The Haunting Of Hill House: Mike Flanagan interview “my first response was that you couldn’t do it”

With Netflix's chilling new adaptation of Shirley Jackson's classic novel out today, we chat to writer-director Mike Flanagan...

Sandwiched between his Stephen King adaptations, last year’s Gerald’s Game and the currently in-production The Shining follow-on Doctor Sleep, Mike Flanagan found time to put together a quick ten-hour adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s spectacular ghost story The Haunting Of Hill House. Somewhere in amongst all that he might even have taken an afternoon off. Had a coffee and read a book, just for pleasure, not even because he’s turning it into a movie.

Hardly one to stand still for too long, Flanagan has quickly built a reputation as one of horror’s most prolific directors of good movies. That does seem to be the trick, too. It’s one thing to turn around a lot of films, but quite another for them to be any good. But whether it’s the creepy atmosphere of the Karen Gillan starring Oculus, the spookshow scares of Ouija: Origin Of Evil or the inventive slasher thrills of Hush, Flanagan always brings a standard of quality and a thoughtful approach to the genre.

His adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House, his first TV series, is less a tale of spectres and ghouls than it is a story of sadness and tragedy. It’s a sprawling, twisting take on families and what it means to be haunted. The stand out of the director’s career to date, it comes highly recommended by us here at Den of Geek.

Ahead of the launch of the series, which arrives on Netflix today, we were able to snag some time with Mike Flanagan on the phone to have a chat about the show. Here’s how we got on.

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You’re shooting Doctor Sleep now. Is that right?

I am. And this is my only real day off, so I’m just kind of blinking my way back into a world outside of Doctor Sleep. We just finished our first week and it was really immersive and very intense. But it’s all good.

Well I’m pleased that you get to spend your only day off doing press. That’s really exciting for you.

(Laughs) I’m thrilled to, actually. It’s nice to think about something other than Doctor Sleep at the moment.

We’re here to talk about The Haunting Of Hill House. Your show is really good, but it’s very different from the book. The book is, rather than the recipe, it’s like an ingredient in your show. How did you come to the decision that you would use the book like that?

Well, Amblin Partners first approached me about the show and they said ‘we want to adapt The Haunting Of Hill House for television’, and I’m familiar with the book, deeply familiar with the book since I was a child. My first response was that you couldn’t do it. It doesn’t fit a ten-hour format.

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My second response was, Robert Wise already did it just about perfectly. I didn’t necessarily think there was any upside in trying to out-adapt Robert Wise.

As I was tasked to go off and think about how this could be expanded into a series, for me it was more interesting to break down the book and pull out the characters and the themes and individual moments and pieces of prose, even, that had really stuck with me, and try to rearrange it. Look at it as a remix, because I didn’t know how else we could ever, because it fits so perfectly into a feature film format. There’s just enough material in the book to make an amazing movie.

But I thought that with the show, if we didn’t do something expansive it would never have held up for ten hours.

So that was the thinking at first and then it became more of a challenge to try not to infuriate the fans of the book while knowing that we were walking head first into an adaptation that was way more of a riff than it was an adaptation. And I don’t know how that will go. I’m curious to see how everybody feels about it.

But the show was made by people that love Shirley Jackson and love the book. For me it really started from a place of saying I don’t know that I can do it better than Bob Wise did it, so why try to walk that same path again?

Let’s hope that Shirley Jackson’s fans aren’t as aggressive as Star Wars fans.

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I can only hope. I guess we’ll see. I’m gonna turn off the internet when the show comes out.

The writing on this show fascinates me. Your timeline management must have been a nightmare. How did you do it?

Oh, it was a nightmare. I remember our writers’ room was surrounded on all sides by whiteboards and we had mapped out the structure of the season. Whenever you see those movies about those crazy people who are putting together a conspiracy theory and they’re tying together red string to push pins on a big board, that’s kind of what the writers’ room felt like.

It was a very complex structure and that’s something that television, I think, allows for in a way that you never get an opportunity to do in a feature film. Show like Lost and Westworld had already played around with timelines so beautifully that it was just, we can go for it and tell the story in the way that we think is going to be the most compelling as opposed to trying to hold someone’s hand through a linear storyline.

So yeah, it was a total headache but worth it, for me. I was really thrilled with our structure.

So it wasn’t a case of ‘we know we want all of these scenes and we can fit them together in the edit’? Did the scripts accurately hold everything?

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Oh they did, yeah. The edits are pretty literal interpretations of the scripts. But the other benefit to how we sold the show and to the way that Netflix works was that we never had to do the thing that they do at a network television show, where you break apart your pilot and each episode is subject to real time feedback, where you’re often asked to change course narratively as you’re going because people are reacting to the series.

