Mike Flanagan interview: Ouija: Origin Of Evil, Halloween

Director Mike Flanagan chats to us about making a sequel to Ouija, and those Halloween rumours...

Many horror fans were unsurprised but unattracted by the prospect of a sequel to Ouija… until it was announced who would be writing and directing. Mike Flanagan has very quickly become a bit of a star in the horror world, and deservedly so. His films are brilliantly well-made, his ideas are complex, and he’s got great storytelling instincts.

And, for what it’s worth, his Ouija sequel is actually a prequel, being set in the late 60s. But it’s not just your typical period piece where a setting in time is evoked through costume, production design, music and, if you’re lucky, the cinematography. Flanagan took one wild step beyond with his movie, and I started by asking him about this when we talked last week.

Tell me if I’m mad. I saw this film digitally but… well, it looked like it was pretending to be a physical print, right down to cigarette burns in the corner. Did you really do that?

We did! We also put in dust on the negative, we simulated warping of the optical audio track, and we also built in an effect where it looks like the reel slightly jumps the gate.

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I knew it!

Yeah, we really went for that.

It’s definitely very subtle but I could feel the little bit of weave and jump in there and everything. That’s really something. But… well, come on. Explain yourself.

Haha! Well, one of the things, when I started working on this, is that I knew I wanted to recreate the feeling I had when I first discovered horror movies. I knew I was making this for a younger audience, and I knew there was a stigma about PG-13 horror, but I was thinking about movies like The Changeling, Watcher In The Woods and Poltergeist.

Mike Fimognari, my DP, and I were, from the beginning: “we want to make this an immersive experience, tapping into our memories of watching movies when we were young as much as possible”, and it snowballed.

We made sure to use zooms rather than the steadicam that everyone is so used to, we brought in split diopters which have kind of fallen out of vogue. By the time we had gotten into post, and Universal had given us their classic logo, I was “you know, I want to feel the reel change. It’s been so long since I’ve seen one.” Then we got a bit carried away, I think, trying to make it as authentic as we could, how I remember seeing movies when I was younger.

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You’re a madman but I love it. It tells you something, doesn’t it, when you can feel the reel change, even when you get the little warning that the reel is about to change, it clues you into the rhythmic change that’s about to happen. Did you leave the reel changes where they would have been, or did you shift them around for effect, to exploit this impact?

We left them where the reels had actually fallen off in editorial, but what we did, as you would have had to back then, was make sure the music didn’t carry over the reel change. We couldn’t have specific audio carry over with feel. But that’s genuinely where all of the reel changes fell in the edit.

There’s a lucky rhythm to when the reels change. So many movies adhere to a basic structure that the reel changes, over the years, have naturally snapped in, every fifteen minutes or so, there’s a pop to it.

I’m going to preface my following question by saying that I believe you are an exceptionally talented filmmaker and that I love your films but… well, there’s something about zooms that set my teeth on edge. When I saw the zooms starting in your film, I could appreciate them as stylistic pastiche but I think… well, I think the steadicam has allowed us to come on a bit since then. Do you think some of these ‘retro’ choices you’ve made for the film are, in some sense, a compromise?

A compromise? I wouldn’t say that. When it comes to film language, especially with establishing shots, you’re correct. Aesthetically, we have moved beyond that in a big way. The ease with which we got to move a dolly and the steadicam becoming a thing definitely changed the way movies look. For this one, the zoom definitely creates a certain feeling. I think it can be a positive one, it can be nostalgiac, or it can really feel out of sync with the contemporary language of film.

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But it wasn’t a compromise, I was fighting for those zooms against a much more familiar aesthetic, to just drop it on a steadicam. I just didn’t want anything to look and feel like every other horror movie being made these days. I wanted it to feel like The Changeling, The Exorcist, or how Poltergeist felt to me. It was certainly a very conscious choice and I hope people enjoy it, but I will understand if it knocks them out of the film a little bit, it’s certainly a different language than what we’ve grown into.

And the colour palette is obviously a big part of creating this nostalgic feeling. I don’t know if you’d monkeyed about with the colour in the old Universal Logo at the start, but it felt different than I remember it, slightly more green. What are some of the ideas you had about colour in this film?

We didn’t affect the logo, we just went with the file Universal provided. After that, though, we were definitely playing with colour quite a bit.

There’s a gravity in contemporary horror towards very cool blues, almost cobalt, an exaggeration that people are using a lot. In thinking about the kind of movies we were trying to emulate, they had a much warmer palette. There was a gloss that I think has gone by the wayside in favour of a grungier horror aesthetic, something the use from the very beginning. I never shoot my movies like I’m shooting ‘a horror movie’, I shoot them like dramas. Dramas and then something horrible happens.

Fimognari, who had done three of my movies prior to this, and I had a lot of discussion about how we wanted the colour to feel. Especially towards the end of act two, where there’s a lot of golden colours and warm colour temperatures definitely evoke the feeling we were going for. It’s a little different, I think, especially with this being a Platinum Dunes horror movie. They have a palette.

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The kings of cobalt.

Yeah, exactly. We feel very separate from that. We wanted to make a beautiful film.

What was the brief here? Did you autonomously pitch a plotline that dovetailed into the previous Ouija or was that a restriction placed upon you?

There wasn’t much pressure at all to connect to the previous movie. In a lot of ways the looked at this as an opportunity to step away from the original film, for a lot of reasons, but everybody involved in making the movie, even Jason Blum [producer], has acknowledged that the first Ouija film was not their finest hour. It had done so well that it made a sequel inevitable but what really impressed me when I was approached about this was that nobody wanted to just make a ‘smash and grab’ sequel.

