Interview: Mike Flanagan

Mike Flanagan - Oculus

Mike Flanagan is currently en route to another city to promote his movie. It’s opening the following day and he’s still trying to process everything he has done over the past few months. He’s incredibly alert, joking, and adorably dorky but even he admits that he’s just about ready for all of the craziness to be over.

It’s a craziness that started last September back at TIFF when his film Oculus (in theatres tomorrow) debuted as part of the Midnight Madness program and built a lot of buzz around it. Based around an original short that Flanagan made for only $1,500 that he made in 2005, the story (which initially only had a single character in it) expanded to become the story of a brother and sister named Kaylie and Tim (Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan and Australian actor Brenton Thwaites) who were separated as a kids when their parents (Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff and veteran character actor Rory Cochrane) went insane. Kaylie was sent to live in foster care, while Tim was committed to an asylum for shooting their father. The reason for the madness: a demonic mirror that reflects the darkest desires of the human soul and drives all who gaze into it to the point of madness and death. The determined Kaylie has recruited the skeptical Tim to help her destroy the mirror once and for all.

Flanagan graciously made some time available to us through all the pre-release chaos to talk about adapting his short to feature length, why it’s hard to pitch a movie about a killer mirror, how Karen and Brenton went to great lengths to research their roles for a simple genre film, and how he kind of nerded out working with cast members from Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica.

Dork Shelf: You adapted this from a short film that you did previously and that short only had one character, so what’s it like taking the idea of this really simple short and putting it on this grander, more ambitious scale?

180032980TM00013_Oculus_PreMike Flanagan: It was actually really hard! The short is just the Tim character alone in the room with the mirror and his cameras for half an hour, and the first thing that happened when conversations first began about starting a feature length expansion we realized there was no way were just going to be able to kind of literally expand the short. It could never carry that much screen time. It maxed out at half an hour.

So we tried at first this idea of doing an anthology movie. It was going to be three, half hour unconnected stories about this mirror, but that never felt right. Then we initially said we would change the gender of the lead and go with a really strong female protagonist instead, and then we found out that we needed kind of a Mulder/Scully thing in there. We needed a counterpoint because someone who’s espousing this belief in a haunted mirror isn’t necessarily to be taken seriously at first. There’s always that thought, too, that a mass audience might just snicker at the idea of a haunted mirror, anyway, so we wanted to have that counterpoint in there.

DS: One of the things I did want to ask you about was how hard it would be to actually sell a film about a haunted mirror. Because they have been done before, and often quite terribly, but I think you really figured out how to make it work and make it really interesting.

MF: Thank you. That’s amazing. It’s really hard. It’s incredibly hard to pitch a movie about a mirror. Nine times out of ten people would just look at us and say, “Well, what’s scary about a mirror?” And the answer is nothing. There’s nothing inherently scary about a mirror itself, but what would make the movie scary was what happens to the people who are interacting with it and how they experience reality.

I think the reason that mirrors make such successful garnishes on successful horror movies, like when they’re used well in something like Prince of Darkness or a story like Alice, Through the Looking Glass, is that occasionally we love it because we all interact with mirrors every single day, and it’s often the first thing we do. It’s the very definition of ubiquitous. So to take something that universal and something that we trust so completely and to make it evil is really scary. We build entire relationships and visions of ourselves through what we see in a mirror, and that’s really fascinating when you introduce your monster into a comfortable place. Everything we think about the way we look is literally backwards, and we never question that when we look into a mirror. We don’t realize this reality that we’re looking at is utterly distorted. We accept the vision as objective. That was what really excited me: to play with distorted reality. A mirror is a great way to do a story like that, but it’s really, really hard to talk people into.

As soon as we released that teaser trailer, I just saw that same kind of eye-rolling reaction showing up on the horror blogs. Just give it a shot! Give us a chance! I hope we did do something that people weren’t expecting. My favourite reviews are the ones that come out and say “This is scarier than a movie about a mirror has any right to be.” And I’m just, like, “That’s awesome! That’s exactly what we were going for. That was our only goal.” (laughs)

DS: When you were growing up, you moved around a lot as a kid, and it seems like the family in this film kind of has that same feeling of rootlessness. Even when Kaylie and Tim reach adulthood, they really don’t have any steady roots of their own. Do you think you put anything personal into these characters with regard to that feeling?

