If you're a horror film fan, then you know Scott Derrickson.
He's the filmmaker responsible for the grim and brutal Sinister, as well as 2021's The Black Phone (both starring an amazing Ethan Hawke). He also is very likely responsible for kicking off the trend of early 2000s possession films with The Exorcism of Emily Rose. (There's a Marvel film in there, too—Doctor Strange.)
Now, he's jumping into the horror anthology space with V/H/S/85, the latest entry in the V/H/Sfound footage franchise, which has been going strong for over 10 years. The last couple of films have brought audiences back in time to the '90s, but now we're entering the unique decade before, which saw easy-to-use camcorders, Satanic Panic, new leaps in virtual reality technology, and more.
Derrickson's segment, called "Dreamkill," follows detectives investigating a series of gruesome murders, but they start receiving VHS tapes of the crimes before they happen.
We spoke with Derrickson via Zoom ahead of 85's release to ask him about short-form storytelling, getting creative with found footage, and how his segment ties into one of his other universes. Pop in a tape and enjoy this insight.
V/H/S/85 | Official Trailer | Coming to Shudderwww.youtube.com
Editor's note: the following conversation has been edited for clarity.
No Film School: What attracted you to this project?
Scott Derrickson: Well, my wife, Maggie [Levin], was offered and did an episode for V/H/S/99. And the producers just said, "You don't think Scott would want to do one, do you?" She suggested that I do it.
I said "no" at first, then I decided to give it some time to think about, because what I recognize and what I think is great about the V/H/S franchise is the way it allows filmmakers to just play an experiment, try things that are daring, even if it doesn't work. I was looking for a way to do something innovative and fresh, and that would be expansive for what we've seen amongst V/H/S segments of the past. When I came up with an idea that I thought did that, that's when I said "yes."
NFS: I did hear that you didn't have a ton of oversight in terms of what you could and couldn't do on this, so I'm sure that that is very freeing to as a director.
Derrickson: Yeah, I didn't have any. The producers never gave me anything that I was required to do or any limits on what I could not do. Except for budget, but that's every film.
NFS: What was the inspiration for your segment?
Derrickson: It started, like I said, from a desire to do something innovative. I was very interested in the form because it was V/H/S/85. I was interested in shooting on actual 1985 VHS cameras, which we did, and using actual VHS surveillance video for the police station, for the dashcams. All that stuff is very era-specific, it's all stuff that was around in 1985.
But the larger idea was when I started thinking about incorporating the Super 8 footage from non-bound footage, POV perspective because it's the hook of the story because there are somebody's dreams that have been imprinted on VHS tapes.
When I came up with that idea, then that's when I decided I would do it, because I thought, "Oh, this format could be really interesting and expansive and new." Then I started ... I'm fascinated with Super 8 footage and the way that it feels and its ability to create a foreboding, ominous, creepy vibe, especially when you put images of violence or implied violence like I did with Sinister and The Black Phone. The idea of being able to do that, but to go all the way and actually show the most extreme kind of graphic violence, was interesting to me. Those were all the first gateways that I walked through, to get to where I ended up with the movie.
NFS: Did you arrive at the use of the Super 8 as a problem-solving tool, a way to break out of the found footage?
Derrickson: Not so much problem-solving. But it became the thing I thought, "If I can do this, if I can find a way to work this in, I'm going to do this short film." Because then I'm putting something in here that's never been done in one of these V/H/S films or in any found footage movie that I know of.
But it was very important for me that I didn't break the rules of found footage, because anything that you see that's on Super 8 and anything ... The Super 8 footage is the only footage that scored. ... It's all the dreams, but you're still looking at it as taped material. It's still VHS taped material that is part of the footage that was found and assembled for this 22-minute segment.
So it again, doesn't break any of the rules, but it stretches and expands and bends them. That to me was the fun of it.
'V/H/S/85'Courtesy of Shudder
NFS: It is so organic that you almost don't realize it's happening until almost the very end because you're so in the action.
Derrickson: Yeah. Some critics have not liked the segments because they think that it breaks the rules and they're just not thinking. They're like, "Once you start thinking about the camera angles, it violates the rules."
No, it doesn't. You're just not thinking hard enough.
NFS: Having been such a fan of your past work, I definitely see your visual imprint here. I would love to know what your process is as you start to develop the visual language of a film. Obviously, it's coming from the tools a lot here. But is there anything else you're thinking of as you're planning out a short like this?
Derrickson: Normally, all of that comes after you've written a script and all of that comes ... [it's] secondary and to the narrative, to the characters, to the story that you're telling. In this case, it was the cart before the horse. I started with the form and the visual qualities of the movie and then created a narrative to utilize that form and those cameras and that methodology.
It was after I had decided I would use all that then I came up with literally The Black Phone tie-in, that Gunther's cousin is Gwen from The Black Phone. They both have this ability to dream prophetic dreams.
Then, to bring in a serial killer story with detectives trying to solve it, that all came last. Once I put all that together in my head, then I sat down and wrote the script in two days. Which is a lot of writing. It was still 22 pages of writing in two days. But I wrote it in two days and my partner, [C. Robert] Cargill, did a pass over it, and that was it, and it was ready to shoot.
NFS: It is quite a complicated story to tell in such a limited timeframe. Are you thinking, "How can I get as much information across on the page, and in the frame?"
Derrickson: No, I didn't think that way at all. I just knew that I wanted to make something very different than what most of these V/H/S segments have been.
It's typical from found footage. It's really typical for V/H/S segments, that you spend the first five or 10 minutes just sitting with characters, watching them go about their day, doing what they do normally, and then maybe start to hint at something weird going on.
I just didn't want to do that. I wanted to make it a real movie, like a feature, where every scene is moving the narrative forward. Every scene contributes to the characters, to their background, so that when it's over, you have three distinct characters that you really know. You know Gunther, you know Detective Wayne and you know Gunther's dad, Bobby, and who they are and where they've been and what they went through.
To do all that in 22 minutes is very challenging. So it wasn't about a desire to cram more into it. It was a desire to tell a real story and not cheat the audience out of information that was good for them to have for the story to work.
NFS: What advice do you have for people who want to direct horror?
Derrickson: My strongest advice is the same for any genre that they want to work in, but I think it's a uniquely important piece of advice for the horror genre. You need to know the history of horror. You need to know the history of the genre. So you need to really study the works of great directors. A great director, starting with the ones that are around now moving back through history, and studying the big movements in horror cinema. Don't just stick to American cinema. Watch great Italian horror films, the great French horror films. Watch the great silent horror films. You'll learn a lot from them.
I think that's the best way for anyone to understand why horror is where it's at right now. If you can visualize the whole history of the horror genre and see where it's evolved to now, then you can contribute to it. That's what I did. I had done all that.
By the time I finished film school, I felt like I had an understanding of what I could contribute to the genre. I think it's one of the reasons why my career has been successful because ... Nobody else had made a possession film for 25 years, not one that worked, before Emily Rose.
That was the first theatrical horror film that I made, and that was deliberate. I felt like I could contribute something to the genre, and I still think that way. I'm interested in doing things that are progressive and that are new and that aren't a repeat of the past, but something that audiences are going to find fresh and exciting in the present.