Horror director Mike Flanagan talks about handling his first TV adaptation and approaching the classic source material as a “remix.”
As Mike Flanagan worked on his take on the classic tale The Haunting of Hill House, he felt a specter looking over his shoulder: the ghost of Shirley Jackson. The writer and director responsible for films like Oculus, Hush, Gerald’s Game, and the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep is a natural horror buff, especially of Jackson’s original work.
“I loved the book since I was a kid,” Flanagan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I’ve equally loved Robert Wise’s [film] adaptation.” Finding it a fool’s errand to try to reinvent the wheel, when he was approached to do a televised take on the story, he chose to take it in a completely different direction. Gone is the plot of four adults investigating paranormal activities, now substituted by a family of seven helplessly besieged by the titular house and its mysterious allure, even decades after the fact.
Flanagan talks with THR about the methodology behind his adaptation, including the thinking behind his fractured timeline, the “Bent Neck Lady” and the “Red Room,” as well as how the first season was initially supposed to end.
What inspired the deviation you took from Shirley Jackson’s original novel?
When [Netflix] first approached me about the show, my gut reaction was, “Well, it’s been done beautifully already. It lends itself perfectly to a feature format. I don’t know how you expand what’s on the page to fill a season of television. It would have to be a whole new deal.” So I went back through the book, and I figured the only way through the woods was [that] we were going to need a much larger character palate to carry a series. I’m just naturally drawn to family drama, and I think in horror, in particular, the way people behave in their families is different than the way they behave out in the world. It strips away all the pretext.
So for me, it was about identifying the elements, characters, moments and even chunks of prose from the book that I really loved and taking all those pieces and trying to build something different out of the same ingredients. It was an odd experiment in that sense because I loved the book so much, I didn’t want to hurt it. [Laughs]. I approached it more as a remix. Once I started looking at it that way, it opened up a lot of really fun possibilities where I could do something that was our own, but I could pepper in the moments of the book that impacted me the most.
The most prominent element of that remix involves your storytelling method, done between two timelines. What led you to pursue showing the main characters both as children and adults?
I love a fractured timeline. I think television is full of really effective examples of how you can play with those timelines in a way that modern TV audiences enjoy. I first sparked to it with Lost and Westworld. That was really exciting to me, being able to shed the linear requirements that so many features come with.
I feel like when you talk about a person being haunted, a ghost is boring unless it’s directly tied to an experience, emotion or something that’s intrinsic to a character. We’re all haunted as people, and that was what I thought would make this interesting. Ghosts popping out and scaring somebody can only be interesting one or two times.
If we were going to be doing this as a long format, it had to be about the way every family is a haunted house, and everyone is wrestling with their ghosts from their own childhood and beyond — that echo through decades. That’s what I wanted to explore more of, more than the gothic horror and genre moments. Those can be tedious after a while if you’re not focused on the characters.
We get to see moments continuously echo between these two timelines, both forward and backward. The final episode features a monologue from Nell (Victoria Pedretti) about this idea, where she mentions her view of time changing from a line of dominoes falling to a scattering of moments like rain. Why did you use that thinking to connect your two stories?
That passage that you referenced is one of my favorites in the show. We talk about memory, and we talk about our experience of our childhood and how we process our family and our formative years. It is such a non-linear thing. It’s something that we look back on and experience in a kaleidoscope instead of a series of cause and effect. That was something thematically that found itself into the writers’ room very early. We knew the ending before we knew anything else. So it was like, “OK, how do we get there in a way that’s going to honor Nell’s experience?” That was one of the most exciting aspects of it for me.
One of the advantages you were able to take in a serialized format is the use of build. When we first see Steven (Michiel Huisman), he’s almost the audience analog, as we’re also trying to figure out a rational explanation behind what’s going on before things build to a fever pitch. What was the process of writing that rising action like for you?
We always looked at it like a 10-hour movie. The trick for me was, “How do we sustain tension and how do we make sure we don’t have scenes that dissipate?” I wanted them to echo in later episodes. It’s one of the opportunities that episodic TV presents; the episodes can be warped mirrors of each other. It was a blend of trying to approach it the way I would a very long film but [also] try to take advantage of the format in a way that let us light a lot of fuses and run a lot of threads that wouldn’t necessarily pay off for a long time. We all wanted it to be something you can watch more than once and get something different out of it.
A big thread came from the reveal of the “Bent Neck Lady,” where it turns out the spirit that’s been haunting Nell since her childhood was the future version of herself in her last moments. How did you approach the idea of ghosts in your adaptation?
