Ethan Hawke Teams Up With Local Writer for The Black Phone

The team behind Sinister creates the summer's scariest film

Ethan Hawke as the Grabber in The Black Phone (Courtesy of Universal Studios)

In pop culture, the late Seventies signify a cutesy suburban Spielberg fantasy or a decadent Bowie dream, all roller rinks and disco needle drops. Nice, but not what it was really like. "They sucked for some people," said C. Robert Cargill. The writer has reunited with fellow Austinite Ethan Hawke and director Scott Derrickson – the team behind 2012's Sinister – to channel that era's simmering fears into the summer's most frightening film, The Black Phone.

The year is 1978, and on the outskirts of Denver, 12-year-old Finney (Mason Thames) has been abducted by a serial killer dubbed "The Grabber" (Hawke) and locked in his basement. Outside his cellar hell, only his sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), seems to be looking for him, and there's no hope within his subterranean nightmare. That is, until he gets an impossible call on a disconnected wall-mounted rotary phone …

The script is adapted from a 2004 short story by horror writer Joe Hill that taps into the fears inculcated into the skull of every young Gen Xer. Growing up then, you were sent out into the dangerous world with a litany of warnings. Hawke listed them: "Beware of vans. Don't eat any candy. Don't go to the train station, there's a murderer that lurks there."

“We wanted something mythic, something that would terrify a child, but also would send a shiver up your spine when you think it through.” – C. Robert Cargill

It was, Hawke noted, the era of the serial killer, of Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy. But what traumatized Cargill was the 1981 murder of Adam Walsh: Abducted from the Sears in Hollywood, Fla., only his severed head was ever found. "Every kid in America knew that story," Cargill said, "this terrifying, nightmarish story that our parents all told us, horrifically. 'You be careful, and don't talk to strangers, because if you do you'll end up like Adam Walsh.'" At the same time, he noted, "Our parents still had us walk to school."

Even then, horror could come literally to your doorstep. Derrickson recalled being 9 and opening the door in the middle of the night to find his neighbor friend standing there. "He was crying, 'Somebody murdered my mom.' His mother had been abducted and raped and choked to death, wrapped in phone cord and thrown in the local lake. So the presence in my neighborhood of the killer who could silently take you off the street or take you out of your own home and end your life was very real."

It's no surprise, then, that Hill's short resonated with Derrickson. He was drawn in by its "deceptively simple brilliance. … It combines a serial killer story with a ghost story, and it does it very effectively in a single location." At the same time, it was "very empathetic, and had a lot of love and hope in it." Indeed, Derrickson described the final film as his most optimistic to date, with a simple message: "Never underestimate the resilience of children."

In 2011, while they were developing Sinister for Blumhouse, he gave a copy to Cargill, who recalled saying, "It's a great idea, but it's so thin. There's no character here, there's no backstory, we essentially start in the second act, and it rockets towards the end. It's going to require a lot of building out."

With more than enough projects to keep them busy (including 2016's Doctor Strange), they put it on the back burner, but it kept coming up. In 2018, they were in Chicago for the Cinepocalypse Film Festival, hanging out, drinking scotch, when Derrickson suggested a radical departure from their normal genre fare. Cargill said, "He wanted to make a movie that involved the various strangeness and trauma he experienced as a kid in Denver in the Seventies."

Scott Derrickson on the set of The Black Phone (Photo by Fred Norris / Universal Studios)

This was a profoundly personal story for Derrickson, and a transitional time in his life: waiting on the first draft of Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (which he was then attached to direct) and coming out of three years of therapy. He said, "I grew up in a violent neighborhood, there was a violence in my home, and my primary emotional experience as a child was fear." What he proposed to Cargill was "an American 400 Blows [but] I didn't think I had enough of a story in my past to make something as interesting as that."

They talked through the idea, Cargill said, "and ultimately we went, 'Well, what if we took that, and put that story on Black Phone?'" However, to honor Derrickson's idea, there would be no gloss: "Spanking, corporal punishment, how bullying was treated at the time. We wanted to insert the racism and the homophobia of the era, and create a tapestry of, 'Oh, 1978 wasn't so rad.' There were some cool things, but it was a rough time to grow up."

This sometimes led to friction with executives, as with one scene involving the kind of whipping Derrickson experienced as a child: The execs who suffered the same growing up saw the truth of it, while the luckier ones thought it went too far. Derrickson said he told them, "I'm never cutting this scene. This is the most important scene in the movie. This is the scene where Gwen and Finney have each other's back."

Those new, personal elements fleshed out the world, the first act, Finney and Gwen's relationship, and most importantly, the Grabber himself. In the short story, he's a part-time clown, and that would seem special if Cargill and Derrickson had cracked the adaptation back in 2011; but by 2018, It, the 2017 film version of Stephen King's novel, had made clowns scary and ubiquitous again. When Hill wrote his story, the Grabber's face-paint was meant to evoke primal fears of infamous child murderer John Wayne Gacy, not Pennwyise. Knowing they were finally moving forward with the script, Hill sent them "a very nice letter," Cargill said, explaining that "'I don't want to be seen as ripping off my dad.'" His father, of course, being Stephen King. Cargill added that it was Hill that suggested an alternative: "The old magician act from the Thirties and Forties where the magician would play two characters – the magician and the devil – and that he would switch back and forth in the act."

