On the November 8, 2019 episode of /Film Daily, /Film senior writer Ben Pearson is joined by /Film managing editor Jacob Hall, who presents an interview with Doctor Sleep writer/director Mike Flanagan.
Opening Banter: There are spoilers in the later part of the episode, but we’ll give ample warning before diving in.
You can find more about all the stories we mentioned on today’s show at slashfilm.com, and linked inside the show notes./Film Daily is published every weekday, bringing you the most exciting news from the world of movies and television as well as deeper dives into the great features from slashfilm.com. You can subscribe to /Film Daily on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify and all the popular podcast apps RSS. Send your feedback, questions, comments and concerns to us at [email protected]. Please leave your name and general geographic location in case we mention the e-mail on the air.Please rate and review the podcast on iTunes, tell your friends and spread the word! Thanks to Sam Hume for our logo.
As director Mike Flanagan has risen to become one of the most distinctive voices working in modern horror, he’s always had one man in his corner: producer Trevor Macy. The two have collaborated on Oculus, Hush, Before I Wake, Gerald’s Game, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and The Haunting of Hill House and their partnerships continues with Doctor Sleep.
I was able to sit down with Macy to discuss how they received Stephen King’s blessing to make a sequel to The Shining, how his creative process with Flanagan works, and how he views himself as an “audience’s producer.”
What was your relationship like with Stephen King after Gerald’s Game? How did that help you get this movie made?
It was super supportive. I used to joke that it was like Robin Masters on Magnum, P.I. because we never spoke to him, but he’d email me back in two minutes. He’s super responsive, and so is his longtime agent, Rand Holston, who was kind of instrumental in the process of getting it done. But he’d had a really good experience, and we’d had a really good experience. Netflix took great care of that movie. They supported us in making the movie we wanted. We’d kept King very close throughout the process, and I think he appreciated the work, I think he appreciated Mike’s script a ton, because only a couple people had taken a run at that script over the years and he really liked Mike’s draft. So I think that sort of cemented the relationship, and he was very proud of the movie, so that put us on good footing to talk about this.
I was on the set visit last year and you addressed this a little bit then, and I’m hoping you can go into a little bit more detail. I want to know about the email that you and Mike had to write to Stephen King saying, “Hey, we’re going to do the Kubrick stuff.” I always get the impression that he hates that movie more than he probably lets people know. How long was it, what did you have to say, was it hands-and-knees begging? How did that email read?
The general take – because it was still via email at this point – was “hey, we’d like to do this,” and he was like, “well, I like you guys, but…what’s up?” You know? So that led to the presentation of a pitch document. A short outline, a few pages. In that, we declared our intention to more or less be faithful to the book in the first two thirds, and more or less not faithful to the book [in the last third], although the same sequence of events happens, just the setting and mechanics of it were very different. He thought about it for not long, sort of a day, and it was a couple of things that really – I think the scene that we talked about in the Gold Room bar that really convinced him, from a character point of view, that this was a story worth telling. Because we obviously wouldn’t have done it if King had said “don’t do it.” I say “obviously,” though I don’t know that that’s true for everybody, but our relationship with him is very important.
And we also wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t have the blessing of the Kubrick estate because we didn’t want this to be an exercise in cynical exploitation. If Warner Bros. had offered us The Shining 2, whatever that was, we would have said no. But Stephen King’s book was a blueprint that we were super passionate about. Mike and I share a real excitement for how childhood trauma affects adults. That’s our favorite brand of scary, I suppose. I don’t think there’s a better literary or cinematic example of that than Danny Torrance, and King was super interested – that’s why he said he wrote the book. What’s it like to have that experience as a child and how does it affect you as an adult? That was our way into this.
Doctor Sleep has to walk that fine line between being an adaptation of a well-liked book that many people have read, but also please the people who have only seen the movie. You’re trying to please Stephen King, King fans, Kubrick fans, and Warner Bros., who knows the power of the iconography of that movie. As the producer, I’m assuming your job is to keep Mike out of that fight and take care of all those fights for him. Is that how that works?
More or less. Look, I don’t write, but we do tackle all of our creative stuff together. One of the benefits of that approach is it makes it easier for me to take on a lot of that stuff and Mike can go do his thing. We thought a lot about it at the script stage. He was writing the script in no small part while we were shooting Episode 6 of [The] Haunting [of Hill House] season one –
The big one.
