[I had] the same two insecurities I imagine plague a lot of people throughout their careers—the first being how we can get all these voices together into one? And the second, what if everybody in this room figures out that I’m making this up as I go along?
Maybe it’s something in the air, but horror is king in American film and TV right now. Riding a wave of zeitgeist channelers like It, Get Out, and Stranger Things, 2019 will see reboots of Pet Cemetery, Jacob’s Ladder, and Child’s Play (Chuckie’s back!), the highly anticipated third season of Stranger Things and literally dozens of other projects founded in terror. For Mike Flanagan, who’s helmed and written in the genre for over a decade, including a 2017 remake of Steven King’s Gerald’s Game (for Netflix) and the forthcoming Doctor Sleep, a much-anticipated follow up to King’s The Shining (starring Ewan McGregor as the grown up Danny Torrance), this horror renaissance has been a very good thing.
Flanagan’s most recent work, The Haunting of Hill House—a 10 episode series that bowed on Netflix last October—has been both a critical and audience heart-stopper. Based loosely on the iconic 1959 Shirley Jackson novel of the same title, it infuses masterful, boundary-bending horror with deep, psychologically probing family drama that hits close to home in ways ghouls popping out of closets can’t always. Jumping betwixt past and present, the show follows the Crain family as they grapple in the present day with the haunting and tragic events that drove them from Hill House decades earlier.
Flanagan spoke with the Writers Guild of America West Web site about the opportunity and challenges of reimagining what was for him a favorite childhood book into 10 episodes of television, how striking the balance between character depth and “scares” was not easy, and why delving into intimate family drama made everything scarier.
This is not the first adaption of Shirley Jackson’s famous book. How and why did you arrive at this approach to the material, which is homage, but a total departure at the same time?
I’ve loved the book since I was a kid, and I loved the Robert Wise film for many, many years. So when Amblin first approached me for it, my initial reaction to the idea of adapting this book into 10 hours was that it would need significant expansion no matter what. The material in the book is really well suited to a feature, and I thought Robert Wise had made that feature just about as well as someone could make it. There wasn’t really a path to doing a straight adaptation, we would have had to stretch the material well beyond its breaking point and would have had to pad it to the point that it wouldn’t make sense. I also didn’t see any upside in trying to approach the material the way that Wise did. I didn’t think I could outdo what he did. So initially my thought was, could I identify the themes from the book and moments from the book that really spoke to me and stuck with me, and try to use those as a jumping off point? I always kind of looked at it as a remix. I’ve heard some people describe it as an echo of the source material, which I thought was a clever way to look at it.
Part of it was by necessity given our longer format, and part of it was just not wanting to retread ground that had been done so well already.
It’s interesting where that predicament took you. You’ve now made this a family drama—with lots of screams in it—sort of a haunted This Is Us. How did you get to that family drama?
Well, I’ve always been more attracted to familial relationships, especially for longer formats. I feel like when you have that much time to spend with characters, it’s really interesting when a lot of scaffolding of their relationships is already present, and that's something that comes naturally with familial interactions. Families very often don’t have subtext with each other. They don’t censor themselves. They react to things in a much more visceral way. What I was thinking about the most was Six Feet Under, as opposed to This Is Us. I love that show so much. For me, it was like, what a great opportunity to play in that space a little bit, to deal with the kind of quirky interactions and the kind of authenticity you can get when a family—especially a damaged family—gets to go under a microscope for 10 hours. That was really appealing to me. I wanted to approach it like a drama first because I really think the best genre elements only really land if you can identify with the characters and you can relate to them in a grounded way. Then the supernatural element doesn’t knock you out of the story so much as hopefully prop it up. That was my thought.
Depth of character has not, traditionally, a pillar of the horror genre. How difficult has it been to mingle those two disparate elements?
Oh, it’s been a bit of a tightrope act, because there is a fear that if you tilt it too far into the drama corner, that the [horror] genre fans will be left disappointed. There are a certain number of tropes. I tend to think that those tropes are so familiar and so many things are played out that they tend to evaporate very quickly if you don’t have the bedrock of character to build on. But it’s a difficult line to straddle. We spent a lot of time in the writers’ room talking about if we were tipping the needle too far in either direction. And we always tried to nudge it back towards the center. It was a very difficult balance.
So it was something you had to be continuously conscious of…
Oh, yes. It was actually pretty excruciating, especially when you’re breaking story. In that early stage we would have index cards on the wall signifying specific scares, and we tried to be careful when we were letting them out and how much time had gone by in an episode without a genre moment, how much time we were dedicating specifically to character and to the dramatic elements. We would move the cards around. It’s almost like music, you try to find a rhythm that would sustain itself. It’s difficult enough to come up with a sense of tension that would last for a feature film. I find that very challenging. The idea of stretching it out for 10 hours at first was very daunting. All of us in the room wrestled with that, all the way to the end.
