The Black Phone Writer C. Robert Cargill Has Heard All The Bad Notes [Interview]

This is a nuts and bolts screenwriting question, and one I’m just curious about because I always hear conflicting screenwriting advice. You told me earlier that you described one character in the script as being “like sunshine in the apocalypse.” You clearly are trying to paint vivid images into your screenplays. But other writers have said you should keep the colorful language out of scripts. So how do you manage to build out, let’s say, a horror sequence? How do you keep it scary and actually paint the picture of terror for the reader?

Short, tight sentences. There’s a weird psychological effect. Long sentences make people comfortable, short sentences make people tense. And what you do is as you get into the scene, you start shortening up your sentences and then you start using paragraphs and you start using just straight up single lines of what’s happening. Because in horror, horror has a strange thing to it that it is longer on the screen than it is on the page. Because a single sentence of, “Ellison walks down the hallway very slowly carrying a bat.” It takes you three seconds to read that sentence, but that’s 30 seconds on the screen.

And so you want to give people that slow-paced tense feeling while they’re reading that scene. I mean, there’s advice about how you shouldn’t put purple prose into scripts and that’s been changing a lot in recent years.

You don’t want to do it too much, because you often have people spending half a paragraph giving us poetry that’s never going to read. But there’s a big change in how screenwriters are writing character descriptions, because we’re moving away from “Maddie, nine, white. Young girl dressed like this.” Like we’re moving away from that and more towards the impressions of the characters, as to give more options for casting.

And to give tools to the actors and actresses, where [it goes from], “Oh yeah, I can play a nine-year-old white girl,” to, “Can I play sunshine in the apocalypse? Can I be that sunlight in someone’s dark life?” And that one line gives an actress a lot to play around with and a lot to build on, especially when they’re coming into audition. As opposed to, “Well, now I’ve got to try to read into the nuance of all this stuff.”

And you’re seeing more and more screenwriters writing single sentence descriptors of characters that just give us who their character is in a nutshell. So that we then get it while we’re reading it. Because there’s a lot of stuff that comes from performance that you can never experience on the page. And so giving a little bit of that flavor, a little bit of poetry in your description can go a long way for an audience to really get what this character is. And so that’s pretty much that.

You made “The Black Phone” after working on “Doctor Strange,” and being deep in the Marvel grind of working in a very large machine with a lot of moving parts, a lot of eyeballs. What was the transition from that like, from a massive machine to something smaller where you have more personal control?

Well, I mean, the thing is that the one thing that all movies share in common is there’s never enough money and there’s never enough time. You know, we had to cut more pages from “Doctor Strange” because of budget than we’ve had to cut from our small horror movies. They’re two very different beasts, though. When you’re making a four-quadrant movie, you’re trying to make something that can appeal to everybody.

Whereas when you’re making a smaller budget movie, you can make something that doesn’t appeal to everybody, that’s not for everybody. We got a couple calls from the studio along the way going, “Can this movie be PG 13, because it feels like it’s R?” And we’re like, “No, this is a rated R movie. We’re not cutting the language out.” It’s not a gory movie, but this is not a movie for younger audiences. We’re making a very adult movie here and you get the freedom to do that. But I loved working in the Marvel machine. I love everybody at Marvel. I would gladly do it again.

It is a machine, but it’s a machine full of people that love comic books, love the movies they’re making, that are all incredibly talented, that are great to work with because they do a really good job of filtering out the bad folk . So everyone you encounter on any given day is a genius at what they do and treat to work with.

I remember on the day that the Oscars were announced, we were shooting. And there were several members of the crew congratulating each other on their nominations. We were surrounded by people who’d won Oscars and who were nominated for Oscars, for cinematography or for editing, or for sound, or for makeup effects or for costuming. And all these incredible people are working on your show and it’s a real treat.

Whereas there is a kind of punk rock vibe of going and making a smaller film with a smaller budget and working with all these geniuses who are coming up in the industry and will one day be at that point, but are just now cutting their teeth or have not to go out and go into the machine because they want to decide to live and work in Wilmington, because Wilmington rocks. So there’s not a huge difference. It really is very similar.

There are different development processes. I mean the biggest difference between “Strange” and “Black Phone” is we shot pretty much the movie we wrote in our first draft. Whereas with “Doctor Strange,” I wrote drafts for nine months for a myriad of reasons. Never because it wasn’t good enough, but always because, “Can we make it better? Can we do this? Can we change this? We’ve got another film that’s doing something similar. So can we do this?” And it’s always trying to craft something that fit into its own space in the MCU, that wasn’t just a carbon copy of everything else. And Marvel was fighting for that just as much as we were. I mean the greatest thing I can say about Marvel is every time we turned in a draft, Kevin Feige would be, “This is awesome. Can we make it weirder?” And we’re like, “Yeah, we can make it weirder.”

There’s this feeling that Marvel tries to spit out the same content all the time. And they’re really not. I think it’s an unfair criticism. They’re always trying to do something different and push the envelope and make a type of movie that they know audiences will love, but that is different from what’s come before it. And so, yeah, I really enjoyed that experience.

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