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“UNHINGED” scripter Carl Ellsworth talks writing Russell’s road rage

Friday, August 21, 2020 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Screenwriter Carl Ellsworth seems determined to scare us out of using any kind of transportation. After several years of writing for TV series like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS, his first produced feature script was Wes Craven’s 2005 air-travel thriller RED EYE. Today he’s back in theaters with the first nationwide U.S. release since the pandemic shut down theaters several months ago: Solstice Studios’ road-rage psychochiller/action film UNHINGED.

Directed by Derrick Borte, UNHINGED stars Russell Crowe as an antagonist billed simply as The Man, who has been beaten down by life to the point of dangerous mental instability. When Rachel (Caren Pistorius), who has been having a lousy morning herself, leans on the horn behind him at a red light, it triggers The Man to stalk and terrorize her, claiming numerous other victims along the way. For Ellsworth, who also co-wrote DISTURBIA and reteamed with Craven on the LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT remake, UNHINGED is the latest stop on a long road trip through the darkest regions of the human psyche.

Are you excited that UNHINGED is the first movie getting a wide release as theaters start to reopen?

I couldn’t be more thrilled, and surprised as well. When that was first announced, my phone started lighting up, and I was like, “Oh my God!” I hope there’s enough pent-up demand, and that people can safely return to theaters.​

What were the inspirations behind the script?

I was fascinated by the many stories I’ve seen over the years of these crazy road rage incidents. Just the theme of rage, and why people are so angry, and why they suddenly snap. Because usually, the honking of a horn at someone or ticking them off in traffic is not the true inciting incident. It’s that someone is probably dealing with a lot more going on in their lives than just having a horn honked at them. It was a fascinating subject to explore, and as I developed the screenplay, the relevant themes started to fall into place. We have all found ourselves frustrated in our cars, we’ve all had experiences on both sides of it, and what I was intrigued by was painting the picture of what might be going on in The Man’s life that could culminate in him snapping at this woman he doesn’t even know. It was an exploration of, what if these two people are both not having the greatest mornings, and one just happens to be a little further ahead of the other, but the other one is still having a bad enough morning that it results in her setting the guy off.

So that’s where it all came from, but it took me forever to figure out the rest of the script. I avoided it, because I couldn’t figure out what The Man does, and what happens next. It was also somewhat difficult sitting down and trying to inhabit that guy, and go to these really dark places. That held me up from writing it, because it was too scary and horrific. And finally my wife said, “Look, you’ve got to stop telling me this idea and talking about it, and telling me how people are responding to it.” Because I was pitching the story around, and I kept on getting good reactions, but no one would buy it in the room, as they say. They would tell me, “You have to write it,” to get a better idea of how it worked. And my wife just said, “You have to finish it, please, for all our sakes.”

I finally cracked it a couple of years ago, and Solstice Studios picked up the script, and I couldn’t be more thrilled with everything that has happened with it. I just hope it’s a relatable situation, because that’s what I love writing about. I call them “situational thrillers,” and hopefully this one will resonate with audiences, and once they’re driving home, they’ll think twice about honking at that person who might be in their way. It’s been interesting seeing the reactions on social media to the trailer, and people assuming, “Well, he’s justified, she’s a jerk to him!” There is some reasoning behind that that hopefully people will understand when they see the movie.

Were you influenced by any past films of this type?

Well, I’ve seen people making comparisons on Twitter, and it’s been fun seeing what they’re deducing from the trailer, comparing it to FALLING DOWN and of course DUEL, which was very much an inspiration. It was a sort of experiment with, what would a movie like that potentially look like today, with cell phones and in an urban setting, and actually putting a face on the villain? Because we never saw the driver of the tanker truck in DUEL. There was a lot of experimentation to see if I could pull it off, and also, instead of being worried about cell phones and plot problems like that, why not embrace them? Let’s have her call 911 when she should, and then he gets ahold of her phone. Our lives are on our cell phones, and that was equally terrifying to me—how those phones could be used as weapons against us.

A lot of the anger and frustration in the country today has political origins; is any of that in the film, or is it apolitical?

I wanted to steer clear of that. People will infer what they will, but my intent was to personalize it more, and to depict other things. Not only the recent history of The Man, but also the implied longer backstory he’s had. We’re asking the audience to put these things together, but I always felt that with a person who gets to the point The Man does, there’s not going to be one simple, easy explanation like, oh, he got fired that morning. Well, that might be part of it, but I believe that for someone to get to that violent place, you’re talking potentially years of feeling like a victim, of the rage that builds and builds over years until, as the movie depicts, it culminates in a single moment, in a chance encounter where all hell breaks loose.

Watching the trailer, it seems that Russell Crowe is doing a Southern accent in the role. Is that right? Because that has obvious political connotations these days.

You know, it could. Russell really brought that in, and he would be able to better speak to the intent behind it. I didn’t specify that in the screenplay, so that was arrived at later on down the road. I think it’s an interesting choice, and you’re already inferring something from it, which makes me happy. People will take from it what they will. I don’t mean to be dodgy in that regard; at the end of the day, I wanted to write a movie that could inspire all kinds of angles and interpretations.

Crowe obviously has his own history of rage incidents; did that play into the casting at all?

Not that I’m aware of. I remember getting a call from Lisa Ellzey, one of our producers, who said that Derrick was meeting with Russell, who had read the script and had responded to it quite well. And the next thing I knew, he was in. I was thinking that this may be the first time he’s played a really psychotic bad guy like this. I heard him do an interview saying he was interested in exploring parts like this, and he was doing it because the role scared him. I think he wants to take on challenging, interesting things, and I couldn’t be happier about that.

How was Derrick Borte to work with?

Derrick is very smart. I worked with him a lot in preproduction, and he was so focused and a fan of the script, and a very steady, even-handed guy. His film AMERICAN DREAMER captured a particular mood and atmosphere so well, and I think Derrick has captured that here as well. A lot of AMERICAN DREAMER takes place in moving vehicles, and this movie obviously called for that, so it was a great match.

What did you learn about writing this kind of movie from your work with Wes Craven?

Oh gosh, Wes Craven. I first worked with him on RED EYE, and I couldn’t believe he was directing my script. He just had a true sense of what an audience wanted. Sometimes when I read scripts or see movies, I feel like the audience is not considered. It’s kind of a fine line, but there were moments when Wes would come up with ideas and I’d think, “Oh my gosh, this isn’t in character” or whatever, but then those would become the most crowd-pleasing moments. In particular, I remember I was visiting the RED EYE set, and Rachel McAdams came out and said, “Wes just had me head-butt Cillian Murphy!” And I was like, “Really?” because her character had been assaulted that way on the airplane; he head-butts her first. I was like, “You’re not capable of that!” But the bottom line was that in the theater, people went nuts when she got her revenge by head-butting him; they went crazy.

Personally, I love audience-participation thrillers, and I hope that UNHINGED becomes that as well. This was written with the theatrical audience in mind, and I’m thrilled that that will happen with this movie, at least for a couple of weeks. I learned so much from Wes Craven in that regard, to keep the audience in mind every step of the way.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.