To say that director Mike Flanagan is a huge Stephen King fan is an understatement so when he got the chance to finally transfer one of his favorite books Gerald’s Game to the big screen thanks to Netflix it was a dream come true. A few weeks back in a hotel more swanky than I could ever imagine I was lucky enough to chat to Mike Flanagan and his long time producer and friend Trevor Macy about making the movie and much more.
Based on the 1992 Stephen King novel of the same name, the physiological horror thriller Gerald’s Game tells the story of Jessie Burlingame and her husband Gerald who escape to a lakeside getaway that quickly turns into a terrifying fight for survival. The film stars Carla Gugino (Sin City, Watchmen) and Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek and I Robot) and launches on Netflix today 29th September. Beware there may be some spoilers ahead!
Love Horror: I loved the film by the way.
Trevor Macy: Thank you.
Love Horror: It’s not a book I have heard of from Stephen King’s back catalogue and it’s a great story but your telling of it was amazing, in what ways does the movie differ from the book if any?
Mike Flanagan: There are certainly differences and they are kind of out of necessity. I thought when I finished the book back in college that it was un-filmable, it’s all inside Jessie’s head, it’s really just a woman sitting there thinking for days. There was a lot we had to do just to make it cinematic.
The biggest difference I think between the film and the book is that we put a lot of what used to be internal monologue for Jessie into Jessie and Gerald in the room. That’s the biggest change. In the book Gerald is dead on page 15, he’s dead, he doesn’t come back, and she talks to a number of different people that she creates but not Gerald and not herself. We thought it was more personal and it was more visceral to stay with the people we knew.
Trevor Macy: More cinematic because in the book there are facets of Gerald and Jessie’s personality that are manifested in a range of different people expressing different types of emotions and perspectives. This choice that we made when Mike was adapting allowed the actors to really sink their teeth into multiple facets of the character in a way that lands.
And by the way Stephen King feels this way and we do to we think it’s very faithful to the book in its own way. We get the ideas out maybe from a slightly different mouth piece in some cases but fans of the book will be fans of the movie. We hope!
Love Horror: That must always be a concern when you are doing an adaptation, especially of someone as prolific and famous as Stephen King, the weight which comes from them and their fans. Was it difficult to adapt and give it your own interpretation?
Mike Flanagan: Absolutely it took me years to figure it out. It was really hard because I am such a fan I didn’t ever want to do anything that betrayed the heart of the story; I never wanted to be in that pile of unfaithful adaptations. So preserving the intention and the spirit of the book while forcing it into the cinematic structure was really hard.
But I am really glad that we had the time to do it. I mean half of my life I spent watching this movie in my head so by the time we were finally able to shoot it I finally felt ready but I think if I had gotten my wish and was able to make this movie ten years ago I wouldn’t have been up to it.
Love Horror: So the movie in your head back then can you still run that alongside what you made and see any differences?
Mike Flanagan: Yes and there aren’t many when I would see something on the monitor and differences. It was really neat there were a couple of moments on set and I would say ‘that’s exactly what it looked like in my head when I read it’ and that was really cool.
And then when we finished the edit and we finished the sound mix we went back to do our first playback of the whole movie start to finish and as the lights went down on the dub stage it occurred to me that I had been waiting to watch this movie for 19 years. I got to completely divorce myself from the process of making it and look around at everybody in the room and be like ‘we get to watch Gerald’s Game, as a fan I’m jazzed!’ It’s been a real trip for me.
Love Horror: I guess a lot of people adapting someone else’s work if they aren’t fans they can be quite brutal and force their own ideas onto the original. As a fan yourself it must have been harder but far more personal.
Mike Flanagan: Yeah it’s been the biggest fan boy of my life and also one of the most fulfilling projects I’ve gotten to work on.
Love Horror: The cast are all excellent what was the casting process like?
Trevor Macy: Stephen King suggested Bruce Greenwood (who plays Gerald). He’s a great steward of his own adaptations and I mean that contractually and I mean that creatively so we sent him a list and he said ‘you know Bruce Greenwood would be really good for this.’ So we thought about it and agreed.
