Over the last several years, filmmaker Mike Flanagan has quickly established himself as one of the best and most assured genre storytellers of the last decade. From Absentia to Oculus to Hush, as well as Ouija: Origin of Evil and Before I Wake (which this writer is still patiently waiting for a Stateside release), Flanagan has a proven track record as a confident director, and his latest project, Gerald’s Game, is another example of his ability to tell uniquely compelling stories in a way that only he can.
Daily Dead recently had the opportunity to speak with Flanagan about his experiences adapting the acclaimed Stephen King novel for Netflix, the challenges he faced with both the material as well as keeping his mostly single location story intriguing on a visual level. Flanagan also chatted about collaborating with “force of nature” Carla Gugino for Gerald’s Game and how she delivered a performance unlike anything he’d ever seen before. Gerald’s Game is currently available to stream on Netflix.
So good to catch up with you again, Mike, and congratulations on the film. I loved it and I thought Carla was—holy cow. I've been a fan of hers for a while, but this performance is just something else.
Mike Flanagan: Right? She was stunning. When I was sitting at the monitor while we were shooting, I would just lean back in the chair, and think, “Dear God.” She was incredible. Carla Gugino is a force of nature in this film.
Oh, absolutely. I definitely want to talk more about her in a second, but I want to start off by discussing the fact that you're taking on a Stephen King adaptation here, which can be a challenge for any storyteller. Because, one, it's the King, so there's a lot of pressure that comes with that, but also because this story isn’t necessarily easy to tell on the screen. How was the process for you and [co-writer] Jeff Howard, in terms of diving into this story and finding those best moments to translate visually for this adaptation?
Mike Flanagan: Oh, it was really hard, as I'm sure you can imagine. I think the benefit that we had was time. I'd read the book when I was 19, and so I'd wanted to make the movie for almost 20 years now. I think if it had been a project that had come to us in the normal way, where we had six months to a year to crack this, it would've just been impossible. But luckily it had taken so long to get any traction, so that by the time we had to get moving, we'd already had a lot of the harder conversations.
It's such a difficult story to crack. We would go through the book, and we would literally just be highlighting passages out of paragraphs, but saying to each other, "This idea is so amazing. This prose is so amazing. How the hell do we get it into the movie? Who is going to say this out loud?" Just because so much of the book is just this inner monologue of Jessie’s.
The big breakout for us was having Gerald get back up off the floor and having the other Jessie there, too. Suddenly it was like we could just spend this movie with two characters who we have already established, who can disagree with each other and behave in any number of ways that we might expect out of a marriage. They can give voice to so many of these ideas in the book that are so, so amazing and so beautifully written by King, but they’re internalized. These other versions of these characters can give them a voice finally. That's what broke it open for us.
You mentioned that this was a book that was written years ago, but yet there's a lot about this story, and particularly Jessie's character arc, that feels very relevant these days in a lot of ways. Did you guys realize as you were tapping into this one woman’s struggle to overcome these issues, how it might end up paralleling what's happening in society these days?
Mike Flanagan: Certainly. One of the things that we thought was that this is timely now in a way that feels very immediate, but it's always been timely, too. The themes in this have always been relevant. One of the reasons it feels so timely right now is that more and more people are talking about it. Social media is giving victims more and more of the platform to tell their story to get it out there.
The importance and the relevance hasn't actually changed. The focus has changed, and that's a wonderful thing. Anything out there in the marketplace that can help shine the light in that direction, and that can also hopefully help people engage in conversations about abuse and trauma and the damage it does to so many women, that could also at the same time tell the story about perseverance and victory over a lot of that, that was something that was really important to us and very important to Carla.
That was one of the things when she first came on board that she connected with. We're dealing with ideas in this film that are of critical importance and will always be of critical importance. If we're going to be able to have an international platform to be part of that conversation, we want to honor that as much as humanly possible with this material. I know that’s the long answer to your question, but it was something that was always on our minds.
We talked about Carla being the heart and soul of this story, and you put her through so much in this film. On paper it seems easy, where you might think, "Oh, well, she's just in a bed for more than half this movie. How hard could it possibly be?" But there’s so much weight that she carries with her performance, both physically and emotionally. How did you guys work together to get into Jessie’s headspace and find all those different emotional beats?
Mike Flanagan: King wrote an amazing heroine for sure. There was an enormous amount of Jessie to draw from there. Carla transformed her yet again when she came on the project. The thing that was kind of amazing for Carla and I was that we, in talking about these two Jessies in the room, we had agreed going in that the other Jessie standing in the room is the woman that the Jessie on the bed needs to become by the end, so that the distance between those two characters needs to get gradually smaller and smaller.
That arc is so simple, it's so linear, but it's so complicated to play. It's such a dance of vulnerability and strength. Carla is one of the few people in the world that could internalize that arc and express it in a way that just feels so organic and effortless. The people who talk about it being an easy time on the bed, I just want to say that I tried the cuffs myself. I didn't want Carla to do anything I wasn't willing to do myself, but I lasted less than five minutes. They hurt so much, more than you could ever imagine. Just the weight of your own arm in the tight metal handcuffs when they're spread out and you can't rest your elbows or anything. It's one of the most uncomfortable and tortuous positions a human being can be put in, which is why it's just a shade shy of crucifixion.
Carla was confined to that for weeks. I know firsthand that it was exceptionally painful. Even when she wasn't moving and twisting and straining against the cuffs, which were always the real deal, we never used stunt cuffs, so even when she wasn't having to do that, just existing on the bed by the second week was painful. You can see it all over her. She used it. She channeled it right into the performance. I've never seen an actor put through so much, and I've never admired a performance as much as hers. She really just blew me away.
I would say that probably 70 percent of this film takes place within the confines of one room. Just from knowing you as a director and knowing your visual style through your previous projects, was it a huge challenge for you to work mainly within this one space, especially trying to find different ways to keep it visually arresting?
Mike Flanagan: Oh, yeah. We always had to keep that camera moving. We knew that we could never rest on our laurels. We couldn't just sit back while using the three obvious camera positions in that room, and assume that the entire runtime of the movie in that space would work. Michael Fimognari, who is my regular DP, he and I started going through the movie and designing all of the shots about two months before we were officially in prep on the film. By the time we actually had a green light, and the film was going to go, we had shot-listed and blocked the camera for the entire film.
That is what helped us survive it, because we both knew going in that if we aren't floating through that room like the eye of God, if we can't carry people across multiple days and really keep this dynamic, we're going to die on the vine no matter how good the actors are doing. If they were going to be able to kind of do these combustible performances, the camera work needed to be the fuel for that. We needed to support them.
There were times we could kind of sit back and let the camera relax because the actors were carrying the close up, and the actor could pull us through, but for the most part, we had to just keep moving, and keep the lighting in that room changing. We also decided never to turn on a practical light source, so that depending on the time of day, the colors of the room and the shadows of the room would always change. That way, the room never actually looked the same twice, all just because of where the sun was in the sky. Even if it's a little a thing, it made a big difference for us.
In case you missed it, you can read Heather Wixson's review of Gerald's Game here.