Why ‘GERALD’S GAME’ co-writer Jeff Howard accepted the challenge to adapt an ‘unfilmable’ novel
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
“Everybody showed up to support Flanagan – to help make the movie that’s been in his head all these years.”
Adapting any sort of pre-existing work is a challenging task. Add to this adapting a novel written by the “King of Horror” Stephen King – and it’s made a daunting, but exciting challenge. This is exactly what director-co-writer Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard discovered translating King’s previously labeled “unfilmable” novel GERALD’S GAME into a full-blown feature.
The hook is this: A couple (played by Bruce Greenwood and Carla Gugino) looking to put the spark back in their eleven-year marriage heads to their secluded lake house for the weekend. Things take a turn for the worst when the titular character crosses a line during the sex play and goes a dies on wife Jessie, leaving her stranded, handcuffed to the bed.
I spoke with Jeff Howard over the phone recently about his experience working on this film – and what we can expect from the next Flanagan/ Howard/ Netflix collaboration, THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE.
Tell me about the day Flanagan came to you and said, “I wanna adapt a Stephen King novel and I need your help.”
The first time we ever talked about this, it was early. It was one of the first times we had ever met to talk about doing movies together – probably 2004 or 2005. He had the book and said, “We should really try to get the rights to this.” I said, “Yeah we should. But first we should become somebody.” I thought it was a crazy pipe dream, but he stuck with it.
After OCULUS, Stephen King tweeted positively about OCULUS and Stephen and Mike started up an email correspondence friendship that’s led to a lot of things. One of them was Mike asking for one of those dollar options on Gerald’s Game, which he gave to us. We had to write a script, and then the script would have to be shopped and set up. He would have to have approval of the script, the setting up and the casting – everything.
It drew them together which was fun to watch. All my heroes are dead so the idea that he gets to meet his hero is fun to see.
Some of this has changed from the book. How did he react to those changes?
I know that they were great at every step along the way. He really responded very well to the initial script. He flat out loved the movie which was really great to hear. He could’ve squashed it at any time if he didn’t like it. It’s such a personal book to him – one that he’s held close. I always wondered if, as an author, you’d rather keep one book for yourself and have it deemed “unfilmable,” so that that way you had this cool cache.
The streamlining of the story, I don’t know his exact reactions, but every single thing was within the same spirit and context and the world of it. Some of it was just updating it, like Viagra. There was nothing that would have violated who he wrote that book about.
Yeah. In the book, she kicks him and here it’s the Viagra. That takes the culpability, in a way, off Jessie and puts it more on this outside influence. That added more.
I agree. Removing the physicality from the relationship helps make it more real. Not that physicality in relationships isn’t real, it just needed much more every day. There’s all kinds of abusive relationships – some kinds are just slow burn versions of words and deeds over many years. It can hit you just as hard.
Gerald in the book is a schlub, but here, he’s a handsome guy. It’s a small change, but it adds much more – like it’s even more of an insult to his manhood.
Flanagan was just afraid to go to Bruce Greenwood and tell him to gain sixty pounds and shave his head. [Laughs]. It is a movie. I like this Gerald. I get the other Gerald and he’s probably a very real person for his day, but I think the Gerald today would be healthy and would be more narcissistic and not let himself go. Bruce was just so good as him. It would be harder to imagine a schlubbier version of him. The thing about him being handsome is that it makes that inside real him come from a different place. It doesn’t just come from him being an unattractive person in society, having to prove something. He’s a smug guy.
Were there other shifts y’all wanted to make that were vetoed or fell by the wayside?
Mike had this movie in his head since he was about 19 years old. I really think the biggest change when it was time to sit and adapt it was – without spoilers – were the voices that haunt Jessie are different in the movie than they are in the book. Because this is such a small, intimate movie, keeping it in the family felt more appropriate to Mike.
What scene presented the greatest challenge on a filmmaking aspect?
And what was the most challenging scene for the actors?
