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September 20th, 2014

Director Mike Flanagan Interview, Oculus

Opening April 11th, co-writer/director Mike Flanagan’s “Oculus” introduces audiences to a new kind of terror: the eerily inscrutable Lasser Glass. This beautiful antique mirror is no ordinary villain. Though the mirror’s true origins have been lost with its victims, it carries the name of its first recorded owner, Philip Lasser. It’s seemingly harmless reflections hold a malevolent supernatural force that infects the mind of the viewer, leading to paranoia, distorted visions, and eventually possession. The riveting horror movie stars Karen Gillan (Kaylie), Brenton Thwaites (Tim), Katee Sackhoff (Marie Russell), Rory Cochrane (Alan Russell), and James Lafferty (Michael).

Flanagan’s journey bringing “Oculus” to the screen began with a short film of the same name he wrote and directed in 2005. That film, which was made for just under $1,500 and shot in four days, featured one actor alone in a room with the Lasser glass for the entirety of its 30-minute running time. The short presented a fantastic writing challenge, and despite the limitations of its scope and budget, it became an acclaimed hit on the festival circuit, garnering numerous awards and immediately prompting calls for a feature-length version. Flanagan and his writing partner, Jeff Howard, found a way to expand the story without losing what made the original so appealing.

At the film’s recent press day, Flanagan, executive producer Jason Blum, and producer Trevor Macy talked about the original short story that inspired the feature, why having a writer/director who is also an editor was invaluable on an indie film with a limited budget, how the construct of dual intersecting timelines was key to the ingeniousness of the story, how the experience of directing the short prepared Flanagan for helming the feature, what they did to keep the film compelling and suspenseful while also respecting the genre and the expectations of the fans, and the possibility of a sequel.

Here’s what they had to say:

QUESTION: Trevor and Jason, can you weigh in on Mike as a director and the benefit of having him also being an editor with the construct of this dual timeline that intercuts which is key to the ingeniousness of this story?

TREVOR MACY: You’ve got to answer that question by starting with how he writes, because one of the interesting things about working with Mike is when we developed the script in the early drafts, it was a bit hard to tell, and we ended up doing something very simple which was all the past timeline was in italics and all the present timeline wasn’t. So, on the page, you could ultimately see the difference. But at the time he was writing, he and his writing partner Jeff Howard were planning the editorial transitions. What was interesting about that is pretty much everything you see, all the key transitions that blur the lines of reality in the second and third acts, were planned in advance. The other thing about working with an editor as the director, which honestly I hadn’t done before, is it’s an independent film with a small budget and you never have enough time or enough money. What was really fun on set is Mike is able to come up with a lot of creative solutions. What happens is, as a practical matter, you’re 12 hours into your 12-hour day and you can’t afford more than an hour of overtime. You have more shots left than you can find. So, when Mike and I would huddle about that, it was always like, “Okay. I can cut this, and I’m going to cut that, so that the way the coverage will work is I’m going to cut from here and here, but then I don’t need this, and I can transition this to here. He knew exactly what he was doing and we were able to make choices as a result that allowed us to make the movie look a lot bigger than it was. It’s just about committing creatively to that path on the day. So I think it was cool in both senses.

Q: Mike, do you want to talk about that inventive story structure?

MIKE FLANAGAN: The braided timeline structure was something that existed in the very first outline for the feature treatment, and we always knew it was going to be really difficult to pull off. I’ve been working as an editor out here at that point for a little more than a decade. Going into it, you never know with a movie if it’s going to be your last, especially if it’s your first. It was coming at it and being like, “Okay, well if everything goes away and this doesn’t work out, how can I make the coolest movie that I’d want to watch if this ends up being my only shot?” For me, it was like how can I set this up in a way that it will be my own Everest of editing and really lean on all of that sensibility from the script point of view? The idea was always that we could take these two stories, braid them in a way that the transitions are getting tighter and tighter and tighter and we’re bouncing back more and more frequently, hopefully to the point that the two stories bleed together into a way that we can’t tell the difference any longer and the characters can’t tell the difference any longer. Especially dealing with a monster that’s an inanimate object, it’s the only way you can sustain tension over a long period of time, which was a big concern coming off the short. I felt like we had pushed the limit at that point. It was interesting for a half hour, but how were we going to triple that? It was to create a sense of distortion and disorientation that would be similar for the viewer as it was for Tim and Kaylie in the room, and then that could only really work I thought by making the narrative as disorienting as possible, which of course just means you’re creating a nightmare from a continuity perspective, making it much more difficult for the actors to maintain a continuity within their own performances. But because that was clearly going to be the challenge of it, that was something we leaned into early and it was like okay, we’re going to go with the most difficult road and just really hope that it comes together.

