The Haunting of Hill House creator Mike Flanagan on hidden clues, major scares, and a season 2
[SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE!]
One of the great surprises of 2018 has been Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. A slow burn of a ghost series, House takes its time but is, by turns, terrifying, moving, and devastating. Based on the novel of the same name by Shirley Jackson, the 10-episode series is also a wildly ambitious and brilliantly conceived directorial outing by the incredibly inventive Mike Flanagan (Gerald’s Game).
On a break from shooting an adaptation of Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, Flanagan spoke in-depth with EW about building Hill House, tackling grief, and the horrors of plotting a possible second season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is almost more of an homage to Shirley Jackson’s novel and less of a straight adaptation. Where did you start with this project?
MIKE FLANAGAN: Yeah, I’ve heard people describe it as an echo and I thought that was really cool. I thought of it as fanfic for a little while, to be honest.
Amblin Partners brought the project to me and they had the rights to it and they said, “We’d love to develop this for TV,” and my first response to it was, “Well, how?” I’ve loved that book since I was a kid, and I’m in love with the Robert Wise movie and I looked at the material and I was like, “I don’t know how you can expand this to 10 hours as it is. I think you’d have to do something pretty drastic.”
As I went off to think about it, it seemed really pointless to try to out Shirley Jackson Shirley Jackson, and it also seemed really pointless to try to one-up Robert Wise. I think his adaptation is perfect. So it always seemed like we had to do something different, and for me, it was about opening up the book, going through it line by line, and picking out the moments and the characters and the themes and even lines of prayers that really spoke to me in trying to take all those pieces and put them together in a new order and build out around them.
It’s way more of a remix than an adaptation, and I know that that really kind of scared me at first, because I had no idea how Shirley Jackson fans would react to that, and I think they’re reacting in equal measure both ways I expected. But it certainly isn’t a straight adaptation, for sure.
It’s such a realistic dissection of grief. Were you interested in exploring how grief haunts people?
Yeah, that’s a theme that’s fascinated me all of my life, and it always finds its way into what I’m working on in one way or another, but this more than anything else was all about that, and particularly…each of my parents is the oldest of six kids, and so they have huge families and we’ve suffered various losses within those big families, and this turned into a very cathartic examination of that and a look at my own family and my own way of processing that.
What struck me the most is that I think grief is such a universal experience that when we were in the writers’ room, every one of the writers at the table had their own perspective on it that came to bear with this, and that’s something that jumped out immediately that yeah, when you talk about ghosts and you talk about what gothic horror can do, this is an incredible opportunity to really lean face first into some of the saddest and darkest things that we all deal with.
Casting is always pivotal for a show but one of your main characters is an actual house. Is Hill House a real home?
It is. Yeah, we scouted for months in Georgia, and we found that house as it is. We didn’t even touch it. We weren’t actually allowed to go inside. We only used the outside of it. We found it just off in the middle of the woods, in the middle of LaGrange, Ga., by itself, and I just fell in love with it. I remember we got out of the scout van and everybody got very quiet because the house just had no business being there. It was this beautiful but weird, schizophrenic house. It’s so weird. It doesn’t belong there, and all of us walked in a circle around it and no one really spoke for a couple of minutes, and by the time we circled back to the van it was like, “This is perfect.”
Then we built the interior to try to incorporate a lot of those more eclectic design elements that you see outside, but yeah, that house is just sitting in the woods of Georgia, kind of inexplicably.
The interior of the house is so odd and off. What did you want to accomplish with the sets?
When you read about the house in Jackson’s book, it’s so disorienting. We really wanted to try to take as many cues from that as we could, and then there were visual homages we wanted to make to the Wise film as well. But beyond that, we knew by episode six that we were gonna be shooting in the entirety of the house at once, so we had to build the house as one complete unit, and it took up the entire stage. So once we had boxed [ourselves] into that and we knew it was gonna be a fully functioning two-level house that we couldn’t really play with the geography of, it became about trying to disorient us inside. It was like, let’s have a corridor that’s all stone like a convent, and when we turn the corner let’s go into something more baroque, and that was this reaction to the schizophrenia that we saw in the exterior.
The other thing we did with the interior to help make it feel like something is off is that we tried to use design elements that look like human faces everywhere we could, in the wallpaper, in the light fixtures, and in the doorknobs. Everywhere we were gonna be looking, we wanted it to feel like the house was always looking back, and I think that subliminal sense that there’s a face somewhere in the frame just makes it feel off everywhere.
So much of this show is camera choreography and placement. Did you storyboard or pre-visualize the series?