The thing about Bruce and Carla was, before they knew who I was I saw them in the hotel. I would go for my typical week of shooting to study the Flanagan technique like my graduate school. I saw Bruce and Carla in the lobby. It was like 10:30 at night and they’d been off for at least 3-4 hours. They were just sitting there eating dinner, working through the scene, looking at every nuance – every piece of it. They made what could’ve been an impossible shoot, for being so small and so intimate, they made it so much bigger just by bringing so much to it.
I think the biggest challenge was how do you keep it so contained in this cabin and keep poor Carla handcuffed to the bed and really never relent from that. In the book, there’s the flights of fancy that she goes off. But as a viewer, you’re never going to leave that space for any time.
There was one particular scene – with no spoilers – where they wanted to get across information from two different time periods at the same time. Watching them execute that shot was really amazing. To see these two guys put a really key piece of character information that runs across two different time periods within one shot was amazing to watch. Because Flanagan is the director, that’s what the script says, but a lot of other directors would have a whole lot of talk and cuts to get you to a place where he just very elegantly did in one delightful shot. That’s the benefit of having a guy who writes, directs, edits and works with the same people a lot. You get to this shorthand where you can make things like that happen.
Did anything change once the actors signed on?
Whenever an actor signs on they begin to own the character and want to protect them. With Carla, nothing changed, but she wanted to express that power as often as she can – even in the darkest moments. Bruce brought a sophistication that could’ve been missing from somebody else’s interpretation. Bruce in his underwear was able to be as vulnerable and open in his performance as probably a lot of women feel in the reverse situation. He allowed the character to be weaker at times when it suited it.
Henry Thomas is amazing too.
As a hugely un-relatable character that everyone will hate, Henry somehow manages to play it with a look on his face where it’s like he understands. I’m so glad he’s on the show [THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE]. He has a big, juicy part on the show, which is exactly what he deserves. Two movies and a series in, he’s never done one false thing.
So whose magnificent idea was it to incorporate the OCULUS mirror in the way you do here? Because I loved it.
It’s always Flanagan. He finds cute little ways. The mirror has been shipped to Atlanta for the show. I think it’s neat. Whether it’s a secret tribute or some sort of nod that it’s all within one universe it’s hard to tell at this point. There’s another thing we’ve been written into every script so far. We also use the same mental facility – in OCULUS, BEFORE I WAKE and OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL and coming up again soon in our HILL adaptation. I hope people spontaneously find them on their own.
Did you see DOBAARA: SEE YOUR EVIL?
I haven’t seen it yet. They did a screening for Flanagan and I know he was pretty mind blown. From what I hear, it’s a very different movie. It has a similar launching point but it’s very different. I need to tell them to send me a DVD. I’ll make my ugly demands.[laughs]
Can you say anything about THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE? Is it faithful to the book like the ‘63 version or does it stray like the ‘99 version?
It’s an ensemble family drama that occupies that world.
Is it set modern day?
It takes place in two time periods. One of them is modern day. The other one is not.
I did like the cast list. Love that Lulu Wilson is coming back for you guys.
Yes. There’s two time periods so you’ll see a lot of double casting. A lot of the veterans are back: Henry Thomas, Lulu Wilson, Elizabeth Reaser, Carla Gugino, who dominates this thing. Carla plays a really cool character in the series. He’s hoping for some more cameos too. Some of the new people are fun. Tim Hutton!
That’s perfect casting! What do you think it is about Mike that keeps his core collaborators coming back?
Flanagan works with a lot of the same people over and over again. But for me, The Newton Brothers, Michael Fimognari and Trevor Macy and a lot of the performers, there’s something about GERALD’S GAME where everybody showed up to support Flanagan. Nobody showed up to try to put their own spin on it. We all showed up to help make the movie that’s been in his head all these years. It’s a very special one for him. He talked about it with people endlessly – he had a vision for it. He included us all and we’re all in there in our own ways, but this is just such an auteur movie.
Is it his passion that’s infectious?
Everybody trusts that the results are going to make everybody look wonderful. All the performers know that he’s going to protect them and they’ll look great. He’s a really good leader of a hundred professionals and he loves watching other professionals do their best work and he gets excited about it. It makes you wanna do better. And he’s such a fucking nice guy!
GERALD’S GAME is now streaming on Netflix. Check out our review here.
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