Scott Derrickson Is Going to Find You
The celebrated horror director reveals the secret to making a great found-footage movie — and his dream sci-fi project.
A serial killer stalks the streets of a town, leaving a trail of violence and gore behind him. The local police (including a videographer capturing everything on his Super 8 camera) track the murder futilely. Their only clue is a series of videotapes that show up at the station, revealing footage of each murder somehow recorded days before they take place.
That’s the eerie premise of “Dreamkill,” a new short from horror master Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Doctor Strange, Blackphone) featured in V/H/S/85. The sixth entry installment in the found-footage anthology series, 85 takes the franchise back to the earliest days of home video recording, which is exactly what appealed to Derrickson.
“Everything was shot with actual early 1980s cameras,” Scott Derrickson tells Inverse.
The director’s interest in found footage goes back to his breakout hit, 2012’s Sinister, which tells the story of a true-crime writer played by Ethan Hawke who finds a box full of horrifying home videos and uncovers a demonic secret. For V/H/S/85, Derrickson was able to reuse some of the tricks he learned in Sinister while pushing the limits of found-footage horror even further.
“I was only interested in doing a segment if I could find a way to expand the genre itself,” he says.
Inverse spoke to Derrickson about how “Dreamkill” bends the rules of found footage, whether he’d ever make Sinister 3, his surprising pick for best found-footage movie ever, and the sci-fi book he desperately wants to adapt into a movie.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
This may be an odd question to start with, but when I watched “Dreamkill,” it felt to me like you were almost breaking the rules of found footage since the premise of your short is that we’re watching videos of someone’s prophetic dream. Was that your goal?
I don’t break the rules. I bend the rules. Maybe I break the rules inside the rules. But technically, everything you’re seeing is found footage. It’s just that some of the material was found metaphysically or mystically on a VHS tape.
I was only interested in doing a segment if I could find a way to expand the genre itself. The only reason to do a franchise film like the sixth installment of V/H/S is if you can contribute something new.
So the desire to bend the rules of found footage came first and then the story followed?
Well, when I first heard it was 1985, I thought, “Oh, now that’s interesting.” Because that’s the earliest days of consumer usage of video cameras, and the quality of those recordings. It was the early days of closed-circuit cameras, like what you see in the police station. We used all early ’80s cameras for all that stuff.
That was the first parameter. And then I looked for a story that would fit that idea. That’s where I came up with the idea of somebody whose dreams were recorded on a VHS tape, and then the characters evolved out of that.
What interests you about found footage as a genre, and what are your favorite found-footage movies?
I love how the documentary style enables a layer of anxiety and fear to exist within a narrative when it’s done properly. When we made Sinister, the whole idea was that it’s not a found-footage movie — it’s a movie about the guy who finds the footage.
“Safe Haven” from V/H/S/2 is probably the best horror short I’ve ever seen. I really love that film, and I’m friends with the directors, Timo [Tjahjanto] and Gareth [Evans]. So part of the desire to do this was to try to make a film as good as that. I think my favorite found footage feature-length movie is probably Cloverfield. That’s a great film. I’ve rewatched it many times. It was a hit and people like it, but it’s a better film than it even gets credit for. In terms of found-footage horror, my favorite is fairly underrated, which is Hell House LLC. That movie is shit scary, and I think that found-footage quality has a lot to do with why it’s so scary. Also, Rec is a truly great film.
Some great recommendations there. I also love Cloverfield. Would you ever want to make a Cloverfield movie?
It would depend on the story. Cloverfield is a nearly perfect movie, and it came along and brought so much freshness to cinema at the time. Nothing like it had been done. I wouldn’t want to do something that’s just another variation of that at a feature level. It would have to be something that had a unique freshness to it as well.
You mentioned Sinister, and there are a lot of connections to be made between that movie and “Dreamkill,” specifically in the way you depict the found footage. Can you talk about your approach?
When I went to make Sinister, I knew I was going to have Ethan Hawke watching these six different murder films on Super 8. So I watched everything I could where you’ve got characters watching something horrific that’s been recorded: Nic Cage in 8mm, George C. Scott in Hardcore, there were a bunch. But in every one of those instances, there was a real bifurcation for the audience. You would see some of the footage and then cut back to the person watching it. I found all of those movies to be relatively ineffective because you’re asking the audience to experience two things at the same time: what’s being watched and the person's reaction.
Then I launched David Lynch’s Lost Highway, and it was a very different experience. In Lost Highway, when Patricia Arquette and Bill Pullman put those VHS tapes in and push play, the entire segments play in full frame duration until they’re over. Only then do you cut back to them watching it. And it’s so much more effective.
I took that lesson to heart when I made Sinister, and it worked very well. So that’s what I did in “Dreamkill.” Once you go into the tapes, you as the audience are the observer watching them and experiencing them in their visceral totality until they’re over. And then you’re back into the reactions to your characters.
Do you have any interest in returning to the Sinister franchise?
Possibly. It’s a really interesting world. It’s really unfortunate that Sinister 2 was a misfire, but I do think there’s a lot of things that are special about it, and I certainly think it merits more exploration if we can do it in a better way.
Sort of a random question, but I know you’ve tweeted about A Canticle for Leibowitz, which is one of my favorite books. My uncle gave it to me when I was a kid, and I loved it. What interests you about that book, and would you want to turn it into a movie?
I don’t think I ever tweeted about wanting to adapt that in particular. If I remember correctly, I was tweeting about religious science fiction. That’s one of the towering great books of religious science fiction ever written, but I don’t find that book to be cinematically appealing.
One that I would love to play in is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. That’s a religious science fiction book that would make an incredible movie. I also really love James Blish’s A Case of Conscience or Philip K. Dick’s The Divine Invasion.
I actually wanted to ask about The Sparrow too. You tweeted that you’d attempted to get the rights a few times. Can you tell me what happened there?
Yeah, I got to know Mary quite a bit during that time. She was very supportive, but we were never able to get it set up. Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B, owned it for a while. Then they were looking at doing it as a show.
I chased it everywhere it went. I think it’s one of the great religious spiritual science fiction stories. But at this point, it’s probably been optioned by so many people that there’s lots of money against it. Maybe she got tired of getting burned by people wasting her time. I don’t know where it stands right now.
Final question: Your next movie is called The Gorge. Can you tell me anything about it?
I can't tell you anything about the story. I can tell you it’s a big movie with Anya Taylor-Joy and Miles Teller. I shot it, so we are in postproduction, and I feel very good about it. I think it’s turning out quite well. Still got work to do on it, but it’s great. Don’t have a release date. Don't know anything about that at this point.