The big one. So he’d be sitting at a monitor and passing me pages and I’d be like, “yes, great” or I’d give him a couple of thoughts or whatever. So we didn’t talk to Warner Bros. They were aware of the same outline we showed King, and they had shared it with the Kubrick estate, and everybody was broadly supportive, so we kind of kicked those conversations down the road until the script stage. Then the script kind of spoke for itself. And we decided to take that same approach with the movie, because what we didn’t want to do is have a philosophical conversation about it. It was like, look, we’re happy for people to engage with and respond to the work, but we don’t have a “should you go back to The Overlook” conversation. We were very careful until the first teaser came out to say that we don’t go back – we couldn’t say whether we went back to The Overlook or not. We said it was an adaptation of the book and kind of let people draw their own conclusions. But once we had work to show that we at least tried to approach respectfully and with gratitude and we were trying to be reverent but not mimic Kubrick, because you can’t. So there were elements of his language that we adopted from a cinematography point of view: center framing, 1.85 ratio, diffusion filter that made it look a little filmic, that kind of thing. But also departures to make it feel like its own story. I give a lot of credit to Michael Fimognari, our DP, for helping develop that style. That language, for people who want to watch the movie carefully, is there, but Mike would say and I agree, that we’re not trying to out-Kubrick Kubrick. You can’t do it.
I feel like Mike’s worldview seen through all his movies and Hill House is that people can and will persevere, whereas Kubrick’s point of view is that we’re all fucked, constantly. I think King shares a similar worldview with Mike. Can you talk about trying to integrate the aesthetics of Kubrick while realizing that not only are you different filmmakers, but you have different beliefs in how the world operates?
Mike would say that he probably picked that up from Stephen King. But we’ve made movies that are more redemptive and less redemptive. It flows from character to story. If the character demands redemption, then the story does it that way. Look, Doctor Sleep the movie and as well as Doctor Sleep the book is inherently a more optimistic interpretation than Kubrick’s The Shining. But King says his movie ended in ice and my movie ended in fire. It’s one way he describes the difference. So I think there is something inherently valuable to – you know, redemption is a hard thing to pull off. It’s something we all seek as human beings. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. I think there’s room for both, but this felt like a story that needed a bit of that.
I want to talk about your relationship with Mike, because in the local filmmaker scene, I’ve heard stories about directors saying, “I need to get this done, but I don’t know what to do,” and they call their producer and the producer gets it done. So what kind of shorthand have you developed for you and Mike. What do you get done that he can’t get done?
Well, we do a lot of stuff together. I think it depends on the movie. I quarterback some things, he quarterbacks others. It’s really a partnership in that sense. We don’t co-direct, we don’t co-write, but am I there for every word? Yes. So I like to think of it as making sure the movie gets made, and then making sure it meets the world in the right way. Everything from a creative partnership to if there’s a conversation about what the marketing department needs for a trailer on set, I’ll have that. If there’s a, “I’m worried about this in the test screening or how audiences are going to perceive this,” because first and foremost, I think of myself as an audience producer. If I separated myself from that, I wouldn’t know how to do my job. I talk a lot about that and Mike and I have a lot of really robust debates about that, and one of the central features of our partnership is that when we disagree, the work gets better. So we have a pretty longstanding commitment to, if there’s a bump, find the third way. What is that, how do we deal with it? But fundamentally, I fit the role of creative partner, guy that gets things done, I usually hire people, I usually deal more with finance, marketing, distribution, that kind of stuff as you’d expect a producer would. But it’s different. I don’t work like most producers, because I’m more involved.
I’m noticing that. I really like the phrase you used, “audience’s producer,” because one thing Doctor Sleep has in common with Hill House, Hush, and even Gerald’s Game, is that these are heavy horror movies, but people come out of them excited. They had a good time. Hill House is the heaviest show that, my wife works at a regular office and people were constantly water cooler-ing about, “My God, that show was so heavy and so scary, but I can’t wait to watch more.” Can you talk more about what it means to think about the audience when you’re breaking stuff that actually is heavy and how you make heavy ideas fun?
