When the first trailer was released for Doctor Sleep, horror fans were pleasantly surprised to see direct references to the 1980 Stanley Kubrick film. That wasn’t a given when the film adaptation of Doctor Sleep was first announced, especially considering that many directors might have chosen to keep a safe distance from the Kubrick film to avoid comparisons.
So, you can imagine my complete and utter shock as I enter the set of Doctor Sleep late last year and the realization of what Mike Flanagan has done starts to sink in. We start walking past an abandoned-looking hallway with torn wallpaper and green carpet and I’m like, “Hey, this looks really familiar…” And then they sat us down in a living room set to get ready for interviews and I could see the bathtub from Room 237 across the way…
That was just the start of a packed set visit for a small group of journalists that included talking with director Mike Flanagan and producer Trevor Macy, along with co-stars Ewan McGregor and Kyliegh Curran. We also got to watch a scene being filmed with Kyliegh Curran and Jocelin Donahue, I had a chance to hang out in the re-created Torrance bedroom and look through the axe cut into the bathroom door, and Mike Flanagan was our tour guide for a truly amazing surprise that will get horror fans even more excited for Doctor Sleep.
But, before we get to surprises, let’s take it back to where this all started: Stephen King’s 1977 book and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation: both very different stories that had a tremendous impact on horror and Mike Flanagan, who talked about watching the movie at a young age and what he really loves about the book:
“I saw it in the eighth grade. I watched it on VHS and at a sleepover and was totally petrified. And I didn't really start to digest the movie properly and understand it from a filmmaking perspective until I got older. But it pretty much defined what it meant to be scared of a movie... It is all atmosphere and just this oppressive tension and that burned into me in a profound way. I've always found that to be the most effective way to scare someone...
...I read the book in high school as I was starting to burn my way through the King library. What stuns me about the book is that everything I believed about Jack Torrance from the film was wrong. The book has this pulse of humanism to it and of redemption and sacrifice on this part, which the movie jettisons completely. They both work for what they're doing, but that kind of showed me this other side of the story that also really resonated with me.”
Ewan McGregor is playing Danny Torrance in Doctor Sleep and talked about the impact the movie had on him when he was younger, as well as reading Doctor Sleep and The Shining while preparing for the role:
“So, I remember [The Shining] being being talked about as the scariest film that there's ever been. And so I didn't watch it till I was… probably into my late teens or maybe even when I went to drama school in my twenties… And I did find it really scary… It's interesting watching it now and seeing how [Kubrick] used music. If you took the music away, it wouldn't be such a terrifying movie. It's a very skilled piece of filmmaking in that respect.
I’m watching it now with a completely different mindset thinking about telling our story… Because it’s a complete backstory for [my character]. Funny enough, I read Doctor Sleep first, because I read the novel Doctor Sleep when I got this part and then I have gone back to [read] The Shining.”
Adapting Doctor Sleep is no easy undertaking, especially when you consider that Stephen King isn’t the biggest fan of Kubrick's film, and your average moviegoer is only familiar with the story of the movie. That said, Mike Flanagan has proven with Gerald’s Game and The Haunting of Hill House that he’s definitely up to the challenge, and he talked about his approach:
“When they announced that [Stephen King] was writing the sequel to [The Shining], I was incredibly excited and then really nervous because I had this feeling I think a lot of people have, which was that The Shining is done and it's perfect in both of its iterations. So I grabbed the book the day it was published, wolfed it down in 48 hours, and I loved it! What I loved the most about it was the difference in King as a storyteller from when he wrote The Shining, aware of his own alcoholism and writing that as an expression of the fear of what that could do to his own family as he's gotten older and was sober. Looking at The Shining being about addiction and Doctor Sleep being about recovery, that to me felt so perfect and that was a journey that Jack as a character could not take, and so it was up to Dan to pick that mantle up and succeed whereas [his] father failed.”
With Doctor Sleep working as an adaptation of Stephen King's book and tying itself to Kubrick's 1980 movie, I was curious to learn more about Stephen King's involvement and producer Trevor Macy let me know that he was involved early on and was supportive of this approach:
“Mike and I have a relationship that we value very highly with Stephen after Gerald’s Game. When this became an opportunity for us, we were very careful to ask Stephen King how he felt about it. He was very supportive of us being involved. We let him know very early on what we wanted to do with the script. When the script was ready, he was the first to read it, and he’s been immensely supportive. We also talked to him about cast and crew… so he’s absolutely been involved… We’ve found him amazing to work with.”
