Exclusive Interview with Director Mike Flanagan: Before I Wake and Ouija: Origin of Evil
If you’ve been paying attention lately, then you know the name Mike Flanagan. He is a director, producer, screenwriter, and editor known for his ever-topping work in the horror movie world, starting with the (blood) splash he made with an indie called Absentia. It was well-received enough, but soon after that his career took a leap into the big time with Oculus and Hush.
His upcoming movies include Before I Wake and Ouija: Origin of Evil. He’s been on the road appearing at international film festivals, but he stopped down to chat with us about all his projects – read on.
Dread Central: We remember you from waaay back when, in 2011 when you did Absentia. Even though in reality it wasn’t too long ago, in terms of your career there’s been a huge leap. To what do you attribute your trajectory and what advice do you have for up and coming filmmakers?
Mike Flanagan: I’ve been incredibly lucky. Absentia was only meant to be a demo reel; I didn’t expect it to find the release and the reception that it did. I certainly never pictured my career advancing this quickly, though I always hoped it might.
Since Absentia, I’ve been fortunate to keep working. I mostly deal with it by keeping my head down and working very hard, because there’s this feeling that if I stop working this whole bubble could burst. If I’m not shooting, I’m writing. If I’m not writing, it’s only because I’m editing.
I guess I wanted this career so badly, for so many years, that I’m always afraid it could go away as quickly as it appeared. That’s an incredible motivator.
I attribute a lot of that success to my producer (and friend), Trevor Macy, who took the leap to make Oculus (along with Marc Evans and Anil Kurian at Intrepid Pictures,) and has since also produced Before I Wake and Hush. We have several other films in the pipe as well, and they always seem to be getting more and more ambitious, which is key.
I also attribute a lot of my success to Jason Blum, who got behind Oculus when he saw it at Toronto, produced Hush with Trevor, and then was generous enough to invite me into his Ouija franchise. Jason is a force of nature, and a prolific producer. These men have accelerated my career in huge ways and I owe them quite a lot.
While it’s definitely been a huge leap since Absentia, the work itself doesn’t feel like it’s changed very much. The mechanics are all still there, and the experience of working on set is basically the same. The equipment gets cooler, and the crew gets bigger, but the rest is surprisingly similar to my DIY indies. We still don’t have enough time in the day, we still don’t have enough money, and we still have to cross our fingers and pray it doesn’t rain sometimes.
I guess my advice to young filmmakers is to keep working, no matter what. Technology has made it so that you can keep generating work, and that’s the most important thing. It’s a muscle, and it needs exercise. Don’t take rejection personally, and don’t let it deter you from your goal… you will absolutely have dark nights when you look in the mirror and think you’re delusional, but the only difference between being delusional and being tenacious is how things turn out in the end.
Refusing to quit doesn’t mean you’ll make it, but quitting guarantees that you won’t.
DC: I saw your very interesting post on Facebook, about the fact that your new movie, Before I Wake, was leaked online and you got some crazy responses. What’s your biggest take away from this experience, and do you think it will ultimately affect the life of the film? Oddly, I know for sure I saw it… did it play at festivals in the past, or did I dream it?
MF: Back in 2014, before Relativity’s financial problems were evident, they screened the film for a handful of critics. I’m sure you saw it then. But no, it hasn’t screened anywhere else. The only festival screening we had was at Fantasia last week. While Relativity was dealing with its bankruptcy, the film was basically in limbo for several years. During that time, several international territories released the film, which is how it became pirated.
That’s been a source of horrible frustration for me. This film was always fragile – it almost died on the vine a number of times in pre-production. It was a real battle to get it made, and so when its release was delayed – for no fault of its own– the piracy was heartbreaking. It’s definitely damaged not only the film’s prospects upon release, but it’s made it harder for me to take the kind of narrative risks that Before I Wake takes.
Everybody wants something different, and everyone bemoans wide release movies for not taking risks. But pirating movies like this one only lower the perception of the film’s performance, and that perception is the only thing that matters when people consider taking risks in the future.
I started having people contacting me to share their thoughts about the film, and they had clearly pirated it. A few were apologetic, but most were completely clueless as to why I’d be offended. I was shocked at how little consideration there is out there, and how convinced some people are that they aren’t doing anything wrong.
I would try to explain the reasons why piracy hurts my industry, hurts this film in particular, and directly affects my livelihood… and some people heard that, and stated they’d never considered the real-world consequences, while others shrugged and literally said “sorry not sorry.”
My biggest takeaway from that experience is that there is a sense of entitlement in some people that is frightening. Unfortunately for Before I Wake, the fact that it was leaked has absolutely hurt the film. It will absolutely hurt the release, and it has accomplished what piracy accomplishes the most… it will make it harder for me to make films like Before I Wake.