Sometimes they’re fun, and sometimes they’re relatable, but not fun. Mike’s so good at that to begin with, but like I said, the debates usually make the work better. Every story you tell is a struggle to find a balance between provoking and relating, because you have to do both. You have to know the audience in order to understand that. That also involves knowing distribution. Like for Gerald’s Game, that’s a movie that probably wouldn’t have gotten done theatrically. That is why I love Netflix. It is why they take certain creative risks that other people won’t take. It’s one of the reasons we’ve worked so much with them: they’re really passionate about that.
But it’s also – this obviously could have only been done at Warner Bros. and could have only been done theatrically, and that’s great, too – but it’s different. The requirements for cutting a trailer for this are different. Netflix reaches a lot of eyeballs, but this will probably reach more than most of them. That’s OK, and that’s healthy and normal and right. The connective tissue about all that stuff – and this has been the fun part about working with Mike for a long time – is the work we do, that relationship with the audience, they’re starting to expect something that’s character-forward, that’s relatably scary, that stays with you, that’s terrifying, that may not be jump scares. There’s a certain expectation for how that work is going to meet the world, and I think the relationship with that audience is the most exciting thing about the multiple times we’ve been able to collaborate. People expect it a little bit and then we can navigate in that world. Those are stories we’re super passionate about telling, but it always comes back to the audience.
For much of the 1990s, Roland Emmerich was the king of blockbuster cinema. The Stutgart born director found in Hollywood the perfect toolbox for his grand visions, hitting big with sci-fi thrillers like Stargate and Independence Day, the late-90s Godzilla chapter, and old-school disaster films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. After 2016’s sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, he returns to the big screen with his Word War II epic Midway.
The film, with an ensemble including the likes of Ed Skrein, Patrick Wilson, Luke Evans, Aaron Eckhart, Nick Jonas, Woody Harrelson, Tadanobu Asano, Etsushi Toyokawa, Mandy Moore and Dennis Quaid, tells the events surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor and eventual battle in the mid-pacific through the eyes of these characters. Splitting the decision-making of the leadership from quotidian bravery or cowardice of the regular soldier, the film’s expansive look at the battle rarely descends into dogma, instead tries through its mix of spectacle and character beats to provide a thrilling film that still feels at its core more than mere escapism.
/Film spoke to Emmerich about this push to provide nuance in the telling of the story, how other productions shaped the long genesis of this production, and what how he feels the creation of these kinds of stories have changed over the last few decades.
Our conversation has been edited for concision and clarity
You are a German-American, doing a film about the Pacific war that humanizes both sides of the conflict. Can you talk about your own conflicts and expectations and realizations in this project?
I am German, and heard war stories from my dad, but not constantly. We knew that he was not a party member. He told us, look, there were the Nazis, even we didn’t like them. It was a small group of people who felt totally entitled. Always watch out – when you look at history, don’t believe certain things. 20 years ago I saw a documentary about Midway. I realized the Japanese were this rigid culture and for whatever reason they attacked. It was actually Yamamoto designing the whole thing, but they got unlucky because the aircraftcarriers were gone. Yamamoto just knew that if these aircraft carriers would survive the Japanese would lose the war. The Americans were already building two or three more, while the Japanese had problems with getting metal and oil and stuff. Yamamoto knew that in the long run they cannot win, so it was this whole chess game between Nimitz and the Japanese Navy. I thought it was super interesting story to tell. In the middle of all this are the sailors, the pilots, the radio men and all of these people who just do their jobs. There are brave ones, there are not so brave ones, there are daredevils, there are more reserved guys, so it was just this mix of all of these people in one movie.
Your film reminded me a little bit of Das Boot, how we’re thrust into the centre of what is taking place and we are feeling. Were there other projects that you looked to for inspiration?
My favourite movie is A Bridge Too Far. When the Midway project first discovered, Sony’s Columbia Tri-Star division was really excited about it. I went to actually William Goldman in New York and he wanted to write it. I was super excited about it, but then we learned somebody said at one point, Roland, what do you think this will cost? I said, well, at least, maybe even $150 million. Then everybody said uh oh. John Kelly, who was then running the studio, had to go back to the Japanese and they said categorically no, they weren’t going to spend $150 million a movie where they lose the battle.
The last time there was a major Pearl Harbor film, Michael Bay went out of his way to show that somehow the Americans kinda won at Pearl Harbor. It’s so historically fatuous. Without denigrating a colleague, I’m just wondering if you could talk about the pitfalls you saw on this film to try to avoid?
