Sinister Screenwriter C. Robert Cargill On The Secrets Of Scaring An Audience's Pants Off

Sinister Screenwriter C. Robert Cargill On The Secrets Of Scaring An Audience’s Pants Off

Posted by October 8, 2012 Comment

As you may recall if you read the Bleeding Cool review of Sinister, the new “bumps-in-the-night” horror directed by Scott Derrickson, the film is definitely a strong contender for the most frightening release of this year. If you haven’t yet worked up the courage to go and see it in the cinema yet, here’s the story: Ethan Hawke plays Ellison, a once-successful non-fiction crime writer attempting to make a comeback after a string of unsuccessful books, who moves his entire family into a house where an entire family was mysteriously murdered. Shortly after moving in, he finds a box of Super 8mm “home movies” in the attic that appear to be recordings not only of the murders in Ellison’s house, but a series of connected murders that precede it.

You said in a previous interview that the story for Sinister was based on a dream. Do you think that the unconscious mind provides more effective scares than conscious effort?
No, but I think it is the perfect proving ground for an idea. When writing, it is very hard to scare yourself, because you can’t buy into the reality of it – you know its genesis. But in a dream, you’re living through the idea. If it scares you, odds are it will scare someone else.
Is Ellison’s name a reference to a real-life writer? The best guess I could come up with was Harlan Ellison.
Yep. And Oswalt is a reference to close friend of Harlan Ellison, stand-up comedian and writer, Patton Oswalt. I keep their books on my bookshelf next to one another (I have an oddball filing system in which I place books according to literary movements – Fitzgerald by the Hemmingway, Lovecraft by the Howard, Burroughs by the Kerouac…and Ellison by the Gaiman and Oswalt.) I needed a writer-ly sounding name.
Do you feel that having so much experience as a film review was an advantage when it came to writing the screenplay?
Very much so. I’ve watched, literally, thousands of movies with audiences. I’ve learned how they react, I’ve seen what they react to, and I’ve dissected those films with an eye toward explaining what makes them work…or fail. All of that experience went into Sinister.
Is there anything you would consider “off-limits” when writing horror?
Shock for pure shocks sake. If you do something in a horror movie, it better play into the story or increase the feeling of dread and danger. Otherwise, you risk creating something that simply won’t be effective after the first viewing. Great cinema should survive past more than a single viewing. And yes, I believe horror can be, when done correctly, great cinema.
Though not a found footage film, Sinister contains elements of found footage in the films Ellison finds. What do you think is uniquely frightening about this subgenre?
The first person, real world nature of it. It feels like you’re watching something that could actually happen. There’s nothing slick or cinematic about it – it is raw, dirty, poorly lit. Just like real life.
Did Sinister frighten you when you saw it?
No. I was way too close the idea for too long. I see all the strings and seems if you will.
Do you subscribe to any particular theories as to why certain horror tropes frighten people (the uncanny, abjection etc)?
Everything in horror taps into primal emotion. That’s why it works. We’re programmed to worry about children, so when children are in danger or become villainous, we become worried for them. We’re terrified of the unknown, so ghosts freak us out. We can’t handle not knowing how close danger is, so darkness terrifies us. As a result, we all have many of the same fears – tap into that and you can find the basis for a hundred horror movies.
Whats the most frightened you’ve ever been by a story, whether in a book, movie, video game or campfire tale?
When I was 10 years old watching Johnny Depp get swallowed by a waterbed and spat out as a geyser of blood in A Nightmare on Elm Street. That scene scarred me for life and gave me nightmares for weeks. I had to shut the movie off after that. Couldn’t watch it again for years.

 

(Last Updated October 8, 2012 11:58 am )

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