By MICHAEL GINGOLD
With THE BLACK PHONE, director/co-writer Scott Derrickson returns to the suburban terror territory he mined so well in SINISTER. Reteaming with Blumhouse, he and co-scripter C. Robert Cargill deliver an evocative and scary adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story–though as Derrickson reveals in our interview, he drew from elements of his own past as well.
Released by Universal, and reviewed here, THE BLACK PHONE is set in 1978 in North Denver, which is being plagued by a mysterious serial child kidnapper/killer known as the Grabber (Ethan Hawke). 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) becomes his latest victim, abducted and imprisoned in the villain’s basement, where the titular device becomes his only link to presences that might help him survive. Meanwhile, his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) becomes determined to find Finney, guided by dreams that give her clues to his situation. Co-starring Jeremy Davies as the siblings’ abusive father, THE BLACK PHONE succeeds as both a horror film and a drama about the more typical perils of childhood.
Out of all Joe Hill’s stories, what was it about “The Black Phone” that especially resonated with you?
I’ve read a lot of Joe’s work. I read this story when it was first published, and it always stuck in my head as a movie. The first thing about it is something that’s so kind of brilliant it’s easy to miss, which is, it combines a serial-killer story with a ghost story. I had never seen that effectively done before, let alone in one contained environment, in a basement. Really, really brilliant. But it was also the fact that Joe has a unique ability to take on the grimmest of subject matters–I mean, what could be grimmer than a sadistic child killer who tortures and kills his victims and has abducted a new one? That’s terrible. But somehow he was able to write that story with empathy and love, and I really felt for Finney in that story, and a point of view of love through the whole thing that kept it from being too oppressive. It felt like there was kind of hopefulness there.
There’s a lot of violence toward children in THE BLACK PHONE, from both the Grabber and other kids, so how did you deal with that?
I always thought about trying to turn Joe’s story into a movie, but I never knew how to expand it. And when I was in preproduction on the sequel to DOCTOR STRANGE [on which he was originally attached as director], I had been in therapy for three years, dealing mostly with my own traumatic childhood and the violence I experienced. I lived in a violent neighborhood, there was violence in my household; my primary emotional memory of childhood is fear. And so, taking on the bullying, taking on the abuse in the house, were very personal to me, as I experienced a lot of those things. The idea was to create, as Joe’s story did, even greater empathy for Finney and for this new character of the younger sister, Gwen, and for the fact that they’re dealing with their own “monsters” before the real monster shows up and takes Finney.
The entire story is really about the trauma of childhood, and I think childhood is traumatic for everybody; you don’t have to have a violent history like I do, but being a kid is hard, and there’s something traumatic about the things that happen to us as kids that we all sort of live with for the rest of our lives. And yet, children are so resilient, you know? And THE BLACK PHONE is about that as well. So I felt very good about being truthful to my own experience in trying to put those things on screen.
The short story takes place at an unidentified time; was setting the movie in 1978 a matter of making it more autobiographical, or were there other motivations for that?
No, it wasn’t so much about making it autobiographical, it was more about wanting to create an emotionally truthful setting, with emotionally real characters living in Finney’s world. For me, the only way to do that was to try to really recapture what that time and place felt like, in the late ’70s. A lot of the kids around Finney and Gwen were based on real kids that I knew. Some of the lines that Robin Arellano has are word for word things I remember the kid that he’s based on saying to me. So it was much more about trying to establish a kind of emotional power.
The reconception of the Grabber from the short story to screen is similar to that of Norman Bates in PSYCHO, from Robert Bloch’s book to Hitchcock’s movie. In both cases, the villain is described as this kind of overweight slob on the page, but that’s changed in the films. What went into reconceiving the Grabber for the movie?
I think that when Cargill and I wrote the first draft, we kept in that overweight guy, and when we finished the script and I started thinking about casting the role, what I realized was… There was no mask in Joe’s story, so the innovation of the Grabber’s three masks that divide up into pieces was all added–some in the scripting, and even more in preproduction. But when it became clear how much the masks were going to play in the movie, I realized I needed an actor with a voice that could cut through the simple scariness of the masks and really come to life. And Ethan Hawke has one of the greatest voices–just the range of it; he can speak very lightly and very high, and very naturally, and he can also be very deep and growly. So that was the starting point, and it was more about prioritizing the voice and manner of the Grabber over his physicality. And then when Ethan read the script and said he wanted to do it, I jettisoned the idea of him being fat, and it just made more sense to me. And in fact, we went in the opposite direction, because Ethan just happened to show up in immaculate shape, because I think he’d just gotten in shape for THE NORTHMAN.
Mason Thames is terrific in the movie, and it’s his first role in a feature film. How did you find him?
We found him just in time. I looked at hundreds of kids, and we searched for many months. We sort of struck out with all the agencies in LA and New York, and didn’t find anybody I thought would be able to carry the movie, so they started doing cattle calls at public schools and that sort of thing. And they found Mason, I believe in Texas; the casting director had been sending me different self-tapes for months, and sent me Mason’s, and I was like, OK, this kid’s definitely got something. But he’d never made a feature before, and was very inexperienced, so I did a number of callback auditions over Zoom with him, where I would really direct him and ask him to do things.
And as I was in that process, I started to see that this kid is a bottomless well of raw talent. He has a gift that very few actors, even adult professional actors, have, which is the ability to truthfully and emotionally process every moment, one shot at a time, without overacting. It’s in his eyes and in his countenance, and his ability to do that in an honest, real way is something you can’t teach. So once I realized what a talent he was, I knew that I would have to work with him more than anyone else, probably, because of his inexperience. He needed quite a bit of direction to really know what he was doing, but when I cut the whole movie together and I saw his performance, he was flawless. He does not miss a single beat, which for a child performance is quite a thing to say.
Madeleine McGraw is also terrific as Gwen, and has a much longer résumé. How did you cast her, and is her new character of Gwen based on anyone you knew in childhood?
She’s not. There’s an older sister mentioned in “The Black Phone,” the short story, but she’s not much of a character, and Gwen is not part of my history. Once we made this leap into the process of combining my upbringing and childhood with “The Black Phone,” I realized, I’ve got a cast of all guys. And I also felt that because of that, it was not just that we needed a girl in the movie–it wasn’t any kind of representation issue that was driving that feeling, though I think that’s important–it was that the movie needed a soul at its center, and Gwen is the soul of THE BLACK PHONE. And making her a 9-year-old girl, with the strength and resilience and humor and intelligence and giftedness that she has… She’s a young girl in a world of older boys and men, and she is the strongest and most willful character, and the most active one, really. I’m very proud of that, because she kind of steals the movie.
When casting her, I was seeing a bunch of callback tapes by different actresses that were being sent to me, and when they sent me Madeleine’s, the audition scene she did was her talking to the police officers, and it was exactly like it is in the movie. When I saw that, I was just blown away, I was like, oh, she gets every beat, and I laughed so hard at the end of the scene. She had the strength and resilience and yet the sweetness and kindness, all present right there; she understood the character. I did some callback auditions with her as well, but that just confirmed what I had seen in her first tape.
I felt so strongly about Madeleine that I moved the entire production for her. We were supposed to shoot in the fall, and she was on a Disney series [SECRETS OF SULPHUR SPRINGS] that had shut down for COVID and then ramped back up. And I got a message that we would lose her for the rest of the fall to finish that show. So I called Jason Blum and said, “We have to move the production. I’m not making the movie without this kid. She has to be Gwen.” Jason thought I was crazy; he was like, “You really want to move to January?” and I said, “I do.” And to his credit, he let me do it.
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