An Interview with Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard
In celebration of the release of my new horror novel, DEAD RINGERS, I set out to chat with some of my favorite filmmakers this week…beginning with the OCULUS team of Flanagan & Howard. Check it out!
For years, American horror cinema endured an ironic withering. Studios continued to make the occasional horror film, but too many were made for the wrong reasons by the wrong people—people who knew nothing and cared nothing about horror as a genre. As low-budget, independent horror fare began to strike a chord, finding its way to larger audiences, some films began to break through…and with them, filmmakers who understood and had a passion for horror. In 2013, one of those major breakthroughs came with OCULUS, directed by Mike Flanagan and co-written by Flanagan and his longtime writing partner, Jeff Howard. The team of Flanagan & Howard are on a major roll now, in the wake of OCULUS, with the upcoming OUIJA 2, Stephen King’s GERALD’S GAME, and a new version of Lois Duncan’s classic I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, but they took time out to answer some questions…
CHRISTOPHER GOLDEN: With OCULUS, you guys smashed your way to the top of the horror field. Years ago, in a speech I gave at FantasyCon in the U.K., I talked about how the American horror film suffered from the fact that so many horror movies were being made by people who didn’t know anything about or care anything about horror. Obviously that’s not the case with the two of you. So, for each of you, where did the love of horror begin. What was the spark, and how did it lead to film?
JEFF HOWARD: I don’t know about “the top” but it’s been nice to have so many people recognize a movie that tried to be everything a horror movie should be, but still find room to make you care about the people. And maybe even let you forget sometimes what “kind” of movie you’re watching. Mike is the true horror aficionado, in that he knows everything about the horror universe from his childhood, the way the Marvel and DC mythologies or ancient history dominated mine. I didn’t enjoy the slasher body count movies or the torture porn, but as a kid I did watch An American Werewolf in London and Don’t Look Now over and over.
MIKE FLANAGAN: I was terrified of horror as a kid. I’d watch from behind the couch. So I didn’t really get to see much in the way of horror movies until I was in High School. I did read quite a bit, though… I was (and remain) a rabid Stephen King fan. I’d have to say that reading “IT” was the spark for me. That book terrified and moved me, and really showed me what horror could be. Being a Constant Reader taught me more about character driven horror than most of the films that were being made at the time. But since college, I’ve consumed as much genre fare as I possibly can.
CG: Though you’re each involved with certain things on your own, it’s clear looking at your credits that “Flanagan & Howard” is a real partnership. How did you meet, and how did the partnership develop?
JH: We were introduced by a mutual friend right about the time Mike graduated from college. We’d gone to the same school years apart. She thought we would get along, and eventually we did. When we first met, I had sold a studio screenplay (strangely to Neal Moritz, who we just worked for on IKWYDLS) and Mike thought I was the devil. He was determined to stay outside the system at that time. Then I sold another big script with Ron Howard attached to direct, and I think that might have gotten his attention. Afterward, we started talking about ideas. It was instantly clear that what we did together would make good movies, but I think there has always been something idiosyncratic about our writing that made people have difficulty seeing the movies, until Mike started directing.
MF: Yeah, I remember telling Howard I never wanted to work for the studios. It’s hilarious to me now. I was plugging away on these tiny mini-DV dramas, and they couldn’t find an audience. I remember calling him up and saying “so, tell me more about this ‘commercial viability’ thing?” That was in 2003, I think. It’s been a long and crazy journey since then. I think we’ve worked on more than twenty scripts.
CG: For someone who loves horror film, OCULUS was a fascinating breakthrough, even a statement. The basic subject matter is very much a classic, literary horror trope—the haunted mirror—but executed in a way that works for, and on, modern audiences. It underlines everything I believe about what Hollywood so often doesn’t understand about horror movies and horror audiences. Do you set out to show that the kinds of horror stories that inspire you are timeless, or are you just following what you love?
JH: I think as writers, we’ve always been lucky because we both have fairly populist taste in movies. Which doesn’t mean that Mike doesn’t have his Malick spells and that I don’t watch too much Truffaut. But we always seem to commit ourselves to ideas that would be the kinds of movies we want to see. As far as I can tell, we’re just doing what we like.
MF: It’s all about what grabs me. OCULUS was a special case, as it was a short film long before it was a feature. There were years and years where no one would express interest in making the feature (or if they did, they wanted to make it found-footage). It took a long time to find people willing to do that movie right. Ultimately, though, it was all about making the kind of movie I wanted to watch.
CG: Your film BEFORE I WAKE has been caught up in a maelstrom of release nightmares, including the troubles of Relativity Media. Is there any word yet on when we might actually see it?
