Thought to be one of a new generation of horror filmmakers taking the genre into a welcome Renaissance, Mike Flanagan spent many years cutting his teeth directing television in the ten years between his second and third films. While his 2011 thriller Absentia did find a cult following, it wasn’t until his next film Oculus premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013 when Hollywood started to take notice.
That led to a couple other films including making Hush with Blumhouse Productions, who around the same time hired Flanagan to write and direct a prequel to their 2014 horror hit, Ouija.
Ouija: Origin of Evil takes its prequel status quite literally by shifting the story back to 1967 when a single widowed mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) and her two daughters are helping to pay the rent by holding rigged séances. When Alice brings home a Ouija board and immediately starts to break the “rules” of “playing,” her youngest daughter Doris (Lulu Wilson) starts to communicate for the spirits located in the house… and things just get more diabolical from there.
LRM spoke with Flanagan over the phone a couple weeks back.
LRM: I’m fairly in touch with the horror community, and they were generally more excited for this sequel or prequel than the original movie, mainly because you wrote and directed it. How did they approach you about it and was it just a natural thing to do it after working with Jason Blum on “Hush”? How did that happen?
Mike Flanagan: Yeah, I’ve been working with Jason since he came onto Oculus. We had screened at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), and he came on board to get the movie distributed. When he first had broached the idea of doing Ouija 2, my initial reaction was one of skepticism. Jason has been very forthcoming about this in the media, so he won’t mind me saying it again, but he came at it saying, “Look, I know that the first movie wasn’t perfect. I know it wasn’t our finest hour, and there was a lot we could have done better. It performed so well there’s going to be a sequel and it will be a big wide release movie, so I’d really prefer to really right that wrong and make as good a movie as we can instead of just doing a smash and grab sequel.” I really respected that. I think that’s a very unusual attitude in Hollywood, so that was our first conversation about it, and from there, we had finished Hush together and had a very good experience on that. He said, “What would make you excited about this and what kind of movie would you want to make that you don’t think you can get made somewhere else and let’s see if we can put it all together?” I said to him that I was really excited about doing a movie about a single Mom in the ‘60s, which is something that would get you laughed out of most pitch rooms in Hollywood. And he said, “Absolutely, let’s start there, and see if we can’t make a movie that excites you and still fits within the franchise.”
I think in the very beginning, I was wary of it, and the more we talked and the more creative support that I was feeling from Blumhouse and Universal and Platinum Dunes as well, it became kind of irresistible. The idea of stepping into a franchise that was established and do something that still felt like it was mine with a built-in juggernaut behind it with Universal and Blumhouse and Michael Bay and all of that, it was really hard to say “No” to. Yeah, it was surprising. I ended up being surprised that I got as excited about it as I did, and I think when we announced the project, I know there was an equal amount of surprise, at least if my comment board on IMDB is any indicator. There was also surprise from the fans that I was doing it, and so there was always this sense of “Just wait. Withhold judgment a little bit, because I think we could do something pretty cool here.” I’m very, very glad that I did the movie and they trusted me with it, so it’s been kind of cool.
LRM: What I liked about it and also with “Oculus” is that you must know that horror fans are pretty savvy these days, and you can’t just throw the same scares at them every time because they’ll know it’s coming, and I think with both movies, you’ve broken away from the norm. For this one, it’s partially the ‘60s setting, but this is your fourth or fifth horror movie in a row. How do you keep finding new ideas within the horror genre?
Flanagan: I’m about as jaded a horror fan as anyone. I watch it constantly, and so I’m tough to surprise myself. I tend to approach these things from a point of view of character first. If I remove all the supernatural elements, and all the scares and everything else that the genre will require of it. If I’m interested in the characters, and I think there’s another story under there that connects with me, then everything else seems to flow from that. A lot of times, the scare sequences and the horror elements come out of those characters, and that helps it feel fresh to me, and I hope to a viewer as well, because I think horror fans are some of the most passionate genre fans you’re ever going to find, and like you said, they’ve seen it all. If you’re trying to pull one over on them, that’s really hard to do. For me, it’s more about trying to invite them along, and say here’s what interested me about this story, and I hope that it connects with them as well. I think more than anything, it’s just about if I can get to the end of the script and really care about the characters then there’s something working, then the rest is kind of the fun part.
LRM: That’s actually another thing I liked about the film, and it’s becoming more common in horror, is like you said, this is a movie about a single mother and two daughters, and it has these horror elements, but it’s cast almost like a drama. Elizabeth Reaser, who has never done horror as far as I know, she’s a really strong actress but hasn’t been given a role like this in a major movie. Did you approach it first as a drama with the casting, too?
