About a year ago, a small group of mostly writers representing mostly horror film sites came to Chicago to visit the set of SINISTER 2, the sequel to the surprise hit from 2012, directed by Scott Derrickson (who is gearing up to take on Marvel’s DOCTOR STRANGE). Once again, Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill (the once and forever Massawyrm) have written the screenplay, this time tackling the Bughuul mythology from a slightly different perspective—that of single mother Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon) and her two young children, Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan). Making the transition from the first film is the former deputy played by James Ransone, who remains obsessed with the Bughuul phenomenon since his friend and his family were killed in the first film, and is attempting to anticipate where these killings might happen again in hopes of stopping them.
On board as director this time around is Ciarán Foy, who helmed the absolutely creepy and engrossing CITADEL in 2012. Derrickson (who was on set when we visited) returns as producer, along with returning producer Jason Blum.
When we pulled onto the soundstage lot, two things we immediately noticeable: I recognized the building from my previous set visit to the reboot of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and the sign at the gate which read “Bughuul Productions, LLC.” Our group was visiting on Day 4 or a 30-day shoot at Chicago’s Studio City, which was being used primarily as the interior of the home where Courtney and her kids are living. It’s always strange to see an entire house built with not actual outside, just interiors.
When we arrived, a scene was being shot that involved one of the kids (they are meant to be twins; it turns out the young actors are actually two-thirds of a triplet set) lying in bed after having been awoken by something scary. We can’t see the set well from where we are, but video monitors reveal an open window over the bed with curtains blowing in as if a wind is moving them. There is no dialogue in the scene, and of course this makes us all the more curious what this kid has just seen. A small group of kids sitting in directors’ chairs nearby, most in costumes that do not appear to be entirely modern. One young man is wearing a vest and tie, and when we see them close up later, we realize they all have makeup on that makes them ghostly pale, which might be for a very good reason.
The next scene involves the two boys in the bathroom, brushing their teeth and talking to their mother about a recent visit by Ransone’s character, who is no longer a sheriff but is a private investigator. They boys ask if his visit has anything to do with the incident in the church (there’s an abandoned church on the grounds), and when she asks how they know about that, one of them says, “Everybody knows.” But when she leaves, one asks the other “What happened at the church?”, leading us to believe that one of the boys is a bit more informed than the other. Rather than responding, the other brother just walks out. An interesting moment in shooting this scene involves an off-white towel behind the boys being replaced by a darker blue towel for balance the shot, since the white towel was blending too much with the wall behind it. A multi-paneled bathroom cabinet mirror is also adjusted just right to capture the kids’ faces.
The final sequences we see being shot involves young Dylan in bed again, this time surrounded by the creepy, pale kids we saw earlier. The kid in the vest and tie (who I find out later is actor Lucas Jade Zumann playing Milo) is front and center next to the bed, and the scene seems to involve Dylan being shushed by Milo just as he’s about to scream for his life. I’m told later that Milo is a key figure in this story, which seems to explain the importance of children to the Bughuul legend.
Toward the end of our visit, we were taken on a walkthrough of the actual, two-story set, from room to room, and got to have some informal discussions with Derrickson and Foy. As part of the visit, however, we sat down with the pair, as well as actors James Ransone and Shannyn Sossamon for a quick press conference, during which we pried as much information as we could from them. Here are some highlights from that discussion…
QUESTION: Can you give us a sense of where we are geographically and chronologically in relation to the first film?
Scott Derrickson: Geographically, I don’t think the script ever says the actual place does it? [Someone answers: “It was in Colorado; now it’s Illinois”] Did it actually say Colorado? Because I wrote it with Colorado in mind, Cargill and I wrote the script in, and it was written imagining a very specific place where I grew up so it was set in Colorado, in the Midwest, and for practical reasons, it didn’t make sense production wise. But the locations all stayed the same, and the look stayed the same. Did we actually make it say Illinois? Cargill changed it to rural Illinois. It’s rural, and timewise, chronology wise, it’s after the first film; it’s not a prequel.
QUESTION: Is it right after, or a couple years after?
