Screenwriter Spotlight… C. Robert Cargill

(“Screenwriter Spotlight” is a new series that focuses on the careers and works of a select few screenwriters. As a screenwriter, I wanted to shine a light on the works of those whose hard work often goes unnoticed and underappreciated in comparison to the other roles of a Hollywood production.)

“A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist the same way a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier.”

The sad reality of these words from French novelist Gustave Flaubert rings true to many circles of the internet in our modern day. This doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, as a great many of professional critics working to this day are still creating their own works of art, whether they be their own novels, music, and yes, even films. But a vast majority of those who are vocal on social media, whether it’s simply in defense of Black Adam or going so far as to petition for a remake of Halloween Ends, are generally those who are their own form of frustrated artists who lack the wherewithal to create something themselves.

When it comes to professional film criticism, the language of cinematic analysis is baked into the DNA of those who are lucky enough to do it for a living. They’ve seen enough films in their lifetime that they are able to pick apart what does and doesn’t work for them on whatever terms the film provides for them. There’s a misconception that their reviews are the end-all-be-all of the film itself. The reality is that the point of criticism is simply to give the film their time in their court, and provide an educated opinion that can inform the masses on whether or not it’s worth dropping down their hard-earned money and time to invest in it.

In this day and age, everyone’s a critic, whether it be a professional one or an amatuer one (present company included). But there are some who have been able to break the mold and create their own works for others to draw their own opinions on. The most famous example would be the recently departed director Jean-Luc Goddard.

But in today’s world, I would argue that the prime example to make the leap from criticism to creation is novelist, screenwriter, lieutenant of Megaforce, and Tony Scott enthusiast… C. Robert Cargill.

Now, full-disclosure: this might be a difficult spotlight to write 100% objectively due to how much Cargill’s work has affected me personally, going all the way back to his days of film criticism. That being said, he is on equal par with all the other screenwriters I’ve written about so far, especially since each of their work has affected me on a creative level, and therefore deserves the same amount of recognition.

Cargill’s filmic origins are not too dissimilar from that of many aspiring filmmakers whose formative years lay in the video store culture of the 80s and 90s. But Cargill’s novelistic origins are rooted in a story he told about his childhood interest in Drew Barrymore films and his desire to watch the adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter that she starred in. After being rebuffed from seeing the R-rated flick by his parents, he was instead granted a copy of the Firestarter novel, and upon reading the novel, his love of storytelling came to fruition.

Interesting sidebar: His origins are not too dissimilar to mine, except in my case it was Cujo. My mother would not let me watch the movie, but I was allowed to read the book, as she didn’t think my imagination was active enough to handle it. And… We all know how that turned out.

Cargill’s official film criticism years began in 2000 when he wrote a review for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for Ain’t It Cool News. The review gained the highest amount of traffic for the site, which basically secured him a regular gig running the Indie Indie Column under the name “Massawyrm”, which had previously been abandoned. In the process, he gained connection with the greater Hollywood industry, which in of itself was a double-edged sword. Writing for his friends’ films would put him at a conflict of interest of sorts, but it would also play a long game later down the line.

C. Robert Cargill

The early 2000s served as this weird and wonderful era where for the first time, the film criticism community all the sudden had rock stars, with Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles as its shepherd. Now, sadly the memories might now seem tainted in light of the allegations surrounding Knowles that have arisen in recent years. But for a time, the genre scene had their own alternative style of film criticism and journalism that was unlike those of mainstream critics like Siskel, Ebert, and Roeper. This was the scene that also gave notice to people like Eric Vespe and Ryan Turek, and Cargill seemed to fit right in.

My introduction to Cargill’s work came from his time as “Carlyle” at the now-defunct Spill.com, a comedic multimedia podcast site that had a primary focus in film, but also extended into greater topics such as comic books, video games, and “other bullshit.” Cargill’s opinions often differed from the rest of the cast on the site, one could argue to the point of contrarianism, but would always have a concrete reasoning to back up his rationale. A lot of this could be attributed to his greater insight into the Hollywood system due to connections he made on the way, or simply the fact that he was already thinking from the angle of a creative himself.

C. Robert Cargill’s Spill.com persona “Carlyle”

I was a member of the Spill community starting in 2008, which I would argue was one of the greatest years of cinema of our current century. My interaction on the site was little more than also being a frustrated creative that would bother Spill members to read my stuff without any understanding of personal and creative boundaries (yeah, I’m not proud of it, but I was also 14 and an idiot). But I remember tuning in to the A Couple of Cold Ones w/ Korey and Carlyle podcast every week just so that I could keep sharp on the film world.

