Attached to helm Marvel’s upcoming Doctor Strange, director Scott Derrickson is soon to become a familiar name, if it isn’t already. The odds are you’ve heard of some of his films, but what you’ve heard about them probably varies. Personally, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) and Sinister (2012), both of which Derrickson also co-wrote, deserve their status as recommended viewing. I can’t comment on the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) or Deliver Us from Evil (2014), only the latter of which he co-wrote, other than to say I haven’t heard any really positive reviews of them.
It will be interesting to see whether Derrickson is given kudos or cursed when Doctor Strange is released in 2016, but a few things give me hope. First off, both Marvel and actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who has been cast as Doctor Strange himself, have a reputation for choosing quality projects. What’s more, Derrickson’s better films deliver both real scares and real characters, and he’s sure to bring everything he’s got to Doctor Strange. Finally, listening to the Sinister commentary track he shares with co-writer C. Robert Cargill, it’s clear that he has a clear vision of what he’s after, and enough knowledge of his craft to get it.
Creating strong genre films
The two seem to have a strong working relationship and shared insight on their craft, both of which come through on the commentary. About halfway through, they share their perspective on what makes a strong genre film.
“A great genre film is a film in which you’d be interested in the story even if there weren’t horror elements, and The Exorcist is the perfect example of that,” begins Cargill. “It’s a mother worried about her daughter; it’s a priest wrestling with his faith. Then you add the devil in, and now you’ve got a horror movie.”
Derrickson picks up on that thought and approaches it from the opposite direction. “If you took all the genre elements out of it, do you still have a movie that would be worth watching? And if you can answer ‘Yes’ to that question, then you probably have a good genre film on your hands” (00:51:00).
Working with actors
Once the story is ready to go, it’s important for directors to communicate their vision of the story to the actors so they can shape their performances accordingly. To help him explain some of his ideas to the cast of Sinister, Derrickson found himself referring to the only other horror film that might be classed with The Exorcist.
“I gave [Ethan Hawke] the clip of Shelley Duvall with the axe coming through the wall in The Shining, because there’s a moment . . . where her eyes roll back in her head almost like a horse being scared,” he says. “That is, for me, the most afraid any person has looked in the history of cinema . . . ,” (01:26:20).
Derrickson also used this technique with Michael D’Addario, who plays Trevor. While preparing to film the scene in which Trevor, in the middle of a night terror, comes out of the box screaming with his eyes wide open, Derrickson showed D’Addario a clip from The Shining. “There’s a jump cut of the little boy when he sees the . . . Grady twins all chopped up at the end of the hallway, and there’s a quick shot of his eyes wide, recoiling,” he explains. “I gave Michael that and I said, ‘I need something like this in that moment’” (01:26:30).
Although it’s possible some actors might not respond to that technique, Derrickson feels “those things are helpful to actors. They’re very on the nose and specific for them but it helps them . . .” (01:26:30).
I’m happy to say that there’s enough in this commentary to deserve a second posting, so I’ll leave things here for now. Next time we’ll hear what Derrickson has to say about using the camera to create scares and the editing room to maintain tension and a brisk pace, as well as Cargill’s engaging delivery of the one thing that truly scares all storytellers: exposition!
What do you think? Did you enjoy Sinister? How does it compare to Derrickson’s other films? Do you agree with their thoughts on creating strong genre films? Can you suggest any alternative approaches to giving direction to actors? Do you think Shelley Duvall would enjoy being compared to a frightened horse? Leave some comments below and let us know!
Sinister (2012) | Directed by Scott Derrickson | Written by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill | Starring Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, Fred Dalton Thompson, James Ransone, Clare Foley, Michael Hall D’Addario | Commentary by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill