When horror fans gear up for the South by Southwest film festival, nothing gets them more excited than “Midnighters Schedule Release Day.” Listing all the up and coming horror ready to grace the Alamo Drafthouse every night when the clock strikes twelve (or close enough to it), this is where you find some of the greatest indie horror films of tomorrow. This year was an extremely exciting selection, from horror musicals to spooky ghost stories, but Oculus came in with tons of initial hype after slaying Toronto back in September, being one step ahead of fellow competitive premieres.
How much hype surrounded Oculus? Mike Flanagan’s movie was so cerebral and invading that producer Jason Blum immediately attached Blumhouse Productions to the hopeful sensation, bringing marketing expertise and “seal of approval” status. The film had been made, all the production was already done, the scenes filmed, and the product exposed – but Blum was entranced. I’d say any film that catches Jason Blum’s eye deserves some immediate attention.
Coming to Austin, Texas along with Oculus were director Mike Flanagan and Intrepid Pictures producer Trevor Macy, the original masterminds behind this reflective horror story. After seeing the film in a packed house, I jumped at the opportunity to interview both Mike and Trevor, because talking horror with its creators never gets old. Seriously – someone get me moderating a panel or something!
Sitting down with both Mike and Trevor, I probed their minds about the production of the film, including what Jason Blum brings to a movie, the challenges that come along with adapting a short film (Oculus is actually based on a short Mike previously created), why mirrors are so creepy, and if Mike felt horrible terrifying his child actors.
Hope you enjoy!
WGTC: So let’s start with a general question – why was now the time to make Oculus?
Mike Flanagan: With the short film back in 2005, that was just a story I really loved, and I really wanted to do something in horror because it’s my favorite genre. I’d spent most of my time while I was studying film making relationship dramas, which from a college perspective I thought were deep at the time, but they really aren’t. It was really nice for me to get into the [horror] genre and do something really cool.
What I loved about Oculus, being the Stephen King fanatic I am, it was a chance to do this portable Overlook Hotel story. It just seemed like there were so many different ways to go. There was no shortage of stories, because there was no shortage of different people you could put [the mirror] in a room with and have different experiences. That’s what excited me.
There was a lot of interest early in expanding the short, but a lot of people saw the cameras in the room and were like, “oh, we’ll do a found footage movie!” We didn’t want to do that, so for years it sat by. Then I had a meeting with Intrepid, they were the first company to come at me and say, “Yeah, let’s do it different!”
WGTC: So Trevor, what was the major selling point for your company?
Trevor Macy: Our experience with horror is largely influences by The Strangers, which was a movie we made and the scares land because you care about the characters. That’s a pretty high bar to clear, and we thought [Oculus] may be difficult to execute, but it’s an original idea, it’s a premise you can relate to, and it’s got characters you can really care about. That kind of elevating, sustained tension is really fun for me, I really like it, I believe it asks a lot of the audience, but it was clear from the short and Mike’s pitch that’s what Oculus promised to be.
WGTC: So we’ve seen short films adapted into features before, most recently thinking of Mama, but what challenges do you face while expanding a short story into something substantial?
Mike Flanagan: It’s so hard to blow up a short. I don’t fault the people who try to do it when it doesn’t work, it’s so difficult to take a short form and recreate the experience of watching it in long form – because that’s what it’s really about. There are challenges inherent just in adapting a story, but the problem is shorts are so tight that when you do try to expand that story, generally you only have the opportunity to create filler. You almost have to come at it and say, “what I most want to expand is the experience of watching the short,” as opposed to the actual story of said short. For us, the short was just one guy alone in a room, and what people responded to on the festival circuit was this encroaching sense of dread that was present for the whole 28 minutes of the short. How do you do that for 90 minutes? How do you do that for 100 minutes? It’s not easy, it took a really long time to crack, and we threw a couple of darts that completely missed like, “Let’s do an anthology movie! It’ll be three little stories!”
The thing for me about it is don’t be so rigidly married to the source material that you’re just trying to pad it. Try to come up with something new that’s going to be true to the experience of watching it and what worked about it, and show numerous different angles on that story. It was tough to crack that, and that’s why coming in we developed the script together at Intrepid. We brought in a very basic outline of what we thought could be a cool expansion, but it’s about coming at it as a different project and picking one or two ideas to thread through.