36 Things We Learned From the Sinister Commentary

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commentary sinister

Sinister was one of the better horror films in 2012 thanks in large part to some truly creepy and terrifying sequences, and this Friday sees a sequel hitting theaters. There’s a new director, but the original film’s writers – Scott Derrickson (who directed the original) and C. Robert Cargill – have returned. In preparation for seeing the sequel this week I re-visited the first film and gave a listen to one of the Blu-ray’s two commentary tracks.

I’m still not fully on board with the film’s third act, but there are several brilliant sequences throughout the film that work just as effectively now as they did on first viewing. The home movies for example are ridiculously powerful and frightening – so much so that even with the commentary track playing and the film’s soundtrack muted the scenes remain highly unsettling and creepy. Any film that can still scare a viewer three or four viewings later is a rare creature indeed.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for Sinister.

Sinister (2012)

Commentators: Scott Derrickson (writer/director), C. Robert Cargill (writer)

1. According to Derrickson, Cargill’s wife is also named Cargill. Sounds unbelievable, but Cargill confirms it’s true. “Now you’ve outed her.”

2. The original idea behind the film was Cargill’s, and the two first talked about it during a conversation in Las Vegas. He says the opening image – the family of four hanging from a tree branch – was first seen by him in a dream. “I had a nightmare after watching The Ring,” he says, which involved finding a box of Super8 film reels in his attic containing gruesome imagery like this sequence. The pair met for drinks, and Cargill pitched the idea over five White Russians. “Literally by the way,” adds Derrickson. They were in Jason Blumhouse’s office a week later.

sinister opening image

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3. They wrote the script in five weeks. “Part of that was because we were so excited about it,” says Derrickson, “but part of it was because Cargill and I keep different hours. I have kids, and Cargill’s a night owl.”

4. “From a writing standpoint,” says Derrickson, “I think this is Cargill’s finest hour.” He’s referring to the conversation between Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) and the local sheriff (Fred Dalton Thompson) in which “you learn everything there is to know about Ellison in an expositional dialogue scene here, and it just doesn’t feel like that to me.”

5. The black scorpion, black dog and black snake are all representative of Bughuul.

6. Some of the conversations between Ellison and his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), are lifted straight from ones Cargill has had with his own wife, Mrs. Cargill. Derrickson finds similarities to his own experiences as well saying that writers have to draw on these things as its what they know best.

7. Derrickson says that part of what attracted Hawke to the role was Ellison’s charm, occupation and “compulsive need to reclaim his own fame.” Cargill adds that the Ellison character is their “nightmare” as “he’s the guy we’re afraid of becoming. We’re afraid of sacrificing our families for our career.”

8. The pen Ellison takes notes with actually belongs to Derrickson. “That’s how you know you’re working with a limited budget,” he says. “I carry a Montblanc pen in my front pocket when I’m shooting that I’ve had for years.”

9. The tree in the backyard was built by the production designer, David Brisbin. “He did a lot with a little on this movie that’s for sure,” says Derrickson.

10. Hawke wanted Bennington College on Ellison’s t-shirt. “This just goes to show what actors do, they think about their characters, and he thought that would be the kind of extremely expensive, highly elitist school that Ellison would have gone to.”

11. Cargill was immensely excited about having unicorns drawn on Ashley’s (Clare Foley) wall. “It’s my Blade Runner moment,” he says, to which Derrickson replies “I still don’t understand that.” He gets the reference obviously, but doesn’t see the connection beyond that. “It’s my little nod to the fact that she’s the killer,” says Cargill.

12. “Character isn’t a collection of traits,” says Cargill. Instead, character comes down to the choices they make. It’s a sharp observation that more screenwriters should heed.

13. The scene with Trevor (Michael Hall D’Addario) exiting the box upside down stems from Derrickson’s own life. “My son gets night terrors. I’ve seen him scream like this. He’ll look right at you and scream holy terror.” He’s had to pick up his son and carry him outdoors at night to wake him up. “That was one of the bigger disconnects you and I had while writing,” says Cargill, “because I didn’t get that.” It took a long conversation with Derrickson and watching the actors perform the scene before he finally understood.

