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How Real-Life and Fictional Horror Seeped Into ‘The Black Phone’


After scoring a success with the Marvel movie “Doctor Strange” in 2016, the director Scott Derrickson began working on its sequel, “Doctor Strange within the Multiverse of Madness.” In January 2020, nonetheless, he abruptly left that movie due to creative differences.

For his next film, he began with a brief story by Joe Hill, which he layered with autobiographical material. “I had been in therapy for a few years, coping with lots of childhood trauma issues,” Derrickson, 55, said in a video interview.

The result’s “The Black Phone,” out on Friday, during which Derrickson and Ethan Hawke reunite 10 years after their collaboration within the terrifying horror movie “Sinister.” Now Hawke plays the Grabber, a masked psychopath who kidnaps and kills children in 1978 Colorado. Until, that’s, he sets his sights on the resourceful 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames), who gets unexpected help from the Grabber’s previous victims — their ghosts communicate tasks for survival via a derelict landline — and his own sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw).

Considering how personal the film is to Derrickson, it comes as little surprise to listen to him start off along with his own story when asked to list five influences on “The Black Phone.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

“The Black Phone” is ready in North Denver, where Derrickson grew up. “It was a working-class, sort of blue-collar neighborhood, half-Mexican, half-white,” he said. “There was lots of violence — everybody got whipped by their parents, there was fighting on the technique to school, on the best way home from school, at college.”

Within the film, Finney is at all times on edge: His dad has a temper when drunk, and there are all these mysterious disappearances. “I believe I used to be 8 or 9 years old when my friend round the corner knocked on the door,” Derrickson said. “He was crying and he said, ‘Someone murdered my mom.’ His mother had been abducted and raped and killed and wrapped in phone wire — I keep in mind that detail — and thrown within the local lake,” he continued. “So the serial killer who could just grab you out of nowhere was an actual thing for us in that neighborhood. That was at all times within the air.”

François Truffaut’s debut feature retraces much of his upbringing — via a cinematic alter ego portrayed by the 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud — in a way that’s warm yet also devoid of sentimentality. “The primary idea I had was to take lots of the traumatic events of my childhood and check out to make a sort of American ‘400 Blows,’” Derrickson said. “It’s a movie for adults about children that I wouldn’t describe as nostalgic — that’s a extremely interesting technique to approach one’s own childhood experience as a filmmaker.”

And yet Derrickson was also keen to indicate that fortitude is tough to snuff out. “It’s a extremely wonderful picture and one way or the other as bleak because it is, it also shows the resilience of youngsters,” he said. “There’s lots of joy in that movie, too. Whilst this kid keeps getting blow after blow, his spirit could be very strong. And I believe that shows in each Finney and Gwen.”

Derrickson is a large fan of Guillermo del Toro’s supernatural horror film, which is ready in an orphanage in 1939 Spain, and he initially brings up the best way it visually represented ghost children, in addition to the communal relationship between the orphans. “From a storytelling viewpoint, it was a extremely influential movie on me,” Derrickson said.

But he also picked up suggestions from the commentary the Mexican filmmaker recorded for the movie’s DVD release. “One in all the things that Guillermo del Toro says in that commentary is that when he casts a baby actor, he makes sure that the kid can imitate him, and this has been so helpful to me,” Derrickson said. “For those who’re giving them a direction and it’s just not working, you have to find a way to do it for them and have them just do it back for you the very same way.”

Derrickson gets granular in his admiration for Roman Polanski’s classic shocker, during which a pregnant woman (Mia Farrow) begins to suspect she may be surrounded by Devil worshipers. Particularly, he zeros in on a scene during which we watch Rosemary call her therapist from a phone booth.

“I remember watching the scene and being immediately struck by the distorted phone filter on the psychiatrist’s voice — and her voice had the identical filter,” he said. “I used to be very struck by how powerful and strange it felt. There was an otherworldliness to it and one way or the other it felt scary to me.”

Derrickson began by putting an identical filter on Finney’s voice when he’s talking to the Grabber’s victims on the black phone. In postproduction, though, he barely modified that approach so the filter is applied to the dead children after they manifest. “It creates an actual tactile feeling of ethereal unpresence and presence at the identical time,” Derrickson said. “And all of that was the results of me occupied with the phone filter that’s in ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ in that one shot.”

On the surface, there isn’t much linking “The Black Phone” to John Irving’s novel from 1989, during which the title character is convinced that he has a connection to God and his life is build up to a preordained event. But it surely inspired Derrickson when he and co-writer C. Robert Cargill were attempting to work out what to do with the characters they were adding to the unique short story. “The large expansions were Gwen and adding 4 other kids based on kids I knew in middle school,” Derrickson said.

But then he was stumped: How would those children fit within the plot? “Once I thought of ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany,’ I believed, ‘Oh, that’s it: They’re giving Finney missions,’ ” Derrickson said. “And once I did that, I felt, ‘OK, I do know learn how to do that movie. I know the way the structure works.’ ”

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