Brian De Palma’s classic, and best film, Blow Out, isn’t the most obvious inspiration for co-writer/director Scott Derrickson’s Sinister. They’re in different genres all together, but both focus on two characters dealing with failure who find themselves reduced to sitting alone in a room trying to figure out a plot that is bigger than they ever would’ve imagined.
What is obvious about Sinister is its level of accessibility. The movie is never extreme with its scares, never relies on cringe-inducing carnage, and is straight-forward in its plotting, all of which probably helped make it a box-office success late last year. Speaking with Derrickson via email for the film’s Blu-ray release, that simplicity is entirely what he aimed for ‐ making a horror movie for everyone.
Here’s what else Derrickson had to say about creating the look of Sinister with the Alexa camera, Blow Out and working with child actors:
With Emily Rose you got to work on a script and sell it exactly as is, while on The Day the Earth Stood Still there was dealing with studio back and forth and a real time crunch. How did the writing process of Sinister differ or compare to those experiences?
The experience of writing Sinister was as pure as it gets. Like Emily Rose, it was written outside the system and then sold ‐ but unlike Emily Rose, it was sold in a deal where I had final cut as a director, and that meant that no changes were made to the script unless I wanted to make them. While working on The Day The Earth Stood Still, the combination of studio control, the time crunch, and most of all the WGA Writer’s Guild strike all contributed to shooting script that was hit and miss. Some parts were terrific, other parts weren’t. The studio gave some invaluable input on Emily Rose, but they also forced a few changes that I would rather not have made. Sinister was the first time that I only made the changes I wanted to make ‐ but that said, both Jason Blum and Summit made some very good suggestions that made the movie better.
[co-writer] Robert C. Cargill has said you both wanted to make a very accessible horror movie. Did that come down to the plotting or the intensity of the scares, or both?
Both, for sure. There’s a clean simplicity to the plotting of Sinister, whether you like it or not. And the scares are deliberate and even heavy-handed in a way. There’s not a lot of sophistication or nuance in the plotting, and not much restraint in the scares ‐ and that’s a part of what makes the movie accessible.
You’ve mentioned Brian De Palma’s Blow Out as an inspiration for Sinister. I think you can see the visual influence, but did it go beyond that?
For me, the biggest influence of Blow Out was seeing how De Palma made something so compelling out of a guy sitting alone in his office. It was the specifics of [John] Travolta’s action that made it all work ‐ the originality of the sound/picture technology he was working with. That made me think that the Super 8 film and projector needed to be not only authentic but interesting in the details. There’s a lot of footage of the projector and of editing the film, which comes straight from Blow Out. And I also think the more general idea of a murder mystery explored through film technology had a lot of influence on the script.
You shot on the Alexa. Both stylistically and technically, what advantages and disadvantages came from not shooting on film?
The advantages are pretty obvious ‐ longer takes, less time reloading film, a cleaner image, and perhaps most of all, the ability to see on set exactly what you are going to get on screen. The greatest disadvantage about film for a director is that you don’t know exactly what the image will look like until you are watching dailies ‐ and that’s not the case when shooting digital. The disadvantages have to do with sacrificing image dynamics that only film can provide ‐ more nuance in the blacks, richer kinds of color saturation, and most of all, the ability to make daylight exteriors look good. Most digital daylight exteriors still look bad to me ‐ unless they are shot in the shade or under overcast skies.
Was there ever discussions over trying to make it look like film? Or was it a different thought process?
Most definitely. Chris Norr, our DP, had shot on the Red before but not the Alexa. When I talked with him about the amount of darkness I wanted within the frame for Sinister, he was sure we would need to shoot film. But then we tested the Alexa and were amazed by how it held the blacks and by the color saturation. And the more we discussed it, we felt that the digital image of the Alexa would provide a stronger and more interesting counter-point to the grainy images of the Super 8 material.
One of the film’s conflicts is dealing with failure. How do you deal with failure, whether it’s a bad review or a project not coming together?
I’ve found that there’s little or nothing I can do to prevent or control the bad feelings that failure invokes, but my entire life has been marked by both failures and by pain that transformed me and my life into something better. I don’t fear pain or failure anymore because I’m too grateful for the pains and failures of my past ‐ they have made me who I am, and most of the good things in my life are a direct result of them in some way. Sinister is a good example ‐ I’m so grateful to have made that film, but I never would have done it had The Day The Earth Stood Still been a bigger success.
With Sinister and The Day the Earth Stood Still, you’ve worked with “child” actors, which some directors describe as difficult. Do you have to treat them differently or take the Spielberg approach of treating them no differently?
I treat them differently in that I am very protective of them on set. And I make sure before I cast them that they are good at imitating anything I do, both with my face and my body ‐ because sometimes they can’t understand a scene or be natural within it, in which case I show them exactly what to do and tell them to imitate me. That’s a last resort, of course, but having that safety net prevents you from having to shoot a bad performance.
Sinister is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.