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Madeline McGraw and Scott Derrickson Talk About Masks, Relationships, and ‘The Black Phone’

Ethan Hawke as The Grabber in The Black Phone, directed by Scott Derrickson.

The Black Phone brought us Ethan Hawke as the Grabber, a terrifying villain taking the boys of a small town into his basement and forcing them to play a deadly “game” with him despite pretending to care about them. It’s the latest horror flick from Scott Derrickson and is one that highlights the power of adaptation. Based on the short story by Joe Hill, the story brings a boy named Finney (Mason Thames) into the path of the Grabber and shows what it takes for him to escape.

In preparation for the release of the DVD and for the film to head to streaming and digital, I got to speak with Scott Derrickson about his connection to the story and bringing Finney’s story to life. For Derrickson, it was an incredibly personal project, and he mixed his own history of abuse from his childhood with the short story to fill out the film he was making. Derrickson worked with C. Robert Cargill, his longtime collaborator, on the movie.

“When I stepped off of Multiverse Madness, I felt like I had all this fresh feeling and information about my own past that was interesting fodder for a movie and I told Cargill, I said, maybe we could do like an American 400 Blows, the François Truffaut autobiographical film about his childhood,” Derrickson said. “And I just felt like that my story wasn’t interesting enough for that. And, I don’t know if it was his idea or mine, but at some point we came up with the idea of, well, what if I took all that memory of north Denver in the late seventies and the violence of my working class neighborhood and the violence in my home and combined that with the black phone, it was like, wow, this is very interesting. And, it took us only about six weeks to write the script. Once we, we had the idea of combining those two things.”

The mask that the Grabber wears fascinates me, and it’s something I asked Ethan Hawke about during the roundtables at the Tribeca Film Festival. For Derrickson though, the mask was an evolution. He brought up knowing that he wanted to see Hawke’s face at some point in it given that it is, after all, Ethan Hawke, and that he wanted that for the marketing of the movie, which is what the poster ended up being. It’s funny because I had that poster at my subway stop for ages, and I said to Derrickson that it made me sad when they finally took Ethan Hawke away, but it also led into us talking a bit about the mask and the work that goes into it and how it connects to theatre and mask work, particularly in how things like Commedia dell’arte utilized it.

“I appreciate you bringing up the history of mask work in theater, in both the east and the west. And we were very conscientious of that. And the dialogue was written to be dialogue that’s spoken from behind a mask, so there was always an understanding of the significance and importance of that and the way the Grabber himself used the mask as a form of intimidation,” Derrickson said. “But the actual mask itself in the script was described much more plainly. It was a smiling devil mask and a frowning devil mask. And they were described as antique leather masks that had a painting of the devil on each of them. That was it. And then when it came to pre-production, I really started to feel the weight of, you know, this movie’s gonna be marketed by Ethan Hawke wearing this mask.”

And again, he’s right. I will never get the poster of Hawke in the hat and turtleneck wearing that mask out of my head, and the ominous vibe that it held. “It’s gotta be iconic,” Derrickson went on to say about the mask and Hawke’s look as the Grabber. “I got very excited about the idea of trying to push the boundaries of a horror icon in a serial killer in a mask. And because we’ve got Jason and we’ve got Michael Myers and we’ve got Ghostface. And so the idea of, well, not just two masks, but three masks. And then the real, I think, Eureka moment was, well, what if I split them in half? And then he could wear various pieces. And that was partly motivated because I had Ethan Hawke and I was like, I’d like to see his eyes once in a while. And once I had all of that, then it was Tom Savini who came up with the specific design of the faces that are on him and all that. And Jason Baker helped who helped mold it into an actual thing. But the significance and the importance of the Grabber needing to be behind a mask at all times was always a big part of the story.”

(This interview was edited down from a longer conversation over Zoom.)

Gwen and Finney

One of my favorite aspects of this movie was how real the relationship is between Finney and Gwen. While their family dynamic is horrific and their father is abusive towards them (and is physically abusive to Gwen onscreen), the two come together in a way that is very much how some siblings interact with each other. As a younger sister myself, I related to a lot of how Gwen reacted to Finney and the things he did, and her determination to try to help her brother.

Played by the talented Madeline McGraw, she had a lot on her plate throughout the movie, and McGraw showed her strength and resilience throughout The Black Phone. I asked McGraw about her connection to Gwen and the character’s determination. “I loved getting to play Gwen because I could relate to her in a lot of ways,” McGraw said. “I loved her fierceness and I love how loyal and protective she is with her brother. But I think where the challenge was for me was finding that place of abandonment because I have such a loving and supporting family and Gwen comes from a very broken home with an alcoholic father. And so even though she swears like a sailor and is very tough on the outside, I feel like she uses that side of her to hide her more vulnerable side.”

But it’s not just about Gwen as a character. Her relationship to Finney is so important, and so I asked her about building that relationship with Mason Thames and how the two found that sibling balance. “We didn’t get to hang out with each other a lot off camera and off set because it was during COVID, but whenever did we had the best time together. We got along so well. I love Mason so much and whenever we would have to do school after we were done filming, we would mostly goof off instead of doing our school work.”

You can see our full interview here:

The Black Phone is available now on Peacock and available on Blu-ray and more today. It’s another brilliant addition into Derrickson’s collection of work and worth the watch!

(featured image: Universal Pictures)

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Rachel Leishman (She/Her) is an Assistant Editor at the Mary Sue. A writer her whole life but professionally starting back in 2016 who loves all things movies, TV, and classic rock. Resident Spider-Man expert, official Leslie Knope, actually Yelena Belova. Wanda Maximoff has never done anything wrong in her life. Star Wars makes her very happy. New York writer with a passion for all things nerdy. Yes, she has a Pedro Pascal podcast. And also a Harrison Ford one.