Oculus’ Mike Flanagan: “I threw everything I could at it”

Director Mike Flanagan talks Oculus, Gerald’s Game and I Know What You Did Last Summer

Karen Gillan in Oculus
Karen Gillan in Oculus

Mike Flanagan’s horror Oculus arrived on a wave of festival buzz and didn’t disappoint. The story of siblings Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites) attempting to provoke a haunted mirror to prove his innocence was a twisty, gut-wrenching and terrifying piece of genre cinema that established Flanagan as a talent to watch.

With the release of Oculus on home media, SciFiNow talked to Flanagan about subverting expectations, fanboying, and his upcoming slate, including Somnia, Gerald’s Game and the I Know What You Did Last Summer remake.

The film slips back and forth through time and reality; how hard was it to keep a handle on the structure?

Yeah, the structure was the most difficult part of the writing for sure. My writing partner Jeff Howard and I were beating our heads against the wall while doing the script; we wanted it to be very specific in its transitions between the two timelines. That was something that we always intended to have worked out before we got to production, because I made my living as an editor prior to getting an opportunity to actually go out and make movies and I knew it wasn’t something we could pull off just in the edit. We had to strip it into the screenplay and make sure the actors knew where they were in the story at all times because it could be very, very confusing to read.

I always hoped it would be clear in the movie, or if it was confusing it would be the good kind of confusing, you know? But yeah, it was really hard to keep track of and a real challenge for the art department more than anything because we were shooting in one house, they had to be able to dress it for both past and present multiple times of day depending on where we were shooting. Keeping track of it was really difficult but the structure was one of the top priorities from the beginning of what we wanted to do.

Were the actors game for tackling that?

They were. The actors had requested when I was doing the script that all the present storyline was formatted normally but the past was identified on the page with italics so that they could very easily figure it out. Particularly for the Kaylie and Tim characters, there was confusion early on, “Am I doing this or is the kid doing this?” and they caught onto it really fast though. And it was one of the things, when we were casting it was like “An actor’s either going to be very excited about this or they’re not going to understand.” And we decided to go with the actors who were excited about it!

Oculus does feel like it’s doing something different; were you consciously trying to subvert the usual tropes and play with them?

Yeah, I think the horror genre in particular is such an over-saturated sub market that fans tend to get very jaded very fast. And they say they’re always looking for something different, I’d been wanting to make this movie for seven years by the time we finally found producing partners who were willing to take a risk on it. It was very important for me, whether it was a success or not, that we did something…you know, you never know if you’re going to get a second chance to make a movie, and I wanted to throw everything I could at it and make it as different as possible. And for some fans that’s a really good thing, I think people are hungry for things that are different, but for other types of fans there’s a reaction against something that isn’t familiar.

Studios in particular have a hard time wrapping their head around something that they can’t compare to another movie that has come out recently. They prefer a pitch when you come in and say “This is The Conjuring meets Insidious” and then they get it. To come at them and be like “Well, it’s really hard to directly compare it to something else,” then they’re a little more reticent to take a ride with it. They want to know that it’s familiar enough to the audience that has supported an existing movie will come out and support this one as well. And it took almost a decade to find people that would take a chance with it.

Katee Sackhoff in Oculus
Katee Sackhoff in Oculus

Speaking of subverting expectations, it was great to see Karen Gillan and Katee Sackhoff break type. 

I’m a major Whovian and so I was always really impressed with what Karen did as Amy Pond and I thought what was fascinating about her on the show was how eager she was when confronted with something that was frightening, that she was the girl who was always running toward the danger with the Doctor and I love that quality for a heroine. The funny thing is when we first sat down and wrote the treatment for it, we modelled the character of Kaylie on Katee Sackhoff in Battlestar, and it was like “OK, if I’m going to see a really plucky strong female lead in this I want it to be along the lines of Starbuck,” and as the years went by we’d based that character entirely off of a picture of Katee.

Karen was cast first and while we were moving on to cast Marie and found out that Katee was available, I was like “Wow, I’ve never seen her attempt to play maternal in this way even though it has this much darker edge after the mid-point.” So it was exciting as a fan, first to work with two of who I think are the strongest actresses in the business, and see them each do something very different. That was very exciting just from a fanboy point of view. And when I was on set it was tough for the first couple of days to stop wearing my Doctor Who shirts and put down the TARDIS mug and try and show up for work as a professional! And not just a fanboy. It’s always awkward to ask your actors for an autograph but I definitely did that twice!

