The Horror Film Director Talks Faith, Film, and Other Things
Hailing back to ZekeFilm’s overtly Christian days, we present this interview with filmmaker Scott Derrickson from February of 2013, conducted with then-seminarian and ZekeFilm co-founder Dave Henry. Since this interview took place, Derrickson has directed the Marvel Studios blockbuster Doctor Strange.
Scott Derrickson is a Christian who makes horror films. He’s a rare breed, in that he’s a Christian filmmaker who doesn’t make “Christian” films, although Biblical Truth can be found within his art nonetheless. His newest film, Sinister is available on blu-ray and DVD. Recently I reached out to Scott for an interview, and he graciously granted me one. I should warn you, dear readers, that this interview contains plenty of spoilers for Sinister, including the final shot of the movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend checking it out before reading this interview in its entirety.
I started out by asking Scott a little about his personal story, and how he came to believe in Christ.
ZekeFilm: Tell us a little bit of your story. Were you raised in the Church? Have you always been a follower of Christ, or was there a conversion moment for you?
Scott Derrickson: I wasn’t raised in the Church. My folks took us to various churches, on and off, on special occasions, etc… My conversion came in middle school. It was kind of a two-part conversion – first hearing the gospel after an A.W.A.N.A. meeting in the church pastured by the father of musician and filmmaker Steve Taylor, who is now a good friend. But then I had a much more emotional and memorable experience in a fundamentalist ministry a few years later. I became a part of that fundamentalist church for 6 years, and graduated from that Christian school. It was extreme fundamentalism – our high school had connections to Bob Jones University.
ZF: How about your artistic journey? Did you always know that you wanted to make movies? What has your journey looked like so far? Can you take us from [your home state of] Colorado to Hollywood?
Scott Derrickson: I grew up watching lots of movies. When I left Colorado for California to attend Biola University (a liberal college for me at the time) I was pretty sure I wanted to make movies. Biola was pretty much a five-year crisis of faith – I was exposed to a real classical education there, and my literature and philosophy studies were blowing my mind. After that I went to USC for graduate school.
ZF: As a Christian, how does your faith affect your art, and vise-versa?
Scott Derrickson: They are inseparable. Lots of books have been written about “integrating faith and art,” but in my experience, what I believe is literally impossible to separate from what I create. But I’m not a proselytizer with my creative work – that’s not at all the role that art or even entertainment should play. I create things to entertain and challenge both myself and the viewer. I don’t ever assume that I have a message to convey – nobody ever wants to be instructed or preached at by a film director.
I never feel compelled to represent good as a stronger or more dominant force than evil, and certainly never feel compelled to communicate that God is stronger than evil. If a story reveals that, then great, but if a story doesn’t, that’s fine too – I just have to tell the story as well as possible.
ZF: Who are some of your biggest influences/inspirations? As an artist and as a Christian, who do you really look up to the most?
Scott Derrickson: Wim Wenders, first and foremost. He’s become one of my closest friends, and I’m not sure any living director better represents a true spiritual imagination in cinema. Overall, my greatest directorial hero is Kurosawa – no other director ever made more films that were simultaneously high art and popular entertainment.
ZF: You’re primarily known for horror films, so let’s talk about horror (my own favourite film genre). What are some of your favourite horror movies and why?
Scott Derrickson: I love Italian horror for it’s visual ambition. I also love American studio horror from the late 60s to the early 80s – Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, The Shining – you can’t beat those films.
ZF: Your first feature-length film was Hellraiser: Inferno, which is my favorite of the Hellraiser series. Not only do I find it the scariest, but I think it has the best message: that our flesh wages war on our spirit. I just have one question, though: you’ve mentioned before that in the film, Detective Thorne transitions into Hell as soon as he opens the Lament Configuration. But at the end of the movie, it’s revealed that the child’s fingers he’s been finding throughout the film have belonged to him all along, albeit in a spiritual sense. So, if that’s the case, then whose finger is inside the candle that Thorne finds at the crime scene at the beginning of the film?
Scott Derrickson: We never know the answer to that. The point is that it’s the visual image that Thorne’s hell is built upon. I fancy the idea that his “hell” is of his own making, and the concept of the fingers that belong to him are the result of his own subconscious guilt.
ZF: Okay, let’s get into your latest film, Sinister. First off, I thought it was terrifying. The character of Bughuul was interesting. Was he based on an actual Sumerian deity, or was he an original creation for the film? I’ve tried looking him up online but to no avail. Did you and Christopher Cargill draw from any real mythologies when crafting the mythology for this movie?
Scott Derrickson: Bughuul was a total fictional construction. Cargill knows a lot about pagan mythology, so he had some sources of inspiration – but it was all essentially made up.
ZF: Did you consider filming Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio’s scenes together, or was he always meant to show up via Skype? Was it a scheduling issue?
