IF YOU THINK
by Jan Steifer
An interview with C. Robert Cargill – the screenwriter of "Sinister" and recently announced "Deus Ex: Human Revolution", the author of the novel "Dreams and Shadows", and a former film critic who used to work for Ain't it Cool News (as Massawyrm), Spill.com (as Carlyle), Film.com and Hollywood.com. Conversation about writing, the experience of seeing your own work on the big screen, his turn from film criticism to being part of Hollywood, and adapting a video game among others.
As a foreigner, I have an obligatory question. If I remember correctly part of your family is Polish. Am I right?
Yes. Yes, actually one whole branch of my family. My great-grandmother immigrated from
What is your knowledge of Polish culture? Films, especially.
Not much, sadly. I was a military brat, so we moved a lot. I didn't get to spend a lot of time with my extended family. Sadly. It's something that I've wanted to learn more about. The other side of the family – my father's side – is Scottish. So I'm Scottish and Polish. It's a hole in my image that I want to correct.
THE CONCEPT OF IT IS SOMETHING WE'VE NOT SEEN BEFORE
I know that the idea for the story of Sinister came from a dream you had after watching The Ring. You said it's now the scene where Ethan Hawk's character finds the footage of murdered families. And since the main character is a writer I'm curious – how much of you is in the character?
There's not a lot of me in the character of Ellison. There's a lot of what I'm afraid of in Ellison. He's what Scott and I are afraid of becoming. Becoming work obsessed and forsaking our family for our work. We're very passionate about what we do, but our families always comes first. If my wife asked me to give up writing I'd have to give up writing. I just love the hell out of her.
The part of me that really is in the script is in all the arguments. The arguments that Ellison has with
I tried to avoid making the protagonist a writer, but I tried to find a really good reason why someone would want to really explore the films, rather than giving it to the police and go. And that's how the fact that he's the writer researching it really came to pass.
What makes Sinister a unique horror film, in your opinion? How did you want it to be different?
The first and foremost, the concept of it is something we've not seen before. There's all this found footage movies, but what we haven't seen is a movie about the guy who finds the footage. We haven't explored what it's like to find the footage of this horrible things and then try and put the pieces together, and research it.
The second thing, what we really strive for was the haunted house movie, where the audience never sat there and wondered why they never left the house. And we've seemed to accomplish that, which audience really connect with. 'Cause in most haunted house movies you're like, the minute you see something weird, why are you still in the house? How can you even sleep in that house after this happens? And what we do here is we set up a situation to where you totally believe why the family is still in the house at every point.
You've scripted the movie together with Scott Derrickson. What was your working relationship like? Did you have to throw away your ideas as a way of compromise?
Oh, always. Scott and I we work together really well, and we complement each other really well. We both believe that ego has no place in team writing, and that the best argument should win. Wherever we would have a difference of opinion we would argue it. The way we argue is we bring all this other movies into the mix, and say: "Well, it worked here, this works this way." And then we would go: "No, no, that only worked, because of this part here." We would argue it out, until somebody got to the point when we were like: "Yeah, you're right, I'm wrong. Let's do it."
And whenever we would have a disagreement we couldn't see it, one of us would go and write the scene both ways. Then we would look at it, and then go, "You were right." There was a lot of give and take. Even though the idea that I pitched is mine, and it's on the screen, the movie is every bit Scott's as it's mine. He added to so much of that script.
I'm asking this, because you hear stories about writers being very low on
I was on the set for everything except for the shooting of the Super
So I was involved. As you said, low on the totem-pole, but it was a low totem-pole movie. We made a 3 million dollar movie, so it was one of those situations, where we didn't have studio heads looking over our shoulders counting beans to shave off every dollar we could. It was one of those, "Here's your money, come back to us with a good movie". And that's what we tried to do.