Q: Jason, when I last saw you, you were particularly excited about this among all the many projects you had in development. What was it about the short and the story that grabbed and spoke to you?

JASON BLUM: I actually got involved with the movie after these guys had made it already, so kind of like we did on “Paranormal Activity.” It screened in Toronto and I loved it. The distribution was in question how it was going to happen, and so there was a way to try and lend our name and marketing. A lot of the stuff that we did on “Paranormal Activity” we took to this movie, and I was psyched to do it and helped out. We came and we got involved at that point. The reason why my eyes lit up when we talked about it in October was because of exactly what we’re talking about. A studio would never make this movie. It would never get made in a traditional $30 million “Carrie” type format, like a studio-produced horror movie as opposed to a studio-distributed horror movie. I loved that and I thought that was really original. That’s why my eyes lit up.

Q: Mike, how many mirrors did you look at before finding the right one? And is it the same one as in the short?

FLANAGAN: Close. It’s very close. Looking for the mirrors for the short film was challenging mostly because we couldn’t afford any. It was like trying to find something that would have character and be Gothic but also beautiful, because I didn’t want it to be like, “Who the hell would hang this up in their house?” That was really tricky. We found this mirror which was plastic. It was a bathroom mirror and I think from the Howard Elliott Collection. We got in touch and we were able to get the mirror in. When it came time for the feature, we wanted to design our own thing taking some DNA from that original mirror but trying to come up with something that was going to be even more impactful, more organic, and have more living qualities to it. There’s something really awesome that they did with the mirror which is when you get really close to it, the frame itself is comprised of these writhing humanoid forms that are all interlocked. You can’t really see it from a few feet away. You have to get right up against it to really pick up that detail which I loved. We had crew walking up and leaning their face up against it to see it. It was like only as you really examined it did the horror elements become obvious. I thought that was so cool for the movie. It’s hard to show it. There’s only one shot I think in the film where Kaylie reaches up and touches it in the auction basement where you can see that design work, but even that, we didn’t want to show it too much, but having the idea that this was an organic creature that was digesting the souls of the people that it would come in contact with. We had an idea early on too that we could say the frame had actually been growing subtly over the years as it kept feeding. Looking at it as a living thing was really important to the design. The one they came up with is a really interesting riff on some of the elements that the actual mirror in the short had. That mirror is actually still hanging in my son’s room. I loved the way it was Russell Barnes and an artist in Alabama named Bruce Larsen who came together and created that frame for it. I really loved that thing and I really want one of those for my son’s room as well.

Q: How did the experience of directing the short prepare you for directing the feature, especially with the short where you have one actor in one room all by himself with the mirror?

FLANAGAN: The short was a fantastic exercise because we didn’t have any resources, and in order to create tension and satisfy the genre elements that we wanted to hit without any of the tools that you’d expect to have, it was a great exercise for us. The other thing that the short didn’t have money for was the lights, so we just had to wash the whole thing in light and it’s really tough. When you come into a horror movie, immediately people try to infuse it with darkness and shadow, because we have an inherent fear of that and that sets a tone for the genre. It’s like okay, I’m going to be immersed in darkness and shadows and low light and high contrast and things like that. For the short, it was like all the lights are on and the room is bright. It’s a bright room and there’s no shadow to hide in. If we can make that scary, then we can get away with almost anything. The other things that it was really useful for was we learned really fast that you can only put a camera in the room with the mirror in one of three places before you’d see it reflected back at you. Shooting in a small space with a large reflective surface is actually a terrible idea. It was really good to work all that out early before we got into dealing with the feature and the question came up very quickly and intrepid, which was how are you going to make this visually interesting if you have to shoot it at a reflective surface? How are you not going to see the crew? How are you going to make it work aesthetically and have variation in shots and how are you going to get to move the camera through the space without giving everything away. That was a question that came in very early and it was like, “Well, this is what we’ve learned from doing the short,” which was not only dealing with the reflective surface of the mirror but also with these live monitors that were with the cameras. Our crew would be caught in that, too. It was like we’ve already had to learn the really hard lessons of that. The beauty of the feature was that was the one room that we built on a stage and we could have wild walls to give ourselves just a couple of feet of extra room so that we could keep the camera moving and have a wide variety in our coverage without bumping into the problems of the glass. That was a big lesson that carried over.

