Exclusive Deleted Scene; Q&A: Mike Flanagan on “OCULUS” and “GERALD’S GAME”,Features/Interviews,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
Few mainstream horror films this year are as complex and intriguing as Mike Flanagan’s OCULUS. By simultaneously playing with the perspective of both the audience and the characters, Flanagan is able to keep the film unpredictable, clever and remarkably intense. With OCULUS finally hitting Blu-ray today from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, FANGORIA spoke with the director about the film. We’re also featuring an exclusive glance of the Post-Credit scene excised following the film’s festival run…
FANGORIA: One reason I found OCULUS so fascinating was how you told the story via dueling time frames. Considering so few horror projects play around with time like that, were you ever hesitant?
MIKE FLANAGAN: Oh yeah. That was one of the most challenging aspects of the story from the beginning. Once we pinned down the idea of having two timelines that would be running parallel, we had to figure out a balance between them, as well as how to transition from one to the other in a way that felt smooth and elegant. So when we were scripting OCULUS, we had to essentially write that into the first drafts, and there was a worry that it may be too confusing to read.
We were pretty confident that when the movie was done and people could see it, [that aspect] would come off well, but on paper, we weren’t sure we could pitch this to actors and get them excited about the movie. There was a real concern that the back-and-forth between the timelines would be too confusing for someone to read. So all the past stuff in the script was written in italics while all the present events was written normally, so that way the actors could feel the rhythm we wanted from going back and forth.
FANG: In OCULUS, you had to direct different actors as the same characters in similar states of mental digression as their stories converged. Did you change up your approach at all from directing the kids from the adults or did you try to keep them all on the same wavelength?
FLANAGAN: Well, I looked at it like we were making two different movies that would eventually crash into each other. So early on, the majority of the work was getting the actors and their younger counterparts to spend as much time together as they could before shooting. Karen Gillan and Annalise Basso would spend a lot of time together in order to pick up on each other’s mannerisms as well as the subtleties of their performances. Once they had done that, one of the most fun elements of OCULUS was being able to sit back and watch these two great actresses create one character. The actors took the lead on that one.
FANG: There seems to be a big divide in the story of the Lasser Glass itself between the times the Russell family encountered it. In that respect, it almost feels like a weaker being when rediscovered by Kaylie. Was that intentional or merely a mechanism of the genre?
FLANAGAN: One of the unfortunate missed opportunities in OCULUS was telling the audience that at the end of the past timeline, they cracked the mirror, and I’m not sure if we conveyed if that was an injury from which it had to recover from for a bit. It was nursing its wounds, they were nursing their wounds and everybody came back together a little stronger.
We also wanted to leave a gap in the timeline because I love the idea that there was a period of time where no one knows where this thing was and that there’s a much higher body count that we’re just not aware of. I was hoping that if we end up continuing and exploring the series at all, there would be other stories in the past that we could go back to. Leaving gaps within its history was important in that regard.
FANG: In terms of the Lasser Glass’s history, you don’t really show the previous murders happening; by leaving it to the viewers to fill in the gaps, there’s almost this Stephen King-esque tone as King uses that narrative device to create dread in stories like 1408 and IT. Were there discussions of showing these murders in the film?
FLANAGAN: Actually, I absolutely did not want to show [the murders], and there was pressure to show it early on. I always felt that if we showed it, that would be confirming Kaylie’s story at a time in the movie where we should still be questioning whether she and her brother were crazy or not.
The Stephen King reference is appropriate because I’m a King fanatic and one of the scariest reads I’ve ever had was going through 1408 for the first time. What he did with setting up that hotel room is absolutely chilling, since it’s all theater of the mind. You come out of 1408 scared in the way you were as a kid hearing a campfire ghost story, but you don’t know if it’s true. And the minute we would have flashbacks to those things, we’d remove the tension we hoped to have built in whether or not our leads were crazy.
FANG: The horror projects you are associated with are often very intimate in nature; they have small casts, stick to a few locations and have very interpersonal threats to the characters. What is it about intimately drawn horror that you find appealing in spite of their technical limitations?
FLANAGAN: Well, the locations have always been forced on me from coming up doing very microbudget stuff. We didn’t have any other options and it was a challenge. “Okay, we only have this amount of people for this many days; how can we make something scary?” Studios think like that as to trim down their budget, but even when we have no budget, we think that we’re hopefully creating a pressure cooker-like situation, where we’re not obliged to release tension.
It’s one of those things where, like anybody working in film right now, I’d love to have more resources to help our story out. But with ABSENTIA and OCULUS, being able to contain it in one space and become more intimate with these characters is more fun because in horror, the scares only really land if you care about the character. You need to connect with the character and you won’t have an opportunity to do that if the canvas is too broad or there are too many people.
