Finney Shaw, a shy but clever 13-year-old boy, is abducted by a sadistic killer and trapped in a soundproof basement where screaming is of little use. When a disconnected phone on the wall begins to ring, Finney discovers that he can hear the voices of the killer’s previous victims. And they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn’t happen to Finney.
The phone is dead. And it’s ringing.
Director SCOTT DERRICKSON returns to his terror roots and partners again with the foremost brand in the genre, Blumhouse, with a new horror thriller.
Starring four-time Oscar nominee ETHAN HAWKE in the most terrifying role of his career and introducing MASON THAMES in his first ever film role, The Black Phone is produced, directed, and co-written by Scott Derrickson, the writer-director of Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Marvel’s Doctor Strange.
The Black Phone also stars MADELEINE McGRAW (Ant-Man and the Wasp) as Finney’s younger sister Gwen, JEREMY DAVIES (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) as Finney and Gwen’s father and JAMES RANSONE (Sinister).
The film’s screenplay is by SCOTT DERRICKSON & C. ROBERT CARGILL (Doctor Strange, Sinister franchise), based on the award-winning short story by JOE HILL from his New York Times bestseller 20th Century Ghosts. The film is produced by Derrickson & Cargill’s Crooked Highway and is presented by Universal Pictures and Blumhouse. JASON BLUM, p.g.a., SCOTT DERRICKSON and C. ROBERT CARGILL are producers on the film, which is executive produced by RYAN TUREK and CHRISTOPHER H. WARNER.
The film’s director of photography is BRETT JUTKIEWICZ (Ready or Not), the production designer is PATTI PODESTA (Love & Other Drugs), and the costume designer is AMY ANDREWS (Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird). The film is edited by FRÉDÉRIC THORAVAL (Promising Young Woman). The music is by MARK KORVEN (The Witch).
More Than Horror
Nostalgia, Fear and American Childhood
In 2012, filmmakers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill partnered with producer Jason Blum and actor Ethan Hawke to make Sinister, widely considered the most terrifying film of the 21st century thus far. The team was eager to work together again, and as Derrickson began exploring options, he revisited Joe Hill’s “The Black Phone.” Hill, who is also the son of legendary horror author Stephen King, released “The Black Phone” as part of his 2005 bestselling short story collection, 20th Century Ghosts. “I happened to stumble into a bookstore around the time the book came out,” Derrickson says. “At the time, I didn’t know who Joe was, let alone that he was Stephen King’s son. I stood in the bookstore and read this short story and thought, ‘Wow, this guy is great.’ It was only about 20 pages long, but I thought the concept was fantastic and such a good idea for a movie. I never forgot about it. I’d bring it up on occasion and continued to think about turning it into a film, but the timing was never right. Then, about a year and a half ago, the time just felt right, so my writing partner, C. Robert Cargill, and I optioned the title from Joe, and we wrote the script.”
Cargill was equally enamored with Hill’s short story. “Scott slid me ‘The Black Phone’ and I loved it so much that I immediately bought the rest of the book and blew through it,” Cargill says. “It had a bit of everything in it, and that’s exactly what you want when you sit down to read a horror story.”
Both the short story and the film follow 13-year-old Finney, who is abducted by an infamous child abductor and serial killer known as The Grabber in a small town in northern Denver. Locked in the killer’s basement, Finney discovers that he can hear the killer’s previous victims through a disconnected black rotary phone on the wall. The inspiration for the tale came from a specific memory from Hill’s childhood. “I grew up in Bangor, Maine, in a very old house,” Hill says. “There was a phone in the basement that wasn’t connected to anything, and I found that phone creepy and unsettling. It didn’t make sense for a phone to be in a basement with a dirt floor and crumbling concrete walls. As a kid, the worst thing I could imagine was that phone ringing.”
Derrickson had always had an interest in creating a film that explored the emotional complexity and pain of childhood and the ability of children to overcome tragedy. “François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows has one of the best child performances I’ve ever seen in a film,” Derrickson says. “It not only showed the traumas that can haunt one’s childhood, but also the resilience of children. I knew I wanted to make something in that spirit, but I couldn’t find a story that felt like it would capture that feeling. That is, until I read The Black Phone. After I came across that, Cargill and I started to talk about how we could combine that same concept with this short story.”