Scott Derrickson: We did film them together. They were on set together in opposite rooms. The skyping was in the script – it wasn’t done for production costs or scheduling.
ZF: Deputy So-and-So is one of my favorite characters in the film. He seems like a doofus, but turns out be the wisest character. Is he in there, at the end, to provide a filmmaker’s voice? Do you ever have characters in your films that sort of speak in your voice? I’m reminded of Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books, who J.K. Rowling always said spoke in her voice.
Scott Derrickson: My own voice shows up randomly – sometimes more through some characters than others. In Sinister I definitely relate much more to Ellison that Deputy So-and-So.
ZF: One interesting thing about Sinister is its unique score. It’s definitely not the typical horror movie score. It’s much more industrial, for example. Can you take us through a little bit of the process of how you envisioned the score for this film?
Scott Derrickson: I had selected all of the prerecorded songs before the movie was shot. For example, I played the pre-recorded music tracks for each of the super 8 films on set – so I had already chosen a certain musical tone for the film before Chris Young started scoring the film. I told him I wanted something gritty and electronic and industrial, and that it had to work with my other tracks. Chris had never done anything like that, so he started by sending me literally hundreds of musical sounds and samples, and I would tell him what I liked. Then he would score the scene and would help him shape it, but the originality of that score is all Chris. He just came up with these amazing pieces that fit the film so well – it’s the kind of thing you hope and pray your composer will do.
ZF: At the end of the film, is Bughuul meant to be looking directly at us? As in, we’ve just watched the footage of what happened to Ellison’s family, just as he saw the footage of what happened to the other families? Are we next on his hit list?
Scott Derrickson: Yes, that’s right.
ZF: I didn’t leave the movie feeling like any sort of sequel was necessary, as this film does a great job telling this story and brings it to a definite conclusion. But as I reading the various reviews around the web, it looks like a lot of folks are speculating about where things could go in a sequel. Do you or Christopher see another story here that could be told? Could you see Bughuul becoming a new franchise villain like Freddy Krueger or Pinhead?
Scott Derrickson: We have an idea for a sequel that we quite like. Looks like we’re moving ahead with that. I’ve always envisioned Bughuul/Mr. Boogie as a new franchise character.
ZF: Do you think that you and Christopher Robert Cargill will work together again anytime soon?
Scott Derrickson: We already rewrote one big studio script, wrote a spec, and are currently adapting Deus Ex for CBS films.
ZF: If you could work with anyone you wanted to in the future, who would you like to work with?
Scott Derrickson: There are many actors I dream of working with. Javier Bardem comes to mind.
ZF: The slasher movie is my favorite subgenre of the horror genre. Some of my favorite horror films of all time are slasher movies. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, John Carpenter’s Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc. Would you ever consider making a slasher movie?
Scott Derrickson: Of course, but it would need to bring something fresh to the genre. It’s a very difficult genre to re-invent after Scream.
ZF: What can you tell us about your future projects? Are you still planning on making Goliath? How about Beware the Night? What can you tell us about that?
Scott Derrickson: Beware the Night is probably my next film. Eric Bana has signed on to play the lead character, which thrills me to no end. He’s one of the best actors in the world.
ZF: If you could go back and re-do any of your previous projects, then would you? If so, what would you do differently?
Scott Derrickson: I wouldn’t re-do them because of the lessons I’ve learned from them. There are many things about The Day the Earth Stood Still that I wish I could have done differently, but in the end, I learned a lot from that experience.
ZF: If you could make your dream project, with money as no object, and it would be greenlit and produced exactly how you want it with no strings attached, what would you do?
Scott Derrickson: Paradise Lost. The artwork I developed for the film is on my Facebook page.
ZF: And finally, let’s wrap up with a question from one of our readers:
“Scott, as a horror movie fan, especially as a Christian, I watch lots of supernatural horror flicks that inevitably portray a highly organized, nigh-omnipotent evil force in existence that plays essentially by its own rules, and gets away with just about anything. God, or whatever is recognized supernaturally as “good”, is often portrayed as little more than a weak, seemingly impotent being almost unable to do much more than survive, and barely able to intervene or even affect characters and events. This is in stark contrast to not only the Bible, but much of the writings surviving from the ancient world, which describe evil as being limited and constrained by one God who rules through his messengers. As a writer and director of stories and films which dabble in the supernatural and paranormal, have you encountered this issue and if so, how do you deal with it?” –Kenneth James Conklin
Scott Derrickson: I never feel compelled to represent good as a stronger or more dominant force than evil, and certainly never feel compelled to communicate that God is stronger than evil. If a story reveals that, then great, but if a story doesn’t, that’s fine too – I just have to tell the story as well as possible. Some stories end badly, sometimes evil wins. A movie isn’t the place to preach about God’s ultimate control – it’s the place to connect with audiences about the realities of life. Sometimes those realities are inspiring and good conquers evil, and sometimes the opposite is true.