We did. I did this with my regular DP, Michael Fimognari, and our process on a movie is always that we block and diagram and shot list every shot of the movie start to finish, and this wasn’t any different. We had a lot less sleep on this one. We were always trying to catch up to the production. But we did. We blocked it out and boarded it just like a feature because I just didn’t want to fall back into what we considered TV coverage on a lot of this. We wanted it to be cinematic.
Speaking of that, tell me about episode 6 which is an incredible achievement in camera technique.
It was part of our pitch for the show that whenever we got the kids back together, we wanted it to feel like an unbroken shot, basically, for the whole episode. Everyone loved that idea in the pitch stage, and then when we got into prep it suddenly became like, “Oh God, now we have to actually do this,” which was so daunting.
We wrote all of the camera choreography into the script for the episode, back before we started production. So, when we started designing the house, we were designing elements of it specifically to the requirements of episode six. Hill House was on one stage, the funeral home was on another, and we had to build this hallway between the two stages so we could physically walk from one stage to the other and step into Hill House without cutting.
We rehearsed it with our second team stand-ins, who basically performed the entire episode as actors for about five weeks straight, every day. We had shut down production and we just rehearsed with them, with the crew, and kept running it and running it and running it. After a month of that, we brought the cast in and we were able to show them the episode. We had shot it with the second team. So we said, “Here it is and this is what we’re doing,” and then the cast had two weeks with us in rehearsal. We kind of looked at it like live TV. Ultimately, it’s five long shots and we did one a day for five days. It almost killed us. It almost killed everybody.
It’s incredible. There was one shot were Hugh and Olivia are on the second floor and the camera floats down with them to the first.
We built an elevator and suspended it from the ceiling. It’s out of frame for the rest of the shot, but it would have to lower in while we were with them in the hall, and then the steady cam op just steps onto it. It lowered into the floor. He stepped out and then it went right back up to the ceiling so he could turn around and it would be gone.
You should be very proud. It’s really an achievement.
I’m extraordinarily proud of it, and I’m most proud of the cast and crew, because filmmaking is a very collaborative endeavor, as you know, but this was the efforts of 200 people that had to be in perfect sync with each other, and if anyone dropped the ball we had to cut and start over. So the pressure it put on our dolly grips and the entire crew was extraordinary.
Our fear when we were making it was that we would fail, that we just would never get to the end of one of these takes. And then the worst-case scenario for me was that if we did finish it and put it out there, if the characters in the story and the performances weren’t working as well as the technical element that people would find it boring and just be kind of hungry for a cut. So I’m really glad that it’s being received the way it is because that was the hardest and riskiest and scariest thing I think any of us on that stage had ever done.
So, for example, when old Hugh (Timothy Hutton) enters the funeral parlor, he sees his adult children. Then, the camera circles around him and he sees them as children. Are actors just running in and out of rooms when the camera moves?
Yep, that’s exactly what it is. To watch this episode, it was hysterical. If you step out of frame, it’s hilarious, and the kids were all crouched down and hiding in the intake room right next to them, and they would just sprint into place. And while they’re doing that, in the background you’re watching crew frantically pull out this dummy of Victoria Pedretti from the casket to help little Violet climb in her place. So we were doing all these off-camera switches.
There’s a big gag when Olivia’s going through the halls and the statues are tracking her. When you come back their heads are all in different positions, which looks really cool except that when you see the crew members hiding behind the wall carrying statues that all have different head positions and frantically diving into frame to get them there before the camera turns back around, it’s funny.
So yeah, it was a circus, and it was the weirdest thing for me and for Michael, because typically we’re really involved in a given take. But with this, all of our work was up front and all we could do was sit at the monitor and watch, and there was just nothing we could do anymore. Usually about halfway through a take, if it looked like we had a chance to get it, we would just grip the armrests and I think I held my breath for the last three minutes of that third segment, which is our longest.
But it was helpless. It was just like, “Well, anything could happen.” And you’d see a crew member dip into frame, running out with a bounce cart or something, and we’d look over to our visual effects and just stare at them, pleading silently like, “Can we take that out? Can you fix that? Can you fix that? Because if you can fix that, we’ll keep going.” Yeah, it was just panic, but it really worked out.
Were you able to shoot the past first and then the present-day elements? Or was it done episode by episode?
It wasn’t episode by episode. We cross boarded it so that we were doing blocks of three episodes at a time and treating them like a long movie. It was actually really confusing. We would try to shoot out individual locations or try to stay in Hill House as long as we could. But yeah, it wasn’t broken up in a way that allowed for a lot of continuity for the actors. They had to constantly figure out where they were in the overall 10-hour arc, which I think is brutal for them. It felt like a 10-hour independent film, the way we scheduled it.
