Director Mike Flanagan has seen his star steadily rise, and he owes some of that to time he’s spent in Canada. His 2011 feature debut Absentia played Toronto After Dark, while in 2013 his beautifully realized thriller Oculus premiered as part of TIFF’s Midnight Madness slate. Since then he’s seen increasing success with the likes of Gerald’s Game, Ouija: Origin of Evil and Hush, developing his strong and unique voice within the genre field. His latest is his highest profile film yet: Doctor Sleep a companion film (not, for reasons discussed below, a “sequel”) to the Stephen King written book and Stanley Kubrick directed film The Shining.
It’s more than easy to be jaded about the current state of filmmaking (we’re going to leave aside what constitutes being “cinematic” in a landscape of blockbusters), but what’s immediately clear is that the intelligence and passion Flanagan brings to his adaptation is very much schooled by the works of masters like Kubrick. Equally clear is the fact that while he’s intensely appreciative of the source material, he’s not slavish to what came before, providing a perfect mix where with open eyes he looks at what came before and holds the courage (rather than hubris) to make his new film very much his own. Essentially, he’s exactly the person you’d want to find this kind of success, a writer/director who knows full well how rare and wonderful it is to fulfill one’s dreams by telling these kind of stories, ambitious yet humble, and above all excited to take fellow fans along for the ride.
Flanagan spoke to That Shelf just prior the film’s release, and we were seated in a local bar that’s made up to look like the Colorado Lounge at The Overlook. The setting was as warm and welcoming as the conversation and towards the end a surprise guest came along to extend our chat.
Jason Gorber: Last time I saw you we were walking the streets of Toronto heading to a Midnight Madness party. How has the ride been since you screened Oculus in 2013?
Mike Flanagan: I was talking about that when I got here, that things have been insane. I feel like I walked into that Midnight Madness screening and I didn’t have a career. I walked out, and I did. And it’s just been one kind of dream come true after another since then.
There’s no reason you should remember this, but we were nerding out hard about Hitchcock and Kubrick as we walked.
Mike: I do remember that!
We were talking about how incorporated elements of this stuff in Oculus while of course making the vision your own.
Mike: I’m sure we talked about this too, that I had only sold that film because I described the mirror as a portable Overlook.
With Doctor Sleep you have two pressures from the past: You have the original film and the original book, and they’re often contradictory in tone. Could you talk about navigating the two poles of King and Kubrick?
Mike: It was incredibly intimidating. I haven’t slept well since this started. But the project represented a tug of war that I’ve had in my own head, just as a fan, since I was a kid. When I first heard that Stephen King didn’t like The Shining, I had this kind of ache. You just want mommy and daddy to get back together! I think the only way to really talk about how it felt to try to balance them. I’ve been stalking the reviews, and somebody called the making of this movie a Parent Trap. That’s how it felt! If the word sequel ever popped into my head I’d start to feel like I was going to throw up. But if I thought of it as a descendant, that made it easier. It’s going to have the DNA of both of its parents, and it’s going to try to honour both of its parents. But it also needs to carve out its own way in the world and its own identity.
It seems as if the film is trying to deal with the supernatural and the other elements that are very Stephen King, and the much more cerebral, much more dynastic dynamics of Kubrick.
Mike: There’s a wonderful blueprint in place that King wrote for Doctor Sleep. The fact that he waited so long to revisit Danny made it easier. If he had written a sequel two or three years after the fact then you’re walking in the footprints in the snow at that point. With The Shining King is writing about how afraid he is of what his alcoholism will do to his family, at a time when his alcoholism is not under his control. King writes Doctor Sleep with decades of sobriety behind him, and at a time when his own kids are grown up now and are about the age that he was when he was wrestling with all of that. He’s looking at them and he’s thinking about recovery, so you’re actually kind of looking at this whole facet of his life, on both sides, with this huge expanse of time in between. It’s amazing. Then you’re looking at it all through the lenses of Kubrick. That was the weird, kind of schizophrenic thing I had, in reading this beautiful book and having nothing but Kubrickian images in my head. I figured if it was possible to do, it would make a cool movie.
I’m not Kubrick, I’m never going to be, there’s no upside in even trying to be, so instead, I can pay tribute to Kubrick. I can love Kubrick with every shot of this movie.
– Mike Flanagan
At its best the film lets us know we’re in on that struggle. It’s that we know that you know that we know what you’re working with.
Mike: I want you guys to know that I’m with you. I worship this film just as much, and yes, I’ve seen it a million times at this point.