And then, the other lesson from the short that I think was the most important was that we had wanted it to play like an old campfire story. One of the things about having a sterile, brightly lit environment without any decoration, without anything else, was that it forced the viewer to focus on the words and the stories of the mirror that Tim in the short was telling. The beauty about a campfire is you’ve just got the fire. Everything else melts away into nothing so you can focus, and you sit and you create this story in your own head. The history of the mirror section in the short film made it to the feature almost untouched. That was something that when you look at it in the script, it’s 13 pages of exposition, and people would come at you saying, “I don’t think this is going to work. It’s not going to hold the attention of the viewer to just sit and hear these stories.” We could point to the short and say it did in the short film. It took a lot of really intense coverage and editing in order to keep the pace of just the filmmaking up to keep it interesting. And it takes an actor that can really deliver that kind of intensity again and again and again to sell that. But that was a really important thing to have, because when the feature was getting out there, that scene was one of the more controversial and one of the ones that people would say, “Well that’s going to get cut way back. People aren’t going to sit through that. People aren’t going to want to.” And so, it was really rewarding as we found out together. It’s turned out to be that when we would test the film, it shows up consistently in the top three favorite scenes in the movie. If we hadn’t had the dry run with the short to kind of convince ourselves and other people that an audience can hang on that kind of storytelling for an extended period of time, I don’t think we could have ever made an argument to doing the feature.

Q: The horror genre in general is one of the few where audiences and the diehard fans are not afraid to express their distaste or pick out plot holes and that kind of thing. Did you pour over the script even more knowing the fans and the genre?

FLANAGAN: Oh yeah. You’re talking to some of the most enthusiastic fans out there. And you’re right, as one of them, we analyze and dissect and take it so seriously. Those fans are so eager to protect the genre from itself in a lot of ways. There’s going to be this intense, additional scrutiny just because you’re putting something out there into a marketplace that’s got this fan base that’s so rabid. As one of those fans, that makes me really happy, but as a writer, it’s really tough because on every draft it was like, what are the questions that they’re going to ask? Where is somebody going to throw up their hands? And more importantly, where in the movie can we give voice to those fans, like the person that sits in the theater and crosses their arms and says, “Why don’t you break it?” Where is the character in the movie who says the same? So that they can say, okay, my perspective is being represented actually by a character in the film. And then, is our answer going to be good enough? All of that was really difficult because we didn’t want to ever have it be our fault that we would leave a hole that size in the script. Going back and making sure that the characters in the movie would react and act the way an intelligent viewer would was very important. That’s tough. Luckily also, we’ve lived with this thing for so long. After the short, it was seven years before we got into pre-production on the feature. There was plenty of time to ask all these questions and to try to anticipate them. That’s one of the things where that long kind of gulf between the short and the feature helped a lot because there was tons of time to just think about it. It’s one of those things where knowing that fan base and being an enthusiastic member of it certainly helps, because we want them to come out and feel like their intelligence has been respected by the story and that they’re not going to sit there and have to suspend common sense. Suspending disbelief in a movie is one thing. We all do it and every genre requires it. But suspending common sense is different and I don’t think people enjoy it. I don’t think people respond to movies where characters are behaving in a way that an audience member never would. I think that’s something to be very aware of. It certainly isn’t always easy.

Q: Jason, you have a lot of experience in the genre. How do you feel about addressing the concerns of the fans?

BLUM: I think it’s very important to me in terms of logic stuff. We do exactly what you described for all our movies. We screen them a lot of times for fans. I think one thing that’s fun about the horror community is because in a lot of ways we’re outcasts in Hollywood because horror is looked down upon, what it does is it keeps people who love horror and make horror, it keeps us all together. And so, when we make our movies, actually every movie we do, we have a bunch of directors who come and watch and talk to each other. It feels like much more of a family. Mostly what they’re doing is exactly what Mike is talking about. It’s protecting the genre and making sure that the movies make sense and that people are reacting to scary things in the way that they should be.

