Scott Derrickson on The Black Phone and Returning to His Horror Roots (Interview)

(L to R) Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and The Grabber (Ethan Hawke). Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Scott Derrickson made a name for himself in the horror genre with films including Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose. He later would direct Doctor Strange for Marvel Studios, which would go on to gross over $677 million at the global box office. The director returns to his horror roots with The Black Phone along with his longtime collaborator, C. Robert Cargill (Doctor Strange, Sinister).

The Black Phone stars Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw as siblings Finney and Gwen, respectively. Playing opposite them as The Grabber is Ethan Hawke (Marvel Studios’ Moon Knight, Training Day). Nerd Reactor interviewed Derrickson about the film and returning to his horror roots.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Nerd Reactor: With The Black Phone, what was the feeling like just coming back to the horror genre? Just finally getting back to it and trying to reach into the darkest side of your mind.

Scott Derrickson: Oh, it’s like coming home and coming home to death and dead children and mayhem and blood. Yeah, it was great. I really love the horror genre. It was nice to come back and work in the genre again. I love it.

Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

With the casting of Ethan Hawke, was that there for the very first time?

Yeah, I’ve never written a role for anybody specifically. I try to write without actors in mind because then if you don’t get them, it’s very disappointing, I would imagine. So I wrote The Grabber role and sent him the script, and I told him what it was. I said, “You probably aren’t going to want to do this. It’s a pedophile, sadist killer and he wears a mask the whole time.” And he said, “Yeah, I probably won’t. I don’t play a lot of villains. I don’t really like to play villains.” But he read it and he loved it. I think he took the mask as a challenge. He left me a voicemail, reading one of the lines from the script in the voice of The Grabber, and that’s how I knew he was going to do it. It was very exciting.

Most of the film takes place inside the basement. Was that a challenge trying to film most of it in there?

It’s very challenging anytime that you’ve got a movie that’s in a single location for so long. I worked hard on that basement and sizing it. The textures on the wall, I wanted it to be to feel ominous, but not ugly. There’s a kind of painterly beauty to it if you look at it that way, but it can also look really grungy and scary. I really worked hard to shoot it in a certain way, where sometimes it feels really huge and cavernous. And sometimes it feels really claustrophobic. And sometimes the camera’s very static in there. And sometimes there’s a lot of movement, just keeping it visually mixed up in a way that I don’t think the space ever grows tiresome for the audience, which would be very easy for it to do. That took a lot of work. There was deliberate effort put into avoiding that pitfall.

Since it’s taking place in the basement, you have to figure out ways to scare the audience. What were the challenges trying to figure out if this is a good spot to scare them?

A lot of that has to do with the timing in the scripts, like where you are in the story. Because audiences kind of get to a certain feeling of expectation at certain points in the storytelling process. So you have to play against those a little bit. But I think it was also the fact that I had five different kids to bring into the story. The ghost kids – these dead children – I wanted to bring them all in differently and uniquely in their own way. So that gave me a lot of fresh opportunities throughout the story to not be repetitive. They’re each on the phone, but then there’s something unique about each one of them at the same time. And going into the flashbacks, of course, all of that. I had a lot of material to break it up with.

For the two leads, what was that like finding them? I bet you struck gold with that. They were great and very charming, and you root for them.

I really did strike gold with those two. You can spend years looking for young actresses and actors that are that good and not find them. And both Mason and Madeleine are extraordinary. They’re probably the two best actors I’ve worked with at their age. I worked with Lulu Wilson, as well. She’s still very good.

But in the case of Mason, Mason wasn’t in New York or LA. He’s never done a feature film before. He was, I think, living in Texas and just did an amazing audition. The self tape that made its way all the way to the casting director. And she showed it to me, and I did several online – it was the height of COVID – auditions with them and working with them. I just realized this is a really special kid. His ability to emotionally process a scene as you’re shooting – to emotionally process exactly what’s happening for the character – and to do it with truthful facial expressions and utterances. You can’t teach it. It’s a knack that you either have or you don’t have. And boy, does he have it. The reservoir of raw talent there is extraordinary. I think he’s gonna be a movie star. I think he’s gonna have a really huge career. He’s a really good-looking kid, and he’s got the kind of talent that very few even professional actors have. I think he’ll have a giant career.

And Madeleine McGraw was so good. As soon as I saw [her audition tapes], I said, “Don’t show me anybody else.” I knew it was her. She was so good. She understood the character so well, and I even moved the production for her because her Disney show, which is shut down for COVID, came back up in the fall when we were going to shoot. I was told “You got to recast Madeleine McGraw because she’s got to finish her Disney show.” I was like, “I’m not recasting her. We’re going to move the production.” So I moved it to January.

About The Black Phone

Finney Shaw, 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.

The film stars Ethan Hawke, Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw. It’s directed by Scott Derrickson and co-written by C. Robert Cargill and Derrickson, based on the short story by Joe Hill from his New York Times bestseller 20th Century Ghosts. The film is produced by Derrickson & Cargill’s Crooked Highway and presented by Universal and Blumhouse. Jason Blum, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill are producers, which is executive produced by Ryan Turek and Christopher H. Warner.

The Black Phone hits U.S. theaters on June 24, 2022.

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