In June, director Mike Flanagan (Gerald’s Game, The Haunting of Hill House) and producer Trevor Macy sat down with a group of journalists to discuss Doctor Sleep shortly before the first trailer’s premiere. Starring Ewan McGregor, the movie is based on Stephen King’s 2013 novel that is itself a sequel to King’s 1977 masterpiece The Shining.
McGregor plays Dan Torrance, the adult version of The Shining’s Danny Torrance, now in his 40s and working in a hospice. Haunted by the events that claimed the life of his father Jack at the Overlook Hotel decades earlier, Dan is recently sober after struggling with the same alcoholism that contributed to his dad’s downfall. But Dan discovers that his psychic powers — his “shining” — have attracted the attention of a young girl named Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), whose own shining is much more powerful.
Abra’s gift, however, has also drawn the interest of the True Knot, a cabal of semi-immortal psychic vampires led by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). The Knot feeds off the life essence — the “steam” — created when children imbued with the shining are tortured to death. Dan takes it upon himself to protect Abra as Rose hatches a plan to kidnap her and use her as an agonized, perpetual source of energy.
Of course, there’s another element in this mix as well: Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film version of The Shining, which King himself has never particularly cared for but which has become a fixture in the pop culture zeitgeist as well as one of the most popular horror films of all time. Unsurprisingly, the movie version of Doctor Sleep is leaning heavily on the imagery of Kubrick’s film.
“It is an adaptation of the novel Doctor Sleep, which is Stephen King’s sequel to his novel The Shining, but this also exists very much in the same cinematic universe that Kubrick established in his adaptation of The Shining,” says Flanagan about the intent of the film. “Reconciling those three, at times, very different sources has been the most challenging and thrilling part of this creatively for us.”
In order to make the film the way they wanted to, Flanagan and Macy had to get the blessing of both King and the Kubrick estate (the director died in 1999), a feat which they managed to accomplish much to their own amazement (although Flanagan must have some good will stocked up with King after his acclaimed adaptation of Gerald’s Game — a King book many thought unfilmable).
“I went back to the book first,” Flanagan says. “The big conversation that we had to have was about whether or not we could still do a faithful adaptation of the novel as King has laid it out, while inhabiting the universe that Kubrick had created, and that was a conversation that we had to have with Stephen King to kick the whole thing off. If that conversation hadn’t gone the way it went, we wouldn’t have done the film.
“As a lot of you know…Stephen King’s opinions about the Kubrick adaptation are famous and complicated,” continues the director. “Complicated to the point that if you’ve read the book you know that he actively and intentionally ignored everything that Kubrick had changed about his novel and kind of defiantly said, ‘Nope, this exists completely outside of the Kubrick universe.’”
Flanagan says it was important to bring the worlds of King’s books and Kubrick’s film together in his version of Doctor Sleep, and that necessitated being more faithful in some ways to the movie version of The Shining than King’s novel. “Some of that amounts to very practical questions about certain characters who are alive in the novel The Shining, who are not alive by the end of the film. Had to deal with that, and then in particular, how to get into the vision of the Overlook that Kubrick had created. Our pitches to Stephen went over surprisingly well, and we came out of the conversation with not only his blessing to do what we ended up doing, but got his encouragement.”
Flanagan and Macy also managed to secure the complete cooperation and support of the Kubrick estate, which not only granted them permission to use certain aspects of Kubrick’s vision but even gave them a glimpse of his original production designs for The Shining. “That was a good day,” Macy remarks with a smile. “From the Kubrick estate’s point of view, they have such a long relationship with Warner Brothers and they were generous with some of the original plans from the Overlook.”
What is astounding about all this is that just one shot in the first trailer — the iconic image of blood pouring from an Overlook elevator — is taken from Kubrick’s film. The other scenes that are taken from the movie have been recreated by Flanagan for Doctor Sleep, right down to the sets and camera angles.
“There’s only one shot on the trailer you saw that’s actually (Kubrick’s) footage, and it’s the shot of the bloody elevators,” confirms Flanagan. “Everything else is us. Everything else is our recreation. I don’t want to spoil to what extent and what specifically…we’ve been able to revisit from Kubrick’s world. But I can say that everything that we decided to use, our intention was always to detail and reverence and making sure that we’re doing it properly, with the hope that even the most rabid cinephiles might not be able to tell the difference in some of our frames and his.”
Even with Stephen King’s book being the core source material, filtered through the vision of The Shining that Stanley Kubrick brought to the screen, Flanagan is quick to stress that Doctor Sleep is an original project on its own terms and true to his own style as one of modern horror cinema’s most passionate and knowledgeable practitioners.
“As much as we talk about the balance between King and Kubrick…there’s no way I could ever dare to stand up to direct comparison to Stanley Kubrick. It’s ridiculous,” states Flanagan. “At the end of the day this is one of our movies, this is a Flanagan and Macy picture, and the priorities that we brought to it are the same we bring to all of our films. While it definitely celebrates The Shining in a wonderful way, this is our story and it’s Dan’s story. That’s the most important thing to us.”
Doctor Sleep is out in theaters on Nov.8.