SD: Yeah, probably a few years—soon enough that [Ransone] is still in it, but that whole incident has happened.
James Ransone: Yeah, they aged me like 65 years. I got to sit through two-and-a-half hours of makeup [laughs].
QUESTION: Are you planning on incorporating the same kind of Super 8, found footage that we saw in the first movie?
SD: I don’t want to give away exactly what it is, but I’ll say that going into going in to the process of writing the script, the thing I was most adamant about was that Bughuul and these kill films and the idea of Bughuul killing—the creation of these homicides through art was the thing that made SINISTER, SINISTER, from a franchise point of view. So yeah, that’s going to that’s going to be in there.
QUESTION: When you were doing press for CITADEL, you talked about how personal that film was. For this one, what was the connection? Was there something personal in this that you connected to?
Ciaran Foy: Genre’s my thing, and I think with any genre film—sci fi, horror—you have to find some personal angle to it. And this is the story of two brothers pretty much. It’s interesting from that point of view; it’s not a female version of Ethan Hawke in this movie; they’re like co-protagonists, so yeah, there’s a personal angle in there for sure about growing up myself and the rivalry between siblings, but obviously not on the level of CITADEL because CITADEL is based on stuff that physically happened to me. I always think it’s important to find some a personal way in.
QUESTION: Scott, can you talk about passing the baton to Ciaran and the process of searching for a director to handling your material?
SD: Yeah, it was more difficult than I thought it was going to be. I don’t know how many movies I’ve watched—and I’ve seen a lot of a bunch of low-budget horror and I’m a fan of it and I watch it pretty frequently—so I went back and watched everything I knew that I liked and tried to find everything I could from the last 5-6 years to see what else had been had been done out there. I felt that there were only two or three directors who had worked at this budget level or something close to it, which I thought was important because it’s this special filmmaking to be able to make a movie work at such a low budget, so that was a criteria. Ideally, I wanted somebody who had some experience working with kids, but that wasn’t a must, and then the ability to create horror-tension with an emphasis on performance—to tell the story through the actors.
I was really surprised actually how few directors met that criteria, and Ciaran was the one of three that I was looking at who was available and best fit the bill. It’s a little nerve wracking to do it; it would be easier if I hadn’t invested so much time in the script, but when you also take all the time to write a whole screenplay—it was a hard screenplay to write; it took a lot longer to write the sequel than the first one, to get it right. So for me, the last four days have been relieving, watching Ciaran work and I get the feeling like, “Ah, he knows what he’s doing” and watching rehearsals and then takes. My first instinct is to run in there and say “You should do this and this,” but most of the time I sit there, and then within the next two takes, he’s done the exact thing that I would want to do, and every time I see that happen, it gives me confidence that he’s the right guy.
I also think that the shooting style of CITADEL reminded of my own approach to shooting, and Cargill said the same thing. When he saw the movie, he said “If I had seen this movie and I had to guess who had shot it, I would guess it was yours,” and he talked very articulately about the about the shooting choices, so that was that was nice as well. And the last thing I’ll say about it is, it’s a it’s a rare thing to find a director who’s really personally humble but who’s very confident creatively, and that’s Ciaran. So the whole process has been really a pleasant one because he has a lot of nice personal humility, but when it comes to the creative stuff, he has plenty of confidence and knows what he wants, and it’s difficult for directors to get both of those things; you tend to get one or the other.
CF: I’ve got a knife in Scott’s side here [laughs]. I have Twitter to thank for getting this gig as well, because it was just it was just a bizarre thing, whereby I follow Scott on Twitter anyway, and it was back in January or February that he tweeted “I just watched this movie CITADEL on Netflix; everyone’s got to check it out.” So I replied to that I was like “Hey man, glad you liked it; I’m the guy who made it.” And then he started following me and started direct messaging and asking me specific questions about it, and then it was like would you be interested in reading the script for SINISTER 2; it was like “This is weird.” [laughs] I was like, yeah absolutely, and then I spoke to him for the first time on Skype. So yeah, Twitter, Skype, Netflix—five years ago, I wouldn’t be here. [laughs]
QUESTION: How do you make Bughuul scary again for this movie?
