Mike Flanagan has enjoyed a fantastic run as one of the most celebrated directors in horror over the last five years.
Beginning with 2011’s eerie Absentia and still rolling along with Ouija: Origin of Evil, which is scheduled to be released October 21st of this year, Flanagan has fully embraced the “suburban horror” genre that is arguably the most difficult to nail down in a day and age where everyone has a cell phone and most horror fans are completely desensitized to the world of terror.
Yet, Flanagan continues to stir up fresh scares. Whether they be in Oculus, a film centered around a haunted mirror that wreaks havoc on a family while surprising many of the “film experts” with a fantastic run at the box office or Hush, a chilling home invasion film that tells the tale of a deaf woman being stalked by a masked mad man in Flanagan’s ode to Halloween, Flanagan has shown time and time again that the jump scare is an overrated and overused gimmick in horror films. He prefers to scare the living hell out of you with subtle, shadow-shrouded mystery. Boy, does he do it well.
Another of Flanagan’s upcoming releases, Before I Wake, is one my wife and I have been excited to see since we first saw the trailer several months back.
Recently, I was honored to be able to chat with Mr. Flanagan as he prepares Ouija: Origin of Evil for the big screen.
TERROR TIME: What were the horror movies and books/comics you grew up on? What really hooked you to the genre?
MIKE FLANAGAN: I was actually very scared to watch horror films growing up. I was way behind most of my peers when it came to the genre, and would often hide behind my hands or the couch when something scary was on. I’d see the covers for the Nightmare on Elm Street movies at the video store, and be frightened enough by that. I didn’t want to see the films. Instead of watching horror movies, I read books. When I was a kid it was Christopher Pike and John Bellairs, and then I discovered Stephen King when I was in fifth grade. The first book I read was IT. That’s what hooked me. I didn’t really catch up on horror films until I was in college, but man, did I read a lot of Stephen King.
TT: Your filmography is stellar and continues to push the boundaries of a low-budget film. Having done both independent and Hollywood horror, what are the pros and cons of each as a filmmaker?
MF: With the exception of Ouija: Origin of Evil, each of my films has been independent, albeit with drastically different budgets. It’s always about finding a balance between creative control and commercial viability. I had the most creative control over the smaller budget films (ABSENTIA and HUSH), but they also got the smallest budgets and releases. That means you can take bigger risks, but you have to do so with far less resources.
The bigger the budget, and the bigger the intended release, the more you have to take a mass audience into account. It costs so much money to release a film wide, there’s absolutely a necessary desire to make sure the film will appeal to as many different types of viewers as possible. That generally means you want to curb the narrative risks to some extent, and you have to work with the distributor and the marketing team to make sure the movie provides them with the tools they need to attract a wide audience, and maximizes the potential to leave that audience satisfied with their viewing experience.
That puts you at odds with several things right off the bat. The fact is, critics and audiences are not in sync. Some of the best, most artistically exciting films made every year are ignored by the mass audiences, while films that seem entirely plotless – and artless – are embraced and rewarded with enormous ticket sales. People don’t realize that film is a pure democracy. Every ticket is a vote, and those votes are counted and taken very seriously. Those votes dictate what kinds of movies Hollywood prioritizes, and what kinds of movies are given the wide releases.
So from a filmmaker’s perspective, that’s a fine line to walk. The pros of being strictly indie on a low budget is that you can often do what you want, and do things that no studio would ever let you do. The cons are that not a lot of people will see it, and that isn’t the fault of the studios or the distributors – that’s the audience, who frankly don’t support those kinds of movies as often as they support the alternative.
It makes for a really fun challenge, though. With Ouija, for example, we went into that project with Universal, Blumhouse, Hasbro and Platinum Dunes at the wheel, and all of them agreed that they didn’t want to take the path of least resistance. There was a real excitement to do something unexpected, and not simply repeat the formulas that worked so well for the first movie. Say what you want about the movie itself, but audiences supported it to $105 million worldwide. I love when you get to try to do something creatively exciting and position it for a wide release. That’s an extraordinary balancing act, and some of the most exciting stuff I get to do.
