How do you turn a short story about a sadistic child murderer into a horrifying, but hopeful coming-of-age film? If you’re director Scott Derrickson, you use your own traumatic childhood as inspiration.
Derrickson’s latest film, The Black Phone, based on Joe Hill’s short story of the same name, is about a 13-year-old boy named Finney (Mason Thames), who is abducted by a serial killer known as The Grabber (Ethan Hawke, in his first villain role). In the room where Finney is being held captive he finds a mystical black phone, which allows him to communicate with the masked kidnapper’s other young victims from the great beyond in hopes of making it out alive. When Derrickson first read Hill’s 2007 story he was struck by how the author—who is also the son of Stephen King—“combined a serial killer tale with a ghost story” to make something “with such an empathetic point of view that there was something inspirational about it,” the director of Marvel’s Doctor Strange tells TIME.
It wasn’t until nearly a decade later that Derrickson realized he could use his own middle school experience growing up in Denver, Colorado, in the late 1970s to expand the 30-page story into a full-length feature. The youngest of the 13 boys that lived on his block growing up, Derrickson recalls omnipresent violence. “The bullying was constant,” he says. “But I didn’t have it the worst.” He remembers a friend of his showing up to play with “red bleeding welts on the back of his leg.” The boy’s dad had whipped him with an extension cord. “We were all like, ‘Wow, dude. Bummer.’ You know? And then we went and played Nerf football,” he says. “That was just the neighborhood. That was just how it was.”
While The Black Phone deals with the trauma of childhood, Derrickson knew he didn’t want to go too far with the violence. “There were things in my childhood that were too dark to put in,” he says. “I think you have to have a sensitivity of what an audience can tolerate without really being turned off or turning on the film itself.” Instead, he wanted to show the resiliency of children by confronting some of the real horrors of his own adolescence through his young characters. “For me, making these movies is always a cathartic experience,” he says. “It’s always a way of dispelling anxiety and fear, never creating it.”
Below, Derrickson explains how childhood trauma, anti-nostalgia, and Ethan Hawke’s speaking voice helped him turn The Black Phone into one of the scariest movies of the year.
A ‘70s throwback without the nostalgia
The feeling Derrickson associates most with his childhood is fear. “I’d been in therapy for three years and talking almost exclusively about my childhood and the more extreme things that I’d gone through,” he says. The details of The Black Phone are based on the director’s lived experience growing up in North Denver: the chain link fences, the overcast skies, and the violence that exists both inside and outside the home. Derrickson wanted those intimate details to feel universal. “The universality of childhood is, it’s traumatic for everybody,” he says. “It’s hard for everyone. There’s real value in taking a good gaze at that.”
In bringing a 1970s-era story to screen, Derrickson fought any urge to fetishize the era. “Bob Dylan said, ‘Nostalgia is death,’ and I tend to agree with that,” he says. Instead, he pulled what he calls a “reverse Amblin” with the supernatural horror movie, referring to the production company founded by Steven Spielberg. “I grew up on those Spielberg movies, but his way of looking back at preadolescence is just very different from anything I would do.”
The Black Phone is certainly not E.T., Spielberg’s seminal 1982 sci-fi movie, which was the director’s way of working through his parents’ divorce. Derrickson’s way of reckoning with his childhood trauma is far less cuddly. He forces Finney to literally fight for his life by turning a disconnected phone into a much-needed lifeline, which shows him he is stronger and smarter than his kidnapper. “It’s really valuable to go back and take a look at things that you have probably denied about your own experience and how they impacted you,” he says. “It was very freeing and very cathartic to then be able to channel that into something positive.”
Casting a villain with a killer voice
The villain in Hill’s original story was patterned after serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who raped, tortured, and murdered at least 33 young men and boys in the 1960s and ‘70s. The first draft of The Black Phone script, which Derrickson wrote in six weeks, included a clown killer that was intended to be a reference to Gacy, who regularly performed as a children’s clown. “Joe [Hill] read the script before anybody and It had just come out,” Derrickson says. “He was the first to say, ‘The Grabber can’t be a clown.’” Hill suggested they turn him into a “classic old style magician” instead, which allowed Derrickson to rethink the look of the movie’s bad guy.
“There were no masks in Joe’s story, but I liked the idea of The Grabber wearing a mask and not being able to be himself without the face covered,” he says of the terrifying Tom Savini-designed masks in the film. Once Derrickson made that decision, he realized he needed an actor with a “distinctive voice that could penetrate that mask.” His first thought was Ethan Hawke, who starred in his 2012 horror film Sinister, which marked the actor’s first scary movie role. “I feel like he’s underutilized as a voice actor,” the director says. “I don’t know why he’s not doing expensive commercials and being the lead in Pixar movies.”
Hawke wasn’t so sure he wanted to play a villain—a role he had never attempted before—but Derrickson knew he would do something fearless and completely original with the masked psychopath. And he was right. “When Ethan saw the masks, the one thing I do remember him saying to me was, ‘These are so scary and they’re so effective, which is great because I can let the mask do the mask’s work.’” Hawke’s version of this villain becomes something completely unexpected and unhinged. “He really buries his moods behind the mask and, to me, there’s almost some kind of multiple personality disorder going on there,” Derrickson says, “Which, I think, is all the more unsettling.”
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