I imagine it was difficult especially for someone like Carla Gugino who had to have varying degrees of sanity over the course of the series. Was it like, “Okay, now you’re at a 10” or “Now it’s a 3?”
It wasn’t quite a numeric system but it was close, as to just where she was. There are very few people, I think, who can handle that like Carla can [Flanagan directed Gugino in 2017’s Gerald’s Game]. She’s so prepared. She had thoroughly broken down the entire series before we even got there to shoot the pilot, as far as her journey on it, and so she was diligent and constantly recalibrating to make sure she was in the right place.
And your wife, Kate Siegel, plays Theo, right? She’s so great.
Right before we got married, we made this Netflix movie called Hush together and surviving that production experience, we co-wrote it and she starred and it was such a wonderful thing that we came out of it and said, “Hey, we should just get married. If we survived that, we’ll be fine.” And yeah, I’m always looking for an opportunity to show everybody else what I see in her, and she’s just marvelous. Also, I don’t know that either one of us could have survived a year of production being away from each other, so it was really wonderful that we got to do this, and I think she crushed it.
I started to rewatch the first episode and there are sort of teases, like Shirley talks in her sleep and says, “Dancing in the red room.” Are there other clues like that throughout?
Absolutely, and that’s the beauty of having a show with Netflix, because you’re able to write the entirety of the series before you shoot, and so we were able to go back and make sure that a lot of the threads that are coming from the back half are really well settled in the first half, and some of them are so slight and so subtle, I do think it’s gonna be a really interesting view on a second pass. But particularly with the red room and with Nell, we tried really hard not to tip our hand too much, but we were trying from the first scene to be like, “Okay, if we can tell everybody how this is gonna end early, it’s just gonna make a second viewing even cooler.”
Are there other clues that you can tease?
Well, obviously with the Bent-Neck Lady. We tried very hard to make sure that the entire driving force of Nell’s encounters with her throughout the first four episodes were all basically just an extension of the fifth and knowing where we were going with that, that was something that was really important. I wanted that story to track, and you’ll also hear a lot of characters repurposing each other’s dialog throughout the movie or throughout the show. There’s quite a bit of echoes to ideas. If you look back at the specific times when Hugh would say, “I can fix this,” and look at the other characters who say the same thing, there are all sorts of them.
And there’s little jokes, too. In the pilot, you hear Steven trip and it seems like he messes up while he tries to swear. He comes in with the “fothermucker” and he learns it from his dad in episode seven. There are a lot of those really long burn, over years and years, little references that we wanted to echo each other. It’s always fun just to look for the ghosts, too.
What’s the significance of 3:03 a.m. — the time when they all wake up?
Depending on which urban legend you go with, it’s the witching hour. It’s one of those times that pops up in different iterations in horror fiction, and we liked it for that.
Is Poppy Hill, the crazy flapper ghost, kind of like the patient zero of Hill House? Did she start all of this evil?
Well, she definitely brought insanity into the house in a really palpable way. We had actually written and planned to shoot a complete history of Hill House. Every other episode would open with about a five-minute history thing narrated by Steven, from his book, and we did take from Jackson that the first victim of the house died before anyone had ever really stepped foot in it. In her book, it was the wife of Hugh Crain, and in ours when we took that character and turned him into Jacob Hill. We had built a really complex history of the Hill family that we ultimately didn’t shoot. We didn’t have the time or the money to shoot it, which really broke my heart at the time, but we figured if we had to focus on anything, we had to focus on the Crain family.
But Poppy, as we got rid of that history section and were leaning into that ghost we would bring into frame, she kind of embodied the insanity of Hill House, and she brought to it the femininity and the kind of twisted maternal instinct of it. So I think describing her as patient zero for this iteration is perfectly correct and she’s actually played by Katie Parker, who starred in my very first film ever.
After the story she told Mrs. Dudley (Annabeth Gish) about her father’s death, it felt like maybe Olivia had been drawn to the house. Is that totally off base?
No, no, no, you’re absolutely correct. Absolutely. To steal from Stephen King, we talked about how the characters “shine” and that Olivia, being sensitive, as she puts it, kind of having a type of emotionality that is supernatural in the way she processes it, that she would have passed that down to her daughters, and that each of them would have gotten a splinter of that from her, if she was the prism of it. Theo gets the touch and Shirley has the dream sleep and the intuition and Nell is able to look across time.
