Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits one of this year’s big horror hits, The Black Phone.
As theaters continue their move back to business as usual, it’s typically been the big franchise films/sequels that have garnered the big box-office. The exception, though, has often been original genre offerings with two big examples being Jordan Peele’s Nope and Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone. Both films cracked the $100 million mark, but The Black Phone is currently sitting at $155m on an $18m which is a tremendous feat — one that is something of a pattern for Derrickson’s horror offerings as both The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and Sinister (2012) made big box-office on small budgets.
The Black Phone is a 70s set tale about a boy trying to escape the clutches of a serial killer with the help of his determined sister and the victims who came before. It’s a solid enough thriller that works as gateway horror for YA audiences, and it’s new to home video. The Blu-ray includes a commentary with the director, so of course I gave it a listen. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for The Black Phone!
The Black Phone (2022)
Commentator: Scott Derrickson (director, co-writer, producer)
1. Derrickson grew up in North Denver during the 70s, and those details and others are personal touches he brought to the film. While many are light memories, he acknowledges that he’s spent the past five years in therapy dealing with events from his own childhood. That process led him to think there was a story there, which in turn saw him turn to his writing partner (C. Robert Cargill) in the hopes of crafting something along the lines of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959). They soon realized there wasn’t enough there to warrant that comparison or fill in a story, but a compromise was found in blending his own memories into an adaptation of Joe Hill‘s “The Black Phone.”
2. The script was written in six weeks. The film was shot in thirty-three days.
3. His childhood had its own violence, but there was also a societal wave including Ted Bundy’s trip through Colorado, the murder of Derrickson’s next door neighbor, and even a phone call that saw him talk briefly with one of the Manson Family murderers. “The primary emotion that I associate with my own childhood is fear.”
4. Derrickson’s hope with The Black Phone was to make a scary movie about dark subjects “that was still inspiring, that still had a loving point of view to it.”
5. He speaks highly of both Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw who play siblings Finney and Gwen, respectively. He actually pushed the film’s start date by four months to accommodate McGraw’s Disney schedule.
6. While set in Colorado, the film was shot in North Carolina.
7. Rather than fetishize the clothes and general look of the decade through a nostalgic lens, his goal here was to capture the feel the way the late 70s felt to him as a kid. He succeeds (at least to this other child of the 70s), and it’s arguably one of the film’s greatest strengths.
8. He’s asked a lot about putting kids in horror films with the suggestion that it might be detrimental to the young actors. “The answer is no, it’s like Halloween. Halloween is a kids holiday, and it’s a holiday they love. Kids love dressing up and touching on dark things and death and mayhem, there’s something tantalizing about it, and when they know it’s pretend they just love it.”
9. Derrickson believes in ghosts because millions of people claim to have seen them, and he trusts that as evidence.
10. He included a scene from The Tingler (1959) because it’s a direct memory of seeing the film as a kid and being truly freaked out. “That was the beginning of the horror director in me I suppose.”
11. He was asked to cut the scene with Gwen being whipped (with a belt) by her dad, played by Jeremy Davies, but no one pressured him to do so. “It’s not even illegal what he’s doing.”
12. “I think it’s fair to say he’s my favorite actor I’ve worked with,” says Derrickson about Ethan Hawke. He recalls trying to convince Hawke to do Sinister (2012) despite the actor’s protestations that he didn’t really like or watch horror. Hawke had been concerned it would be a dark experience, but Derrickson convinced him that it’s actually a lot of fun making horror movies. He had to be convinced once again for The Black Phone, but it was because he doesn’t really play villains and told Derrickson the script would have to be great for him to sign on. Hawke called back that night after reading it, left a voicemail in the voice of The Grabber, and Derrickson knew he had him hooked.
13. The Grabber is a clown in the short story, but Hill himself suggested that in a post-It world they couldn’t keep that and should instead switch him to a magician. Early drafts of the script also described the masks as leather ones with a smile or a frown, but Derrickson knew they’d be the centerpiece of the film’s marketing so he spent a lot of time in designing it.
14. “And then Tom Savino, the great Tom Savino, who created I believe the original Halloween mask and Friday the 13th mask, just a legend in the world of horror…” Look, Derrickson is a busy guy and there’s no arguing with his horror bonafides so we’re not going to knock him here. That said, it’s obviously Tom Savini he’s referring to as the legend designed the masks for The Black Phone. Savini did makeup effects on the original Friday the 13th (1980), but there’s no mask in it — Jason dons a burlap sack in Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981) and gets his iconic hockey mask in Friday the 13th Part III (1982), but Savini didn’t return to the franchise until Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984). He also had nothing to do with Halloween (1978), and Michael Myers’ mask was famously the work of the film’s production designer, Tommy Lee Wallace, who bought a Captain Kirk mask, spray painted it white, and played around with the hair and eye holes.
15. “I want the movie to sound like childhood fear,” is what Derrickson told composer Mark Korven who signed on immediately.
