Filmmaker Mike Flanagan was on the Warner Bros. lot to talk with producers about DC Comics superheroes. He left with a task so big, not even Superman could handle it.
That task was to adapt Stephen King’s book, Doctor Sleep. Flanagan had adapted King work’s before but this was different. Doctor Sleep is the sequel to King’s classic novel, The Shining, which Stanley Kubrick adapted into one of the best horror films ever, also called The Shining. Warner Bros. had the rights but no idea what to do with it—that is, until Flanagan sat down to talk about comic book characters.
Below is our full interview with the writer and director of the new film, which opens Friday. In our conversation, Flanagan tells the story of how he found himself on the project, how he convinced King to let him change the novel, what it was like dealing with the Kubrick estate, and the ridiculous stress of trying to be faithful to both geniuses, while simultaneously making a successful Netflix series.
io9: The press notes say you got Doctor Sleep after mentioning it in another meeting that wasn’t about Doctor Sleep. How did that all work?
Mike Flanagan: Oh, the meeting wasn’t even about a specific movie. It was just a general meeting with Jon Berg to talk about DC. And I take general meetings all the time. There’s never really a project on the table. It’s usually just a kind of a “Hey get to know you” talk in very broad strokes and see if anything kind of comes out of it.
But he asked me about Gerald’s Game, which hadn’t been released yet. And we realized we’re both big Stephen King fans. And I had been asking my agents about Doctor Sleep since it was published and I never got a meeting on it. And he had said, “Oh, you know, we never were able to crack that movie here.” And I said “I was trying very hard to get in the room to pitch on it.” And he said, “Well, look, what would you do?” And I told him what I would do with it very quickly. I mean, I didn’t really have a kind of prepared pitch for it. I just kind of said, “Well, this is why I love it. And this is what I would do.” And I went walking back to my car thinking nothing would come of it. And by the time I made it to the car, he’d called Stephen King and gotten Stephen King to sign off on moving forward with me, at least to kind of continue the discussion. And we were off to the races. It was kind of crazy.
io9: That’s amazing. Did you know at that time you’d combine the book and the movie or did that come later?
Flanagan: No, that was kind of my whole pitch. I said, “Look, I think the way to do this is you have to be as faithful as possible to Doctor Sleep.” I think people get in trouble the further away they get from King source material. And I say that just as a huge King fan. I said the trick is you have to do what the novel didn’t do, which is to let the story exist within the cinematic universe that was established by Stanley Kubrick and let it be a celebration of both. And he said, “How do you do that?” And I said, “I think it’s about the ending. I think it’s about where you set the end of the film.” And I think it’s going to be, for whoever would try to do that, it would be one of the most daunting things they could ever attempt to do. And I didn’t think it would be me. But here we are.
io9: So what were the biggest challenges in blending the Overlook and Kubrick movie elements into the King novel?
Flanagan: Well, it was always trying to protect the intention and the characters that Stephen King created while being as reverent to Kubrick as possible. And, there are these continuity issues you have to deal with between them—where Kubrick and King had made such different decisions that you have to decide huge questions, like is Dick Hallorann alive or dead. [But] that wasn’t the hardest part. The hardest part was the little things. I had a much harder time figuring out what color the typewriter was in the Colorado lounge because Kubrick had more than one. And that question of what color is the typewriter in The Shining, when you look back at the movie, there’s more than one answer that is correct to that question. And Kubrick just proceeded. He didn’t care about the continuity issue. It was little details like that I found to be the most agonizing.
The big questions like Hallorann and the Overlook itself, that was just about commitment. And that was just about saying, “Ok, well, Kubrick killed Hallorann. So let’s say Hallorann is dead. How do I protect the exact same scenes that he has with Danny in the Doctor Sleep novel?” Why can’t he have them as a ghost? Isn’t that kind of perfectly within the DNA of The Shining? So the scenes are actually unchanged. The only thing that was altered was whether he was alive or dead when he said what he said. That wasn’t too tough. It was all the little stuff that drove me crazy.
io9: You talked about how daunting you thought this would be. So did you have to shut out the pressure or did you wake up every morning thinking about like, “Oh my God, I’m making a sequel to The Shining, what am I’m doing?”
Flanagan: I woke up every morning panicked. I still kind of do. I’d love to say that I rose above it, but I never did. I felt better though, I found, if I didn’t call it “a sequel to The Shining” in my own head, if I looked at the movie as a descendent of The Shining or as a child or the son of The Shining and said, “It’s a kid. It’s the product of two parents. And it has their genetics built into it. And those parents are King and Kubrick. And we have to honor our parents.” But the movie still has to find its own way in the world. That made me feel better. But I still always felt like I was about to throw up. It was the most pressure I’ve ever been under.
io9: Ultimately we know that Stephen King signed off on this, and you mentioned he heard about you pretty early, but how did the ultimate stamp of approval happen? Did you send him a script, present it to him? How did it work?
Flanagan: I wanted to get his approval to proceed with putting the Overlook into the script first. And he initially said, “I don’t know.” And I said, “Well, look, I think there’s no way not to, given the ubiquity of Kubrick’s film.” But I pitched him on one specific scene that happens inside the Overlook toward the end of the film. And, if you see the movie, you know what I’m talking about. It’s exactly what you think it is. And I pitched him that scene and he came back and he said, “Okay, do that.” And he gave his blessing to proceed with that kind of hybridization. And if he hadn’t, I would not have made the film.
