With a filmography already behind him that includes well-regarded titles like Absentia, Hush and the growing cult classic Oculus, writer/director Mike Flanagan is slowly but surely becoming one of the top new filmmakers in the horror genre. With most of his work to date staying close to the independent field, Flanagan has now taken a deep dive into the Hollywood pool with Ouija: Origin of Evil, a prequel to the surprise 2014 horror hit from Universal Pictures.
The movie, set in the 1960s, follows a single mother (Elizabeth Reaser) who works as a medium but finds out that the supernatural forces she fakes may be real when her young daughter Doris (Lulu Wilson) begins to channel them through a seemingly innocuous game — the dreaded Ouija board. Despite being part of a studio franchise, Ouija: Origin of Evil has a lot of Flanagan touches: a devotion to building character and audience empathy, a preference for in-camera imagery and a nod to the atmosphere of horror films from ‘70s and ‘80s, right down to the older Universal logo at the top of the film and other subtle details. It may be the rare horror follow-up that actually surpasses the first.
We spoke with Flanagan recently about creating this film, the status of his yet-to-be-released (due to Relativity’s financial woes) Before I Wake, and his next film, an adaptation for Netflix of the Stephen King novel Gerald’s Game, which starts filming today with stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood.
Den of Geek: The first film wasn’t very well received by critics but was still a big success. What was appealing to you about going in and doing a sequel to that?
Mike Flanagan: I think initially what really kind of opened my eyes to it, was the posture that Jason and the other producers had kind of taken in respect to the first movie. When they first approached me for it, they opened from a place, the movie did incredibly well financially, which makes a sequel inedible and because we have the chance to do a sequel, we would really like to acknowledge up front that there’s a lot about the movie that didn’t work and that’d we like to fix and I thought that was very unusual in Hollywood.
It was a great way to start because typically I have a pretty strict allergy to sequels and reboots in general and I don’t like to walk down the path of working on a movie that I feel like I can’t improve upon. But with this, because they said we don’t want to just do a smash and grab, we really want to try and make it its own thing and we want to try and reclaim the franchise and make good on the potential of the concept. I think everyone agreed that building a franchise around a Ouija board could be really cool and it had a lot of different directions it could go that are all exciting.
That started the conversation out on a really good foot because for me it was like, well I want to try and approach every project to try and make a movie that I want to see and if you guys are talking about a straight sequel to Ouija, I don’t know that I want to see that movie but they said no, we want to really try to do something different and they much to my benefit they maintained that attitude throughout. Which is another thing that is very rare, because it’s easy to say that going in. They were really determined to do that and they had listened, they had read the reviews, they had listened to the fans and they really wanted to try to make it right and I thought that was very cool.
Jason made a pretty irresistible pitch to me, what’s a movie that you don’t think you could make somewhere else? I said I’d like to do a movie about a single mom in the ’60s, which is not something you say in a studio pitch meeting. He was like, “Great. Let’s try to make this something you’re excited about.” It was hard to say no after a little while.
In writing it, were you and Jeff (Howard, Flanagan’s longtime screenwriting partner) given carte blanche where and when you could take things? There are ways that the two films link up obviously but other than that, were you given a blank slate?
There were a lot of people that really responded to the first movie. I mean they came out in droves and we didn’t want to work against any of the good will from the younger fans that did enjoy the first film so having some connective tissue was important and kind of a fan challenge. We also really wanted this to be a movie that you could step into with no knowledge of the first film and still enjoy. I like the challenge of that. Jeff and I, when we sat down to write, we’re looking at it as a challenge, how do we execute everything we want to execute and fit it within this framework of a franchise without really knowing what this franchise is eventually going to be yet? How can we help shape where it could go?
It was a very weird writing process but it was actually a ton of fun and I don’t often get to have that kind of fun working on movies.
Please talk about the importance of creating sympathetic characters, because to me that seems to be the biggest failure I see in a lot of horror movies. You don’t get people, you just get casualties.
Yeah, a lot of horror movies can just be about the body count. There is this idea that you don’t need to flesh out the characters because they’re ultimately expendable. I’ve always kind of rejected that, I think the genre elements really on land if you care about the characters. For me it’s always character first. If I can strip out all the supernatural elements of the story and still connect with the character and it’s something that interests me and I think you’re right. The genre, for better or worse, has let a lot of that go and it’s partially because people, audiences, will reward the genre of film rather or not it has that. I like to say that Hollywood is one of the most democratic entities in the world and the reason why is every ticket is a vote. People will bemoan the quality of horror but then they’ll go out and support horror films that are lacking qualities that they say they want.
They won’t necessarily support some of the smaller projects that do really put a lot of effort into storytelling, atmosphere, and character but aren’t going to be as well received by the audience. For Hollywood, they just count the votes. Unfortunately, you are working against the market data that the audience themselves help create. It’s this frustrating thing to say, we really want to pay attention to the nuances in the story but a lot of studios will say our numbers here suggest that you don’t have to and they’re correct.