But around 2010-2011, Cargill began to make his exit from Spill.com and from film criticism altogether to chase the bigger dream of telling his own stories. This was equal parts a personal and practical approach. The film criticism community that he came up in was starting to become more corporate, and Cargill realized that there wasn’t going to be a place for someone like him. But luckily, the closing of one door allowed him to walk through another as he had formed a relationship with director Scott Derrickson. The friends and fans of each other’s work met up at a bar in Las Vegas where Cargill pitched Derrickson an idea for a horror film that Derrickson immediately sparked to, and urged Cargill to work with him on making the film as soon as possible. This eventually led to a meeting with Blumhouse Productions founder Jason Blum, and in turn led to the film that would change both their careers, and possibly the horror genre for a time, Sinister.

Sinister

In the late 2010s, we were seeing the beginnings of genre cinema reaching a new cycle. The unexpected box office smash of Paranormal Activity in 2009 accomplished two things: 1. It kickstarted the career and longevity of producer Jason Blum and his studio Blumhouse Productions, and 2. It signaled the return of supernatural storytelling in mainstream horror, effectively phasing us slowly out of the torture porn era. In 2012, a major convergence of genres would ultimately cement the future of genre cinema. The first was the mega-success of Marvel’s The Avengers (which will be important later), and the second was two particular horror films that would steer the direction of the genre. The first was The Cabin in the Woods due to its deconstructive nature not seen since Scream or Behind the Mask, and the other was Sinister.

The film was conceived from a nightmare Cargill had after seeing The Ring. The nightmare consisted of discovering a film in his attic which depicted the hanging of an entire family. This provided the inciting incident that we see in the film. In Sinister, true crime author Ellison Oswalt, played by Ethan Hawke, moves his family into a new Midwestern home. Unbeknownst to his family, the house in question is the site of the same family massacre that originated from Cargill’s brain. As Oswalt investigates the murders further thanks to a leftover box of Super 8 snuff films, he begins to discover something supernatural is at play that now has his own family next to be in danger.

Sinister

When it came to making the leap from criticism to creation, Cargill likened it to the criticism being class assignments, and the creation being his final thesis. Every film he reviewed was a learning experience, even mentioning in an interview in The Austin Chronicle that he compared it to “a strenuous, endless crash course—maybe even a master class—in what does and doesn’t work in a story.” This is the reason why Sinister doesn’t feel like the work of a first-time screenwriter at all. It feels like the work of a horror veteran, although part of this could also be attributed to his collaboration with Derrickson, who already had experience with The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Day the Earth Stood Still (yes, I actually liked that movie), as well as the second best direct-to-video Hellraiser sequel.

The success of Sinister is no fluke. It’s a film that upon watching it, you feel it in your bones. Derrickson treats this like it’s the last film he would ever make, and he pulls out all the stops on creating a truly terrifying horror film. And with Cargill helping him create characters that feel grounded and real, and also imperfect, you can’t help but be drawn into the conflict presented. I was already unnerving when I first saw it a decade ago. It’s even more affecting towards me now that I actually have children, as killer kids are a particular phobia of mine.

With Sinister bringing in $87.7 million against a $3 million budget, it was clear that Derrickson back as an in-demand director, and Cargill established as a working screenwriter in the industry, as well as novelist with his first book Dreams and Shadows releasing in 2013. The pair would eventually return to write a sequel to Sinister, although Derrickson would not return to direct, passing those duties to Citadel director Ciarán Foy. The sequel sadly is not up to par with its predecessor. While Sinister focused on how the supernatural affects the lives of a family, Sinister 2 tries to juggle the plotlines of a family on-the-run from an abusive father, and the deputy from the first film, all while also making its demon Baguul front and center. The result feels over-the-top in both characterization and depictions of violence.

Nonetheless, despite the sequel pulling in less cash than its predecessor, Derrickson and Cargill continued onward. The duo were initially attached to a few other projects, such as a film adaptation of The Outer Limits, and most notably, a film adaptation of the video game Deus Ex. Neither project sadly came to fruition (really wanted to see that Deus Ex film), but out of this came the biggest project of both their careers, Marvel’s Doctor Strange.

Doctor Strange

When Doctor Strange was first announced, the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the time faced the uphill battle of introducing the supernatural into the franchise. Before this, Thor was an interdimensional being as opposed to a full-on god, and Wanda Maximoff was a HYDRA experiment. But Strange was bringing magic front and center to the universe, and it was going to require a specific point of view to pull off. Luckily, Derrickson and Cargill knew how to approach it, building off of the work already done by co-writer Jon Spaihts (who will also get a Spotlight in the future). The duo approached the story as an arc of Dr. Stephen Strange starting from a place of scientific-based skepticism to eventual spirituality. Both Derrickson and Cargill are openly Christian, and they both bring their faith-based points of view to translating Strange opening his eyes up to the greater mystical side of Marvel.