We knew that this was all going to be released at once, in one big chunk, and when they picked up the show and ordered the season, that meant we could write all the scripts the way they wanted to be written, the way they fit together, and we never had to change. We never had to focus group it or react to the audience while we were going.

So if you look at the scripts it looks like it’s just a ten hour movie. That’s the way we approached it.

I’m always curious with Netflix about the episode lengths, another way it’s different from network television where you have more leeway. How does that work? Does Netflix just trust you or are there rules?

There’s a minimum, for sure. They have a total minimum time where they buy ten episodes of something they expect it to be a certain length in total. What you do within that is kind of up to you. You could have an episode that’s half an hour long, you could have an episode that’s eighty minutes long as long as it balances out at the end.

And we did that, we fluctuated a bit. Our fifth episode the rough cut was essentially a feature film and our eighth episode the rough cut was barely forty minutes. That was kind of fun, you didn’t have to stretch or cut a story to fit a prescribed run time. You really just kind of let each episode have its own identity and timing. It ended when it felt appropriate to end instead of having to jam it into a template. So it was actually pretty great for us.

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I’m curious about your writers’ room. There are only two credited writers, yourself and Meredith Averill. So how many people do you have in there and how does it work?

We had a good amount. I’m surprised they only sent those two names. They’re all credited in the individual episodes. There’s me, Meredith, Jeff Howard who I’ve written with a bunch in the feature world, Liz Phang, Scott Kosar, Charise Castro Smith. It was a really phenomenal room because we had a very diverse room. People from very different backgrounds.

But the thing we all had in common was an interest in dysfunctional family and as everybody came in, it felt actually kind of a shame to have to assign episodes for individual credit as we would go because we all broke the season together for the first month we were in there. Just on the board, up on the wall. It was very difficult for me to point at an episode and say ‘well this one belongs to one of the writers, this one belongs to another one’. Everyone was throwing themselves into every episode, so it was kind of arbitrary how we handed out the assignments.

But it’s the first time I’ve ever gotten to work in a writers’ room. Typically, I’m off in a vacuum in the feature world. I came out of the experience wanting to have a room full of writers for everything I do, even if it’s just a movie, because the ideas are so much better and it challenges the story in a beautiful way to make it resonate. Because you can make it resonate all the way across the table, just speak to the writers in your room, then you’re onto something.

It was really fascinating to me to go through that for the first time.

You know, I pulled the credits from the IMDb rather than the individual episodes, so that’d be my error.

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Your show has a lot of visual tricks and it looks very interesting. I can write but I can’t draw, so I always find it really interesting that some writers can communicate visual ideas that then can become something I can watch. Can you tell me anything about how you were able to do that on this?

Certainly. This was my seventh collaboration with Michael Fimognari, my director of photography, and we have a really specific process that we’ve honed over the years on the various movies.

We shot-list every shot on the project from start to finish before we get to set. And a lot of that, drawing things out, making sure that the visual language of the show is consistent. With this one we spent a couple of months before we started shooting trying to get as many scripts shot listed as we could. Then we’d shoot all week long and then go in on the weekends to try to stay ahead. So I think at one point I went from mid-January to mid-April without a day off just to stay on top of the shot-list.

Michael is an incredible DP and has such a love for a variety of movies. He doesn’t come from horror which is why I think we get along so well. We always approach it making reference to films that are decidedly not in the genre. The thing we want to avoid is that it just looks, quote/unquote, like a horror show.

Horror tends to turn the lights off. Even in hospitals and banks, all of a sudden you’ve got this single hanging bulb that the doctors are working by. I think a lot of films will try to take their horror onto the aesthetic in a way that doesn’t feel relatable, that says this is a different world, this is some kind of heightened reality. And for us, we want to ground it. So I credit him with the majority of the beauty of this show. I think he did a remarkable job.

Can you tell me about Hill House, where you shot? That place is incredible looking.

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Yeah. The interiors were built on a stage after we found that incredible exterior. That house, we didn’t touch it. It’s just inexplicably nestled out in the middle of nowhere in Georgia.

We scouted for about a month and a half trying to find our Hill House, which is a struggle in the south because everything looks like this sprawling southern plantation. Then we just found this house that was so weird, it’s so schizophrenic in its architecture. Our location scouts literally stumbled upon it out there in the woods. The whole crew piled in a van to go look at it, I remember getting out and walking a slow circle around it the first time, it seemed to evoke everything that I felt when I was reading the book. That his house was just off, it was schizophrenic. The more you looked at it the less sense it made. That was just a very fortunate find for us.