Pearl Harbor was done in the 90s, this was a different time. I’m actually friends with the writer.
You yourself were making lots of these 90s films.
I did some of them too. But it was just a different time. And they used Spitfires! Why? Because they had some Spitfires. They still have some in Hawaii and they offered them to me and I said they’re wrong. We don’t use Spitfire, we use SPDs, Dauntless, and all of these kinds of things. Because of Pearl Harbor, I had to wait years to make Midway. In Hollywood, you cannot say, oh, somebody’s doing Pearl Harbor, next year comes Midway.
Although White House Down in proximity to Olympus Has Fallen happens sometimes.
That was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my career! Don’t talk about it! [laughs].
Ants to Bug’s Life, etc.
Don’t talk about it, really. It’s like depression sets in. I had no idea when I took White House Down that the other film existed.
So you felt greater pressure in 2019 to be more accurate.
I think filmmakers more and more realize when you do something historical, you have to do it absolutely correct.
That being said, you still have to tell a story, and you have to en a story and there’s a balance between being documentary and being truthful.
We still do that. Everything plot-wise that happens and is portrayed in the film really happened. Then what they talk about, the dialogue, that’s a whole different story, because who knows what Dick Best said? Was he laying on the bed with his wife discussing all of this? Who knows?
The fact that you have a character named Dick Best seems preposterous.
Ed Skrein was crying at the very beginning when he read the script. He Googled “Dick Best” and all he got porn sites! [laughs]
Is there something specific you can point to that you know you had to aggrandize for the sake of narrative? Is there stuff that was almost too big that nobody would believe it, but was in the film?
We had a couple of moments where we just cut things a little bit shorter. That thing where the guy rides on a torpedo and stops it with his feet? It just happened exactly that way, but they all returned. There was stuff like that we had to just tone it a little bit down and it worked. But that’s why you always test movies. We have to test movies – there’s no way around it, nobody likes it, but everybody knows it’s necessary. For filmmakers this is always the worst time. You invite like 450 film critics to your movie and say fill something out.
But they’re not critics, per se, they’re general audience. Sometimes, with critics, I think you’d get something different, and not always something better.
Maybe better, most of the time worse, I tell you, this movie tested as well as Independence Day. I’m just saying.
Speaking of Independence Day, that was known for its groundbreaking effects, this huge extravaganza. Midway also feels like an enormous undertaking on that front. As a filmmaker, as a storyteller, have you found that the tools have made these films be able to be made in a way, or are you finding that the budgets are now so crazy that you are in some ways limited?
You could not ever make this with models. I mean, yes, they did it for Tora! Tora! Tora!, but it doesn’t hold up. People are so sophisticated these days, they know immediately if this is this or that. When you have a war movie, you’d better have good visual effects, otherwise, you disqualify yourself. But I can tell you one thing, I still miss going into a stage where there are models and you just shoot them and you explode them and there’s a certain magic which is gone. It’s now all on a computer.
Would this have been a 40 million dollar film instead of a 150 million dollar film if you did it with models?
It would have been more expensive. With CGI, when you have once built a carrier and you have figured out the water and everything, you can make all kinds of different lights, different shots. When you do this with models, to get this together with the water and everything, it would have been more complicated and difficult. This was actually Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer’s problem when they did Pearl Harbor. They had to cut down their budget from $180 to $138 million. And that was only from visual effects. I believe that too many visual effects is also not good for a film anyhow. That said, I’m quite amazed at how we got this movie made and shot in 65 days without any second unit, with no long days. In cash we spent only like 76 or 77 million dollars. But, look at the movie! Everybody else would think this cost $150 or 170 million or so!
Megyn Kelly announced a comeback on Friday, teasing an interview that will be posted on Instagram and YouTube — an interview with a woman who was fired after she was suspected of leaking a video hot mic moment of ABC News' Amy Robach, complaining that the network didn't jump on the Jeffrey Epstein story three years ago.
“We just sat down with her, and we got the full story, and I think you are going to be fascinated by it,” Kelly said in an Instagram post.
The woman, a producer, had since moved to CBS News, but after right-wing site Project Veritas posted the footage, ABC News reportedly informed their rival network of what had happened. Kelly said that the employee was fired because she had “marked” the video of Robach, but they “suspected that she leaked” the video.
