And for me, the vetting process for hiring child actors is also vetting their parents and making sure that these are kids with stable parents and have stable home lives. That they’re going to be properly supported. I wouldn’t want to put any children through a Hollywood production or let alone sort of set them loose into the Hollywood landscape as a career if they didn’t have good parental support. So, that’s always important to me.

But when it comes then to the shooting process, the first thing I do is I sort of give them forewarning about the scenes that I know are going to be demanding, you know? I talked to Madeline (McGraw, Gwen) about the whipping scene quite a few times. And I talked to Jeremy Davies about it as well. We just talked about what that was going to be and what she needed to be prepared to do. The same thing with Mason, he has a long crying scene when he comes out of the freezer, and I told him you’ve got to really cry, you got to really be there emotionally.

I think a lot of it is giving them a little forewarning and creating a safe space for them so that they can feel like they’re safe to go into those places. I also just talked to them like adults, you know? In terms of the directing and being very specific about why this is happening. This is what the emotional condition is, these are the kinds of things I think this character is feeling and processing in the scene. And in my experience, child actors can handle sophisticated emotional directions as well as adults can! They really understand it, they have big feelings, they understand the things that they feel most of the time. And if you do that, and you’ve really protected them, and made them feel safe on set, they’ll do amazing things for you.

The best thing about working with child actors is they’re just so truthful about what they represent. The whipping scene in The Black Phone is probably the hardest thing to watch. But I also think that probably the most extraordinary acting moment in that whole movie comes from this nine-year-old girl in the back half of that scene. What she does is so honest, and so real, and so truthful. When it was over, she was giggling and having a great time. You know, she’s an actress. She’s good at that.

(from left) The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) and Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

Audiences today are getting more ‘horror-savvy’ because they have seen many films about possession or serial killers. What does it take to scare the audience in 2022, compared to 5 or 10 years ago?

Scott: I think there are some tricks that that have gotten tired. It’s harder to pull off a jump scare than it used to be, for sure. That’s really just craftsmanship, though. I think what audiences require now is, in my experience, is some kind of newness. You know, the movies that I see really connecting with audiences have a fresh perspective on something. And I think it’s been a lot of more high art directors that have been doing that successfully. I look at Hereditary, you know, or The Witch, which scared the hell out of me. You know, I felt like I was contaminated with evil for a few days after I saw that movie. It Follows!

These are all really interesting, sophisticated art films that are also very, very scary. And I think those are the movies that have had the most influence. And I think on populace front, audiences again are looking for an angle, or a point of view that we haven’t had. In the case of The Black Phone, I think what’s really unique about it as a horror film is easy to miss. And it was easy to miss even in the short story and it because I don’t think I recognised that at first. I just felt like: ‘God, this would make a great movie’. And when I asked myself: ‘why do I feel so strongly about this being a good film?’ I realised this short story combines a serial killer story with a paranormal ghost story. I’ve never seen that done effectively.

You know, it’s a very simple thing. But it just did it so effortlessly and so effectively. I almost didn’t realise that he had combined what are typically two very different horror genres, you know, into one basement. I think that having a fresh angle on it really matters. I think the era of North Denver in the late 70s helps with the authenticity of it. So, in the end, I think a component of that combined with characters that you care about, it always comes back to that. You can make a very traditional slasher movie, without anything being that unique. But, if you really care about the characters, you can scare the audience. In the end, that’s the most important thing.

Thank you to Universal Pictures for giving me the chance to chat with Scott Derrickson! The Black Phone has advanced screenings from July 15-17, before officially releasing in Australian cinemas July 21.

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Nick L'Barrow
Nick L'Barrow
Nick is a Brisbane-based film/TV reviewer. He gained his following starting with his 60 second video reviews of all the latest releases on Instagram (@nicksflicksfix), before launching a monthly podcast with Peter Gray called Monthly Movie Marathon. Nick contributes to Novastream with interviews and reviews for the latest blockbusters.

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