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Mike Flanagan Interview

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Writer/Director Mike Flanagan

Mike Flanagan is the Award-Winning, Los Angeles-based Writer/Director of American Marriage, Oculus, Ghosts of Hamilton Street, Still Life, and Makebelieve. Steve Pattee had a chance to talk with him about his projects, both past and future.

First and foremost, thank you for taking the time to sit down with us. I am a huge fan of Oculus and I've had a few questions since I've seen it.

Horror DNA:Your 2005 short, Oculus, was about, of all things, a haunted mirror. I really don't want to ask this question because many times it's unanswerable, but I will ask anyway: Where did you get the idea for Oculus? The entire premise is about a haunted mirror and mirrors aren't supposed to be scary, but you certainly had no problem creeping the hell out of people.

Mike Flanagan: I think that it's often the ordinary things that are the scariest. Those things that are "supposed to be scary," like serial killers or vampires or monsters or ghosts, have been played out to the point of over-saturation. And while they can still be scary if handled well, I love it when it's something seemingly innocuous or harmless that becomes the monster. When I was a kid, I was scared of ordinary things around me — I was afraid of plants, shadows, my closet, and long hallways. At one point I had a vivid nightmare that the clothes came out of my closet and strangled me. Who is afraid of clothes? I was, and I bet you would be too if they came a-callin'.

I had read a short Stephen King story called "The Reaper's Image" in high school that really scared me, and it was about a mirror that some people claimed to see the grim reaper in. There's a sense that you're looking at reality in a mirror, but it's always distorted — always. The idea that there could be inconsistencies in the reflection creeps me out, and I think that's what really got it started.

HDNA: Where did the title come from?

MF: "Oculus" is Latin for "eye." We kicked around a bunch of other possibilities before we landed on it, including (if I remember right) The Glass, The Lasser Glass, The Looking Glass, Mirror, Reflection — my co-writer Jeff Seidman actually pitched "Oculus," and it grew on me. Besides sounding ominous, I learned that the word also refers to round openings in the ceilings in ancient architecture. They were often thought to represent the watchful gaze of a god or goddess. The idea that vision had so much to do with our story, and the idea that the mirror itself was portal for the watchful gaze of some awful evil anti-god made it work.

It's funny, people have teased me since we announced production on Absentia that I'm only using single Latin words for titles. It's entirely accidental, as there's really no other appropriate title for a movie that deals almost entirely with the process of declaring someone Dead in Absentia. That's just what the process is called. But I might keep it going for fun — my girlfriend jokes that I should maybe title the next one Alumni or Uterus.

HDNA: The entire title of Oculus is Oculus – Chapter 3: "The Man With the Plan". Are we ever going to see chapters one or two?

MF: I think so. I hope so. Jeff Seidman and I actually outlined nine full treatments for a horror anthology, and have twice begun pre-production on another short. Horror anthologies sound so damn cool — but they're just so much work! We had wanted to do two a year and try to build up a critical mass, but then it got kind of back-burnered.

I really got into the spec script market out here in Hollywood and started focusing my energy on writing scripts for sale with an established screenwriter named Jeff Howard. Through that, several production companies expressed interest in fleshing out the Oculus short into a feature, and the time that would have gone into developing more shorts was focused there.

On the plus side, that feature take is pretty fantastic. It took almost four years to finally nail what would make the film work as a feature while remaining true to the structure of the short, and Jeff Howard and I are developing that for a terrific production company out here. I think you're going to see that feature…soon.

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A few of the films in Mike Flanagan's resume.

HDNA: Oculus has a very "Asian" vibe to it, in both the tone and how much atmosphere and technology are huge parts of it. Was there much of an Asian film influence, or am I insane?

MF: Oh, you're sane. I'm nuts about Asian horror. When the imports started finding their way over here I was overwhelmed. It had been so long since I was actually scared watching a movie, and here I was finding all these movies that really knocked me off the couch. The standards like Ringu, Whispering Corridors, and Momento Mori all contributed, and I damn near plagiarized the gaping jaw visual from Ju-on, but my favorites are still A Tale of Two Sisters, Cure, The Eye. Even when the whole J-horror thing started to get tired and we started defecating on them for the American remakes, I still like to keep up with what's coming out. I wonder if there's any country in the world turning out more consistently incredible films than South Korea.

HDNA: You decided to distribute Oculus through CreateSpace — a site that allows artists to self-publish their media. Can you talk about the advantages and disadvantages of that for upcoming filmmakers?

