"The Black Phone" -- starring Ethan Hawke -- opens in theaters Friday. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
NEW YORK, June 24 (UPI) -- Writer-director Scott Derrickson says Ethan Hawke, who plays a mask-wearing, serial child killer in his 1970s-set horror movie, The Black Phone, almost didn't take the role because he typically doesn't play villains.
"But he loved the script and agreed to do it, and it is certainly one of his best performances," Derrickson told UPI in a recent Zoom interview.
Derrickson didn't write the character with Hawke in mind, but said the actor was the first to whom he gave the screenplay when it was completed.
"He is operating at the highest level. I really marvel at his talent," the filmmaker said.
"He took the challenge of wearing a mask really seriously, too, and felt that if he could get a personality to shine through that mask and push through the scariness of that mask, he would be doing something very unique -- and which is exactly what he did."
Out in theaters Friday, the movie was produced by Jason Blum, based on a short story by Joe Hill. It follows Finney (Mason Thames), a shy, but clever, 13-year-old Colorado boy who is abducted by the Grabber (Hawke).
Trapped in a soundproof basement in a house just blocks away from his own home, Finney has nothing but a mattress and a black wall telephone that doesn't allow him to call for help.
Oddly enough, it does let him hear the voices of previous victims who want to save Finney from their fates and instruct him regarding how to outwit the Grabber.
Also fighting to find and rescue Finney is his younger sister Gwen, (Madeleine McGraw), who has unreliable psychic visions, but can't get any grownups, and not even their distraught dad Terrence, (Jeremy Davies) to believe her.
"I was a little bit nervous at first going into it, but after I met Ethan, it was definitely a breeze. He was so nice, and the way he goes into the Grabber character is so much fun," Thames said in a separate virtual chat.
Hawke's face is disguised for the entire movie by an assortment of malevolent masks and false face pieces that alternately feature a smile, a frown and no mouth, depending on how he wants to terrify his prey, Derrickson said.
Thames insisted it wasn't difficult at all to act opposite someone in a mask because Hawke still was able to convey his intent.
"The emotion in Ethan's eyes can still be seen. He's so great," the younger actor said. "It's definitely pretty scary."
The Grabber has a sickening talent for luring to their doom and chloroforming decent kids to whom the audience instantly connects and cares about.
"One of my favorite things about this film is how realistic it is," Thames said. "What he does is watch his target for a while and picks the kids who are kind-hearted, and he really traps them."
McGraw and Thames said working on this film made them realize in what ways technology has made kids safer from abduction.
"Kids, nowadays, if someone ran up to you, you could literally just call your mom and dad on your cell phone, or they could just track your location," McGraw said as Thames noted security cameras are everywhere as a safety measure.
"Kids in the '70s had so much more freedom and they could ride their bikes anywhere, but their parents wouldn't know where they were," McGraw added.
Derrickson said the lack of technology in the time period helped him tell his story because it provided obstacles to the kids being discovered.
But Derrickson chose the setting for a more personal reason.
"I was Finney's age at the same time and place. I was really trying to draw on my memories of my own life at that age to try and create an authentic environment that was interesting and fresh," he said.
Thames said he loved working with Derrickson because he knew exactly what he wanted.
"He had a vision and he executed it perfectly," Thames said.
That doesn't mean he was inflexible, though.
"He gave us freedom and let us put our own twists on Finney and Gwen," McGraw said.
Thames and McGraw said they have a great relationship in real life and feel almost like brother and sister after their first major roles on the big screen.
"We got along right away, and we got along really well," McGraw said. "That made it super easy to work with each other. I think that's why it looked so good in the movie."
Thames wanted to play Finney because he survived being bullied by his classmates even before the Grabber arrived on the scene.
"He has been through so much," the actor said.
"When I read the script, I would think about how I would react in that situation," he added.
"And he would react completely different. I just found a liking to that, and he is such a smart kid and an outcast. My favorite parts of the story are the relationship between Finney and Gwen."
McGraw called Gwen "super-fearless."
"I love that there are a lot of ways I can relate to her," the actress said.
"She is super-tough and very loyal and would do anything to protect her brother," she added. "She can see what's happening and what is going to happen in the future. She tries to use those visions to help find her brother because no one is believing her."
Before Finney has the challenge of escaping the clutches of the Grabber, he and his sister also endure a traumatic relationship with their abusive father.
"The way Gwen, especially, handles it, she is super-strong in the film. I feel like Finney almost looks up to her," Thames said.
McGraw said she thinks the film does a good job of showing different things children might fear or encounter.
"It brings a lot of awareness to all of the situations that the kids are put in," she said. "I always felt safe. They made it feel so comfortable on set. We did rehearsals before, so that made us feel even more prepared for what we were about to do."
Derrickson confirmed that his horror story is really a parable about childhood trauma and the resilience of children, revealing that a lot of the subtext was taken from his own childhood.
"I lived in a violent home, and I lived on a working-class neighborhood block with 13 boys. I was bullied all the time," he recalled.
"There was a lot of fighting all the time and bleeding in my neighborhood. Also, in the late 1970s, there was a lot of fear of serial killers after the Manson murders and Ted Bundy and Halloween, the movie, had come out.
"It was important to me that these were characters who were already dealing with monsters of their own -- real, hard-life realities."
Thames said he and McGraw watched the finished film together and enjoyed the experience of being scared like regular moviegoers.
"Normally, I don't like watching myself," Thames said. "But once it kind of started, I forgot I was in it and was along for the ride."
"When you are on set, you don't hear all the music and you don't see all the effects," she said. "When we watched it together, it was so cool. It did scare the life out of me, even though I knew what was going to happen."