You've mentioned the Super
I think that it's a really great concept and I love the fact that it's been accepted as a genre, and not a gimmick anymore. The problem I have with it is that too many people use it as an excuse to be lazy, and we see too many lazy found footage movies. You see something like "Chronicle" and go: "This is what found footage is for." These guys thought about what they were doing, thought about every line that went into it. Most people think that it's like, "What we need is a camera, a few actors, and walk around. And we can explain the movie to people as we go along." They don't take the time to refine the film. That's why so many of the found footage movies are so terrible. But I think that the genre, as a genre, is a fantastic concept. I love that it exists and I'd like to play around with it in the future if I have a good idea with it.
You always hear in writing courses that people must like the main character, but there're many assholes in the classics people love. From what I gather, Ellison Oswalt is a bit of a jerk, an unlikable protagonist. Why did you write a character like that and how did you try to make people root for him?
Why? It's the character we found interesting. One of the things with horror is in order for horror to work you have to have a character transgress in some way. Sometimes you have to have them invite the evil, that allows for the audience to really connect with it. And that's what we had Ellison do.
The rule is you can't dislike the main character, and that's actually a poor explanation of the rule. It's something that gets repeated. It's an oversimplified version of the rule. The thing is not that you have to have a likeable protagonist. It's that you have to have an interesting protagonist. You have to have someone that audience can't take their eyes off of. You look at someone like Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood", and he's not likeable at all, but you can't take your eyes off him. You're just fascinated by the guy.
Ellison makes a choice here that the audience gets interested in. When he decides to not to call the police, and to actually investigate it himself for all the reasons he does that for and how he does it the audience suddenly goes: "Oh! He's not the guy I thought he was. I want to see where this guy goes." And it makes him interesting. We wanted to write someone who is interesting.
Once we got to the end of the script and we realize how unlikeable he was – he puts his family in danger… That was the point at which we said: "Okay, we need to have a really fantastic actor play this." And we needed somebody who the audience would root for even though he's making bad choices. There's very small group of guys that can pull that off, and Ethan Hawke was at the top of that list. He's one of those actors who, even when they're a terrible character, you just can't take your eyes off him.
FILM THAT SCARED THE MPAA
"Sinister" gathered plenty of good – if not great – reviews, but there were few critical ones. As a former critic, how do you deal with criticism?
You take criticism for what it is. Criticism is someone's opinion. There's good criticism and bad criticism. What you do is when you read a negative review you're looking to find out whether the criticism is genuine or not. There was a great review from a guy in
And then there were reviews I read in which the writers go and lay out theirs opinions on "Sinister" only to then two-thirds the way through the review drop how much they hate found footage, and how much they dislike haunted house movies. Wait, wait. That's something you should've lead with. Because it's not that you particularly dislike this movie, but you dislike the genre, and every thing you criticized comes from this. So this review is just "Eh, I just don't like this kind of movies!" That should've been your review, not to tear apart the film, and then throw it as a side-note.
As a critic I spent a lot of time learning how to dissect those reviews with reviewers, and see who the great reviewers were, and who the bad ones were. This is just an exercise in watching a lot of bad reviewers either positively or negatively review our film, and then looking for the good reviewers, because those are the ones you learn from. The guys who really know their stuff and go into every film wanting to like it, are the guys worth reading, because even if they don't like it, they have something interesting to say. Those are the guys you seek out. The rest you just toss aside and go, "Well that's just a stock in the pile of the Rotten Tomatoes score".
You said talked about learning from the reviews. Will you consider the critics and what they mentioned when writing the next thing?
You never consider the critics. You consider the things they mention in terms of learning from mistakes. You can gather stuff from it. Really, critics are their own beast. Their own audience, and you have to take everything a critics say with a grain of salt. The big paradox of criticism is this: In order to be a critic you have to an intense amount about film. You have to watch thousands upon thousands of films to be a good critic. But when you watched thousands upon thousands of films your over saturated with film to a level your audience is not.
Yeah, you're completely desensitized! When you watch three-hundred romantic comedies, your three-hundred-and-first romantic comedy won't surprise you at all. But when a romantic comedy is written for fourteen year old girls, it's written for an audience that maybe watched ten or twenty romantic comedies in their life, and some of that stuff is still fresh to them. You have to keep that in mind. Especially with the horror critics, like ours. These critics watched over a hundred found footage movies, because there's so many at film festivals, but the audience that watches horror movies have only seen about a dozen, because only a dozen have leaked out to the mainstream. The hundred or two hundred that us critics have watched are just so much, that you're like, "Another one of this, I saw this in this and that thirty times already." But most audiences haven't.