For the house, Olivia certainly is the big meal. I think that that side of her, which is something that we really, really loved about Jackson’s book, both Eleanor and Theodora, that they had this unique sensitivity, this special paranormal energy to them. I think that absolutely drew her to the house and I think it’s what powered the engine of the house for decades, ultimately.
While most everyone sees dead people, Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) actually sees a ghost (One Tree Hill’s James Lafferty) in the form of an affair she had. Why make that choice?
Well, we really wanted to lean into the idea that a ghost can be a lot of different things, and I didn’t want every specter in the show to just be someone who had died in Hill House. We played it in a couple of ways. The Bent-Neck Lady isn’t a ghost for so long. And then she is. I wanted to play with that expectation, that of course you see this striking silhouette with the bent neck. It’s like, “That’s a ghost,” and then it’s like, well, no, it’s actually not.
Similar to little Abigail, it was really fun to do like, “Oh, look at the little ghost girl,” and she isn’t, and so with Shirley, leading into that theme of a ghost can be a regret or a memory, we wanted to embody it and talk about what specifically haunted her. While all the characters are haunted by the death of their mom and the breakdown of their family, that seems like a really wonderful opportunity for a character who otherwise seems to be in such control of her life, almost to her own detriment, to express that metaphysically. That was a fun play on ghosts for us in the writers’ room, but it also let me get my buddy James Lafferty on set.
There is a jump scare in episode 8 that is INSANE. It’s the scene with Shirley and Theo in the car. How did you guys prepare that?
That was in the script and it was just like, oh, Nell’s gonna startle them out of this fight. In general, I don’t love jump scares. I think they can be cheap, but this one I thought could be really special because it’s an episode about people talking in cars…it’s like that’s the one place you’re never gonna have a ghost.
So we put Victoria in her makeup and we put her in the backseat and Kate and Elizabeth knew where it was coming and it was scripted, and I just told Victoria before we read the first take to come in substantially earlier than the written cue. The girls had another half page of dialogue to go through as written, and so Elizabeth and Kate were just in the scene and they knew they had another half page of words to get through before Victoria would appear, and she just bolted up right in the middle of their lines, and so their reaction is completely genuine. It also scared the s*** out of all of us at the monitor. All of us who knew it was coming were completely blindsided by it and every time I’ve seen it, I’m never prepared. I’m just never ready for it, because I get sucked into what they’re saying and they seem so relaxed that it just gets me.
This has a very clear ending. But could there be a season two?
I don’t want to speculate too much about season two until Netflix and Paramount and Amblin let us know if they want one. What I will say, though, is that as far as I’ve ever been concerned with this, the story of the Crain family is told. It’s done. I think that there are all sorts of different directions we could go in, with the house or with something completely different. I love the idea of an anthology as well. But to me, I felt like the Crains have been through enough, and we left them exactly as we all wanted to remember them, those of us who worked on it. We toyed with a cliffhanger ending and we toyed with other ideas, but ultimately, in the writers’ room and with the cast and everything else, we really felt like the story demanded a certain kind of closure from us and we were happy to close the book on that family.
That said, I think more than anything, the show is about haunted places and haunted people, as Steve says, and there’s no shortage of either. So, there’s any number of things we could do, in or out of Hill House.
What’s that song you use in the final moments? It’s about a house, right?
It’s “If I Go, I’m Goin'” by Gregory Alan Isakov. It’s one of my favorite songs of all time. That was a polarizing song. When I put it in and we were looking at that last stretch, my thought was, “I bet I’m gonna lose people on this.” We always felt like this was gonna be a little polarizing to get sentimental like this at the end. But to me, it felt exactly appropriate and very much in line with not only what we were trying to do as far as the novelistic elements of the show, but what I wanted to try to end it on was just a note of some kind of peace and hope for them. I realize that might not be popular with all of our viewers but that was what we really wanted to do. That song, which itself is a metaphor for a relationship as a house, that song just felt like it was so perfect for the way we wanted to go out.
You’ve directed an adaptation of Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game and now you’re doing Doctor Sleep. King tweeted he loves the show — that must feel pretty cool.
It’s insane. It always blows my mind, and I’ve never spoken to Steve. We email all the time, actually, especially with Doctor Sleep going, but I’ve never met him and he’s been my hero since I was a kid. it started because he tweeted about Hush, and that’s what got Gerald’s Game going. I had no idea he was watching the show. We’ve never discussed the show. I saw it come up on Twitter, and I make the same noise every time. It’s like a little 12-year-old who just squeaks, and I like to think at some point in my career, maybe I’ll get better at reacting to that. It’s surreal to me and wonderful, and I’m thrilled he loves the show because the other thing I also know about him is if he doesn’t like something, he isn’t shy about it.