Oculus is very much contained in the one house, and you’re adapting Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, which is even more contained! Do you feel drawn to that kind of horror? 

Oh certainly. I think you’re able to create a sense of claustrophobia in a contained story that’s really fun to explore. The genre more often than not will gravitate toward a more constrained narrative I think for budgetary reasons and kind of coming up as a no-budget filmmaker, we didn’t have money for a while, we didn’t really have a choice other than to operate in a contained space. For Oculus, starting with the short, there was something always really challenging and fun about sustaining any type of tension in a very limited space.

That’s something that’s I’ve absolutely always gravitated toward and with Gerald’s Game in particular, what it does is that level of containment forces the weight of the movie to be carried by the actors, and by the character. The bigger a movie a gets and the more expansive it is, the smaller all the people in the movie become. And I think I’m really excited by a chance to try and create a really fleshed out character in anything I’m working on. And that level of containment really assists with that; you don’t really have any other options.

Mike Flanagan directing Karen Gillan in Oculus
Mike Flanagan directing Karen Gillan in Oculus

How did Gerald’s Game come about? Was it something you were pursuing? 

I read that book for the first time when I was in college and wanted to make it a movie. I put the book down and was blown away by the story but I also was like “I don’t know how you could ever translate this into a cinematic experience.” It almost takes place in Jessie’s mind. So for years and years I would always kind of keep it in the back of my mind and turn it over, and I’d come up with a couple of takes I thought could really work while remaining true to the source material. Because I’m a rabid Stephen King fan and I take it personally when a book I love of his is adapted and altered too much, and it doesn’t work more often than it does.

So I had it for a number of years and I had reached out to his representatives trying to secure the rights a number of times and wasn’t successful. When Oculus came out in the States, King had seen it and really liked it and had actually gotten in touch with the studio and was helping promote the movie on Twitter and had given us quotes to put up in the advertising and things like that. And because he was such a fan I was like, “We need to take another run at Gerald’s Game.” And once he was more familiar with my work he allowed me to have a shot at adapting the script. And the way he tends to work is if he gives you the rights to one of his stories, he has veto power over everything and you get to write the script but you can’t tell anybody, and if he reads it and likes it the project can proceed, if he reads it and doesn’t, then it dies on the vine and you can’t ever discuss it. So I wrote the script earlier this year and sent it off to him, and I think the week and a half it took him to read it was one of the more suspenseful periods of my life, but he came back and really loved the adaptation. So we’re casting right now and hopefully we’ll be in production in January or February.

I wanted to ask about the I Know What You Did Last Summer remake, which seems like a bit of a change of pace for you.

It is. One of the things about doing independent films is that you don’t really tend to make any money. So it’s always important to try to supplement that work with other work. My writing partner and I in the last year or two have taken on a handful of writing assignments and this was one that was submitted to us that initially I just wasn’t interested in. I was very familiar with the original and didn’t really think it was a project that spoke to my strengths as a writer; I don’t find movies where teenagers are systematically eliminated to be particularly interesting. And so we were not terribly interested in the project but they asked us to come in and hear what they wanted to do with it. And after that meeting everything changed and it was like “Oh, actually this could be a lot of fun.” So we’re doing something with it that I don’t think many people will expect, but I’m thrilled to be doing it, it’s a really fun writing challenge but my involvement with the project will stop at the script stage, definitely.

Finally, what’s the status of Somnia?

It is just about finished. We locked the picture last week and we are I think, Relativity who also distributed Oculus, is going to be announcing a date for it in short order. But it was a much more ambitious film from a visual effects perspective, so it’s taken a lot longer to complete but it’s been a really fascinating experience. That script has actually been my personal favourite for a number of years so I was really thrilled to be able to finally make it. But yeah, that one’s just finished up, we’re orchestrating the score right now and I’m hoping that people will be able to see that in theatres very early next year.

You can buy Oculus on Blu-ray for £15 at Amazon.co.uk and read our review here. Keep up to date with the latest horror news in the new issue of SciFiNow.