But how do you make it your own? How did you make it your own?
Mike: I don’t know. Luckily, with the “A” storyline – Dan, Abra and Rose – Kubrick never took a swing at that as it wasn’t even a gleam in King’s eye. That was all virgin territory, and that’s most of the story. Beyond that, I come from the place of being more aware than anyone else how not Stanley Kubrick I am. There is an overwhelming knowledge that I may never aspire to operate at a fraction of the level that he operated on. That takes pressure off. I’m not Kubrick, I’m never going to be, there’s no upside in even trying to be, so instead, I can pay tribute to Kubrick. I can love Kubrick with every shot of this movie, but I can still kind of do my own thing. That’s the hard part.
Can you talk about walking on the set of The Overlook and just having that moment of connection?
Mike: That’s one of the most profound moments of my life. I’d been there at every step of the way. We had access to his production designs and blueprints, which was already crazy, down to his handwritten annotations on them and I’m just poring over them.
I’m guessing you didn’t shoot at Elstree and burn the studio down delaying a Star Wars movie, huh?
Mike: I pitched that, but the studio was against it.
I bet it looked pretty great in person.
Mike: I saw it first as formless wood. When all of the layers came up, and all of the dressing was in and all of the details were done, I turned the corner and I walked into the Colorado Lounge for the first time and just grinned. I had a hard time talking. I saw this exact thing happen to so many members of our crew and our cast. Whenever one of our actors would come to set and walking over to stage three for the first time, I had to go to watch their face. The Overlook Hotel exists in such incredible detail in our memory and imagination, and that’s the power of Kubrick, he built that space in our brain. You walk into the set of the Overlook and it’s like walking into your own memory. You know where everything is.
I think some miss that’s a central plot point of The Shining, that in many ways your film lives inside the memory of this hotel.
Mike: One of my favourite things to shoot in the whole film is (adult) Dan just walking around. That to me was it.
You were letting the place wake it up again.
I’m never going to feel the way I felt when I sat down on a Big Wheel and rode through the Colorado Lounge in the Overlook Hotel.
– Mike Flanagan
Mike: Gotta wake it up! He’s taking his time. Ewan knew intuitively to do. Every little light comes on kind of quietly. I felt like we were tiptoeing through and that was the only way to go. On top of that, there was a celebratory feeling that also kicked in. We’re all walking through and giggling like kids in this environment. We built an adult-sized big wheel because we had to ride it around. Because how are you not? When are you going to be in the Overlook Hotel again? We all did, the cast and crew. We stayed after wrap and all took turns. I’ve got video on my phone of Rebecca Ferguson doing it – I ran behind her with the camera trying to do the shot and ride all the way around. They turned off the lights because we had overstayed our welcome. The crew just lit it with our phones! We’re in the pitch black in the Overlook, still on the damned Big Wheel, with Ewan MacGregor riding around in the dark, just laughing like a kid. That’s the amazing thing about The Overlook. Horrible things happened there, and for people like me who saw The Shining when we were too young to see it, it’s a traumatic experience. Yet when we see it, when we’re in that environment again, and when those spaces come up on a movie screen, we’re delighted. What is that about? How is it that this film, which contains the depiction of so many horrible things, can be so beautiful and so delightful? I’ve never had the good fortune to have this experience at work before, and I don’t think I ever will again. I’ll never feel the way I felt for the rest of my life, no matter what other movies I get to do. I’m never going to feel the way I felt when I sat down on a Big Wheel and rode through the Colorado Lounge in the Overlook Hotel.
Can you talk about the casting and bringing all of these people on board?
Mike: We met a bunch of actors for Dan. What I loved about Ewan MacGregor is that while we talked about The Shining, because it was unavoidable, he very quickly said ok, let’s stop talking about the source, let’s talk about Alcoholics Anonymous, about recovery. He wanted to talk about responsibility, because that’s what this movie is about. He was focused on this crawl, as he put it, that we meet Dan at rock bottom and the whole movie is him crawling up a cliff face to find a purpose. I thought that was beautiful. Ewan to me was the right person for that because that was where his focus and priorities were.
He has some experience with stepping in to a mythic saga.