Q: Mike, I wanted that mirror so badly to get its comeuppance. I was like, “When are they going to break it?” How did the crack get there since supposedly they couldn’t break it?

FLANAGAN: The crack gets there when Alan gets shot and his head flies back and hits the glass, and the reason that that was able to happen and the kids can’t break it with the golf clubs is that when they’re attacking it, their perception of what they’re doing is able to be controlled and influenced. Alan is not doing anything that the mirror can mess with. Any trick it plays in his head is not going to change the trajectory of his head after he gets shot. That’s one of the areas where it has that weakness. The idea was that they could wound it at the very least, that while Kaylie’s plan wasn’t perfect, the mirror is breakable, just not if you’re trying, which is another thing that’s really difficult to play with as you get into the mechanics of the script. It was like if we’re going to have to deal with this breakability issue, and if the mirror’s defense mechanisms are what it does to your perception, that will keep it safe to an extent, but not forever. As far as wanting it to get its comeuppance, I love that because that makes me feel like the stories that you’ve learned about it make you want it dead, which hopefully puts you in the same place with Kaylie.

Q: Did you write it the way it ended with a sequel in mind? I think it does have the potential to become a franchise.

FLANAGAN: Thank you. It wasn’t that we left it alive at the end thinking sequel. Jason says this really well.

BLUM: You want my sequel talk?

FLANAGAN: Yeah.

BLUM: My sequel point of view is it’s one of the many benefits of low budget movies that you don’t have to think about sequels. I think one of the drags about making $100 million big studio movies is that you can’t make an original $100 million movie without having five hundred conversations about the sequels. But when a director comes to us and says, “I’ve got a great new movie and I know what the sequel is going to be,” my face always falls, because I really feel like, and with this movie too, it’s like it is so hard to make a low budget scary movie, or any movie for that matter, but a scary movie in particular, that gets a big, wide release. I always say, “Make the best movie you can possibly make, and if it works and people love it, and you the filmmaker-writer-director want to do a sequel, we’ll do a sequel.” But I think it’s like counting your eggs before they hatch. I also had the experience of doing “Paranormal Activity” where that movie was like everyone when we were making “Paranormal Activity 2” was like, “Oh found footage. It’s a found footage movie. What? They found more footage?” Everyone thought it was going to be “Blair Witch 2” and we figured it out. We made five more. I feel like you can always figure them out, but I don’t think it’s good to tailor a story to what’s next as opposed to just telling the best story you can.

Q: Especially because you guys have a history with that segment that you just talked about. It has a history and everybody loses so somebody’s got to get that mirror!

BLUM: (Laughs) If it’s a big hit movie, we’re calling you.

Q: Mike, I was wondering if the short from your perspective was like a pitch for a feature idea that you had back then or was it the other way around where you made a feature because you wanted to revisit the elements?

FLANAGAN: It was more the second, kind of in line with what Jason was saying. While we were working on the short, it wasn’t about this could seed a feature. It was more about how do we make a really awesome short. Because we didn’t have resources, it was like this was an opportunity to get out there and be like, “This is what we can do with nothing. But let’s make this half-hour short as good as possible.” It was that kind of thing where like if there was going to be interest, we didn’t have any idea at the time what a feature expansion would look like. It took years to get there. It was like, if someone comes in and really wants to do it, and it’s something that makes sense and feels like it would be an exciting movie that people would want to see, then absolutely. But the priority at the time was not at all beyond just completing that little movie and hopefully getting it out there, to what we knew would be a limited audience, because finding a home for short films is really hard. It’s going to be a tiny little drop in the pond but we’d like it to be a cool one. That film found a very small audience on the festival circuit which was passionate about it. One of the things that I think is really neat and the coolest facets of what’s happened with the feature for me is that it looks like the short will be included on the DVD when the feature is released. Just the idea of that little movie getting out there to such a big audience is really awesome because [originally] it didn’t. I mean, there are always hopes and you hope it turns into something bigger or at least leads to another project. That wasn’t something that we certainly believed would happen when we were making it. And so, for everyone who worked on that tiny little movie, it’s such a neat thing to be able to call them up and say, “Guess what? It’s going to be out there in the world. It’s ten years later, but it will be out there.” That, for me, is one of the really rewarding moments of this entire experience.




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