The brain and the muse behind HUSH speak to SHOCK.
One of the best and brightest (if not the very best and brightest) hopes for contemporary cinematic horror is filmmaker Mike Flanagan, whose films ABSENTIA and OCCULUS (read our interview here) shook the genre to attention with their radically unique approach to the genre. His long-shelved film SOMNIA (which was renamed BEFORE I WAKE, following test screenings) is finally set to be released by Relativity later this year following the release of Flanagan’s latest feature HUSH, which debuts on Netflix on Friday, April 8th. HUSH, starring Kate Siegel as a deaf mute novelist named Maddie, is an intense home invasion thriller that veers away from Flanagan’s usual supernatural genre sensibilities, but the shift suits him well. Later this year, Flanagan has a third movie set to be released – the sequel to Universal’s hit OUIJA – and though the first film (which he did not direct or have any involvement with) was a creative disappointment, Flanagan promises that his film will surprise a lot of people.
In this interview with both Flanagan and actress Kate Siegel from HUSH, they discuss the horror genre and the challenges of making a film mostly without dialogue, and Flanagan addresses the themes of his filmography and making movies in the horror genre.
SHOCK: Mike, I’ve seen a number of your films. The first one I saw was ABSENTIA, and then I saw OCCULUS, and shortly after that I was lucky enough to catch a test screening of SOMNIA, which has since been shelved and renamed BEFORE I WAKE.
FLANAGAN: Oh, wow!
SHOCK: I love this stuff. And now I’ve seen HUSH, so I feel like I know where you’re at as a filmmaker. So far, what I’ve seen you do is supernatural horror, and HUSH is the first of those four that is not supernatural in any way. It’s a home invasion thriller. Would you talk a little bit about the shift in subgenres?
FLANAGAN: Oh, sure. For me, whether it’s something supernatural or not, it’s never been important. The things that draw me to something are the characters and the tension. I think it was hopefully inevitable that I get out of the supernatural side of things, which is a great way to get started. There’s such a rabid marketplace for supernatural horror. But, yeah, it didn’t really occur to me that this was not like the others until people started pointing that out to me. For me, it’s always been about, “Am I connected to the characters?” With this one, what felt like a departure for me … what I felt made it different than the other films was that it would require so much strictly visual storytelling. What made me really excited about it was taking out dialogue. That can be such a crutch. I look back at ABSENTIA, which is a movie I’m very proud of, but the movie is about people talking. To get rid of that, I had to force myself to approach huge stretches of this movie from a strictly visual perspective. That was the exciting challenge of this. It didnt feel separate from the others until I started hearing other people say so.
SHOCK: This question is for the both of you: You both collaborated on the script for HUSH, and I know you both worked together on OCCULUS, so talk a little bit about working together on this one from the ground up.
SIEGEL: Well, we went to dinner together and we started talking about high concept thrillers. Wait Until Dark had come up. We thought how interesting it was when they put their main character in a vulnerable place with her blindness before the movie even started. We always wanted to do a movie without any dialogue, and I had a recurring anxiety of walking past my sliding glass doors and seeing a face out there at nighttime. So all of a sudden we put all these pieces on the table and put them together, and before we knew it we had the germ of our movie. We pitched it and took it to Jason Blum and Trevor Macy, and Jason bought it before the second sentence was finished. He bounced around the room and turned around and said, “Wait! Does she win?” We went “Yep!” Spoiler alert!
FLANAGAN: Then the writing process was really good. We lived together in a house in Glendale, and we came back and I would just walk around the house outside, trying to find ways to break in, and Kate would stay inside, trying to defend herself. We would just play out various scenarios. Once it felt authentic to both of us – this is what she would really do, and this is what I would really do – we would write it down and keep going. The process of writing it … the first draft was very experiential. It was completely unlike any other writing experience I’ve ever had before.
SIEGEL: Yeah, it was wonderful. We hacked it out, and we could see if things were grounded, if things made sense.
SHOCK: Kate, this is a very physical performance in so many different ways. You’re climbing on rooftops, you’re pulling arrows out of your leg, you’re getting your hand smashed up, but you’re also doing sign language, which is also very physical. Talk about that aspect of taking on this role.
SIEGEL: As we were writing it, I would think, Maddie gets shot in the leg, or various other things that happen to her, and Mike was wide-eyed and would say, “Really? Really? You’re going to want to do all that?” “I got it! It’s cool!” Then we would show up on set and do all those stunts; it was actually really fun because in the choice to take away Maddie’s ability to hear or speak, I’ve lost most of what you use as an actor. The ability to listen or talk, I could do neither. So when I lean into the physicality, I had a lot more room to maneuver. I worked with a coach for about two months before we started shooting, and aside from drilling into me those signs over and over again – which I think is a beautiful language; it’s such a beautiful and pure way of communicating … You need to be in charge of your hand position and your body language, where your eyes are, all of that has to do with subtext and communication, and I tried to bring all of that into Maddie. This is what she’s lived with, her body language, her physicality, how she communicates with the world. Then, we take those things away from her and make her less able to communicate, less able to express with her body because she’s getting messed up. Every time I could lean into the physicality, I felt freer as an actress and I think that’s why it comes across as such a physical performance.
SHOCK: I would have loved to see HUSH in a theater, but Netflix is premiering it, and most people will be watching it at home for the first time. Why don’t you address the format of the way this film will be universally seen?
