Still, as the collaborators realized, if a horror movie only has jolting scares but not emotional substance, the viewer's experience will ultimately be hollow. Thus, Cargill and Derrickson pulled from their own personal experiences with family and artistic pursuits to flesh out the character of Ellison's domestic dynamic and conflicted, often unlikable, but always human demeanor. "I remember a lot of conversations about Ellison and Tracy and the kids, and how to lay out a family story and relationships within that," says Derrickson. "To get those to feel real and compelling and not slow the movie down is very difficult. You have to be efficient, not waste time, but you also can't miss any of the critical beats or else the audience won't care about the characters."
Once their script was finished, the hopeful storytellers arranged a meeting with Blum, who was jazzed to work with Derrickson due to his strong appreciation for The Exorcism of Emily Rose and the desire to see a talented director rediscover his creative juices in the wake of a letdown (The Day the Earth Stood Still). Blum quickly agreed to work with them, except he needed to make one major change: The working title of Found Footage, which aptly describes Ellison's uncovering of the Super-8 reels but not the actual movie's aesthetic presentation, had to go. "I thought it might be confusing to people, who would then think it is a found-footage movie," says Blum. "Scott came up with the title Sinister, and when I first heard it, I loved the way it sounds. I like the nod to Insidious, too—I thought that was kind of fun."
With all their chips in place, the Sinister team had one major problem to solve, right away: They needed an actor strong enough to handle a role as challenging and multifaceted as Ellison. For all intents and purposes, Sinister is Ellison's movie; the only times he's not on screen are whenever he's watching the five unnerving Super-8 films he found in the attic. Fortunately for Cargill and Derrickson, Blum's best friend just so happens to be Ethan Hawke, the prolific and respected star of such acclaimed pics as Training Day and Before Sunrise. Twenty years ago, Hawke and Blum started a theater company together, and throughout the subsequent two decades they've remained close pals.
There was a catch, though, when it came to horror projects. "Since Paranormal, I've been saying to [Ethan], 'They're so fun—you have to try one,'" says Blum. "I offered him several movies before he said 'yes' to this, and I kept pushing and pushing. The thing was, he really thought that making a horror movie would be a traumatic experience. As in, he'd be too scared."
The Academy Award nominee's hesitance was, in his mind, a bit more complicated. "Sometimes, horror movies can be made, be very successful, and have really bad acting in them," says Hawke. "I didn't want to be in one of those. And, yes, there was also a part of me that thought these kinds of movies would be terrifying to make, like I would actually have to act with the beast. There's a part of you that, whenever you watch these movies, you think that everybody must be terrified out of their minds, but I realized that making a horror movie is a lot like making a romance: Just because the guy and the girl are acting like they love each other, it doesn't mean that they really fell in love. And just because somebody's being eaten by a demon doesn't mean that you actually have to get eaten by a demon."
It also didn't hurt that Hawke, like Blum, is a big fan of Derrickson's first genre effort. "I know enough to know that you need a great filmmaker to make a great horror movie, and I feel that The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a really well-made film," says Sinister's star. "When I met Scott, it seemed clear to me that he knew what he was doing."
In addition to a gifted filmmaker, of course, you also need a screenplay that's both intelligent and creepy as all hell. Adds Hawke, "The script, to my mind, does what a genre movie is supposed to do, which is, A, be terrifying, and then, B, have a secret message. It has a little secret work that's going on, which is that it's about this guy who puts his ambition in front of everything else in his life and that's the thing that lets the demon loose. I love that metaphor; it's as ancient as Macbeth."
Hawke was also smart enough to realize that Ellison is the kind of character actors dream of playing; inherently a good guy, he's so blinded by the selfish, superficial desire to rekindle his long-dormant fame that, as a result, he makes a string of poor decisions that endanger his family. The fear of never repeating a past triumph was something to which all three of Sinister's primary anchors could relate.
"For me, having made The Day the Earth Stood Still and not having made a film for two years after that, I was experiencing a lot of the fears that Ellison has," says Derrickson. "So the storytelling, for me, became a really therapeutic way to purge the kind of feelings that I didn't want to have. I was very aware of how much, as a writer or a novelist or a filmmaker, whatever it is that you do, if you do it creatively, you get very afraid that you're not going to be able to keep doing it. You get very afraid that people aren't going to like what you're doing. So, it was a great way to kind of rebel against that and create a character who was, in my imagination, the worst version of myself."
For Cargill, a first-time screenwriter who doesn't have the same kind of personal baggage, Ellison's dangerous, one-track-minded drive served as a warning, not therapy. "Ellison is a lot like several of the writers that I've met over the course of the last decade, which are guys who have been so praised because they were in the right place at the right time, or they had some of the right breaks," he says. "As a result, they think that they are better than they really are, and they go forward and they're surrounded by really talented people that they just shit on or ignore and have no idea that those people are actually lapping them in talent. That's very much Ellison in the film."