[Interview] Mike Flanagan & Trevor Macy find harmonious balance between two masterpieces with ‘DOCTOR SLEEP’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Filmmaker Mike Flanagan and producer Trevor Macy have been crafting films involving the horrors of familial trauma and the lifelong burdens of it bared since their first production together, OCULUS. While they’ve previously collaborated on bringing Stephen King’s “unfilmable” novel GERALD’S GAME to cinematic life, nothing could’ve prepared the dynamic duo for what laid ahead of them with their adaptation of another King novel, DOCTOR SLEEP. Charged with reconciling both King and director Stanley Kubrick’s distinct visions of THE SHINING, this sequel kept Flanagan and Macy on their toes – and creatively charged.

I’m curious if GERALD’S GAME opened the door to establishing that trust with Stephen King?

Mike Flanagan: Yes. 100%.

Trevor Macy: And also set the bar. He had high expectations about that and it was an experience that he was happy with that we were both happy with, but it didn’t take any pressure off when we asked him if he was open to us participating in this.

MF: That very first meeting I had with Jon Berg, on my way out, I was on the phone with Trevor. I was like, “Oh yeah. We talked about Doctor Sleep, weirdly at this meeting, which was a surprise to both of us. I don’t think anything is going to come of it. Don’t worry about it.” While I was having that conversation with Trevor, John was on the phone with Stephen King, saying, “Hey, I just had Mike Flanagan in the office. What do you think? Should we consider that?” And King had just seen GERALD’S GAME. So he said, “Yes.” Otherwise, who knows how that conversation would’ve gone. In a lot of ways, we wouldn’t be here without that movie.

How much pressure was it not to just do a service to both of King’s novels, but also to follow up Kubrick’s masterpiece, and find your own adaptation of that. It’s so many levels and I get overwhelmed thinking about it.

TM: It’s scary when you put it that way (laughs).

You weave in this story of Danny reconciling his past and present, which feels like a thematic parallel to you finding the balance between both King and Kubrick.

MF: The question you’re asking is the question we asked ourselves every day. There’s never an easy answer. It’s the most stressful job I’ve ever been a part of. One of the things that got us through what you’re talking about with Dan, rather than look at it as a sequel to THE SHINING – because any time you’d start to say “A sequel to THE SHINING,” you’d start to throw up. The nerves go haywire. If we looked at it instead as a descendant of THE SHINING – as a child of THE SHINING – like any child, it has its genetics baked in. In our case, our parents are Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick. But as much as you want to honor your parents, the kid has to find its own identity. It still has to stand on its own. Looking at the film that way made it a little more palatable, that was otherwise potentially a very paralyzing amount of anxiety, that I felt acutely daily and I know [Trevor] did and a lot of the cast did.

TM: But really, King gave us this beautiful blueprint. A lot of my work and Mike’s work is about the echoes of childhood trauma into adulthood. There isn’t a better example than Danny Torrance than that in literature. If you keep coming back to that, and telling that story – we might be using the visual language of Kubrick and King’s blueprint – but it’s Dan’s story. And that is a little bit freeing and less intimidating. Not much less.

MF: Not much at all. I still kind of feel like I’m about to throw up.

Did you ever get any notes about starting Danny out on such a dark, not “Save the Cat” moment?

MF: There were no notes. That wasn’t the biggest worry we had with this project. What was reassuring about it was if you start at rock bottom, directionally, the arc can only go up. That was really important. If we had started anywhere else, we would’ve had to fall with him first. I thought, emotionally, to go on a downward trajectory with that character, to hit that bottom and then have to crawl out, I didn’t know if we would have the emotional fortitude to go through that.

TM: Not to mention the run time.

MF: And the run time. King had started him there. That’s one of the things that was so impactful about the book. When I first talked to Ewan, and we met with him very early on to see if he would be a good fit for the part, that was one of the first things he grabbed onto. He was like, “Meeting this character at the bottom of this pit. For me, the journey of seeing him crawl up a cliff face toward purpose. That’s the journey of the movie.” From a structural point of view, it’s a clean arc to track. It only has one direction. There’s a part where it looks like he’ll come off the cliff again, but that only works for me if I’m going up the whole time. Then the vertigo means something.

Rebecca Ferguson as “Rose the Hat” in DOCTOR SLEEP. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

In this, Rose the Hat has her hand caught in a file drawer and the flesh ripped off. In GERALD’S GAME, Jessie wrist/ hand gets all messed up too. Mike, is this a you thing, or a Stephen thing?

