C. Robert Cargill is living the movie blogger dream, having gone from reviewing movies online as Ain’t It Cool News’ “Massawyrm,” to co-creating his own bona-fide franchise now with the Sinister films, cowritten with Dr. Strange director Scott Derrickson. So nowadays, the guy who was once best known for complaining that The Ant Bully was about communism is better known as the guy who brought Blumhouse’s creepy boogeyman Bughuul into your cinematic nightmares.
A native of Austin, Texas, Cargill recently came to L.A. to promote Sinister 2, so I got to pick his brain a bit about what the transition was like from critic looking in to critiqued, looking out. Here are 8 things I learned from the turned ‘Wyrm.
1. What It’s Like When the Tables Turn.
What didn’t you know when you were a movie blogger that you now know as a screenwriter?
“You know, the biggest thing is days like this. It is a very surreal thing, being on the other side. It’s so weird. There was something – elements that I never quite understood, and never were shown when I was on the other side, which was you sit down and you spend 15 minutes in a room with someone, and you have a conversation. You’re asking questions and they’re giving great answers, and you’re connecting, and you know the same people, and you’re talking, and then you run into that person a year later, and you’re like ‘Oh, hey! What’s up?’ And they have no idea who you are.
It’s always kind of weird. It’s like, ‘Oh, I guess I didn’t leave an impression.’ What you don’t know until you get to the other side here is that how these days are done, they are so run together that you never get any down time between the interviews. And so you never get that moment to catch your breath, and deconstruct everything that just happened, and think about it and file it away into long-term memory.
So you literally have this memory of a five or six hour window of time that’s a blur of faces and questions, and you remember a few key moments, but you’re never allowed to actually just kick back and go, “Oh, I really liked that guy! That guy was cool. I loved that outlet – they ask the best questions!” You never get to think that because as soon as you’re walking out the door, they’re walking someone else in.
As you just saw this moment, I literally hung up the phone and got up to walk out because Jason Blum had walked in here a few minutes ago. We haven’t seen each other in months, so I wanted to jump up and hug him, but I was talking to this wonderful woman on the phone, and so I jump up to see if Jason is waiting for me outside, and they’re like ‘No, we’re sending someone else in.’
Literally, it was 12 seconds between the time I got done with an interview and they’re walking you in to sit down. So how are you supposed to really remember that stuff? And so that was the big, weird, ‘wizard behind the curtain’ for me, just how surreal it is for the people sitting on this side.
And how enjoyable it is, but at the same time, you just wish for those small little breaks in between so that you could really process and remember all these people. I’ve encountered – I know that I’ve encountered a number of great people today, but the question is, at the end of the day, will I be able to name them, or pick them out of a line-up? And you feel awful about that, but at the same time, you can’t feel too guilty because you don’t really have the chance, because I’m going to spend five hours today talking about Sinister and Sinister 2.
That’s just the whole day, and I’m going to remember my answers more than I’ll be able to remember the experiences, because that’s where the head is, and I’m never allowed to really reflect. But that was the biggest surprise, and kind of the heartbreak of it. I thought ‘Hey, I’m going to be on the other side! It’s going to be so great!’ And then it’s like, ‘Oh, man.’ I don’t get to really relish these experiences like I really wish I could.”
2. Lovin’ La Tweeta Loca.
Does it help you remember us when we tag you on social media?
“Oh, yeah, yeah. And hopefully I will get a chance to be like ‘Oh, yes! Yes! I recognize that person!’ In the last Sinister – social media changes so rapidly. I joined Twitter back in 2008, so I’m one of the long-timers. It’s so weird to watch how it evolved. In the early days, we would put our Twitter handle at the end of our reviews, and in 2008, people were like, ‘Oh, fucking Twitter! Who cares about that? That’s not going to be around.’ ‘Oh, what – you’re going to link to your Facebook next? Hahaha!’
And now, you know, it’s weird if somebody doesn’t have their Twitter icon linked right there on it, because that’s part of the experience now. Doing everything – live Tweeting certain things is just a thing everybody does now. But the rules keep changing. Back when the first Sinister came out, Twitter was around and our fans could interact with us, and critics would post reviews, but it wasn’t like – there wasn’t that established thing of ‘Hey, this outlet is then going to link to this person’s Twitter account, and that person will get to see it and retweet it, and be like Oh, hey, here’s this great interview that these guys did with me! You’ve got to read this!’
