Filmmaker Mike Flanagan talks about adapting Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep

Filmmaker Mike Flanagan has been a self-proclaimed fan(atic) of Stephen King’s work since fifth grade, when he picked up his first book by the author.

Doctor Sleep brought back a lot of the themes from the novel of The Shining that didn’t make it into the film,” Flanagan continues, “specifically the focus on addiction to the degree that King took it, along with the notes of redemption. My initial impression was, ‘I love this story.’ I loved the three characters, Dan, Abra and Rose the Hat. I loved the contradictions between The Shining and Doctor Sleep: addiction and recovery; encroaching ice and fire. He took so many wonderful elements from the first book and let them grow into something entirely new.

Go behind the scenes of Doctor Sleep

Stephen King and Mike Flanagan

“There’s a part of me that insists that King’s work be adapted in a faithful way,” Flanagan emphasizes, “and a part that idolizes the Kubrick film. Those two sides of me were at war when I began this project. But trying to satisfy both of them, I figured if I could do it for myself, then I could hopefully do it for audiences.”

Flanagan is a prolific director, writer, producer and editor, and a partner at Intrepid Pictures, a feature film and television production company dedicated to creating elevated commercial content for global audiences.

Flanagan is the director of seven feature films, including Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, which marks Flanagan’s sixth feature collaboration with producer and Intrepid founder Trevor Macy. – Flanagan was the creator, director, and showrunner of the hit Netflix Original series The Haunting of Hill House, which he executive produced along with Macy.  Following the mainstream success of the horror anthology’s acclaimed debut season, Netflix ordered a second season entitled The Haunting of Bly Manor, and entered into an exclusive deal for non-theatrical content with Intrepid.

Prior to The Haunting, Flanagan co-wrote and directed Gerald’s Game, a feature version of Stephen King’s 1992 novel about a woman whose husband dies during sex while she is handcuffed to the bed in a remote country house.  The film, which stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood, was a passion project for Flanagan, who had wanted to adapt the novel since he read it more than two decades earlier.

He also wrote and directed Before I Wake, and Hush, starring Kate Siegel and John Gallagher Jr., a horror thriller about a deaf writer living in rural seclusion who becomes the target of a masked killer. Both films were distributed by Netflix.

Flanagan’s theatrical feature directing credits include 2016’s Ouija: Origin of Evil, and Oculus, about a brother and sister whose lives are forever changed by their encounter with a haunted mirror. 

In 2011, Flanagan cemented his reputation as a promising horror director with Absentia, a Kickstarter-financed feature shot in and around Flanagan’s apartment on a shoestring budget of $70,000.  This minimalist, dread-filled thriller was met with critical acclaim and was honored with numerous awards on the festival circuit.

Flanagan’s first foray into horror was the 2006 short film Oculus: Chapter 3. Planned as one installment of an anthology series about a haunted mirror, the film was shot on a minuscule budget of $2,000 and went on to win more than a dozen awards at film festivals around the world.  He later expanded it into the feature film “Oculus.”

Q & A with Mike Flanagan

This isn’t your first Stephen King film.  Do you pinch yourself still?

When I did the first King movie [Gerald’s Game], our communication was limited. He emailed me after he saw the movie, because he really liked it. Then, after he saw the first cut of Doctor Sleep, he called me, and that was a huge deal. I got to watch the final cut with him. I started this whole career as a rabid fan boy of his.

This movie more than any has been the most surreal experience. It’s a much bigger film than I’ve ever made, plus it’s stepping in the shadow of an iconic, genre-defining film by a bona-fide cinematic genius. It’s intimidating in a way that is ridiculous. I’ve never had an experience like this one.  It hasn’t felt real or non-challenging from the jump.

It might never feel real or non-challenging ever. Maybe on your next project…

Yeah, it will be like, “Remember that time we made the sequel to The Shining? That was cool!” It’s been nuts. We all felt it, too, the first time we walked onto the set of the Overlook Hotel. No one could talk—we were kids again.

What drew you to Doctor Sleep as a project in particular? King has written a lot of books—you could take your pick.

I saw The Shining when I was too young to see it, I was about 10, and it changed me. I saw it at a friend’s house, against the wishes of my parents, which made it even more scary and fun. I saw the film before I ever read the book, and I was already very much a constant reader—I was collecting and immersing myself in Stephen King’s work. When I saw The Shining, it showed me what was possible with a psychological thriller and what tension in a movie could be.

In high school, when I read The Shining, it was very interesting, because the book and the film were so different. I was amazed at how the same characters and the same setting could create two very different experiences. When it was announced that he was going to write a sequel, as a fan, I was overwhelmingly curious, because I didn’t know how he was going to try to reconcile the two versions of The Shining that were out there. Or would he?

