Mike Flanagan talks Ouija, Gerald’s Game & more!
Last weekend, filmmaker Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) pulled off that rare hat trick of a franchise movie that exceeds the original. His Ouija: Origin of Evil is rocking an 81% critical score on Rotten Tomatoes compared to the 2014 original, which got an abysmal 7% approval. That’s no accident, and it comes in large part from the studio entrusting a talented filmmaker like Flanagan to bring a fresh take to the material and supporting him all along the way.
During this year’s Fantasia Fest, we got to talk to both Flanagan and his producing partner Trevor Macy about their horror film Before I Wake, which was intended for wide release in September but since the interview has been once again delayed to sometime in 2017. We also had a chance to discuss Ouija: Origin of Evil and why they knew the first movie was terrible and still wanted to make a prequel, as well as their upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, which has since been announced for Netflix and is set to star Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood. Flanagan and Macy reveal lots about all three movies during our exclusive interview.
ComingSoon.net: I can see there being a certain amount of trepidation taking “Before I Wake” to a genre festival, because it’s definitely a genre movie and it’s definitely a horror movie, but it’s got a whimsical, gentle spirit to it. Like, “Is this not edgy enough?” What kind of conversations did you have about that?
Trevor Macy: Lots throughout.
Mike Flanagan: Yeah, lots. Both of us, I think, have always kind of suspected that if the movie was sold as a straight horror movie, that yeah, that it would confuse some viewers. Especially when you get into talking about genre film festivals and things like that, there are certain crowds that are just really there for as much splatter as we can get. They want to just be loud and grab on in the most aggressive versions of the genre there are. This movie was always kind of a very delicate movie, and from the beginning I think we both had a hard time calling it a horror movie at all. When we talked about crowds we thought would embrace it, Fantasia was at the top of the list because there’s such an eclectic taste. I was talking to Mitch last night. There’s no cynicism in the audience at Fantasia. Everybody’s just thrilled to see different kinds of movies. They love the horror, but they love the sci-fi, they love the fantasy. They love the action. They’re not just here for one kind of movie.
CS: I guess at a studio level, were there ever concerns?
Macy: Yeah, no. Look, it’s a constant tension because there’s a famous saying among studio marketing executives, which is, “Pick a lane. Decide what you are and sell yourself that way.” And I think the one thing we’ve been happy about with Relativity is their marketing team has actually found a way with the spots and the trailers to be a little more nuanced than that. So knock on wood, we’ve been aware of it the whole time. We’ve been pressing the whole time. Don’t call it just a horror movie. It’s certainly for the horror audience. It has horror elements, which you said it perfectly, but it’s a constant conversation.
CS: Yeah, the tone of it is much more something like “The Sixth Sense.”
Flanagan: We talked about that movie a lot, and we looked at the marketing materials for “The Sixth Sense” because obviously, I can’t remember it being sold as like, “This is a terrifying horror movie.” The way people were kind of braced to expect that movie, it wasn’t like “Insidious” or “The Conjuring.” On the other hand, they had Bruce Willis.
Flanagan: So the whole campaign was like, “Bruce Willis.” We don’t really have that.
Macy: We can try it. “Jacob Tremblay!”
CS: Then there’s the whole issue of the movie getting shelved for a while, and now you guys are in this high class problem of having three movies come out in one year.
Flanagan: It’s weird. Yeah.
Macy: It’s strange.
Flanagan: It’s really weird. The real bummer about when a movie gets delayed for a long time is that there’s an assumption right away that there’s something wrong with the movie. I’ve seen it. We had articles written about the movie as things would happen and the new release dates would be announced, that didn’t seem to be aware of what was happening at Relativity. So, it was like, “Oh, the movie’s long-delayed,” which is definitely implying that it’s a real stinker. That was the most frustrating part of that. No, every movie at Relativity’s being held back, every single one. It’s not us, and trying to kind of combat that perception.
CS: Yeah, and I’ve seen what an actual movie that’s been put on the shelf looks like. I did my first set visit to a movie in 2006 called “Case 39.”
Macy: Oh yeah.
CS: It didn’t come out until 2010 and it didn’t change studios. It’s like, “Okay.” But I’m wondering, does the fact that this all of a sudden, the release got sort of thrust upon you. Did that affect your post on “Ouija”? Or has it been okay?
Macy: Not really.
Flanagan: Yeah, it mostly just kind of made it, this really curiosity that all of a sudden, three movies were going to be out.
Macy: And trailers on “The Purge.”
Flanagan: Yeah, it’s like “Lights Out” opened and they were running trailers for both this and “Ouija” back-to-back. That was kind of wild. But because we don’t have control over when movies are released, I remember when we came out of bankruptcy and it was like, “God, I hope they don’t program it against ‘Ouija.'” Like, I hope we’re not competing with ourselves in October.
