After making Sinister and Deliver Us From Evil, Scott Derrickson made the leap to big, big budget filmmaking for Marvel’s Doctor Strange. After that, it was back to lower budget horror films for The Black Phone. It sounds like a bit of filmmaking whiplash there, right? According to Derrickson, it was in a sense, but no matter the budget, there is one similarity that all of his films share.
The Black Phone takes place in a small town in Denver in the 1970s where kids are disappearing. The culprit is dubbed “The Grabber” and eventually, Mason Thames’ Finney becomes his next target. The Grabber locks Finney in a soundproof basement, seemingly cutting him off from everyone who can help him, but little does The Grabber know, Finney has a very tenacious sister (Madeleine McGraw) and he’s also got the ability to communicate with The Grabber’s past victims using a disconnected phone on the wall.
In celebration of The Black Phone’s debut, I got the chance to chat with Derrickson about his experience making the film. We began by digging into what it was like making the move from a $200 million Marvel movie back to a smaller, far more contained horror film. Here’s what he said: “From the heart, I had an amazing experience working on Doctor Strange, but when you’re making a movie that size for Marvel, you really are working with Kevin Feige. You’re really co-making the movie with him and there’s a lot of people giving influence into the process. I felt very supported making that movie. I made the movie I wanted to make, but it’s different than when you’re talking about a smaller contained horror film because then you really function like an auteur. It’s all on you, and Jason Blum is the greatest producer. On both Sinister and this movie, all he did was just say, ‘Whatever you need.
Make the movie you want to make,’ and so it was all up to me and in both cases, I made exactly the film I wanted to make. The funny thing about it though is that Sinister was $3 million, this movie was $18 [million], Doctor Strange was over $200 million; they’re all the same! You never have enough time or money. [Laughs] You always have the same problem.” Even if that was a challenge for Derrickson on The Black Phone, you can’t tell! Not only does it appear as though Derrickson and his team made the most of every penny they had, but it also feels as though they made the most of every single second of screen time while keeping the film at a lean one hour and 42 minutes. The Black Phone is largely Finney’s story, and Derrickson and his writing partner, C. Robert Cargill, stick to it by leaving much of The Grabber’s backstory a mystery.
The duo essentially hit the optimal balance between sparking curiosity without leaving the viewing wanting and using that mystery to up the terror. How exactly did Derrickson figure out if he was on the right track in that sense? When asked if test screenings came in handy, Derrickson admitted he did receive notes asking for more information on The Grabber, but he insisted on not addressing them: “We did test screening and a lot of the test screening audiences said, ‘We’d like to know more about The Grabber,’ and so there was some pressure put on to me to write some more about The Grabber and I refused. I said, ‘I want them to want to know more about The Grabber. I want them to feel that way. But trust me, if I give them more, The Grabber will not be as scary.’ I mean, how scary would The Joker be in Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight if we actually explained exactly how he did get his scars? If we did that, he’d be less scary.
If we explained why Hannibal Lecter eats people, he would be less scary. And so I think with these antisocial really aggressive, really bizarre, fascinating villains, there’s mystery to evil and keeping it mysterious as to why they do the extreme things that they do allows the audience to infer possibilities and to think for themselves, and keeping it mysterious just makes them more frightening.”