You have to balance it out between what the critics say and the audience say. If the critics AND the audience say it's crap – then it's crap. It really is. And if the audiences love it, and the critics don't, you have to try to find where you went right and wrong on that. But you have to write every next film as an artist. You have to write it from the place that you write from, and to where the place you're trying to achieve.
And really what we did is what so many other filmmakers do, which is you find a critic and the filmmakers that mean something to you, and who's opinion matters, and you make that who matters. For us it was Roger Ebert. If we could get Roger Ebert, the guy who doesn't usually like horror movies to like this, that'd be a win for us. We grew up reading his stuff, watching his reviews, and wanting his approval was something we went for. And he gave us a three star [of four] review, and we were like, "Yes! We did it!" And at the end he talked about how scared he was, and how afraid he was to go home, and that's our win. That's how you approach that stuff.
As a fan of motion pictures, how does it feel to finally see your work make it to the big screen? What's the experience like?[pullquote]Watching an audience watch your film, what came out of your head, is a really amazing experience.[/pullquote]
It's a really surreal, joyful experience. It's something you can't fully understand until the first time you experience it, because you're so alated. This is my movie! It's here! And as with any art form all you see is the flaws. "Oh, that line wasn't how I intended it. Man, I wish we would use this different take… And oh…" The audience isn't seeing any of that, so you're not watching the film they are. You never get that true experience of watching what everybody else watches. Watching an audience watch your film, what came out of your head, is a really amazing experience.
You wrote the movie to be PG-13 and it got an R.
First of all, why making an adult horror movie with teens in mind?
I was a horror geek from the womb. I grew up loving horror. I remember being a thirteen year old boy loving horror, and my parents didn't. They just wouldn't take me to see a horror movie, so I had to wait to see them on video. There weren't many I would get to see in the theater. Eventually I would talk my parents into going and buying a ticket for me, so I could see a rated-R movie, but they wouldn't go with me. There's part of me that wanted to make movies for those thirteen year old boys. For the horror lovers who want to see a smart horror movie, because there ARE good, smart horror movies that are PG-13. You don't have to dumb it down. We just didn't have nudity, swearing, and we didn't have a lot of gore.[pullquote]When you make a horror film, and the MPAA says it doesn't have all the stuff they can make it rated R for, but you just made it too scary, then we knew we made something scary.[/pullquote]
So what do you think about the MPAA's decision?
I think it was fantastic. They were right. They actually were a huge feather in our cap. When they came back and said: "Yeah, there's no swearing, no nudity, no gore, you meet the minimum requirements, but it's rated R, because it's just too scary." Too scary for kids. And when you make a horror film, and the MPAA says it doesn't have all the stuff they can make it rated R for, but you just made it too scary, then we knew we made something scary. If you think is too scary for kids, then it's too scary for kids, and it's going to scare the crap out of adults. It clearly scared the crap of these adults. We were really proud of it. Because when you look at it, the rating they gave it was "R for disturbing violent images and some terror." "Some terror"? What is that mean? It means they were scared, and that's kind of cool to get an R for.
Weren't you disappointed that the thirteen year old in you wouldn't see the movie?
You know, there was that small bit. Those thirteen year olds will end up seeing it on video, and it will scare the living crap out of them. That's the upside. There was part of me: "Oh man." I wanted to make a movie that teens could enjoy, that was every bit as smart as the film that adults enjoy. It was meted out by the fact that I know a lot of teenagers who went and saw it, and they think it's the scariest movie they've ever seen.
