Writer/director Mike Flanagan’s Oculus is a horror film about siblings who investigate an antique mirror thought to have caused the death of dozens of people, including their parents. The cast is led by Doctor Who‘s Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites (soon to be seen playing a prince in Maleficent) as adult siblings Kaylie and Tim, with Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan handling younger versions of the characters. Oculus premiered at the Toronto Film Festival where it earned rave reviews along with the People’s Choice Award Midnight Madness First Runner Up honor, and on its opening day the Rotten Tomatoes meter has it at a higher approval rating than either of the films it’s opening against in theaters: Rio 2 and Draft Day.
The Hotel del Coronado was the obvious choice for hosting the Oculus filmmaking team of writer/director Mike Flanagan, producer Trevor Macy, and executive producer Jason Blum who were on the road promoting the film’s April 11, 2014 theatrical release. The Hotel Del has the reputation of being one of San Diego’s most haunted establishments and it was an appropriate setting for our conversation about horror films and haunted mirrors.
Mike Flanagan, Jason Blum, and Trevor Macy Exclusive Interview
Mike, you actually requested to spend the night in one of the Del’s haunted rooms?
Mike Flanagan: “I did.”
Jason Blum: “He had a ghost experience! Something weird happened.”
Mike Flanagan: “I didn’t see a ghost or anything like that. I set the alarm in the room for 6am, because we had to do press this morning but it went off on its own at 3:30. It freaked me out and made me smash it quiet and almost miss the press this morning. But I want to find out what time Kate Morgan died, because if it was like 3:30, that would be pretty awesome.”
Jason Blum: “We need to find that out.”
Mike Flanagan: “It was cool. I love that stuff. We started our whole junket at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado.”
Jason Blum: “He chases ghosts. He’s like the ghost hunter. I’m not like that, but he is.”
If something strange happens do you usually jump to a supernatural explanation?
Mike Flanagan: “I’ve never seen anything. I’m a natural born skeptic so I’d love for it to happen.”
Trevor Macy: “You’re a pretty engaged skeptic though.”
Mike Flanagan: “Yeah, I am!”
Jason Blum: “He’s like a ‘bring it’ skeptic.”
Mike Flanagan: “Yeah, it’s like, ‘Bring it on!’ They’re like, ‘This room is so haunted.’ It’s like, ‘Great, let me sleep there. Let me see what happens.’
Even though it’s a smaller room, you didn’t care.
Mike Flanagan: [Laughing] “It is a much smaller room. But I would love it if I would’ve woken up at 4am with someone standing at the foot of the bed looking all crazy. That would be awesome. Just awesome.”
That would’ve validated everything. Do you think that people who deal in the horror genre have to be skeptics?
Mike Flanagan: “No. I know some people who do it because they’re big believers in the paranormal as well. I think both perspectives lend themselves really well to the genre. I think it needs both perspectives. If you’re a skeptic writing a horror movie, you’ve also got to look at it though the lens of somebody who really believes in that stuff because you want it to land and be effective. If you’re a true believer, you’ve got to think of it skeptically because audience members will and you want to be able to address those questions. I think they’re both completely essential. I try to represent both as often as I can.”
I’m fascinated by the mirror and the design you chose. How did you figure out what it was going to look like?
Mike Flanagan: “We had bought this mirror for the short that looked similar-ish to the one we have in the movie. We took that as kind of the starting point, but wanted to do something that was really organic and kind of felt like it was alive in someway. Something that would be beautiful but ominous at the same time, which is a tough line to straddle. Then what they did with it that was so cool was, if you look at the frame it’s comprised entirely of these writhing human figures, but you can’t tell unless you’re like an inch away.”
Trevor Macy: “It creeps you out when you get close.”
I would imagine. Where’s the prop mirror now?
Mike Flanagan: “The mirrors live in a warehouse right now.”
Trevor Macy: [Laughing] “In an undisclosed location.”
