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An Interview with Mike Flanagan, Director of Absentia

by Mike Haberfelner

June 2011

Films directed by Mike Flanagan on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new film Absentia - in a few words, what is it about?

 

Absentia is about loss. It's the story of two sisters trying to navigate a painful transition, as one of them is about to declare her long-missing husband 'dead in absentia'. It turns out, though, that their neighborhood has a long history of strange disappearances, and her husband might be suffering a fate far worse than death.

 

Your film's basic concept has a certain urban legends ring to it. Is there any truth to this assumption?

 

Sure. I love mythology, and people have this idea that mythology is supposed to be ancient. We're creating new myths all the time, and those myths can exist solely in a city, or a neighborhood, or even a family. One of the reviewers called the film a "dark urban fairy tale" and I loved that description. There's definitely a "local legends" vibe going on.

 

What were your inspirations for writing Absentia?

 

Writing the movie was kind of a backwards experience. I live across the street from that tunnel, and I knew for years I wanted to use it for a horror movie. Finding the story that fit the tunnel was the real motivating factor. After that, I knew going into the script what resources were available to me ... I knew the cast and wrote parts specifically for them, I knew I had no budget so didn't venture too far out of the stretch of road between the apartment and the tunnel. I wrote to my resources and limitations.

 

Beyond the practical side, though, the film is primarily a reaction to a traumatic event within my family where everyone had to deal with a sudden and unexpected loss. It took me months after the film was finished to realize that, but a lot of imagery and certainly the themes of rationalizing an incomprehensible loss stemmed from that. I'm kind of amazed it took me so long to realize it.

 

How would you describe your directorial approach?

 

In general? I'd say minimalistic. My early work is very talky and now it's all about how to get an idea across as simply as possible. I love silence, negative space and the idea that less is more. I also believe, wholeheartedly, that what you can't see is always scarier than what you can.

 

Specifically to this project, though, I'd describe my approach as desperate and rushed. We had so little time, we barely had time enough for two takes on most of the setups for Absentia. There are certain sequences that I feel represent a style I'd describe as my own, like the shower curtain sequences and a scene toward the end of a character peering into complete darkness, but those were the exceptions to the rule. Most of the time I was just trying to hang on and keep up; it was like riding a mechanical bull.

 

That meant that snap decisions became a necessity, so once I'd vocally made a decision about any aspect of the film there wasn't any time to double back and say "hmmm, maybe that's not the right way to go." That meant that, once a choice was made, I had a take or two to make that choice work, no matter what. I lucked out; it worked a lot of the time.

 

The actual menace of Absentia is actually never shown throughout your film. Why is that?

 

There are two reasons for that, really. One is, of course, we didn't have a budget that would have allowed us to depict a detailed monster. It just was never going to happen. We knew that going in, though, and that made for some really fun challenges.

 

The other, though, is that I really do believe it's always scarier NOT to see it. Even if we'd had a substantially bigger budget, I doubt you'd see much more than you see now. Part of what makes the movie work is the ambiguity of it all, and the sense that there are valid alternative explanations for everything happening. We'd lose that tension if we clearly showed a monster, and whatever we could show would be less effective than what people could make up in their own minds.

 

It was actually a real blast to try to paint a picture in the audience's imagination without explicitly showing the thing in its entirety, and I've found that most people imagine basically the same thing, so that's a real victory. We were very careful to show certain things in closeup, like the silver fish and the spiders, to plant suggestions of certain images in the audience's minds. Then, once we showed enough of the creature to imply its size, the hope was that they'd use the ingredients we'd planted earlier in the film to build their own imaginary creature, and it seems like that worked very well. I'm actually quite proud of that.

 

With Absentia being a horror film - is this a genre dear to you? And which kinds of horror do you prefer, and some of your genre favourites?

 

It is absolutely a genre dear to me. I was always really scared of horror movies as a kid, and actually remember the feeling that making it through certain films as I got older was kind of a victory. Now I can't get enough. I'm a rabid Stephen King fan; I own every book he's ever written in hardcover. I pour through so many horror movies that when something comes along that really gets under my skin, that makes me think and makes me scared and really makes an impact, I kind of go nuts about it.

 

I prefer psychological horror, though I still do enjoy the brainless gore sometimes. Some of my favorites are Session 9, Lake Mungo, and a lot of foreign films like A Tale of Two Sisters, Ju-on, Pulse, Cure, Voice ... I don't tend to find much use for torture porn or survival horror, in fact I kind of loathe a lot of the popular ones that just try to figure out gruesome ways to brutalize people. I think they're cowardly in a way, and shooting for the lowest common denominator. But every now and then I find a movie that really engages me intellectually, or philosophically, while managing to truly frighten me, even days later. Those are treasures.

 

A few words about your cast and crew?

 

I owe them everything. This was the first movie experience for most of them, from the producers to the actors to the director of photography ... we had a skeleton crew of eight people, many of whom had to wear a half dozen hats while we were in production, and the cast was really thrown into the fire. It was terrifying and difficult for everyone and they really pulled it out. We shot sunset to sunrise and were all crammed into my apartment, so it really does feel like we spent 15 days in a foxhole together. The actors, particularly the leading ladies, made the film a success.

 

Your film is only just about to be released but has played quite a few festivals if my information is right. What can you tell us about audience reception so far?