MF: Distribution is such a crapshoot in general, and nearly impossible with a short film. Oculus did well enough on the festival circuit that I thought there must be an audience out there for it. CreateSpace works for me because it fills the orders for me and it makes it available in the global marketplace. I don't make much money that way, in fact I haven't even made a third of what the movie cost to produce, but the alternative was to try to distribute it myself. I'd rather spend that time making more movies.

We did end up being picked up for a compilation DVD of indie horror films called AAAAAH: Indie Horror Hits. That was great, and we're on there with some terrific other films. The great thing about all of these smaller self-distribution options is that they're non-exclusive, and you can try anything and see what sticks.

HDNA: Scott Graham, the star — and more-or-less the only person in the film — of Oculus is also in two of your other films: 2003's The Ghosts of Hamilton Street and the upcoming Absentia (which just went into pre-production). I was impressed with Graham in the 2005 zombie-comedy Livelihood, but he blew me away in Oculus. Was The Ghosts of Hamilton Street the first time you worked with him? Did you write Oculus with Graham in mind?

MF: I did. I went to Towson University with Scott Graham and saw him on stage in a production of The Scarlet Letter.  I actually had him in mind for Ghosts and he was available. It was his first film and he had to be in about 98% of the movie I think there were exactly two scenes without him. It was a lot to take on.

I knew I wanted him for Oculus and when I called him about it, he couldn't stop laughing. It's a tough thing to pitch to an actor - "Hey, you know how last time you had to carry almost the whole movie? Well this time I've removed everything else entirely it's just you. Co-stars? Nah. In fact, the only other character is a mirror, so even when we're filming that…we're just looking at you."

It's not an easy thing to do, carrying a movie like that. He knew immediately that there was no cover, no protection for him; no co-stars to ease the burden. If he didn't work, the movie wouldn't work. He rose to it admirably, although for a fact it scared the shit out of him right through the production. I distinctly remember his relief when he saw the first cut, and I'm sure those Best Actor awards didn't hurt.

Scott's terrific; I'm thrilled to work with him again.

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Mike Flanagan and Scott Graham on the set of Oculus.

HDNA: Jumping movies, you were the cinematographer for Chainsaw Sally. The first part of the film is very light and safe, but takes a much darker turn in both attitude and filming style — in particular the last 20 minutes or so. It just becomes mean in both look and feel. Was it difficult to adjust to the different styles of shooting, especially during the same movie?

MF: Wow, you sure did your homework this is probably the first question anybody has ever asked me Chainsaw Sally. There was definitely a conscious decision to have the style evolve during the film, but a lot of it also had to do with necessity. There were entire scenes for which we didn't have a lighting package to use, and had to make due with work-lights and hanging bulbs.

The director JimmyO Burril and I have similar tastes in movies, but very difficult styles and we both mentioned Suspiria during the first production meeting. He wanted to embrace that saturated, colorful, stylized Italian flavor when we were with Sally in her world, and go for a more sterile look in the real world.

In the end it just got dark. That last half hour is some crazy stuff, and there was a certain maniacal quality that set in over all of us as production went on. That was a really, really fun shoot. I agree, it gets downright mean…JimmyO knew what he wanted and I tried to make it work for him.

As I was lighting some of those later scenes, it made me think a lot about how we bathe our horror films in darkness. I thought, how interesting it would be and how challenging to try to scare someone with the lights ON, in a bright environment. That was also one of the major sparks that set Oculus in motion.

HDNA: Sometimes a filmmaker will tend to stick to one genre and not leave it. However, in your resume you already have a variety of genres from drama/mystery (The Ghosts of Hamilton Street) to horror (Oculus) to your upcoming documentary American Marriage. Do you have a preference for any of the genres in particular? How do you think working in the different genres helps you as a filmmaker (if you think it does at all)?

MF: I think it's a blast to play in different genres, and I kind of love being in production on two vastly different films at the same time. American Marriage is so gentle and fun and life affirming, and Absentia is positively brutal. It's cathartic. I know some directors are prone to stay in a genre, but I like to play around. My first feature was a light, Dawson's Creek-esque relationship dramedy.

That said, I do love horror. I've never enjoyed myself more in any other genre. However, I don't think that most horror movies made today fall into that category most of them are actually dark comedies, in my opinion. It took Freddy Krueger two movies to become a stand up comedian. I like to think that the most important thing is making sure you have relatable, complex characters, and then it doesn't really matter if your movie is a "horror" movie or not. Fear is such a potent emotion and film is supposed to evoke emotion. I've always though that movies like The Descent, Session 9, and even The Exorcist aren't great horror movies; they're just great movies.

