How the Director of 'Doctor Sleep' Made a Worthy Follow-Up to 'The Shining'
Of course Mike Flanagan was intimidated by Doctor Sleep. "Every day of this project, from the day they called and said, 'Yes, let's let's proceed with the script,' to pretty much today, I have kind of felt like I was about to throw up," the director told Thrillist during a recent interview. "It's been the most intimidating and daunting project I've ever been a part of." In taking Stephen King's horror novel, itself a follow-up to King's The Shining, to screen, Flanagan has made not only a sequel to one of the best horror films of all time, but has done much to square King's vision with a film adaptation the horror author famously despises.
"I really believed that there was a way, somehow, to try to make a film that would honor not only Kubrick's movie, but King's novel Doctor Sleep, and King's novel The Shining," he explained. "I felt like if it was possible to even reconcile those worlds a little bit then it was worth trying, just because it was a movie I would love to see as a fan."
And he's certainly a fan: Flanagan counts King among his personal heroes -- "I've read every word he's ever written" -- and Doctor Sleep is his second King adaptation to date, after the earth-shattering version of Gerald's Game, long thought to be unfilmable, he made for Netflix. But he also, like so many of us, loves Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining, and knew there really wasn't a way to do a Shining sequel without venturing back to the Overlook Hotel we know and recognize.
Doctor Sleep features multiple lengthy sequences of shot-for-shot, gesture-for-gesture, tone-for-tone remakes of scenes from Kubrick's Shining, a feat so formidable, given The Shining's status as a cultural object, it's impressive Flanagan even tried it out at all. The most impressive part is that a lot of it works, even though he had to recast Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and little Danny Lloyd to accomplish it.
"There are three shots in the film that are Kubrick's shots," Flanagan said, "the shot of the island in the canyon, and then the two shots right after it, of the car and driving up the mountain. That's it. Those shots we couldn't recreate, so we took his footage and we made it nighttime and we added snow and we changed out the car. But, everything else is is our recreation, including the bloody elevator and everything that happens in the Overlook. That's all us."
When the teaser for the movie came out in June, Kubrick sleuths noted that that famous slow-motion shot of the blood pouring out of the hotel elevator doors was from the original movie. Flanagan had to be mistaken, right?? Nope: "When we released the teaser trailer, the shot in the teaser trailer is [Kubrick's] shot. That was only because ours wasn't finished yet. It took us four months to make our shot, and we were still working on it, so we used his for the teaser. But the one in the movie is ours."
Those scenes aren't the only parts of Kubrick's movie Flanagan copied: Doctor Sleep also carries itself with a very stately, contemplative mood -- odd for a blockbuster horror movie, but right in keeping with The Shining's slow buildup of dread. In Doctor Sleep there are many moments of silence, many moments that nearly feel like calming ASMR videos, including one breathtaking sequence where Rebecca Ferguson's soul-sucking villain Rose the Hat astral projects herself to hunt another character down, floating languidly through clouds over the surface of the Earth.
"I hate jump scares," Flanagan said. "I've been really proud of some in my career, but mostly those are the exceptions to the rule, and I feel like jump scares disperse tension. They actually punctuate it. They get rid of it, they pop it like a balloon. I've always been much more interested in sustaining tension -- which is a lesson I learned from Kubrick." Doctor Sleep has lengthy scenes of adult Dan Torrance, played with a studied quietness by Ewan McGregor, working in a hospice in a small New England town, caring for patients on their deathbed. "It's a quiet moment, and that silence is intimate," Flanagan said.
Those scenes also contributed to the movie's length, which, funny enough, is even longer than The Shining, which clocks in at nearly two and a half hours. "We actually had, in a few cases, significantly shorter versions of this film, and we tested them, and the audience did not connect to them nearly as much as they connected to this cut," Flanagan explained. "I think it's because of those moments of silence and contemplation and that unhurried time to sit with a character. It makes everything else that happens when the action does kick in mean just a little more."
Throughout the movie, McGregor's Torrance battles the alcoholism he inherited from his murderous father, which has blunted his psychic shining abilities. For Flanagan, it's no mistake that King wrote one of these novels while in the throes of addiction himself, and another after he'd fought it. "If you read [The Shining]," Flanagan explained, "it's obviously the anxiety of a man who's afraid his own alcoholism could destroy his family at a time when he does not have that alcoholism under control at all. And then you look at Doctor Sleep, and he wrote it decades later, with decades of sobriety under his belt, and is now looking back at his recovery, and at his own children who are now grown up at about the same age he was when he was in the throes of his alcoholism. It's such a personal and incredible look, both at addiction and recovery."
Flanagan has never shied away from that kind of heavy, emotional stuff, even when making material whose priority is to scare and entertain: Gerald's Game is overwhelmed by the main character's childhood trauma, and his Netflix series based on Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House -- and its upcoming second season, The Haunting of Bly Manor -- touches on themes of suicide, trauma, and addiction. "If I can do right by those heavy ideas that you're talking about, that's what draws me to the story to begin with," Flanagan said. "I don't know how to balance something that's very personal to me with something that's going to be released to a huge audience. It's a question I ask myself every day, with anything I'm working on, is how to make sure I'm making something that is meaningful to me, something that I'm proud to leave behind for my children, but is also going to be as entertaining as possible to as broad an audience as possible."
Thankfully, King's texts in particular provide many riches to mine from -- which is why his books and stories have been adapted so many times, for better or for worse. Many of King's books have been called "unadaptable," and yet his cinderblock of a novel IT was a hit when the most recent version came to theaters in two parts, and Flanagan himself proved everyone wrong with Gerald's Game. One has to ask, what, in Flanagan's opinion, makes a good King adaptation?
"I've had the experience my whole life of watching Stephen King adaptations with bated breath, and wanting them to be good," Flanagan said. "Some of them are, and some of them are incredible, and others are far less successful, and it's so deflating when that happens. The further away from the intentions of King's themes and characters that you go, the more danger the movie is in of careening off its path.
"You have to go through the thing and identify as clearly as you can why it is that he wrote it, what it is about this character, what is he trying to say? What is he trying to chew on, in his own life or about the world? And if you can distill that, if you can answer that question for yourself, then you just try to create, as best you can, the same experience that you had when you read it. If you were to describe the book to your best friend and tell them what you loved about it, those are the things you have to put in the movie."