Mike Flanagan also spoke about getting Stephen King on-board with their vision:
“[We are] trying to straddle that line between honoring the source material of the novel and the importance of Kubric’s film. Famously, King is not a fan of the Kubrick adaptation. In [Doctor Sleep], he had [the Overlook] burned down, basically divorcing it completely from what he saw as a rough adaptation of his work. When I read the book, I loved what he did with Dan and revisiting that universe, but I had a real ache to go back to The Overlook. For us, it was a question of how do we combine those two worlds in a way that’s going to make Stephen feel really satisfied with what we did and also honor the legacy of the Kubrick film and what it means for cinephiles. It was a tough call and we had to get Stephen on-board, but when we explained how we wanted to do it, he was actually really enthusiastic, which was quite a pleasant surprise. Had he not wanted to do it, we wouldn’t be here.”
Flanagan also talked about the lessons he learned from The Haunting of Hill House and how he applied them to Doctor Sleep:
“I have always believed that everything comes out of the character work, but I know it for a fact now. I think that's the biggest takeaway. Coming into this because [the Doctor Sleep book] is a giant... it’s a sprawling story. Hill House was a great training ground for a lot of work we're doing [in Doctor Sleep,] but it's the same philosophy. We're leaning heavily on three really fascinating characters who don't really fully collide with each other until the end. We've got Dan's movie, and we've got Abra's movie, and we have Rose's movie and the way we braid those together and kind of bounce off of each other thematically doesn't really bring those worlds together until our final act. That's a really fun structural difference for me. It's neat kind of juggling three narratives, and trying to find a good way to get them to collide properly, and Hill House was definitely a great way to kind of flex those muscles early and get ready for this.”
Much of Flanagan’s work revolves around trauma, specifically traumatic events that happen to children and how it affects them as they get older. This is something he continues in Doctor Sleep, where Danny Torrance is still trying to get over the events from the Overlook Hotel and we're introduced to Abra, who has a whole new threat to deal with. This wasn't something that Flanagan leaned into intentionally at the start of his career:
“It's funny because I think I had a pretty idyllic childhood, but I'm fascinated by the way the traumas of our past can not only echo in our present, but how they shape us. That theme was not something I was consciously aware of as I was doing [this], especially in my earlier movies. But as I look back at it, there's definitely a real gravity toward those kinds of stories.
You’ve got probably the ultimate example of childhood trauma in Dan and how that affects him as an adult… he tries to suppress that and dull it, to dull that “shine” with alcohol and with removing himself from people...
...because I feel like I had a safe childhood and I had a very nurturing and warm upbringing that the idea of the safety of that family unit and the safety of being a child, that protection that you expect, the idea that being infiltrated and punctured by something, that really frightens me. And since I've had my own kids, the idea of a threat coming into that family is the kind of stuff that really keeps me up at night. That's the thing I find the scariest. I think that's why stories like this scare me and I don't want to work on a movie if it isn't scary to me.”
Ewan McGgregor also talked about how Dan’s past impacts where he is at the start of Doctor Sleep:
“There are some very key things about Dan. One is he's an alcoholic and when we find him at the beginning of the story, we see his rock bottom and we flash some time forward and [he’s] now a sober alcoholic.
...And then he's a son of his [dad]... and he has a relationship to his past with [his parents] that's very traumatic, in that he went through this huge traumatic experience where, you know, his father tried to hurt him.
And thirdly, [there’s] his “Shining,” his psychic energy. His psychic abilities have shown themselves in sort of the worst way in his past, and he's trying to forget. And indeed, in our first scenes, you know, when we first meet… [Dan’s] advice to Abra is to just ignore your Shine. Don't do it. Don't go there. And she brings him out of himself and they go on this journey together.”
Kyliegh Curran teases Abra, a character with similar abilities to Danny in The Shining, and how she gets involved with Dan:
“I think a lot about the relationship with Dan and Abra… and I think her strong will and “The Shining” is what really brings her to compel to help… It's definitely a coming of age for Abra, going from this naive little girl who just wants to jump in with no armor, and then realizing what can really happen.”
As alluded to in the trailer and as I mentioned above, Mike Flanagan and his team have gone through painstaking measures to recreate iconic locations from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but this goes beyond just Room 237 and the Torrances' room…
As they started moving us from one soundstage to the next, I see Mike Flanagan running up to our group with a big smile on his face. He’s as excited as a kid on Christmas. They open the doors to the soundstage and we walk into an exact recreation of the Colorado Lounge (aka The Colorado Room) from The Shining. It was literally like stepping right into the movie and was one of the most most surreal set visit moments I’ve ever had. The ceiling was complete, the walls were fully built and decorated, and there wasn't a sign of a green screen. It felt like we were back on the set of the 1980 movie and I just walked around with my mouth open looking at all of the details, while Flanagan talked a bit about the work that went into it:
“We wanted it to have aging, for a few good reasons, but we also didn't want it to have too much because one of the things that was really important to us was that when we come into this space, the audience will make the same noise you guys did when you came around the corner. It's got to feel right and we've got to be able to see enough of it…
We were making sure that we got the pattern on stained glass exactly right, the type of curtains, making sure we got this mural correct. We were even counting the logs for the fireplace. The pictures on the wall aren't just arbitrary black and white pictures; they went back frame by frame and tried to recreate and capture the same images. We are trying to match as "exactly" as possible.”
