Interview: Oculus director Mike Flanagan

The director of the sensationally chilling Oculus gives his take on horror movies and haunted mirrors.

Director/editor/co-writer Mike Flanagan is making an immediate name for himself with Oculus, his new feature starring Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff and Brenton Thwaites. The story of a seemingly normal family corrupted in both the past and present by a malevolent evil encased in an antique mirror, Oculus is an expansion of a short film that Flanagan made in 2005 under the same name. While the short featured just one man alone in a room with the mirror, the feature delivers an atmospheric sense of dread, a disorienting feeling of temporal displacement and a tightly crafted story that makes it one of the most unsettling horror films I’ve seen in some time.

Flanagan spent a decade working on reality and documentary programming, where he learned the editing skills that serve him so well, while at the same time making a string of small indie features culminating with the creepy Absentia in 2011. That film – which cost just $70,000 to make – put him on a path that eventually led to Oculus. The latter was picked up for distribution by horror specialists Blumhouse Productions (the Paranormal Activity movies, Insidious, The Purge, etc.), who are also behind his next picture – which has already been shot – called Somnia.

With Oculus in theaters now, Den of Geek sat down with Flanagan to talk his approach to horror movies and what to expect from him next.

Den of Geek: Let’s start with the genesis of this, going back to the short film on which it was based.

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Mike Flanagan: The short film was really to try to get out there and just make something. And kind of immediately, as it got out into the festival circuit , people were enjoying it and there was interest in expanding it into a feature — but everybody wanted to do the found footage thing because there was cameras in the room. And I didn’t think that worked for this story because the only thing that really is going to make it work is if we can say that what you’re seeing on the screen isn’t objective. Found footage has to be objective. You have to believe the frame. So it was really hard to find partners who were willing to do it another way. It took like seven years.  We would go into meetings and show the short and people loved it and they would always come back to that. It got really frustrating and I would just keep putting it in the drawer.

So I did Absentia, which is like this tiny little no-budget feature, to prove that I could do a feature. That got me the meeting at Intrepid (Pictures), and I went in, I met with Anil Kurian there and pitched five ideas out and they all kind of landed with a thud. I was on my way out the door and I was like, why not, I’ll throw this one out there too but it will probably go the way it always goes. But I threw it out there and he watched the short and they got in touch the next day. They went, “We really like this short — as long as you don’t do it found footage.” And I was like, “Okay, great, I’d love to have that conversation.” So we got together and developed the script together.

The feature itself was seven years in development in one sense because it took us forever to figure out how to take a story of one guy alone in a room and stretch it to feature length without making it really boring. That was really hard to crack at first.

Mirrors are kind of a staple in horror movies.

Yeah. Well, as a kid I did all the Bloody Mary games and using a mirror to scare yourself. But as I got older, the thing that’s awesome about mirrors is that they’re completely ubiquitous. It’s often our first interaction on a given day. We all stare into one for a good amount of time and we base our entire image of ourselves off of what we see back, which is wrong. It’s backwards to start and then each mirror is slightly distorted. The imperfections of the glass presents us with what we assume is reality, but it isn’t. So we took that idea that we take for granted that this is an objective reality but it’s not. And then I learned about the tradition in the Jewish faith where they’ll cover a mirror at a funeral to prevent souls from coming back through and I thought that was terrifying.

I loved a lot of the movies that have used them as devices to great effect like the Disney horror movie — which is awesome — Watcher in the Woods, plus Prince of Darkness and things like that. There are always examples of them being kind a cool garnish on a horror story. But doing one where it’s front and center is hard to do because people — there’s this reaction immediately, when you say it’s about a haunted mirror there’s this kind of eye roll to it. It’s like, a mirror, really? What’s scary about it? I always liked the challenge of that, how to take an inanimate object and build something around it that’s scary. But it’s not the most intuitive movie monster.

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There are aspects of the movie that come across a lot like things you read in horror literature, like leaving the mirror’s origins unexplained. Did you grow up reading a lot of the genre?

I did. I did not growing up watching a lot of horror. I wasn’t allowed a lot of it and I was a real chicken. Whenever I would see horror movies I would be traumatized and I’d have to watch them behind my hands or behind the couch sometimes. So I grew up first with authors like John Bellairs and R.L. Stine for kind of the young adult horror. But I found Stephen King in the sixth grade and that was it. I became a rabid fan. What I loved about his work was the attention that was paid to character. The amount of reliance he had on the imagination of the reader to kind of create a lot of the real horrors and I thought that was incredible.

I then got into Lovecraft in a big way and that idea of kind of this other world just beyond the veil of ours that defies understanding and doesn’t need a back story and an explanation, you know — like this is an alien force that if you even were to try to comprehend it completely it would drive you mad. I thought that was scarier than anything. A lot of horror fiction kind of bends over backwards to create this is elaborate reason why this evil thing is the way it is or where it came from. I always feel like that takes away some of the scare. Evil in the world doesn’t have an answer and we try, as a culture, to create one in so many different ways that I think in our fiction when we don’t give it that kind of explanation it’s just scarier. So that’s something that I believe in philosophically for the genre, but it’s hard sometimes to make that argument with producers and studios.