FLANAGAN: Oh we always knew this was going to be a challenge for a studio marketing department for a wide release. Just because its lack of dialogue and how experimental the soundscape and structure of it was. We were always hoping for the widest release possible. When we showed the movie to buyers last Fall in Toronto we had interest from studios that wanted to do a traditional theatrical release. We either bumped into issues where they didn’t know how to market it properly or they wanted to change what the picture was, or they simply couldn’t compete with what Netflix wanted to do. Netflix was so supportive of the movie. The landscape of how movies are going to be released is changing and is changed. Netflix and Amazon are aggressively leading the shift in that paradigm. It occurred to us as we were weighing our options for this movie that more people would see it the first weekend of it being available globally on Netflix than ever would if we got a theatrical release. That was a really startling thing to come to understand.
SIEGEL: It’s also why you make movies, to show it to the most people.
FLANAGAN: Yeah, and we had secured a wide release for SOMNIA that has been mired in delays and problems and marketing challenges and junk that has nothing to do with the movie. It has been mired for years. The idea of HUSH going down a similar path was heartbreaking to me. So, Netflix is going to outbid and out perform pretty much every other major player at the table, so let’s try this new release platform and see how it feels, even though I love the movie theater, and I wish more people could have seen this in a movie theater, but there’s something kind of neat about watching a true home invasion movie in the privacy of your home.
SIEGEL: We should say, however, that you should turn the lights off and turn the sound way up.
FLANAGAN: Yeah, that’s the only bummer for me. Our sound mix is so dynamic in a movie theater. I’m sad that people might not get to experience the full scope of the incredible sound design because they’ll be watching this at home. Home theater systems are pretty advanced, so hopefully people will get a good eperience out of it.
SHOCK: I’ve got to ask you about OUIJA 2. I’m going to be totally honest: I didn’t like the first movie at all.
FLANAGAN: You’re not alone. I know there’s a good amount of skepticism about OUIJA 2. I think that’s appropriate. I shared it when I was approached with it. What made it possible was that Jason Blum told me that I could do whatever I wanted. I didn’t have to be beholden to the first movie at all. They acknowledged that the first movie was certainly not their finest hour. They really legitimately wanted the second movie to be special. So, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to create a OUIJA 2, especially in the way we ended up doing. I can’t really talk about it other than to say that I’m very proud of the movie. It’s going to surprise everybody. I never would have done it if I hadn’t been able to do it the way I did – not only letting me do it that way, but they really supportive of it. For fans of OCCULUS it’s going to be special because it stars Annalise Basso, who’s now grown up and is able to carry a movie on her own. It’s got a great supporting cast. It’s all my usual people. My DP, my crew members … we had this opportunity … my DP and I felt like the valets in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. We were convinced that sooner or later the studio would check the mileage and we’d be in trouble. Every day we went to set and couldn’t believe we were getting away with this. And we did! Not only that, but the studio and the producers are really in love with the movie and have been nothing but supportive. I understand the initial reaction, though, that people have; I had the same reaction.
SHOCK: Mike, like I said before, I’ve seen a number of your films. I actually loved SOMNIA. I can’t wait to see it again. I’m really frustrated that it still hasn’t come out yet after all these years. I’m sure you’re extremely frustrated.
FLANAGAN: Oh, yeah. I’m just glad you’re one of the few people who got to see it.
SHOCK: I actually ran into you in the parking lot after the screening. I brought my DVD of ABSENTIA, and you signed it for me. We talked for awhile.
FLANAGAN: Oh, I remember that! That’s the only time that’s happened to me at a test screening! That’s awesome!
SHOCK: Here’s the thing, man: I really believe that you’re the next big thing in horror. Your name should be above the title like they used to do with Wes Craven and John Carpenter. I know that might sound crazy, but I really see you as the next great hope for horror.
FLANAGAN: Thank you and you’re making my whole month. I’ve been really, really lucky in that I’ve gotten to work constantly since ABSENTIA hit. It took me almost 20 years to make movies for a living. There’s the sense when you finally … like Oh my god, I get to make movies that people actually go see! You need to keep your head down and keep working because it could go away at any moment. I’ve been operating under that kind of feeling throughout this whole … throughout the last few years. I haven’t really gotten a chance to look around and take stock yet. Which is great, because I get to keep working instead. I’m more comfortable working than I am being complimented. As far as being above the title – things like that – I would love it eventually. I don’t know if there’s ever a point in your career where you feel like you’ve earned it. If there is, I haven’t hit it yet. I really appreciate that, and I’m always really grateful to hear that the movies are resonating with people. You get so caught up with test screenings and studio notes and box office and making sure that you’re able to make another movie that you forget the whole reason you’re doing it at all. You’re doing it to make the kinds of movies that people respond to that way you do, which is to find movies you love. Thank you for reminding me of that, and I think that’s worth more to me than where they put my name on the poster.
SHOCK: Is there anything else you’d like to address about the upcoming release of SOMNIA/BEFORE I WAKE?
FLANAGAN: Oh yeah. The good news on BEFORE I WAKE is that Relativity has emerged from bankruptcy. They’d agreed to stick to releasing the movie properly. They’re releasing it wide and that it will be released before the end of this year. It will be coming, and they will be launching a campaign for it. Finally people will get to see that movie. It’s going to be a bizarre year for me because I have three movies coming out this year. Which is nuts to me. All three of those movies are different from each other, and I’m proud of all three of them for different reasons. I’m curious to see how they’re received.