A location that so far hasn’t burned down or had anything bizarre happen to it?
Trevor Macy: “Nothing weird has happened that we’ve heard yet.”
You’re filming with a mirror so you must have been driving yourself crazy.
Mike Flanagan: “Yeah, it was really hard.”
Trevor Macy: “Mostly the DP.”
Mike Flanagan: “Which is another benefit of having done the short; we knew it was going to be a challenge. The thing that we did when we designed the mirror was we put the glass itself on a gimbal so that it could be angled just a couple of inches to help frame out crew. But what that did for us that was kind of a bonus was every time in the movie that we’re pointing a camera at it, it’s not reflecting exactly what it should. Everything’s a little off, and your mind picks up on that but you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong. That’s a really cool effect.”
That is creepy. Is it the younger actors or the older actors who get more freaked out and jumpy just by being on a horror movie set?
Jason Blum: “Good question.”
Mike Flanagan: “The older actors. The kids have a blast.”
Why is that? Are they more into it?
Trevor Macy: “In all fairness though, this was a really fun set. Everybody was having a really good time and pulling pranks. Mike promotes a very collegial-like fun environment on set and he’s great with collaborating with actors so they all feel pretty good about it. But we also had a particularly skilled cast on this movie so they were all brave enough to come in and out of character. Katee [Sackhoff] could go from, she made a Match.com video in full bloody teeth makeup and all that stuff. She could go straight into a crying on demand kind of thing. They’re all like that, honestly, even the kids. We lucked out.”
What I find troubling about the horror genre is that, as a critic, I hardly ever get to see the movies screened in theaters, but they did screen Oculus. However, normally studios don’t screen films of this genre for critics. Do you think that will ever change? Is it fair?
Jason Blum: “I’m the right person to ask about that.”
I thought you would be.
Jason Blum: “I think it’s almost over. I don’t think you can release… Paranormal Activity is an exception and the only reason we don’t screen Paranormal Activity for critics, except for the fourth one, is because the movies really aren’t ready. We start shooting the movie in June and we’re rushing it out every Halloween. Every other movie that we’ve done, except Dark Skies which did not work, and I think this is part of it is because we’ve always screened for critics. We’re screening this movie like crazy for everybody because I think the day of like, ‘We’re not going to show the movie, I think the audience knows what’s up. I say to the distributors if they say, ‘We’re not going to screen your movie before it opens,’ I’m saying, ‘Guys, then don’t open the movie. You should do a limited release of the movie.’ I really feel like the consumer, the people who go to movies are too smart now and If you’re not proud enough to show the movie before you open it, you should not be opening the movie.”
Moviegoers look on Rotten Tomatoes and if there aren’t any reviews, they wonder why the studio is hiding the film.
Jason Blum: “Of course.”
Trevor Macy: “I was involved with The Strangers which is a movie that actually was very well received but we decided not to screen in advance. The distributors argument at the time was that they wanted everybody to discover this on the Friday. The movie was good, but it was pretty dark not unlike this one.”
Jason Blum: “But it was also even three or four years ago, whenever it was.”
Trevor Macy: “Yes, and I’m saying a lot has changed since then and I think people can smell it. It used to be that the classic argument was there was no upside. Horror fans don’t care what critics say, which I don’t think is true.”
Jason Blum: “I don’t think that’s true either.”
I don’t think it’s true anymore.
Trevor Macy: “This was the argument that was made. I think that’s wrong because I think there’s a lot of great blogs now who are fans and they’re going to favorably review something a mainstream critic might not. Even if, ‘Okay, fine, it’s not Lawrence of Arabia but it’s a really fun movie and you should go see it.’ That is a win.”
Jason Blum: “The only exception I think is this is not to do with Paranormal…Paranormal aside…is a sequel. I think sequels there’s a pent up, but an original scary movie like this, you have to screen it first. We had 50 screenings last night, word of mouth screenings all over the country.