When we started Carla (Gugino who plays Jessie) wasn’t available but we always really liked her and it turned out that she became available because another movie pushed so that was that.
Love Horror: They were both amazing in the movie but Bruce Greenwood has such a complex role because he plays both the real character of Gerald and then Jessie’s interpretation of him who comes to life from her imagination and desperation?
Mike Flanagan: Exactly it was really challenging but really fun. He would talk to Carla a lot about how Jessie saw Gerald and what was exciting for Bruce was ‘yeah I play Gerald up to a certain point but then I play Jessie’ and that was really exciting for him.
Both of them having to play these different side of the psyche it was a big challenge but one of the things about working with great actors is that they are energised by that kind of challenge and so they would talk about that quite a bit and it was really really cool to watch.
Love Horror: Carla Gugino gives a sensational performance as Jessie that must have been extremely physically and emotional demanding, how did she find the experience?
Mike Flanagan: Nobody had it as hard as Carla, she was absolutely put through the ringer on a daily basis.
Trevor Macy: Those handcuff’s hurt! They were real. We shot on the Ares 65 and you can’t put padding on those handcuffs because you would see it.
Mike Flanagan: I tried them on I put myself in the cuffs I made it not even 5 minutes. It hurt so bad, it pinches your nerves, the weight of your arms and you have nowhere to rest them its brutal.
Carla knew going in that it was going to be gruelling but I don’t think any of us where prepared for how gruelling it was. She took all of that and channelled it into what I think, and I am very biased but what I think is the best performance of her career.
Love Horror: Gerald’s Game deals wonderfully with the concept of the creation of a victim from a female perspective and how difficult it is to break the cycle of abuse once it’s started, was it hard to get the tone right especially in the more upsetting scenes of Jessie’s childhood?
Mike Flanagan: That was really hard on Henry (Thomas who plays Jessie’s abusive father) who has an 11 year old daughter. I thought when we were doing the stuff with Henry and Chiara (Aurelia whom plays Jessie as a child) that was the most horrific stuff for me.
Trevor Macy: Yeah me too.
Mike Flanagan: And the most uncomfortable. I think the most horrific scene of the movie is the conversation that they have and we just did it in close ups in an unbroken take and it that was the hardest to make it through. When we weren’t in the room trying to make sure we were doing justice to the book which is really specific about those scenes that was kind of gross and challenging.
Love Horror: I think the tone throughout is perfect and I hope audiences are as surprised as I was that it takes you in this direction you don’t see coming at first leading to some really deep and disturbing scenes. I loved how you balanced the disturbing realistic situation with the more fantastical supernatural elements which must have been difficult, how did you balance all that and stop from slipping too far one way or the other?
Mike Flanagan: Luckily much of that tone is established by the book so it was more about making sure we stayed on the road.
Trevor Macy: Well at the risk of waxing a car I also think that’s something you’re really good at as a filmmaker.
Mike Flanagan: It’s something that I try to be aware of starting with the script because something like this tonally you can mess up.
Trevor Macy: The specificity of tone matters because you have to stay with the characters or else it’s not harrowing and it’s not scary. If the tones is off it knocks you right out of the movie.
Love Horror: One of the best lines of the film is “Women alone in the dark are like open doors . . . and if they cry out for help, who knows what dread things may answer?” what’s your interpretation of this in the context of Jessie’s struggle and story?
Mike Flanagan: That’s straight from the book. Outside of just the helplessness of it one of the things that’s so striking about the book is that his prose when it comes to a person alone and isolated and the things they would fear is so powerful that I didn’t want to lose it. There is no opportunity to say it to someone else in the book it’s just something that crosses her mind. So a lot of Bruce’s monologues and Carla’s as well are taken wholesale from the book. It was like take 2 pages of really great King material and put it in Bruce’s mouth.
Going back to that quote I think not only is that one of the scariest ideas in the book it’s one of the most universal. I think a lot of people when they are home alone, I know my wife talks about this, when your home alone there is a level of anxiety and fear that comes with that that’s unique to that experience.