JH: You really never expect when you go into one of these things that this kind of scenario could ever happen. Looking forward to reading the book, I hope Peter Biskind writes it. Mike knows more about this than I do, but having seen the movie many times I’m happy to tell you that Mike directed and edited a beautiful movie that will be seen by a lot of people. Go Jacob Tremblay!
MF: We’re optimistic that the film will be available in the near future. Now, please excuse me while I punch a wall.
CG: You’re currently shooting OUIJA 2, which you also wrote together. How did that come about and what do you expect to bring to the table with this film?
JH: Again, I defer to Mike as the one shooting OUIJA 2, but as writers we were lucky to have four people who we really like – Jason Blum, Couper Samuelson, Drew Form and Brad Fuller – come at us and ask us to do it. They also gave us something hard to resist – a blank slate to construct something different within the context of a major Universal movie that is going to come out on 3,000 screens.
MF: It was an opportunity to make a film that we couldn’t really imagine ever getting green lit anywhere else… I can’t really talk about the specifics yet, but it’s absolutely not what people will expect. I’m really in love with it, actually. It’s tough doing a franchise, and I had told myself I’d never, ever do a sequel to someone else’s movie… but at the end of the day it was impossible to say no. They were so supportive of the direction we wanted to go in, it would have been foolish to pass up this kind of opportunity. I will say that it is going to be more sophisticated than the first, and will appeal to a different kind of viewer…
CG: What are some of the films or books or comics or TV series that influence you that people might not expect? The things that are an embedded part of your frame of reference that we won’t see right away while examining your work?
JH: I love Victorian novels. Marie Belloc-Lowndes wrote the classic, but my favorite is Wilkie Collins. There are more references to Frasier and the Supremes than you might think possible. If I could have any job in the world, it’d be writing The Invaders movie.
MF: You can skip rocks off the Stephen King references in my work, some of which are intentional and some of which are completely subconscious. I’ve also become aware that I keep nodding to Rear Window and Rope these days…
CG: What are your horror favorites right now in various mediums? TV, comics, film, books, video games?
JH: The best horror franchise in existence today is The Walking Dead, which I would give as an answer to this question even if this was the Hannibal web site. A few years ago Dan Simmons published a book called Drood that obsessed me. My guilty pleasure has been The Strain, no matter what happens on that show I still keep going back.
MF: Walking Dead for sure. Hannibal was amazing. I also keep dusting off old episodes of The Twilight Zone, I wish there was something like that on the air today.
CG: Word has it that you guys are writing, and Mike is directing, an adaptation of the Stephen King novel GERALD’S GAME. It seems like a hell of a challenge, an intimate and terrifying thing.
JH: I completely defer to Mike on this one, except to say that – When we first met, in the very first few conversations we ever had about working together, Mike was instantly interested in trying to get the rights to this book. It took a loooong time, and during that time he’s been directing and cutting this movie in his head. I can’t wait to see it.
MF: It’s been a dream project for years. I remember reading the book and thinking “that’s unfilmable”… but over the years a really clear picture started forming in my head of how to do it. When the light bulb finally went off, I felt like I had to make that movie immediately. It’s still a hard road getting it into production (partially because of the unique style of the movie), but I can’t wait to get shooting. It’s going to be unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
CG: You seem to both be attracted to stories of intimate, personal horror. What is it about these stories that draws you?
JH: I like stories about people, where you’re watching for twenty or twenty-five minutes and there’s not a lot of evidence what genre you’re watching. You’re just enjoying time with people you like, or hate, or empathize with, or pity. With horror, you get to take those people and push their reality to an extreme that you rarely get to do in other genres. That being said, we have some stories up our sleeves in other genres which contain moments that are as horrific as anything in OCULUS, BEFORE I WAKE, or OUIJA 2.
MF: I gravitate toward stories where the horror elements aren’t front and center. I like to believe that if you remove the horror elements from any of our stories, they’d still be interesting… they’d still have a point to make about human nature, and they’d still have relatable characters. The horror elements are just extensions of bigger ideas, just a language we can use to describe our darker natures, dreams, and fears. So if we do our jobs right, they aren’t really horror stories at all… they’re human stories.
CG: What does the future hold for Flanagan & Howard?
JH: Hopefully, we continue to be lucky enough to work. And we get to grow, always loving the genre that got us in the game but expanding out into some new areas. Don’t be surprised to see a docudrama or a family movie from us sometime soon. And we’d love to contribute a great series to this ongoing streak of the modern Golden Age of TV.
MF: I’m going to Disneyland.