TR Interview: Oculus Director Mike Flanagan

By Luke Y. Thompson in Movies
Wednesday, April 9, 2014 at 5:59 pm


Have you ever been afraid of mirrors? You will be once Mike Flanagan is done with you.

A fanboy himself, he cast two of his, and our, favorite sci-fi actresses - Karen Gillan and Katee Sackhoff - knowing you'll come to see them. Then once you're there, he is gonna mess with your head.

We discussed dream casting, the challenge of making a mirror monster, and the obvious virtual headset jokes, among many other things.

Luke Y. Thompson: I've got to give you credit - when I was a kid, I saw a movie called The Watcher in the Woods.

Mike Flanagan: Yeah, yeah!

LYT: I was semi-scared of mirrors for years afterwards.

MF: That movie - people don't remember that movie. And it's such a shame that they don't make the PG horror any more - because that was Disney that put that out!

LYT: Yeah.

MF: So they don't make those anymore, the kid-accessible horror, because that was terrifying - the blindfold...

LYT: Yeah, I think you've undone all of the progress that I've made.

MF: I apologize.

LYT: No, that's a testament to its effectiveness. Did you ever have that fear of mirrors? Did that movie stimulate something in you?

MF: Yeah. That movie certainly scared me. There was another one, a very old movie called Dead of Night, that had elements of that too. Mirrors freaked me out as a kid, playing the Bloody Mary games and all that stuff. And as I got older, that realization that the image that I have in my own brain of myself is actually wrong, it's totally backwards, because I believe the mirror every day. That and coming across the tradition in the Jewish faith, where they'll cover the mirror at a funeral, because this will keep the dead from coming back. I was like, that's terrifying! Oh my god! So yeah, that all kind of came together for this, and that kind of campfire ghost story vibe that I grew up with that I just loved, of being told why something is scary before you have to get into it. I think that's really fun. But yeah - mirrors do creep me out, especially now.


LYT: I also love that the set-up for it is the classic found footage set-up, but it's not a found footage movie.

MF: Yeah, that was a tough battle, actually, because everybody saw cameras in the room on the short, and was like, "This is great! We'd be happy to do this movie. Let's go found footage." I was like, "No! Not in this one!" Because I have nothing against that sub-genre, but found footage movie, what's in the frame is objective. It has to be, and since the whole point was to kind of mess with perception and reality, I was like, I can't do that with found footage, because you can't question what you see.

LYT: Which funnily enough is the exact point of Blair Witch 2, but they didn't pull it off, and you did.

MF: And it's funny, because I'm an apologist for Blair Witch 2. It wasn't the movie anybody expected. It certainly wasn't retreading the first one, and it had some ambitious ideas. I agree, I don't think they pulled it off, but I thought there were some neat qualities to it.

LYT: I agree. It didn't succeed, but I appreciated what they were trying to do. I think you've pulled it off a little better than they did. But I understand that you had that kind of in mind as an inspiration as well.

MF: I saw that opening night when it came out, and it was not at all what I expected. But one of the things that I loved about it was when they went back and watched the footage at the end, and it didn't match up to what I assumed was an objective experience, and that definitely stuck with me as effective.

LYT: The movie specifically has that line: "Film lies; video tells the truth."

MF: Yeah.

LYT: So how many Oculus Rift jokes have you heard today?

MF: None today! I was braced for it, because that landed HUGE on us, and the backlash of it. I was like, oh god! Are we going to get kind of pulled into this intense dissatisfaction that the internet has over Oculus Rift? At the end of the day, at least people recognize our title, just hopefully not in a negative context. I had one person e-mail me and say "Did someone buy your movie for $2 billion?" I promise you, they didn't. I promise.

LYT: What was your reaction when you heard WWE bought it?

MF: They came on - they didn't so much buy it. They came on - first Relativity, they actually purchased the film. Blumhouse then came on then to assist with marketing. WWE was the last one, and they showed up, and they said "We saw the film in Toronto. We loved the film, and we want to help market, because we have this huge audience." There's a lot of crossover between WWE's core audience and horror fans.

Initially, I was like, does that fit for us? How does that work? What it's done, it's funny - people are, like, "WWE?" There's this kind of reaction to it. But they've been really growing as a production entity, and [they're] attached to some pretty interesting projects. What I liked about this for them was not only does it open it up to this whole kind of untapped audience that otherwise might not want to go see the movie, but their social media presence, in particular, is really effective.

My goal has always been to get the movie out to as many people as possible. When they came in and offered to partner with Relativity, they wanted to just support that, and we were very grateful for that. And so it's not what a lot of people expect. For me, it's like, get as big an audience as possible, because movies like this don't tend to, and if we can buck that trend and say complicated, intelligent horror can appeal to a giant, mass audience, that can make it easier for other people to make movies without feeling like they having to dumb it down, and without feeling like they have to go down the middle and appeal to the lowest common denominator. That's ultimately what I think is really important, to prove that there's an audience for intelligent horror, on a mass scale. Because a lot of those movies, unfortunately, are brilliant and they get stuffed into these tiny releases. It's sad.

LYT: There's definitely a crossover audience, I can tell you. I run a website that appeals to both.

MF: Yeah, but I wasn't aware of just how much of a crossover audience there was, and they came in for marketing, and their ideas were great. The things that they wanted to do as far as - we're going on this big tour next week to college campuses and things like that, that they brainstormed, and it's been huge. You know, I think the assumptions that some people make about WWE are inaccurate. At the end of the day, it's more helpful to the movie and to them that we did this, because it demonstrates and shines a light on that crossover in a way that I don't think a lot of people know is out there.

LYT: It's so interesting, though - they're so focused on their TV product being PG, PG, PG, and then when it comes to movies, they're willing to really up the ante.

MF: And what I loved to is that at the end of the day, they were like, "We love this movie as it is. Don't change a thing." They loved it. They were really just passionately in favor of the film, and when someone comes to you with that kind of outreach and that passion for the project, you want to be in business with those people.


LYT: When you got to live out the fanboy dream by casting two stars of your favorite sci-fi shows, how was that dream to live out, and did anyone at any point say they're not big enough, you can't do it?

MF: There's always that. People say that from the beginning. We had really supportive producers with that who didn't feel that way, who were like, it doesn't matter if they're perceived as big enough. I had a hard time overcoming the fan boy geek reaction early, for both of them. But once we kind of - once I got that out of my system, and we could get to work, it was really awesome. But yeah, from a fan's point of view, it's a dream come true!

One of the beauties of horror is that you don't necessarily hang the movie on actors the way that you do in a big studio project, so being indie, it's like nope, these are the right actors for the part, and they have a built-in audience. They have a built-in fan base, so that's great, but we're just going to stick with them and really believe that they're the right people to play these parts. I've never once regretted that, and I'm grateful that the producers and the studio took the ride with us, all the same.

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