Sinister hits theaters on October 12th. Ethan Hawke, James Ranson and Juliet Rylance all star in this super creepy film from Exorcism of Emily Rose director Scott Derrickson.
In the film, Ethan Hawk plays Ellison, a true crime novelist whose glory days are behind him (one hit and two flops in ten years). His past successes enable and embolden his pursuit of future triumphs, while his current failures have eroded his finances and the strength of his family unit. Not to mention the fact that he’s just moved them into a very recent crime scene.
While Brad’s review was mixed, I found a lot to like in the film. To that end, I hopped on the phone with Derrickson a few weeks back to discuss his approach to creating what will soon be known as the film’s signature moments. We also discussed the motivations that keep Hawke’s character in the house (and we touch upon Sinister‘s sly reference to a certain 1988 Dennis Quaid movie – though you’ll have to figure out what that moment is for yourself).
Head inside to check it out!
So I saw the movie again last week and I keep coming back to the imagery in it. I almost feel like a lot of it shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s rare that those kind of moments stir me at all, but they did here. So I want to talk about how you crafted them.
It depends on the specific moment, of course. But There’s always a synergistic kind of thing going on in film. I think that the tone of this movie overall and the disturbing qualities of the film – the things that make it scary – have a lot to do with the fact that I try to find images, moments and subject matter that I find genuinely scary. I have to think it’s genuinely disturbing first.
When I came across the Anneliese Michel case that The Exorcism Of Emily Rose was based on, I found it incredibly disturbing. It was deeply troubling for me, reading that particular case because I found it so confounding. And when I listened to the actual exorcism tapes they genuinely bothered me. That’s probably the reason I took it on and made the movie.
In this case, the idea behind the movie was [C. Robert] Cargill’s. I was drawn to it but my immediate reaction wasn’t, “oh that’s so cool!” I found it genuinely troubling and that’s why I connected to it. I think “excited” is the wrong term, but I responded so strongly to it that I wanted to pursue it. I have a fair amount of joy in my life and I try to live my life in a meaningful way, but I appreciate it when something pushes me to consider how disturbing the world is. I suppose that’s the long answer behind my motive. I think a lot of horror directors aren’t scared by the material they are working with, they’re just having fun thinking they can manipulate the audience.
To get more into the specifics of the film, there are things in the script that are conceptually frightening. But I think that creating the Super 8 imagery before shooting the body of the film – along with finding the music that I found – had a lot to do with the overall impact of the whole film. Those elements set a tone in my mind that represented what the movie was going to feel like. I bought 9 music tracks ahead of time and shot the Super 8 films to those tracks. And then Chris Young had to build his score around those tracks. In some ways I think buying that music early on was the wisest move I made when making the film. I can’t imagine what the movie would be without them.
The Pool Party scene is one of the most unsettling moments in the film. You linger on that scene’s final shot of Mr. Boogie longer than most filmmakers would, it’s almost luxurious. Were you ever inclined to show less?
You do get a good look at him! I think it was important to get a good look at him at that moment so it didn’t feel like we were cheating when Ethan couldn’t get a good look at him later. That was part of it. I also think the boldness to show Mr. Boogie just came out of the fact that it ended up looking so cool. He is really scary looking! When I shot it I didn’t have a particular idea of how long I was going to hold on it. That was more of an editorial choice than a choice I made on set.
In the editing room it just felt that the entire weight of the movie rested on this figure and we had this image that was quite chilling. And over time I was thinking, “well it’s fine that we see him so clearly here. Because for a while after that a lot of the images of him are obscured or are taken at a distance.” That’s the longest single look of him we get in the whole movie. And you’re not expecting a good clean look that soon.
Shooting the Super 8 stuff, was it just you and a small skeleton crew?
Not for that shot because it involved a very dangerous stunt. We actually pulled those people into the water strapped to their chairs! We had two divers in the water in case someone got stuck. It was a complicated thing. We gave Mr. Boogie weighted shoes and had him standing there at the bottom of the pool with a slit in his mask so we could put a respirator in. He’s just standing down there in the deep end of the pool.