HDNA: So you have gone into pre-production of your next film, Absentia. What's it about?

MF: It's about a woman whose husband has been missing for seven years, which is the minimum length of time required to declare someone legally dead (technically called "Dead in Absentia.") Her younger sister comes to stay with her as she packs up the house, files the paperwork, and tries to move on with her life. After she files the paperwork, she starts to be terrorized by ghastly visions of him. It turns out, though, that their neighborhood has a history of disappearances, and the sister starts to think they might be linked to this creepy tunnel across the street from the house.

It shares quite a bit thematically with Oculus, actually. The tunnel has a detailed history, and soon the movie is about someone trying to connect dots in seemingly unrelated historical events, and how some people see this as a pattern while others see it as coincidence. It's about being haunted by a sense of unexplainable loss. And when the horror elements really kick in (and they really kick in,) there's always a sense that you can't trust what our lead characters seem to be seeing…which means, ultimately, that you can't trust what you're seeing either.

It's funny…when we had our first cast reading about two weeks ago, we've agreed that the movie functions as a serious character drama, a murder mystery, and a horror film. It's like The Shining meets You Can Count on Me.

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Mike Flanagan and Scott Graham on the set of Ghosts of Hamilton Street.

HDNA: You are using Kickstarter to help fund your project, offering some pretty spectacular benefits to investors from exclusive set reports to a walk-on role on the film (depending on the amount invested). Although it's relatively early, how is it working for you so far? Has anything surprised you?

MF: I hate fundraising, particularly when it involves begging, but it's actually working very well so far. I think that's because we're using the site correctly. There are a ton of projects up there that end up only raising a tiny fraction of their goal, and I think it's because they just put it up there and assume some magical force within the site will fund them. It's actually a ton of work.

It's a full time job steering people toward the site and convincing them to pledge. We're throwing everything we can at it shooting short pitch films, blogging, cold-calling, email blasting and we're halfway there. It's like pushing a boulder up a mountain on a daily basis. And you have to walk that fine line of being present in everybody's mind via Facebook and email, but you don't want to be annoying either.

I've been thrilled with the response. We've been up there about ten days now, and we're almost halfway to our goal. We just added a bunch of Oculus DVDs signed by Scott Graham and myself, in fact (Act now! Only four left!).

It's a really different way to raise money and frankly and I was skeptical of it when we started. Why the hell would someone help with this, and how could we ever possibly make our goal? I'm surprised daily by how many total strangers pledge, and not just the $5 we ask for…a lot of them are horror fans, and we're promising to deliver a movie that true horror fans will want to own, share, and experience over and over again. Of course, then it becomes on us to deliver…yikes.

We only have until June 6th to raise it all, or we get nothing … that's kind of scary. So here's my shameless plug portion of the interview, but I gotta do it: http://kck.st/btUrVB

HDNA: With regards to sites like Kickstarter and CreateSpace, an argument can be made that it both helps and hurts indie filmmaking. On one hand, it can help filmmakers serious about their craft both earn money for their film and get their finished product into the hands of fans without fear of a shady distributor robbing them. On the other, any clown with a video camera can do the same, thus making it tougher for the more legitimate filmmakers to get an investor. What do you think?

MF: Totally agree. There are a lot of capable, talented filmmakers out there and the technology is finally here to let them make and distribute a movie, whether they're supported by the film industry or not…and that's a curse. There's so much junk out there because of this, too.

I was surprised when I started asking industry friends to repost my Kickstarter link. A few refused, citing the "hundreds of filmmakers before me who had abused this type of fundraising." I was actually unprepared for that reaction but then it made perfect sense. People who pledge money on Kickstarter aren't investing in the movie, they're not purchasing ownership in an LLC. What's to stop someone from raising the cash and running? There are safeguards in place at Kickstarter for that, but still I get how that can be scary.

I think, though, that while it is true that anyone can now make a movie, it remains a fact that not everyone can tell a good story. All the toys and production value in the world don't mean a thing if you can't tell a good story (see Tommy Wiseau's The Room or James Cameron's Avatar if you don't believe me…in fact, see The Room anyway, it's a blast). So yeah, the flooded marketplace makes it hard to find your audience but if you do they'll love you for it.