Spokespersons for ABC News and CBS News did not immediately return requests for comment.
Inthe video, which was from last summer, Robach says, “I had this interview with Virginia Roberts. We would not put it on the air. First of all, I was told, 'Who's Jeffrey Epstein? No one knows who that is. This is a stupid story. Then the palace found out that we had her whole allegations about Prince Andrew and threatened us a million different ways. We were so afraid we wouldn't be able to interview Kate and Will that we, that also quashed the story.”
After the video was posted at Project Veritas, Robach issued a new statement. She said that she was caught “in a private moment of frustration.”
“I was upset that an important interview I had conducted with Virginia Roberts didn't air because we could not obtain sufficient corroborating evidence to meet ABC's editorial standards about her allegations.” she said. “My comments about Prince Andrew and her allegation that she had seen Bill Clinton on Epstein's private island were in reference to what Virginia Roberts said in that interview in 2015. I was referencing her allegations — not what ABC News had verified through our reporting.
“The interview itself, while I was disappointed it didn't air, didn't meet our standards. In the years since no one ever told me or the team to stop reporting on Jeffrey Epstein, and we have continued to aggressively pursue this important story.”
Kelly left NBC in January, after her daytime series Megyn Kelly Today was cancelled. She appeared last month on Fox News' Tucker Carlson Tonight, Kelly's first interview since exiting NBC. She criticized the network for the way it handled the Harvey Weinstein story, which was the subject of Ronan Farrow's book, Catch & Kill.
With The Lighthouse, director Robert Eggers has created one of the best, and weirdest, movies of 2019. His follow-up to The Witch is a tale of supernatural New England horror, a dizzying descent into paranoia and debauchery, and a filthy comedy about what it’s like to share a small space with the roommate from hell. You’ve never seen anything quite like it and quite frankly, you probably aren’t prepared for it.
I was able to speak with Eggers on the phone for an all-too-brief interview where we discussed his New England roots, directing the film’s intense performances, and yes, crafting fart jokes.
Pardon the anecdote, but I grew up with a mother from Boston, and her bookshelves were full of ghost stories and tall tales and legends of New England. So I grew up with a vision of New England being a place where everything is terrifying. After The Witch and The Lighthouse and you being born in New Hampshire, I have to imagine you also have an interest in the dark corners of New England. Why does that appeal to you?
laughs There are plenty of people who grew up in New England who are interested in the Red Sox and the Bruins and look at lighthouses on the coast of Maine romantically and are quite normal. But if you are slightly interested in the dark side of life, it’s impossible not to be affected by the New England surroundings. My grandpa lived in a house from 1740. I grew up in a clapboard house surrounded by giant white pines, and I was sure that when I was tromping around in the woods past random family graveyards that had been grown over and crumbling stone walls that were on the boundaries of former generations past, that there were ghosts of Puritans and witches and werewolves in the woods behind my house. It’s a tangible feeling, and any time I’m doing press in New England, people come up to me and describe having similar feelings when they were kids growing up there.
So many of my favorite horror and genre writers are from New England – Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft – at what point did you realize there was an entire genre of weirdness, horror, science fiction, fantasy, that grew out of this region of the United States? What do you think makes it different from the South, which has its own unique ghost stories and tall tales?
Well, the Anglo-Protestant culture that was brought over on the Mayflower gives a certain kind of austerity to New England folklore and New England horror. Southern gothic is something very different, much more romantic. I think that romanticism is what’s different. Poe walked the line between both things, having spent time in the South and the North and having gone to boarding school in England. He gets to incorporate everything. But yeah, when you see Lovecraft become unhinged, you really see how that New England culture can repress people and turn them into real maniacs.
It took me a few minutes to realize how funny The Lighthouse is and that it was OK to laugh. A friend of mine had a compliment that The Lighthouse feels like Kubrick trying to make Step Brothers, so at what point did you realize this was a comedy? Because The Witch, which I love, is not funny at all, so I was expecting something similar. When did you realize, “Oh, this movie’s funny”?