Moving onto the main body of the film, I want to talk about the relationship between Ethan and Juliet [Rylance]. He’s a likable guy, but his career has taken a toll on them. A lot of the second act centers on this back and forth between them, but it feels organic rather than repetitive.
I think that’s pretty atypical for horror films, to take the family drama as seriously as I did. For me, I relate a lot to Ethan’s character and to his flaws. I was trying to create a character who had a lot of the same flaws as I have, but they are really getting in the way of his life. It was a way for me personally to work out things I was feeling at the time. I don’t judge that character but, in many ways, he’s the guy I don’t want to be.
The core of that character is fear. And my favorite thing about the movie, my very favorite thing, is not just the logic of why he doesn’t leave the house earlier, but what that reason for that is. As scary as these Super 8 movies are, and as crazy as the sh*t happening in his house is, Ellison’s fear of losing his status is even bigger than that. His fear of not mattering trumps his fear of the paranormal. And that’s what got Ethan to do the movie. He understood that this was a real guy. He understood that I wanted these family dynamics to be really truthful and real. And he’s the one who recommended Juliet. He had seen her in the Sam Mendes Shakespeare trilogy.
So, together, they took those scenes very seriously. The contribution that I made to their performances was to minimize coverage. Some of their best scenes are in single shots. It lets them get into an energy and into a flow. There’s something dynamic happening that you can lose when you’re chopping it up into a bunch of different shots.
The way he lies to his wife is pretty great. “No, we didn’t move into a house two houses down from [a crime scene].”
And when she busts him it’s great. It’s the biggest laugh in the movie, and I think the laughter in that comes from the insanity of what we all do. We’ve all been there, sadly, just making the most ridiculous excuses for the bad things that we’ve done, and we believe them in the moment.
So many people who move out to LA literally put themselves through 10 years of stress and poverty in service of their ambition. And I imagine that’s the same in other industries, so I think that Ethan’s character is relatable in that regard.
That’s exactly right. And also the fact that after supernatural things have started happening, when he’s asking the deputy about the history of the house, he makes it clear that he doesn’t believe in any of that stuff. Psychologically it was important to me that all of the decisions he makes make perfect sense, and I think they do. I don’t think he ever considers for a moment leaving that house.
The ending is pretty thorough on its follow-through. Was there any pushback from anyone on that? Did anyone ask you to soften it up?
There was studio interest in the movie, but I would have had to change the ending. There was one studio head who loved it and wanted to buy it but said I had to change it. And, to me, the ending is the whole point. Even though it’s bleak I think it’s very satisfying.
We test screened the movie and at the focus group the first question was, “how did you like the movie?” And when everyone raised their hands I knew the ending worked. No one had a problem with it, they all got it. The movie is about a Faustian bargain. When Ethan realizes that he’s got a box full of serialized, ritualized murders and calls the police – that’s the right impulse. But the moment his fate is sealed is when he looks at “Kentucky Blood” [his character's decade-old bestselling book] and hangs up the phone. Instead he decides to do all of this himself.
So for the ending to be anything other than what it is would be a great disservice to the audience. If you wrap it all up nicely you emasculate the movie. You rob it of its significance and cut it off at the knees.
His character has also strayed from what made him successful. He built his career on finding things the police missed, not denying them access to it.
Exactly. And I like the fact that he’s so stuck in the past. It’s so pathetic to see him sitting there looking at all of those old videotapes of himself. At the same time, we all sit there and f*cking google ourselves. There’s something very wrong with him that is also wrong with the world. And wrong with me. And, without being preachy, the film still has good moral ideas at work in it. Not in a way that the movie is trying to teach you anything, it’s simply revealing some basic truths about the way we are.
And you’ve got the 1988 DOA reference which I was happy to get right.
I can’t believe you got that! I’m really stunned. I never expected anybody, especially early on, to get that reference. I not only love that movie, but it was influential on me. I was in high school when it came out and I kept going back to the theater and re-watching it. There was something really special about that movie to me. I can still play the whole thing in my head.