Shriekfest 2011: Exclusive Q&A with Filmmaker Mike Flanagan
In writer/director Mike Flanagan's Absentia (review here), we follow Tricia (Courtney Bell), whose husband Daniel has been missing for seven years. Her younger sister, Callie (Katie Parker), comes to live with her as the pressure mounts to finally declare him 'dead in absentia.' As Tricia sifts through the wreckage and tries to move on with her life, Callie finds herself drawn to an ominous tunnel near the house.
Once Callie begins to link it to other mysterious disappearances, it becomes clear that Daniel's presumed death might be anything but 'natural.' The ancient and deadly forces at work in the tunnel have set their sights on Callie and Tricia now after the pair of sisters discover that Daniel might be suffering a fate far worse than death while in its grasp.
We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Flanagan in anticipation of Absentia being honored during the 2011 Shriekfest Film Festival in Los Angeles as the fest's closing night film (it screens at 8:00 pm on Sunday, October 2nd) and heard from the up-and-coming filmmaker about what got him into filmmaking to begin with, his experiences making Absentia and what's coming up next with him.
Check out our exclusive Q&A with Flanagan below, and look for more from the 2011 Shriekfest Film Fest soon!
Dread Central: Can you start off by talking a bit about what brought you into the world of filmmaking since you may be a new face to a lot of our readers?
Mike Flanagan: I've got a pretty clichéd answer to that question, I think. I've always loved movies and started gathering my friends to make epic little VHS videos in 5th grade. It was always a persistent hobby, but I never really thought of it as something I could do for a living until college. I made my first three feature films as an undergraduate at Towson University in Maryland and couldn't imagine doing anything else for the rest of my life.
DC: So where did the idea for the story in Absentia come from then?
Flanagan: I've lived across the street from this creepy tunnel for years and always thought it would make a great backdrop for a horror film; I just didn't know what that film was. Absentia was put together a bit backward as a result. I had the cast, location and budget limitations in place before I knew what the plot of the movie was going to be. That meant I had to write the script to a certain scale, and I couldn't deviate from the few available resources I had at my fingertips. It made the process of writing very, very unique.
DC: Clearly your approach in Absentia is very different than we see in a lot of modern horror movies these days- I was just wondering if you could talk about your approach to modern horror and what appeals to you when you're watching movies.
Flanagan: I think that modern horror tends to have a foot (or sometimes an entire leg) in comedy, and that bothers me a little. I also think the genre is saturated with torture fetishes and excessive gore, neither of which are actually frightening in my opinion. I really enjoy horror films that give me credit for being an intelligent viewer and that make me care about the characters. I appreciate horror that is confident enough to leave things to my imagination.
Audiences have incredible imaginations, and a lot of movies spend a lot of time and money trying to come up with something they think is more frightening than what the audience can create for itself, and I think that's a mistake. Ultimately, all fear is a reaction to the unknown, and allowing things to remain unknown (or unseen, as is often the case with my films) hopefully makes the experience more genuinely frightening. A lot of movies seem content to startle people, which is cheap and easy, or content to gross them out, which is often artless. To really frighten somebody, even a few days after they've seen the film, is what I find exciting. And you can't do that, I think, without taking great care to make sure the characters and emotions are real.
DC: Tell us about your cast, and can you discuss how your central cast members came on board?
Flanagan: I had the cast before I had a script. Courtney Bell (Tricia) is my fiancée, and Katie Parker (Callie) is one of our best friends, and we wanted to work together. Dave Levine (Mallory) has been a good friend for years. The script was written with their strengths in mind, and we even incorporated Courtney's real-life pregnancy with our son, Rigby, into the script, which actually took it to a whole new level emotionally.
DC: What would you say were the biggest challenges you faced while making Absentia? Any surprises along the way?
Flanagan: The biggest challenge was always money, as we never really expected to have any. There were a ton of surprises along the way, though. First, we raised almost $25,000 on Kickstarter to start production, which was a real shock to all of us.
Another major surprise came when Doug Jones (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy) agreed to appear in the film. Initially this was only supposed to be a small-scale project, hopefully serving as a calling card for me and for the cast. I don't think anyone expected the critical response when the film was complete so in a way everything that's happened since we started sending out screeners has been a surprise. We secured distribution very fast--a first for me--and the reception has been just amazing.
DC: Was there any lessons you took away as a filmmaker from your experiences directing this project?
Flanagan: Certainly, but I fear a lot of them would bore your readers. I think I learned an awful lot about what it takes to successfully launch a crowd-funding campaign. I learned that Doug Jones is a constant hugger. One day during production I learned how to operate the Canon 5D when our DP collapsed with a fever and we had no one else to operate the camera for the rest of the day. And most importantly, I learned that you don't need a pile of money or crazy effects to scare an audience.
DC: I know you've had an extensive festival run with this film- can you talk a bit about what that experience has been like for you?
Flanagan: We've had an amazing run. Some highlights include Fantasia, where we sold out three screenings; the Sonoma International Film Festival, where we took the award for Best Narrative Feature (I think to everyone's surprise); and of course we're absolutely psyched about Shriekfest. We've screened in over 20 festivals this year so far, but I think Shriekfest will be one of the most exciting festivals, even better because the cast and crew will actually be able to attend.
DC: With Absentia already out there, what's up next for you?
Flanagan: I'm gearing up to direct a feature length version of my short film Oculus, and it's actually going to be the biggest project of my career so far, both in budget and in concept. Absentia has opened a lot of doors, and I've got a few feature projects in the works for 2012. It's a good life right now!
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