The Horror Revolution: What's your favorite scary movie? What movie scared you the most? Why?
Mike Flanagan: That's a nearly impossible question - there are so many that I love. When I was a kid, I must have watched Jaws two hundred times, so perhaps that one, if you consider it a horror film. I didn't really watch horror movies until I was older, they scared me too much. I remember hiding behind the couch watching Michael Jackson's Thriller video through my fingers. I was really scared of horror films, and so most of them I didn't experience until High School or later. It's almost impossible to narrow down a favorite, I love movies for a variety of reasons... but a few that stand out are The Exorcist, The Thing, Session 9, Lake Mungo, The Shining, A Tale of Two Sisters, The Fly... THR: Hush was absolutely brilliant. I've read that you and your wife came up with the plot over dinner conversation. I take it your dinner conversations are a little different than most couples'? What was your inspiration? MF: We are prone to have slightly different conversations than a lot of couples. We were talking about movies we loved, and how we both had a fondness for Wait Until Dark. Kate was discussing a recurring anxiety she had when she was asleep in our house - we have a large sliding glass door in our bedroom, looking out into the back yard, and she's always a little nervous about looking out and seeing someone looking back in.
For my part, I was talking about how I always wanted to do a movie with no dialog (or at least as little as I could possibly get away with.) Before long, the two ideas melded into one, and we had the basic pitch for Hush before dessert arrived.
THR: You've been doing this for a while, and your last two movies were huge hits. Do you feel pressure to live up to your previous movies, or do you handle each new film differently?
MF: I don't know if they were huge hits... Oculus was successful financially, sure, but was a bit polarizing with the audience. Hush has been very well received by the audiences and critics, but was released as a Netflix exclusive, so never got a chance to duke it out in a wide theatrical release, so wasn't really a box office hit at all... I guess I'm saying that I tend to qualify success differently. I think each of my films have been a success, even the ones that didn't quite work. They're a success if I improve as a storyteller, and they're a success if they connect with viewers.
Each movie is its own universe for me, though. I try not to compare them to the others, and I certainly like to hope that expectations don't carry over for viewers. I like to believe that each movie gets to push the RESET button as far as expectations, but I know that isn't always the case. I try hard, I really do, not to let that stuff into my thought process. Each movie is its own thing, with its own rules, and its own challenges.
It's tricky, too, because they aren't always released in the order I make them... I shot Absentia in 2010, Oculus in 2012, Before I Wake in 2013, and then both Hush and Ouija 2 in 2015. What irritates me the most is the idea that people will set their expectations for Before I Wake based on viewing Hush, and the movies couldn't be more different. Before I Wake was completed, locked and delivered long before Hush was even a germ of an idea.
I don't like the idea of repeating myself, and so I look at each one as occupying a slightly different place in the genre. Absentia is the cosmic horror. Oculus is my riff on a haunted house and a crumbling family (kind of my own take on The Shining.) Before I Wake isn't even really a horror movie, frankly - it's more of a fantasy, a bedtime story. For me, that one was about being delicate, emotional, and simple. Hush was all about sound, mechanics and suspense, and Ouija 2 is off in a whole different direction that's all its own.
THR: I also read that you were tapped to direct Gerald's Game. It's one of my all-time favorite Stephen King books, and one of the few my wife won't read again because it scared her too much. I also noticed that there were several Stephen King books in the background of Hush. Are you a fan? Do you have anything about that upcoming film you can share with us?
MF: I'm a RABID fan of King. I became a Constant Reader in fifth grade with IT, and I own every book he's ever written in hardcover. Nothing has influenced me over my life as much as King's writing. His grasp of character, his ability to create suspense, horror, and imbue it all with a deeper meaning... he's a true hero of mine. It was such an honor to be given a chance to do Gerald's Game, which is about as difficult to adapt as a book can be.
