OCULUS: Interview with Director Mike Flanagan

[MM Blogger Sasha James interviews the director of Oculus, Mike Flanagan. ~The Editor]

Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites; the upcoming Maleficent) has spent the majority of his life in a psychiatric hospital after the brutal and mysterious family tragedy that claimed the lives of both his parents. Convinced his father is to blame, Tim is released from hospital only to discover that his sister Kaylie -- played by Doctor Who darling Karen Gillan -- has spent the intervening years tracking down the real culprit: a cursed mirror with a 300-year murder streak. Oculus also stars Battlestar Gallactica fan favourite Katee Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane (Argo, Dazed and Confused). 

Before its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, we were able to geek out with director Mike Flanagan (Absentia) about Doctor Who, The Shining, and Midnight Madness' rowdy reputation.

SJ: Oculus is based on a short you made in 2006 called Oculus: Chapter 3. How did you expand your short into a feature-length film? 
Mike Flanagan: That was actually really challenging. The short is just one man alone in a room with the mirror and a few video cameras. Finding a way to expand that into a feature took a long time, and really needed the right producers. My writing partner Jeff Howard and I kicked around several options, including allowing that story to simply be one act of the feature and bookend it with two other half-hour stories -- kind of like an anthology film. There was a lot of interest early in expanding the short into a feature, but most companies were leaning toward a found footage approach because of the cameras in the room, which was a direction we never really wanted to go. 
It took us a little while to hit on the idea that it was actually two people in the room who share a troubled past and have different interpretations of what is happening. The Mulder/Scully dynamic really felt right, and things took off quickly from there. 
When Intrepid Pictures came on board, they had a similar vision for an expansion of the short. They didn't want to do found footage -- which was a relief -- and they really embraced the idea that we'd take everything about the short we loved and try to genuinely expand the universe around it. We developed the script with Trevor Macy, Marc Evans and Anil Kurian at Intrepid, and very quickly hit upon the concept of the siblings locked in the room with the mirror, interwoven with the (possibly unreliable) story of their childhood. 
That allowed us to remain true to the tension and contained nature of the short while expanding the universe and characters in ways that added tension and allowed for us to really play with the non-linear aspects of the story. 
SJ: Where were you first introduced to Karen Gillan? Are you a fan of DOCTOR WHO? 
MF: I'm a huge fan of Doctor Who. I pitched her to the producers on the first day that we started talking about casting. We auditioned a number of actresses and it took weeks for us to get in touch with Karen, as she was shooting Doctor Who at the time. I used to come into casting sessions and open with "Have we heard from Karen Gillan?" We were just about nearing the end of the casting process when she surfaced. She loved the script and the short film, and suddenly she was a realistic possibility for Kaylie. 
We arranged a Skype [interview], which was a fairly embarrassing moment for me when I realized, at the end of the call, that I'd been drinking coffee out of my TARDIS mug the entire time. I pulled selections from episodes of Doctor Who to show members of our team who weren't familiar with her work. I found out she was in LA shortly before [San Diego Comic Con in] 2012, and I ran out of our production offices to meet up with her and try to talk her into doing it -- also an embarrassment as I just happened to be wearing a Doctor Who shirt that day and completely forgot until she noticed. I'm such a nerd.
The couple of weeks in between making our offer and closing her deal was one of the highest stress times of this entire movie for me. She was just perfect for the role -- such a rare blend of strength, attitude, and vulnerability. Once we had her though, I knew the movie was going to work. There's a sequence in it where she presents the history of the mirror, and it was an intimidating amount of dialogue for any actor to handle. She dominates it. Not many actors could pull off what she does in this film. 
I'm also a huge Battlestar Galatica fan, so, when we cast Katee Sackhoff, I was officially in geek heaven. 

SJ: It's rare to have a film with a brother/sister team-up, and I find it incredibly refreshing to see this relationship in Oculus. Why do you think there are not more brother/sister films? 
MF: Honestly, I think it's because people tend to lean on sexual tension to develop characters in genre films. Having main characters who are, were, or might be banging is an old genre staple. Which is odd because, if it's me, sexual tension is the first thing to disappear in a situation where lives are in danger. Kinda hard to sustain the mood, you know? 
I get why it's done that way so often, and it can be done very well. But siblings -- hopefully -- eliminate that dynamic entirely from the equation and, in my opinion, replace it with much more interesting subtext. These are people who know each other very well, as opposed to still figuring each other out; who are comfortable enough to be themselves without pretext; who love each other, truly accept each other. There's nothing frivolous about it. There's no politeness. They can say what they really think without fear of damaging the relationship. That ease of honesty is fascinating to me. Their emotional investment in each other and in their survival is so much deeper than a romantic one. For me, it's so much more dynamic. 
It was such a blast for me dealing with a sister dynamic in my last movie Absentia that I was really eager to dive further into a sibling relationship for this one. I also have a terrific relationship with my younger brother, and I am always struck by [how] our interactions with each other are different than my interactions with even my closest friends. There are films that use the sibling dynamic to great effect, and I wish there were more of them. 
SJ: Were there any films that influenced you while directing Oculus? The Haunting and The Legend of Hell House strike me as influences. 
MF: Those are certainly two of my favourites. I also spent a lot of time revisiting The Shining -- I would sometimes refer to the mirror as a portable Overlook Hotel -- as well as recent hits like Insidious and foreign fare like A Tale of Two Sisters. I was also influenced by Stephen King's short story "1408", which remains one of the most frightening stories I've ever read. I love a contained space, and I love stories that build upon a long history and mythology for their supernatural entities. 
SJ: Before Oculus was selected for TIFF, were you aware of Midnight Madness and its rowdy reputation? 
MF: Absolutely. I've been a fan of Midnight Madness for years just because I'm such a genre fan. It always has such a fascinating lineup, and the audiences are legendary. It was kind of surreal hearing that we were accepted, as I'd always viewed Midnight Madness as the pinnacle platform for exciting, unique genre films to meet their intended, enthusiastic audience. I'm still kind of pinching myself to be included in such amazing company. 
SJ: What films are you looking forward to watching at the Festival this year? 
MF: I'm really psyched for Horns. I love the book and am dying to see how it translates to the screen. I'm also lining up for All Cheerleaders Must Die; I'm a big fan of Lucky McKee. I'm really curious to see The Station; I love a good creature feature. I'm dying to catch Josh Waller's McCanick, which was put together by some very good friends of mine. I'd love to see Errol Morris' The Unknown Known. And, of course, Gravity. That trailer knocked me over.

Mike Flanagan's Oculus stars Karen Gillan and Katee Sackhoff, and premiered at this year's Toronto International Film Festival within the Midnight Madness programme. Further information about the film can be found on the Festival website.
OCULUS Final Screening:
Sunday, Sept 15th, 6:00 PM SCOTIABANK 11

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