MF: (laughs). Well, okay. So GERALD’S GAME, definitely Stephen King. He definitely did that. Rose’s hand in the book is also Stephen King. I don’t know what to say about HUSH, where Maddie’s hand gets crushed in the door. Or THE HAUNTING, when Henry sticks his hand in a fan and gets his hand mangled.

And these were all their right hands?

MF: That’s my dominant hand. In OCULUS, Rory rips his fingernails off. So I think it’s probably both of us. I’m phobic of injuries to eyes and fingers. They freak me out. I can’t look at it. If I see it in a movie, there’s that trophy shot of someone scratching and the nail breaks, I throw up in my mouth and I hide. I can’t deal with it.

TM: There’s one shot in OCULUS that he’s never scene.

MF: I can’t watch the fingernail scene. I think it’s because my whole living is made by my eyes and my hands. That’s all I’ve got. My eyes and my hands are it. The idea of them being permanently injured is really hard for me to take. You always put in stuff that scares you.

What was the significance of CASABLANCA’s appearance?

MF: The significance is it’s my favorite movie. It was this chance. Whenever you have something set in a movie theater and you have to pick something that you can put into the film and you’re probably gonna have to pay for it. Depending on who you’re working for, it changes what you have access to. And I was working for Warner Brothers. And it was like, “Oh. If we could get CASABLANCA.”

TM: I was like, “Hi! Remember us? We’re making this really scary thing. Could we get the crown jewel in it?” They were really great. There was an internal process to go through. But it happened quickly and they were very supportive.

MF: I get such a charge out of seeing it up there. I loved the contradiction of between what’s happening in that movie, and what’s happening in the theater.

When y’all saw READY PLAYER ONE, did you both say, “Oh shit.”?

MF: We went to see it because we heard there was going to be a big stretch that was THE SHINING – and then we said, “Oh shit.” We came out of it saying, “We’re actually doing the right thing.” Because the entire atmosphere in the theater when that part came in, the entire theater changed. They were delighted. They started to smile and lean forward. Just being in those environments in a movie theater evokes this visceral, pleasurable reaction. When we discussed it, we said, “This is actually a good thing. This reinforces our decision.” If we felt this way, when those images popped up, we could go even further in ours. Clearly the love for those images is right there. Let’s try to capitalize on that.

TM: It did a lot for raising the awareness for an audience who hadn’t – maybe a younger audience who wasn’t as familiar with it. After having seen it, it became clear we weren’t trying to cover the same ground. Both can co-exist easily.

MF: It did lead to one of the funnier revelations for all of us. For all the agonizing we did over THE SHINING of it, and the Kubrick of it, we were going to have viewers who had never seen that film, whose only reaction when they saw ours might be, “Hey they ripped off READY PLAYER ONE.” Like I knew those people existed. We had to take care of them too. How do we make this movie good for them as well. It was a good exercise to go through.

Let’s talk about how you created your homage to THE SHINING, not just from a production design standpoint, but also from casting actors who look like the iconic original cast from Kubrick’s movie and make it their own portrayals. Carl Lumbly absolutely crushes it.

MF: He’s awesome, right?

TM: We started with the perspective that we hope people describe the question just as you did. Imitations was not on the list of things to do. Recognizability, but part of our own story – that was key.

MF: There’s only two options when you go into it. One is, if we’re gonna be trying to recreate these actors, like Scatman Crothers, who isn’t alive anymore, it would be digital no matter what. The first question was, “Is that okay?” My feeling on that was, “No.” It felt disrespectful. Even though the technology is improving every day, it’s still takes me out because I’m stuck evaluating the technology. Once that was off the table, the way to do this became very clear. If we cast the right people, we should be casting the character, not the actor. We cast Dick Halloran, not Scatman Crothers, so that we can tip the audiences’ memory toward that, but take it where it hasn’t gone before on screen. That seemed like the most respectful and purest way to go about it. We always knew it could potentially be the most controversial aspect of the film.

I also thought it spoke to Dan’s memories of not remembering exactly how it was – like a traumatized mind might recall the events and people.

MF: Yeah. He was so young. That was very much the thing. We’re dealing with the spaces and dealing with how we remember it and how he’d remember it. We get into questions like what color was the Adler typewriter. There’s more than one answer to the question in THE SHINING. The only way through that, when we had to pick our color, was to say, “How do you remember it?”

DOCTOR SLEEP opens on November 8.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.