Summit

Summit

14. Cargill peed in the dryer during one of his own childhood sleepwalking moments. Well, he “almost” peed in the dryer.

15. It’s intentional that Mr. Boogie doesn’t show up until the third home movie – after Ellison has made the choice to invite him in by not bringing his discovery to the authorities.

16. Cargill was on set for the entire film with the exception of the home movies which were shot earlier in Los Angeles. “You called me right after you filmed that,” says Cargill, “and you were just going nuts.” Derrickson shot them in advance because he wanted Hawke to be able to see them as .

17. The POV scene showing someone moving through a house and filming what’s captured in their flashlight triggers Cargill to mention how fun it was to write. “This was very much you and me just giggling about Manhunter.”

18. Derrickson recalls troubles on the day they shot the family taped to their beds. “It took an unbelievably long amount of time to tape them up, and then of course, on two occasions, within ten minutes of getting them taped and starting to shoot one of them had to go to the bathroom. It was just killing me.”

19. The film was financed through the sale of foreign rights before it was sold domestically to Summit, and Derrickson says none of the major studios even bid on it. They liked it and were interested in his horror follow-up to The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but they declined because of how dark of a story it ultimately is. “They were matter of fact about that. They felt the script was something that wouldn’t be commercial because it involved children.” Cargill points out that one of the distinctions they discussed early on is that “we aren’t killing children, we’re killing families, and people just view that differently.”

20. They were asked at the SXSW premiere why there are so many Apple product placements, and Derrickson is having none of it. “I get really annoyed to be honest with critics and bloggers bashing the product placement because we live in such a branded world now.” He’s right of course, but that doesn’t change the distraction of films/TV shows highlighting those brands in obvious ways. Sinister isn’t a bad offender in this regard, and he points out that they chose Apple because their product agreement isn’t contractual. “Apple’s thing is ‘yeah you wanna use our products in your movie go ahead.’” Apple gave them the products without specific requests meaning they were allowed to show just how easy it was for Mr. Boogie to infiltrate the OS like some kind of supernatural virus.

21. The young actors playing the ghost kids met for the first time on set, and Cargill overheard them talking before their first shoot. “They’re all saying ‘Hey, how do you kill your parents?’ and they start comparing notes on just how cool their ghost kid is.”

22. Ellison cut his arm in the original script when he fell through from the attic, but it posed a problem on the day of the shoot. Hawke had fallen in love with the sweater, so in order to avoid having to damage the sleeve they needed Cargill to find a way for Ellison to remove the sweater before entering the attic. He spent half the day trying to find a way to make this work organically before finally suggesting that Ellison just cut his leg instead.

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23. The hallway scene between Ellison and the deputy (James Ransone) prompted Cargill to ask Derrickson during filming, “When did we write a Coen Brothers’ scene into our movie?” Cargill recalls that he and Derrickson blew the first take with the sound of their laughter coming from the room next door where they were watching n monitors.

24. “I’m not a comedy director,” says Derrickson, and that led him to be unsure of the scenes featuring Ransone. He worked with the actor to do takes of varying degree – “I did a bigger version, a medium version, and a smaller, tighter version” – and ended up using the small one each time.

25. Both men loved horror movies as kids and liked the idea of making a PG-13 film, but even though this one contains no sex and minimal foul language and bloodletting they suspected it was going to be an R once submitted to the MPAA. “It was quite satisfying,” says Derrickson, “and it says ‘Rated R for disturbing images and terror’ which I think is great.”

26. They also love Hawke. “I think he’s my favorite actor I’ve worked with,” says Derrickson. “He’s gone through some dark passages in his life, loves art, loves cinema, loves literature, and really took the burden of the movie on himself and just worked so hard. He got no movie star treatment on this movie at all, and he didn’t care.” Cargill adds that “he’s incredibly blue-collar.” Somewhere, sad Keanu Reeves sheds a tear.

