A bedtime story for grownups complete with its own boogie man
Fear is real in the tense and terrifying Before I Wake, which exists in a world with supernatural elements while maintaining a strong foothold in reality.
This nightmarish and surreal journey into fear at its most extreme begins as a story about parents trying to reconcile the loss of a child, and ends as a story about a child reconciling the loss of a parent.
Jessie and Mark’s irresistible longing to see their dead son, Sean, again, even when they know he isn’t real, drives the narrative. In the hope of manipulating his dreams and bringing Sean back to life, Jessie goes so far as to medicate Cody to ensure he slumbers and dreams. However, they soon discover it is not just Cody’s pleasant dreams that manifest but that as he sleeps his nightmares also awaken.
“The horror of Before I Wake is born of the souls of its characters,” says Director/Co-writer/Editor Mike Flanagan. “This is really a bedtime story for grownups complete with its own boogie man.”
The idea of using a new child as a surrogate for the memory of a lost child is handled with haunting, unflinching honesty.
The terrifying elements in the film, particularly Canker Man, embody the ideas of loss and serve to take away loved ones, to devour them whole, leaving no trace of them outside of a memory.
Before I Wake counterbalances the dark horrors with powerful themes of forgiveness, parental love, and the idea that understanding the root of our fear allows us to conquer it and remove its power.
“We are continually observing changes in demands and taste of the movie going audience. Most recently, what we are seeing is that audiences are demanding a more sophisticated, higher-quality element to genre films – so the term “elevated genre” has emerged. Character development, emotional resonance and dramatic integrity set these elevated films apart from others in their genre,” explains Producer Trevor Macy.
“Horror doesn’t just have to be about gore, violence, torture and a group of teenagers being led to their slaughter. It can use the supernatural aspects of the genre to explore complex, universal, and sometimes uncomfortable truths about human nature while still delivering memorable and thrilling scares,” adds Executive Producer Scott Lumpkin, who describes Before I Wake as a cerebral thriller. “As with his previous work Oculus, Flanagan takes Before I Wake to the next level. He has written a fable about loss, love, and death and he punctuates that story on screen with sequences of intense, visceral terror that only a child’s mind can conjure.
The story was created by writing partners Flanagan and Jeff Howard who went to Baltimore’s Towson University, about six years apart. The duo, who has been writing together for about 13 years, was introduced by a mutual friend.
For the original concept the writing partners were trying to come up with some never before seen horror elements when Flanagan explains that we realized that “with their imaginary friends and make-believe boogie men, no one is a better horror writer than child. A seven-year old year kid is a genius when it comes to horror and they don’t know it – nobody feels fear or creates terror like a child.”
The idea for the script was birthed then just stuck around for a while. Flanagan, whose background has been in the horror genre, says although their concept was a few years old he and Howard, who started more with comedy, kept returning to the notion of children and horror. “That initial concept kept creeping back into our psyche because it takes a very special idea to excite both of us. I knew we had something that had to be further developed.”
Once they decided to flesh out the script further, Howard describes their writing process as going through several months of walking around, hanging out and talking through all of their ideas.
“After that, we create a very intensive outline. Then we lock ourselves away for five very long days and get the script written,” he explains. “For us, one of the keys to getting the script completed is that we don’t go into writing mode until we have answered all the questions about the story and characters.”
Executive Producer Scott Lumpkin and Producer Trevor Macy worked previously with Co-writer/Director/Editor Mike Flanagan on the film Oculus
“We knew from our previous experience that we wanted to work with Flanagan again and had even started talking to him while watching his creative process during the filming of Oculus.” says Macy.
Macy’s and Lumpkin’s observations of Flanagan’s gifted story-telling and creative directorial work during the filming of Oculus were confirmed at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness where the film premiered to very positive reviews.
“Once Oculus starting getting the critical success that we had anticipated and hoped for, it became clear that we quickly move forward on Before I Wake,” says Lumpkin on the trio’s decision to team up again.
Also coming on board for Before I Wake is Executive Producer Mali Elfman, who first met Flanagan at the Sonoma International Film festival several years previously where her film Do Not Disturb and his film Absentia were shown.
“We developed a mutual respect for each other’s works,” says Flanagan. “Almost immediately we knew we had to get together for a future project and the fit seemed perfect for Before I Wake.”