Flanagan: Oh, yeah, 100%, and Seth Howard, we’ve been writing together now for a long time, and we always approach it as a drama first. If the drama’s working, then we assume everything else has a fighting chance to work. With Elizabeth, I’d seen her in a movie called Sweetlands, it was an indie period drama way back when I was taking the Oculus short to film festivals. I watched this movie at the Fargo Film Festival, I think in 2005 or 2006, and I thought she was incredible in it, and I’ve seen her over the years pop up in Grey’s Anatomy and there was a show with Tom Everett Scott where he was a paramedic (Saved), but I’d seen her in that and I felt the same way, that she was an incredibly accomplished dramatic actor. I tend to go for those people first when you talk about casting. I tend to really gravitate to people who impressed me—much to my producer’s frustration a lot of time—in a Sundance movie. “Oh, my God, I saw this incredible indie drama and I really want to bring them in.” I’ve always been kind of fortunate when it comes to casting that we’ve gotten to look at a lot of people that don’t typically work within the genre, and that’s really kind of fun, too, because they’re going to approach it in a way that’s different. Elizabeth doesn’t even watch a lot of horror movies, and so she kind of showed up really connecting just to Alice. The thing that drew her in was this idea of a woman who just wants more to anything to get some kind of comfort out of some kind of communication with her dead husband, but she can’t so she sells the comfort that she wants to other people, fraudulently but with the best of intentions. That could be the backdrop for a Merchant Ivory movie. That, by itself, is separated from the horror elements. That’s a really interesting woman. I think with Elizabeth, that’s how she approached it, and when I sent the script, that’s what I’m banking on her connecting to. She was very excited to be there. It’s always a little bit of a juggling act where you want to make sure you’re doing right by the genre fans, but there’s not much upside in repeating things they’ve seen and in showing them faces they’re familiar with within the genre. It’s a tough balance you have to strike.
LRM: Lulu Wilson is also a great discovery as Doris and the stuff she does in the movie, so how did you go about finding her?
Flanagan: She was quite the discovery. She came into audition with a number of other young actors. I knew when we were writing that Doris was going to be very tough to cast. We were asking a ton of a very young actor. She has to carry so much of this movie and show a range that’s difficult for grown-ups to achieve. She came in and auditioned. I’ve always just been very fortunate with casting young actors that it’s always kind of worked out. I had the same feeling when I saw her tape that I had the first time I saw Jacob Tremblay audition for Before I Wake, and it was just like, “Wow! This young actor is just extraordinary.” Her audition piece was a monologue that happens about halfway through the movie where she talks about what it feels like to be strangled, and it’s a very disturbing monologue, so a lot of kids coming in made the obvious choice of how to perform it, which was to read these creepy words in a very creepy way. Lulu came in and read it very casually, very nonchalantly with a little smile on her face, like she was just telling you what she did at school that day. It was such a sophisticated choice and showed a complexity that was frankly beyond her years, to approach a scene that way. I remember when I did my first director’s session with her and actually got to run through scenes with her in the audition, she walked out of the room and I turned to the casting director and I said, “That girl is nine going on forty.” I don’t think she changed a single note on that monologue between her audition and what is in the movie. I didn’t even cut away from her in the film. She did it all in one unbroken take, and I don’t even edit away. I couldn’t even break it up then. She was just that compelling on her own, so I think we’re going to be seeing an awful lot of Lulu as she gets older and keeps working and that makes me very happy, just as a moviegoer, because I think she’s just an extraordinary talent.
Ouija: Origin of Evil will open nationally on Friday, October 21 with previews Thursday night. You can also read what Flanagan had to say about the delays for his previous movie Before I Wake right here, and lastly, here’s a SPOILER bit about an after credits scene in the movie Flanagan told us about when we asked about whether Lin Shaye (who is credited on IMDB) is actually in the movie...
In response, Flanagan told us, “She’s in the film but after the credits. We had shot a scene that was part of our principal photography. It used to be the original scripted ending of the movie that showed us Lina’s character grown-up in the mental institution , which is one of the direct links to the first film, so Lin reprised that character for one little scene, and we ended up putting it after the credits ‘cause after we had spent so much time in that time period and with those versions of the characters, having one scene in a contemporary setting felt very strange, so we ended up moving it over to the end, but it’s a little Easter egg for the fans of the first film who might remember Lin there. I was also afraid if people hadn’t seen the first movie, they would look at that ending and think we might be tying that movie to Insidious.”