The result is a film that transcends genre. “Scott and I believe that great genre films take a genre that you already love and tell that story, and intercept it with a different genre,” Cargill says. “Here, we wanted to write a coming-of-age film that got interrupted by a horror movie.”
In most films about child abduction or serial killers, the victim needs to be rescued by an intrepid, driven detective or other adult. In The Black Phone, the well-meaning adults are essentially useless and the kids – Finney himself, the voices of the dead boys on the phone, and especially Finney’s younger sister, Gwen – are the only people who can possibly save Finney from certain torture and death. Beyond the blood-chilling terror, it’s a film about the strength of children, their ability to believe in unseen forces, and the power of family and love to endure even the darkest, most unthinkable events.
Hill was thrilled with their adaptation. “The short story always wanted to be a novel, but I couldn’t see how to extend the story without taking it to places I didn’t want it to go,” Hill says. “It was fascinating to watch Scott and Cargill solve the puzzle of it to make it bigger, richer and full of characters who each have their own stories and wisdom to add.”
Once the script was finished, Jason Blum’s Blumhouse was the duo’s first and only stop. “We didn’t take the script anywhere else,” Derrickson says. “We told Jason that we’d love for them to produce this, and instead of replying, he sent me a rotary black phone in a display case, which, I guess, was his way of saying yes.”
As with Sinister, working with Blumhouse proved seamless. “Blum is a very supportive partner, and he trusted me to make the exact movie that I want to make,” Derrickson says. “He never put pressure on me to make any creative changes. He’s just great at recognizing a good story and talent and then letting us take the reins and go. He’s there to create the best arena for the storytellers to do their jobs.”
Unsurprisingly, Blum and his team were more than happy to partner with Derrickson and Cargill again. “We couldn’t wait to have Scott back in the director’s chair for another movie for us,” Jason Blum says. “He and Cargill have such a handle on the genre, and I still believe Sinister is one of the scariest films we’ve ever done at Blumhouse, so we were thrilled when they brought us The Black Phone. It fit right into the wheelhouse of the Blumhouse model and was exactly what we hoped our next project would be. And it turned out fantastic. It’s one of the creepiest films we’ve made.”
Derrickson and Cargill have become among the industry’s most esteemed horror auteurs in large part because their films are about far more than scares. “If you can imagine removing all the genre elements from a great genre film and you’ve still got a great drama…that’s worth watching,” Derrickson says. “If you take away the action, set pieces, scary scenes and thrills and you’ve still got a great film there? Then you’re onto something that has the potential to connect with the audience in a memorable way.”
More than memorable, their films are unforgettable. “The first time I saw Sinister, I knew there was someone disturbing with a wild imagination behind the camera, which of course, is a great quality for a horror filmmaker,” executive producer Ryan Turek says. “That film really cemented Scott and Cargill in the genre as filmmakers with a keen sensibility to keep audiences on their toes. And with The Black Phone, they’ve done it again, except this time, looking at the traumas and dangers of being a kid growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Kids had a lot more freedom back then, which made them a lot more susceptible to danger, but it also kept kids on their toes. And the film does a great job of inserting the audience into that experience and keeping them on their toes, too.”
For Hill, the recreation of that era in the film proved particularly vivid and personal. “I remember 1978 looking like that and kids and parents behaving that way, and I don’t think that’s something that’s represented in film very often,” Hill says. “We often see nostalgia cast in a rich golden light that makes everything look a lot better than it really was, sanding off all the rough edges and the ugliness that really was.”
Derrickson wanted emotional veracity, not just technical accuracy, in every frame. “The trick was to capture not just what the era looked or sounded like, but what did it feel like?” Derrickson says. “I wanted The Black Phone to feel like how the late ’70s felt to me when I was 12 and 13.”
For Gen Xers, children of the ’70s, this was a time without anti-bullying initiatives, where, for boys in particular, learning to defend yourself against mean kids was considered a normal rite of passage. “My earliest memory up until high school was the violence of the neighborhood that I lived in,” Derrickson says. “The primary feeling that I remember having as a child was fear. I was the youngest kid on the street full of bullies.”