Another thematic component is the question of sanity itself, of truth. We live in an interesting time, with questions of what a fact is, what truth is, the idea of gas-lighting. How much did you think that question spoke to the current zeitgeist or was that just how the narrative worked?
It’s definitely very timely. I wonder if, in a way, it’s always been that way. That was a major engine for Jackson’s original novel as well, having to evaluate the sanity of Eleanor in that book. I still don’t know where I fall at the end of the day, with whether or not that character was sane and whether or not that matters to the story by the time it’s resolved.
Eleanor is a component you drew more directly from the original novel, right?
Right. And the way we structured it was that each of the siblings have their own episode in the first half of the season before we bring everybody together. Hers was smack in the middle—it’s episode five. I think that pulled more than any other story line, directly from the material. We still had to spin it on its head to go with the structure that we were going for and to make it contemporary.
Netflix kind of brought horror fantasy back to the big time on television with Stranger Things. You’ve worked with them before, but how is it from a creative standpoint to be working on that platform in this genre right at this moment.
Well, they do two things better—actually three—that are essential to being able to execute genre for television. The first being the binge-ability of it, the way they release the content all at once. It allows people to absorb that tension without interrupting it or dissipating it over a week while you wait. Similarly, they don’t have to worry about commercials, which are just fatal to any sense of sustainable tension on a show like this. That also opens things up. But more than anything—and a lot of people who do work for Netflix will say the same—their creative support is pretty unprecedented. I don’t think even the most filmmaker-friendly studio you can find out there puts their trust in the filmmaker the way that Netflix does. If you have a strong point of view, they tend to want you to execute that point of view, even if it’s risky. And for us, our risky episode was the sixth episode, which from a technical point of view was kind of ridiculous. When I pitched it to Netflix, they said, “Wow, that’s going to be really tough to pull off. That could go wrong in a number of ways, but yeah, give it a shot.” And as we got closer and closer to that episode, they even put in additional money to try it. I can’t imagine anywhere else that would do that.
Your wife [Kate Siegel], who you’ve worked with before, stars in the show. Because of your familiarity with her as an actress and her voice, do you hear her voice when you’re writing?
Absolutely. For this series in particular, I’ve worked with so many of the cast before that I was able to write to them, throughout the process, which helps a lot too with the voices early in the show. If I hadn’t known who was going to play a lot of these parts it would have been much harder to have these characters stand up. With Kate, in particular and with Carla [Gugino], and Henry Thomas and Elizabeth [Reaser]—all people that I’ve worked with before—it really made it much easier.
They’re kind of signposts to help you navigate through?
Oh, yeah. We’re on a total shorthand. And with Kate in particular, because I’d always been writing that part with her in my head, it was great because I got to talk with her about the character before we started writing the scripts. The same with Carla. Carla and I had long conversations about Olivia before she ever was put down on the page. And even then, three or four episodes in, we had another summit where we took a look at the character as she was developing so far. Carla got to put her fingerprints on her then as well. So it was nice to be able to shape the characters with certain actors from the outset, before we ever filmed the pilot.
Have you always had that kind of open, actor-friendly process?
With the right actor, not with everybody.
Don’t just say actor at large, right…
Right. With Kate obviously, for sure, and Carla. Carla more than earned my trust when we did Gerald’s Game together. With the right actor, I’m wide open to collaborating as much as possible. I try and make sure that’s a status we get to organically, as opposed to giving people a blank check out the gate.
How many people are in the writers’ room on this show?
We have seven. It’s myself, Meredith Averill, Liz Phang, [Jeff] Howard, who I have written with for most of my career, Scott Kosar, Rebecca Klingel, and Charise Smith.
When you are writing by yourself, do you have any idiosyncratic rituals? What is your process? When, where, and how do you do it?
I write the best in bed with a laptop, cranking a specific movie score on repeat. That’s when I’m writing on my own. For the room—this is the first time I’ve written in a writers’ room before and the most fun I’ve ever had in any kind of environment was probably the first six weeks of that, when we were just breaking the whole season together in a conference room. That was a blast. That was like watching people play ping-pong with ideas. The whole show just broke open. It was really incredible. That was a first for me. I typically tend to approach writing in a very individual and meditative way.
Yeah. So having it be a group sport was really, really cool.
Were you scared at the outset, having never done that?
Oh, definitely. The same two insecurities I imagine plague a lot of people throughout their careers—the first being how we can get all these voices together into one? And the second, what if everybody in this room figures out that I’m making this up as I go along? Yeah, that anxiety was definitely there, but it had evaporated by the second or third day we were together. It was a great group.
Do you want to do more writers’ room stuff, or do you still want to have a place for that solitary feature writing, or both?
Oh, it’s both for sure. When I came out of this experience, I said, “I don’t want to write a thank you note without the writers’ room anymore.” Depending on the project, right after the show was done, I went on to do a feature, and I did that one on my own. That was really different, but it was very nice to come back to that. But I would love to be doing both as long as this industry will have me.
© 2019 Writers Guild of America West