C. Robert Cargill’s Journey From Writing About Film to Making Blockbusters
Something sinister, something strange from Dr. Strange scribe
Every author has reasons for writing. Be it inner demons, obsessions, nightmares, contractual obligations, there's something that gets the pen moving, or the keyboard clacking. For C. Robert Cargill, it's the fear of standing still. "I don't like not working," he said. "I hate sitting around on my ass, waiting for a gig. So whenever I'm between jobs, whenever I've turned in a book and I'm waiting on an edit, I've got to write something."
The Austin writer's latest something is We Are Where the Nightmares Go and Other Stories, a collection of horror short stories published this week. Lurking within the anthology are small-town Armageddons, childhood terrors, and zombie dinosaurs – all carved from Cargill's brain in those rare moments of downtime between bigger projects. When his publishers at Harper Voyager approached him about what his next work would be, he looked at the stack of miniature tales and told them, "As it so happens, I have half a book, and I can write the other half."
But the theme also scratches a particular itch. "I wanted to focus on the horror," he said. The completed stories "were things that I wanted to get out there, and this will give me the inspiration to finish this half a story that I've got, and write these other two stories that I wanted to write, and it'll force me to come up with a third story to fill it out, and it was a lot of fun to put the collection together."
That drive to work has made Cargill a fixture in Austin's film and literary scenes for nearly two decades. Aside from his short story collection, he's two books deep into his modern urban fantasy series about Austin-dwelling mage Colby Stevens, and last year he published his first science-fiction novel, Sea of Rust. With his longtime friend and collaborator, director Scott Derrickson, he scripted Blumhouse's found footage inversion Sinister, and then added mysticism to Marvel with Doctor Strange. Before that, under noms de plume, he was one of the founding fathers of modern online film criticism at two of Austin's groundbreaking review websites. On the animated Spill.com, he was the often impassioned Carlyle; while at Ain't It Cool News, he was Massawyrm, his cartoon mascot a muscle-bound barbarian, slaying a vile snake like a cigar-chomping Conan. Even now, he still keeps his film critiquing skills sharp with Junkfood Cinema, a retrospective podcast with fellow Spill veteran Brian Salisbury which they call a guilt-free celebration of film's forgotten corners.
Tall, bearded, somewhere between burly and gangly (comparing himself to the muscle-bound Massawyrm avatar, "there's a couple of bits of artwork where I'm a little more ripped than I was at the time"), his distinctive voice – constantly upbeat and enthusiastic, with a slight rasp – is part of the Cargill brand, and projects across even crowded rooms. But in person he's surprisingly low-key. Even though he's written blockbusters, he still lives in Austin, his wife took his author headshot, and his biggest self-indulgences are good Scotch, and the tabletop miniature game Warhammer 40K. Famously, on his one day off from shooting Doctor Strange in London, he took the train to the industrial city of Nottingham (not exactly a top tourism spot) to visit the Warhammer World museum. As they say, once a film nerd, always a film nerd.
Cargill's literary secret origin is equally far from red carpet glamour. A college dropout ("I had to choose between school and eating"), in the late Nineties he was working as the associate editor for the Sun Poetic Times "a pro-POC, pro-LGBT, literary magazine in San Antonio with 500 circulation. We literally would print up this magazine ourselves, and then we would drop them at libraries and bookstores around town to be sold for $3 apiece." He was working on his own novels, and even had an agent, but nothing was clicking. "I was heartbroken. I was 24 years old, and my career is already destroyed."
As for film reviewing, "I just kind of fell into it." Anghus Houvouras of Guerilla-Film.com was desperately looking for someone to write a review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and asked on the AICN boards if anyone had seen it. Not only had Cargill seen it, but due to a ticketing screwup at a preview screening, he'd seen it twice. "He said, 'Will you write the review?' and I said yes, and it got 50,000 hits on the first day he put it up, which in the year 2000 was insane."
Enter Eric Vespe, aka Quint of Ain't It Cool News, who convinced Cargill to take on the site's recently created and vacated Indie Indie column. "People really liked my reviews, and I shot up through the ranks really quickly. [Then] one thing led to another, and I just kind of ended [up] falling into The Reel Deal, the cable access show here in Austin, and me and Korey Coleman were sitting drinking one night, and started spitballing the idea of an animated version of that, and that became Spill.com, and then that got purchased by a company that owned Hollywood.com, and they needed writers, and then Film.com started reaching out to second- and third-tier writers at a bunch of big sites, and they poached me, and the next thing you know I'm able to quit my day job as a video store clerk, and was able to be a film critic full time."