But then I wrote the script and then sent it to him. And I was dying. I was holding my breath, waiting for him to respond. And he came back and he said, “Look, I really like this. I really love this.” In fact, he said, “The ending, you changed the ending.” I said, “Yes I did! I changed the ending. I’m sorry!” But I changed it in ways to try to get back to the ending of the novel The Shining. To try to get back to things that Kubrick had jettisoned, that King had always wanted. I said, “Maybe I can give you the ending you didn’t get from Kubrick?” And he said, “Look, I really like it. I support this. I liked the draft very much. I just feel like, I like it so [much], I feel like this is the kind of movie studios don’t often make.” And I got to say to him, “Well, funny you should mention that. They greenlit the film this morning.” And then we were off to the races.
io9: And what about the Kubrick estate? What was their reaction when you were like, “Hey, I’m making this movie”?
Flanagan: Same thing. The same kind of trepidation. They want to make sure that Stanley Kubrick’s legacy is protected. And so do I. And I have to point out, I said, look. I worship Stanley Kubrick. I adore The Shining. It’s one of the most formative films in my life. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to sully his legacy in any way. So the same thing with King. I just had to say this is what I want to do. This is how I want to celebrate Kubrick and they got more and more comfortable. They did give us so much. They gave us access to so much of his material in order to pull this off. And then, at around the time that Stephen King saw the final film, the Kubrick estate saw the final film, and Stephen King loved it and the Kubrick estate loved it. At that point, I started to finally not feel like I was about to throw up. I [said] those are the two most important reviews this film will ever get. And, if anything else, I can at least kind of sleep tonight knowing that they both are happy. That to me was the mission was to try to reconcile that. And I feel like if we did it even a little bit and then it was worthwhile.
io9: Because the film is sequel to The Shining, it requires a lot of exposition. Who the Torrances are, what the Overlook is, and so on. How much did you consider people coming into this movie who hadn’t seen The Shining?
Flanagan: Oh, yeah. Well, that was a whole other kind of viewer to always keep in mind. As much as we’d argue about Kubrick and King and everything, there were people coming in who would have no reference to either. I mean, [people] might watch this film and scratch their heads and say, “I think they ripped off Ready Player One.” I felt like those viewers existed and the gift that I had from Stephen King in that was the character of Abra, who also knows nothing about the Overlook or the Torrances or the “shining” itself. She is that new viewer without any frame of reference. And so her story and being able to use her eyes was a way to come into this story, that gave us a way in for people that didn’t necessarily know The Shining. And I think Abra the character, and certainly Kyliegh Curran’s performance of Abra—I think Kyliegh is just a remarkable force of nature in this movie—I think that’s how we were able to kind of at least keep one door open for the people who might not have this history with this material.
io9: You recreate so many elements of The Shining, which I imagine was another nightmare. Was there anything that ended up being easier than you expected it to be?
Flanagan: Nothing was easier. No, everything was really hard. And every time you thought, even if we had it 80 percent right, we would have these panics where we finally realized we were looking at a screen grab that had the wrong color timing and that our carpet was a little too yellow and orange enough. And we’d have to quickly make adjustments. Second-guessing and triple guessing everything we did was really tough. There were things like, “Oh, they don’t make this light fixture anymore” or “The sinks in the green bathroom in room 237, those sinks aren’t made the same way anymore. These are close enough, right?” And I would say, “There’s no such thing as close enough. We have to get it exactly right.” Because I would scrutinize those details if anyone else made this movie, so someone’s going to do it to me.
That was an overwhelming amount of stress, especially knowing we’d never get everything right no matter how hard we tried. There were things that were going to fall through the cracks or things that we couldn’t get exactly correct. And that stuff drove me crazy. Daily. It would just drive me nuts.
We bumped into things where we’re building to Kubrick’s exact blueprints but the dimensions of our stages are different than his. And so we’d have to make changes to the Overlook and any time we had to change the Overlook, I would panic. I’d say “We can’t! We can’t change the Overlook!” And they’d say “There’s not enough space on the stage to build what you want to build. You have to cut it back by three feet.” Now you think three feet, maybe no one’s going to notice that. But if they do, what am I going to say, you know? And that stuff was really...I had a million reasons not to be able to go to sleep at night. That’s only letting up now because there’s nothing else I can do. It’s all over. There’s no other decision I can make. All I can do now is trying to explain myself, which is a very weird position to be in.
io9: Last thing. I loved The Haunting at Hill House but I don’t understand how you made that, made this, and are making the sequel, The Haunting at Bly Manor. Take me through how that’s even possible?
Flanagan: I was actually working on the script for Doctor Sleep while I was at the monitor on set for Haunting. In between setups of the show, I would keep my mind off some of the overwhelming stress of Haunting by spending time in the Doctor Sleep script. Timeline wise, I think it was around the time we started shooting episode seven I knew that I was going to be making the movie. And if you look in the finale of Hill House, actually, you can see Steve’s wife Leigh is reading Doctor Sleep. Just kind of a little hint as to what was next. Then I rolled off of that, I went in to post, finished the edit on Hill House and went immediately into pre-production with most of the same crew in Atlanta where we shot Haunting. It was most of the same people who just came with me over to Doctor Sleep. We just kept going.
io9: And how much time do you have between now and Bly Manor?
Flanagan: Oh, no time at all. They overlapped. Again, post-production on Doctor Sleep wasn’t finished when I went to Vancouver to shoot Bly Manor. And actually we’re about a third of the way through the shoot and I left the set to come on this press tour. So it’s all just stacked on top of itself, I’m afraid.
Doctor Sleep opens Friday.
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