Mike Flanagan: “I didn’t know that it was that many. That’s amazing.”
Trevor Macy: “Top 40 markets, plus top 10 Latino plus the seven we’ve done ourselves, 57 screenings.”
Jason Blum: “The best tool to sell a good movie, in my mind, is the movie.”
And with social media, you have to get your film out there or they will know it’s being hidden.
Jason Blum: “I couldn’t agree more.”
Trevor Macy: “That’s actually how you get crucified between Friday and Saturday. Everybody comes to the movie like, ‘Really? I see why they didn’t show it.'”
Jason, how do you figure out what you’re involved with now? I would imagine every filmmaker is throwing ideas at you asking you to produce their films.
Jason Blum: “We look for super specific things that these guys made and that I like to feel like are in most of our movies which is a great story, a compelling story, an original story, and really, really good acting. The scares are very much secondary. You feel like it’s the equivalent of a page turner. I guess reading the script would be a page turner when you’re sitting, like it’s suspenseful and the story is engaging. There’s a mystery to this movie which I feel like exists in Sinister and exists in Insidious. There’s a suspensefulness to it and also, obviously, we only do low budget movies. If it’s expensive, that gets rid of a lot of them.”
How many filmmakers or producers come to you and ask you to help set up the same type of model, but with a different genre?
Jason Blum: “Yeah, we’ve done it a few times. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not successfully. We have an erotic thriller that we’re doing, that we finished with J-Lo. That one came out well and that one comes out in January. That’ll be a wide release like this movie. We’ve tried two comedies. We did one with a guy who directed Dukes of Hazzard, a guy named Jay Chandrasekhar. A big studio movie, we did it for a very low budget. I actually like and am proud of both of these movies, but they didn’t get studio releases; they got smaller releases. The comedy we did was called Babymakers and then Joe Carnahan did a movie for us called Stretch, which is like an action-comedy. It’s a really cool movie, but it’s quirky and more independent feeling so it wouldn’t be right for a wide release.”
The mirror in Oculus reflects your fears and insecurities. If you were looking into it, what would you be seeing?
Mike Flanagan: “I don’t think you’re ever going to find anybody as insecure as I’m going to be until Monday.”
It’s getting good reviews.
Jason Blum: [Laughing] “That’s what we’ve been telling him. That’s all he should be caring about. Stephen King said he loved the movie. As a filmmaker there’s nothing better than that. No box office could match that.”
Trevor Macy: “Honestly when he was at the Stanley Hotel, I’ve worked with him now for like three years, I’ve never seen him happier. He was like a kid at Christmas.”
And yet you’re still insecure?
Mike Flanagan: “Yeah. I think all filmmakers operate fundamentally from a level of deep insecurity. We can be really, really confident in a piece of work and very proud of it but you’re still like, when you put it in front of an audience for the first time, the stomach’s going to drop out.”
Do you find that to be the case with all the directors you work with?
Trevor Macy: “Yes, even experienced directors. Between Toronto, SXSW, and the aforementioned 57 screenings and some tests, we’ve seen it with audiences but we’re asking people to fork over their hard-earned money and time to see it for the first time. That’s what you do. We’ve lived with this movie since 2011. Even if you’re totally proud of the movie, butts in the seats are the important stuff.”
Jason Blum: “The media loves media. It’s a public industry, so you feel like you’re under the spotlight. Which is fun and also stressful.”
Is it still a thrill to see your film with a regular audience?
Mike Flanagan: “Oh yeah, that’s the best.”
How do you react? Do you watch the audience?
Mike Flanagan: “I watch the audience. Yeah, I watch the audience.”
Jason Blum: “Every time we’re in a screening and we get there to do a Q&A, he goes in the theater. I don’t because I get too nervous, but he goes in.”