And he actively did not. He definitively said, “This is a sequel to my book, and nothing else.” I loved the book, and what I loved about it had nothing really to do with the Overlook or anything that carried over from The Shining. I loved the story of Dan Torrance. I loved that The Shining, in my eyes, was a story of addiction and what it can do to a family. But Doctor Sleep was the story of recovery, reflection and time, looking back at the damage and trauma of addiction decades later, especially through the lens of a child of an addict. Dan has to deal with the same demons that his father did, but he’s dealing with them completely differently.Plus, you’re looking at it through the eyes of a writer who has also evolved so much through sobriety…I was fascinated by that, primarily.

I hadn’t really gotten to the point in my career where I would have ever thought I was a contender for adapting a movie like that, or even maybe working crew on it. [LAUGHS] I would say to friends, “Oh, my God, if they ever make that movie, not only could it be great, but how will they do it?” Reconciling Doctor Sleep the novel with the cinematic legacy of The Shining just seemed impossible.

At what point did “How will they do it?” become “How would I do it?”

Pretty early. I saw that Warner Bros. was developing Doctor Sleep and pursuing a script from it. I started spit-balling, but it was all sort of fan fiction at that point. It’s like, if I were ever in a position to do that, what would I do? I begged my agents to get me a meeting on it. The big thing that I wanted to do was almost repair what King viewed as the damage that was done to The Shining, but still celebrate the incredible piece of cinema that Stanley Kubrick had made. In my head, it was always this crazy tightrope walk between the two stories. I never really believed I’d get to work on it. I continued to say to my agents, “I really would love to talk to whoever’s in charge of Doctor Sleep.” Their response was always the same— “We don’t think they’re ever going to make that movie. It would be too tough, too intimidating.” 

Then, I took a general meeting with [producer] Jon Berg, and we both got into a conversation about our mutual love of Stephen King. When Doctor Sleep came up, he asked me what I would do. So, I gave him my pitch: I’d go back to the book, be as faithful to the Dan/Abra/Rose arc as possible, but fold The Shining and Doctor Sleep into one final battle—if done right, we’d honor the story beats of Doctor Sleep, while harkening back to the novel and the film of The Shining.  

We had to pitch it to Stephen King, and he initially didn’t really want to talk about it. I don’t blame him. But the thing that turned him around was that I told him that the reason I wanted to do it was to get Dan recovered, eight-years-sober Dan, and have him sit at a bar in front of a glass of whiskey that he may or may not drink. He was curious to see how that would play out.

How did you bring Ewan McGregor into it?

Casting Dan was actually quite a challenge because—like everything else with this movie—we’re asking an actor to step into a character that everyone has imagined very thoroughly for a very long time. And what Dan would be grown up, nobody really knows, except for Stephen King, but everybody has ideas. We all picture the same little kid, on the same little big wheel, with the same haircut, and from there we ponder, who is the man that kid is going to become? It’s a very difficult part to visualize.

I met with a lot of wonderful actors who were interested in it, but Ewan, from our very first general meeting, was connected to the character on a personal level in a way that I couldn’t deny. It was really striking in the room. What connected him to Dan—putting aside everything about The Shining and the Overlook Hotel—he had zeroed in on where Dan is when the novel picks up. The character and Ewan, they’re roughly the same age. He told us what about Dan Torrance spoke to him, and it was incredibly authentic. I couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the part after he left the room. Ewan is also a student of cinema, and his love for The Shining and Kubrick are all there, but it was second to his connection to Dan Torrance.

You also found Kyliegh Curran.

Yeah, and the amazing thing about Kyliegh is she was a local actor without a bunch of experience in movies under her belt. But she rose through the ranks on her own with a self-tape that beat out 900 other candidates. You talk about “the shine” as that ineffable, intangible quality that someone has; that’s what she has. We had narrowed the search to our top five candidates for the role. We could tell from her tape that she was special, but when she came into the room and sat down next to Ewan—she did the first scene where they meet—there was something profound about the two of them together. We knew it was her.

I’ve felt that way before in my career, like when I saw Jacob Tremblay, Lulu Wilson, and Annalise Basso, other young actors I’ve worked with, audition for me for the first time. Kyliegh came out of nowhere. It’s just that raw talent you hope the industry will find and support.

How about Rebecca Ferguson? Rose the Hat, that is quite a character.

Rose the Hat in the novel, to me, is one of the best Stephen King antagonists in many, many years. The character is terrifying, fascinating, charming, deeply disturbing…and you also can’t look away from her. You really hang on to her every moment. Rebecca inhabits that in a way that I think is uniquely her own. She made it clear from our first conversation about the part, that what drew her to it was the character’s sense of fun. And she pointed out, if you don’t love a villain, a horror is only as good as its monster. To have an antagonist who could be as potentially iconic as Danny Torrance and to have them face off against each other, you need someone with the weight of Rebecca Ferguson.

You have to believe that all those people would follow her.

A cult leader is effective because they’re adored by their followers, in this case, the group called the True Knot. It’s the way that they’re able to charm and motivate people to see the world their way.  That wouldn’t work if she played it without that charisma—and Rebecca is marvelous with that.