C. Robert Cargill discusses how his former career has helped when writing a screenplay | The Fan Carpet Ltd • The Fan Carpet: The RED Carpet for FANS • The Fan Carpet: Fansites Network • The Fan Carpet: Slate • The Fan Carpet: Theatre Spotlight • The Fan Carpet: Arena • The Fan Carpet: International

C. Robert Cargill discusses how his former career has helped when writing a screenplay

01 October 2012

There are few films that come out in a year (or decade, for that matter) that provoke genuine fright, but this week marks the release of a film that does just that, in C. Robert Cargill’s Sinister – and The Fan Carpet‘s Stefan Pape caught up with the writer ahead of the films release.

Directed by Scott Derrickson Sinister follows the story of Ellison (Ethan Hawke), a true crime writer who moves into the former home of a murdered family, and subject of his latest novel. However he soon has to live through a nightmare of his own, when he finds a box of tapes and a projector discarded in the attic…

Cargill – formerly a film critic himself – discusses how his former career has helped when writing a screenplay, as well discussing how the very concept to Sinister first came about. He also tells us of the importance of a strong story in the horror genre, as well as discussing the current state of the often criticised genre.



Despite writing Sinister, when you watch it does it scare you as an audience member, even though you’re the one who created it?

No and part of that is that I was on set for every shock. It’s a very weird experience when you make a film, what happens is you create two completely different memories of these shots and they contradict in your head. Like Ethan talks about, eventually you only remember the movie and eventually those memories fade and go away but there’s other people who tell me just the opposite, which is what I’m experiencing at the moment, which is when you watch the movie you see the set around it. There’s one shot where Ethan’s walking down a hallway and I see that and think I was eating a delicious hamburger right behind the monitor, not three feet from him and you remember stuff like that. This being such a big experience for me, watching it brings me nothing but joy but it doesn’t really scare me anymore. The initial idea scared me because it came from a dream that I had and so the opening shot came from the nightmare, so initially that whole concept really terrified me but working through the writing process and making the film I’ve come at peace with it.


So did you literally have a nightmare, wake up and jot some ideas down?

I had made the mistake of watching The Ring and made the mistake of falling asleep right afterwards, I was really tired and decided to take a nap…

And then the phone rang…

[Laughs] No no. My wife actually had that experience watching The Ring alone at home one night and she calls me at work and was like “are you fucking with me? Are you calling me?” and I said “no, why?” and she said “because I’m watching the ring and the phone keeps ringing and no ones there” and she had to turn off the movie. But no, I went to sleep and had a nightmare that I went up into my attic and there I found a box of super 8 films and I pull out the projector and put it on and what is projected is the first shot of the movie. It freaked me out and I could not get it out of my head, it was just an idea that just stuck there. Eventually I said that would make a good movie and from that point on I started working over the story of it but it was something that I didn’t have to jot down because it had become a part of my DNA, it was an idea that stuck with me.


Many horror movies are a slow-burning process but straight away you get this image of people hanging from a tree, was it your intention to scare the audience right from the word go?

Yeah that was in the pitch. I was a film writer for 10 years so I watched a ton of horror movies and the biggest problem that horror movies have is when they take the time to set up the family. You have to set up the family, your characters in the first act, you have to dedicate so much time to them otherwise the audience doesn’t care enough about them, they wont be scared, they wont care about the horror, thats why slasher movies work the way they do, we don’t bother to introduce these characters, but through stereotypes you’re supposed to enjoy watching them die. But a real, true, proper horror film you need to get to know about the characters and warm to them, it usually takes you a lot of time to set that up before you introduce the horror, so if you introduce some dread, something hanging over your characters, the audience while watching that introduction is going to be feeling that dread and waiting for the sword to drop at any moment, and I felt that was really important to this idea – that every moment they spend in this house makes you think, whats going to happen, whats going to happen, whats going to happen.


Because you were a film writer for 10 years and you have studied film from the other side, do you think you knew what the audience or critics would want in a film when you were writing the screenplay?

Absolutely, me and Scott Derrickson have a very interesting dynamic because I approach writing as a critic and appealing to critics and he approaches film making and writing from a director trying to direct to an audience, a main stream audience. So we were forced to try and find this happy medium which is great because he knows exactly what moments the average movie viewer really needs and how they need them, and when they need them to work. And I’m that guy who sits there and says yes but if you use that logic the critics are going to hate you and they will tear this film apart. And I say critics but I really mean the more critical audience. As we learn from the Bard himself, the true greatness of writing is appealing to everyone, even Shakespeare wrote to the cheap seats, the grave digger scene in hamlet is designed for the penny seats, it’s so good and thats the aesthetic we tried to aim for, we wanted to make a film that a teenager could pick up, put on and love it and one that the critics could watch and say I’ve not seen this story told this way before.


As for the lead Ethan Hawke, were you writing it with him in mind? And how close is he to the original character you created?

He’s exactly how we created, but we didn’t write it for him. Although when we sat down and looked at the script we realised we had an unlikable protagonist and that in the wrong actors hands you would hate Ellison, he makes really bad decisions and he’s a bit of a twat. But we needed to find an actor who is really good at playing unlikeable characters who the audience sympathises with anyway and Ethan Hawke was at the top of that list because he’s really great at that.

