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Interview: ‘Oculus’ director Mike Flanagan talks bringing realism to horror

Mike Flanagan and Karen Gillan on the set of "Oculus"
Mike Flanagan and Karen Gillan on the set of "Oculus"
John Estes © 2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Fresh off of a night spent at the infamous Stanley Hotel––"I stayed up way too late just taking pictures in the hallways trying to see stuff,” he said of the experience––director Mike Flanagan sat down to talk about his wildly inventive new film, “Oculus”. The budding genre heavyweight also sounded off on the larger state of horror in Hollywood, his influences and why realism is one of his primary concerns as a filmmaker.

Horror is a genre that suffers more than most from an endless string of remakes, reboots, sequels and prequels, but Flanagan––who writes and edits in addition to directing–-is a guy who has managed to get original done. His last film, “Absentia” was made on a microbudget, but racked up numerous awards and nominations, which paved the way for him to get “Oculus” made.

“Oculus” pits a brother and sister against a mirror dishing out some serious evil. The brilliance of Flanagan’s picture, which could have ended up just another movie about a haunting, is that he flips the traditional approach on its head by injecting logic and scientific method into the proceedings as his characters try to provoke supernatural and paranormal phenomena to prove that the mirror was responsible for a tragedy in their past.

Originality and horror
Originality and horror John Estes © 2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Originality and horror

So, is creating original horror as daunting as it seems?

“It’s not tough to work that way, it’s tough to sell that way, because people––and it’s not exclusive to horror, but it’s more true in that genre than a lot of others––tend to gravitate toward familiar elements and say, ‘Well this worked last year, let’s get out there and do it again.’ It’s hard to convince people to take a chance because they get nervous that the audience is going to reject anything different. It’s really exciting and incredible when you find people that are behind that. I got fortunate to get hooked up with Trevor and Intrepid, and Relativity and Blumhouse came on and were enthusiastic for all the right reasons. I know a lot of guys that are out there making really compelling stuff that isn’t finding its audience, so I’m very lucky,” Flanagan explained.

But, that’s not to say that creating original work is exactly easy either, even when you get to go back to one of your own ideas and take it to the next level. Flanagan and his writing partner Jeff Howard faced the challenge of expanding “Oculus”, which lived first as a short, to a feature length film.

“It was incredibly difficult to find a structure that would support a feature. The short’s just one guy alone in a room for a half-hour and it took us forever to crack a structure for a feature that didn’t feel like we were just padding the short, but were actually expanding it. The two biggest challenges were finding a structure that we liked and then finding a producer that was supportive of that, and that took seven years,” he said.

“I mean, I think back to the short, and it was six of us, in a room, with no lights and no equipment, trying to kind of tell a story about this mirror..it’s surreal for me. I always hoped, but I don’t think I ever really imagined that we’d get the release that we’re getting, and the support of a studio like Relativity, who are putting it out there in such a big way. That they put that much faith in it, and the audience, that horror fans would appreciate an intelligent movie and...that they would come out for something that was different, I found that really inspiring and I’m very grateful for that,” he added.

Method and influences
Method and influences John Estes © 2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Method and influences

On the other end of the struggle to expand and find support for the story, “Oculus” is a unique entry in the category of paranormal horror. In particular, the structural approach and the way in which the film addresses the real and the logical make it the proverbial breath of fresh air in a genre that has been stifled, to a certain extent, by repetition.

“I’m a science nut and a natural born skeptic. So one of the things for me that’s really important is to present a counter-argument to the paranormal. I find that fascinating just in my own life. I also think we’re very quick in horror movies to accept fantastic ideas without scrutinizing them. And one of the things that the genre can do, unfortunately, is put people in the situation where they don’t respond to things the way a rational, normal person would. So it’s very important for me that we don’t fall into that trap of ‘why don’t you leave the house?’ It’s another layer of realism, and I think what makes the truly scary movies scary is not the scares, but the realism that surrounds them,” Flanagan said. “‘The Exorcist’ isn’t ‘The Exorcist’ if you don’t spend 45 minutes telling everybody that this is objective reality that you can relate to before the genre even comes through the door.

“There’s this kind of thought in a lot of studio movies where it’s like get the genre elements in as early as possible, give the audience the scares right away cause that’s what they are there for, but they don’t land until you’ve accepted that I can relate to this reality, it’s real and then all those genre elements are that much more effective. Trying to preserve realism is a priority for me in everything,” he added.

Flanagan is clearly an artist who puts plenty of thought into his work, so it should come as no surprise that he quickly and happily called out a few sources of inspiration that have informed his work on “Oculus” and elsewhere.

“For me, the biggest influence across the board is Stephen King. I started reading his novels when I was very young, and I’ve read every one of them. I’m a rabid, constant reader. He does so much wonderful character work,” he said. “For this one, specifically, ‘The Shining’ and ‘1408’ were big influences, and ‘The X-Files’ too. I always thought what was awesome about that show was it took the paranormal and the scientific and both viewpoints were represented through Mulder and Scully.”

It’s fortunate that Flanagan is a student of solid character work, because “Oculus” tells the story of siblings Kaylie and Tim in the present day, but also in their youth, meaning their development had to hold up through two timelines and be embodied by multiple actors.

“Having characters that needed to be made real by two different actors is certainly more challenging, but I was very fortunate in our casting because I was able to get our first choice for Kaylie, which was Karen [Gillian]––I’m a big Whovian and a big ‘Battlestar Galactica’ fan, so first of all as a fan it was insane for me to be able to work with these actresses (Katee Sackoff of ‘Battlestar’ is also in the cast)––but once the cast started to fall into place, watching them take ownership of the characters and create them themselves was a lot of fun,” Flanagan said.

“I had that kind of perfect directing scenario where at a certain point my job was to tell people where to stand and get out of their way. I didn’t have to get in there and mess with them. It was one of those rare scenarios where you get to trust a movie to its cast. In our case, we casted it better than I ever would have imagined when we were in prep,” he added.

 The current horror landscape
The current horror landscape John Estes © 2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The current horror landscape

It’s fair to say that Flanagan is pretty firmly entrenched in the Hollywood horror scene, as such, he was well equipped to comment on how perceives the state of the genre as a whole. Horror fans with big ideas, take note: Now may be the best moment to try to breathe life into them.

“One of the things that Jason Blum brought to the business was showing people that movies that are made on a smaller scale, can not only find their audience, but can be major successes as well. You don’t need to go out there and have big movie stars and spend a ton of money to have a really successful genre picture, so that’s awesome,” he said.

“The other thing that I think is exciting is that digital technology has made it so that almost anybody can make a film. I would never have been able to get a foothold in this industry at all unless I’d been able to do a film like ‘Absentia’, which was so inexpensive and was kind of put together with a paper clip and a glue gun,” Flanagan explained. “That movie, as small as it was, could get out there and find an audience. It made ‘Oculus’ possible. I think filmmakers have a chance now to get out there and make content the way they didn’t 10 years ago, it’s kind of given the power back to the people, and to the audience.”

Those who enjoy “Oculus” have plenty more in the way of Flanagan’s films to look forward to, as it doesn’t sound like the writer-director-editor plans to slow down anytime soon.

“I just finished a movie called ‘Somnia’ that I’m very proud of, we’re just wrapping up post production on that one. That’s also with [producer] Trevor Macy, that’ll be our second movie together and we just announced pre-production on a third [‘Diver’], which we’re going to start shooting this summer, which is a really cool, kind of supernatural thriller,” he said.

“At the moment, I’m kind of just going from movie to movie to movie as long as people will let me, [laughs], you know?”