I wanted it to be funny from the beginning. The Witch takes itself very seriously, indeed. It is humorless, aside from a couple moments with the twins. I frankly don’t think it would work without being so self-serious. But there’s something about it that feels a little film school-y to me, in that seriousness. I felt if I was going to explore misery again, I wanted to be able to laugh at misery as well. So it was very early on, when I was taking notes and outlining things, before I was writing it together with my brother, that I was thinking about flatulence making sense in this tight, claustrophobic world of two men living in a giant phallus. And then I realized, OK, the first fart in the movie is the first fart joke in the movie.
I think anybody who has ever had a bad roommate can relate to this. I’ve never lived in a lighthouse, but I’ve had my fair share of really crummy roommates.
Absolutely. Working in the dregs of the New York indie film scene, I definitely had to share some close quarters with flatulent co-workers.
Pattinson and Dafoe look absolutely miserable in this movie. How much of that is performance and how much of that is location?
It’s all location. I mean, Willem Dafoe says you can’t act a red nose. Of course, in this movie you can’t see a red nose, either. laughs But you don’t have to act, but if you’re – spoiler alert – actually being buried alive. You don’t have to act if you’re in gale force winds in the pouring rain and it’s just above or below freezing on a rock in the Atlantic Ocean. You don’t have to act that stuff.
One thing I really like about the filmmaking decisions you make here is that when I first saw footage of it, I was like, “Oh, he’s shooting it like a 1930s film. That’s a cool aesthetic choice.” But when you see it, the narrower frame and amount of close-ups you use really emphasize the claustrophobia and how much these two don’t have any personal space whatsoever. As a director, how do you map out making these aesthetic choices that not only give the film that unique look and feeling, but also really puts you in the shoes of your characters?
It’s instinctual. Certainly it comes from studying other filmmakers and watching a ton of movies and trying to understand what works and what doesn’t work, what turns you on, what excites you, what inspires you. How does it make you feel? How do you understand the perspectives of the character by watching these other movies? But Jarin Blaschke, the DP, and I make our choices having to do with who our protagonist is and whose perspective the scene is being told through. Nearly every moment in this movie, we experience it through Rob’s eyes. Even that is subjective from audience member to audience member, I don’t think they’re always going to experience something through Rob’s eyes. After the two shot of them looking into the camera and Willem walks into the house, we’re basically with Rob for the rest of the movie, aside from a couple moments. Therefore, at that point, if you see a wide shot in the movie, it’s because Rob is experiencing the grandness of the landscape or the power of nature or whatever. It doesn’t turn into narrator mode necessarily. Will the audience perceive it like that? I don’t know. But anytime we decide to make a cut from one shot to another, that’s based on where we are with Rob. That means in the shots that Jarin and I design and the work that I do with Louise Ford, the editor. It all comes from how Rob’s experiencing things.
I’m glad you mentioned that, because my favorite shot in the movie is Willem Dafoe cursing Robert Pattinson and turning and staring right into the camera, and if I remember correctly, it’s in one mostly long, unbroken take that escalates with his performance. I want to know the origin of that speech and that shot, because weeks later I’m still thinking about it.
Thank you. Yeah, I will say that you say it’s mostly unbroken, and the thing is, that the entire thing from beginning to end is one take from Willem. We needed to break it up because we needed to see Rob’s reaction, because as I mentioned, the movie is from Rob’s perspective. But if we omitted those shots of Rob, Dafoe – even as it is – for over two minutes, doesn’t blink. The unbroken version, he never, ever, ever blinked. laughs The dialogue for this film was heavily researched except for that sort of faux-Shakespearean, faux-Miltonian stuff because of The Witch and some other things I’ve written, I just kind of do that now. But it was inspired by Ahab’s more romantic language in Moby Dick. It was also inspired by, I saw a not particularly good stage production of Hamlet when I was early in the writing process on this movie where the only thing that struck me about that particular performance was the actor who played the lead player of the players who come into Elsinore, the lead player was incredible. Shakespeare has a speech about Hecuba that is written in sort of a clunky, old-fashioned style for Shakespeare’s day. The actor who played the player just killed that speech. You really did picture Priam and Hecuba and everything with such clarity when he was giving this really old-fashioned, clunky speech. And I thought, “OK, we should have a sea spell that should do something like that.”