As for the antagonist “Mr. Boogie” – he’s got a very unique image, was that your creation also?
Conceptually. I had a basic concept, I thought of him as Marilyn Manson meets Willy Wonka, which was the way I initially pitched it – it was the best way to describe it. There was such a brilliant concept artist who worked on it and sent us a number of images and we said what we liked about certain images and they worked it again until they created the ghoul and we knew we had something when we had the mask in the trailer in the filming tests early on, and Jason Blum, the producer, walked in at the end of the trailer and said forget this and walked out, he said I am not standing in that trailer and we knew we had something really creepy.


One of my favourite aspects to the film was that it made me laugh,  which is brilliant in horror to have a bit of light relief – how important is it to have that comedy aspect to the film?

It was essential. We made a film that is relentless, the movie starts with that opening shot and then keeps going and getting worse and worse for this family as it goes on and we needed to be able to break up that tension or the audience wouldn’t be able to enjoy it and would sit there thinking this is horrible, just waiting for horrible things to happen. I know that when you go to the movies it’s not just to experience other emotions, but to have a good time – so it’s essential to have that release valve to allow the audience to laugh and have a good time, and then reset and get scared again and it is absolutely essential for horror to have that.



The story in Sinister is very clever, as it delves into religion and history, with various different factors that all pieced together. As a writer how important is a very strong story?

It’s the most important thing to me, theres a great old writing adage about crafting language particularly for writing novels. Ask someone what their favourite book is and they will tell you what their favourite book is, ask them what their favourite line is in that book and they wont be able to tell you, but if you ask them what it is, they will tell you the story in a way that they tell it. Stories are the primal essence of any film and if you don’t have a good story what are you doing? You’re just communicating images and ideas and that’s not something that the audience can then go out and carry with them, they might be able to go and carry the images with them but it’s the story that they will want to revisit time and time again, and so the story is absolutely essential and you need a story that is consistent and that holds so when that audience loves your film and goes to revisit it, they not only see the same movie again and see that story again, they see that it has the same integrity but they see that there is more in it.


You were here for the Fright Fest premiere, it must have been a wonderful experience to see your film up on the big screen with so many passionate horror fans…

It was incredible.  I’ve heard about this audience for years, I have been to a lot of these festivals in the States but hearing how great it is from directors who have come over to people who go to Fright Fest every year to the people who put it on, I’ve just heard about how great the audience was. I was a bit sceptical because we have a really great base of audiences in Austin, a film loving city, but they were not exaggerating, that audience was incredible, just amazing. They were so kind, they got all of the comedy of the film and it was amazing to watch. That screen is unreal too, I’ve never seen anything like it, it was a truly phenomenal experience.


What are your thoughts on modern horror at the moment?

I think that too many people are getting the wrong idea of how to tell a horror story, focusing more on the medium than on the essence. People look at found footage and think that people want to watch found footage and that’s not what it is. Paranormal Activity was not a huge hit because it was found footage, Blair Witch was not a huge hit because it was found footage, they were hits because they felt real and because they dealt with really good supernatural premises and thats the core of the great horror movie. It is not about how many people you kill, it’s about what the primal idea of terror is that you can instil in the audience, you can find in the audience and twist. I think there are a handful of guys that are dealing with it and doing incredible work and then there are a lot of people who just are looking at other films and trying to duplicate them without knowing whats going on.


Whats next for you now, have you got any plans in the pipeline? Any films?

Not yet, we have a couple of things in the pipeline but nothing announced yet. But what I do have is a book coming out here in the UK in January called Dreams and Shadows. It’s a fantasy novel with a horror thats coming and that should be a fairly large release. And then I’ve got some things that should come together in the next few weeks, but there should be some announcements over the next few months which I’ve been working on.


How do you see your future in film, do you think it will be mostly horror or can you see yourself one day making a comedy or drama perhaps?

Just about anything, I’m a film lover, if you go back and read my old reviews you’ll find that I love all types of films and I’ll make all types of films, but most of the kind of stuff I’ll stick to will be horror and fantasy. But I am a huge rom-com fan, if I get a good idea for a rom-com I’m going to write one, because I love them. I’m a huge fan of british rom-coms, I love them and can’t get enough of them, so if I come up with the idea for one I will make one. It could be anything but mostly I’m a genre writer which is where I’m going to spend most of my time.


Do you think you will get into directing, producing, or any other sort of aspect – or is just writing for you?

Producing perhaps at some point, and if I do it, it will be to help young film makers like Jason Blum helped me, but never directing, as I discovered on this film and during my 10 years working as a critic – anyone can direct a film, almost no-one can direct a film well, and the guys who can have such a narrow skill set. These are guys who are obsessed with just the right things from a very young age and it’s why they all get along so well and speak a very specific language because they’re looking at the world in a very different way and I don’t have that skill set. I’m a guy who’s very happy to sit at my desk 24 hours a day, slugging down pots of novels at a time, banging out novels and screen plays and I don’t think I’d ever be comfortable in the director’s chair.



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