Macy: Which most studios wouldn’t do, but still, you’d want to be enough, you know, you want there to be enough distance. And this is probably a minimum safe distance, I would say.
CS: It’s interesting, too, because with “Ouija”… just to be frank, among my group of film writers, I don’t think I knew anybody who liked the first movie.
CS: When they announced a sequel, I’m like, “Ugh.” But then they announced your name on it and I’m like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” This is your first kind of franchise movie. How are you approaching it in order to make it your own?
Flanagan: What’s funny is that there’s been no one involved with the first movie that’s going to disagree with you. When they had approached me for the second one, my initial reaction was like, “Why would I do that?” And they made a great case, which was like, “Look,” as Jason puts it, “We know the first movie isn’t perfect.” He’s like, “Yes.”
Macy: He’s tweeted that repeatedly.
Flanagan: Yeah. He’s like, “But that’s the reason why we want the second one to really kind of reclaim the franchise.” So he was like, “What’s something that you’ve loved to do, that no one will let you do?” And that was like, okay. So I threw my ideas out, thinking kind of any one of them would stop the conversation and they would say, “Nope. Not interested, not for a big, guaranteed wide release.” I was like, “I don’t want to see any eliminated teenagers. I’d love to do a period piece. That’d be really neat. And about a single mom.” Usually, these things, if you say it in a pitch, they kick you out.
Macy: Let alone in a sentence.
Flanagan: Yeah. Each step of the way, it was like, “Great, great, yes. Do that.” I kept waiting for them to pull the plug, which was why initially, I was like, “I’ll only write it.” Then it was like, “Okay, well, I’ll think about directing it, but only if Universal and Platinum Dunes and Hasbro don’t come in and just pull the plug on me.” It just kept working out. It became clear, by the time we were in prep, that all of them, they really actively wanted to make a much better film than they perceived the first one to be. It became kind of irresistible. One of the beauties of having the expectations set where they’re set because of the first one, it’s like, we can take some chances and we can have a lot of fun. Yeah, what’s the worst case scenario?
CS: I think the reaction to the trailer was very like, “Oh wait, this looks good. What’s wrong here? Am I having a stroke? Do I smell toast?” But yeah, I think the thing that bothered me and a lot of my other peeps about “Ouija” is it’s not so much that it’s this poorly made thing. It’s just aggressively mediocre, just very by the numbers, checking all the boxes kind of thing.
Flanagan: That happens a lot, especially when you’re creating a product specifically like, “We just want to make this movie for the PG-13 crowd. There’s a checklist of stuff that we know they like.” That is an attitude that will happen. I think it was great to see the absence of that attitude on this one. And coming off of—with “Before I Wake” going through it was going through with the distribution situation, and with “Hush,” which was like a pour your heart and soul into it kind of movie, and it didn’t go theatrically at all. The chance of doing a movie that was kind of guaranteed 3,000 screens on the way in, and all this creative freedom, I was like, that’s irresistible.
Macy: And support, by the way.
Flanagan: Yeah, and creative support from everybody involved. That’s an irresistible thing and that almost never happens, where it’s just like, you’re going to have this huge platform and we will back you up creatively. Typically, if you have a big platform, you’re at odds creatively.
Macy: I actually want to go out of my way to say even Blum, Platinum Dunes, Hasbro, and certainly Universal, but they were sort of later in the process, they all were like, “How can we help? What do you need?” They really went out of their way to do it. I give them a lot of credit.
CS: This brings up an interesting point about this movie, “Before I Wake.” I noticed that there was a typical scene that was missing. You sort of alluded to it during your intro when talking about how you didn’t want to do the why of it, like why he has the powers. There’s usually some kind of scene where they’re trying to figure out how he has the powers or take him to some kind of weird institute and hook him up to a bunch of wires and stuff.
Flanagan: Yeah, “The Exorcist II” version.
CS: Yes, exactly. Because nobody just hands you a bucket of money to make a movie, how do you justify to your financiers why that scene is not in the movie?
Flanagan: It was in the script.
CS: Oh really?
Flanagan: Yeah, there was a whole sequence where they were calling Annabeth Gish early in the movie together, and they were trying to figure out as much as they could without sounding crazy to her. What we’ve found with the scene was that it felt like asking the audience to spend time basically letting the characters catch up to where the audience was when they walked in. It was not time well spent. The audience knows from the synopsis, from the poster, from the trailer. They have already accepted this premise, so the time it would take to let the characters finally get on the same page as every single person in the room, it made them feel too slow. There’s something, too, about a fairytale where no one ever stops to explain how someone built a candy house. It’s like when you get into a real fairytale, these things just are. If the character’s ever gone, “Wait a minute. Like, hang on a second,” and really try to break things down, it ruins the magic of it.
