Warning: Full spoilers follow for The Black Phone.
The Black Phone is the new film from director Scott Derrickson and Blumhouse Productions that stars Ethan Hawke as a kidnapper known as The Grabber. The story was adapted from Joe Hill’s short story “The Black Phone,” and it follows a 13-year-old boy named Finney (Mason Thames) who was kidnapped by The Grabber and locked in his basement. While all seems hopeless, a disconnected black phone somehow gives Finney a chance to talk to The Grabber’s previous victims, all of whom want to help Finney avoid what happened to them.
The Black Phone is a supernatural horror story, but it is one that aims to be grounded in a way that makes moviegoers believe at least part of the story is something that could actually happen. To learn how they made this nightmare a reality, IGN sat down with Derrickson, executive producer Jason Blum, and Hawke.
When you’re done here, don’t forget to check out our The Black Phone review,
The Black Phone: Combining a Short Story and Personal Horrors
While the crux of the 2004 short story remains intact in the film, there are certain elements that were updated and changed, and not just because they needed to make a short last one hour and 43 minutes. One of the biggest changes was to The Grabber himself, as the story described him as an “overweight clown patterned after John Wayne Gacy.”
“There wasn’t anything that I was torn about,” Derrickson said, regarding making changes to the story. “It seemed pretty clear to me the things I had to update. In the book, he’s an overweight clown patterned after John Wayne Gacy. Obviously, I didn’t want him to be a clown after [the] It [movie], And I really wanted Ethan, so I didn’t want this fat, overweight character. And so I sort of started with the mask and Ethan from scratch, and I wanted to try to design a look and an aesthetic and a manner for The Grabber that was very unique from Joe’s story.
“Also, the sister character is an older character in the short story and doesn’t really do much,” Derrickson said of Madeleine McGraw’s Gwen. “And I felt like the movie, in order to have real emotion and soul, needed a central female character that was highly empowered. And so Gwen was kind of an invention from scratch. And so we created this nine-year-old girl who is a spitfire and is honestly stronger than anybody else in the entire movie, including Finney, The Grabber, and all of the adults. And she’s kind of the soul and centerpiece of the movie, and their bond together is what drives the emotional core of the storytelling.”
For Derrickson, his journey to bring The Black Phone to theaters was also a very personal one, as the film is a combination of the one told by Joe Hill and a retelling of sorts of certain traumatic events Derrickson endured as a child.
“I always thought it would be a great feature film, but I didn’t know how to expand it,” Derrickson said. “And the answer came after a couple years of therapy, dealing with my own childhood and really the violence in my childhood, and some of the traumatic events in my childhood. … The idea came to me to combine my own experiences growing up in a blue-collar, violent neighborhood in North Denver in the late ’70s with The Black Phone. And that’s really what the movie is. It’s a combination of my own memories, from my own past, with that short story.”
Why Children Are the Perfect Vehicle for Our Deepest Fears
The Black Phone features a cast that is led by children. It isn’t a simple coincidence that children tend to find themselves at the center of horror stories, and one of the main reasons behind that choice is they are the “embodiment of innocence” according to Blum.
“Most kids are born kind of good,” said Blum. “They are born without prejudice and they are these kind of perfect beings running around. And then the world comes at them and we get cynical and we get this and that. But when you take innocence and you threaten it, there’s nothing more wrenching than that. And that’s why you see so many horror movies with kids in jeopardy because, when an audience watches that, whether you have kids or not, it’s very heart-wrenching and it’s very effective.”
Derrickson also talked about The Black Phone being a “coming-of-age film that is interrupted by this horror story” and why focusing on kids in these stories makes them hit so much closer to home than they would otherwise.
“It’s because they’re vulnerable,” Derrickson said. “We care about them. And we ourselves always remember that change is what’s frightening. The unknown is what’s frightening, and there is no period of life where we change more and faster and more against our will than when we’re children. And in that coming-of-age period, it’s terrifying. And there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Everyone has to live through it. And we all remember what it’s like and the feelings of that are very powerful feelings.
“And so if you inject that with something truly traumatic, like a child abduction from a sadistic killer, then you’re introducing a very big metaphor, but also a very big reality for a character who now has to rise above himself, has to rise above who he has been in the past and enter into adulthood in a way, which is what happens to our character in this movie.”
Walking the Tightrope of a Good Supernatural Story
Telling an effective supernatural story is like walking on a tightrope. When performed perfectly, it’s something that captivates us all. If it teeters too much towards unbelievability or stays too close to the ground or “falls off,” it loses its so-called magic.