With OCULUS in particular, I thought it’d be fun if it was like two horror movies playing out within the same space. So I used that space to bounce back and forth simultaneously, so the audience would be invested in both stories, which was a very fun challenge. But the movies I love tend to be character-driven pieces and that’s likely what drew me most to these movies.
FANG: The structure of OCULUS is also different than most horror movies; the biggest twist comes midway through the movie as opposed to the end. As a writer and director, how much did you gravitate toward more experimental storytelling and a conventional genre narrative that satisfies casual horror fans?
FLANAGAN: You have to try to keep both of those ideas in your mind at the same time, which is not easy for me because I’m attracted to films that are unusual structurally. I think there’s such a prescribed formula, especially to horror, and as I’ve gotten more writing jobs for studios, it’s like they’ve got horror perfectly mapped out. “There’s a page 5 hook, a page 10 scare, and you don’t go more than 6 pages without this or this or this.”
Most importantly, you have to reveal the central conflict and the nature of the monster by the end of the first act. From there, you have to start killing off characters in very specific increments. And the fact is that audiences see this so much that they familiarize with it whether they realize they’re seeing the same story beats or not. So I love to play with structure and drop story beats into a place where someone might not expect it.
This is tricky, though, because with OCULUS and especially ABSENTIA, audiences are so familiar with that structure that some audiences will resent the movie for not following it. So to touch on all the bases that genre fans might expect while we show them something new is really tough to balance. I don’t think it’s possible to really get correct because even if you followed everything to the letter and gave audiences everything they wanted or expected in the exact way that they’re used to, certain members of the audience would realize they’ve been fed the same meal they always get. They’d think there was nothing new or special about OCULUS and they wouldn’t be able to put their finger on why.
It’s difficult to appease to a fanbase, especially one as passionate as horror fans are. They’re constantly saying they want something different and new that doesn’t fit the mold, but then will turn around immediately and go, “This was weird. This wasn’t what I expected.” It’s tough to walk that line, and with OCULUS, we knew we had a weird structure due to the timelines. So we knew people would have to step outside the norm in order to take that ride with us.
We kind of justified it by making sure it was different enough in the beginning that by the time things start changing radically, they would have figured out they didn’t need the horror cookbook. They would have decided to take that leap with the movie or not. That freed us up to play with the movie structurally, which I found to be really fun even though there was a lot of trepidation with the studios when we were starting up. They were like, “OCULUS is a horror film that doesn’t reveal itself to be a horror film until about its midpoint. Prior to that, it plays like a psychological thriller.”
OCULUS is a hard sell, and the studios want something that’s an easily understood, marketable horror property. We never were that, and it was hard to find people to support OCULUS. That didn’t happen until the very last minute. In fact, up until TIFF, the movie didn’t have a home and a lot of people who saw it on the distributor side really liked the film, but didn’t know if they could sell the film to a mass audience. They didn’t even know if people wanted to see a movie like OCULUS, and it wasn’t until the 11th hour that Relativity stepped up and decided to roll the dice on the film.
FANG: Has there been any discussions about a follow-up to OCULUS? We do know you were most recently attached to the adaptation of Stephen King’s GERALD’S GAME.
FLANAGAN: I’ve been wanting to make GERALD’S GAME for ten years. I love that novel and I first started trying to acquire the rights around that time. After OCULUS came out, King had seen the movie and really liked it, so things finally fell into place for GERALD’S GAME. I’m so excited about that, but talk about a difficult movie! If you want to talk about the strange structure of OCULUS, GERALD’S GAME is really out there.
GERALD’S GAME is intimate and contained on a level that’s really exciting from a creative point of view. It’ll be a really strange and exciting movie for an audience, and there’s nothing quite like it. For the longest time, I’d look at that book and be convinced it was unfilmable, but I finished the script late last year and at the moment, I’m convinced it is filmable. It’s a strange one, but we’re casting that right now and hopefully we’ll be going into production on that in late winter or early spring of next year.
As far as another OCULUS movie, it’s something that we’ve talked about. The movie performed well enough for the studio that they’d be really game for a sequel, but I would only want to do it if I found a story that’s as exciting as I found the first one. The last thing I’d want to do is get in the business of franchising the movie and crank out sequels to an idea even if it’s worn out. So there’s been talk about it, but for the moment, I want to focus on GERALD’S GAME first. If the right story presents itself, however, I’d love to go back and spend another year with that mirror.
OCULUS, directed by Mike Flanagan, is currently available on Blu-ray/DVD from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. You can check out the spoiler-laden post-credit sequence deleted from the film below!