The Black Phone Author Joe Hill on Watching His Eerie Adventure Come to Life

With novels like Horns and NOS4A2 and comics like Locke & Key having previously been brought into the world of live-action, writer Joe Hill is no stranger to seeing his material be adapted and reimagined in exciting ways. Despite having already witnessed how that process unfolds, the latest adaptation of his work, The Black Phone, offered the author all-new opportunities. Given that the source material was a short story, a feature film required elaboration of various elements, while his personal connection to director Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill meant a change to the collaborative process. The Black Phone is out now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.

In the film, Finney (Mason Thames), a shy but clever 13-year-old boy, is abducted by a sadistic killer (Ethan Hawke) and trapped in a soundproof basement where screaming is of little use. When a disconnected phone on the wall begins to ring, Finney discovers that he can hear the voices of the killer's previous victims. And they are dead set on making sure that what happened to them doesn't happen to Finney. The film is produced by Derrickson & Cargill's Crooked Highway and presented by Universal and Blumhouse. caught up with Hill to talk the collaborative process, the film's successes, and the franchise's possible future.

(Photo: Universal Pictures) The movie is obviously pretty freaky. The story itself, also pretty freaky. When you're collaborating with Scott, when you're collaborating with Cargill and they're adding elements and tweaking things and reimagining it in different ways, were there elements of The Black Phone -- the film -- that made you think, "Man, I really wish I had thought of that,"?

Joe Hill: I thought of a whole bunch of stuff. The Black Phone has been an amazing experience. From start to finish, it's just been really extraordinary, the kind of experience, it happens, and you don't know if it'll ever happen again in your life. There are all kinds of facets that make The Black Phone uniquely special to me, but one is just the fact that we went out ... This movie got made, and it was made by a couple of friends of mine, not strangers, not professional associates, but buddies.

I've known Cargill for about a decade. Cargill says it was always inevitable that we were going to be friends because we have all these friends in common. We have similar tastes, a similar temperament, and we were both writing horror, fantasy, and science fiction, thrillers at the same time period. And we're both about the same age. So we met at a lunch in London like a decade ago and have been friends ever since, to the point where I sometimes send early drafts to Cargill and get his thoughts on them. We've talked about, and he's talked about, stories he wants to do, and I've made suggestions and said, "Well, what about this?"

In the case of Scott, who I think I met through Cargill initially, for a time Scott was developing Locke & Key with myself and Carlton Cuse and was committed to direct the Hulu adaptation of Locke & Key, and then it didn't come together. It melted because he had other professional commitments. But he really wanted to make the pilot of Locke & Key. In some ways, The Black Phone was our makeup call. So just the fact that the film exists and that it was made by two friends of mine, that alone is stunning.

In terms of their changes to the material, I mean, they used everything in the short story, every single line of dialogue, every single scene that's in the short story is in the film, and, for a writer, that's incredibly satisfying. But they also brought in a lot more that enriched the story and enriched the characters. There is this huge component of the film that is very autobiographical, that's very much about Scott Derrickson's childhood growing up in the dirty, violent 1970s of north Denver. I love that, and I think it gives the film and the characters a texture and an emotional depth that they wouldn't have had if it's just about Finney in the basement.

Then the other thing is, in the short story, Finney is kidnapped by the Grabber and locked in this basement with a disconnected antique phone. The phone begins to ring with calls from one of the Grabber's murdered victims, a kid that Finney actually knew named Bruce Yamada. And I think, it's been a while since I've read the story, but I think Bruce is the only one to call Finney on the phone.

But Cargill looked at that and said, "Actually the Grabber has had a bunch of victims and all of them could call on that phone." Then the structure of the film becomes an escape room where everyone who calls on the phone has another clue for Finney, and if Finney can puzzle it out, he's that much closer to escaping. So that's what Cargill brought to the film that I think is really unique and satisfying, this set of interlocking puzzles that make the tale into this really breathtaking escape-room structure. And I love that. I think that's great. I think that's a big part of why the film ... I think all three flavors joined together to make this one delicious, frosted, chocolate cupcake with peanut butter at the center. It's that mix of flavors that makes it such a satisfying and delectable treat for viewers everywhere. 

The deliciousness of The Black Phone cupcake. Looking forward to that tie-in at Friendly's.

