The central image of the new horror film “Sinister” is that of a man sitting in a room looking at a scary movie. Technically, the man is a true crime writer, author Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), and technically the scary movies are evidence from the case he hopes to use as the subject of his next book. But Ellison’s actions — pouring over these films frame by frame, taking extensive notes, drawing elaborate conclusions — could also be described as a kind of film criticism. And if we look at what Ellison does that way, then “Sinister” becomes a sort of thinly veiled tale of heroism by a crusading film critic: the careful reading of these movies enables Ellison to better understand the psychotic mind and solve this series of crimes. Then again, it also begins to drive Ellison insane and puts his family at risk, so maybe it’s not the most ringing endorsement after all.
Whatever your interpretation of it, “Sinister”‘s ingenious subtext is made all the more intriguing by the fact that it was literally dreamed up by a film critic: Ain’t It Cool News’ C. Robert Cargill, who drew on a nightmare he’d had about a finding a box of Super 8mm home movies full of terrible acts of violence to pen his first produced screenplay. Even before I saw “Sinister,” I wanted to talk to Cargill about his transition from movie reviewer to movie maker. After I saw it, and I saw how he — along with co-writer and director Scott Derrickson — had made a text filled with complex ideas about the ways people consume, critique, and obsess over horror films — I became very excited for our conversation.
During our discussion, Cargill and I debated the value of opinion in film criticism, tried to figure out why so many critics are becoming filmmakers lately, and examined how the act of filmmaking may affect his future work as a critic — including the three words he’s planning to strike from his critical vocabulary forever.
First of all, screw you for scaring the crap out of me.
When you were younger, did you want to become a film critic or a filmmaker?
Both. I knew I wanted to be a writer as early as 8, after reading my first novel: “Firestarter” by Stephen King. By 13 I was a huge movie buff and was reading reviews in my local paper to see what was worth seeing that weekend. I remember reading a review for “Return of the Living Dead Part 2.” When I looked up at the byline, I had the realization that someone had gotten paid to write that. There was this profession out there where you got paid to see movies and talk about them. From that point on, it was on my bucket list of things I wanted to be.
Did you go to school for either one? How did you get started writing?
I started writing when I was very young. It was just something I was always doing. I took a number of RTF and film production courses in college — which I sadly never finished. My major at the time was philosophy, but every available elective I could squeeze out went into RTF.
And at what point did you then make the leap to writing criticism online?
In 2000, I was living in Austin and working as a video store clerk. I’d been to see “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” twice before release, and was hanging out in the AICN chatroom when someone asked me to write it up for their site. The review garnered 50k hits the first day, which was a big deal at the time, and I was asked to stay on. I started to get to know the AICN guys, and was hanging out watching movies with Eric “Quint” Vespe when a position to cover undistributed indies opened at AICN and Quint suggested (on three separate occasions) that I take it. I eventually said yes and I’ve been writing there ever since.
Maybe it’s because your critical background was in my mind as I watched the movie, but I can’t help but feel like you have, in some ways, made a movie about the act of criticism.
Absolutely. If you’re going to make a movie about the viewing, and ultimately the production, of terrible, hard-to-watch content, it’s hard not to take the opportunity to use it to comment on watching, critiquing, and making films. We tried to keep it under the surface, so it was never preachy or in your face, but I certainly wanted that to be there to be dissected and digested by the sorts of people that enjoy such things.
The act of watching horrifying content — and the psychological reasons for doing so — is a huge part of the movie. We wonder why Ellison keeps watching these movies, which makes us wonder why anyone watches horror movies. Why do you think people are so drawn to these dark films?
Everyone has their own reasons. One section of the audience loves the roller coaster ride. The rises, falls, screams and fun of it. But the genre, when used correctly, can be a source of amazing drama. Horror can be about putting characters in the worst situations imaginable and forcing them to choose between two terrible things. The drama that can come from that is some of the best there is, and that’s why another group of us watch it.
Have you read any reviews of the movie?
What’s that experience like?
Surreal. It often reaffirms a lot of what I thought about both criticism and certain people when I was their colleague. Other times it has been surprising and eye-opening. A few people have really caught me off guard, both for good and for ill.
Does your background as a critic make you more or less accepting of criticism from others?
