Mike Flanagan admits he stalks Twitter, hence how he knew I would reference Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark during our interview. Flanagan has burst out of the gate, bridging the gap between fan and auteur with works like Hush, the upcoming Doctor Sleep, and his Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. Flanagan chatted about tackling King’s Shining sequel, finding influences in death and dying, and what fans can expect from The Haunting of Bly Manor.
How did you get involved with the project?
Mike Flanagan: I'm a rabid fan is what it is. I grew up on The Shining; it was one of the first horror movies I ever saw. It was formative in a profound way for me. I studied Kubrick exhaustively as I learned about cinema and admired so thoroughly his whole filmography. I'm also a constant reader. I'm a life-long King fanatic; he's my hero [and] I've always had this ache in my heart about what happened between the Kubrick Shining and the King Shining, and that gulf of space that exists between them. It's always hurt a little.
I had this weird experience when I read Doctor Sleep. I was so excited to read it; I was so excited to revisit Dan Torrance; I was so excited to be back in this world. As I'm reading this quintessential Stephen King story about sobriety and responsibility all the images in my head were Kubrick. All of them. I felt someday someone was going to make that movie [and] what a cool opportunity that would be to pull all that back together. I never thought it would be me who made it. I still have a hard time believing that happened, but that's what made me want to do it.
I reacted as a fan and I was thinking, "This is the weird movie playing in my head that bridges that gap and celebrates everything I love about Kubrick and King. If we could celebrate it all at once what a cool movie that could be." Then I ended up being very lucky that I had the chance to do it. As soon as that moment of celebration passed on the first day then the terror set in, and the nausea. I basically spent the last two years of my life trying not to throw up.
Where does one start to adapt the novel and balance the original story with The Shining continuation?
You're asking the question I ask myself every day and I don't know. The approach in the writing was to try to be as faithful as I could to Dan's story, to Abra's story, and to Rose's story. I looked at that as three different movies that would collide into one at the end. I tried to stay as close as I could to Doctor Sleep while doing the necessary condensing of the plot because it is huge [and] knowing the big change I wanted to make was the location of the final confrontation. Once I knew that it meant we're going back to the Overlook that demanded a certain amount of changes. I would stick as close as I could to Doctor Sleep up until that point and then I had to reach back, into not only the Kubrick film but past that and into the novel The Shining. My ending has more in common with the ending of The Shining, the original book, then it has with Doctor Sleep.
I'm a terrible person, I see the movies and then don't read the books.
Almost everything Dan does [is] Jack's story from The Shining. That's one of the reasons King hated the Kubrick so much. He said, "In my story Jack Torrance, in that last moment, has Danny dead to rights and he can't hurt him." His parental love overcomes the madness and he sacrifices himself to save Wendy and Danny. Kubrick got rid of all of that, so I wanted to go back and give Stephen King fans, and King himself, some of the ending that Kubrick never gave him. That seemed like an amazing gift.
This and Haunting of Hill House both look deeply at death and dying. What's the allure of that in your work?
That's a fair question, I think it's allure. The question of what happens when we die and is there anything on the other side of it has been one of the most motivating questions for storytellers, philosophers; it's where we get religion and myth. It's a question we all have, the most universal question. So I'm as fascinated by that question as anyone else. In this story in particular it fit so well into my wheelhouse, into the kind of story I like to tell, because of the story King had set in that hospice. When Dan finds his purpose in the book it's to be at someone's side at that moment, and the only knowledge Dan has, because of the horrible things he saw at the Overlook, is that death isn't the end. That was so cool! I'm fascinated with that because that question preoccupies me. That's the allure of it, it's one of the most quintessential human questions.
I brought up Near Dark when talking about this movie. Were there deliberate movies or pop culture elements you drew from?
I love Near Dark! Near Dark is awesome! When I talked to Rebecca [Ferguson] about the True Knot, we wanted to get away from the polyester of the book, the kitschiness King imbued them with. They're much older and goofy, beer hats, trying to appear unthreatening. We both thought that will just look kitschy. We liked the idea that it's this tribe of people and Near Dark is a great prototype of this nomadic tribe that's still aware of the time that they're in, but [are] a product of the time they've been in before, that they could collect moments of fashion and accessories from all these various times. We would talk about who's to say this belt that looks really cool isn't an authentic Civil War belt?
As you scrutinize the True Knot you're seeing a mosaic of trinkets they've collected from all these periods of times and places in the world that they've lived. It comes into this outdoorsy, woodsy, Southern, Western vibe because so much of that in America was the predominant flavor of fashion for so long. Thinking that it's like 'yes, they clearly lived in New York for this part of the 18th-century. What would they have adorned themselves with and what would they have held onto?' Each member of the cast who played a member of the True Knot would have little things that meant a lot to them. It was like 'okay, well I'm going to have this compass, or I'm going to have this watch, or I'm going to have this vest.' They all had a story. We approached it as this schizophrenic collection of influences. Near Dark was something we did talk about as such a cool touchstone for that.
How does nostalgia play into your work?
You can't really understand the present unless you can understand the past. One of the things about my own life that has been really resonant is that what I think I remember, what I think I understand about myself, upon further reflection into my own past it changes the decisions I make now. The only way to move forward sometimes is to look back. I find that contradiction to be fascinating. As I've gotten old enough to have children of my own I'm watching their childhood unfold in front of me and I'm thinking, "Someday a grownup is going to look back at this moment, look back at what I'm witnessing right now trying to understand it and their memory of this moment is probably not going to be correct and they're going to use that to try to decide who they are and how they behave." Knowing that my children are going to go through that, I'm so fascinated now by how the echoes of our past shape our future. It's a theme that I grab onto quite a bit.
It's not as simple as nostalgia. I know we do live in a nostalgic time and I think that's because things are so bad, things are so uncertain. L.A. up the street is literally on fire which is probably, in no small part, exacerbated by the fact that our planet is like 'what the fuck?' That level of uncertainty means we are more desperate than ever to look back into some perceived safety we can find in our past. If we can't be safe today remember when we were safe? Remember when we felt secure? There's a natural gravity to that but, for me, it's more. One of the things I love about the tagline the studio came up with this for this - "Dare to go back" - it's like yes! We all have to do that and it requires courage, that's what I love about that word "dare." Yes, it's nostalgic and pleasant to revisit our past but to really do it in a way that can be useful? It requires courage and that's hard.
Can you give us any update on The Haunting of Bly Manor?
There's more coming! I actually left set to be here. I left Vancouver where we're a third of the way through the shoot to come out here. But the cool thing about this season is we're using The Turn of the Screw and that book has been adapted so many times. I was initially like, "God, how do we do something different?" There's a new Turn of the Screw every couple years whether you need it or not. I love this story as a backbone but what else can we do? The gift that this season has is not in The Turn of the Screw, which is a great way in, but we have all of Henry James' ghost stories, even the ones that have never been adapted. What's really cool is instead of drawing the events of this season out to fill the time, I have so much to fit in. It's all material that fits together beautifully, all through the lens of this classic author, most of which has never been adapted before and that's so much fun!
Doctor Sleep hits theaters this Friday, November 8th