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The Oswalds Move In
Ellison Oswald, the writer at the center of Sinister, appears in virtually every scene in the movie, driving the action with his insatiable need for another bestseller. But his ambition makes him an unlikely hero, one who is willing to place his family in jeopardy to achieve his goal.

"Once the script was finished, I immediately started thinking about who could play Ellison," says Derrickson. "I went into a bit of panic because I realized that we had written an essentially unlikeable character. Ellison is so flawed. He makes several fundamentally wrong decisions very early in the movie. We needed to find an actor that the audience would remain interested in despite that. If not, then they wouldn't be invested in the story, so they won't be scared by the movie."

Derrickson decided to approach Ethan Hawke to play Ellison based on a quality he displayed in films like Training Day and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. "He has played a lot of flawed characters before and he always manages to keep the audience's sympathy," the director says. "I emailed Jason Blum and asked if he had any connection to Ethan. It turned out they have been friends for years. He is Ethan's children's godfather! The movie gods were smiling on us."

Hawke, however, was not initially interested in the role. "Jason asked to me to meet with Scott," the actor says. "He has a clear vision of the kind of movies he wants to put out. The Paranormal trilogy has been a real triumph for him. I agreed to see Scott, but I explained that I had never really been interested in scary movies. And Scott explained to me why he didn't care. He could give me an opportunity to give a good performance. He believed in this movie and was so passionate about it, that I was intrigued."

The director told Hawke not to think of it as a horror film. "It's not a genre that he particularly gets. As we talked, it dawned on him that he didn't have to understand what a horror film is or how a horror film works. That's my job. He's not in a horror film. He's in a drama. He's playing a guy trying to get his career back on track. And the rest of it would be my responsibility."

"We were really excited when Ethan said he would do it," says Cargill. "We needed an actor charismatic enough to make the audience care about him even when he was making terrible choices. There are very few actors that can pull that off in Hollywood and Ethan is one of them. It's a really remarkable quality as an actor."

Once Hawke committed to the film, he threw himself into developing the character. "Ellison has really lost his way," says Hawke. "He had a tremendous amount of success when he was younger and is to trying to find the heat of the spotlight again, but it's elusive. In order to write the greatest true-crime fiction of all time, he moves himself and his family into a place where a horrible murder happened, but neglects to tell his wife why."

From the get-go, the audience can see that Ellison's moral compass is compromised, says the actor. "He's struggling with his ego, as most of us do. Playing a good person can be boring because you always know what a good person is going to do. They're going to do the 'right thing.' A bad person is unpredictable. That made Ellison incredibly dynamic and fun to play."

As the family settles into their new home and Ellison begins to uncover more clues to the mysterious murders and abductions caught on film, inexplicable events begin to occur. "He's either beginning to lose his mind or being threatened by the murderer that this mystery is unveiling," Hawke says. "You're not sure whether it's a real threat or an imagined one. The most detached, analytical person will unravel when they haven't had enough sleep."

As the drama and suspense ratcheted up, Hawke began to realize he was actually enjoying the fear factor. "I realized about halfway through the shoot that the real reason I never wanted to act in a scary movie was because I thought it would be scary to do it," he admits. "If I play that stuff, I might open the door to demons of my own. If you fully imagine this stuff, what's going to happen to you? And the truth is it was a lot of fun."

The actor and the director spent a good deal of time discussing the various types of fear that Ellison experiences. "Ethan's character is experiencing many different levels of fear through the story," says Derrickson. "Often in this kind of contained, haunted house scenario, you wonder why the characters don't clear out early on. In Ellison's case, he has a very clear motive for why he doesn't leave. As weird as things get, there's something else he is more afraid of than the spooky things that happen in the house. He's more afraid of losing his status in life, of not recovering his fame and fortune. And that's a relatable fear. The movie is about fear and the fear that really drives the main character is the fear of not mattering in the world."

