Netflix's 'Gerald's Game' Director on Making Stephen King's 'Unfilmable' Thriller
For years, Mike Flanagan carried a copy of Gerald's Game with him like a cursed object.
Captivated by author Stephen King's grisly tale of a kinky sexual encounter and an ill-timed heart attack, the director of horror hits like Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil was obsessed with finding a home for a story that even he describes as "unfilmable." Who would be crazy enough to fund a thriller where the protagonist lies screaming on satin sheets for most of the runtime? Even with the epic King adaptation IT currently ruling the box office, the intimate premise of Gerald's Game isn't anyone's idea of a sure bet.
Enter: Netflix. Having released Hush, Flannagan's 2016 home-invasion movie about a deaf woman fighting off a masked man, the streaming service had a pre-existing relationship with him. Where other studios balked at the material -- the sexual content, the small cast, the emphasis on psychological trauma over jump scares -- Netflix saw an opportunity to add to their ever-growing library of genre films. King's name and Flanagan's chops, along with the Fifty Shades-meets-Misery hook, were worth the risk.
Even with the deal in place, Flanagan was worried it might not happen. "There could just be a change in executives over there and somebody could be like, 'This is a weird movie. I don't know how to do it,'" he explained earlier this summer during a conversation at the Shudder Labs in upstate New York. "It really was a perfect intersection of luck."
It's the type of luck that's served him well, from his days as an editor looking to get his micro-budget feature off the ground to today, as he preps his next project, a series adaptation (again, for Netflix) of Shirley Jackson's 1959 horror classic The Haunting of Hill House starring Timothy Hutton and Gerald's Game star Carla Gugino. If tackling ambitious projects from some of the biggest names in horror fiction doesn't scare him away, what does? We talked to Flanagan to find out.
Thrillist: Gerald's Game is such a challenging novel to take on as a filmmaker. What drove you to the book?
Mike Flanagan: There were two things I reacted to right away: the horror in that book is different than the horror in [King's] other books. It's entirely and very specifically psychologically hanging on its protagonist in a way that I don't want to spoil. The horror of it is born out of repressed trauma and it's set against this immediate survival story. But there are no distractions. There are no other humans in this room. The threats aren't a monster coming around the corner or a ghost crawling down the stairs. The threats is time. In a certain amount of time, she will die of dehydration unless she does something.
So it's incredibly grounded in that way but the crux of the story is her experience of trying to think her way out. And that's so hard to convey cinematically. The book is arresting in that way. You are her, and it's a very visceral and challenging experience to read. When I put it down I was breathless and I had goosebumps. I was like, "Goddamn, that's one of the best, most immersive reading experiences I've ever had. And it's unfilmable."
So then there was the additional challenge of once I thought it was unfilmable I was like, "I really wanna figure out how to film it." And I've always been really drawn to stories about strong and complicated women, in particular, and dealing with trauma, loss, and grief. This crystallized all my favorite themes into one really intense package. The book moved me so much when I read it that it became a standard for character-driven psychological thrillers for me. I would read a lot of stuff and feel like it wasn't as good as Gerald's Game. It was a movie that no one in their right mind would produce.
Do you think your track record with Netflix got you the opportunity to direct this? Could you have done it somewhere else?
Flanagan: Nope. I remember talking to Trevor Macy, my producer, about it and once Netflix said they were interested in doing it -- and specifically doing it the way we'd written it -- we both were like, "We have to do this right now when all the stars are aligned." As quickly as the road opened up for this movie, it could close. We didn't know if there would ever be another time when we would have this kind of creative support and be able to accomplish the movie the way we wanted.
We tried to take it all over town trying to get it mounted and even with all the other movies I'd done, there was a sense of, "We love it, we think it's a cool read and it's a really fascinating script, but it's a really hard movie to make." I had thought for a long time that it was dead and that our rights would lapse, and someone else would take a shot at it and maybe they would do it the way I expected it would be done, which is with substantial changes. Like, really huge structural changes to it to make it palatable and normal. I'd come to peace with the idea that it would never happen and then Netflix opened the door.
It was right at the time that King had seen Hush and was incredibly enthusiastic about that, so King perked up again and Netflix was right there. It was like, "We have all the pieces, right here and right now. We gotta go." Or let it die. And I'm so glad we got to go. I've never been as proud of a movie as that one.
I saw King tweeted about seeing a rough cut of the movie and liked it, right?
Flanagan: That was the biggest fanboy moment of my life. He watched the movie and he e-mailed me afterward. He loved the movie and he went into specifics about why and actually I framed the e-mail and hung it on my wall. It felt great. He's not easy to adapt and we've all seen what happens when it goes wrong.