Mike Flanagan: “We can be pretty invisible for that. My favorite theater in the world is the ArcLight in Hollywood. I’m going to be there all day [on April 11], just kind of lurking and checking it out. I love watching the audience experience, I love it. When we did Toronto, that was probably the coolest audience experience that I’ve ever, ever had. Standing up, vocal, and how excited they were.”
Trevor Macy: “It was our first public screening too and it was 1,300 people.”
Mike Flanagan: “It was huge. They were applauding throughout the movie and it was awesome.”
Was there a line or a scene in the movie they reacted to more than you expected?
Mike Flanagan: “The thing that got the biggest reaction that I wasn’t expecting is the moment where Annalise [Basso] comes running out into the hallway with the golf club and Marie [Katee Sackhoff] pops out. That got a big ovation. I thought that that was awesome.”
Trevor Macy: “It was the smack. It was great sound design.”
Your older actors are terrific but how did you find the younger members of your cast?
Mike Flanagan: “We got really lucky. Annalise put herself on tape and just sent it in. We were like, ‘How are we going to find the actress who can play a young Karen Gillan, who’s going to look enough like her and do what the movie asks of her?’ which is a lot more than what kids normally have to do in these movies. We were really nervous about what that would be. There was going to be this huge search. This tape just kind of knocked on the door and we watched it and were like, ‘Yep, we can stop. That’s it.'”
As a dog lover, I always get upset when you guys kill the frigging dogs in horror movies.
Mike Flanagan: [Laughing] “Everybody does.”
Why do you do that? Could you at least switch it to a cat or a gerbil or something else occasionally?
Trevor Macy: “You should have seen the first draft of the script. I’m a dog lover too.”
Was it worse? Why do you do it?
Mike Flanagan: “I think it’s really interesting.”
Jason Blum: “Next movie we’re killing a cat.”
Mike Flanagan: “I find it fascinating that it’s like, you’ve got a character that you love who is like impaled thought the neck but you’re like, ‘The dog!'”
Jason Blum: “Humans are fair game.”
The dogs are innocent victims.
Mike Flanagan: “Which is why eventually we decided to let ‘dog’ go, let dog escape. With Mason we kind of wanted to leave it like we’re not really sure what happened.”
Trevor Macy: “We know. The mirror got him.”
Mike Flanagan: “I would wager the dog is probably looking at a lot of therapy.”
Trevor Macy: “Mason actually was one of the hero dogs from Marley & Me. He’s died a couple times.”
That’s really sad. That’s really horrible. And to change the subject, I have to ask about Jem.
Jason Blum: “Jem & the Holograms, are you ready?”
Jason Blum: “We’re making Jem & the Holograms.”
And you’re involving the fans in everything.
Jason Blum: “Isn’t that good?
Yes, it’s awesome.
Jason Blum: “I think that thing they were saying about showing the movie…I’m very not precious. I think it’s really important to involve fans from the start. We share our process. We’re very open about our process. We’re very open about the material and what we’re doing and who we’re casting and all that stuff. We like to let the fans in from early on to see how it happens.”
And Jon M. Chu as the director?
Jason Blum: “Jon Chu is the director. He’s done a couple of Step Up movies and GI Joe‘s.
Everybody keeps saying, “He’s the Justin Bieber director.”
Jason Blum: “Did you see the Justin Bieber movie?”
No I didn’t because I really am not a fan of Justin Bieber.
Jason Blum: I can’t stand Justin Bieber either. The movie is awesome. You literally like Justin Bieber by the end of the movie, which is a miracle. Do you ever fly Virgin Airlines?”
No, I have never flown Virgin.
Jason Blum: “They did a new public announcement on Virgin Airlines where they have a musical about fastening your seatbelt and all that stuff. They made it into a musical number that’s choreographed, which he directed. It’s like the coolest two minutes of film you’ve ever seen. He’s a great guy, he’s a great director. We start in a week. I’m psyched.”
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Oculus opens in theaters on April 11, 2014 and is rated R for terror, violence, some disturbing images and brief language.
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