'The Black Phone' explained: A real life killer, childhood memories shaped the adaptation

·12 min read

The phone is dead. And it's ringing.

So reads the tagline for "The Black Phone," Scott Derrickson's haunting adaptation of Joe Hill's short story. The script, which Derrickson co-wrote with his producing partner Robert Cargill, stars Ethan Hawke as The Grabber, a sadistic kidnapper who stalks young boys in suburban Denver in the 1970s.

Hill, the son of horror maestro Stephen King, deftly blends several horror tropes (ghosts, invisible killers, clairvoyance and other supernatural elements) in his telling of the story, which centers around Finney (Mason Thames), an introverted 13-year-old who becomes The Grabber's latest victim.

The adaptation comes 10 years after Derrickson and Hawke first collaborated on the chilling Blumhouse horror "Sinister." "'Sinister' is an important film in my life," said the actor by email. "It was simple and clean in the best way. For me, 'Sinister' felt like the first film of the second half of my career. It gave me the opportunity to begin to play older, more complicated men. It was a beautifully written role and it was easy to try and give a personal performance inside a genre film, which is a rare opportunity."

Here's how Derrickson and Cargill expanded Hill's 10-page short story into a feature length film.

Turning 10 pages into a full length movie

Derrickson was attracted to the Joe Hill short story, which was published in 2004, for its compassion and distinctiveness. "From the first time I read it, something that I thought was deceptive about the story is that it combined a serial killer story with a ghost story," he said. "I hadn't seen that done before and certainly not in any kind of an effective way. And Joe did it seemingly effortlessly. There's so much empathy toward Finney and it was all told with a point of view of love and felt very hopeful and even inspiring."

He brought the story to Cargill in 2011 and together they worked to brainstorm ideas on how to adapt it for the screen.

"It's 10 pages, we meet the character right as he gets thrown in the basement, there's no other real characters," said Cargill of the immediate challenges they faced. "But it's just such a great idea: a kid is spending the night in a basement with a disconnected phone and then the phone rings."

"What we've changed is additive rather than subtractive," he continued. "Because every element of that short story was perfect for a film."

They collaborated on the story, with Derrickson writing by day and Cargill writing by night. "So he'll edit my pages, write new pages and then pass it to me," said Cargill, who would then do the same. The process continued five days a week for about a month and a half. "Then we have what we call the 'Wife Read,' where we hand the script to our wives and get their initial feedback," before soliciting further notes from creative partners and representatives.

Many of the changes made served to flesh out of the experiences of the young characters, informed by Derrickson's own turbulent childhood. "Scott brought the idea of making the film about his childhood and how traumatic it was and sharing all these actual memories [from back then]," said Cargill. "That's where I was like, 'That's a script I want to write.'"

"All of the ghost kids are like real kids that I knew," said Derrickson. "The Robin Arellano character especially. That's a kid who I was friends with. And some of the things he says in the movie are verbatim things that I remember him saying to me after watching him pulverize this kid's face behind the Safeway across from our middle school. I felt like I had a good understanding of the various children that could flesh out this movie."

At the time, he was in pre-production for the "Doctor Strange" sequel (he'd eventually step away from the project due to creative differences with Marvel) and also on his third year of therapy "really dealing almost exclusively with the violence in my childhood and some of the more traumatic events from my earliest memories through high school."

"I feel like I unearthed so much and had a fresh perspective on that time and place in my life that I thought maybe I could make something like Truffaut's '400 Blows,'" said Derrickson. "And then the eureka moment was 'Wait a minute, what if we combine this with "The Black Phone?"' So it kind of came in that order."

Other changes, like switching The Grabber's occupation from clown to magician, came directly from Hill himself. With his father's classic "It" back in the forefront of pop culture with the recent blockbuster two-part movie adaptation, Hill felt the clown look, originally inspired by the serial killer John Wayne Gacy, would now be viewed as a rip-off. "

As the filmmakers struggled to imagine a new profession for their killer, "[Hill] said, 'I really love the old aesthetic of the 1930s, 1940s magician show where the magician would have two different outfits—one a magician and one the devil—and he would perform supernatural-style tricks as the devil and others as the magician who would, as part of the story, be playing against one another,'" said Cargill. "And we're like 'Well, that's rad, I love that.' And that's where Scott started playing around with the concept of the devil mask."

"I had added the masks—there were no masks in Joe's story—because I felt that was going to add an extra complexity to how he likes to present himself," said Derrickson. "There's something about The Grabber's theatricality as a performer, as a magician, as a guy who has to wear a mask to present himself, that is so unnerving and fascinating at the same time."

Casting The Grabber

In Hill's story, the Galesburg Grabber is described as a fat man, with overt parallels to Gacy. "He was overweight and he was a clown and we kind of wrote the script that way," said Derrickson.

"We wanted him to be kind of schlubby and out of shape because Gacy was a doughy pedophile who murdered like 33 boys and buried them under his basement," said Cargill. "And when [Hawke signed on], it was like 'Oh well, we don't need him to get out of shape. We'll just let Ethan be Ethan because he's going to bring something wholly new and separate to it."

Hawke was an immediate shoe-in for the role due to "his voice, for starters," said Derrickson. "Because I knew that I had a character who was going to be behind a mask the whole time, I started with that. I feel like his voice is so underutilized. It's got so much range: sometimes it's very high and lofty and sometimes really dark and gravelly and super menacing. Sometimes it's got a kind of quiet, weak state and sometimes it's very flamboyant. And that was what got me thinking about Ethan in the first place."