The Black Phone chose to walk that tightrope, and that challenge is something Derrickson has been dealing with his whole career with films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Sinister, and even the first Doctor Strange.
“My general approach is the more that I can ground something in actual reality, the more that I can make an audience feel like characters in an environment are realistic, the more they are willing to accept the realism of the paranormal or the supernatural when you start to introduce it,” Derrickson said. “And the way you introduce it is really important. If you can get them to accept a story as being a grounded and realistic one and then ease in the paranormal or the supernatural, they go with it.
“And I also think that enables the paranormal and supernatural components to be much scarier because you accept them in a way in a grounded movie more than you would in a movie where the characters are a little more over the top or cartoonish or two-dimensional “
At its core, The Black Phone is a story that could, unfortunately, happen to any of us. Sure, the talking ghosts may be a stretch, but the story of a father and his children could make sense to many people, horror fan or not.
,[It starts with] this abusive father and his incredible brother and sister relationship, and the movie is a kind of a metaphor for this horrible situation these kids are in with their dad,” Blum said. “And I think Derrickson, Hawke, [co-writer C. Robert] Cargill, and I would all agree that if you focus on the storytelling of the family drama first and foremost, if you get that right, then the scariness of The Grabber of Ethan’s character and the scary things that happen in that basement are all much, much more effective because the audience is so wrapped up in the drama that these guys have all created.”
Another strength of The Black Phone, and many other horror movies for that matter, is the power of the unknown. It’s that darkness that creeps into your bedroom and hides the monster under your bed, or the terror of walking through the woods at night and hearing an unfamiliar sound. These are all things we can relate to because we have all felt them in one way or another. We have felt the fear of not knowing, and that is sometimes the scariest feeling of all.
“One of the reasons that I think horror films and scary stories are always so dynamic for us is that there’s an aspect of our life that is always unknown,” Hawke said. “And that when you touch the unknowable, it makes you realize how little you actually do understand about life, about why we’re born, about where we were before we were born, about where we go when we die, and, ultimately , what is it all for. And so sometimes these great stories of light or great stories of darkness help us access the unknowable. And I think that is mysterious and intriguing to us as an audience.”
From Hero to Villain: Ethan Hawke’s Journey to Becoming The Grabber
Ethan Hawke plays the antagonist in The Black Phone, and his choice to take on the role of The Grabber was a bit out of the ordinary for him. Setting aside his recent stint as Arthur Harrow in Moon Knight, Hawke doesn’t love the idea of playing the villain in a story, as it can do some pretty nasty things to your psyche.
“One of the reasons why I never like playing villains, just horrible people, is you don’t really like inviting that kind of madness and that darkness into your psyche,” Hawke said. “It’s so fun to play somebody you admire, or at least somebody you find really compelling, but The Grabber is just flat-out horrible. He’s just a broken thing. And he hurts everything he touches, and he probably hates himself and hates everything else more for making him hate himself.”
However, the actor does admit that the challenge of trying to get to the bottom of why an evil character is the way they are can be a bit fun.
“But it is a fun game to play with yourself,” Hawke continued. “What makes him laugh? What makes him interested? Why is he doing this? One doesn’t really like to think about why people hurt children, because it’s so awful. And the mystery of the universe of why good things happen to bad people is something that breaks our brain. It just does. It’s just not fair and it’s not right. And we expend a tremendous amount of energy trying to not let that happen. But as an actor, your job becomes to embody these things that do exist.”
The Grabber doesn’t get much in the way of exposition describing his past and how he came to be this sadistic kidnapper, but Hawke did share a story of how Derrickson used a quote from Bob Dylan to help define who the character was.
“The one thing we know is that he doesn’t want to be seen,” Hawke said of The Grabber. “Scott used to say this all the time, and I loved it, which is that Bob Dylan line that anybody wearing a mask is telling you the truth. And anybody that is not wearing a mask must be lying, which is just that the one truth is that he does not want to be seen.”
While Hawke doesn’t have much in the way of answers for who exactly is The Grabber, he actually prefers it that way. As is the case in many of the stories that came before The Black Phone and many that will come after, sometimes not knowing is much scarier than the truth.
“So, I don’t have any good answers,” Hawke admitted. “I found the mystery of him so interesting. I imagine there’s a backstory with that phone and him, and I thought about it and what it meant to him. He’s really seen through the point of view of these kids. You don’t get to know him and any answer kind of makes it seem smaller to me.”
The Black Phone is now in theaters. For more, be sure to check out our review, why Ethan Hawke says making horror movies is like solving a “geometry problem,” and our choices for the top 25 best horror movies of all time.
Quotes were slightly edited for clarity.