Gerald's Game: How director Mike Flanagan made Stephen King's 'unfilmable book' into a film

'The book, as it’s written, is really impossible to adapt'

Jack Shepherd@JackJShepherd
Thursday 28 September 2017 16:15
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Gerald's Game
Gerald's Game

Been to the cinema recently? Then you probably know Stephen King adaptations are all the rage right now. The latest, It, has broken numerous box-office records. Earlier this year, The Dark Tower was unleashed onto the world

On TV screens, King's also remained a dominating presence. There was The Mist earlier this year. Mr. Mercedes is currently running, with Brendan Gleeson as the leading character. Later this year, Castle Rock — produced by JJ Abrams — will finally be released.

Netflix are now hoping to capitalise on King-fever. Come the 20 October and Zak Hilditch's adaptation of 1922 lands. Before then, though, comes Gerald's Game, a film that's already received glowing reviews from critics.

The film focusses on a husband and wife — Jessie (an excellent Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) — who holiday to a remote retreat in an attempt to rejuvenate their marriage.

Gerald, without his wife's knowledge, brings along some handcuffs and uses them to tie Jessie to the bed for a sex game. Unfortunately, Gerald has a heart attack almost immediately after restraining Jessie, leaving the woman handcuffed and unable to escape.

Now, that all happens within the first 10 minutes of the story, the rest taking place almost exclusively with Jessie tied to the bed. How do you fill another 90 minutes of screentime with your leading character trapped in one location?

Somehow, director Mike Flanagan has pulled off what many thought to be impossible: making an engaging film out of what many have called an 'unfilmable' book.

How did Flanagan — who previously helmed the horror films Ouija: Origin of Evil, Before I Wake, and Oculus — pull off the impressive feat? The Independent sat down with the director, along with producer Trevor Macy, to find out.

Gerald's Game

Hi guys, hope you’re well.

Trevor: Apart from recovering from jet lag, we’re getting there.

Mike: I’ve come from Atlanta, where we’ve been working on our upcoming Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, a horror-drama based on Shirley Jackson’s book. Did you read the novel?

I’m afraid I haven’t.

Trevor: I think it’s better known in the US than overseas. She wrote it in 1959. I think Stephen King called it 'the best horror novel of the 20th century'. It was then made into a movie by Robert Wise in 1963 called The Haunting.

Mike: And then Jan de Bont made a version in 1999 that we don’t talk about…

I look forward to your version! Onto Gerald’s Game, which was very enjoyable. What drew you to this story?

Mike: I’ve wanted to make this story since I was 19. I’m a Stephen King fanatic. When I was in college I read the book and thought it was amazing but unfilmable. Half my life I’ve been trying to make this movie.

Funny that you say Gerald’s Game is unfilmable because I told someone about the adaptation and they — having read the book — couldn’t believe someone was actually able to make a coherent movie from those pages.

Mike: The book, as it’s written, is really impossible to adapt. We had to find a mechanism to make the story cinematic while being faithful to the story, which is a beautiful story. In the book, Gerald’s dead and gone by page 10 and the rest of the book takes place entirely in Jessie’s head. It’s a stream of consciousness. The trick for us was trying to make that visually interesting. What we came up with was keeping Gerald — played by Bruce Greenwood — in the movie by taking that inner monologue and making it an outer monologue. It was really hard.

Trevor: In the book, there are characters that can be best described as representing facets of Jessie’s past and her personality. In the movie, we channel those.

There’s so much focus on these two leads. How was the casting process?

Mike: Stephen King actually suggested Bruce Greenwood. He had starred in a musical, Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, that Stephen had produced and written. I had loved Bruce ever since I saw The Sweet Hereafter. Carla [Gugino] was harder to find. Either the part would be irresistible to an actor or put them off. We went through a lot of ideas that didn’t pan out because the part was so intense and vulnerable. Carla came about after Bruce and just took ownership of the movie and character.

Trevor: Carla’s super busy and we were lucky that she had an opening in her schedule. She embraced the project so passionately, it was really exciting.

There are a lot of Stephen King adaptations happening right now. Why do you think that is?

Mike: It’s a happy accident. Filmmakers have always been adapting his work but never so concentrated in one year. I think it’s wonderful. As a fan, it’s phenomenal, I only have to wait the next couple of weeks to see the next Stephen King thing.

Have you met him?

Mike: I have not, I’ve never even spoken to him. I would love to. We emailed after he saw the movie, and that was one of the bigger fanboy moments of my life.

What did he think?

Mike: He loved the film. I literally printed his email out and framed it and put it in the living room.

Trevor: He’s been amazingly supportive. We sent him a rough cut and he immediately Tweeted out how great it was. Sending stuff to him’s a little nerve wracking, of course. Obviously, he’s abreast of everything you do along the way. You show him the script. He’s very involved with all the adaptation of his work. He takes a very hands-on approach which is something I really appreciate.