The fact is that this is a highly specialized craft, and the fans are notoriously unforgiving of filmmakers who try to get by on ineptitude or mediocrity. You can be forgiven for bad storytelling if you've got amazing, expensive visuals or all the weight of a Hollywood effects team behind you, but you absolutely can't get away with that in the low-budget world (again, The Room is the exception to all rules). You better have story chops in that world or the film fails.

So yeah, this is a double-edged sword. But I like to hope that because anybody can make a movie, it only makes audiences really appreciate someone who makes one well.

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Absentia poster

HDNA: The three toughest things to get for indie filmmakers seem to be money, actors and locations. Since you are working with Kickstarter to help fund your project, can you talk about the actors and locations for Absentia? Were there any hurdles? Also, what will you be shooting on?

MF: I've always tended to use actors again and again if I've enjoyed working with them, and find myself writing for them. In Absentia's case, most of the parts were written for actors I know.

My co-director on American Marriage (and girlfriend) Courtney Bell was easy to cast. I've been friends with Katie Parker for a while and Dave Levine for years, and wrote their parts for them. Producers Morgan Brown and Justin Gordon are both working actors and really wanted to be in the film. After I populate the movie with people I know, the remaining parts are up for audition. That means a completely different thing in Los Angeles than it did in Baltimore, as you can skip rocks off of talented actors in the streets out here.

We've also tried to reach out to name actors as well. Bruce Campbell very politely turned down a cameo (but still made my day by responding at all) and Doug Jones requested to read the script. We're still waiting on him.

Locations are tough, especially in Los Angeles. You need a permit to breathe. My friend Joe Wicker, who I met on Ghosts of Hamilton Street, has been working booking locations for features and television for the last few years out here. He helped us find stages with standing sets for a police station, a hospital, and a morgue.

As for the tunnel...I live right across the street from it. In fact, the initial idea behind Absentia was to try to make a feature using resources I had at my fingertips, and that meant the actors I knew, the equipment I owned, and the creepy tunnel across the street. So I've been lucky.

The real win for me, even in terms of locations, is equipment. I'm shooting Absentia on the Canon 5D Mark ii, and I don't know if you've seen this camera but it's a game changer. It's a high end still camera, but it shoots the best looking HD, 24p video I've seen this side of the Red. You can use any Canon lenses, so it looks downright filmic. They're starting to use this in the industry (the House finale was just shot on it, and apparently Robert Rodriguez is waving his around like an Oscar). This camera is so good, it might just ruin the industry.

AND, it looks like any normal still camera while you're shooting...so that helps with locations as well. You don't look like a film crew, you look like a tourist. So it's easier than ever to "steal" shots.

HDNA: Finally, not only have you worked in different genres, but you've also worked on both the East and West Coast making movies. Is there any advice you can give to up-and-coming filmmakers?

MF: It's hard on both coasts. The thing about LA is that everyone around you seems to be trying to do the same thing. It's tougher to just go out and shoot, as everyone wants to see your permit. No one is impressed or excited that you're trying to make a movie, as some people might be back East. On the other hand, you need to find a replacement Kino kit at three in the morning, this is your town. And there's a crowded pool of actors and crew looking for work, so you don't have to settle in any aspect of casting or crewing.

As for advice...this question always gets me in trouble. I've been criticized for being a little "Simon Cowell" when I do panel discussions at festivals. My advice to younger filmmakers is best summed up by a series of discouraging declarations that I promise were learned the hard way in most cases:

Never go into debt to make a movie. Never make a movie about a girlfriend, boyfriend, or breakup. If you describe your project as a "coming of age" story, forget distribution. Never feature people in sunglasses carrying suitcases; Hollywood has one Quentin Tarantino and aren't looking for his low-budget counterpart. Don't shoot on film until you've made at least three features. If you want to move to LA, do it with at least 6 months of living expenses in the bank, a killer 10 minute short and three commercially viable spec scripts under your belt. Work within a popular genre, avoid the words "character drama," and don't even think about trying to make "art" until you've got three pictures in development at the studios.

If you're moving to LA, Glendale is cheaper, safer, and right at the intersection of the 134 and the 5.

Oh, and finally, are you sure you want to be a filmmaker? It's a tough, brutal road and I'd prefer not to have any more competition.

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About The Author
Steve Pattee
Author: Steve Pattee
Administrator, US Editor
He's the puppet master. You don't see him, but he pulls the strings that gets things done. He's the silent partner. He's black ops. If you notice his presence, it's the last thing you'll notice — because now you're dead. He's the shadow you thought you saw in that dark alleyway. You can have a conversation with him, and when you turn around to offer him a cup of coffee, he's already gone.
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