They want everything explained these days.

Yeah. They assume the audience will react to simplicity and we kind of came at it being like no, they’ll react to complexity because everyone sitting down in the theater is a complex individual. And if we can respect that and treat it intelligently and not offer easy answers maybe that kind of horror will linger in a way. The more explained stuff tends to evaporate. It’s like you come out of the theater and the movie’s over and it’s gone. If Oculus can stick with somebody even for a day then it will maybe be something special. That was just the hope; I guess we’ll see.

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When you started watching movies what were seminal films in the genre for you?

My answers to that are kind of boilerplate to a lot of people who are fans. The Shining, The Exorcist. I had got so desensitized to horror after not getting into it as a kid, like I took in so much of it as I got older that it became really difficult to scare me. So every now and then I would stumble across these movies, often foreign films or obscure kind of limited release pictures, that would really unsettled me. Brad Anderson’s Session 9 blew me away. Lake Mungo blew me away. So for me it was always like, I’d find these little movies and I would get so excited and try to show them to people and say, I want to make a movie that people will really respond to, considering how jaded horror fans are by the genre they love.

You either need to push the movies to extreme levels to make a splash like Martyrs, which knocked me over — you either have to push it so far that the visceral reaction is unavoidable, or you’ve got to kind of pull back the other way and kind of get into a place again where a viewer has to activate their own imagination as opposed to having a passive viewing experience.

That’s a tough thing to sell. It’s a really tough thing to pitch, but as a fan I feel like there’s a lot of really exciting smaller horror that I wish would get a wide release. And one of the things for this movie, you know, I never really expected a wide release, I hoped for one. And now that we have it…if we connect with people and people support the picture it will hopefully encourage studios not to kind of fall back on the easiest kind of horror movies to make when it comes to wide releases and take more chances. And I really hope we can help with that at least a little bit. Because as a fan I would just love to see more challenging material get out to the mainstream.

What hat do you enjoy wearing most: director, writer or editor?

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Oh, they’re all fun. I think editing is ultimately the most exciting because it informs writing and directing in a really cool way. That’s where you finally get to see the movie stand up. They’re all rewarding and challenging in different ways, but the one hat I never truly take off is the editing hat.

Because you’re always doing it in your head, even as you’re writing or filming?

Yeah. And because that one colors everything else so much, I think that’s where I enjoy it the most. It’s like, you start alone when you’re writing. You’re just there and the sky’s kind of the limit, but there’s no one else to blame but yourself for what you’re doing. Then production is just this combination of so many people who are coming together and all pushing the story into existence. And then you end alone again the edit bay. It’s a really neat cycle, and being able to live with the project through all of that is something a lot of people don’t get to do. I’ve been really lucky that they were willing to let me edit my own stuff. That’s when I really get to sit back and actually watch everything come together into something cohesive. So I think that’s my favorite part.

Is it interesting to find yourself aligned with horror specialty company Blumhouse Productions not just for Oculus, but for your next movie, Somnia?

Well, Blumhouse is neat because they really demonstrated for the first time that you didn’t need what the studios told you you needed to get out to a mass audience — you could make a movie for little or no money without star power or name recognition in the cast and it could still find a mass audience and be very successful. So that cracked open this whole new model for the genre where, you know, 15 years ago filmmakers who were working on the level that people are working on consistently now would never have been able to get out there in a wide release. So Jason (Blum), I think, kind of single-handedly blazed that road for the genre. I mean it’s turned into such a factory of interesting and varied genre movies that it was really gratifying that they saw what they saw in Oculus and decided that they really wanted to put their weight behind it, because they’re a heavyweight and we were such a tiny movie. It was really exciting. So that’s been wonderful. As a horror fan, I love what they do for the genre and that their name is on this movie is just really kind of surreal.

With Somnia, it’s the second time I’ve gotten to work with most of the people from Oculus, same DP, same producer, a lot of the same department heads. It was kind of a family reunion at that point. Somnia has been the sentimental favorite of my scripts for about six years and I always wanted to get the movie made and did not think anybody would make it because it’s a more challenging movie then Oculus in a lot of ways. It has a lot more heart. Its emotional center is much more kind of beautiful and fragile. There was a lot of discouragement when we took that out as a spec script because people reacted against the emotional component … (they thought it might) alienate a lot of horror fans. I disagree with that. I think people respond really positively to that. So it was really gratifying to be able to make that film. It’s certainly the most ambitious thing I’ve gotten to work on across the board. And that we were able to go into production before Oculus was released was really great, because it could go either way when Oculus comes out.

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Is Somnia still in the horror genre?

It is. It’s got some absolutely definite horror elements to it, but there’s a whole other gear to it that’s very different. Oculus is very intense and bleak and kind of ultimately hopeless. Somnia is fragile and hopeful and kind of beautiful at the end of the day. We would pitch it as a beautiful horror. It was really hard to compare it to something else so it’s a risky movie, because I don’t know how it will go over. But at least nobody can come back at the end and be like, “Oh, you’re just rehashing Oculus.” This has always been kind of a very different little project and I hope it connects with people. I really do. I guess we’ll find out.

Oculus is out in theaters now.

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