When I first read the novel, I thought it was un-filmable. It took me ten years to finally see a way through the forest, and I was so happy that King responded to my script enthusiastically. It's been a tremendously difficult movie to get off the ground, but I really hope it works out. It would be a dream come true, and I think it would be a movie unlike anything people have seen from me before.
THR: What inspired you to make horror films as opposed to something in other genres?
MF: I actually began my career by making dramas. As an undergrad, I made three digital feature films about relationships and love and all that stuff. They were great learning experiences, but they were really boring movies. I don't know why it took me so long to try to make a horror movie, especially considering my obsession with Stephen King.
I love the genre. I love what it is capable of. It is a mirror for our society, a place to explore the darkest parts of our natures in safety. It is fertile ground for deep metaphors about the nature of being a human being. I'll always love that about it, and I'll always come back to horror.
But that said, I really don't want to be viewed as "only" a horror director. I'm hoping very much, in fact, to branch out and work in some other genres in the near future. The genre of a project doesn't matter to me, actually, as long as I connect with the characters. THR: Your wife is the star of Hush. Was it easier or more difficult to direct her than other actors? MF: Well, to be fair, we weren't married when we were shooting the film. In fact, we didn't get married until just before the film premiered at SXSW. We were a couple, though, from the conception of the film, so I suppose the movie was sort of boot camp for our marriage. We figured that working that closely, under those intense circumstances (the shoot itself was incredibly brutal on the cast and crew), it would either tear our relationship apart or bring us together forever. Luckily for me it did the latter. We had a shorthand that I don't have with other actors, that's for sure. And we trusted each other. So all in all, our closeness helped in this case. I've heard a lot of stories where the opposite is true, though. THR: You wrote and directed Hush. I feel like one of the hardest parts to get right in any movie, but especially a film in the horror genre, is the writing. Which is your favorite, writing or directing, and why? MF: It's funny, I've been uniquely lucky in my career. I get to write, direct AND edit my movies. Not a lot of people get to do that. I don't have a favorite job, they all bleed together. What's amazing for me is that I get to be there for a film from the very beginning to the very end. I'm the first to arrive and the last to leave, and that means, for better or worse, that I'm able to make the movie the way I want to. The problem is, if it doesn't work at the end of the day, there's really no one else to blame. That keeps me up at night sometimes. THR: I mentioned in my review that Hush brought to mind an old episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, about an intruder who breaks into a house whose inhabitant is deaf. Your style of horror is incredibly suspenseful, very much like a thriller. Would you compare your style to his in any way? MF: I know the episode you're talking about - it was an escaped convict who breaks into a woman's house, and makes her cook for him and lie to neighbors and stuff. The fact that she is deaf is the big twist at the end, and what gets him caught again - he makes her answer the phone to tell her mom she's okay, but she never would have done that if she was deaf. It's a fun episode.
I don't think I could compare myself to Hitchcock, he's just out of my league. I've studied his work and fell in love with his movies as a child, so I am certain they've influenced me. He understood suspense, and he understood audiences. It was effortless for him (at least it seems so), he just had an innate understanding of how viewers reacted to what they saw. I wish more filmmakers would adopt his ideas. THR: Who would be your dream person to work with in the industry, alive or dead? MF: I will always wish I could have worked with Paul Newman. Not only one of the best actors I've ever seen, but by all accounts an exemplary human being. I was surprised by how upset I was when he passed away. Beyond that, I've always desperately wanted to work with Nathan Fillion. And Bruce Campbell. THR: And finally, would you rather fight 1 horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses? MF: 1 horse-sized duck. Otherwise I'd be overrun, and I'd have to land 100 fatal blows to take out a horde of tiny horses. BUT, with a horse-sized duck, if I'm tactical with my first strike, I could sever a vital blood vessel in the horse-sized duck and win the day. It's lack of arms may help, but I'd still have to contend with the bill. However, if I'm quick enough, I could take out each of its eyes and then have the upper hand, as everyone knows ducks can't hear very well.
Check out The Morrigan's review of The Haunting of Hill House (streaming on Netflix)