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Exclusive: Mike Flanagan Reflects on the Horrors of Oculus

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Exclusive - Mike Flanagan Reflects on the Horrors of OculusWe had a chance to sit down with director Mike Flanagan to discuss his new flick, Oculus (review), so we jumped at it. Read on for the scoop on the film, where it’s going from here, and of course… what kind of terrors await you.

For those that don’t know, Oculus was originally released as a short film many years ago so we asked Mike why he had decided to revisit the film and flesh it out further.

“We did Oculus the short back in 2005. I always hoped that it would turn into an anthology series. I wanted to do more shorts, but unfortunately I was never able to scrape together the resources to do so. However, once it went out and hit the festivals for a while, there was an immediate interest in a feature length expansion. The movie is home to mirrors and cameras inside of a room, and everywhere we went everyone was like, ‘This is great; let’s do it as a found footage movie,’ but I never wanted to do that. So for years we just kept getting phone calls about the short and people were always excited about it. We’d go in for meetings and the folks there would always say something like, ‘Oh, found footage,’ and we’d be like, ‘Thanks, but we’re gonna keep looking.'”

“It took FOREVER to find producers who were really into doing something different with it. After seeing my film Absentia, Anil Kurian (our executive producer) brought me into Intrepid Pictures for a general meeting. We talked about five or six different projects, and the last one I mentioned was Oculus, mainly because I was afraid the meeting would go the way they always had. He responded to the material right away and then got the support of our producers, Trevor Macy and Marc Evans, who ran the company. We all developed the feature together. So they watched the short and I had a treatment for the feature that I had wanted to do, and they came on board and very enthusiastically said, ‘We do NOT want to do this as a found footage movie. We’d like to do something different.’ So we spent 2010 and 2011 developing the movie together, we shot it in 2012, and I think it was a really brave move for them because it would have been so much easier for them to just try and plug a story into the found footage model that everyone’s really familiar with, but again, this is something we always thought was different that that.”

“When the film was complete and screened at Toronto, Relativity and Blumhouse came rushing into the picture in a beautiful way. They responded to everything in the movie the way that we had wanted them to. Oculus is different and it is intelligent. It’s pretty complicated from a narrative point of view, and to find a home for it with people who really understood what we were going for… it was a really lovely and inspiring thing. We are very grateful to them. They’re one of the few people in this business who are willing to take risks.”

Since the film screened in Toronto, it’s been met with some pretty wide acclaim. This served as a bit of vindication for Flanagan to stick to his guns and not go the found footage route.

“It’s really tough, ya know? It all really started with Absentia, which a lot of people really responded to. It’s always very important to me to spend as much, if not more, time on character development and story structure instead of just the usual genre elements. With Absentia we didn’t have the resources to focus on the traditional genre elements at all. *laughs* We had so little to work with that there was nothing else we could do but make it smart and hope that people connect with the characters emotionally. I think a lot of genre fare jettisons that stuff kind of early in favor of winding up a prescribed type of scare. The people behind this film have a lot on the line because it is a different kind of movie, especially because they’ve decided to distribute it wide. It is really vindicating to see how fans are reacting to the movie, and we hope that extends into the box office as well.

Regarding his approach to the film, Flanagan continues, “Somewhere along the line people stopped being able to tell the difference between something that is scary and something that is startling. Startling people is fairly easy, and there are some movies that I enjoy a lot that are incredibly entertaining that rely on startling people. If you bang a symbol behind somebody’s head, you’re gonna scare them and they’re gonna have that reaction… they jump… they gasp… and then they laugh. That’s the most common thing you hear in an audience when you go to see a horror film in the theatre.”

“For me it’s always been way more interesting to go back to movies that I love like The Shining, The Changeling, Lake Mungo, A Tale of Two Sisters, and of course one of my favorites, Session 9. I love things that make you feel like you have this intense feeling of dread but you’re not even sure why. A lot of times movies will build in release valves for that feeling by inserting a laugh here or something to break the tension for a minute. For me it’s always been way more exciting to keep turning it up. We went into Oculus to make it a real pressure cooker… make it so that it feels as if it has its foot on your neck and keeps applying pressure until the credits. We never give anyone a chance to breathe, which makes for a really intense experience. It’s really exciting and it was really fun to do. It’s something that the cast is already excited about.”

When asked if he’d like to keep working within the horror genre or move on, Flanagan said, “I love horror movies. It’s my preferred genre so I’ll always be working in horror. Sometimes when I try to write a different kind of story, it just skews that way anyway; I guess because I’m just kind of fucked up! *laughs* It’s such a cathartic thing, ya know? Movies are all about tapping into universal human emotion and experience. The reason people love movies is because they can resonate with them on a personal and true level. I don’t think there’s any emotion that’s more universal than fear. Everyone knows what fear feels like and we learn it when we’re really young. As a kid I was terrified of horror movies. It became sort of character building to make it through them and survive films that really scared the hell out of me as a child. Horror movies are a safe environment in which we can confront the darkest sides of our nature. Horror is a genre that will never go away. I want to work in horror as much as I can. I still plan on branching out into other genres. I’m into anything with good characters. Anything that has that element of truth to it is an attractive project. I’m developing a sci-fi movie now that I think is gonna be really fun, but I’ll come home to horror. That’s my home base and where I have the most fun.”

So given that Oculus was originally conceived as an anthology of sorts, we asked if he’d revisit this world someday.

“I’ve actually got a ton of material in my drawer pertaining to this mirror. What’s fun about it for me is that it’s sort of a portable Overlook Hotel so you can pick that thing up and put it anywhere. The possibilities from a writer’s standpoint are just endless for that. If it strikes a chord and people connect with it, I would love to keep playing with it. The way that the mirror unveils its horrors itself to a user is very personal… as personal as a reflection. So just putting it into an environment with different characters makes for a fresh and different movie even though we’ve got the same monster at the heart of it. There’s a ton of stories I can still tell about this thing if people want to hear them.”

The film stars Karen Gillan (“Doctor Who,” Not Another Happy Ending), Brenton Thwaites (the upcoming Maleficent and The Giver), Rory Cochrane (Argo, Parkland), and Katee Sackhoff (“Battlestar Galactica,” Riddick).

Oculus is directed by Mike Flanagan from a script he co-wrote with Jeff Howard, based on a short film Flanagan and Jeff Seidman made in 2005. Trevor Macy (Safe House, The Strangers, The Raven) and Marc D. Evans (Safe House, The Strangers, The Raven) produced the film, and Jason Blum, Ryan Kavanaugh, Tucker Tooley, Anil Kurian, D. Scott Lumpkin, Peter Schlessel, Dale Johnson, Glenn Murray, Julie May, and Mike Ilitch, Jr., serve as executive producers.

Synopsis
Ten years ago, tragedy struck the Russell family, leaving the lives of teenage siblings Tim and Kaylie forever changed when Tim was convicted of the brutal murder of their parents. Now in his 20s, Tim is newly released from protective custody and only wants to move on with his life; but Kaylie, still haunted by that fateful night, is convinced her parents’ deaths were caused by something else altogether: a malevolent supernatural force­­ unleashed through the Lasser Glass, an antique mirror in their childhood home. Determined to prove Tim’s innocence, Kaylie tracks down the mirror, only to learn similar deaths have befallen previous owners over the past century. With the mysterious entity now back in their hands, Tim and Kaylie soon find their hold on reality shattered by terrifying hallucinations and realize, too late, that their childhood nightmare is beginning again…

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Steve Barton

You're such an inspiration for the ways that I will never, ever choose to be.