With Doctor Sleep, writer/director Mike Flanagan finds himself serving three masters. First, there’s Stanley King, who penned The Shining and its literary sequel, the subject of this new film. Then there’s Stanley Kubrick, whose iconic 1908 film adaptation of The Shining has legions of fans but remains hated by King himself. And then there’s Flanagan himself, the impressive filmmaker behind The Haunting of Hill House, Gerald’s Game, Hush, and more, whose distinctive voice blends chills with honest sentimentality.
I attended an early screening of Doctor Sleep in Estes Park, Colorado, home to the famous Stanley Hotel, the place where a young Stephen King was inspired to write The Shining in the first place. And the real miracle is this: Flanagan has made a movie that is a direct sequel to Kubrick’s film, a loving tribute to King’s original vision, and, most importantly, a proper Mike Flanagan movie through and through.
Shortly before I sat down to interview Flanagan, I learned that he was staying in the famously haunted Room 428 AKA “The Cowboy Room” at the Stanley Hotel, the same room I had stayed in prior to his arrival. Figuring this would be my only chance to talk to a noteworthy horror director about our experiences in the same haunted room, I used that to break the ice.
Maybe a slightly odd question to start with, but I was told you were in Room 428?
I was in there the other night before you arrived. So we have two people who have both been in a famously haunted room. Did you see anything or hear anything or feel anything odd while you were in the infamous Cowboy Room?
I did not see the Cowboy. The biggest thing I noticed was the wind against the window and the wall that night was loud, like a fist punching the wall. Those noises were startling, but no, I didn’t see anything.
I heard movement above me, where there is no place for there to be movement.
That’s messed up! I’ve stayed in there before, though. The first time I ever stayed here, I stayed in that room.
I’m a skeptic by nature, but I believe in ghosts. Where do you fall on this?
I’m a skeptic by nature, and I do not yet believe in ghosts. But I’m wide open. Like any good skeptic, my mind is wide open to the possibility and I actively seek it out. That’s why I ask for rooms like that.
Do you think that’s part of the thrill of being a horror fan? Wanting to find that stuff?
Yeah, nothing would make me happier. Because even if I have a really scary experience, to be able to say with certainty that there is something waiting for us on the other side of this life would be so cool. I’d love to know that. For me, it doesn’t feel knowable, and I haven’t seen it. But I know other people claim to have, and who am I to argue with that?
Interestingly, Doctor Sleep also has a similar viewpoint of “life goes on,” and in the world of Doctor Sleep and lots of Stephen King stories, being a ghost isn’t necessarily a curse. It’s being there to watch and help the people you love.
Can you talk a little bit about finding the optimism in your horror? I feel like you, like Stephen King, are an optimist at heart. I feel like you believe people were persevere.
Yes, I do. I didn’t always used to be this way, either. It’s funny, I look back at some of my early work – when I watch Absentia, for example, I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s bleak.’ Oculus is bleak. That optimism has kind of grown in me as I’ve gotten older, and it’s grown in me because I had children and I want to be optimistic for them. I want the world to be OK for them. And it’s because I met my wife and as my life congealed into a really positive thing, for the first time I wanted to believe in those things. I wanted to have faith in the existence, in the universe and purpose and justice. I want to believe all of that. It’s comforting for my kids. I can’t imagine them growing up in a world that is completely indifferent and hopeless. That wrecks me. I can’t let it happen.
It’s interesting, because you also see that in Stephen King’s work. He grows more humanist as work goes on, and even the creator of The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman, ended his comic book run recently and wrote an essay in the last issue saying that his original plan was to end it with humanity wiped out, but changed to the opposite ending because over the years he had kids and realized he could not bring himself to do that. Do you agree with me when I say that there’s a wisdom in growing older with horror like that?
Yeah, I think so. I agree with that completely. I think, when you look at what horror is meant to do, it’s a safe space for us to entertain the things that scare us the most. As a kid, I used to look at it as a chance to be brave in short bursts. That making it through a scary movie or reading a scary book, when I didn’t want to look at the screen anymore or hide behind my fingers or a pillow, if I was able to push through that for five minutes, for 90 minutes, whatever it was, that was like exercise. I think even our darkest expressions of the genre are really a wonderful exercise for us to cathartically – they say when you’re really terrified of something happening, [you should try] exposure therapy. Experience it. Realize it isn’t the end of the world. See how you react to it. See how you really are on the other side of an experience like that, because there’s nothing flimsier than untested virtue. I think horror is optimistic, because it basically says that for as dark as this is, as scary as it is, it’s going to end and you’ll still be here. As the viewer, as the reader, you carry on. I think it’s incredible.