The scariest movie I've ever seen was "The Nightmare on
Now that you're inside of
Once you get here you realize why a lot of the things happen the way they happen. It really is seeing the-wizard-behind-the-curtain kind of experience. You realize why there's so many remakes, why films get made the way they do. I feel that
There are people that don't like that stuff and thoes people are loud, and say: "we hate remakes". But they're always the first in line to see them, because they want to be the first person in line to trash them. If people would stop writing about them, and talking about them, and going to see them, then nobody would make them. It's kind of this weird reciprocal symbiotic relationship that causes such derivative movies to be made. If people out there paid to see more original films, and looked at the trailer and say: "I don't know what it is, but I sure want to find out!" As opposed to: "Eh, I don't know what it is, I'll see it on video. I'll go see that movie that I know EXACTLY what that is, 'cause I saw twenty movies just like it." Then we would see more original films.
Audiences in the 70s wanted to see something new and different. And now audiences want to see what they saw last week, but a little different. That's why
Was that your biggest misconception about
One of the things that I really got to experience was seeing so many great directors attached to material that they never make. Wondering why this director is attached to so many different projects, and you realize how many cooks are in the kitchen, and why these movies never come to fruition. You start to realize why certain directors walk off films, and realize how important it is that they do that.
I was really heart broken, when I heard that Gore Verbinski wasn't going to do "BioShock". I really wanted to see that. And when I looked at what he tried to do versus what the studio was telling him they wanted to do – I totally got that. I probably would've made a very similar decision. I can't hold that against him, but I'm sad I'll never get to see that "BioShock" movie.
That was my biggest misconception. You can't really understand the process until you've been through it, and done dozens upon dozens calls and meeting that never go anywhere, and been attached to projects that just kind of die. Projects that people never hear about. We've been attached to couple of things that just never happened, that we can never talk about ever happening. There's three or four films that Scott and I came just that close to making, that one way or another just didn't come to pass because of rights issues or people dropping the ball on the way, or actors vanishing.
When you see that up close it all makes sense. When you start reading peoples' blogs about what's happening out in
You were a blogger. How does
The thing is that's another big misconception.
What happened to me, I was in a very unique position. I was at Ain't it Cool during the golden age of blogging. At that time, ten years ago, Ain't it Cool was The Rolling Stone of the internet as far as
And I mention Spill.com, and Film.com, and Hollywood.com, and they're like: "I didn't even know that that was a thing." Most people don't spend a lot of time on these sites. But Ain't it Cool really worked in my favor. It was like saying: "I used to be a rock writer," and saying you wrote for Rolling Stone. "Rolling Stone! So you wrote alongside Hunter S. Thompson, and this and that during that era!" That's very much how Ain't it Cool from that era is perceived.
Nobody really treats me like an enemy. Nobody was like: "YOU! You MOTHERFUCKER! You have said terrible things about me!" It's always been either: "I used to read your stuff!" or "Ain't it Cool, I've heard of that!" I've yet to run into anybody who treats me like we've ever had antagonistic relationship.
Really? Because I remember that Kevin Smith was once very angry with you, and though I know you worked things out, I thought maybe you had a similar occurrence.
That was the weird thing. With Kevin Smith it was like, on-line: "Yeah, that Massawyrm!" [Swings his fist angrily.] And he talked about me a couple of times. When we met in person I introduced myself, and he went: "Oh… You're one of the guys I had a thing on-line, right? Yeah, I do that. I'm sorry." In person it was a totally different thing. We talked about it and hugged it out.
So it turned out that Kevin Smith is a regular dude, who gets angry on the internet, and in person is nice.
Just like the rest of us. On-line Massawyrm was that internet troll who said vile things about him. In person I was a dude, who liked his movie and was a long time fan, so we hugged it out. It was more internet hype. More angry guys behind the keyboard, than it was an actual thing. That was as bad as it got. On-line we talked shit about each other, and in person it was like: "I like you!" "I like YOU!" "Let's hug!" [Laugh.] Turns out he really liked "Sinister". Happy ending to the story!
DEUS EX CARTA
I wanted to ask you if you have any projects set for the future, but I know you do. I've just read about you adapting "Deus Ex", which is like one of my favorite games! Why this title? Were you looking for it or the CBS Films came to you?
