Joe Hill is successful author of HEART SHAPED BOX, HORNS and 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS and with the recent adaptation of short story, THE BLACK PHONE hitting cinemas this week, we stop by to discuss his thoughts on the film and it's origins.
How do you feel about having had your story THE BLACK PHONE made into this movie?
First of all, it’s such an extraordinary film, and I’m so grateful that Scott Derrickson and Robert Cargill wanted to take it on as their next project. I feel unbelievably lucky to have had someone take a short story that I wrote in 2004 for $50 and make such an emotionally authentic and truly scary picture out of it. THE BLACK PHONE was published in a small British horror magazine, and then it became a part of my first collection, 20TH CENTURY GHOSTS. I wrote it very quickly, in about a week, and I could feel it wanted to be a novel and that there was more story there; but I didn’t quite have the courage to go for it then, as I didn’t have a published novel yet and wasn’t sure I could pull it off. Then, fast-forward 15 or so years, it’s interesting to see how Scott Derrickson and Robert Cargill took that short story and wrote for the screen the novel that it could have been.
What was the inspiration to write it?
I hadn’t thought about that until recently, and then it came to me suddenly. I grew up in a 19th century Victorian house in Bangor, Maine. And when we moved in, the basement was kind of an unfinished space with a dirt floor - rambling with cobwebs, shadowy rooms with partially exposed brick walls, and little passages - and an old phone that didn’t work. It probably dated to the 30’s or 40’s, and it wasn’t hooked up to anything. So, that has to be the genesis of this story! You know, a lot of my fiction is about objects that don’t do the things we want or expect them to do, and the idea of an old disconnected phone that rings anyway just strikes me as inherently frightening.
How much of the short story you wrote is in the film?
What amazes me about the movie and is so gratifying for me as a writer is that everything that’s in the short story is in the film. So, about half of the movie is what’s in the short story, and then it has been expanded. THE BLACK PHONE builds out skillfully the story and characters I wrote with great emotional intelligence. And there is a richness to the film that makes it hard to classify, as it bursts out of any genre or cubbyhole you would expect it to be located in.
How did Scott Derrickson enrich it?
I feel that Scott Derrickson brought a terrific personal aspect, which reflects upon his own childhood growing up the Midwest during the late 70s, when children didn’t have a smartphone in their pocket and were not under the parental eye all the time, and kind of knocked around the neighbourhood without being monitored. In that era the physical abuse on children was more common and not really commented on. So, Scott managed to tell a deeply personal story about what it was like to be a child then, marrying it to the elements of the supernatural thriller I wrote. And it turned out that those two elements wove together naturally in a tremendously satisfying way.
So, what did you think of the script when you first read it?
I had goosebumps and was so excited that I couldn’t sit in my chair. Then we had a couple of conversations about some creative decisions, and all I can say is that both Scott Derrickson and Robert Cargill were amazing collaborators; so, the truth is that I didn’t really need to say much, because what they delivered was amazing from the start. I thought that if it got made it would be one of the greatest strokes of luck in my whole career because it was a beautifully engineered script. Then I was really hoping that it actually would happen, as lots of stuff can be in development without ever arriving on screen. So, I feel very fortunate that it got made, and what came out was even better than what I had hoped.
What surprised you the most about the movie?
I don’t think I had anticipated how frightening the villain’s mask – with its changeable parts – would be. It was discussed in the script, but I didn’t think it would be this instantly iconic image. Also, when you are casting kids, you don’t know what you are going to get, and this film is anchored by not just one but two astonishing child performances. Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw are absolutely electrifying, and there is not a false note in them. Watching them, you feel you are seeing real kids from a real moment in time, and yet they are fresh and not types or clichés. They are highly particular, unique, and fascinating individuals that we can care about and root for. It’s just remarkable when everything jells. You have this mask that no one is ever going to forget, these amazing child performances, a tightly engineered supernatural situation with heart, and Ethan Hawke delivering maybe the most shocking performance of his career.
Ethan Hawke plays the villain of the story, known as The Grabber. How did you come up with that terrifying character?
When I wrote the story, I thought a little bit about John Wayne Gacy and another fairly horrible child murderer from the 80’s in the Boston area that made an impression on me. Things like this just shouldn’t ever happen, and there was a particular case that felt to me like a black fracture right through the world. One of the things I like about THE BLACK PHONE is that it sort of gives the victims their voices and strengths back, in a way that I feel is emotionally effective and meaningful.
In that sense, the relationship between the siblings Finney and Gwen – played by Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw respectively – is very important.
Yes, and there was a little bit of that in my story, but I believe the movie ignites it and gives it so much more, both emotionally and psychologically. Finney’s sister, Gwen, has a psychic gift, and there is a suggestion that it may run throughout the family – which explains why Finney, when he is locked up in a soundproof basement by the villain, can hear this disconnect black phone ringing, connecting him with other children that this mad man has killed. At the same time, Gwen has had flashes, and now her brother’s life may depend on her ability to use her gift to find him. Madeleine is awesome in that role, and Mason also delivers a powerful performance, bringing a gravity and openness to the role that is striking. It’s fascinating to watch that character slowly excavate down to his own courage.
And Ethan Hawke’s performance as The Grabber is also quite memorable.
It’s an unforgettable performance! I think that character is going to haunt a lot of people, giving them uneasy nights of sleep. And the fact that we can’t see his face, due to the mask, makes him far more terrifying. It literally dehumanizes him and makes him into something demonic and inhuman.
What do you think Scott Derrickson brought to it all as a director?
Deft, confidence and a total lack of pretention. He knew perfectly well what every scene was about. And there is a total grasp of the period and the place, as well as a perfect engineering of the story, to frighten and grip the audience with suspense. Using a sports metaphor, Scott never overswings at the pitch. There is just this quiet, understated power throughout the film that ends up being one of the main reasons it is so effective.
What it is about the communal experience of going to the theatre and being scared by a genre movie like this that has been so appealing since the dawn of cinema?
It has to do with sharing that rush of terror in the dark, which we like to do as a group. Sometimes it just feels good to scream.
And speaking of screams, THE BLACK PHONE is not a film populated by easy scares, but rather ingrained in real horror.
Yes, because Scott understands how real horror works. In bad horror movies the characters have no depth, and then a serial killer comes along and knocks them down like bowling pins. Good horror is about giving people complete characters they can fall in love with and root for, which then have to face the worst; but the audience is there in the dark with them, the same way we are in the basement with Finney, hoping and at the same time afraid that the black phone will ring. Good horror is about empathy, compassion and a full emotional investment, whereas bad horror is a series of sadistic jokes.
What scares you in real life.
I scare easily – which is probably a good thing because if I were immune, I probably wouldn’t be able to write scary stuff.
What would you say were your influences in writing this story?
I like to think that I have a fairly wide range of influences. Probably the biggest one is my parents, as they are both novelists. My father is the writer Stephen King, and when I look at this story I see a lot of my dad’s influence in it. I also love the short stories of Ray Bradbury and Jack Finney. Actually, Finney Shaw was named after him, but there wasn’t one specific influence on THE BLACK PHONE. I had sort of discovered my own voice at the time.
Could you ever had imagined at the time that it would end up becoming this extraordinary movie?
Not in my wildest dreams! When the short story appeared in this little British horror magazine called The Third Alternative, I never could have imagined the 15 years later it would become this truly wonderful film. It just seems too good to be true.