It was a risky film. It was not a straight horror movie, it was hard to classify, and it was viewed as a movie that a lot of studios didn’t have the guts to try to make. This was an independent film, and like all independent films, it lives and dies on how it performs. A lot of us deferred our pay to keep the film afloat.
Each movie ticket we buy is not only financially supporting a film, but it is also a vote. Hollywood is a democracy, and ticket receipts are our ballots. It’s how we, the voters, tell Hollywood that risky, different, unique films are wanted. It’s how we tell them there’s an audience for things that don’t fit the mainstream mold, and aren’t created by committee or focus groups. Every time someone downloads a movie illegally, they throw that vote away. We all get hurt by it.
DC: Before I Wake – not to be confused with the Nicole Kidman thriller Before I Go to Sleep – centers on a small child with nightmares… a great theme, a universal one, and of course a great tie in to fans of the Nightmare on Elm Street film series (though your story is much more grounded)… can you talk a bit about the scope of the story and what it was that drew you to exploring it?
MF: This was a story that’s been very close to my heart for years. I think the first outline dates back to 2007. Jeff Howard and I sat to write the script that would really become Before I Wake in 2011, right after we’d finished writing Oculus, and long before that movie went into pre-production.
I was a new father at the time, and I remember watching my son sleep and wondering what his dreams would look like. There was this feeling I had, like I could know him better if I could somehow see the things his mind created when he gave up the day. This story was always very delicate in my mind, and it really wasn’t a horror movie.
In addition to that, this was also a culmination of themes I’d been working on exploring in Absentia and Oculus. Both of those films deal with grief and loss, and this film deals with death in a way that was very important to me when we were writing. I looked at Absentia, Oculus and Somnia (which was the original title for Before I Wake, and very much my preferred title) as an unofficial trilogy – variations on a theme. The theme was grief.
Absentia was about the emptiness of grief. Oculus was about how past traumas can echo in our present. And this movie… this was about death and grief, but in a different way. This was about how understanding these things in our lives can dispel the shadows, and the fear, and leave us with something else. Absentia was like an overcast sky, Oculus was the storm clouds, and this movie was the ray of sunshine that finally broke through it all.
It felt like a fable. Or a fairy tale for grownups. It was so much more emotional than my other work. It had an inherent gentleness that was new to me. There were times I’d get very emotional when thinking about the story, and it was such a strange and beautiful little world. I couldn’t resist it.
I was worried early on that it would be a tough sell, not only to the studios and distributors but to the horror fans as well. But it was a story that I couldn’t stop thinking about, and I realized I just had to make the movie the way it was playing in my head. It lives in a very special place in my heart, and while I think some people might react to the fact that it isn’t ultimately a horror film at all, I think that people who see it for what it is will find lots to hold onto.
DC: Hush got some really mad love from horror fans. I know no one can tell the future, but when you were making the film, did you anticipate anything even close to the praise? What were some of your influences in regard to the suspense?
MF: I never go into a film trying to guess how it will be received. That would drive me crazy, I think. More than anything, I try to make a movie that I’d want to see. I try to make a movie that I like. If people agree, that’s awesome, but it isn’t my primary concern. It’s impossible to please everyone, and if you worry too much about what people might think of your work, it can be paralyzing.
That said, I wasn’t prepared for the enthusiasm that Hush generated. It was such a tiny movie. I made it long after Before I Wake was in the can, and right before Ouija: Origin of Evil, so it was this little movie that would fit between two films that were bigger in scale. It was an experiment.
Kate and I were dying to make the film, but we had no idea how it would be received, or if it would even be released. There was a real sense of being out on a tightrope when we made that movie, and we both felt like it could be a total disaster if we tipped over.
The biggest influences I talked about when we were preparing the film were Rope, Rear Window, Halloween, and – oddly – Die Hard. Hitchcock talked a lot about “pure cinema,” which was essentially seeing what a character sees, and then seeing how they react to that. It’s what makes Rear Window so incredible. That was our primary consideration with Hush, only we also got to play with sound design in ways I’d never dreamed of before.
I consider Hush to be my most successful movie, which is funny to me considering it never had a theatrical release. I do consider it my best, though. While we were making it, we had no idea if it would work. I’m so glad that it seems to have worked out.
DC: When I watch your movies, I see a distinct style… do you? Is there a conscious effect to stamp your films with your sensibilities or is it just organic? Who are some of the artists and filmmakers that inspired or continue to inspire you?
MF: That’s a great question. There isn’t a conscious effort, and I’m probably less aware of a distinct style than you are. I don’t really set out to make sure it conforms to anything at all, other than how I see the movie in my head.
I certainly like things the way I like them… I enjoy framing shots, as opposed to a handheld aesthetic. I really have a great time designing shot sequences and finding frames, and I prefer a certain style of acting as well. I like things grounded, and I don’t much care for things that feel manipulative. I actively resist jump scares as often as I can, and I prefer not to puncture the tension once it starts to bear down on a viewer.