Across the country, the era was also tinged with terror, as serial killers such as the Manson Family, Hillside Strangler, Zodiac Killer, Son of Sam, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy dominated national news and reshaped American nightmares. “I remember when going into elementary school, at least where I grew up in North Denver, there was a new presence of serial killers,” Derrickson says. “It was the mid ’70s, and everyone was telling urban legends about the worst kinds of serial killers. All of these horrors had become such a real presence in everyone’s psyches.”
By the 1980s, child murders routinely gripped headlines, beginning with the 1981 kidnapping and decapitation of 6-year-old Adam Walsh in Florida. Seemingly overnight, American childhood changed forever. “When Adam Walsh was killed, every kid in the country knew his name, knew how he died and the horrible story of how they found the body,” Cargill says. “It gave us all nightmares, and it actually led to a line in the script: ‘You go from being an unknown kid for so long, and then everyone knows your name.’ That’s very much reflective of the era that we all grew up in.”
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the seeds of Derrickson’s artistic future were planted here, too. “Growing up and feeling a lot of fear as a kid and understanding that emotion, my love for horror ultimately originated there,” Derrickson says. “Watching horror and making horror, for me, has always been about confronting something that I’m afraid of. I love the non-denial in the genre. Looking into the eyes of something unspoken or that’s unspeakably scary in the world or in nature, I’ve always found it an incredibly cathartic experience, both as a viewer and as an artist.”
Few films feature the villain at the center of narrative, so the filmmakers knew that The Grabber, a child serial killer and a symbol of pure evil who terrorizes a northern Denver town, needed to be embodied by an actor with the depth, nuance and cultural gravitas to anchor The Black Phone. Four-time Oscar® nominee Ethan Hawke, with whom they had made Sinister, was at the top of their list. “I wanted to capture the way such a figure could become almost mythological for the kids,” director Scott Derrickson says. “Something scary, but also exciting. Fascinating, but also terrifying.” There was one major hurdle they had to get over, though. “Ethan isn’t generally a big fan of doing genre or horror because he gets too scared,” Derrickson says, with a laugh.
Hawke was, in fact, hesitant at first, and not just for that reason. “I don’t mind playing flawed or unlikeable characters, but once an audience sees an overtly evil character, they can’t unsee it, and it changes the way they relate to you,” Hawke says. The script, and in particular the relationship between Finney and his sister Gwen, changed his mind. “I thought it was special because, yes, it’s a scary movie, but it has a heart of gold,” Hawke says. “That, coupled with the fact that I really wanted to work with Scott again, made it an easy decision.”
He also connected to his own fears growing up during the 1970s. “There were a lot of cases of people abducting kids, and there was also the explosion of the fear of serial killers. We were haunted by this idea that there’s some mad man with no morals out there.”
In Joe Hill’s short story, The Grabber was inspired by John Wayne Gacy, a serial killer known as the Killer Clown, who murdered at least 33 young men and boys between 1972 and 1978. “When I was thinking about that kind of predator, I was envisioning someone with echoes of Gacy,” Hill says. “And there was another child killer in the late ’90s outside of Boston that I read about in the paper, and it has haunted me my whole life. I don’t know why it made such a deep impact, but it did. One of the things we turn to fiction for is to get justice that we don’t get in real life. In real life, these awful things happen and there’s no way to fix it, so we fix it the way we can, with stories.”
The Grabber is a failed magician who is shrouded in darkness. “Some part of The Grabber’s soul has been so eroded that he can justify doing things that most of us can’t even think about,” Hawke says. “It’s hard to play that level of malevolency because it’s impossible to justify.”
And although his magic days are over, The Grabber still dons terrifying full-face masks, each with a different expression. “There’s something to be said about the fact that he goes to such great lengths to not be seen,” Hawke says. “He must really hate himself. And that level of self-loathing is probably what gives him the ability to hurt others. I was excited about the idea of playing a character in a mask, and Scott was looking for someone who was game to play with them. When I read the script, I imagined there being just one mask, but Scott devised a plan where the mask itself works in this strange, symbolic universe, constantly adjusting which part of The Grabber’s real face is actually showing.”