The technology of Twitter has changed as well, where now we can actually comment on those retweets. Thank Christ, it took long enough to have that! So yeah, it’s a very weird experience, but I hope that helps change that problem that I just talked about. It’s – yeah, that’s been a heart breaker for me.
The first time it happened to me, I just kind of walked out in a daze. I was like, ‘What was that?’ Scott was like, ‘That was the press junket experience!’ ‘Can’t we get a little time in between?’ I would have loved to have rapped with Scott in between. Like ‘Oh, hey, that guy was cool,” or “That guy was kind of a dick? Why did he ask the question that way?’ and talk about those things. Instead, they just all blur together.”
3. A Bad Review Is Better Than a Dumb Review.
Are there any online reviews that you read where you wish you could explain to them why that choice was made, and it was out of your hands?
“Yeah, no, the thing is, having been a critic for a long time, the thing – I don’t have a problem with negative reviews. I love negative reviews. In fact, some of the best reviews of Sinister or of my books have been negative reviews, because when written by a great critic, they’re insightful, and they give you an insight into your own writing, and that experience.
The things that frustrate me and that I want to correct are the bad critics, which are the critics that I worked alongside at points. People come and go in this industry. There are good people, like a lot of the guys I worked with at Ain’t It Cool News, and there are just knuckleheads who never get it, who don’t love movies, or who think they’re smarter than the film makers. The ones you really want to correct are the ones who missed something really big, but are acting like they’re smarter than you.
One review in particular of one of my books – it was a young critic. At the time that she posted her review, she had 11 Twitter followers. That shows you her social media presence. But she wrote for a fairly large site, and her review was there weren’t enough female characters in the lead roles, and that that clearly – it was a first-time writer mistake, that I didn’t know that I should put more female characters in there. And she was completely unaware and didn’t process the nature of the book that she had read, to know that had I made those characters female, it would have actually changed the nature of the narrative in a way that the audience wouldn’t connect with.”
4. Ethan Hawke in Sinister Was Supposed to Be a Woman.
“That was something on the first Sinister. My first idea for Ellison was that Ellison was a woman, and I wanted to make the character a woman famous writer, and have the husband be off and have that secondary role. And then one of my buddies told me, ‘Dude, that’s not going to work.’ I was like, ‘Why not?’ He pointed out, ‘If she’s a woman and she’s neglecting her children and family, the audience is going to hate her.’
Nobody wants to see a woman who doesn’t give a shit about her children. They’ll accept a Dad who doesn’t give a shit about the children, but the minute you put a woman in that role, the audience will not connect with her, and they will hate her, and they will want to see her suffer. I was like, ‘Oh, shit! You’re right!'”
5. A Male Cast Doesn’t Always Mean Misogyny.
“I always think about gender and race and sexuality when I’m creating a character, and asking the questions ‘Are there any reasons they shouldn’t be an unrepresented minority?’ A lot of times, there are. Like in this book, these characters are put into a situation where, if they’re women, the audience will find them whiny. The audience will find their decisions to be cliche. But putting them – making those decisions, and making those choices as men, people consider it character development.
So it was always my intention to put major female characters in there, and so I had them planned for the second book, where the story was more in line, that allowed for strong female characters. But so, reading that critic, who was being a bad critic, because she wasn’t – she noticed an element and didn’t process it in terms of the storytelling. She didn’t put those pieces together. She literally just noticed it and said ‘I’m going to point it out and point it out as a flaw, and I clearly haven’t thought through the material.’
She didn’t back up her assertion, aside from saying ‘There aren’t women there.’ And those reviews happen every once in a while. I’ve gotten them in all of my work. The only thing that ever frustrates me, the only people I want to reach through the computer screen and smack around, are the ones who didn’t think it through. Not the people who don’t like what I did, not the people who disagree with my decisions. The people that think they’re smarter than they are, and who just whip off a review so that they could build up their review count – those are the people that frustrate me the most.”
