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Friday, June 24, 2022

‘The Black Phone’: Scott Derrickson on Unrelenting Suspense and the Harrowing Scene He Was Asked to Remove

Scott Derrickson‘s (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Doctor StrangeThe Black Phone releases in theaters today, Friday, June 24, 2022.

The adaptation of Joe Hill‘s short story, written by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, stars Ethan Hawke in a terrifying role unlike we’ve seen from him before. Hawke plays The Grabber, the masked man responsible for a string of kidnappings. The Grabber’s latest victim is Finney Shaw (Mason Thames), a shy but clever 13-year-old boy. Held hostage in the Grabber’s basement, Finney’s biggest hope for escape comes from eerie phone calls from the killer’s previous victims through a disconnected black phone.

Ahead of the film’s release, Derrickson chatted with Bloody Disgusting about creating unrelenting suspense over conventional scares, fleshing out Hill’s 20-page short story, and the most harrowing scene to film involving Gwen actress Madeleine McGraw.

The key to making The Black Phone unnerving wasn’t in jump scares but through empathy. Derrickson explained why developing a rooting interest in his characters naturally instilled terror and how he used scares to unsettle his audience further.

“I think The Black Phone is scary, but I think the better word to describe it as a primarily emotional experience for the audience; as I have watched them watch it is very suspenseful. I think the suspense is unrelenting in the movie because there is a sustained sense of the audience’s hopes and fears for these characters that they came to care about. Because the actors are so good. By the time Finney is abducted, which you know from the trailer, and separated from Gwen, you care about both of them. You care about what happens to them. You feel afraid that he’s going to suffer the same victimhood as the others. Also, anybody who knows my work knows that it could end badly. You know? That’s absolutely on the table.

(from left) Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) and Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

“So, I think that the suspenseful-ness of it and what enables the scariness of it is that there’s a real sustained sense of being afraid of what’s going to happen to them and not wanting that to happen. When you jolt the audience, they’re already there; their nerves are already afraid. You lean into that with a good jump scare or escalate it. It’s very scary when Finney gets out and gets chased by The Grabber. You know? I think that scene is really, really frightening. I find moments in it very scary, but for the most part, I think it’s a long, sustained, highly suspenseful story.

Joe Hill’s “The Black Phone” is a short story, running a mere twenty pages long. It provided fertile ground for Derrickson and Cargill to explore and flesh out its characters. One is the Grabber’s brother, Max, played by Sinister’s James Ransone.

Max provides some levity, as Ransone did in Sinister, but the character also offers some subtle subtext to the Grabber. Derrickson explained his approach to the character.

The thing that we didn’t want to do with The Grabber was to give him some backstory that tries to explain why he is the way he is. That would’ve been a terrible idea and would’ve just done nothing but obliterate the mystery of this fascinating sociopath. Instead, we liked the idea of introducing a character who even further normalizes him in his day-to-day life, the brother who shows up out of nowhere and crashes on the couch or whatever but also is obsessed with the case. Most importantly, he’s interrupting the routine of The Grabber. The routine is very methodical about how he likes to do things.”

When asked if that dynamic could be perceived as a cautionary tale parallel to Finney and Gwen’s sibling dynamic, Derrickson answered, “Everything’s a parallel. There’s a parallel between Finney and Gwen’s father and The Grabber. They both have a belt as their weapon of choice. There’s a lot of relationship between those two things. Much of that is trying to draw the connection between the common traumatic realities of childhood life, especially in that time, with what we think of as the extraordinary unthinkable traumatic experiences that befall some people. I like the idea of this extraordinary trauma, this extraordinary terror of being abducted by a sadistic killer, still has real relevance to his normal day-to-day life and the things he’s up against, the bullying, the alcoholic, abusive father, all of that.

(from left) Vance Hopper (Brady Hepner) and Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

The Black Phone deals with dark, often taboo subject matter. The concept of a child killer currently targeting his latest victim can be a touchy one. When asked how far, if at all, to push the horror, Derrickson revealed that the riskiest scene of his career had nothing to do with the Grabber.

So much so that he was asked to remove it.

“I don’t think you want to push it as far as you can. There’s a line you can cross in dealing with children. I think that probably the riskiest scene I’ve shot in my career is Gwen getting whipped by her father. That was a scene. There were some people involved in the movie who asked me to take it out, and I was like, ‘The movie won’t work without it.’ I was adamant. It’s there to show the trauma they deal with daily, but also their bond. You feel for them and how they care about each other and have each other’s back in that scene. But at the same time, there was a way to do that scene that would turn everyone off.”

(from left) Terrence Shaw (Jeremy Davies) and Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

“So, I picked the location because I knew I wanted not to see the actual whipping. I wanted the audience to feel it more than actually, see it happen. The vast majority of that happens behind the counter. You don’t see it happening. You feel it more in the performances of Jeremy Davies and his rage and what you hear from Gwen. Then when Gwen stands back up, she doesn’t get whipped again. That’s the most emotionally harrowing part of the scene. The most upsetting part of the scene, what people think of as the whipping scene, is the second scene when she’s not getting whipped, but when he’s berating her. God bless Madeline. Her performance in that scene is so truthful, so raw, and real.”

Derrickson shared that McGraw’s portrayal was so authentic that it caught Davies off guard in a scene.

“My favorite acting moment in the whole movie is when Jeremy Davies makes her say, ‘My dreams are just dreams,’ three times as she’s weeping. She says it both times in fear. Then the third time, she turns to rage and defiance. I didn’t tell her to do that. She just understood the character. She goes back into mad, and it surprises him. You can see it on Jeremy Davies’s face; he was in character too. When she does that, he’s shocked. That’s what great actors do; they surprise you.”

The Black Phone is now playing in theaters.

The post ‘The Black Phone’: Scott Derrickson on Unrelenting Suspense and the Harrowing Scene He Was Asked to Remove appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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