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
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
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
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
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
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
When the Oswald family arrives at their new home, they are met by a welcoming
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
"Fred Thompson was the cherry on top of everything," says Cargill. "We were told
doesn't do a lot of films anymore. When we found out how much he liked the
script, Scott and I were just
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 naivetÃ© 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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