They just wanted this film to be as good as it could be, and I found that attitude quite unsual for Hollywood. We had a difficult discussion at the beginning about whether we’d ignore the first film entirely or put a little bit into it. What I didn’t want to do, when so many people had gone out to see the first film, its box-office numbers are staggering, is that I didn’t want to entirely divorce from that material. At the same time, I wanted our connection to the first film to not take away from this one being a brand new experience. I wanted people who had both seen and not seen first film to enjoy it. It was fun to draw some connections, here and there, but it certainly wasn’t our biggest priority.

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Talking of Jason Blum, as you did there, I saw a quote surface recently where he said, of the new Halloween film, “We thought we had a filmmaker and an approach and we don’t.” Is that a reference to you?

It’s not. Our conversations about Halloween never got that far. I know he’s been talking to a number of filmmakers about that one, but he really wants to be sure that he doesn’t jump the gun. They’re going to take the time to do it right. Our talks about that project were very early and very cursory, and I know he got further down the road with other filmmakers. I do know his heart is in the right place.

Asking filmmakers to initiate the concepts can seem revolutionary but it shouldn’t, should it? This should always be the way it is.

The challenge with Halloween is stepping into the shadow of a perfect movie. This will really intimidating, I think, for any filmmaker, to try and come into that universe and go toe-to-toe with Carpenter. That’s what intimidated me. I don’t see a world where I’m going to be able to make a movie one half as good as John Carpenter did the first time. I think Blum’s instincts are right-on in allowing somebody to come up with an amazing vision for the film before they get started, rather than saying “This is what our marketing department suggests.” He’s putting a lot of trust in the fans, really, because any filmmaker they will talk to about this, I should think, will have been a life-long fan of the film.

You would hope so. This makes me think, though, about what you’re doing next. The information out there says it’s going to be Gerald’s Game and I almost think “I’d rather see what comes out of Mike’s own head.” I think I’d maybe rather see the new Absentia or Oculus, almost, rather than an adaptation, a story I can already be told perfectly well by the original book.

Sure. My gravity is always towards original material but Gerald’s Game, I read it when I was nineteen years old, I got to the end and had gooseflesh up and down my arms and the back of my neck, I put it down and said “That’s one of my favourite Stephen King novels… it’s also unfilmable.” For more than a decade I came back to thinking about how to film it, how to crack it. In a lot of ways it’s going to feel like an original. It’s been such a part of my creative life for so long, I don’t know if there’s a movie I ever wanted to make more than I wanted to make that one.

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But I hear you, and typically I want to do original material as much as possible.

The key to adapting Gerald’s Game, on a level, must be on the script page, but is there a visual level that you have conceived for the film already? Are you clear on how it looks and operates cinematically?

I’ve been watching the movie in my head for years, it’s was simply a case of writing it down. That is my next movie, and I’ve never been more prepared for a movie, but I’ve also never had such a challenge. It’s going to be fascinating. In one way, all of the work I have done has been leading up to this.

What does Jeff Howard bring to your films? Can you sum it up?

Jeff and I have been writing together since 2004. At last count we had written something like 22 scripts together. We have developed a telepathy over the years, and while it’s very difficult to retain objectivity about a project when you’re in a vacuum, Jeff and I can do that for each other. He brings a lot in his voice, his characterisations, and we have found a rhythm in which we improve each other’s work.

But it’s not just Jeff. Trevor Macy has been producing my films since Oculus, and even on Ouija where there’s a much more crowded producer pool, he came on as a co-EP. Mike Fimognari has been with me since Oculus, with the one exception being Hush because he was on another job. My production designer, Patricio Farrell, has done several movies with me, and my costume designer Lynn Falconer, the makeup people too… I try to keep a family. That, I think, elevates everything.

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They are wonderful artists in their own right, we know eachother’s strengths and weaknesses and we’ve developed a shorthand. A lot of things that otherwise would be impossible become feasible. I’m a big believer in building a crew. Movies are the most collaborative art form at the tend of the world, and it takes hundreds of people to make one. At the end of the day, I get the lion’s share of praise or blame but everybody on the ground knows that it was all of us.

Jeff goes right back before all of that. Even before I was able to make movies, it was the two of us in a garage trying to write. We’re a real machine at this point.

You’re your own editor. Would you ever be tempted to bring another editor in, to get another voice in the collaboration?

I’d certainly be open to it given the right project. I’ve never been tempted to do it, and I think the reason is simply that, before I made money writing and directing movies, I was making my living as an editor. That was where I started, and it’s where I’m most at home. All of my other decisions, in writing or on set, are made to serve me in the cutting room.

Typically, if I were to bring somebody else on, we’d just spend an enormous amount of time talking about how it all fits when I could have just sat down and done it myself. I’ve had, over the years, calls when my footage comes in, a panic where I’m told “There’s not enough here, not enough to cut the movie together” and I have to explain “No, it’s fine, it’s like Ikea furniture. Everything you need is there but nothing else. It has to be put together in a very specific way or it won’t work.”

I relish the opportunity to stay with a project from cradle to grave and I’d be loath to give that up but as I get more chances to make more movies, and these movies get closer to eachother, then, if I could find the right editor, I’d be open to it. So far, however, they haven’t been able to get me out of the cutting room.

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I’m glad of it. Mike Flanagan, thank you very much.

Ouija: Origin Of Evil is in UK cinemas from October 21st.