Over the last few years, C. Robert Cargill has transitioned from a movie blogger for outlets like Ain't It Cool News to an established author ("Dreams and Shadows: A Novel"), and now, the co-writer of what might be the scariest movie this year, "Sinister."
In our interview, we barely scratch the surface of "Sinister," instead focusing on his transition from blogger to screenwriter and what it's like being on the other side of the junket circuit, as well as the state of movie blogging today.
First off, could you talk about how you got into the blogging business?
I started out back in 2000, back when a guy who ran a small site called Guerrilla Film was looking for someone to write up a review of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." The film was not out yet, but I actually had already seen it twice so I said I would write it up. And it got the highest amount of traffic he'd ever had on a story. It got 50,000 hits, which for the time was a huge deal. So he asked me to come on and start reviewing other stuff. So that's exactly what I did. While that happened, I started spending time with Eric Vespe, and he invited me to take over an abandoned post on Ain't It Cool News doing the Indie Indie Column, and the rest is history.
How long have you been with Ain't It Cool News?
I started at Ain't It Cool News in 2001. I've been there 11 years now.
As a journalist, what is the best thing that has happened to you? In other words, what has been your best experience as a film critic?
The best one goes way back to October of 2011. It was my first trip with Ain't It Cool News, and I ended up going to Los Angeles for six days and had a crazy series of adventures. At that point in time, Internet criticism was limited to a few sites, and Ain't It Cool was in a stage of [being line] early "Rolling Stone," when everyone out in L.A. was reading it and knew about it, and it was this new, cool place. There was a certain level of celebrity that was ascribed to its writers.
The industry is nothing like it now, but when you ran into folks, they knew who you were. Everybody wanted to be covered by Ain't It Cool. Getting the top story on Ain't It Cool was very much like being on the cover of "Rolling Stone" in the mid-1960s. It was a really interesting adventure going out there during that period in time. If you've ever seen the movie "Almost Famous," it echoed that a lot. Right down to someone telling me, "Hey, man, just make me look cool." It was really strange and over the top, in a way that it can never be again.
What's the worst or most disappointing thing you've experienced as a journalist?
The biggest disappointment is what's happened to the blogosphere over the last few years. There's been a lot of things that have gone wrong. A lot of the things we did in the early days to pave the way for the future were mistakes. The result is that we have an industry now where the folks who are the real critics are getting choked out by sites that get all of their content by copying and pasting, or you have other sites that print anything and everything that comes from studio sources, so they become speaker boxes.
What we ended up with is a number of really good sites that have resorted to borrowing content from other people, rather than going out and getting it themselves. And we also have a generation of young journalists who believe their site is responsible for getting them connections — not them. They're not going out and building connections to generate their own news. They just think that news gathering involves going on the Internet and seeing what a few choice sites have published, and then re-writing those stories. The greatest disappointment is seeing this industry that I care so much about have so many things go wrong at the same time.
How did you get hooked up with [director] Scott Derrickson and get "Sinister" off the ground? Thankfully, you've re-broke the mold of people declaring movie bloggers as failed filmmakers.
First, let me address the whole thing about critics. The thing is that people forget. They consider the people who have done it before to be anomalies, but there is actually a long history of critics turned filmmakers. To go back a little ways, that's exactly what Cameron Crowe did. He was a music critic and journalist, and he went on to become a screenwriter and a filmmaker. Roger Corman, Lucio Fulci and all of the French New Wave guys were also journalists.
We've had a couple of guys from the blogosphere try in the last few years, and most of them haven't been able to pull it off. Gary Whitta is a great example, though; he wrote "The Book of Eli," and now has another film coming out. So I'm nowhere near the first guy to do this, I am just the first from this crop of guys. I fully anticipate that I will be followed by other guys. There's some really talented writers in the blogosphere that can turn out to be really great filmmakers. Hopefully, I'll be able to look back and see a whole group of us that came out of this scene.
How I got into "Sinister" was just one of those weird situations where ["Sinister" co-writer/director] Scott Derrickson was a fan of mine from Ain't It Cool for years. He would write me letters about particular reviews I wrote when I would go against the grain of a movie that most other critics wrote off. As a result, he'd go see the movie, then he would fall in love with it and write me a letter about how happy he was he went to see it. We'd end up talking about it, and that's how we became friends.
We ran into each other in Vegas and got together for a drink. About five White Russians in, he decided to pitch me an idea that he had for a horror film to get my professional opinion. So I gave him my opinion, but then I said, "Hey, let me bounce something off you and get your opinion." He said, "Sure, pitch me," so I pitched him "Sinister." His eyes went wide and said he'd make the movie. He also said he knew who'd want to make the movie. A week later, he came back with [producer] Jason Blum ["Paranormal Activity," "Insidious"].
He loved the simplicity of it. This isn't a found footage movie, this is a movie about the guy who finds found footage. And that's an idea so brilliant and so simple that someone else is going to have it in six months. It was clear we needed to make the movie before someone else did, so [Blum] cleared all the roadblocks. That was in January, and we were shooting in September. We had a cut that we tested by December, and here we are the following October, ready to go out to the masses.
I love what you said about bloggers, I definitely think there are a lot of brilliant journalists out there.