We actually fleshed out a thorough history for Hill House. We intended to shoot it; it was going to open each episode with a chapter from Steven’s book. Ultimately, we went away from that because it felt like that was taking away from the mystery and enigma of it.
We were going to take the position, especially with the Bent Neck Lady, that a ghost in this show is not necessarily what you think it is. A ghost can be a premonition, or in Shirley’s [Elizabeth Reaser] case, an imagined manifestation of guilt. It felt like we were going to hurt that theme if we spent too much time trying to explain the ghosts. By the end, we put in more ghosts than the story of the house would even support. I wanted to feel like the things that were collected there were too sprawling for the actual amount of time the house existed. It collected these fractured psyches of the people who had been inside.
Speaking of those fractured psyches, I want to talk about the mysterious “Red Room.” In the finale, it’s revealed that while the room appears locked on the surface, it’s actually served as a unique space suited to each family member’s tastes. Nell mentions how it lured them in with comfort while simultaneously “digesting” them. How did you come up with this concept?
It was one of our writers, Rebecca Kingal, who had first pitched it. I had wanted something really special for the Red Room. We knew we were going to keep that door closed for a long time. I was saying along the lines of, “We’re going to want to see what’s in that room so badly by the end of this, whatever it is has to be great.” And she pitched, “Well, what if we have seen it, and we just don’t know it?” There’s something really insidious about being placated while being eaten by this house. [Laughs.]
So we used the same set; we just redressed and repainted it for each use. It gets really specific to who they are as to what’s dressed inside. That was really fun, the idea that we could use our production design for that space to reflect aspects of the character. That was one of my favorite twists that came out of the writers’ room. It gave us an engine for most of the first half of the season.
One of the prevailing themes throughout The Haunting of Hill House is building a wall. Early in the season, Olivia advises Theo to build a wall of bricks around her to make her safe. But by the end, we get the story of the man found inside the basement wall, who put himself in there to get rid of fear and guilt, only to have them next to him. How did this become an idea that transcended both timelines?
That was a thing that struck me about Shirley Jackson’s book: the walls that Nell had put up. Eleanor in the novel has walled herself off from society; she’s so sheltered and has never really left home. She goes from this completely contained and insular existence to what she perceives as the expansive world around her. And it’s just another house; it’s another box. For the show, it seemed like a wonderful thing that happens with families. The psychological safe spaces that we make for ourselves and our family members, and how much of a challenge it is to tear them down. That was a theme that Shirley Jackson got into our heads with and inspired a lot of us in the writers’ room to thread that through in many ways.
Let’s talk about the very end of the season. While the family members still alive come together to celebrate Luke’s (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) sobriety, we get a monologue from Steven about how fear and love are the same types of emotion. They’re like siblings, both involving the relinquishment of logic and patterns. Why did you choose to end the Crain story this way?
A lot of it is a shared experience we all connected with in the room. It’s really hard to resolve horror; it’s hard to end stories like this. We had been through so much in the course of writing it. Each of us had dug so deep into our own families and stories to try to inform the show that we all craved a moment of peace at the end.
We toyed with the idea for a little while that over that monologue, over the image of the family together, we would put the Red Room window in the background. For a while, that was the plan. Maybe they never really got out of that room. The night before it came time to shoot it, I sat up in bed, and I felt guilty about it. I felt like it was cruel. That surprised me. I’d come to love the characters so much that I wanted them to be happy. I came into work and said, “I don’t want to put the window up. I think it’s mean and unfair.” Once that gear had kicked in, I wanted to lean as far in that direction as possible. We’ve been on this journey for 10 hours; a few minutes of hope was important to me.
On the other side, you have the family members who died. The siblings can get their finished business with Nell, while Hugh (Timothy Hutton) agrees to join Olivia (Carla Gugino) and “wake up” in exchange for their children’s freedom. It’s as if to say it will be OK here and it will be OK in the end, even though the journey may never technically end.
Steven inherits Hugh’s responsibility, and the house is still standing. It’s still haunted, and everyone’s still trapped. But they’re together. It is a little bittersweet. When we think about families, that’s what we’re left with. We’re stuck with our family no matter what, and even if it’s not going to be OK, even if we’re never going to get back what we lost, at least we can find a way to live with that. That little bit of comfort meant a lot to me. We could have gone pretty cynical, and almost did. But I find myself glad that we didn’t.