Elfman is also producing Flanagan’s movie Scare Dares, an “adrenalized homage to classic horror films,” that centers on a smartphone app that leads users to known areas of paranormal phenomena in central California.
Of Flanagan’s and Howard’s fear-inducing abilities, Elfman adds, “what they do so well is not just the boo factor that makes you jump out of your seat but they create a fearful uneasiness and discomfort that causes you to sink way down in your seat which is a lot more psychologically frightening than the boos.”
To handle the needs for the big stunts and some of more haunting visual scenes, including parts of the Hobson home, Natalie’s (Annabeth Gish) office, the nurse’s office and the group home’s ominous dark hallway down which Canker Man throws Jessie – the movie’s largest stunt, special stages were built in a Fairhope warehouse.
“In the pages of the script we wrote this fantasy nightmare world. Sometimes when it comes time to bring that world to film some of the visions gets cut because of budget restrictions or time limitations,” says Flanagan. “But we were incredibly fortunate that everyone backing the film and the entire crew supported the visual ambition and fought to preserve, protect and at times even add to it.”
He further explains that some of his visual and story influences for Before I Wake were Stephen King – “I am a huge fan and have read everything he has written. He has this ability to marry fanatstical and frightening ideas with the darker side of humanity that makes it very real in a very relatable way. That is something I strive to do in my work,” – the shadows, symmetry and the classic framing of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Guillermo del Toro’s ability to create a fantastic world and tell a horrific story through the eyes of a child as in his Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone.
“In pre-production we sat down with Production Designer Patricio Farrell and Director of Photography Michael Fimognari with these references as starting points to create our world and our dreamscape with the beauty, symmetry and combination of fantastic and dark elements,” says Flanagan.
“In cinema you see directors and DP’s who build a strong working relationship over a period of time,” says Macy of Flanagan and Fimognari, who worked together previously on Oculus.” After only one movie they have a trapeze artist trust with each other.”
“Michael (Fimognari) brings together this exciting marriage of beauty and terror. I am blown away by how beautiful even the most horrific, upsetting sequences look,” raves Flanagan. “His cinematography is more than I ever hoped for. It is fantastic.”
Production Designer Patricio Farrell and the art department crew were responsible for the overall look of the film.
“Mike Flanagan has written this beautiful script with some very frightening horror elements that are based in reality,” says Farrell. “We did not want to create a haunted house for movie goers. Instead we created this threshold for them to step across into the fairytale look of this family and their beautiful home, a home that looks similar to theirs – we want them to feel comfortable with it – then the nightmares come later.”
Farrell draws from a deep knowledge of art for inspiration as well as from some of his favorite photographers including Gregory Crewdson.
“There were times when Patricio and I would get together to discuss ideas only to find that we were very much in agreement in the direction we were going,” says Flanagan. “He has this dedication to detail you don’t see very often. There is an intense creativity and focus put into it – even those things we may never really see or see clearly on screen. His visual work we see onscreen far surpasses anything I envisioned.”
In addition to the art department, Before I Wake’s eerie horror effects were created by a well-oiled creative collaborative effort between multiple crews.
One of the more frightening scenes involves a hallway of horrors for which the art department cleverly crafted long dark twisted vines that served as Canker Man’s tendril like projection coming from Cody’s group home bedroom housed on the warehouse stages.
Moths that escape Canker Man’s mouth as he runs down the hallway were added in post-production by Visual Effects Supervisor Bret Culp and his team who would also be fine-tuning the monstrous costume adding the moths, lighterflies and butterflies to other scenes and tweaking various other visual elements.
“The great thing about working with Flanagan is that he is very collaborative. Although he wrote the script that he is directing and editing, he is open to ideas from anybody. Because no matter their source, the best ideas make the best movie and that is what he is all about,” says Culp. One of his great gifts is knowing how to impact with the scares. There are two types of visual scares. One very restrained where you suddenly realize that Canker Man has subtly been blending in the background the entire scene. Then there are the shocking scares where there is a slow pan around the room and all of sudden Canker man lunges and is right in your face.”
“It was very mentally and emotionally difficult to write, “says Haverland. “I had to get in the mindset of a single mom who, on top of dealing with an imminent painful death from pancreatic cancer and its horrible life draining symptoms, is leaving her child behind for a stranger to care for. Since Cody is being put up for adoption there are no grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, or husband to take over. It is a very dreadful sense of just how alone this mom really is.