That certainly doesn’t mean you should ever stop trying and I think there’s been something of a renaissance of the genre in the last few years where people are rewarding unique movies that put a lot of effort into their characters and I think that’s being heard, I think that’s being listened to by the studios. I think you’re seeing a lot more work coming out of the genre that’s more sophisticated. I think that it’s a very exciting time for horror because of that.
Who was the hardest character to cast or the most challenging to find the right person for?
Definitely Doris. We knew when we were writing it that we were going to be asking a lot of a nine-year-old actor and Lulu Wilson came in to audition with a group of other girls that were going for it and she just demonstrated a sophistication that is well beyond her years. I’ve always been very lucky when it comes to casting children from Annalise Basso to Jacob Tremblay to Lulu, we’ve always been fortunate enough to find these young actors who are really advanced so that was the part I was the most concerned about going in because she has an extraordinary amount of screen time. She has to ride out the most dramatic arc of any of the characters in the film and she has to not only capture and present the innocence of a child but she has to then speak with the authority and ruthlessness of a very evil adult at certain points. That’s asking a lot.
We were just very lucky to have found Lulu and she ran with it and made it her own. I spent most of my time just staying out of the way. I think she’s a force to be reckoned with and I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of here in very short order.
One thing I liked about this, even in the beginning of the movie, the title treatment had that old school title treatment with a little copyright at the bottom that you see in movies from the ’60s and ’70s, and you also have “cigarette burns” on the film as well to indicate reel changes. Was all that done on purpose to capture a little bit of that older texture?
It definitely was. In thinking about the target audience for this movie, it was going to be first and foremost kind of aimed at teenage viewers. I think there was this misperception that PG-13 films need to be held to a different standard then their R-rated counterparts and that they’re lighter and easier and just less sophisticated and I was thinking about the movies that I saw when I was 12 and 13 that kind of introduced me to the genre and made me excited about horror movies, so we talked a lot about The Changeling and Poltergeist and Watcher in the Woods and things like that, which are not R-rated films but they were really good.
The feeling that I had remembering the first time I experienced those movies, we wanted to try and recreate that all over this, esthetically. My DP and I immediately started trying to look for esthetic choices we could make that would remind us of the movies we grew up with. Some of that was that we shot an antique lenses, we broke out split diopters and a lot of long zooms instead of the gliding steady cam that we’re so use to in contemporary cinema. We added grain in post and I remember so vividly, sitting in the theater and watching the reel changes go by. Seeing the cigarette burns and feeling the print jumping the gate a little bit and feeling the splices and stuff. We wanted to try and recreate that.
I think we were all in a pretty nostalgic place when we were making it. It’s funny because I think some of the grownups watching the movie will appreciate that and they might be like, wow I can’t remember the last time that I actually saw some of these techniques go by and the younger viewers might just go right past them. We’re going to have people sitting in the audience that never ever saw cigarette burns before but might remember it from Fight Club and that’s about it.
It was totally cool because the studio got so behind that idea and they immediately provided the classic Universal logo that I remember growing up with, their first trailer and poster designs that they put out had a lot of classic elements. The first poster has dust on the negatives. The thing was really exciting to see them dive into it too. When I talked to the Newton brothers who did the score, we spent the entire time talking about classic Jerry Goldsmith scores that we love. There are moments in the score. It was something I’m listening to on a cassette tape. It was really fun. It added actually a lot of attachment to the movie, I think, for all us that were in it. To the cast and the crew both, it was pretty clear from the beginning that it was like trying to tap into something that we vaguely remember from our childhood.
You are working on an adaptation of Gerald’s Game, have you and Jeff cracked how you’re going to make that story cinematic (note: we spoke with Flanagan before the cast and start of production was announced)?
Yes is the short answer. I’m not supposed to talk too much about Gerald’s Game because we’re about to make a formal announcement shortly but I’ve been working on the adaptation since I was 19 years old and we, I think, cracked a pretty amazing version of it that I don’t want to spoil because it’s pretty cool. But yeah, I felt for the longest time that that novel was unfilmable and so it’s a real pleasure to be filming it. I think it’s in a lot of ways everything I’ve been working on has been building up to this and I’m very excited about it.
Have you had any contact with Stephen King? Have you spoken with him about it?
We had first spoken with him a couple of years ago when I went after the rights for it so yeah he has definitely been kind of … one of the things about him is that he wants to be very involved in all the adaptations, especially making sure they’re being true to his intentions of the novel. He’s been involved since back in 2014, that’s when we first started talking to him about it. He’s excited too.
Any sign of Before I Wake surfacing anytime soon? What the latest on that?
I actually just bought my copy on Blu-ray from Italy. It was just released this week and I was dying to have it as part of my collection at home. I don’t know what’s happening and it’s been a frustrating couple of years with that one for sure. I read about Relativity going up for sale in the trades like everyone else.
I don’t know what that means for us but I do know we’ve had four dates come and go and at the moment they have not given me a new one so I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I’m hoping as Relativity finds its feet — and they’ve been dealing with an awful lot the last few years — as they hopefully get the company standing back upright, they’ll do right by the movie. I really am hoping that that is very much the case.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is out in theaters Friday (October 21).