Mike Flanagan opens up about the personal journey that shaped his buzzed-about Midnight Mass
The connoisseur of scares behind films like Doctor Sleep and shows like The Haunting of Hill House first began thinking about the horror overtones of religion as a 10-year-old altar boy at a Catholic church on New York's Governor's Island. Worshippers drinking the blood of Christ at an altar, eating the body of Christ, and the thoroughly documented wrath of God are the kinds of realizations that have been "bopping around" in Flanagan's head for as long as he can recall, he admits, way before Netflix greenlit his series about a mysterious priest and the strange "miracles" he brings upon a remote island community. But the first time the name Midnight Mass actually came up in his work was in 2016's Hush.
Kate Siegel, Flanagan's wife and frequent collaborator, starred in that film, about a deaf author trying to write in her cabin when she's beset upon by a murderous home invader. Her character's best-selling work? A novel titled Midnight Mass.
Siegel remembers how this story has taken on so many forms over the years as Flanagan persistently redrafted: "It was a movie, it was a novel, it was a series." It couldn't work as a film, says Flanagan's longtime producing partner Trevor Macy, who first saw a feature script for Midnight Mass while working on 2013's Oculus, also helmed by Flanagan. It was just too long — the first two acts alone ran 155 pages. So, they began thinking of it more as a show. The problem was, nobody seemed to want it. Macy and Flanagan shopped the project around to several networks and "everyone passed."
"I always thought of this as the best project I would never make," Flanagan remarks.
For years, Midnight Mass simply existed as a fun Easter egg, popping up again in the director's adaptation of Stephen King's Gerald's Game. In that 2017 movie, Carla Gugino's handcuffed Jessie tries to scare off a starving dog by grabbing for the one thing in her reach: a single copy of Midnight Mass. Flanagan still has that hardcover book in his home, but as for the rest of the ones he printed, well, that's another mystery.
Flanagan had plans to return Midnight Mass in book form for The Haunting of Hill House, specifically in the background of a bookshop scene with Michiel Huisman's Steve Crain. But in shipping them to Atlanta in between projects, they mysteriously vanished.
"It's a strange world," Flanagan remarks. "I walked into a friend's house who collects movie props and they had the Red Room door from The Haunting of Hill House and my jaw just hit the floor. I thought they'd made it or something. I went up and looked at it, and it was ours! It was the actual door. You never know where this stuff is out there in the world. I hope more of those books are out there."
The public will now get to experience Midnight Mass in one form or another when the television series arrives this Friday on Netflix. And it'll become clear to anyone watching exactly why Flanagan kept returning to this story year after year.
Riley, played by Zach Gilford in Midnight Mass, is a resident of Crockett Island who went to prison after he killed someone in a drunk driving accident. The memory of the woman's face, splintered with shards of glass that flicker with the red and blue lights from police sirens, linger in his mind like a ghost he can't shake. When Riley returns to Crockett years later, he begins a local AA chapter with the new priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), who arrives as an unexpected replacement for the church's Monsignor. As unexplainable events occur all over town, these two-person group sessions quickly unravel into tense, weighty conversations about faith and addiction.
In a letter Flanagan wrote to critics ahead of Midnight Mass' premiere, he mentioned that he's now three years sober himself. The story is clearly a very personal one in which Flanagan confronts some of the ghosts from his own past in a fictionalized context, something he never found daunting.
"I don't know how long I could have gone without writing it," he says. "There's a very natural thing that happens where, if you're writing anything that tiptoes into a personal place, you find yourself vomiting up all sorts of things into it. It's happened to me with Hill House in a pretty big way. It happened with [The Haunting of Bly Manor]. This one, though, was the story I always wanted to tell."
If you believe in a higher power, a concept that sparks complex feelings within Flanagan and his characters, the stars aligned now for a reason. Flanagan doesn't believe he could have made Midnight Mass in 2014, even if a network had latched onto it at the time, because he wasn't sober in 2014. "I could write about alcoholism, but I couldn't write about sobriety, not intelligently," he continues. "It's by far the most personal thing I've ever been lucky enough to work on."
The success of Hill House was what finally made Midnight Mass a reality. Netflix wanted to make another season, which they did — Bly Manor. But Flanagan and Macy found an opportunity to bargain for Midnight Mass to be part of their newly struck deal with the streamer, announced in 2019. Then, the real work began.
"What made it exciting, and kind of scary and uncomfortable sometimes, was that I really wanted to make sure that I was playing both sides of the board as passionately as I could," Flanagan explains. All of the characters, from Riley, who values logic and reason, to Father Paul, who unflinchingly puts his fate in the Almighty's hands, to Erin (Siegel), who's somewhere in between, represent "different parts" of the director who are constantly "in conversation and often in disagreement with each other."
In a way, that was the key for Flanagan in fleshing out Midnight Mass: conversing with himself through his previous drafts from years earlier.
"Here's this long scene I had written about atheism. Let me look at that a few years later and rebut it. Let me try to honestly come in and challenge my own idea. Here's a long scene about alcoholism. Let me really try to come in and talk about recovery," Flanagan recalls. "Being in conversation with my various selves over the last 11 years, that have all dipped into this story, that's what makes it so personal for me. I don't know that I'll ever be lucky enough to have that experience again with another piece of work."
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A mysterious priest. Unexplainable "miracles." A newfound religious fervor. The residents of Crockett Island are about to have their faith tested in horrific ways.