They came to us. While back when we were really busy. They really wanted Scott on this. They liked "Sinister" and they wanted Scott to tackle this. Of course I came with a package.
Why this? For the very reason it's your favorite game. Is it because you like the mechanics of the shooting or turning invisible? Or is it one of your favorite because of the story, and the pathos of everything that's going on?
Yeah! It's such a philosophical game. There's so many great, important things. It's exactly the stuff of great science fiction. It will make a great science fiction film. If they called up and said, "Do you want to make a 'Call of Duty' film?" I would be like, "Nah, no, thanks." I'd watch a "Call of Duty" film, but I have no interest in making it. But "Deus Ex" – I'm a huge cyberpunk fan. I love the story of "Deus Ex". It was a no brainer. Yes! This is exactly the type of film we want to make! It's smart, it's dark. It can be really savage. It can be just a really cool science fiction. We talked about this, how it has this vibe of "District 9", "Looper". It evokes "Blade Runner". It feels very much like this other great science fiction films that we love and we want to make.
You do sound like a fan of the series. Are we talking about adapting the first game in the series, or just "Human Revolution"?
What they bought are the rights to make "Human Revolution". I don't know how far the rights go, if it covers the entire Deus Ex universe. Eidos Montreal is really behind it. But I get the impression they would want to make more than one "Deus Ex" movie. Since "Human Revolution" is the prequel to the expansion of the world, I would assume that maybe the idea is to get this out there, and if this is a hit then to adapt all the other concepts from the other two titles. OR if you're a hardcore fan, the other ONE title. [Laugh.]
But I am familiar with "Deus Ex". I didn't play it at the time. I've got it on my computer and planning to play it when I get some free time. I watched my brother-in-law play it for quite some time. We all lived in a house together – my now-wife, her twin sister, and my brother-in-law. When we were all college-age we all had our own separate rooms in this house, and their parents were like: "We figure you guys are gonna get married sometime, but you have separate rooms now." So we lived in this house together, and we would get together, and play video games. When "Deus Ex" came out, he was like, "You gotta come over and watch me play this game!" He's the guy who introduced me to "Deus Ex". He flipped out when he found out I was making this: "You're the guy that's making the 'Deus Ex' Movie! [Swings his hands crazily.] I'm like 'Deus Ex' biggest fan!" And I said, "I know, you introduced me to it." I've been a fan of the material for the long time. Like I said, it was a no brainer.
I reacted the same as your brother-in-law did, since I know you from Spill.com. So, are you adapting just the story from "Human Revolution" or creating a completely new story?
From "Human Revolution". It's a really great story. There are aspects we will have to simplify, because it's just such a deep, convoluted story with so many red herrings to it, but we're gonna tell the basic story of "Human Revolution".
The game is pretty deeply seeded in noir. Will it be more of a crime-thriller or an action movie? More "Strange Days" or "Total Recall"?
It's gonna feel more in line with "District 9" and "Looper". We're going for a healthy mix of action and intelligent social commentary. That's what "Deus Ex" is full of. We definitely don't want just: [In a cartoonish voice.] "Hey! It's more cyborgs! Let's blow shit up! It's great! It's explodin'! BOOM! BOOM!" No, we don't want that. We want audience to walk out asking if we are heading in the right direction with technology, and if we start getting into this, do we need to regulate this? We want audience asking big questions. Guys sit on the internet for days after watching the movie having arguments about which way to go, what are we supposed to be doing.
We want a "Inception" like reaction. That's one of the other films in our model. We want plenty of action and action scenes that people remember, and go: "Whoa! When this happened! And then when the guy did this! It was so cool!" We want that, but also want people arguing the finer points of what we're discussing. We're looking for a movie that finds that balance and walks that tight rope.
I know that you weren't fond of video game movies before. What steps are you taking to make it better than the others?
