In The Black Phone, Finney Shaw, a shy but clever 13-year-old boy, is abducted by a sadistic killer and trapped in a soundproof basement where screaming is of little use. When a disconnected phone on the wall begins to ring, Finney discovers that he can hear the voices of the killer’s previous victims. And they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney.
Starring four-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke in the most terrifying role of his career and introducing Mason Thames in his first ever film role alongside Madeleine McGraw, The Black Phone is produced, directed, and co-written by Scott Derrickson, the writer-director of Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Marvel Studios' Doctor Strange.
Earlier this month, we spoke to the filmmaker about his latest horror movie, learning more about creating The Grabber's already iconic mask and how Derrickson's working relationship with Hawke changed. After playing the protagonist in Sinister, the Moon Knight star heads down the antagonist route here, and proves himself a truly terrifying force in the process.
The director also explains what Thames and McGraw brought to the table during one of The Black Phone's most harrowing scenes, why masks are so scary, and whether he'd like to reunite with Doctor Strange star Benedict Cumberbatch for a future horror project.
Check out our full interview with Derrickson below:
The Grabber’s mask has really resonated with horror fans, but how challenging is it to create a potentially iconic design, especially when those old classics like Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers are still at the forefront of people’s minds?
I certainly felt like that was what we were aiming for. In this case, I think the challenge for me was to do something new and not just a mask that looked different. It had to be qualitatively different. That’s really where the idea for having not one, but three masks, and having them separable so The Grabber could wear the top or bottom half or any of those combinations. That gave us the potential of creating something iconic. No one had ever done anything like that before, but the challenge then was how you would get the facial power and the image of the mask itself to give it an iconic quality. I knew I wanted it to be a devil’s mask that was no mouth, a smile, and a frown. The look of the mask itself and the facial expressions on them, I have to credit Tom Savini. That’s what I hired him for because he’s a legend with that sort of thing and he really outdid himself with this [Laughs] last movie that he did.
Ethan Hawke has to go to some really dark and disturbing places for this role, but how did that affect your dynamic on set compared to when he was playing the protagonist in Sinister?
You know, it’s a very different thing. On Sinister, he had never been in a horror film before and being the protagonist, he wasn’t sure, I don’t think at first, of how to play it. The two things I did were, first of all, told him, ‘Don’t think of this as a horror film. Your character, Ellison Oswalt, is not in a horror film. He’s just living his life. Forget the fact you’re in a horror film and play it as if you’re in a drama.’ I think that was helpful to him. The main thing he had no experience with where I was able to teach him a lot was the way horror movies work out of timing.
I remember doing a scene with him where he was walking down the hallway toward the box that his son comes out of in the middle of the night and screams. I blocked it and gave him literally step-by-step instructions of, ‘You have to walk here…pause here…the box is gonna shake, so walk slower to this mark.’ I literally mapped it out, exactly how fast, how far, and where to stop. When we were doing that, he goes, ‘Ohh, I get it. I understand horror. It’s like comedy: all in the timing.’ I said, ‘Yes! Exactly!’ A good horror scene is like a good joke in that it’s all about the timing and, like a good joke, you can’t really teach it. You either have a knack for it or you don’t. I have a knack for it.
When it came to The Black Phone, it was much more that I didn’t give him a lot of instruction. He had the script, I’d written the role, and I just told him, ‘You need to create this character and show up ready to do something interesting and unique.’ I just didn’t feel the need to say much to him about it and, of course, he showed up and gave a performance that I thought was iconic.
The scene where The Grabber is sleeping and waiting to play "Naughty Boy" is real edge-of-your-seat stuff, and it’s made all the scarier by us not being able to see what’s beneath the mask; what was your approach to that sequence?
Any time you’ve got a killer in a mask, it’s scarier, because you can’t see what’s behind it. It creates more mystery. It creates a sense of otherness. Masks are scary, simply put. What Ethan told me, and we were talking just recently, is that when he got to set and came for a wardrobe fitting and saw the mask for the first time, he said ‘As soon as I saw the mask, it was like my shoulders relaxed. These are so scary by themselves, there’s a lot of work I don’t have to try and do here. I don’t have to try and be scary because the masks are terrifying.’ I think he instinctively understood he could let the mask do the work and do a lot more interesting things because if he did them well, those combined with the scary mask would be exponential. It would have a compounding effect and be very scary together. He was absolutely right. That’s how it worked.
Madeleine McGraw and Mason Thames are such immense talents, and on the one hand, you have her firing off F-Bombs, and in the next, they’re both part of that harrowing scene where their father beats Gwen. How challenging is it as a filmmaker to prepare them for this vast array of scenes?
I think the key to it is the casting process. I would have been fortunate to find one actor at that age that was as good as Madeleine or Mason, and the fact I found both of them is nothing short of miraculous, in my opinion. They’re just naturally gifted actors and they don’t pretend. They really act, become, and embody the roles that they’re playing. In the case of the whipping scene, the only thing I did on that one…I tend, with kids, if they’re good actors to talk to them like they’re adults. I don’t talk down to them and don’t feel the need to talk to them any differently than I would an adult actor. They understand emotional intentions and any direction I’m going to give them just like an adult would. The thing I did do, and I’ve done this for a few scenes throughout my career when I know they’re really critical and highly emotional, such as in Sinister with Juliet Rylance and Ethan regarding the big blowout domestic fight toward the end of that movie’s second act, and I did that with Madeleine.
I said to her, ‘Listen, this is the most critical, emotional scene in the movie and I really need you to come prepared to really go all the way.’ I explained how there’s a lot of defiance and, as the whipping continues, and she gets on the floor, her dad really breaks her for a moment. When she comes up off the floor, she really has to be in a state of true distress and fear and brokenness. I would tell her that. She came to me like a day later [Laughs] and said, ‘Would it be possible on that day for me to take two or three minutes alone before she shoot.’ I said, ‘Of course, anything you need,’ and then she just did it. She came prepared and I think with actors of any age, to get a scene like that to work, you have to cast the right actors, you have to inform them of what the scene needs to be and then, for the most part, create a good arena and stay out of their way. It’s about letting them get there themselves and do what they need to do.
That’s what Jeremy Davies, Madeleine, and Mason did in that scene. All three understood what the scene was so I blocked it right, had everything in place, and let them do what I cast them to do: play this very raw, very realistic, highly distressing and emotional scene. Madeleine’s performance in the second half of that may be my favourite performance that I’ve ever seen from any actor I’ve worked with in any film.
On another note, what does it mean to you to see what a huge role Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange has gone on to play in the MCU? As a fan, I just can’t imagine that happening had you not delivered such a great origin story. And do you think there’s any chance we see you and Benedict reunite for a future horror film? It feels like that’s a genre we haven’t seen enough of him in.
Yeah, I actually have no idea how interested Benedict would be in doing a horror film. I don’t remember ever talking to him about the horror genre. I feel extremely proud of Doctor Strange, It was a very, very ambitious movie at the time and I’m really proud of the character we created and very proud of casting Benedict. I think he was obviously the right guy to play Doctor Strange. I’m also very proud of the visual language in that film and how it continues to permeate the MCU. It was a wonderful experience and very demanding, but I felt very supported when I made it. I really felt like Kevin [Feige] was willing to let me reach as far as I was reaching visually and thematically. There are a lot of spiritual ideas in it and it’s a film with a lot of ambition. I’m really proud of proud. And yes, I would 100% work with Benedict again. He’s an amazing actor and a really great guy. I’d love to see him in a horror film.
The Black Phone is now available on Digital, Blu-Ray and DVD from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.