So the onscreen Grabber is a mask-wearing stage magician played by Hawke in his first-ever truly bad-guy role. "We wanted him to be authentic as a villain," said Cargill. "We didn't want him to be a cartoon. We wanted something mythic, something that would terrify a child, but also would send a shiver up your spine when you think it through."

Call it the summer of evil Ethan: In March, he entered the Marvel universe as Arthur Harrow in Moon Knight. However, while the Disney+ show was released first, he donned the Grabber's mask before he put glass in Arthur Harrow's shoes – and even then, he's reticent about calling Harrow the bad guy. "He's more of the antagonist than the villain," Hawke said. After all, the former avatar of the moon god Khonshu truly believed that he was saving the world; the Grabber is a child-murdering monster, and that's the kind of role the Before Sunrise star has avoided to date. "My imagination just doesn't really love thinking about horrible, toxic, disgusting people. My brain doesn't want to play them."

But there was something deeper. Call it the Shining effect. "The parts you play, you accumulate baggage as a performer," Hawke said. "I had this joke I'd tell at dinner parties that there's pre-Shining Jack Nicholson and post-Shining Jack Nicholson, because once he showed us his inner demon, it didn't matter if he played an actual hero – we were still looking for him to be a killer."

“When you’re wearing a mask, diction becomes extremely important, and your body, how you move it, how you don’t move it, becomes essential.” – Ethan Hawke
Cargill and Derrickson didn't write the Grabber with Hawke in mind, but whoever they chose, Derrickson said, "He's going to be behind the mask for most of the movie, and I'm going to need somebody with a great voice. I started to really obsess about the voice, and it didn't take me long to come back to Ethan. I think Ethan has one of the most distinctive, unique, and recognizable voices of any actor in Hollywood."

Even knowing Hawke's antipathy to playing evil, Derrickson sent him the script. "He left a voicemail for me the next morning that was him using what was the Grabber's voice, reading one of the lines of dialogue from the script, and that creepy message was his way of telling me he'd do it."

Per Hawke, the script's elegance appealed, as did the idea of working under a mask. But what mattered most was who he was working with. Sinister signaled the start of a career resurgence, but just as importantly he'd enjoyed the experience, spending time with the team as creatives and film fans. "Getting to know Scott and Cargill on Sinister kind of reawoke my love of genre movies. I loved geeking out with them, falling in love with movies with them."

The feeling's mutual, Cargill added, noting that their fandoms interlock, rather than overlap. "Ethan knows every tiny, indie film ever made that showed at a side theatre in Cannes in 1936, whereas I'm the guy who stays up 'til 4am with a bottle of whiskey, watching these unknown 1970s and 1980s straight-to-DVD gems that I'm breaking down to find brilliance in. And then Scott, of course, knows all the works of all the major directors."

With the gang back together, now came the final component: the Grabber's mask. According to Cargill, it was Derrickson who suggested that it come in pieces, and that the Grabber would wear different parts as the mood took him. "That's where Scott's ingenious as a director," Cargill said. "He's like, 'We're going to need emotions for these scenes, and but we don't get them from a blank mask. What if we get a mask that can change emotions?'"

Derrickson's original idea was simple: The Grabber would have two devil masks, one painted with a smile, the other frowning, "but I knew I had to do something more," the director said. "It's a real horror tradition, and I wanted to try to evolve the iconic killer in a mask into something different. … Because I had Ethan, I went, 'I'd like to see some of his face, some of the time,' and that was when I started to think about breaking it up."

C. Robert Cargill with the Grabber's mask, which now adorns his home office (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Of course, they went to practical effects legend Tom Savini ("because Tom Savini's amazing," Cargill said) to design and fabricate the nine masks that were finally delivered to Hawke. He was in his office when they arrived, all neatly boxed. "They're instantly iconic," he said, but their physical presence presented him with the reality of what they would mean for his performance, being, as he put it, "robbed of the normal accoutrements of personality." He explained, "It was like I was going to play hide-and-seek with the audience. This side of my face, the left side, the right side, the top half, the bottom half. When do we want to show the mouth? When do we want to show the eyes? It became part of this dance."

Fortunately, it's a dance he'd done before, as one of the first exercises he did in acting class was a masked Greek tragedy. "The reason why they do that is to get you focused on movement, and voice, and speech. When you're wearing a mask, diction becomes extremely important, and your body, how you move it, how you don't move it, becomes essential."

While the mask took away some of his acting tools, in some ways it made the transition to terror easier. Derrickson: "[Hawke] said to me, 'These masks are so scary that I'm going to have remember that I can let the masks do the work that the masks do, and that the Grabber wants them to do. I don't have to create a scariness.'"

Of course, on set Cargill couldn't resist the temptation to don the mask himself, and now one has pride of place on his office wall. "I'm wearing this for Halloween, and I fully anticipate someone will go, 'Oh, dude, where'd you get the mask?'"

The Black Phone is in theatres now. Read our review here.

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The Black Phone, C. Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson, Ethan Hawke, Joe Hill

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