Love Horror: What was the shoot like especially given that the majority of the movie takes place in a single location did it make it more challenging?
Mike Flanagan: Oh yes but my DP Michael Fimognari, we’ve been working together since Oculus the only movie we didn’t do together was Hush, we have a very specific shot listing strategy that we use and this process lets us make sure that the camera is moving through the room that we’re not repeating ourselves so it’s not getting tedious.
We knew going in that this camera had to float through the room like the eye of god and could never go back, we had to try to keep every scene dynamic and with its own visual signature or else the movie could feel incredibly repetitive.
Trevor Macy: I think the history section of Oculus is a bit of a dry run for this although the adaptation the techniques were different but idea that you’re in a fixed envelope and you have to keep the shots varied and interesting. It requires careful planning.
Love Horror: I read Stephen King himself considered the film “Hypnotic, horrifying and terrific” what was it like to get his seal of approval on your adaptation and how stressful was it waiting?
Mike Flanagan: Oh god yeah I could not sleep that night. I was so nervous about disappointing him and he’s so hard on his own adaptations it’s no secret what he thought of what Kubrick did to The Shinning so I was petrified.
Trevor Macy: You were also and so was I by the way, the choice that we discussed in adapting the book to the screen we didn’t know if he was going to like that idea. It was nerve wracking sending over the script but he read it very quickly and he was very responsive and came back straight away and had no notes on the script and really liked it. I think he raised the stake when he put his trust in us and you showed him a cut of the movie.
Love Horror: In Danse Macabre he said he prefers the film version of Carrie to his own book.
Mike Flanagan: Yeah he said when he saw Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist that it was the ending that he wished he’d thought of. He will go that way sometimes so it was really awesome to be in the good pile of adaptations with him.
Trevor Macy: What’s interesting about him too is that he’s very mindful of the fact that when you make a film it’s not the book and he’s been around the block enough in film and television that I think he has a really fundamental understanding of the medium and it shows when you’re working with him. I think that’s what makes him such a good steward of his own adaptations.
Love Horror: What is your favourite of Stephen King’s adaptations aside from Gerald’s Game of course?
Trevor Macy: That’s a harder question for Mike.
Mike Flanagan: Yes it’s an impossible question!
Trevor Macy: I have an enduring affection for the original miniseries based on The Stand. For some reason that just caught my imagination and just grabbed me at the time that I watched it when it was originally done forever ago and it still sticks with me. There are lots of them I love for sure but for some reason that one resonates.
Love Horror: You don’t have to choose one. Okay how about just film adaptation does that make it a little bit easier?
Mike Flanagan: Film adaptation Shawshank and Stand by Me, they are my favourites. But I have a soft spot for Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, the image of the little boy floating outside the window and scratching it that has stayed with me my whole life.
Love Horror: How about your favourite of King’s books?
Mike Flanagan: Gerald’s Game was my favourite for a long long time but I think Lisey’s Story. It’s another one that I’m like ‘that’s impossible to adapt’ so… (Laughs)
Trevor Macy: So of course somebody should! (Laughs)
Love Horror: I was going to say is that what you’re moving onto next then?
Mike Flanagan: I would love to but I think that’s also Stephen’s favourite of his books and a story that personal to him I’m not sure if he would want anyone to adapt it.
Love Horror: What’s next for you guys then?
Mike Flanagan: We’re doing this Netflix show The Haunting of Hill House for the next year.
Trevor Macy: We have a couple of other things cooking too but it’s a bit too premature to talk about them. I think it’s absolutely fair to say we would love to do more with Stephen King.
Love Horror: Well let’s hope you don’t have as long a run up to doing another King adaptation.
Trevor Macy: (Laughing) You could do one every 19 years!
Love Horror: If they are all as good as Gerald’s Game it’s worth the wait. Thank you for talking to us.
Trevor Macy: Our pleasure thanks.
Mike Flanagan: Thanks.
Gerald’s Game is available exclusively only on Netflix now!