Hopefully, what I've done is break the stigma of it. Whenever someone says, "Oh, this blogger is going to go make a movie," the answer will be, "Yeah, there's the guy that made 'Sinister.' Let's give this guy a shot." Hopefully, it can be something along those lines.
The other day you tweeted that press tours are every bit as surreal as you'd imagine they are. Can you elaborate now that you're on the other side of the fence?
I've done plenty of interviews over time, and it's always very strange. When you're a journalist, you get to know the guys [the interviewees], and you have a lot of great conversations. Then you sit down for a junket and they have no idea who you are, and that was always a weird concept for me. Everybody's dealt with it. You'll say something, then there will be some recognition, or seemingly false recognition, like, "Oh crap, I should know this guy and I don't."
Then you get on the other side of the fence, doing four or five hours at a time of junket interviews, and you realize how everything is a blur. You don't even get time between interviews to decompress or rethink what you went through. Literally, one person is walking as another person is walking out for hours at a time. And so everything blurs together, nothing is cementing itself in, you're barely recognizing anyone at all.
Even people you've met the night before. You may have had a conversation with them the night before, but you don't recognize them when they walk in the room because you've met 200 people. It's such a surreal, tightly-packed time that really messes with your head.
Being in a junket is not like being in the real world at all. Once you have your mind wrapped around that, it's much easier to understand how to conduct an interview for that kind of event. It radically altered my perception; it was a real eye-opener. It was a lot of fun! It was great. I did meet a lot of good people.
There was a great interview a few weeks back that [Mike Ryan] did with Chris Evans in Toronto. And Chris Evans was talking about what it's like to do 40 interviews in a day, how much he hated it and how miserable it was, and it's spot-on to that experience. It's very strange for the interviewee to be in a situation where they are sitting around, talking for hours at a time, but they're being asked the same questions over and over again. You try to find new ways to share those answers, but there's always fragments of the same jokes or the same stories, and you feel like you're cheating the interviewer. You want to give the interviewer something fresh so that their story is individual, but if they're not asking the right questions, there's not a lot you can do about it.
It becomes a very tough mental puzzle. I can see why certain people become terrors on the press tours. You hear stories about certain people who are really hard on their handlers, and then there are people who are just amazing. Those are the people who understand how things work, and try to do their damnedest to make this the best experience for everybody.
But it takes a lot of mental fortitude to be able to pull that off, because it's not the most fun experience in the world. I think over the course of the week I went on tour, I think I had maybe three or four hours in which I wasn't traveling, eating or catching up on sleep. When you consider that I was in four different cities over the course of that time, it's very strange to think of having just that much time to relax and get collected.
What advice would you give young writers hoping to get hired for a good movie website?
Always be honest, even if it goes against the grain. The job of a film critic isn't to be right, the job is to make the audience think. The job of a critic isn't to put out an opinion and try to convince everyone that their opinion is correct. The entire point of a critic is to give the reader the information they need to make up their own minds for themselves.
People who read reviews don't read them to be told what movies are like, they read them to help them process the movie that they watched, or the movie they're about to watch. Your job is to enrich their experience and help them wrap their minds around exactly what they think about a film.
As a journalist, you're supposed to do that with upcoming films. You should not be focused on just the knee-jerk reactions. A great example is what we say when the news broke for "Sinister." A bunch of these young bloggers saw it was being directed by Scott Derrickson, then they looked at his resume and saw that the last movie he directed was "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Well, everybody thinks "Day the Earth Stood Still" is crap, so they were going to take a negative spin on this news and crap on it, and take a jab on "Day the Earth Stood Still."
Then you saw a couple other people who are more thoughtful writers, who looked at Scott's entire history and said "I've seen most of his work." He did "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," the first direct-to-video "Hellraiser" movie, which was genre-bending and really interesting. And they ended up writing a story about their thoughts on the various films, his career and what "Sinister" could mean. But there were very few guys that did that.
But that's what you need to do as a critic, you need to be that person that writes that interesting piece while everyone else is quickly turning in their knee-jerk reaction. Because 95 to 98% of the film writers out there are just people who like movies, and can't really spend time detailing what is great about a certain film or artist. And you need to be that guy that can. You need to be that guy that can pull out obscure gems out of the past and explain to audiences why they need to see that. You need to be the person who looks at a film that a lot of critics are bagging on when you like it, and be able to explain clearly why that film is great. And that's your job.
It doesn't matter whether you agree with the Tomatometer on a regular basis or not. Your job is to let the audience wrap their minds around a film and figure out their own position. One of the things I was most proud of is that I have people come up to me all the time and and say we disagree on a regular basis, but every time they read one of my pieces, they feel like they understand my point of view, even if they don't agree with it. And that is the goal of a critic, that is what you need to focus on.
Now that "Sinister" is about to come out, are you going to continue film criticism, or focus on screenplays and books? What's next for you?
Screenplays and books. My days as a film critic are over for the time being. I may pop in every once in a while and write up reviews, but ever since I was a child, I've wanted to be a fiction writer, and now I have the chance to do it in both formats that I am in love with. While I can get away with it, I'm going to write novels and making films. And seeing how long I can get away with convincing people that I'm good enough that they have to pay me for it. That's where all my energy is right now, and hopefully I can make it work.