Derrickson cut together some pieces of footage from The Shining for Hawke to watch. He showed the actor the famous Jack Nicholson "Here's Johnny" scene without Shelley Duvall's reactions and Hawke realized that Nicholson isn't scary in the movie. "Shelley Duvall makes him scary with her reactions," he says. "Watching that, I knew I had to truly commit to playing the fear, which is an unappealing emotion. There's nothing heroic in it, but it was critical to find that."

Derrickson's commitment and resourcefulness on this film have turned around Hawke's feeling about the horror genre. "Scott is a filmmaker," he says. "Lots of people love movies and lots of people have great ideas about movies. They might even have one great movie in them, but Scott thinks, talks, behaves and feels film. When a guy knows what he wants to make, the whole thing becomes really easy. It's really exciting to be on a set with somebody who knows a lot more than you do. And in this genre particularly, Scott knows the world."

For their supporting cast, the filmmakers were able to assemble a formidable roster of actors.

Ellison's wife Tracy is played by Juliet Rylance, an actress from Britain with an impressive stage resume who is tackling her first major film role here. Derrickson decided to take a chance on the fragile blonde on Hawke's recommendation. "I find that actors often have very good ideas about who should play opposite them," the director says. "He had never worked with her, but he had seen her onstage several times. I auditioned her and thought she was perfect."

Hawke had seen her in a handful of plays in New York. "Every time, I'd walk out of the show saying, 'that woman is amazing,'" he says. "Juliet is a terrific actress and I'd love to work more with her. She's extremely intelligent and has a lot to offer. The movie is really lucky to have her as a presence. Her character is the center of the family, with Ellison neurotically spinning out."

Hawke also recommended his friend Vincent D'Onofrio to play a small but pivotal role as a local professor of demonology who advises Ellison. "We wanted somebody special," says Derrickson. "It's a difficult role in part because he is only seen on a computer screen, but also because everything he is saying is expositional. It takes a certain kind of actor to make that interesting and real. Vincent had great ideas about the character. He suggested the Pink Floyd shirt and the gal walking behind him with the coffee cup. He definitely made a great little character out of the professor."

D'Onofrio's entire performance took place on Skype. "He Skyped from one room while I was in the other," says Hawke. "It's a challenging part, but he pulled it off and made it fun. I love working with him."

When the Oswald family arrives at their new home, they are met by a welcoming committee of sorts: the local sheriff, played by renowned character actor and former U.S. Senator, Fred Dalton Thompson, and his deputy, played by James Ransone. "Fred was the only guy that we really had in mind for that role," Derrickson says. "I try not to write for specific actors, but when we wrote this script, the description of the character was 'a strong Fred Thompson type.' We never thought he would do it, but we sent him the script anyway. And he said, 'Well, my name's in the script. I figured I had to do it.' He plays the role perfectly. He has so much weight and authority, it makes everything he has to say pretty interesting."

"Fred Thompson was the cherry on top of everything," says Cargill. "We were told that he doesn't do a lot of films anymore. When we found out how much he liked the script, Scott and I were just giddy."

Ransone's character, referred to in the film as "Deputy So-and-So," was the hardest role to cast, according to Derrickson. The character is equal parts earnest naiveté and genuine investigative smarts, whipped up together into an unexpectedly funny performance. "I knew what I was looking for and I wasn't finding anyone even close," he says. "He had to be able to do the comedy, but he also needed to have a certain amount of weight, because he goes through a pretty interesting journey in the course of the movie. We were running out of time when our casting director brought up James Ransone. I knew his work well from 'The Wire.' He never even auditioned for the part. I had a Skype session with him and just knew. He nailed it.

Derrickson shot each of the deputy's scenes three ways-funny, funnier and funniest. "We used mostly the more subtle takes, but I'm really glad that I did that because I was able then to build just the right balance of comedy and seriousness for this character."

The director says that the most important part of his work with his actor is casting well. "If you select the right people, your actors will bring in much better ideas than you have," he says. "I try to be very sensitive in listening to actors and giving them a space to try to create. What they do is magical. It's a little like baking. You have to pick the right ingredients and the right temperature and then it's going to be what it's going to be."

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