CF: Just put the camera on him.
QUESTION: Are you going to go into his background at all?
CF: We explore a little bit. The mythology behind him expands a little bit.
QUESTION: Are you aiming for a trilogy or adding a prequel?
SD: Yeah, hopefully. I’d like there to be 10 of them, but it really it depends on how this turns out and how it doe. The reason the script took so long was because both Cargill and I have seen so many horror franchises; we’re really familiar with how they tend to work and what the bad tendencies are, so we both really committed to writing the kind of horror sequel we would like to see, and that proved to be a lot more difficult than either of us were expecting.
We threw out more large chunks of writing on this script than anything I’ve done in my career probably, just because it felt like if we were going to do it we had to hold ourselves up to that standard. The trick of it was finding a different point of view to get into it, because the horror sequels that I have really liked tend to expand the mythology but also deepen your appreciation of the original in unique ways. They give you some elements that you loved from the first one but they also will surprise you—connective but not imitative, I guess is the way to say it.
QUESTION: Can you give some examples of some of those [sequels]?
SD: I really liked the approach of the first two PARANORMAL ACTIVITY sequels. I was really pleasantly surprised by those. I liked the first film the best of those three, but as I watched them, I just thought the way it was reconnecting with the characters and the way the characters from the original were brought in was very, very clever. And I’m not just saying these because they’re Jason’s movies; they’re just the first ones that come to mind. I really liked in INSIDIOUS 2 when they drew back to the sequence from the original film. I just thought that was fantastic when you saw the actual moment replaying. I thought that was clever.
I think in all three of the movies I just mentioned, they have the feeling of the original that works, so fans get what they pay for, but will you think a lot differently about the mythology by the time each of those films is over. The tendency with SINISTER, the obvious thing, would be another house/another box, and that’s it. It can’t be just that; it has to be that but with more things. And we were we were pretty committed to not doing that and instead taking a point of view and taking an angle that was that was different.
QUESTION: You said that Bughuul is about homicide created through art. Without giving away too much, can you elaborate further on that, maybe the meta aspect of this, if you decided to go in that direction?
SD: Here’s what I would say to that: thematically, what I really liked about SINISTER in the process of making it and writing it especially were the themes that were going on with the characters, because they were very personal to me. That was one thing, but the larger, meta idea of that is it’s a horror film about watching horror films and the idea of that being a precarious business and “Be careful what you watch and what your kids see” and the idea of exposing yourself in both the allure and trauma of extreme imagery. I thought all that was…frankly it turned out to have more presence and power than I thought it would in the movie. By the time it was finished, I felt like I had made a movie about more than maybe I’d even intended, and seeing that and feeling that that’s what that movie was definitely informed the writing of the second one. I think there’s more conscious presence of that idea in the sequel, I think that’s safe to say. I think it’s more about that than even the first one.
QUESTION: You brought one of the characters back and you created a whole new family…
SD: Cargill and I had decided before I think before we finished wrapping the first movie that if we did do a sequel, [James] was the guy we’d bring back. It seemed pretty obvious, and and he’s the only guy left [laughs]. Everyone else is dead. We liked the idea of tying it in with that character because I think he did such a great job and James really helped create that character on the set. The tonal humor of that character was very iffy on the page, and I remember when we were shooting it, we would usually do a bigger, medium and smaller version of some of some of the scenes, because we weren’t even sure at first, and then he just found his stride, and then it was a full-fledged character.
JR: But what happened was, it was me, you, and Ethan in rehearsal, and I came in, and as an actor, you’re allowed to draw from any inspiration and rip anything off, and no one calls you on it—it’s amazing, you can totally plagiarize anything. But I was like, “I’m playing a version of “The Chris Farley Show.” Do remember that? Where he’d be interviewing McCartney, and he’d be like “Do you remember that time where you wrote ‘The love you take is equal to the love you make? And he’d be like, “Yes I do,” and he’d be “That’s awesome.” So that’s just like it’s my version of “The Chris Farley Show.”
CF: If you go back and watch the opening scene of SINISTER, there’s this contained starstruck thing going on that’s actually incredibly funny.
