The director reteams with Sinister star Ethan Hawke for this gripping adaptation of Joe Hill’s short story.

We shouldn’t dwell on it, but for a second there, director Scott Derrickson was all set to follow up his biggest budget film so far, Marvel’s Doctor Strange, with Doctor Strange 2.

The received wisdom is that Derrickson, along with his creative partner, writer C. Robert Cargill, really wanted to lean into the horror possibilities inherent in the MCU’s Sorcerer Supreme, but the Feige fam were less than keen on that approach, and so there was a parting of ways, with Sam Raimi taking up the Strange reins instead.

But it’s an ill wind, etc, etc, and so now we have the upcoming Derrickson/Cargill joint The Black Phone, adapted from the short story of the same name by Joe “son of Stephen King” Hill, collected in 20th Century Ghosts.

Set in 1970s Denver, where Derrickson hails from, it sees Mason Thames as Finney Shaw, who finds himself kidnapped by masked serial killer The Grabber (Ethan Hawke, who starred in D&C’s earlier film, Sinister) and confined to a basement. While his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) searches for him, Finney tries to effect his own escape, and in doing so finds that the disconnected black phone in the basement allows him to talk to The Grabber’s previous victims.

That sounds like a pretty solid set up for a suspenseful horror tale, but when we spoke to Derrickson we found that The Black Phone has more going on than just a good hook …

What attracted you to The Black Phone as a short story and what made it a possibility for adaptation?

I found the book in a bookstore the year that it was published (2004). I just wandered into this bookstore here in LA and was looking in the horror section and saw 20th Century Ghost Stories. I didn’t know who Joe Hill was, certainly didn’t know he was Stephen King’s son, and I ran read all the short stories and The Black Phone just stood out to me even back then as a really great idea for a movie. I always held onto the possibility of it being something I could make, but there never really seemed to be a good time for it. And it was a very short story, like 20 pages long, and so it needed a lot of filling out and I wasn’t sure how to do that.

And then about a year and a half ago when I stepped off the picture that I was working on, I started to think more about making something that dealt with where I grew up in north Denver in the late ‘70s. It was very rough, kind of violent neighbourhood: a lot of fighting, a lot of bleeding, a lot of bullying. Ted Bundy had just come through, the mass murderers had happened in LA — all that was sort of in the air. My next-door neighbour was murdered. My friend’s mother — he just came to my house and said, “Somebody murdered my mom.” There was just a real frightening kind of air around that area at the time. And there was a lot of domestic violence in my home. The way fathers back then punished children was pretty different than what you typically see now.

I just loved the idea of sort of a 400 Blows type movie set in north Denver in the ’70s, but I didn’t really have a story to go with it. And then when I combined that with The Black Phone I thought, yeah — that’s a movie. So, that’s the picture’s foundation.

‘We’ll white balance in post.’

That’s really interesting. I grew up in a similar environment in a mining town in Western Australia, so everything you’re saying there resonates with me quite strongly.

Yeah, the north Denver area is very, very working class. It wasn’t lower-class, it wasn’t inner city, but it’s very kind of lower middle class. Blue collar. You know, I lived on a block with 13 boys and I was the youngest — so, a lot of bullying, you know? But I think we did a very good job of capturing that time.

You’ve got C. Robert Cargill on the words again. You guys have a very, very strong creative relationship. How, what was the dynamic like on this one? How did you communicate what you wanted to see in the script and how did you go back and forth to get to something that you could actually shoot?

Well, Cargill is also my closest friend and it started with me telling him about the idea of wanting to make an American 400 Blows. He was very interested in that; he grew up in a very tough town in Texas. But we weren’t sure how to do it, and I’m not sure whose idea it was, but together we thought about merging The Black Phone with that kind time and setting, and then it suddenly made sense.

The short story only has two characters in it, so we added a third major character and quite a few other characters, and some of them are taken directly from his memories of growing up and, and, um, and Cargill was really, really great at getting into the specificity of my memories of that time and place.

We just have a really wonderful synergy when we work together. When we actually get into screenwriting, I write during the day and send pages to him and then he writes all night and sends pages back. It’s why we write so fast because it’s like having a 24-hour writer working on something, you know? But we’re never in the same room together. It’s always about just trading pages and if something’s not working, he cuts it, or if something he’s written doesn’t work, I cut it, and we polish each other’s stuff. As a relationship, it’s very organic.

You’ve also got Ethan Hawke in the mix again, who’s another old sparring partner of yours. How did he come on board and what does he bring to the table playing this sort of mass killer?

I sent it to him with a text saying “Hey, read this when you can, I’d love for you to play the villain but just be warned a) he’s a paedophile child killer, and b) he’s in a mask the whole movie.” And he texted back and said, “The mask thing doesn’t bother me, that could be interesting, but to be honest, I don’t play many villains.”

I didn’t really realize that until he said that, and he hasn’t played many villains at all. And he said, “If it’s going to be a villain role, it’s gotta be something really extraordinary. There’s a good chance I’m not going to want to do this.” And I said, well, you know, give it a read. And that night he left me a voicemail in this very menacing Ethan Hawke voice saying this scary line of prose from the script, and that was his way of telling me he wanted to do it.

‘It’s a take I’m willing to risk.’

Now obviously, you’re off Doctor Strange due to creative differences. I don’t want to dig into that too much, but what I heard was that you wanted to do a horror movie, Marvel didn’t really want to do a horror movie, and now you’ve done this horror movie. So, the question must be asked, what is the tenor of the horror here? What can we expect without giving too much away?

I think what makes it unique to the other pictures that I’ve made is it’s definitely the most emotional movie that I’ve made by a long shot. And I think that kind of emotion in a movie that’s often suspenseful and frightening is what makes it very unique. Certainly, the audience that has seen it so far, it’s the thing that they’re really responding to. The movie is carried by these two children, and their performances are so emotional and grounded and real. I think that that’s what you can expect: it’s a very suspenseful movie — that’s certainly something I’ve learned from audiences watching it — but also I think really moving. It’s scary, suspenseful, and emotional.

It seems we’re all three of us working class guys who wrote ourselves out of our backgrounds, out of our pasts. Is this art as therapy for you? Is that something you give credence to?

It’s literally art after therapy! I’ve spent the last three years in therapy specifically dealing with my childhood, from my earliest memories forward — from pre-memory forward. About three years of therapy went into that script. And that’s where I just had this idea of making a north Denver 400 Blows in the late ‘70s. That was really interesting to me.

Interview by Travis Johnson

The Black Phone is currently through Universal Pictures Australia