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Scott Derrickson talks 'The Black Phone' mask origins, Halloween Horror Nights, and killer backstories
The Black Phone is one of the biggest horror hits of the year. Will there be sequels or prequels that explore the Grabber's backstory?
Even with a few months left to go in 2022, one of the biggest horror success stories of the year is undoubtedly going to be The Black Phone (streaming now on Peacock). Not only did the film earn more than $150 million worldwide, but it also marked director Scott Derrickson's triumphant return to theatrical releases, his first since 2016's Doctor Strange.
His new horror/thriller pitted two resourceful siblings against the fictional "Grabber," a serial child abductor haunting Denver in 1978. As an expanded adaptation of Joe Hill's story of the same name, The Black Phone also reunited Derrickson with his Sinister collaborators, Ethan Hawke, and screenwriter, C. Robert Cargill.
As with most horror successes, audiences have already been asking for more. Perhaps a prequel to learn more about the origins of "The Grabber," or a sequel continuing the story of Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) and Finney (Mason Thames)? SYFY WIRE got on the phone with Derrickson to get his thoughts on whether he sees The Black Phone as a franchise, the subsequent perils of giving killer characters too much backstory, and the upcoming Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights maze based on the movie.
Since The Black Phone is such a clear global hit even with the pandemic still impacting the box office, do you think about other stories that could be told within this mythology?
Oh, I think about it. I'm certainly open to doing it. There are a lot of variables in that, especially because you're talking about kids who are changing by the hour, getting older and larger by the hour. But it's certainly something I'm open to.
"The Grabber" is an intentionally vague character in the movie. Do you want audiences to know more about where he came from?
I would be interested in knowing or exploring more about "The Grabber's" history. But, backstory is a word that I have sort of a love-hate relationship with. I'm kind of with David Mamet who talked about how there's a tendency in screenplays, and certainly in the development of screenplays for the studio system, to want to put in what he calls "the rubber ducky story." He's like it's the story where you tell the story about the characters' past when somebody stole their rubber ducky and that's why they are the way they are now. And that's not how life works. What it is that makes somebody who they are is almost always way more than one, single event. And especially when you're talking about socio-pathology.
If there's one thing I do know about serial killers is that there are some who had incredibly abusive backgrounds, and you can point to that as being instrumental in why they became sadistic killers, like Richard Ramirez. But then, Jeffrey Dahmer had really nice parents and nothing terribly traumatic ever happened to him. Ted Bundy had some strange things in his history, but for the most part, had decent parents as well. With these monsters, a lot of times what makes them fascinating and compelling is the fact that they are a mystery. They are anomalies. For example, and love it in The Silence of the Lambs when Clarice Starling gives the survey to Hannibal Lecter. He's flipping through it and he says, "You think you can dissect me with this little tool?" If there was a story in The Silence of the Lambs, or even in Hannibal that explained this is why he likes to kill and eat people, I'm not really interested in hearing that. I like learning about this character through his actions. I certainly wouldn't be that interested in learning exactly where Heath Ledger's Joker actually got those scars. I like him telling all the lies. And maybe one of them's true, but you don't know. That to me is scarier and more interesting. The mystery of what makes these kinds of monsters tick is, I think, as important as anything you'd actually know. And I like the fact that people want to know more. Good.
One thing that we do know that essentially defines "The Grabber" is his mask, which is now synonymous with the character and the movie itself. How did that mask evolve in the creative evolution of the film?
Yeah, there's no mask in Joe's short story. I liked the idea of a mask. And I think all [the script] described was an antique leather mask, one with a smile devil face and one with a frown, like a comedy/tragedy mask, but with devil faces. That's all it said.
As soon as I went to North Carolina and started prepping the movie, one thing I thought was that I have Ethan Hawke in this role now. I'd like to see his face a little bit, you know? That's where the idea of dividing up the mask came from, like maybe I could just see his eyes at times. But the bigger feeling that hit me as soon as I started prepping was that the mask that he wears pretty much the whole time, this is how the whole market marketing of the movie is gonna be made [around]. I thought, I've set myself up where if this is not a truly iconic mask, the movie is not going to work. For the three or four months that I was in pre-production, that's the primary thing I focused on. I spent way more time getting every little tiny detail of those masks exactly right. I spent more time on that than anything else, I think. And I made people crazy. I was so adamant about getting it right. I picked out the textures and all that.
Did you have a sense of how you wanted them to look or did you hand that over to concept artists?
I'd come up with the idea of three masks that divide in half. But I sent that idea to five different effects houses that build masks. And the great Tom Savini sent me back just a pencil sketch of the masks as they are in the film, the expressions on their faces. As soon as I saw his sketch, I was like, "This is what we're doing." It was really the raw genius of him. Like the frown mask, I had no idea what it was going to look like, and his sketch looks exactly like the mask. And from that point on, it was all about building it with the proper texture, the proper aging, and trying to get every little detail right. Because that stuff really makes a difference. I must have seen 25 versions of an actual physical mask we rejected before feeling like we finally got it right.
In the ultimate pop culture honor, Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights 2022 is doing a The Black Phone maze. Are you involved with its creation at all?
I've never been involved with those. They did a lot of stuff for Sinister back when it was in Halloween Horror Nights. I've taken my kids ever since they were little. They're now 18 and 17 but they still love it. I'll go with them. And I'm kind of like, "Hey, I can't wait to see what you what you guys are doing."
What's next for you?
I wish I could tell you. The only thing I'll say right now is what's likely is the next thing I'm going to do is going to be another big movie. We're putting it together right now. and have a great script.
The Black Phone is now streaming on Peacock and available on DVD and Blu-ray