Did you look at other adaptations for inspiration?

Mike: I watch them all.

Trevor: He literally knows them all, chapter and verse.

Mike: And I know how disappointed it can be to see a Stephen King adaptation go south. We never wanted to be in that pile. Being a good adaptation was always a priority for us. So, if we can please him — who is very critical of his adaptations — and please the fans, then we’re good to go. But, yes, I watch everything!

You’ve released other projects through Netflix, Hush and Before I Wake.

Trevor: Before I Wake was released through Netflix in the UK while Hush we produced independently but was acquired by Netflix when it was complete. For Gerald’s Game, they were with us from script stage.

How do you feel about these movies not being seen in cinemas?

Mike: It gets to a very large audience straight away. I’m sure many more people saw Hush in the first weekend it was on Netflix than saw Oculus in theatres. I’ll always lament not having a theatrical release, but Netflix is part of a wave that’s changing how we watch things. It’s really cool to be part of that. A theatrical release is great but no-one in their right mind would have let us make this movie for theatres.

Trevor: It’s easy to understand the movie's concept now it's made. But imagine being pitched a film where the main character spends 90 per cent of the movie tied to a bed? People glaze over. It was a gutsy decision by Netflix to jump on board this movie. We had good experiences with them for sure, but I still praise their courage for getting this done. It’s a great movie, but how do you sell it? I think it will find an audience on Netflix very easily thanks to our other films and Netflix's commitment to genre work. There’s always part of me that wants a theatrical release, but we’re showing this at BFI and festivals in the US. That, plus a big push on Netflix, outweighs coming out on just a dozen screens.

When you were making the film, were you conscious people could be watching on their phones? Did that effect certain elements of the film?

Mike: I don’t like the fact people watch things on their phones and tablets, it kind of hurts my heart. So I always wanted to be very cinematic, even if it wasn’t in theatres.

Trevor: If you do that, regardless of where people are watching it, it’s a cinematic experience. You do things differently with the sound mix because it’s technically required to be different. But the ideas to give that quality theatre experience. The two experiences, of going to the theatre and watching at home, are not mutually exclusive. I don’t know any film buff that doesn’t subscribe to Netflix. That doesn’t mean I go to the theatre any less, that’s just how I consume that entertainment.

As a producer, how much influence do you have on the project? Is it a collaboration? Or do you let Mike do his thing?

Trevor: Do you want to answer that? [Laughs] We’ve made five movies in five years together and are about to embark on a series. At the risk of flattering Mike while he’s sitting here, we have a really nice creative collaboration going and it’s continuing for the foreseeable future. I’m not absentee as a producer.

Mike: I’m in a really wonderful position where I know the producer is always looking out for the movie. We developed that rhythm back on Oculus. You can get those situations where the producer is looking out for the budget or the schedule but not for the movie itself. Trevor’s always looked out for the movie. With Gerald’s Game in particular, we didn’t have enough money or time and it was really hard. Without someone like him looking out for it, we would not have been able to make it.

Many directors who started out on smaller budget horror films are now helming huge blockbusters. Would that be something you’d be interested in doing?

Mike: If someone hands me a lightsaber I’m not going to say no! At the same time, there’s a lot of risk in that world. When you get into a budget that large, and with these franchises that are running themselves, a lot of directors come into it and get marginalised. They’ll pull someone else in to do it because they think it’s someone they can control. When they can’t control them, they get chucked. It used to be unheard of that someone would get kicked off of a franchise, now it happens all the time. I’m actually very comfortable at my current budget level because I can make the movie I want to make. The more money you have, the more pressure there is from the studio, the harder it is to make the movie you want to make. I’m pretty thrilled with the way things are.

Films made at that lower budget level still do really well, just look at Get Out. Horror seems to be leading the way. Why is that? Is horror particularly cheap to make?

Trevor: It’s cheaper to make than the average sci-fi movie, or action movie, of course. But I also think fear is a collective experience that’s almost as compelling as laughter. Get a bunch of people in a room and it’s infectious in a good way. Whether you call it horror or thriller, it doesn't matter. You can create that tension without a lot of money if you’re a clever filmmaker. That’s part of it. But also audiences are growing more and more discerning. I don’t think you can make a movie about teenagers by the lake anymore, you have to really delve into the character of it.

What thriller/horrors have you seen recently that you think were cutting edge for the genre?

Mike: Get Out, for sure. I loved The Blackcoat's Daughter, the Oz Perkins movie.

Trevor: My favourite was probably The Autopsy of Jane Doe, directed by André Øvredal. I really like It a lot as well. The kids were fantastic.

They were the best part, even better than the jump scares.

Mike: I hate jump scares. That’s something we wanted to avoid here.

Trevor: This was more, we’re hoping you chew out the back of your chair!

Gerald's Game reaches Netflix 28 September.

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