JR: That’s what I did the whole time.
SD: And then the new family that’s involved ties into the first one in certain ways. It’s a female lead, not a not a not a male lead, and the children play much bigger roles. The children’s point of view in the movie is much more significant than it was in the first one.
QUESTION: Is there a similar emotional connection between the evil force and the family as there was in the first film?
Shannyn Sossamon: I know what my character’s going through and I don’t think it relates to the horror so much that you’re talking about in the first SINISTER. She’s very protective of her two boys, who are the stars of the films, and they’re going through something much more intense. She’s on the run from her their very abusive father, her husband. So yeah, there’s a deep emotional thing happening there for sure, but it’s a different villain in a way; it’s a different struggle, and the kids are going through both that and their own things. I’m saying too much, aren’t I?
SD: Yes, but it’s too late [laughs]. I’m kidding.
SS: And that’s why I was attracted to it as well. I’ve done a couple of horror films and really didn’t ever want to do one again because they were draining, and this was really attractive to me because it was like a drama; the mom’s going through something very real. I think there is something deep besides the box.
QUESTION: The scene that we were watching today hints that something terrible happened at a church. Can we get a little tease about what’s going own that sparks all of this?
JR: I’m not answering that.
SD: I really don’t’ know what to give away and what not to give away because the studio didn’t give us any talking points on it. I’ll start by saying that the church in question isn’t what you’d imagine. It actually was inspired more by a visual of the place where I grew up in Westminster, Colorado. There’s this red church [known as Westminster Castle] that was on the top of this hill, a monastery. It was called Pillar of Fire—you can look it up; it’s notoriously haunted—and it overlooks the whole area where I went to school, both grade school and middle school, it was right in the valley just below it, and it was always really frightening. I used to have nightmares about it when I was a kid. I remember at Halloween, people would hang bodies up in the spire; they’d climb up there, and we’d go to school and see there’s a dead body swinging from the spire of this church.
For me, it was starting with that, starting with a place and an architecture. It has no has no religious connotations; it’s purely imagery. It ends up becoming a place that Courtney ends up spending a lot of time there and has reasons to be there. It has a dark history that ties into the into the Bughuul mythology.
QUESTION: Is Vincent DiNofrio coming back as the professor Skype guy?
QUESTION: Who’s going to deliver the exposition?
SD: We have one of those.
QUESTION: There’s a reference to a writer in this scene. Who’s the writer?
JR: We’re talking about Ethan’s character.
QUESTION: Shannon, are there any scenes or threat that you’re eager to tackle?
SS: They’re all quite challenging. Maybe some scenes with the ex-husband. It’s not going to mean anything right now so.
QUESTION: James, what’s your character is being proactive about seeking out this woman and this house. What is his mission in the story?
JR: I think it’s pretty obvious that my obsession picks up where Ethan’s ends. A lot of it is, what first starts as a guilty conscience actually becomes trying to facilitate and correct some mistakes of the past.
SS: Also I think it can be said that he doesn’t expect us to be in this house; we’re hiding out in this house because my ex-husband’s very powerful where we’re from.
JR: Shannyn has a whole story that’s actually grounded in reality, so she has dramatic things that she has to do in the scene as the character that are completely grounded in reality. So there’s this supernatural element that’s running parallel to that, and she’s sort of unaware of it, and not in a way where like the character is dumb but just in a way where her focus needs to remain on her kids. The stakes are high enough that in her mind, this supernatural element that she’s not aware of is totally secondary to what her stakes as a character are.
SD: I’m just going to say one thing about that, too. Just think about the end of SINISTER. One of our starting points was that his character, who we invest so much time in, is the one character in the movie that doesn’t quite have closure, because he cracks everything at the end. He’s the one who calls and says “I’ve figured this out,” and he has that phone call and he’s pieced things together. And then we know what unfolds after that, but we don’t get to see what it what it means to him, and what would that do to somebody like that, who had been that invested in trying to stop it and trying to call. That was a starting point for us, to take seriously the emotional life of that character that the audiences loved, that we are invested it. That’s where we’re definitely picking up there.