And can you tell me a little bit about the staircase you made, the staircase being a key element of both the book and your show?

Oh yeah. There’s no way we were going to make this without having that beautiful spiral staircase. It’s such a striking and iconic image in the book. And you know Wise had done it so beautifully too. So we built it. It’s such a remarkable thing because we managed to make it, I think it’s three stories tall, and when we would go up the stairs the cast would start to feel a little bit of vertigo. Kind of up by the ceiling of the sound stage, you can see through it and as you look down at your feet you can see the floor through the whole thing. It just seems like this very strange vortex, this spiral that seems endless when you’re at the very top of it.

It’s such an incredible part of Shirley Jackson’s world that we had to bring that back. I think the only difference with ours was that we couldn’t make it unsafe as it felt in the Bob Wise movie just because we had so much traffic on it. But it was a very striking thing, I thought.

The final piece of set design I want to ask you about, and I apologise because this is the dumbest question you’re going to get asked in relation to your show, you had a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pillow case in there! How did that end up in there?

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That actually came out of, our young actor Julian Hilliard is a big Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan. And he’s also playing with Ninja Turtles toys in episode two when you first see him out playing in the yard*. That was just a treat for Julian that he could have that. I wanted to do something for the kids that kind of brought a very recognisable modern, or somewhat modern, influence into such a Gothic house and that one just made me laugh.

There’s something particularly strange about taking something so cartoony and something so embedded in pop culture and shunting it into the middle of this really dark and strange environment. I just really liked it.

And Julian, we found, was really grateful to be able to do his work and be surrounded by the Turtles. He just loves them. That was more about him than anything.

How is it shooting horror with kids?

It’s a challenge, but it’s also one of the things I love most about this business. I’ve gotten to work with some wonderful young actors. Jacob Trembley and Lulu Wilson and Annalise Basso. I’ve gotten to work with these kids that are at a level of honesty and fearlessness that we lose as we get older. If you find the right kid it really inspires the adults around them because kids are completely fearless in the way they interpret their job. They’re just playing, they’re just getting to make believe.

The scariest stuff in the show is the most fun for the kids. They love the ghosts on the set. There’s nothing scary about it on set. You see this guy on wires floating around and everybody is laughing with them and the kids are pushing him back and forth. Then, on screen, we hope to make it scary.

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But kids bring an excitement and an authenticity to a set that we lose as we get older. It’s just really refreshing, always, to have that kind of perspective on set. It just reminds us that we are all very lucky to just make believe for a living.

That’s interesting about the set. Some of your show is really affecting and you have some really emotionally impactful stuff. How does that affect the set?

It can spill over. Something I’ve learned on this show, more than anything else I’ve worked on, it can really colour everyone’s experience.

I think our grown-up cast, by about the fifth month of production, everybody was starting to get dark. Everybody was getting a bit depressed. And the content of the show, I think, is entirely to blame for that. It gets in there. We all have a great time doing what we do, but on a schedule like this when we’re shooting for a hundred days, it can really take a toll.

In the past it’s always been fine because there’s always been a light at the end of the tunnel, and you know the movie’s gonna wrap in two weeks and you go dark when you need to but you come out into the light rather quickly.

On a long format like this it can get rough, so the set itself turns into a really goofy place. You try to compensate by just having as much humour and lightness around when the camera isn’t rolling, or else all of us would have just succumbed to a really intense depression going through it.

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So the set turned out to be a pretty goofy and hilarious place. I’ve heard from friends who make comedies that it’s the opposite in their world. The funniest movies that you’ll ever see, the sets are morose. With horror, people seem to be laughing a lot. It’s a really weird contradiction but I love that.

I think we’re coming to the end of my time. So, for my final question, I recently moved. I’d been in my previous place for about ten years and so moving out was a real mission. And watching this, I found that even as the haunting got worse, I found myself thinking, is it worse than moving though? What would be worse; living in a haunted house or having to move?

Oh having to move is totally worse. It’s funny, I had to move in the middle of production. It’s a nightmare. You’re right; that is the scariest thing that you can deal with, and a level of stress that I think is only matched by the arrival of a new child or a serious loss in the family. Moving is brutal.

I had to move out of the house that I had been in for the last three years, so I had to move while my wife was here in Georgia with me, and my son was here. We had to fly back and forth to LA and try to get into a new house and it was just murder.

But that’s the scariest thing out there, no doubt.

Mike Flanagan, thank you very much!

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The Haunting Of Hill House premieres on Netflix on Friday the 12th of October.

* – That’d be Mutagen Man and, I believe, Slash; The Evil Turtle from Dimension X.