TT: When you look back and remember where you started in this industry to where you are today, denying rumors that you are going to be the director of the revamped Halloween film as one of the most well-regarded directors in the genre, to what or whom do you attribute your work ethic and dedication to the craft to?
MF: As far as work ethic, I attribute that to my parents. Something about how we were raised really worked in that regard. ‘m not even the best example of that work ethic – my brother James has one of the best work ethics I’ve ever seen, sometimes I feel lazy watching him go. We’ve both always been very dedicated to whatever is on our plate, and I think that’s entirely because of the examples we had from our mother and father.
The work is really the best part, that’s the other thing. I’ve never felt like this was “work.” Sure, it’s hard, and it can be exhausting, but I’ve never wanted to do anything else, and I feel energized every day that I’m working. I’ve been very, very luck that way.
I started in this business working a full-time reality television editor, and it took over a decade to finally break into doing what I really wanted to do. I kept trying at it, even though I’d only given myself five years to pursue it, but that was out of compulsion. It’s funny – that same stubbornness is called “tenacity” if you make it, but it’s called “delusion” if you don’t. There’s literally no difference, and there were entire years there where I was pretty sure I was being delusional. The only real difference between tenacity and delusion is luck. The important thing is to just keep going, and hope that at the end of the day the verdict is that you were “tenacious.”
TT: You do the “suburban nightmare” sub-genre better than anyone. A lot of your films are rooted in scenarios that disrupt the household. How have you been able to tap into that fear so well yet make each film so different from one another?
MF: I think it’s because I find a lot of real horror in the breakdown of a family. That’s where we’re supposed to feel the safest, and so it’s natural that a lot of horror fiction encroaches on that unit. For whatever reason, those are the stories that resonate with me the most. As far as making them different, that’s really the fun part. I’m always trying to make sure I don’t repeat myself, and it’s really fun to approach similar themes from different angles. Chan-wook Park did that with the Vengeance trilogy brilliantly – he made three movies that approached a concept from entirely different perspectives, and ultimately emerged as three aesthetically distinct films as well.
For me, it’s always about two questions: first, does this movie scare me? Second, is it about something bigger than the scares? If the answer to both is yes, then I’m interested. I want to make movies that are about human nature, and that’s something that this genre can do so well – explore the darkest parts of our nature in a safe, cathartic way. If the characters feel real, and if it feels like this movie is about something bigger than just trying to startle someone in the dark, then I’m intrigued.
TT: If you were to point to a specific film and director who you consider the golden standard of horror, who would it be and why?
MF: I think there are so many. That’s the beautiful thing about cinema – it flourishes because it is a plurality of voices and ideas, and so I don’t really think there is a gold standard. This genre is a record of our collective nightmares, and different ones resonate with us differently because of who we are at the time, what our world is like.. or, just because it was a particularly dark and stormy night.
I have my favorites, to be sure, but they change as I change and I doubt everyone would agree, nor should they. I adore The Thing, The Exorcist, The Shining. I also love Session 9, Lake Mungo, Ju-on, Martyrs. I love Jaws more than just about any movie I can think of, but I also love Deep Blue Sea.
I’m glad there isn’t a gold standard. I prefer there continue to be a thousand flavors, you know?
TT: After Ouija: Origin of Evil, what else is on your agenda at this time?
MF: Not entirely sure yet – there are several projects I’ve been dying to get off the ground. The most exciting one to me is Gerald’s Game, as I’ve wanted to make that movie for fifteen years. I read King’s novel in college, put it down, and said “that’s unfilmmable.” Then, I spent ten years trying to figure out how to film it. I think I cracked it and it would be a dream come true to make that film. I’m hoping that’s next, but you never know in this business. If not, I’ve got a few other tricks up my sleeve. We will see!
Before I Wake hits theaters on September 9.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is coming soon.