But generally, I suppose a lot of that just boils down to the kinds of movies I like to watch. I love movies, and I’m always trying to make mine look and sound like the kind of movie I’d enjoy if I were watching it at home on a dark Friday night. So more than anything, I suppose that a “distinct style” really just comes from what my particular taste is as a viewer.
I am inspired by a huge number of filmmakers. It’s really hard to list them all – I just love movies, I suppose. I particularly go out of my way to see anything and everything that Terrence Malick makes (even if I don’t always love them). I’m absolutely floored by what Park Chan-wook delivers each and every time he’s up at bat. I’ll drop what I’m doing to see the new Scorsese, Spielberg, del Toro. I also really admire Brad Anderson, Takashi Miike, John Carpenter… the list goes on and on.
DC: Stiles White did the first Ouija movie… but not the sequel. How come, and how did you come to step in? This is the first time you’ve taken on a sequel, so please tell us about that experience from a creative perspective.
MF: I initially had no interest in doing a sequel. But Jason Blum really wanted to take the franchise in a new direction and was very open to the kinds of ideas that a lot of studios would reject outright. It’s not very often that you can take a very successful horror franchise (Ouija grossed over 100 million dollars worldwide) and say, “I’m really interested in making a period piece about a single mother.” These are movies you’d assume are custom made for teenagers, and therefore have to adhere to all of the teenage tropes.
Blumhouse, Universal, Platinum Dunes and Hasbro were incredibly supportive of what I wanted to do, and I found it kind of irresistible. The first movie had performed so well that a sequel was a given, and it would likely be put out wide with the full support of the studio behind it. That’s an unusual situation for me – all of my other films were created independently, and then we had to find a distributor. This was the first time I could just make a movie in that system, knowing it would be released wide.
I know there is some skepticism about the film, and I remember when it was announced I was doing it, the message board on my IMDb page lit up with a bit of confusion. But it was a really, really awesome experience and it’s a special movie. I tried hard to think of the kinds of movies I loved when I was a teenager. Just because they’re teens doesn’t mean they don’t deserve cool horror movies! I had a chance to make something like The Changeling or Poltergeist, and I couldn’t resist that.
DC: The sequel looks great – set in L.A. in 1965? What a dream! Tell us about that… was it fun, or challenging? And your wife is in the film! Were you, or was anyone, scared about “playing with” the Ouija boards?
MF: It’s a total dream. I absolutely adored working on a period movie. There’s such a palpable sense of nostalgia. I wanted the movie to really look like it was made in the late sixties, so we got to play with antique lenses, and a lot of technique that went out of vogue a while back, like split diopters and long zooms (instead of the gliding steadicam we’re so used to now.)
And yes – Kate Siegel is indeed in the movie! Kate played the main ghost in Oculus, and of course we made Hush together. We got married in February 2016, just before Hush was released worldwide. We figured if we could survive making a movie together, with her both as a co-writer and the star, we could survive just about anything. There was a chance for her to play a small part in Ouija, and we jumped on it. I just love being on set with her.
As for the board, there were definitely people in the cast and crew who were nervous about it. I underestimated how seriously people can take those things. I myself am an ardent skeptic, and I am more fascinated by the psychological processes at work when people sit down to play a game like this. How powerful the subconscious is. But while I’m an atheist, many in my crew were not, and some had some chilling stories of things they’d experienced playing with the board as kids (and a few as adults.)
I have the Ouija board in my house now, along with the Oculus mirror and the mask from Hush. If there are indeed any dark spirits inside it, they’ll be in good company.
Before I Wake stars Kate Bosworth (Superman Returns), Thomas Jane (“Hung”), Annabeth Gish (“Pretty Little Liars”), Dash Mihok (“Ray Donovan”), and Jacob Tremblay (Room). It’s directed by Mike Flanagan, who co-wrote the script with Jeff Howard. Trevor Macy, Sam Englebardt, and William D. Johnson produced. Look for it in theatres on September 9th.
Ouija: Origin of Evil arrives in theaters October 21st from Universal Pictures. Henry Thomas (Betrayal), Annalise Basso (Oculus), Elizabeth Reaser (“True Detective”), Lulu Wilson (Deliver Us from Evil), Parker Mack (MTV’s “Faking It”), Sam Anderson, Kate Siegel (Demon Legacy), and Doug Jones (Hellboy, “Fear Itself”) star.
Flanagan directs from a screenplay he wrote with his Oculus and Before I Wake collaborator, Jeff Howard. The film is produced by Platinum Dunes partners Michael Bay, Brad Fuller, and Andrew Form (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Purge series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Blumhouse Productions’ Jason Blum (The Purge and Insidious series) alongside Hasbro’s Brian Goldner (Transformers and G.I. Joe series) and Stephen Davis (Ouija).