MF: Yeah, and it’s funny because I really did have a very happy and well adjusted childhood. We weren’t terrible permanent because my dad was in the Coast Guard, so we did bounce around a lot. There was always, especially in those pre-High School years, a definite sense of instability. But my childhood overall was very stable within. There is something about being uprooted and transplanted that just gives you the sense that beneath something that looks totally normal lies this sense of insecurity, and that’s certainly something that I think I consciously or unconsciously tapped into during the earlier parts of the movie when we detail the Russell family as they are now and what they become. But I definitely think that people are hoping for some kind of huge, traumatic event from my childhood to kind of explain where this came from. (laughs) But for the most part everything was pretty great. I’m not even sure what was wrong with me.

DS: You have these two main characters that are really close and their timelines meet at a certain point, but their roles get reversed. Tim is sick as a child and Kaylie is even sicker as an obsessed adult, but there’s still this gap in their stories where they never see each other or really interact and the audience doesn’t know what went on. How did you work with Karen and Brenton to flesh it all out what happened in their time apart?

MF: Karen and Brenton are both incredibly and wonderfully prepared actors when it comes to prep and subtext. Those were discussions that we had very early on. We kind of wanted to come at the movie where we meet a character who is coming out of a mental institutions and a woman who seems comfortable financially and successful at what she does, and then we wanted to invert our expectations of these two. Maybe she’s the crazy one and maybe he’s actually perfectly sane, and then we wanted to flip that again as many times as we logically could.

To do that what we would talk about the most we had character specific discussions. Brenton and I would discuss what life would be like within a long term mental health facility, especially going in prior to puberty and prior to when your personality develops and you start to grow into your real adult self; you know, eliminating the kind of social interactions that would do that for you. What happens to that person? Brenton looked at him a lot like someone who was in a state of arrested development in a sense. He goes in as this 11 year old boy, and although he comes out of the facility physically at 21, a lot of his social development hasn’t moved beyond that point. He spent a lot of time reading about and looking into those points.

For Karen, we talked an awful lot about the foster care system and what that does to kids. They kind of go one of two ways when they make it successfully through that system: in one they can become incredibly confident, strong, resourceful, and insistent to the point of seeming rigid or stubborn. That was the direction we wanted Kaylie to go in.

We were hoping that seeing the innocence of him and this intense, rigid, stubborn strength of Kaylie would help imply those two different journeys when people would watch it. It was one of the more exciting parts of the movie; to be able to dive into those characters as much as possible during the prep. Not a lot of actors would do that kind of work on a smaller genre film. Character was hugely important to all of us going in, and I’m thankful that I was able to work with a cast that felt the same.

DS: I know you were a huge Doctor Who fan when you initially cast Karen. Were you afraid that when she saw the mirror and she saw this crack in it and you had this script with overlapping timelines that she would just say, “Oh no, not this shit again!”?

MF: (laughs) I was hoping she wouldn’t. (laughs) I really did not make things very easy on poor Karen. The first casting conversation we had I was trying to look all authoritative and director-y and playing it all cool, and I’m really just sitting there sipping my coffee out of a TARDIS mug. (laughs) I forgot I was even holding it.

We were in the first week of production when her final episode of Doctor Who aired, and I said , “Karen, I know your final episode is tonight, so maybe we could arrange a screening with the cast and crew so we can watch it with you.” And she said, “Oh, yes! That’s great!” And I’m also then trying that night to get her to take a picture with me while I’m holding a sonic screwdriver, and I’m guessing that’s got to be really annoying coming from your director. (laughs)

Reigning in my own fanboy-ness  has always been a challenge with Karen, and with Katee, actually. They were REALLY good sports about it, so once I got that out of the way and got down to work, I think things got a lot better.

DS: Do you think Karen and Katee ever got together and looked at each other and asked if you were just as much of a nerd around the other one?

MF: (laughs) I’m SURE they did. They definitely talked quite a bit. I think there was one morning when Katee got in the elevator on the way to set and I was wearing a “So say we all” T-shirt, and it took her a second and she looked at me and said “Really?… REALLY?” (laughs) I just said, “Don’t worry. I’ll wear a Doctor Who T-Shirt tomorrow so all the attention will be back on Karen.” Then I realized that I have to find a Dazed and Confused T-Shirt to start throwing stuff at Rory, because I’m sure after a while he was just thinking, “Wow. What a nerd.” (laughs) But it was a dream come true to work with these people as a fan of their work, but once that was over it was just an incredible professional experience to be able to work with strongest and coolest actresses working in the business.