According to Cargill, this was "the golden age" of the internet, and online critics achieved a celebrity status equaling the big syndicated names, the Eberts and Siskels and Shalits and Kaels. In 2001, "being at Ain't It Cool News was like being at Rolling Stone in the Sixties. Everyone wanted to be the front page." All the time, he tried to keep a realistic view of what his job was: "Not to be right, but to make you think," he said. "Too many critics think their taste is their currency, and their taste is worthless. Everyone's taste is worthless. ... I didn't believe in myself enough to be pretentious. I just saw myself as somebody who loved movies, and could see the way that story worked."
What seems more amazing is that the film blog explosion was so centered around Austin, away from the big media and studio attention. Yet for Cargill, that was exactly why those sites became so influential. "We were ungettable," he said. "When you were a critic in New York or L.A., all you had to do was be invited out to some of the events, and everyone could meet you, and everyone could offer you things. 'Would you like to interview so-and-so? Hey, why don't you come down to the set next week and take a gander?'" In those pre-smartphone days, studios and big media outlets thought the internet was a cute diversion; meanwhile, sites like AICN and Spill were building up massive fan bases, and were doing so with an authentic voice. When the studios finally realized what was happening online, "It became kissing the ring, so a few people bent over backwards to see [AICN founder Harry Knowles], and then everybody thought they had to."
Of course, that era now has an asterisk next to it, after Knowles and former Birth. Movies. Death. editor Devin Faraci were both accused of sexual harassment and assault. This hit home for Cargill: While both were peers, and he owed his first break to Knowles, the allegations against both were made, in some cases, by women Cargill knew, some of them even friends. So while there's empathy for his fallen peers, sympathy is in shorter supply. "You guys were playing a game of musical chairs in which you didn't think you were ever going to get caught or punished for that. The music stopped, and you were the ones without a chair. You know what? I'm very sorry that your life sucks, but maybe you shouldn't have said that to my friend. Maybe you shouldn't have done that to my friend."
But by the time those allegations were made two years ago, Cargill was long gone from film criticism. It was actually 2007 when he started transitioning from writing about film to writing films, because he saw the writing on the wall. He said, "Everybody thought there was money in the industry, but I knew the industry was going to tank. Businesses were going to get bought up and consolidated."
While he acquired the nickname Cargill Little (because he kept warning everyone the sky was falling), turns out he was right. A decade later, most of those sites he wrote for – Spill, Film, Hollywood, even Guerilla Film – are gone, and rather than trying to jump to more traditional media as a critic, he used two key components of his time online to springboard back into storytelling. First, he realized that in writing about films, "I was becoming what is called a diagnostician. ... Every time I interviewed a filmmaker, I was learning from them. I was asking them questions I wanted to know about filmmaking." Second, he reached out to a director he knew, Scott Derrickson, to give him notes on a manuscript, and the rest is cinematic history.
If Sinister was the duo's calling card, it was 2016's Doctor Strange that really made their reputation. At the time, it was massive news when it was announced, mid-production, that Cargill had been working with Derrickson for months on the project (in a sign of the rare close working relationship between the two, Cargill was actually on set in London – unusual in an industry where writers are often pariahs). Describing their working relationship, Cargill jokingly refers to himself as "the brilliant guy that works with the other brilliant guy." Even though much of his film work involves Hollywood studios, Cargill's managed to stay in Austin, and either calls or Skypes in to meetings. When face-to-face time is required, "[Scott's] there, and he's giving the pitch, and then someone asks a question, and Scott goes, 'Cargill?' and then I give an answer." Not that his physical absence is a real issue. "Even people in L.A. go, 'It's a three-hour drive; can we just Skype it?'"
For his first two major projects, Cargill had the good fortune to work with two of the most important producers of the modern era. Sinister was one of the first post-Paranormal Activity films for Jason Blum's now unstoppable Blumhouse shingle, while Doctor Strange proved that Marvel Cinematic Universe supremo Kevin Feige knew audiences were open to more than just smash-and-bash superhero action. Cargill put their real successes down to talent spotting. Blum took filmmakers who had been misused and spat out by the bigger studios, and let them run free with a budget so small it would be basically impossible to take a loss. As for Feige, he did that within a mega-franchise. "The big thing that Kevin has realized is, let the filmmaker be the filmmaker. He let James Gunn be James Gunn, and he got Guardians of the Galaxy. He let Scott Derrickson be Scott Derrickson, and he got Doctor Strange. He let Taika Waititi be Taika Waititi, and he got Thor: Ragnarok. He let Ryan Coogler be Ryan Coogler, and he got Black Panther."
While Cargill's critical career set him up for Hollywood, of course the day came when he crossed paths with a filmmaker with less fond memories of Massawyrm. "I managed to get seven years into my career without having that moment," he said, and it happened one night over sushi, when a producer he was pitching to brought up an old, less than positive review. After what he called "the most unreal three hours of my life," the producer made it clear that Massawyrm's legacy, and Cargill's future, were separate. "[He said,] 'Go home, roll around, get a terrible night's sleep, wake up tomorrow morning and know that we're starting over fresh, and we're going to make a movie together.'"