Horror film, Sinister starring Ethan Hawke is opening to good buzz. Directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), it follows Hawke’s novelist as he investigates the deaths of the family who previously lived in his house. The film uses the idea of ‘found footage’, but weaves it into a conventional story narrative. I had the opportunity to quiz the film’s co-writer, C. Robert Cargill (Ain’t It Cool’s Massawyrm) about the challenges of writing a film in the horror genre, how being a critic is helpful during the writing process and more.
Horror is a tricky genre to get right. For every classic, there must be at least ten terrible efforts. How do you work on getting it right, and how do you avoid the pitfalls of getting it wrong?
You focus on what scares people. Bad horror movies usually rely on things they’ve seen scare people before. Great horror movies get to the core of why something is scary and then extrapolate that fear, applying it to something we haven’t necessarily seen before. Great horror exists in its ideas and its characters. Get those right and you’re on your way to being the former rather than the latter.
In a horror film there are certain conventions (and clichés), do you go out of your way to avoid these or do you openly embrace some?
Avoid. Always avoid. You should embrace the basic rules and structure of the type of horror you’re making – what the audience is expecting – but then go out of your way to avoid the tricks they’ve seen before. In our movie, for example, it’s okay that we’re creeping around alone in a dark house. That’s what the audience paid to see. But we made sure nothing appeared behind someone in a mirror only to disappear when they turned around. That gag was only scary once.
Where did the idea for the film come from?
A nightmare. I watched The Ring after a long night of work and took a nap when I shouldn’t have. I dreamed about finding a box of Super 8 films in my attic. I spooled one of the films into the projector and what played was now the opening shot of the movie. That haunted me for years and I eventually realized it might make an interesting movie.
Home movies play an important part in Sinister. Is this connected to your love of film – the power of movies?
In part. There’s a lot of meta ideas Scott and I wove into the story – but chiefly it was the idea of those films and what was on them that drove it.
How do you keep a horror film grounded in reality?
You have to make sure the audience understands the motivations of its characters, even if they disagree with them. Meanwhile, you need to lay down a set of metaphysical ground rules and stick to them all the way through. No cheating. Audiences hate that.
How did you write the script with Scott Derrickson? Did it exist before he came on board, or was it a collaboration from the get go.
The idea and pitch was mine, but the script didn’t exist until Scott and I wrote it together. While what is on screen is definitely my pitch, almost word for word, there is so much there that is Scott’s and didn’t exist until he came along. Scott and I live in different parts of the country on completely different schedules, so writing went much faster than normal as we passed the script back and forth, working on it almost 24 hours a day. We do a lot of phone calls and skype sessions, then just churn and burn for days at a time, tearing through pages, revising one another, and making a call whenever he hit a hiccup. We work together insanely well. We went from pitch to completed script in 5 weeks.
Is there a big leap writing about film (on AICN) to writing a film – or have your years of being a film critic helped?
It’s not really that big a leap. You spend most of your time thinking about logic, characters and payoff – which is what a good critic is thinking about most of the time as well. Being a critic means having years of experience arguing what works and what doesn’t – being able to cite examples. That comes in really handy when ironing out problems in a draft.
Ethan Hawke is an actor who has moved through many genres, although never really horror – what did he bring to the film?
Soul and charisma. Ellison is a thoroughly unlikable character on the page. He’s interesting, but a real bastard after all is said and done. Ethan makes you want to root for him, even when he’s doing the wrong thing. He brought his indie drama A-game to something people might easily write off as B-movie genre fodder and elevated it at every turn.
Who are your inspirations for writing horror? What films in the genre do you like? What films do you dislike?
Carpenter and King. Those guys have told stories that play to the masses, but often have a lot more going on for the critically minded. I like simple, scary horror that plays around with solid, clean ideas. I tend to dislike horror that loses itself by ignoring its own rules, or by being so far up its own ass that it forgets it is telling a story. Generally, if a horror film ends with you asking “what the hell was that even about?” there is a good chance it isn’t my thing. I like my horror to be accessible. It’s hard to be scared about something that doesn’t make any sense. I want a film’s ideas to linger in the mind, not exist only in the moment you’re watching it.
What’s it like seeing something you have worked on as a script appear on screen? Especially when it’s getting good buzz like Sinister?
Surreal. Positively surreal. I’m still having a hard time processing it. I’m just happy people aren’t telling me that it’s over before it has started – that I’ve so ruined my credibility that I can’t even review movies anymore. With that worry out of the way, everything else is just gravy.
How do you feel about any changes that have been made to the film on its transition from page to screen. As a director, is Scott Derrickson’s vision any different from when he is a writer?
We made a better film than we wrote a script. That’s how I feel. Scott writes with a mind toward directing. There are several times in which he says “Trust me, it will be awesome on the screen.” He was always right when he said that.
As a writer it’s easy to get stuck in one genre, is horror something that you are happy to stick with, or would you like to try other genres?
I’m a genre writer, but not a specific genre writer. I’d be happy being able to stick around and write anything anyone will let me. But right now we have a choice and we’re playing around in other genres. But we’ll be back to horror eventually. No doubt about that.
What are you working on at the minute, film wise?
A number of projects, none close enough to announcing for me to say. Hopefully that will change very shortly.