The key with that is one of the things is that most video game movie creators don't do is ask the question what do the fans want to see that they didn't get to see. There's a lot of things that happen in the background of "Human Revolution" that we're never party to, we never get to see first hand or get good visuals of. What we would like to do is flesh out the world. See those things that "Deus Ex" just didn't show us because we were off busy doing other stuff. That I think is really the big thing that we are addressing. What we're going to end up doing is trying to have Deus Ex fans watch this and then go: "Wow, I never thought about what that would look like!" Or: "Oh, that's what that looks like!" And adding to their experience of the game, rather than just pairing down things that we liked from the game, and throwing it together. That feels it incomplete. You have to add something in.
That's the whole thing about when you translate a comic book to a movie, a book or a videogame to a movie. You have to remember you are making something in a different medium and you can't just duplicate it. You have to add to it. But to add to it you have to add to it in a way that it's not you showing your cool ideas, and going: "I liked 'Deus Ex', but I'd like it better if Adam Jensen were a girl, and she could do this and this, 'cause I've always wanted to make that kind of movie." You have to ask yourself what do the fans want to see that they never got to see, and show that to them.
You look at how everyone got excited about "Lord of the Rings" movie, and it was, "I can't wait to see Gollum! Can't wait to see what this battle actually looked like!" You have to find those little nuggets, and that's what we're going to be searching for in adapting this.
This project is once again with Scott Derrickson. I heard some rumors about sequel for "Sinister"…?
I don't know. Nothing official on that yet. Everybody's asked about it. Lots of people talk about that it clearly has sequel written all over it, but the movie is still in theaters. Still opening up in foreign countries. They're just still waiting to see how everything comes out before we get the initial call that says, "Yes! Go!"[pullquote]Anyone can direct a film, but there are very few men, that can direct a film well.[/pullquote]
Anything you want to do by yourself? Like directing?
Never. I'm never going to direct. I just don't have the eye for it. One of the things I've learned in working with Scott and being on the set of the film is that anyone can direct a film, but there are very few men, that can direct a film well. It takes a very narrow skill set to be able to do it. And I don't have it. Most people don't have it. It takes a single minded obsession with certain elements, that I just don't have. I have that with writing. That's why so many writers are like, "I wish I could stay up all night, and just banging out stuff really quickly." You just have to kind of build yourself up to do that, and I'm not build up to be a director.
For the time being, I'm just going to write scripts with Scott. The stuff I'm going to do on my own are my books. I have a book coming out. You'll be able to get an English version from Gallant in the
"Dreams and Shadows", right?
Yes! And I'm hoping someone in
I've heard it's a mix of Neil Gaiman, Guilermo del Toro and William Burroughs? What is it about?
It's an urban fantasy novel. It's a story of two boys that are brought together by supernatural means when they're kids and how it messes them up as they grow older. I'm really happy with it. Really proud of how it's coming out. The reviews have been really positive.
It happened kind of because of "Sinister"?
Yeah, it's a weird story of how that happened. Scott and I were friends and when he found out I wrote a book, he wanted to read it. He was one of the first guys I sent it to. He read it, fell in love with it, and helped me get an agent. When we were drinking in Vegas and I pitched him "Sinister", he already knew I was a good writer, so that's why he wanted to write the film with me, rather than buying the idea from me. When we sold our script Scott's manager wanted to manage me, and he got me an agent for
Are you willing to adapt it into a movie or are you taking the Alan Moore approach of it just staying a book nothing else?
I'll adapt it if somebody wants me to. Right now I'm looking at it just as a book, and I get a fortunate ability to work on other films and make other movies. I definitely wouldn't want to do it right this minute, because I lived it so long so recently. But if it comes out and it's big and people will be like, "We want you to write this script." Then after some extra time has passed I'd love to revisit that. But I enjoy having a lot of other projects in between.
I know Ernie Klein, who wrote "Ready Player One" and then he sold it, and the rights were bought to adapt it into a film. So he wrote it, and then several drafts of the script. And now he's travelling and selling "Ready Player One". He's lived that book for a year and a half. And he worked on it for seven years. I'm just happy I got my chance to take a break from that.
Thank you very much for the conversation.
Thanks for asking me, Janek. I love to get a chance to talk to people from other countries about the release. It's been really interesting!
I'd love to tell you my opinion on the movie when I get to see it.