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Developing the Short Story: An Interview with C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson about 'The Black Phone'

Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill have become maestros of the macabre. They’re a perfect example of a writing duo that’s in sync.
Ethan Hawke as The Grabber in The Black Phone. Photo courtesy Universal Pictures.

Ethan Hawke as The Grabber in The Black Phone. Photo courtesy Universal Pictures.

Masks have been donned for thousands of years for various reasons. Religious ceremonies. Hunting rituals. Symbols of death. Theatre drama. Carnivale. What a mask ultimately does is hides a person’s features. Their persona is altered when they slip on this disguise. In Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill's latest feature The Black Phone, the “monster,” played by an eerily mercurial Ethan Hawke, wears numerous creepy masks as he taunts his hostage. If eyes are the windows to the soul, Hawke’s Grabber has a soul as black as tar.

Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill have become maestros of the macabre. They’re a perfect example of a writing duo that’s in sync.

C. Robert Cargill: "Sinister was my first paid writing gig. I had pitched Sinister to Scott over drinks. He'd just lost his writing partner and had just read the rough draft of my first novel that I was submitting. He knew I could write, so he was like, ‘Why don't you write this with me? I know who wants to buy this.’ And sure enough, he did. After I pitched the movie to him, we sold it to Jason Blum a week and a half later. I got paid to write that movie. Once I did it, I was like, 'Man, I really love this process. I really love this world. This is what I want to be doing in addition to writing books.' It's become my principal source of income and the biggest love of my life."

C. Robert Cargill. Photo by Jessica Cargill.

C. Robert Cargill. Photo by Jessica Cargill.

This couldn’t have happened at a better time for Robert because he was exiting the world of being a film critic and was skeptical about writing novels.

Robert: I tried being a novelist in my early twenties, that didn't work. Life was different in the 90s. We had open access to places that we didn't have access to previously. You could find out info about various places and submit. I ended up getting in with a sheisty agency that was actually predatory. I thought I was the problem and it turned out that wasn't the case. When I found it, it almost broke my spirit and I didn't know that I wanted to be involved in novels anymore."

The Black Phone is based on Joe Hill’s short story of the same name. Jason Blum produced with Cargill and Derrickson. A short story can present a challenge when being adapted into a feature for numerous reasons. Expanding a story requires developing the key characters and enhancing the story. These seasoned horror writers got a thumbs up from Joe Hill, which means they stayed true to the essence of his distressful tale.

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Robert: "We knew we needed to create characters. I wanted to write a couple of kids that loved each other very much. There's not enough character building that focuses on healthy, strong family relationships. We wrote the script in about five weeks. Scott and I write very quickly because we write on shifts. I'm a night owl, I go to bed very late at night and wake up very late in the day. He's an early riser who's in bed early and up early. He writes all day, then passes me the scripts in the evening. Then I write all night. Five weeks for us is like ten weeks for a normal writer. We write very quickly because we understand each other's methodology and crank it out together.

The biggest challenge of adapting the story was building it out from such bare bones. We had a story where we don't meet our protagonist until he's in the basement. We don't get to know anything about what's going on with Max upstairs. There's only one ghost that calls and explains essentially what is the ending of the movie. We needed to take a ten-page story and turn it into a hundred-page story. That meant coming up with 90 more pages of content while still honoring Joe's story."

Scott Derrickson on the set of The Black Phone. Photo by Fred Norris/Universal Pictures.

Scott Derrickson on the set of The Black Phone. Photo by Fred Norris/Universal Pictures.

Scott Derrickson: "I read Joe's story when it was published sixteen or seventeen years ago and thought it was a great idea for a movie. It combined a serial killer story with a ghost story, and I'd never seen that before. I also thought, given how grim the subject matter is, the story was told with so much empathy and love for the victims and was still inspiring and hopeful. It took me so long to do it because I wasn’t sure about how to expand it. The Grabber doesn’t have a backstory because I felt that giving a character like that a backstory would be doing a disservice to the character. The real serial killing monsters that are out there have backstories that don't usually make any sense. Ted Bundy had a happy childhood. Jeffrey Dahmer had really nice parents. I feel that the best movie villains that are homicidal have mystery to their evil."

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Robert and Scott have left their mark on the horror genre with Sinister and Sinister 2. The Black Phone is sure to be a crowd-pleaser too. They’ve also contributed one of the best Marvel films with Dr. Strange (2016). Derrickson’s The Exorcism of Emily Rose had great buzz and utilized the effectiveness of silence. Derrickson’s background in studying theology and religious philosophy in college contributes to the anatomy of the script.

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Scott: "I still read about these topics because they’re still really important to me. I'm a mystic. I don't view the world through scientific materialism at all. I wasn't raised in a religious home so my views are ones I forged out on my own. Theology and religious philosophy tackle not the 'what' of the world but the 'why." Those are the most important questions you can ask.

What attracts me to writing horror is the same thing that attracts me to watching it. It deals with fear and fear is the emotion I've experienced the most in my life and have spent the most time reckoning with. I always call it the genre of non-denial. I like the fact that the things we are inclined to deny, I tend to run towards and face until I'm not afraid of them anymore."

Both men recognize what makes a solid horror film and it’s evident in their projects.

Robert: "The key to a great horror film is the characters. If you don't love the characters, you won't be scared for them. If you hate the characters, you'll feel a catharsis when those characters are subjected to horror. Scott and I like to talk about our theory of horror storytelling which is we like to start with a different type of movie, like an indie or action film, and interrupt it with the supernatural. With the case of The Black Phone, it's a coming-of-age story about two kids trying to save each other from a terrible home life where all of a sudden a serial killer shows up and kidnaps one of the kids. You spend the first thirty minutes of the film getting to know these kids and it feels like something you'd watch at Sundance. Then it becomes a horror film out of the blue. At this point, you're in. You love this kid and you're terrified about what's going to happen to him in that basement. That's what makes a solid horror movie. If you care, the audience will care."

[L-R] Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) and Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson. PPhoto by Fred Norris/Universal Pictures.

[L-R] Gwen Shaw (Madeleine McGraw) and Finney Shaw (Mason Thames) in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson. PPhoto by Fred Norris/Universal Pictures.

Scott: "I think tone makes a horror film. That's the key to any effective horror film. It's not jump scares. It's not gore. It's not body counts."

They have different perspectives about what makes a script challenging.

Scott: "Writing good characters, deep, three-dimensional characters that are interesting and highly empathetic, is hard."

Robert: "The most difficult section of a script is always the second act. It's what everyone struggles with. It comes down to learning structure. I really learned a lot about writing with Dr. Strange. It was a long process. It was dealing with a number of complicated problems in Marvel's history. I had to fly out to L.A. and lock myself into a hotel room for a week and work on the script. It was tough, complicated work and I enjoyed the hell out of it."

The Black Phone, a Universal Pictures release, drops in theaters on June 24, 2022. It’s the perfect type of horror flick for the big screen. 


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