"Ethan's just a great blue collar actor," said Cargill. "He shows up every day, knows all of his lines, has three different ways he's going to approach each scene. If he's got a wild idea, he clears it early. And he knows what he's going to do. We call him Two-Take Hawke. The first take is a warm-up and then the second take we use in the movie. Everything after that's pretty much for safety."

"I didn't have to direct Ethan very much in this movie," said Derrickson. "That's not true of 'Sinister,' where he was playing the person being haunted and scared. I remember having to direct him a lot on the timing of scenes. On this one, I just showed him the masks and I remember he was really struck by them. He just showed up and understood this character."

"What makes Scott such a wonderful director is he understands the rules, logic and math of good storytelling," said Hawke. "And he understands his own film so completely that what is right and wrong for the film starts to feel obvious. He doesn't need anyone else's ideas but is confident enough to be completely open to anything that might help. You simply have to jump into his imagination and take the ride."

In casting Hawke, who was fresh off of production on the physically taxing Robert Eggers epic "The Northman," "his hair was already long and he was also, to my surprise, in incredible shape," said Derrickson. "I immediately thought, 'Oh we're keeping this. His long hair is going to play as a nice frame for the mask."

The horrors not shown

The scene in the film where The Grabber sits shirtless in a chair at the top of the stairs, belt in hand, is especially chilling because of Hawke's physicality. "It wasn't in the script that he was shirtless but I said 'You know, I think it would be really deranged if he didn't have a shirt on' and he said 'Great, I'll do it,'" said Derrickson. "And that's a big thing for actors, how comfortable they are showing more of their body."

"It's the only element of the film that adds any kind of direct visual sexual violence to it," said Cargill. "Because one of the questions I've gotten [most often] from people is 'Is the Grabber a pedophile? Is he actually molesting these children?' We don't show it because we don't need to show it but yeah, he is. And that one scene where he's just sitting there with that frowning mask, you just know that whatever is going to happen isn't going to be good. And it just gets under your skin."

The scariest thing about this character "is his unpredictability," said Derrickson. "It's why Cargill and I agreed not to create any more backstory for him than the little hints that are already in there. I think people are fascinated by these kind of sociopathic killers, whether onscreen or in real life, because they are so mysterious. What makes them scary is their otherness, the sociopathology that makes them so alien. And I think if you add more to try to explain what that is, it just dilutes it. There's a mystery to that level of evil that you have to respect and trust as a storyteller, that it will come across."

"We hint at things," said Cargill. "We talk about playing 'Naughty Boy' and beatings and his favorite part, which we don't [specifically name]. And that really messes with people because it allows your mind to go to the worst possible [scenarios]. I think because we can't fathom what drives people not only to sexual violence, but sexual violence that ends in the death of multiple people, that lack of understanding of what makes that person tick is really scary to us."

"We are taught as actors to always hunt for the dark side of a hero or the good side of a villain," said Hawke. "But here, there was no 'good' side. It's a broken mind. A diseased animal."

Determining aesthetic and tone

"The key thing we wanted was to not make a film that was nostalgic for the 70s," said Cargill. "Far too many times when you see a movie set in the 70s or 80s, it's exciting, in Technicolor and all the best parts that we never really experienced. We wanted people to see the grit and grime of the 70s. We didn't want it to look cool, we wanted it to look like the awful times that they were."

"It is kind of a reverse Amblin aesthetic," agreed Derrickson. "I think there's such a tendency now where, if you've got [a project about] kids this age in something fantastical set during that time, to filter it through that nostalgic point of view. And all those roads lead back to Spielberg's movies of that time. But that's not what being 12 felt like to me at all. [I didn't live] in the middle class suburb, I lived in this very working class neighborhood where people fought a lot and everybody got the belt, or most people did. So I think there was a desire to say something truthful about my own experience."

"I don't want to be reductive, but this is ultimately about the trauma of childhood," he added. "Childhood is traumatic for everybody in some form, no matter where you're from. It's hard to be a kid. I liked the idea that The Grabber was a kind of hyperinflation of what they were already living [through]."

Among the things the filmmakers couldn't have foreseen — especially as the movie's opening was delayed further than expected due to the COVID-19 pandemic — was the climate in which "The Black Phone" would ultimately be released. In the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde, Texas, will a movie in which children are terrorized suddenly feel like it's exploiting very real tragedy and fear?

"The tone was a tough needle to threat because violence against children messes with everybody," said Cargill. "It's one of the cheapest things you can do in storytelling. If you put an innocent in danger, people are going to get scared. But if you do it wrong, it feels like it's glorified ... we wanted to make sure that [the violence] was saying and doing something in terms of storytelling and not there just as a cheap stunt. We wanted to make sure that it felt like a very real horror experience and a very real childhood experience, both at the same time."

"I'm very vocal on my social media about gun control," added Derrickson. "I'm a gun owner, but our gun laws are absurd. And I think this is where horror has its value. I don't think it's cavalier to have material dealing with violence and children just because there's real world violence against children going on in the world. All the more reason horror art ought to be reflecting that in some regard. To me, that's the whole value of horror cinema and horror art: You're not putting out evil itself, you're putting out a reckoning with evil."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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