The biggest challenge of wearing the masks for Hawke was figuring out how to communicate and relate to the other actors while wearing them. “Even just living through the pandemic, we’ve all seen how masks change how we relate to people,” Hawke says. “When someone covers their face, you automatically look to their gestures. We’re hardwired to read people’s moods by reading their face, so when that’s gone, things like body language and energy are what you immediately start reading. So that was a fun challenge for me to figure out for the character. How does he stand? How does he move? What’s the quality of his voice?”
The resulting performance is unforgettable, but for Hawke it was the relationship between Finney and Gwen he couldn’t shake. “When I showed Ethan the finished film, he had a very powerful, personal reaction to it,” Derrickson says. “He said it was so suspenseful and scary yet told entirely through the eyes of love. That’s probably my favorite thing that anyone has said to me about the movie.”
The Black Phone is told from the perspective of Finney, a 13-year-old boy who’s bullied both at school and at home by his broken, alcoholic father (Jeremy Davies). He’s kind, smart and resourceful, but shy and a little awkward. He’s a prime target for bullies and his closest friend is his younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw). Finney is portrayed by newcomer Mason Thames in his first film role. “Finney is sort of an outcast,” Thames says. “Before I read the script, the only thing I knew was that it was a horror movie. After reading it, I thought it was different, cool and dark. I felt a strong connection with Finney, and I felt sympathy for him. I think everyone will be standing up rooting for Finney.”
And that’s exactly what director Scott Derrickson had hoped for the character—that Finney would have a powerful and emotional impact on audiences. “Joe Hill’s short story is very compact and simple,” Derrickson says. “But despite the simplicity of the structure, I felt tremendously empathetic for the lead character. I was excited to expand on that character even more and provide the audience the opportunity to feel the fear that he feels. We auditioned a lot of kids, and we were lucky to find Mason for the role of Finney. He really carries the film with a very nuanced, powerful and demanding performance.”
Several aspects of Finney and his life are drawn from Derrickson’s own childhood memories. One of the first scenes in the film sees Finney watching the 1959 William Castle horror classic The Tingler. “I built haunted houses in my basement as a kid,” Derrickson says. “I was that kid watching The Tingler, and I never forgot it. It was the first horror movie that I remember stumbling on, on my own. It’s a black-and-white film and that scene when, suddenly, bright red crimson blood appears, that burned into my brain and I never let it go. Not a week goes by that I’m not thinking about the images from that movie. Children have a fascination and innate need to take those horrific things in. I think it’s an instinctive reckoning with how scary it is to be a human being, especially for a child.”
Finney also makes a new friend, Robin (MIGUEL CAZAREZ MORA), who defends Finney against a pack of bullies early in the film. “There’s a scene with Robin and Finney talking in the bathroom at school that is word for word what I remember a good friend of mine saying to me when I was in elementary school,” Derrickson says. “He was the toughest kid in school and for some reason, he took a liking to me. I think it’s amazing how those moments that you have when you’re that young can make such an impression on you.”
Although Thames knew, of course, that the film wasn’t real, the scenes between Thames and Ethan Hawke’s The Grabber were harrowing and Hawke wanted to make sure that he protect the mental psyche of his co-star. “This movie could only go as far as the young actor playing Finney could take it,” Hawke says. “Mason had so much joy and he just loves acting. He was so playful and easy to be with. I had to be careful to make sure that when the cameras turned off, he always understood the sense of fun that we were having.”
Thames’ favorite scenes to shoot were, no doubt, all the ones he got to shoot with Hawke. “When I was watching playbacks of some of the first scenes that I shot with Ethan, I thought, ‘I’m so excited that I get to be kidnapped by Ethan Hawke and locked in his basement!’” Thames says, laughing. “But in reality, Ethan and The Grabber are two completely different people. But Ethan as The Grabber is terrifying. When I first saw the mask, I kind of froze, and he was like, ‘You alright, buddy?’ I’ve always looked up to him as an actor, so watching him work was an incredible experience.”
The young actor has a background in ballet and football, which proved to be helpful for some of the stunt work. “I was able to take the choreography direction in easily and I’m used to the type of movements that the stunts required,” Thames says. “I’m quicker and more flexible, and sometimes in ballet you have to hide that you’re tired, too, which is exactly what we needed to do for the stunts.”