The film was successful in this venture, managing to combine the psychedelic and kaleidoscopic imagery of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko’s artwork and make it also feel tactile and real. Their accomplishment paved the way for characters that they wrote to become the standouts in other films like Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Phase Four was even largely considered “Phase Wong” due to the amazing character work that Cargill and Spaihts gave Benedict Wong to bring to life. And as much as I enjoyed Multiverse of Madness, there is still that part of me that laments the loss of Derrickson and Cargill, as I feel like I would’ve gravitated more toward their version of the sequel. However, without their departure, we wouldn’t have gotten one of the best horror films of 2022.

But before we get to that, I want to personally thank Cargill for the work he did on the 2021 Ted Bundy film No Man of God.

No Man of God

By the time No Man of God was in development, we were somewhat in the throes of this new level of serial killer fascination culture. What began as a curiosity into the mind of serial killers eventually became a new level of tragedy vampirism. Films, series, and podcasts were being made in somewhat a glorifying and in some case, fetishistic, manner. What immediately comes to mind is when Zac Efron played Bundy in the Netflix film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and we’re still somewhat in that period now with the Evan Peters Dahmer series.

What No Man of God does is demystify Bundy, framing the narrative through the eyes of real-life FBI profiler Bill Hagmier, played by Elijah Wood in the film, as he interviews Bundy under the pretense of trying to get his perspective on psychopathic behavior, but is actually trying to get confessions on any of Bundy’s murders. Cargill, under the pseudonym “Kit Lesser”, pulled from real transcripts of their interviews, bringing an authenticity to their dynamic that’s less Manhunter and more Mindhunter. And while Luke Kirby’s portrayal of the infamous serial killer leads one to believe that the film might steer towards making Bundy charming, by the end it’s clear he’s anything but, and there’s not much to really dig further into his psyche for. He killed because he simply wanted to.

Cargill’s work both on the exploration into the supernatural along with his work on serial killer culture would ultimately become beneficial in his most recent work with Derrickson, reuniting them also with Jason Blum and Ryan Turek as producers: their adaptation of Joe Hill’s The Black Phone.

The Black Phone

Cargill and Derrickson had been considering adapting Hill’s short story for a long time, but struggled to expand it for a long time as the story begins with the abduction and remains strictly in the basement until its finale. However, coinciding with Derrickson’s departure from Multiverse of Madness, he had also been attending therapy and deep diving into his childhood, and was interested in making a movie centered on his experiences. Once the duo decided to integrate those experiences into The Black Phone, everything came together for them, and the result was an adaptation that opened the story up further while also remaining faithful to the source material.

The film operates as somewhat of a sister film to Sinister in a way. While both films feature supernatural elements and human killers, the supernatural in Sinister is the corrupting element for the characters. But in The Black Phone, the supernatural is actually a helpful entity, both inside and outside the cellar of Ethan Hawke’s gleefully sadistic Grabber. The ghosts of the Grabber’s victims provide Mason Thames’ Finney Blake with the tools needed to escape that, alone aren’t enough, but together form the entire puzzle. They also assist in the clairvoyant dreams of his sister Gwen, played by Madeleine McGraw.

Probably one of the most impressive things about the film besides the stellar performances of the entire cast, particularly that of Ethan Hawke and Madeleine McGraw, is its dripping authenticity of the 1970s. A lot of this is attributed to Derrickson’s attention to detail of the time period, him and Cargill having been children then. This goes for anything from the washed-out aesthetic of the color palette to the normalized depictions of child abuse, albeit no less horrifying to watch. And this is before we even get to the serial killer magician sporting an interchangeable mask designed by Tom Savini.

The Black Phone

The Black Phone is a new modern horror masterpiece, and is easily my second favorite horror film of the year. (Sorry. Prey is still my number one.) But one of the biggest reasons I wanted to shine a spotlight on Cargill is because of the impact his work has made on me personally beyond the creative side. For a while now, I’ve been an avid listener of the podcast he co-hosts with Brian Salisbury, Junkfood Cinema. That podcast, which is a celebration of cult and exploitation films, made me rethink how I want to approach my own views on film criticism. It allowed me to develop a more appreciative view on filmmaking as a whole, with less of the cynicism I had held onto from my youth.

This appreciative approach to the art of cinema is what made me decide to rebrand this blog as something more than a series of opinionated snark, and more on a deep dive into the films I love that are important to me. It also helped me feel less competitive to other writers out there also trying to make their way, and instead help support them as well as myself, the way that Cargill actively does on Twitter (although with the Musk takeover, we’ll see how much longer that lasts).

Cargill got a later start than most other writers and filmmakers do. But he reminds us that that’s okay, just as long as you don’t stop working on your craft and finding your voice.

Scott Derrickson, Jason Blum, Ethan Hawke, and C. Robert Cargill

All films are available on Blu Ray, DVD, and VOD.

Sinister 2 is now streaming on Netflix and Hulu

Doctor Strange is now streaming on Disney+

No Man of God is now streaming on FuboTV

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