You’ve spoken before about how childhood trauma and its effects is like horror to you because you had a good childhood, so that scares you. But my real question, the pressing question, is why are you so afraid of hand trauma?
Because in Doctor Sleep and Gerald’s Game, my hands hurt so much!
It’s become a running gag now. I have a phobia of fingernail injuries. It’s the most uncomfortable thing I can imagine. In Oculus, we had a scene where Rory [Cochrane] pulls off his thumbnail. I still haven’t been able to watch the whole thing. I can’t. It was a reshoot. It was a last minute addition to the movie. I was against it because I’m so uncomfortable with it and I can’t look at it. But with Hush, Hush was kind of, in a lot of ways, it was me feeling like I was never going to be able to make Gerald’s Game. Kind of riffing on a lot of things that are in that book. The crushing hand injury in that felt right for that story, and it was also kind of Gerald’s Game-y. But I didn’t have a vendetta against hands.
But then with Gerald’s Game, it was like, OK, now it’s starting to feel like a vendetta. And with [The] Haunting [of Hill House], Henry stuck his hand in the fan, he was like, “You’re starting to do this on purpose, aren’t you?” In Doctor Sleep, that’s why happens to her hand in the book. It gets pretty mangled. But I was like, “Here we go again!” At this point, it’s just becoming a dare, like how can I get a really gruesome hand injury in there. Because fuck hands! What do they do for anyone? Nothin’. But yeah, it’s just kind of fun.
I think the strength of gore like that is we don’t know what it’s like to have our face ripped off by a masked killer, but we’ve all stubbed our finger, we’ve all had a hangnail. We all know what that feels like.
Yeah, it’s like when you pull that hangnail just a little too far, and the tiny little tear happens? We all know how that feels. Because we use our hands for so much of our lives, an injury to those? It’s really frightening to me. It’s eyes and hands for me. Having any impediment to sight or being able to manipulate things. It scares me to death.
Doctor Sleep, by returning to many of the ideas and imagery of Stephen King’s original novel The Shining, in addition to being a sequel to Kubrick’s film, feels like a direct response to saying Kubrick’s worldview is “we’re doomed” and Doctor Sleep’s view is “no, we’re not.” So I want to talk about your process of staying true to Kubrick while also putting Stephen King’s proper vision out there in front of millions of people for the first time.
Yeah, and that was one of the things that was so exciting to me about this, was being able to do the ending of The Shining. To do the ending of the novel. But I don’t know if I’d put it all on Kubrick, to say that he’s got this kind of “we’re all doomed” [outlook]. I don’t know that I can speak to his worldview that definitively. What I will say, though, is that The Shining is very much about addiction, which is doom. It’s about annihilation and the destruction of a family. How addition can destroy an individual, and how that destruction can reach out and destroy others around it. I think that’s what King was writing about the most. He always had this note of redemption and sacrifice to it. He had this wish of how it would go, and Kubrick was more interested in the madness. He was more interested in the destruction, for sure.
But I think Doctor Sleep, written by the same author but with decades of sobriety under his belt, Doctor Sleep is about recovery. In the way that addiction feels like doom and annihilation, recovery is rebirth, and recovery is salvation, in a way. I think they’re two sides of the same coin, these stories. I think Kubrick gravitated very naturally toward certain notes of that story. And clearly, Stephen King, I think, desperately wanted the redemption because he needed it for himself and he needed it for his own family. When that wasn’t included in the movie, I think he took that personally, and I understand why he would. But I think that’s why he’s so passionate about it. To finally kind of be able to give him back in this story, it was an honor to be able to do that. I hope, though, that we’re also able to honor Stanley Kubrick and the masterpiece of cinema that he made. Because as many liberties as he took with it, he made a film that has profoundly formed me and has shaped the way I see cinema, and will always. That was the hope. Not to say, “this was right” or “this was wrong” or “this is the real Shining and this isn’t,” it was more to try to pull all of that together and celebrate all of it.
The rest of the interview delves into spoilers and will run on Monday. Prepare for that by checking out Doctor Sleep, which is in theaters now.