The emotional center of The Black Phone revolves around Finney’s relationship with his 11-year-old sister, Gwen. Although Gwen is two years younger than Finney, she’s his primary defender, confidante and friend. Feisty, fearless and whip smart, Gwen is devoted to Finney and, after he’s taken, is determined to find him at any cost. The role is portrayed by Madeleine McGraw, who was recently seen in Ant-Man and the Wasp with wit and effervescence. In the script, Gwen is described as the “sunshine in the apocalypse,” and it’s precisely why McGraw was cast. “That’s one of the best lines in the script, and that’s exactly what Madeleine brought to the role,” director Scott Derrickson says. “Madeleine as Gwen kind of steals the show.”
After seeing McGraw’s audition, Derrickson knew she was the perfect fit for Gwen, but McGraw had another role that was supposed to begin shooting around the same time, making her unavailable. “After hearing we would need to recast the role, I told Jason Blum we couldn’t recast it and that she was perfect for it,” Derrickson says. “So, we were able to move the shoot in order to keep her in the film.”
In Joe Hill’s short story, the character played a less prominent role, and Hill was elated by the idea of expanding Gwen for the film. “In the short story, Gwen was a nugget of a character, and in the film, she blooms into this enormous, energetic, electrifying, fresh and fun personality,” Hill says. “Something I love so much about the film is how Finney and Gwen are the yin and yang of the story and the two halves that piece the whole film together.”
Gwen, like her late mother, has a special power: she can see things in her dreams that she can’t possibly know but that end up being true. Her father, Terrence (Jeremy Davies), is violently opposed to Gwen’s visions. He refuses to acknowledge them or allow her to speak of them. Even before Finney is taken, Gwen has been having dreams about the abductions of the previous boys. After Finney’s abduction, the dreams intensify, and she ignores her father’s wishes and begins dissecting her visions to find her brother before it’s too late.
“Gwen is very tough, brave and powerful,” McGraw says. “She loves her brother Finney and she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to him. I had so much fun making the movie. Everyone in the cast and crew was so lovely and Scott was a wonderful director. When he works with you, he really listens to your suggestions and what you say, and I loved how he would really talk about my character with me. That’s what really helped me learn about Gwen.”
The onscreen siblings connected offscreen as well. “Mason and I had the best time together,” McGraw says. “He’s funny and super nice. Whenever we were in a scene together, especially emotional ones, he actually started to get really emotional when he would watch it back, and that helped me to get really emotional seeing him so in-the-moment like that.”
And while McGraw had an exceptional time on-set, her favorite part of filming was undoubtedly the opportunity to do some of her own stunt work. “My dream has always been to do a really cool stunt,” McGraw says. “My character gets flipped onto her back by one of the bullies, so it was so cool to get to do it on a mat during rehearsals. I already knew how to do it because I had tried it before with my twin brother—we would always do fake flips and falls onto our backs on a mattress—so it was fun to be able to do that type of stunt for the movie.”
Terrence is Finney and Gwen’s father and is portrayed by Emmy winner Jeremy Davies (Justified, Lost, Saving Private Ryan). Terrence is a despondent, angry alcoholic who continues to grieve the death of Finney and Gwen’s mother. Their late mother was tortured by her dreams and visions, so when Terrence discovers that Gwen is having visions, too, he responds with adamant denial and violence. Finney and Gwen walk on eggshells around him and often speak about him as if he were the child and they are the parents. When Finney is taken, Terrence spirals further downward, leaving Gwen no choice but to strike out on her own.
Max, played by James Ransone of It Chapter Two, is a mysterious loner and recovering addict who lives in Finney and Gwen’s neighborhood. Obsessed with The Grabber abductions, he has conducted his own private investigation into Finney and the other missing boys. Local police don’t take Max or his research seriously, but there may be more to him than meets the eye.
☎ The Basement. The Grabber’s basement was filmed in a space about 40 feet by 20 feet, which is much larger than it appears in the film. Production designer Patti Podesta and Scott Derrickson discussed the basement as being a metaphysical, expressionistic space where terror is constantly present.