In the Doctor Sleep trailer, we see flashes of the famous Overlook carpet pattern and Danny on his big wheel, along with other shots from around the Overlook Hotel. And that's not CG or re-used scenes from the 1980 movie. They rebuilt and reshot everything themselves.
This is a testament to how much Mike Flanagan and his team care about the work they're doing and is one of the many reasons that Flanagan has emerged as one of the top horror directors working today. Ewan McGregor talked about what makes Flanagan’s set different from others he’s worked on:
"[Mike Flanagan is] very positive. He has a very nice, inclusive way of working with the crew, which is quite unusual in a way. We rehearse a little bit and then he brings the crew on and announces the scene and that's never done, you know?
For a lot of the crew, they're technicians, they're working people who are taking care of a technical aspect of the film, be it putting light on the scene, taking light off the scene, moving the camera… there are some technicians who aren't involved in the story, necessarily. But Mike pulls everyone into the story by announcing each scene and saying, "At this point in the story..."
And then suddenly everybody on set is now drawn into the storytelling of the scene. And that's quite unusual. I don't know that I ever remember a director doing that before. So it's quite nice. It sort of feels like everybody's pulled together as a team making the film. It's a very good crew here. There are a lot of people that have worked with Mike on his other work, and that's always good when you feel there's people that want to work again and again with a director.”
Due to a scheduling change, we weren't able to meet up with Rebecca Ferguson, who is playing the villainous "Rose the Hat," on set, but Kyliegh Curran talked about what a great experience it was working with her on a film where you might expect it to be a little tense, since Abra is fighting for her life:
"There is not a moment on set where I am not laughing when [Rebecca is] there. She's very fun. She's great at breaking the tension when we're there, but she's also amazing at being my enemy."
Recently, we caught up with Rebecca Ferguson, who talked about how her and Mike Flanagan changed Rose the Hat (and The True Knot) for the film adaptation of Doctor Sleep:
"Before meeting Mike, I read the script and then after the meeting, I was offered the role. I love Stephen King's books, so I read it in a day. And it's correct that we have done our own version of The True Knot...
We played around... I came up with lots of ideas, which kind of went hand in hand with what they had [in mind], funnily enough. I had this idea of kind of hippy, barefoot caravan livers with circus lights and the massive RVs. We wanted something that was quite relatable and image-wise quite beautiful and little bit grotesque… so that's the beauty of creating something yourself as well. You can be very, very close to the book, but it takes away the freedom of creating something for yourself."
Ferguson also talked about what we can expect from The True Knot and how she approaches a villainous character:
"So, The True Knot and Rose for me, I've done lots of incredible characters and I've loved them all, but there was something so familiar. The True Knot is a family, it's a gang of misfits, basically. And all the characters, all the actors are misfits and just so funny and geeky and weird and quirky and they have all been friends and have worked with Mike before. So, for us, when we were playing around we had Terry Notary, I don't know if you know who he is? He is the movement coach, he did a lot of characters in Planet of the Apes...We played around in our group to see what it's like to be a sort of predator character. Everything that came around creating our connections within The Knot made this film for me.
In Doctor Sleep, yes [Rose is] a villain. But what is so beautiful is that everything she does, she does out of the love for her people. Yes, the consequence is that people die because she's feeding the ones she loves. Being that she's the villain and the antagonist, and obviously that's fun, but I don't analyze it as a villain. I try to find the bits I love in each character.”
I want to give a big thanks to Mike Flanagan and Warner Bros. publicity for setting up an incredible set visit! On many occasions, set visits are extremely limited to the point where it can be hard to find enough to talk about. In this case, we were given an exceptional amount of access to the sets, cast, and crew. As a lifelong fan of both The Shining book and movie, I was thrilled to check out the set and learn more about the upcoming movie. That said, I was also skeptical before visiting, since the book can be challenging to adapt and it's a big undertaking since the general public will always see it as a sequel to the 1980 movie. After the set visit, I am convinced that they have a great approach to the material and a team that really cares about the work they do and getting it right.
Doctor Sleep opens in theaters on November 8th, and stay tuned to Daily Dead for more coverage of the movie leading up to its release! We've also been told that there will be a final trailer released on Sunday, September 8th!
Credit: Photos Courtesy of Warner Bros. and Jessica Miglio