C. Robert Cargill is himself a film critic and writer for the likes of Ain’t It Cool News and Hollywood.com, and Sinister is his first screenplay. Movies.ie met up with Cargill during the recent FrightFest event in London to talk about scares, nightmare inspiration, horror sequels, and how Drew Barrymore turned him onto horror.
Q: Where did the idea for Sinister come from? A: It came from a nightmare. I had gone to see The Ring, and I had been up all night, but I eventually fell asleep and dreamed of going into my attic and finding a box of Super 8 films. I pulled out the projector, slotted in one of the films, and the first shot of the movie played. That scared the crap out of me, and in fact so terrorised me that after a while, I started thinking, ‘That’d make a really good movie, with the right story’. So I started trying to work out the right story, spitballing it, and honing it into a pitch to [director] Scott Derrickson. He said right there, ‘I want to make that movie’.
Q: For the most part Sinister eschews gore in favour of old-fashioned scares. A: It was very much part of our discussion about what we wanted to do with this movie. We asked ourselves, ‘Do we want to make an R-rated movie or a PG-13 one?’ I was a big horror fan when I was kid, but I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of horror. My parents were fine with me watching violence, but not nudity. That’s very American! It was like, ‘Chop a girl’s head off with an axe, fine, but see her boobies? No son, you’re not allowed!’ I wanted to make a film that 13-year-olds could watch, and could be that profoundly scary movie that destroys their lives. I decided to write the script in a very restrained manner, and keep the gore out, and let the audience make it scarier by exposing what’s in the mind rather than what’s on the screen. That also helped with our low budget! In the end, the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] still rated us R because it’s too scary. We terrorised people without having to resort to tricks so that made us very proud.
Q: Was the casting of Ethan Hawke crucial to getting it made in terms of funding? A: No, we had the money to make it. Getting Ethan was about getting the movie right. On the page, the character of Ellison is a very unlikeable protagonist, and we knew that in order to make this movie work, we needed an actor who could play an unlikeable lead character but still get the sympathy of the audience. Ethan is on a small shortlist of actors who are good at doing just that. We feel bad for this guy even though he’s incredibly selfish and makes terrible choices.
Q: What was your introduction to horror? A: When I was 8 years old, I had the world’s biggest crush on Drew Barrymore, who is the same age as me. Firestarter came out, and I wasn’t allowed to see it because it was rated R. My aunt, who knew I had a big crush on Drew, bought me the book by Stephen King with a picture of Drew Barrymore on the cover. So, long story short, Drew Barrymore and Stephen King were my introduction to horror. I read everything by King that I could until I was 12 or 13, and that’s when I got turned on to Clive Barker, and then started watching and reading all the old classic horror stories. I was immersed in horror from a very young age, and still am. My wife and I like to curl up in bed and watch horror movies all the time. It’s very hard for us to even find horror that we haven’t seen.
Q: Do you have a favourite horror film? A: A Nightmare on Elm Street. I watched it when I was 10 years old, sleeping over in a friend’s house. It sounded awesome, but when the hand came out of the mattress and pulled Johnny Depp in and erupts in a geyser of blood, that freaked the fuck out of me! For weeks, I had nightmares about it. It’s a film that hasn’t aged as well – the effects don’t hold up – but the story is still so effective. For me, it’s the scariest movie ever made.
Q: Around this time every year we end up saturated with horror movies of wildly varying quality. Have you seen a really good, recent horror movie that is properly scary? A: Not a lot. It’s pretty hard for me to get scared. I don’t even know if Sinister would scare me. I’d hope it would. But there’s good stuff out there that’s connecting with people. If everyone else is scared shitless, then what do I know?
Q: When you were writing this, did you think, ‘I’m putting myself out there to potentially get even more of a kicking than other people would because I’m a film critic’? A: The reason that this is my first film is because, as a critic, I only get one shot. Everyone feels that film critics are just frustrated filmmakers – and they do exist. I knew going in that there were going to be other people in the industry or commenters -internet commenters are some of the worst people in the world – who would be out for me. I knew I’d be torn apart if this wasn’t good. I had to make sure it was something I was really proud of, and if I was going to be torn apart over it, at least I know it was for the film that I wanted to make. If this gets well received then I get more leeway, and some people might start saying they knew I was great all along!
Q: Is this a franchise? Will there be endless Sinister sequels? How do you feel about sequels, as a writer and critic? A: I feel that sequels are great if you can continue the story and build upon the mythology. The example I like to use of how it got mucked up is Final Destination. The first one was a really great idea and a great movie. Final Destination 2 is a really good movie, and the mythology it expounds makes the first film better. Then the third film completely abandons everything they did in part two and goes off doing its own thing, and totally ruins it. It was like, ‘Rather than build on this and come up with a better idea, let’s just remake the first film’. The fourth film was ‘let’s remake the first film’, and then the fifth film was ‘let’s remake the first film but then tie it into the first film so that this, the second and third all flow’. If there was ever to be a sequel made to this film, it could not be simply telling the same story over again because you’ve already seen the story and you already know what’s scary. That’s not good cinema. If anything ever happens with it, it’ll be because we have that killer idea that makes the first movie better and is still every bit as scary.
WORDS : Declan Cashin *Sinister is out October 5th.