☎ Design by Memory. Director Scott Derrickson lived in Denver, where the film takes place, as a boy, so many of the set design inspirations drew from his memories of that time.
☎ The Phone. The black rotary phone in The Grabber’s basement plays a key role in the film, serving as a link between the metaphysical and physical worlds. After a long search for the perfect phone, production designer Patti Podesta and her team found one that was particularly chunky, making it recognizable as being from the ’70s. The production bought multiple units of the phone, which were then aged to make them appear as if they’d been through years of wear and tear. During production, the black phone was hooked up to a system called a Viking System, which allowed director Scott Derrickson to make it ring and talk to Mason Thames.
☎ Gwen’s Dollhouse. Gwen’s dollhouse, which Gwen uses to get in touch with her visions, was made by prop assistant KRISTEN CROUT, with the help of production designer Patti Podesta and the art department. After one of the set designers built it in a 3D program, Crout worked with a non-profit woodworking program for underserved youth to create it.
☎ Seventies Style. The wardrobe created by costume designer Amy Andrews and her team consisted of mostly warm tones to reflect the film’s 1970s aesthetic.
☎ Fluffy Hair. The hairstyles in the film were specific to the ’70s, which were fluffier and more relaxed. The film’s hair and makeup teams also considered the dry Colorado climate when they planned the shapes and textures of the hairstyles.
☎ Gwen’s Braids. For Gwen’s hairstyle, the stylists made sure that it was a style that she could have done herself, which is why she spends much of the film in braids.
☎ Gwen’s Raincoat. The raincoat that Gwen wears when she rides through the rain on her bike was carefully curated. Raincoats are no longer made of the same fabric that her coat was made out of, and the hood on it has a little point, which is synonymous with pre- ’80’s raincoats.
☎ Shadow Boys. Each of the shadow kids killed by The Grabber died in a different way and this is reflected in their makeup. Originally, the makeup and shadows on the ghost kids was going to be conveyed via CGI, but director Scott Derrickson decided to go with practical makeup effects instead.
☎ The Masks. The masks that The Grabber wears were designed by TOM SAVINI, who is best known for his special effects makeup for many horror films including Friday the 13th, Day of the Dead, Maniac and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, among others. Savini and his partner JASON BAKER have also created masks for heavy metal band Slipknot and for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
☎ Vintage Authenticity. To achieve the look of the ’70s, cinematographer Brett Jutkiewicz looked back at the lighting of films during that period and then employed anamorphic lenses, which have a softer, vintage quality to them.
☎ Gwen’s Dreams. Director of Photography Brett Jutkiewicz and director Scott Derrickson shot Gwen’s dream scenes in Super 8 film. This achieved both the sense of nostalgia that the scenes called for as well as a dreamier aesthetic.
☎ Heightened Naturalism. The overall aesthetic of the film has a heightened naturalism, but the camera team picked key moments to elevate. The film is not hyper-stylized, but the team tried to give specific moments in the film a visual edge, creating a dynamic, immersive experience.
☎ Brutal Bullying. For the fights between kids in the film, director Scott Derrickson told stunt coordinator MARK RICCARDI that he wanted a no-holds-barred viciousness to the fights because that’s how he remembered them being when he was growing up in the ’70s.
☎ Big Little Search. Finding adult stunt doubles for children under 5 feet tall was not always easy. Stunt coordinator Mark Riccardi extended his search to multiple cities to find stunt doubles who fit the criteria.
Universal Pictures and Blumhouse present, a Crooked Highway Production, a Scott Derrickson film, The Black Phone, starring Mason Thames, Madeleine McGraw, Jeremy Davies, James Ransone and Ethan Hawke. The casting is by Terri Taylor, csa, and Sarah Domeier Lindo csa. The music is by Mark Korven. The costume designer is Amy Andrews, the production designer is Patti Podesta, and the editor is Frédéric Thoraval. The director of photography is Brett Jutkiewicz, and the executive producers are Ryan Turek, Christopher H. Warner and Joe Hill. The Black Phone is produced by Jason Blum, p.g.a., Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. The film is based on the short story ‘The Black Phone’ by Joe Hill and the screenplay is by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill. The Black Phone is directed by Scott Derrickson. A Universal Release © 2022 Universal Studios.