CS: Yeah, I agree. I think the whole movie was coming from a very emotional place. It’s sort of predicated on the fact that they probably wouldn’t want to talk to anybody about it because they want to keep the gift for themselves and they almost feel ownership over it.
Flanagan: Well, yeah. We also talked a lot in the writing process about how the minute they would open that up into the world, one of two things happens. Like one, they lose the kid for sure.
Macy: Yeah, the movie’s got the “E.T.” house.
Flanagan: Yeah, the kid gets absorbed into this whole other world, and then it’s a different movie.
CS: He’s getting trained for the CIA or something.
Flanagan: Yeah, and then we’ve got the James Wood clipboard scene where he’s like, “We have to talk to the government about what happens when this kid hits puberty.” It’s just a different movie. So this was always meant to be way more metaphorical and esoteric than some of the other ones. There was always a sense that it was a fragile little soap bubble of a movie, and if you just poked it too hard in one direction, it would pop.
CS: You guys have “Gerald’s Game” coming up, right?
Macy: God willing and the creek don’t rise.
CS: That’s this project that’s kind of been in the ether for a while. I know George Romero was doing a version of it. So when you inherited it, did it feel almost kind of like this troubled project?
Flanagan: Well, interesting. That’s a great question. I read the book when I was in college and put it down breathless, and I was like, “I really want to make this into a movie,” but I thought it was un-filmable. It took me 10 years to kind of crack a version of it that I thought would work. And when we started having conversations about it, it had turned out that King had withheld the film rights for a long time.
Macy: Almost 20 years. There was a lot of talk about different versions, but none of us had ever read any of the other scripts, so it was a pure adaptation that we started with.
Flanagan: And when we found out that other people had taken a shot and it hadn’t materialized, there was a sense of, well, yeah, it’s un-filmable. But we’ve got this magic bullet that I really thought might work for it. And so, it never felt troubled to me, it always just felt like of his books it was as difficult to mount as “The Stand,” even though that’s huge in scope, this is very tiny in scope. The book is not obviously cinematic. Once we had this kind of idea that we were doing “127 Hours” and “Gravity” in a bedroom, yeah, I don’t want to spoil what we’re going to do, but it’s going to be a neat experience, I think. It was always just a movie that, I don’t know who makes it. I don’t know who lets you make it.
Macy: But in a sense, it’s a little bit of a theme.
Flanagan: Yeah, each of our movies shouldn’t exist.
Macy: But that’s what makes them fun to fight for, you know? They’re all different for different reasons.
CS: I can see that one in particular being appealing to you because you have a very kind of precision mentality. When I watch something like “Oculus,” I feel like everything is planned. Everything is very deliberate. When you’re shooting something like “Gerald’s Game” that takes place in one room, you have to know, “I’m going to do this side here for this scene and then I’m going to do this angle for this scene,” etc.
Flanagan: Yeah, it’s meticulous shot listing preparation, especially for a movie like that, because that movie can fall apart immediately, if you’re not keeping the dynamic.
CS: Every Stephen King fan has a different perspective on him because he’s so prolific. Every fan sort of accesses different aspects of his bibliography in different ways, even to the point where if you talk to two people who’ve read everything he’s done and seen every movie, they would each have a different perspective on what’s the best stuff. So what is your perspective on King?
Macy: His is a lot more thorough than mine.
Flanagan: I mean, I could talk about this for another hour.
Macy: I’m a gigantic fan of “Misery” and “The Stand,” but those are my touchstones.
Flanagan: What I adore about him is that his work is entirely based on the characters. The horror and everything else is only there to kind of serve ideas he has about human nature. That to me is just fantastic and has been something I’ve been actively trying to emulate. I think he can write these huge, sweeping, epic stories, but they’re always about more than what they seem to be. When I was a kid and I read “The Shining” and couldn’t put it down, it was like, yes, that was terrifying and it had everything that you would expect from a really scary story, but it’s also about alcoholism, and really in a deep way. It’s about the effects of alcoholism on a family. This is genre being used to peel back the curtain on the important parts of human nature. And that, I think is amazing.
CS: Your focus has always been these very fractured families, and that’s sort of at the core of everything he does. His daddy went for a pack of cigarettes and never came back. That informs a lot of his work. Did you feel like you were kind of simpatico with him?
Flanagan: Yeah, even though my family life was nothing like his. I connected. His idea that the scariest place in the world is a family that should be safe and is no longer safe. There’s nothing more threatening than that. I think that’s incredible. But yeah, he’s been my hero since I was in like, fifth grade. And so, there’s a thing being a King fan, where every time they announce a new film adaptation, I’m like, “Please don’t mess it up again.” I have my favorites, my favorite adaptations for sure. But for most of my life, I’ve wanted a chance to do an adaptation and what that would be was very critical, because I did not want to finally get a chance to do it and then be like, in the pile, you know? Here’s the failed King adaptations. So yeah, I’m really glad it was this one.