Flanagan also told us about the process of creating a feature length film for Oculus, based on his own original short – while he also discusses whether he can get emotionally caught up in his chilling horror, and how much he enjoys playing the audience’s perceptions…
Oculus is of course based on your own short movie – but was it always the intention to turn it into a full feature film?
It was always the hope, I wouldn’t say intention.We had wanted the short to get attention and it turned into a calling card for us, but we didn’t know what would happen and it’s really hard to find distribution for short films. So we weren’t sure if we wanted people to take a look at it and want to do a feature version, or whether we would make a series of short films about the mirror instead – and as it turned out, once the film was completed, there was interest immediately into expanding it into a feature film, but it took us about seven years to find a producer who didn’t want to go with the ultra low-budget found footage angle and want to do something different.
Was it an enjoyable challenge to then take this short movie, expand on it, and turn it into a feature film?
Yeah it’s really difficult. The short is just one character, alone in the room, so we knew it would be difficult to expand. We tried out a bunch of potential structures, we talked about an anthology movie, with three separate stories of the mirror, unrelated, each a half hour long. At one point we thought it could be exciting to do the movie with a single character alone in the room, and that was a no. It was slow and boring. So it took a long time to crack it, but it was really fun to use that and try and figure out what was important about the short and worth protecting. Our strategy was really, if we can save that claustrophobic dread that some people loved about the short, and bring a whole other fear into it which makes it different, then we’d be on to something.
When you watch the movie back, are you able to get scared by it? Can you feel that tension and suspense, or are you too close to the project for that to be the case?
I’m way too close. It’s the strangest kind of experience, because whenever I go into the edit to work on anything, everything has already lost its shine for me. Particularly with tension and horror elements, it’s plain impossible for me to be affected by them as we worked on them in post, we’re just sitting too close to it. It’s the same with people who do comedy, I know a lot of editors who will edit a comedy without cracking a smile. That’s why it’s terrifying, and hopefully exciting, the first time you show it to an audience. Suddenly you see them reacting to things that had been really dull for you. So that’s the litmus test.
By the end, we don’t know what’s a flashback and what’s not – do you enjoy playing with the audience’s perceptions?
Yeah, very much. One of the fascinating things about cinema, is how quickly an audience will suspend their disbelief and accept what they’re being presented. Especially when people latch on to the main character of the film, there’s an assumption we’ve been trained to have, which is that this person is a reliable narrator, and what I’m seeing in the frame, I am meant to assume is reality. When you can invert that on somebody, it’s really exciting, and I’m really attracted to narratives that have an unreliable narrator. Movies are nothing but a distortion of reality anyway, and it’s really fun to acknowledge that in film itself.
In that regard, how essential is it to have the character of Tim – as the cynical character, who almost represents the viewer, needing to be convinced in the same we do.
Oh certainly. One good thing, about horror fans in particular, is that they’re a very vocal and discerning audience and you can hear their complaints, their questions, anything that seems untrue. If a character is behaving in a way that they wouldn’t, well this is an audience that would be very vocal about that. In this case, a lot of people think, what could possibly be scary about a mirror? It was important to give a voice to even the most jaded viewer. People will really respond to having something that they’re thinking said out loud in the movie, especially if it’s attempting to take the air out of a supernatural premise, which is preposterous at its heart – they all are! It’s fun to acknowledge that. We sat for a very long time in the writing process, trying to anticipate what the questions and complaints from the audience would be. At a certain point in this movie, a certain percentage of our audience are going to sit there and say, why don’t you just smash the mirror? So it’s really important that we can answer that question in the movie, or we’ll never be able to keep people on this tide, they’re going to get pulled out of the experience. So Tim for us was absolutely going to be the mouthpiece of what we imagined the most jaded might be.
How effective is then to place this tale in our own home and use common ornaments, like mirrors, as a source of horror? Because it takes us to the place we feel most safe and turns that on its head.
Yeah, I’m really affected by horror stories that take place within a familiar setting. Especially with your family, where you’re supposed to feel safest. We all learn how to be afraid very young, it’s one of the first emotions we experience, and what hopefully happens for all of us, is that our parents come in and give us the comfort we need to learn how to process fear as children. There’s something incredibly upsetting about taking something that is supposed to be safe, all the way back to our earliest memories and our definition of safety, which is our home and our parents, and injecting a horror element into that. That’s why movies like The Shining still resonate with people so intensely. If you can’t be safe in the arms of your own parent, it implies there’s no safety to be found in the world. That’s the kind of horror experience that will stay with you after a film is over – which is ultimately what everybody who works in the genre wants to do. They don’t want to make a movie that will just evaporate in your mind when the credits roll. The only way to do that, I think, is to try to very callously strike at the most ingrained sense of protection.
Finally, Karen Gillan is well-known in the UK predominantly for her role in Doctor Who, how did she come to be involved in your project, and were you aware of her beforehand?
I’m a major Whovian, actually. So Karen was my first choice when we were writing the part, I was such a fan of the strength in confidence that she brought to Amy Pond that I thought, if we’re going to have a heroine in a horror movie, we’d never think of them as a victim. You need to believe they’d walk towards the danger with a bit of a smirk on their face, and there was nobody out there who I thought was more perfect for that than Karen. It’s funny because when she first read the script, and wanted to talk to me about it on Skype, I was trying to play it really cool and try and excite her about coming over to America and being in this movie, and I managed to pull that off for about 10 minutes before I had a sip of coffee and my coffee mug at work is a tardis, and I had forgotten that. So I’d be sitting there trying to put on a cool face, and I was sipping from a tardis mug. The minute she saw that, she knew that the part was in the bag. So, yeah I’m a big nerd for Doctor Who and for Battlestar Galactica, so for me, when Karen and Katee Sackhoff came on to the project it was always going to be a real challenge for me to turn the fanboy side off and get to work – but thankfully that happened!
Oculus is out on June 13th, and you can read our review here.