And he's not shy about when he doesn't like adaptations.
Flanagan: This is the guy who said, "Kubrick, you screwed up my book!" I was so hoping against hope that he was going to be happy with it and that we had honored the book, and when he was I was elated. I still have that e-mail up on my wall like a big nerd. It was incredibly reassuring. He even said at the end of it, he said, "I'm certain this movie will inspire comments pro and con," which is exactly what it's supposed to do. That's the experience he had with the book. It's a polarizing book even among his fans.
Gerald's Game came from a period when he wrote a handful of books that were pretty difficult and challenging.
Flanagan: He wrote it in tandem with Dolores Claiborne and Misery. Actually, it's connected to Dolores Claiborne. He had meant to write three books that all centered around this eclipse, and the secrets that the characters who encountered this eclipse would be keeping. And in the novels, Dolores Claiborne sees Jesse Birmingham from Gerald's Game during the eclipse in a vision as they're in completely different parts of the country. We kept that connection in the movie. We have a little link to Dolores Claiborne in there.
But it was from a period of his writing that his fans still debate. I think Rose Matter was also around that time. He was dealing a lot with very complicated female characters -- a lot of his most feminist work was coming up then.
Yeah, I've read Lisey's Story, which came a little later but covers some similar subject matter, and that's an incredible book.
Flanagan: I love that one too. I wanted that one after this. I love that period of his career and fans will still kinda argue about him, and this book in particular was always controversial. I know there are a lot of Stephen King fans who didn't really know what to do with this book and I'm sure they won't know what to do with the movie. But that's fine. My goal with it was if I was happy with the movie, if Stephen was happy with the movie, and I felt like we honored the book, I expected the movie to be just as polarizing as the book was. I take that as a compliment.
It seems like your career has involved taking on progressively more ambitious, complex projects. Do you have a sense of what else you'd like to make in the next ten years?
Flanagan: Oh, sure. One of the big ones has been TV. For years, I said I really want to get into television. Now that that's happening, it's like, "Great! So what after that?" One thing I'd love to do is do a big-budget movie. Like, go the way [Death Note director Adam] Wingard's going with Kong Vs. Godzilla or like when James Wan did Fast and Furious and Aquaman. I'd love a chance to play in that world, which I hear, especially hearing what James's experience was like, is fraught with its own challenges and can be just as frustrating as getting your first micro-budget up. There are so many other considerations on a movie of that size while still making it your movie surrounded by that many people.
It does seem challenging. You'd have this huge apparatus around you.
Flanagan: How can you steer it? I would love to try it. It's like, if I come out of it like James did or [Spider-Man director Sam] Raimi did and I'm like "Now I want to go back and do something that's more familiar," that's very likely to happen. I would love to take a shot. Especially something that is stepping outside of the genre, which has become familiar and safe to me in a lot of ways. Not having to fall back on the genre elements, the horror, and the scares and all that, but to really have to stretch another muscle, that would be great.
I'd love to do a family film that my kids could watch. All of my stuff, my kids can't see until they're way older and it's like, I'd love to do something that's sweet and kid-friendly and tell a really great story that could spark something in a younger viewer. I think about when I first saw E.T. How could I do something like that for somebody?
Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment is producing The Haunting of Hill House. Have you gotten the chance to work with him for the show?
Flanagan: It is Amblin Partner, so he's definitely involved. The extent of his involvement when it comes to the production we still haven't figured out yet and we probably won't till we go a little further with the writing and see what he wants to do.
But, yeah, the scariest part for me was when we were developing the pitch and I knew he was off watching my movies. Because before they would sign off on me and be comfortable, they were like, "Yeah, he's going to be watching some stuff." I was like, "Oh my god." That was terrifying. All the sudden you want to do everything you know you can't, which is like you want to defend your movie ahead of time and come up and be like, "If I could just explain what I was aiming for…" You forget that the movies speak for themselves and that if you get up there and try to qualify them, it's wasted breath.
But, yeah, my literary hero is Stephen King and my cinematic hero is Steven Spielberg and to be in their orbits in the same year is madness. I felt the same way with King when we got started with Gerald, where it really creates a lot of personal stakes. If I fuck up and embarrass myself, now I'm going to do it in front of my hero. That's awesome. Fear of failure is a really powerful thing. If you get complacent in your career you can start to lose touch with that and that can have bad results, so it keeps that alive and well. Hopefully it will help make everything better.
Gerald's Game is now out on Netflix.