16. Finney’s conversations with the dead kids on the phone were shot with Thames actually speaking to those other actors on the phone.
17. The basement set was built on a four-foot riser so they could “dig” into the floor.
18. Executive producer Jason Blum, from the House of Blum, sent Derrickson a black phone in a display case after reading the script and giving the film the green light. Derrickson moved into a new house in August 2021 — his previous home burned down in 2018 — and Blum secretly had a black phone mounted on the wall of the new house’s basement. “I was just sitting in my living room and I heard a phone ring in the basement, and I was like oh my god.” He discovered that Blum had it set to speed dial his cell phone whenever it was lifted from the cradle.
19. “It’s too bad the trailers show this particular moment,” says Derrickson at 45:39 with the reveal of the dead kid in the basement. He understands and appreciates marketing departments, but he loves how effective it was for audiences who weren’t expecting it.
20. Derrickson sees the film as more of a paranormal thriller than straight horror as it relies more on suspense than terror. “I think that’s subjective, though, and everybody would have their own answer to that question.”
21. One of the more common conversations that Derrickson has with people about the film is in regard to Davies’ character. People ask if he thinks the man is redeemed at the end. He told Davies not to play the role as a villain but as a man in pain.
22. Derrickson and Cargill realized partway through the script that they needed to give the audiences a break of some sort, so they decided to write a role for James Ransone.
23. The Grabber’s entrance at 58:05 sees Hawke performing as if the character is drugged or something. “I’m not sure where he was coming from, but I remember being on set and thinking ‘this feels really right.'”
24. Derrickson’s son, Dashiell, appears in the purple shirt at 1:12:46.
25. An inspiration for The Black Phone‘s structure is John Irving’s 1989 novel A Prayer for Owen Meany. The title character goes through several seemingly unrelated beats with a friend that all come together in the end. Finney’s journey is similar as the individual challenges from the dead kids feel as if they’re standalone moments but are actually providing Finney with the tools needed for his final fight.
26. “Shout out to Pink Floyd for letting me have the track that begins” at 1:24:56. “They gave it to us immediately at a really cut rate. I fancy that they appreciate the fact that in Sinister Vincent D’Onofrio is wearing a Pink Floyd shirt.” They also appreciated his use of an older track for Doctor Strange (2016).
27. Derrickson says the axe to the head at 1:27:58 was “a very difficult special effect to do.” He adds that he “looked at the whole history of cinema, and there just aren’t any real shots of an axe going into a head on camera.” They pull it off here with a combination of both practical and visual effects (not to mention a big wig), but he’s right in that there aren’t a lot of examples (although this quick beat in 2019’s John Wick 3 is pretty great).
28. They rewrote the ending a couple times searching for the best way to close things out, and an earlier idea saw the return of the ghost kids as Finney kills The Grabber. Derrickson decided having him hear them on the phone was better.
29. It was Hawke’s idea to have The Grabber react with panic when Finney removes his mask, and he also suggested he slide fully into the hole after he’s killed.
30. Derrickson really believes in the test screening process — not the numbers or scores, but “the value of a test audience is to see what confuses them.” For The Black Phone, test screenings revealed that over half the audiences were confused about the reveal of the two homes across the street from each other. Other areas helped by test screenings can be seeing if audiences are bored early on, finding moments of unintentional laughter, and more.
31. Derrickson’s favorite current, still-touring band is The Brian Jonestown Massacre. He asked if they would write and record a new song for the end credits, something with a 70s vibe, and he’s thrilled with the results.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“The thing about North Denver in the 70s is that it was a violent place.”
“I love Stranger Things, I think it’s fantastic, but it feels very much like Spielberg’s representation of childhood in the 80s.”
“I love to try to tell grounded stories with the fantastical laced within them in a grounded way.”
“My favorite thing about being a filmmaker is watching actors work and having them surprise you.”
“I love Ethan.”
“I really feel that audiences can feel when a camera movement isn’t natural.”
“I wasn’t planning on having him shirtless, but when Ethan showed up to set he was in extraordinary shape so I was like ‘why don’t we take your shirt off during this scene, it’ll be even more disturbing,’ and he was game to do it.”
“Kids just need to be listened to.”
“Now, horror, you know, can be very self important.”
“I think he does a lot of things to these kids, but I felt the specifics of that were better left to the imagination of the audience than trying to explain any of it.”
“Don’t ask your actors to move to the camera, move the camera to your actors.”
“This is a coming of age story.”
“It’s certainly the most hopeful film that I’ve ever made.”
The Black Phone is a pretty good movie, but Derrickson gives a great commentary. As is often the case with his tracks, he keeps the commentary moving with anecdotes from the production, technical details, and observations on the ideas and inspirations that led to the film’s creation and execution. He’s talked before about faith, both through his films and in interviews, and he touches on some elements again here in interesting ways. Fans should definitely give it a listen.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.