As a critic myself, I find that I am what some might refer to as “less accepting.” I tend to respect the opinion of the people I already respected — and give a lot of weight to their reviews of the film — and ignore those I thought little of to begin with, taking in those reviews only in terms of broad strokes. It’s weird, though. Scott will ping me in the middle of the night and say “Did you see what such and such outlet had to say?” To which I respond, “Well, yeah. But that’s by So and So, and that’s the review they always write. We’re lucky they were as kind as they were.” This is a career entirely about personal reputation these days, and I’m seeing that from a different perspective right now.
How will the experience of making the film and reading others’ interpretation of your work affect your approach to criticism in the future?
I think the thing I learned most about this experience is just how worthless personal taste on smaller issues of a film are. There’s this mainstream mindset in criticism that in order to be a critic, you have to criticize. That means, no matter what, you have to find something you like and something you dislike in a movie. No. You don’t. Personal taste, especially over niggles in a film, don’t serve the audience reading the review. If you ever have to write the phrase “for my taste” then you’re writing something that only fills space. Almost every thoroughly positive review I’ve read has included a small criticism like this. The kicker is that no two of them are alike. There isn’t one thing Scott and I have culled from those reviews that would make us want to change something next time or go back in and fix something this time. As a critic, if I review in the future, I will strike the words and concept “for my taste” from my vocabulary completely.
That’s interesting. But isn’t film criticism about personal opinion?
No. I think that belief is the greatest problem with criticism today. Personal opinion is important in a critique, but criticism is about further enriching the experience of the audience. A reader shouldn’t just walk away from a review knowing whether or not the writer thinks they should see it; they should walk away further understanding the film and having a broader experience because of it. And when you share your opinion, they should be able to understand unequivocally why you feel that way so that, even when they disagree with you, they can further their own argument as to how they feel about the film. Criticism is about making the audience smarter by engaging them, not by telling them what they should and shouldn’t watch.
So by that definition, is there a piece of criticism you’re hoping to see about “Sinister?”
I would love to see pieces on the nature of found footage movies, what’s right about them and what is wrong. Someone writing about what you talked about earlier in this interview, about making a movie about the act of criticism — that’s exactly the kind of thing that would tickle me. A piece about why Ellison writes about what he does, watches what he does, and what that means in terms of watching horror movies. Or even writing about what Ethan has talked about in interviews, about it being a morality play about ambition and applying that to the ending of the film and the nature of what is really going on. Those kinds of discussions are where I feel this community excels. Those are what I’m hoping to read about.
It seems like a bunch of established critics have moved into filmmaking lately, including yourself, Brad Miska of Bloody Disgusting (who produced “V/H/S”) and Twitch’s Todd Brown (who produced “The Raid: Redemption”). Critics becoming filmmakers is nothing new, but is there a reason it seems to be happening a lot right now?
Yeah. Two reasons: first of all, we’re the guys who made a go at online criticism early, before the flood. And we did so because of our passion for film. This is the next logical step.
Secondly, as you well know, the critical community has a lot of growing, poisonous elements in it. It’s harder to make a living, and people are getting more mercenary and cutthroat. News gathering has turned into plagiarism and rumor-mongering. Jeff Sneider was recently lamenting that Variety used to print stories about people signing deals, but now, to stay competitive, they have to write about people in talks for deals. It’s a fun career slowly losing its shimmer. And some of us feel like it’s time to get our hat and coat and go to the next party. But, you know, there are several dozen incredibly talented people in this industry. I fully expect most of them to make the leap in the next five years or so.
So you think we’ll see more critics following suit and becoming filmmakers?
Hopefully. Some pretty great film movements were inspired by critics joining the charge rather than just commenting on them — the French New Wave chief among them. I’d love to see a blogger revolution overtake cinema trying to make it better. Certainly couldn’t hurt.
Would you recommend aspiring writers who are just starting out try to make a go of it in film criticism? Or is it too competitive and too hard?
Absolutely. There’s a lot you can get out of it. But it isn’t what it used to be. The days of getting a gig at a major outlet and sitting there, collecting a paycheck for 20 years, are over. If you understand that and make criticism part of an overall plan on a path to a career, then yes, definitely. But don’t plan to stay here forever. It’s just not that job anymore.