27. Mrs. Cargill cameos as the woman walking behind Professor Jonas (Vincent D’Onofrio) during his Skype call with Ellison.

28. Regarding D’Onofrio, Derrickson says “His lines weren’t well memorized, which was frustrating for me, but he is an actor who needed to not have his lines memorized because it was clear that sense of aliveness and realism in his delivery is classic Vincent D’Onofrio.”

Summit

Summit

29. The ghostly hide and seek played by the dead kids while Ellison roams the house at night with the bat was written by Cargill but visually perfected by Derrickson. Both were temporarily concerned during filming having recently seen another film in theaters featuring a child ghost that just didn’t work. They intentionally fail to mention which film that was, but based on the timing of Sinister’s production my guess is Dream House with Daniel Craig? Well, that or Margin Call.

30. Ransone is friends with Ti West (The Innkeepers, The House of the Devil) and told to him how excited he was about Sinister in part because he had a four page dialogue scene with Hawke. West’s reply was that it was going to make a great deleted scene for the DVD.

31. The film was shot out of sequence, and they needed some way for Hawke to knowingly escalate his degree of visible fear. They ultimately had Cargill rate the scripted scares on a scale from one to five so Hawke would know what level of reaction to give. The scene where he looks into the attic, sees the ghost kids and is then startled by Buguul’s face had to be a five. Derrickson told Hawke that he was “pretty scared in the bathtub in Training Day when they were about to shoot you, but it’s gotta be worse than that.” He gave him a clip from The Shining featuring Shelley Duvall while the ax came through the door “because there’s a moment where her eyes roll back in her head almost like a horse being scared that is for me is the most afraid a person has ever looked in the history of cinema.”

32. “Is that cheesy?” asks Derrickson when Ellison picks up the envelope of film marked ‘Extended Cut Endings.’ He second guesses the decision every time he sees it, but Cargill argues that it gets a laugh. He’s not wrong, but I’m in the minority that think that laugh hurts the film and its tone.

33. Derrickson asked Cargill before production began to send him a list of horror movies he should watch to get into the mindset of the script, and one of them was Devil Times Five starring Leif Garrett. Derrickson watched it over a holiday weekend while alone in a cabin in the woods and called Cargill afterwards telling him “You know, it’s not a good move, but it’s a great movie.” I’m familiar with the film by title only, but after hearing Cargill’s description here I’ve added it to my must-see list.

34. It took nineteen takes to get the shot of Ellison’s spilled coffee after he’s been drugged.

35. For Derrickson, the best line in the movie is “Don’t worry daddy, I’ll make you famous again.”

36. Summit executive Eric Feig is to blame for the jump scare at the very end. To be fair, Derrickson had final cut so it was ultimately his call, and both he and Cargill like it as a relief to diffuse the tension of the otherwise downbeat and heavy ending.

Best in Commentary

  • Cargill: “Nothing can go wrong on Fred Thompson Day! And then everything went wrong on Fred Thompson Day.”
  • Derrickson: “It’s almost impossible to make an amoral horror film.”
  • Derrickson: “We didn’t run into gigantic problems except for when the stunt coordinator that I had to fire almost hung somebody.”
  • Cargill: “All the swears in this movie are improvised by Mr. Ethan Hawke.”
  • Cargill: “Delicious. Delightful. D’Onofrio.”
  • Cargill: “I can throw a stick in Austin and hit a house with a Cthulhu statue in it.”

Final Thoughts

Sinister remains one hell of a scary movie, and it’s clear that these two like each other and their work. I was already looking forward to Sinister 2 – Shannyn Sossamon! – but this revisit has me even more excited for some Boogie-related chills.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

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"Rob is great. He likes movies. He writes about them. And he's a good person."