Bakeries everywhere will soon have the Grabber's mask right on top of The Black Phone cupcake.

When I spoke with Scott, he mentioned how he changed one line of dialogue weeks ahead of the wide release of the movie, proving how much of a perfectionist he is. Do you feel, as an artist, are you a similar perfectionist where right up until something's published, you're fine-tuning it?

Oh, God, yeah. I hate to be that guy, but yeah, I am that guy. I had a short story published not very long ago. So this is a little bit inside baseball, but when a book is going to press, you get something called "first pass pages" where you can see what the story will look like when it's printed in the book, and you can make final edits. But it's really tricky to make final edits because they want to keep everything, for pagination reasons, they want to keep paragraphs the same size. It costs them money to reset it and make changes, so they hope you won't do too much. But then there's "second pass pages." And, at that point, it's really like, "Please don't make any changes unless you absolutely have to because it could delay the book. It's really labor intensive to fix things."

I had a short story, not too long ago, and in second pass pages, I rewrote the last two pages of the story almost completely from the ground up. And I mean, my email was profusely apologetic, but I'm like, "Guys, I wasn't satisfied with the way it read and I had to redo it and here it is." No one said anything. There was no -- I wasn't even sure my email was received until the book came out, and I was able to read it, and I looked at the back and saw that they had made all the changes, but presumably someone somewhere in some publishing house had a Joe Hill voodoo doll after they got my email. 

Scott has already said that he's talked to you about potential follow-ups, and I don't want specifics or spoilers or anything like that, but looking forward, do you think you could see a Black Phone spiritual sequel or do you think you could follow specific characters? Do you think it's another story that's in this world? How far along are some of these talks of what you want to do with a sequel?

There have been some really, really good conversations about a sequel. And the thing is, as soon as I saw the mask, which was designed by Tom Savini and Jason Baker, as soon as I saw the mask I thought, "If this film is a hit, there'll be a sequel," because the mask is so iconic. It is like Freddy Krueger's glove, it is like Michael Myers' mask, it is this thing where it's the imagery, iconic imagery, that haunts people's sleep.

And, look, in horror, guys like Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger, and Frankenstein, and Dracula, none of these guys stay buried. They all claw their way out of the grave for a sequel and then a threequel. There have been talks about how to do a sequel that wouldn't suck. How to do a sequel that doesn't cheapen the film that came before, that's still scary, that's still intense, that feels organic. And those conversations have been pretty good. But if I were to provide any details, Scott and Cargill would lock me in the basement in the film, and that's it. And the phone doesn't work. As you know, the phone doesn't work. I can't call anyone to get out. So I would decline to offer any real granular details about the possible sequel. 

Of course. And, I don't know if you've heard, there's a really cool sequel called Doctor Sleep that went in an interesting direction. So that's why I like thinking about The Black Phone, that I know whatever you and Scott and Cargill come up with, it's not going to suck and it's not going to be what people anticipate.

Just as a total side thing, I'm a huge Stephen King fan. I adore the work of Mike Flanagan, and I'm a sucker for Ewan McGregor films. I just think he's such a great actor and stuff. I actually haven't seen Doctor Sleep. I haven't seen Doctor Sleep because ... I read almost everything my dad has published, but that one has fallen through the cracks. I haven't read that book yet. I know a lot of stuff about it because there were some bad guys in Doctor Sleep that were a little bit similar to Charlie Manx in NOS4A2.

And so actually the bad guys from Doctor Sleep make a cameo in NOS4A2, and Charlie Manx makes a cameo in Doctor Sleep, but I haven't actually read the book. When I finally do read it, I'll reread The Shining first and then Doctor Sleep, and then I'll see the film. But it's one of these rare cases where I haven't actually gotten to it yet, so I have no thoughts on the Doctor, on Mike Flanagan's adaptation, which is weird.

I've got some connections I'll reach out to, to get you a promo copy of Doctor Sleep.

Oh, that would be cool. If you know someone, if you can pull a string somewhere.

I'll put in a good word and maybe get a DVD of Doctor Sleep. Not streaming or Blu-ray, but a DVD we can arrange.

I'd appreciate it. That would be terrific. Very thoughtful.

The Black Phone is out now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.