Why Scott Derrickson Made Sinister Instead Of Ghost Rider 2 [Exclusive]

Filmmaker Scott Derrickson can seemingly track his reputation as a director by what projects he was offered following any one of his movies. After writing the modest 2000 horror sequel "Urban Legends: Final Cut," Derrickson had an opportunity to write and direct the newest installment in a popular film series. Sadly, "Hellraiser: Inferno" went straight to video and was not terribly well-received by "Hellraiser" fans. In 2004, Derrickson garnered a story-by credit on Wim Wenders' post-9/11 drama "Land of Plenty," which, in terms of genre, was quite the gearshift. "Landy of Plenty" never emerged as an arthouse darling and the director moved back to horror to make "The Exorcism of Emily Rose." On a budget if $19 million, that film made $145 million worldwide in 2005.

In an oral history of Derrickson's "Sinister" compiled by /Film's own Ryan Scott, the future "Doctor Strange" filmmaker says he "was a big darling around town" following the success of "The Exorcism of Emily Rose."

The darling status afforded by "Exorcism" appears to have opened doors for Derrickson, and his next project was a high-profile, studio-backed remake with an $80 million budget. 2008's "The Day the Earth Stood Still" came packaged with a big movie star, Keanu Reeves, and the imprimatur of the 1951 sci-fi classic. That film was not a box office hit, and was not well-liked by audiences or critics (the film holds an inauspicious 20% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes). The reception, it seems, stymied his career for a moment.

And almost led him to a superhero sequel.

The Day My Career Stood Still

Derrickson seems ambivalent about "The Day the Earth Stood Still." He notes that it was a difficult production because there was a writers' strike happening. In November of 2007, the Writers Guild of America became embroiled in a fierce contract dispute with the Alliance of Television and Motion Picture Producers for seemingly withholding payment derived from new media platforms. The strike lasted a full 100 days before settlements were reached in February of 2008. Wouldn't you know it, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" was in production from December 2007 to March 2008. In Derrickson's words: 

"[I]t was a horrific experience and the movie did not turn out good. Well, it turned out okay in places at least. But it was one of those movies where it didn't turn out as well as it needed to because of a lot of reasons, the writers' strike being the main one. And so after that movie, I was not really employable as a director for almost two years."

Derrickson was once briefly attached to direct a film adaptation of the David & Goliath story, called simply "Goliath," but that project seems to have fallen through. He was in a space where he was being offered several high profile studio projects, but nothing that caught his interest. In the oral history, Derrickson admits that one of the films that crossed his desk was a sequel to "Ghost Rider," a lambasted 2007 Nicolas Cage film based on Marvel Comics. It's worth noting that "Iron Man" was released in 2008 and the Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn't be put into position until 2009. A "Ghost Rider" sequel was not where Derrickson wanted to be. 

Luckily, producer Jason Blum and a little movie called "Sinister" were just over the horizon.

'I'm going to make a movie that I want to see'

"Sinister" is about a struggling true crime author named Ellison (Ethan Hawke) who moves into a new home with his wife and kids. What he hasn't told his family is that the house was the site of a strange mass hanging a few years prior and he intends to investigate for book-writing purposes. Ellison discovers a store of snuff films in his attic, and, when watching them, finds mysterious boogeyman figure lurking in the background of each one. A helpful professor explains that Ellison has discovered Bughuul, an ancient minor death deity that inspired all boogeyman stories. Bughuul likes to eat the souls of children and can proliferate through an old pagan symbol. 

Derrickson recalls his "go for broke" attitude when making "Sinister," thinking that it could very well be the end of his career: 

"So my attitude going into Sinister, the reason why I said yes to Jason [Blum] immediately was, I was like, 'Okay, this is it. If this is the last film I ever get to make ...' I was getting offered things like 'Ghost Rider 2.' If I had made that movie, I probably never would've worked again. And I was passing on the few things I was getting offered ... When Jason came to me and said, 'I'll give you a $3 million and final cut,' I was like, okay, great. Well, if this is the last movie I get to make, I'm going to make a movie that I want to see.'"

"Sinister" was made for a modest $3 million and made $87 million. The directing duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor made "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" in 2012. It was not well-received.

Making what you want

Derrickson feels that it was his distaste with "The Day the Earth Stood Still" that led directly into "Sinister." From his language, it seems that he was not permitted to take the larger 2008 studio film in the direction that he wanted, and "Sinister" served as a balm. In not having to worry about being commercially appealing, Derrickson ironically made one of the bigger hits of his career. The old film school adage proved correct: if you make a movie you want to see, chances are someone else wants to see it too. Concerning yourself with commercial viability is a surefire path to frustration. Derrickson tells /Film:

"I felt like I had died on somebody else's sword on 'Day the Earth Stood Still.' I found myself at the end of somebody else's movie. I was like, 'I'm going to make the movie that I want to make.' That's exactly what we did. It was a movie that was totally uncompromising ... The ending is pretty bleak, but it was, I think, a very pure experience for both [me and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill]. For me, it was as pure of a filmmaking experience as a person can have, because I wasn't thinking about the success of the movie at all." 

Derrickson continued to work modestly and successfully for a few years, co-writing the Atom Egoyan drama "The Devil's Knot" about the West Memphis Three, and directing the budget horror film "Deliver Us from Evil." By 2014, Derrickson seems to have shaken off his fear of larger studio productions and Marvel Comics movies, as he made the MCU film "Doctor Strange." That film was a hit. Derrickson remains diplomatic, saying:

"[M]ake every movie like it's your last one. Because one day, it will be."