6. The Writing Life as Horror Fodder…Or Not.
I’m wondering, with Sinister, I wonder if I would have connected with it as much with a female character? It felt like such a personal place – me, as a web writer, who has to churn out content constantly, who has a wife who – your wife, when you’re a writer, I think, unless she’s a writer too, doesn’t always get why you’ve got to be alone so much, and up such late hours.
“If they spend enough time with you, they get that. My wife is amazing that way. In fact, she builds her day around that, to make sure that I have that time and to ask me if I need to work or if I can hang out, and she really gets it. But yeah – would people buy a female writer? Absolutely. Would it have been an interesting character if it was a female? Absolutely. But would you be OK with her neglecting her kids. No. we have a weird thing in our culture where we don’t allow women to do that. Women that don’t care about their kids are verboten. We do not like them.
So sometimes, when you make those decisions, you have to write for the audience, and what the audience is willing to accept, whether you like it or not. And so those decisions have to be made.”
7. The Sinister 2 Single Mom.
Is it tougher to write for a single mom, as opposed to a writer, since the writer’s experience, there was pretty obviously some personal stuff coming through? This character is a lot different.
“No, no. The thing is Ellison – I never – one of the things about Ellison was that I hate the convention of writers writing about the writer’s life. I never wanted to do that, but it was the only way into that original Sinister, because we’re forcing the audience to make the leap of why would somebody not turn these over to the police? Why would somebody not hand the films over to the police? Why would they not do that? The only iteration we could find was somebody who would profit from it, and that would be a writer.
So it was like, we’ve got to do it. A lot of that, there was some experience in there, but it was very much trying to write about a guy who wasn’t us. We were trying to write about what we were afraid of. I have a lot of strong women in my life, and I know a number of strong single mothers. So I have experience with wonderful women that I was able to build a character from.
I’ve never actually known someone like Ellison. I was creating him from whole cloth, but I have known a number of amazing single moms, so I actually found it easier to write about, because I was able to channel in my feelings for all of these wonderful women into this film, and put this character there, and focus on her strength. And the biggest fight throughout the story, crafting her, was maintaining that strength, and making sure that all of her decisions came across as that the reason why this person is persevering as she is, and the reason we care about her, is because she has this passion for her kids, and because she’s willing to fight so hard for them, and go through anything – go through hell for them.”
8. Words With Friends.
For the first one, you know you’re co-writing with the guy who’s going to direct it. When you’re handing it off to someone else, do you have to write differently? Is there more description that you need, because you don’t have the same shorthand with the new director?
“Umm – yes and no. I mean, really, the thing is that there are certain things that you need to explain a little better, but really, the way Scott and I write – we write for readability. We write to paint an image in the mind of producers and actors. One of the best lessons I ever learned from Scott is, when we first started working together, he goes ‘Look, this script is not art. The movie is art. The script is a sales document. The idea of the script is to communicate what that movie is going to look like, to convince somebody to give us the money to make art. Because nobody is going to put the script in a museum and look at the script. No – people are going to watch the movie.’
And so we focus on readability, and focus on everyone that reads the script sees the same movie in their heads. And then when you’re handing something off to a director like Ciaran [Foy], you’re trusting in them, and you’re letting them make their movie. You, as a screenwriter, have done your job, and hopefully they don’t change too much. Hopefully, they get the things that you got. Hopefully, they see it the same way that you do. Hopefully, they make the right choices, but you really have to trust in their art, because they’re the director, and that’s their vision, and that’s important.”
Luke Y. Thompson has been writing professionally about movies and pop-culture since 1999, and has also been an actor in some extremely cheap culty and horror movies you will probably never hear much about (he is nonetheless mostly proud of them, as he met his wife on one). As editor of The Robot's Voice since 2012, he can take the blame for the majority of the site's content, all of which he creates because he loves you very, very much. (Although he loves nachos more. Sorry.)
Prior to TRV, Luke wrote for publications that include the New Times LA, Los Angeles CityBeat, E! Online, OC Weekly, Geekweek, GeekChicDaily, The L.A. Times, The Village Voice, LA Weekly, and Nerdist