Mike: He absolutely does. I would never bring up Star Wars, I didn’t have the guts. I kind of knew when some of the other crew had done it, you could see the look from Ewan that was like, leave it alone. Kids would bring it up though. We were shooting in Teeny Town, with all of these kids on the train that he was driving. As he came around the corner and they saw him for the first time, the whole train erupted, and the kids shouted, Obi-Wan! He smiled and he went kid to kid and crouched down, shook their hand, and answered every question they asked. They wondered had he met Chewbacca? He said “yes, I’ve met Chewbacca,” and he did a little impression. They asked “what’s Yoda like to work with?” And he said “Yoda’s very short but he’s very smart.” The generosity he had with the kids was most endearing. He didn’t have to do that, but he did. And I think that’s kind of who Ewan is for me.
Rose the Hat was one of the best King antagonists I’d seen on the page in a long time when I read the book. Finding Rose I thought was going to be hard until I met Rebecca Ferguson. And ten seconds into the audition, I was like, oh, she just is Rose. She’s one of the most charming people I’ve ever met, she’s a force of nature. We talked about what makes a great villain, and she said I don’t think that’s the right question, because she’s not the villain in her mind. Rose is the hero of the story – she will do anything to protect her family. The villains are Dan and Abra, who are trying to kill her family. That’s how she approached this because otherwise how else to rationalize these horrible things she does?
Kyliegh Curran was one of 900 kids we looked at for Abra. Nine. Hundred. Kids. Some I’d worked with before, some of which I was really kind of rooting for. A lot of which had a lot of experience. Kyliegh had never done a movie and didn’t have a big agency behind her, and lived 15 minutes away from our production studio. She just sent her tape in. That thing I think every actor who sends their tape off into the abyss of the casting world hopes happens, that it rises up the ranks and makes it all the way up to the top. I think maybe once or twice in my career I’ll get to see a star be born like that. But I absolutely feel I saw that happen with Kylie. I can’t wait to see what happens to her because I think she’s incredible.
Finally, what stuff do you collect and keep on That Shelf in your home?
Mike: My wife [Kate Siegel] is in the other room. Come here! We have a whole room, she calls it my nerd room. It’s so many things. On one shelf it’s props from my movies. We’ve got her gloves from Hill House.
Kate Siegel: We’ve got the crossbow from Hush.
Mike: …and the masks from Hush
Kate: We’ve got two Oculus mirrors.
Mike: Well, one from the feature, and then I’ve got the one from the short.
So, the Oculii…
Mike: [Laughs] On top of that, there’s the stuff that she gets really mad at because the kids play with it.
Kate: Oh my God, we’ve got a glove made of knives.
Mike: No, we’ve got Freddy’s glove [from Nightmare on Elm Street] and it’s signed by Robert England and Heather [Langenkamp]
Kate: We have a machete!
Mike: Yeah, well it’s not a machete, it’s the stunt sword from Terrence Malick’s The New World
Kate: We also have a bust of the Moonlight Man [from Gerald’s Game]. We have two infants, so it’s all going to be good.
Mike: For the kids, because they’re lower to the ground, I have a Gizmo and Stripe from Gremlins. I have the clown from Poltergeist. I have a Jason Voorhees mask that’s signed by all of the actors who’ve played Jason.
Kate: We have all the Funko Pop dolls of every doctor and companion from Doctor Who. We have various Jaws memorabilia, including signed photos and a life size jaw of a great white shark.
Mike: No that’s an actual jaw, it’s not life size, that’s a great white jaw, that’s a real one.
Kate: Wouldn’t it be life sized?
Mike: Well, it’s just a jaw! The big one that I can’t stop collecting are these figures by Readful Things. I can’t get enough of those! He’s made a few of my characters and I’m always asking if I buy them. I just got one from Jaws Revenge, I got a Hoagie. It’s amazing because his hair is wet and his shirt is dry, even on the figure. It’s awesome.
Kate: What about the axe?
Mike: Oh, I have the stunt axe that Ewan carries in Doctor Sleep. I have that framed above my desk.
Kate: It’s a very safe room for children. It’s everyone’s favourite room.
Instead of that shelf, can I have the whole room?
– Mike Flanagan
Mike: When we moved into the house, it was like, instead of that shelf, can I have the whole room? Can it just be every square inch of the room? Kate’s been very patient and generous about that.
Kate: Most times, if you come to our house and you are looking for Mike, he’s standing in the centre of the room with his arms folded over his chest looking around, concerned and nodding to himself. And then, he’ll walk over to the shelf and he’ll move something about a half a centimeter and then he’ll walk back and he’ll nod more vigorously and he’ll look at me and point and I’ll go, yes, it looks much better
Mike: Yeah, I found the right spot.
I ask this question a lot, and I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a better answer. Thank you guys so much!
Doctor Sleep opens in theatres on Friday.