 

It's been terrific. You always get scared when you're finishing a film, because you can't see it anymore. Neither can anyone who worked on it; all objectivity is just gone. I remember we all were very nervous that the movie just wasn't scary, that was our biggest fear. But seeing it with audiences has been just awesome, watching people cover their eyes and scream out loud and realizing that the entire room is holding their breath at the same time ... we don't watch the movie when we're at a festival, we watch the audience. It's an absolute joy for us, and apparently something of a traumatic experience for them.

 

Let's leave the present behind for the time being and head forward into your past: What got you into filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any kind of formal education on the subject?

 

I've been addicted to movies since I can remember. When I was a kid, I used to gather up my friends and shoot VHS movies. We did our own version of The Untouchables and even adapted Stephen King's It into a fine 25-minute epic. I shot short video projects from our closed-circuit TV station in High School. As college loomed I started to think making a living making movies was an unrealistic goal, so actually wanted to major in secondary education and be a history teacher. I couldn't afford my first choice college, and was devastated. I ended up going to Towson State University instead, saw that they had film courses, and thought "what the hell?" I remember feeling defiant when I enrolled in Intro to Film.

But yeah, that became my major and quickly consumed my college experience.

 

What can you tell us about Makebelieve, your debut feature as a director?

 

Wow, you really did your homework. Makebelieve was shot in 1999 while I was still an undergrad. It was the first digital feature film made in Maryland, I later found out. I'd written a script, just full of college angst, and one of my film teachers, Steve Yeager, had just won an award at Sundance for his documentary Divine Trash. He challenged our class by having us explore indie film, and told that us that if Jarmusch, Smith and Lee could just up and make a film, why couldn't we? He kind of dared us to try, and I asked him to produce my film. He agreed.

 

I think of that movie as the best education I ever received. It was trial by fire, and it was an amazing learning experience; a much better learning experience than a movie, ultimately.

 

But what I remember the most is the cast. We shaped the whole experience together over the course of a year and half. We lived and breathed it, and it was the most collaborative, intense, and intimate experience I've ever had making a film to this day. The experience of making that film, of being so young and naive and invested ... it was very pure. I'll always treasure that.

 


A few words about Still Life?

 

I sure did make a movie called Still Life...

 

Seriously though, I was still an undergrad and essentially didn't want the experience of making Makebelieve to be over. It's very similar in a lot of ways, but had more money behind it. It's kind of a warped mirror image of Makebelieve. Where the first film is innocent and hopeful and naive, Still Life is cynical and angry and really, really trying to be an important movie. After Makebelieve I'd gone through a really pivotal breakup and tried to work it all out onscreen in Still Life. But I was 21 years old, how was I supposed to know I didn't really have much to say about the world yet?

 

Another fantastic learning experience, though, and was really my introduction to the film festival world. Picked up a few awards and everything.

 

Ghosts of Hamilton Street?

 

Ghosts rounds out what I now call the "Towson Trilogy". I finished it just as I graduated college, and looking back I can't believe that I managed to make three feature films as an undergrad. It was filmed entirely on weekends, brought back some of the Makebelieve and Still Life casts and had a bit of a supernatural spin on it.

 

It's still talky, and not perfect by any means, but I felt like I was getting my footing on that one. I look back at the film and think that was when I started to become really proficient as a director. The mechanics of making a film were becoming clear to me, and there are moments of that movie I really like, to this day.

 

It also marks my first time working with Scott Graham, who would later go on to star in Oculus and is one of my favorite actors to work with. The film itself has some really interesting ideas and some sequences I'm proud of, but is the last film I made before I really started to consider the importance of commercial viability.

 

I stepped away from the indie world at that point, you can only make so many movies that don't ever sell before the business model falls out from under you. I partnered up with a successful screenwriter named Jeff Howard, and had a crash course in writing screenplays for sale for the next few years. It was really exciting and fascinating to take a piece of material and do it well, while still operating in the system and trying to make sure everything was commercially viable. We wrote six scripts together and are still writing together; Jeff is probably THE most important collaborator of my career.

 


And then there's of course your first horror film, Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan - a few words about that one?

 

That was the eye-opener for me. I wasn't trying to change the world, or communicate my oh-so-deep thoughts on relationships or whatever, I was just trying to scare people. I'd wanted to adapt a Stephen King story I loved but couldn't get permission, and so decided to come up with something original and just try to make a scary, scary movie.

 

I had no money. None. The movie ended up being shot for a thousand dollars. Scott Graham agreed to star, and the whole movie is him alone on screen in a single room for a half hour. Talk about pressure. It seemed like it was all stacked against us - we had no money, we had one location, and we didn't have time or room to really light it so we just hung bright bulbs and decided the movie would be fully, brightly lit the whole time. Making something scary without darkness or shadow was a real challenge. It just felt like we were rolling the dice, breaking a lot of rules and really taking risks. If they worked out, though, we all knew it would be something really interesting.

 

It was a huge hit, critically and on the festival circuit. It was like the lightbulb finally went off in my head. I remember feeling like I'd wasted three opportunities to make great horror features, and wasn't sure if I'd ever get the chance again. I really hoped I would and luckily Absentia came along when the time was right.

 

Currently you are working on a documentary called American Marriage together with Courtney Bell. What can you tell us about that film?

 

Courtney Bell in Absentia

Courtney and I started dating in 2008, and one of the things that drew us together was a fascination with marriage. I was going through a rough divorce and had strong opinions about the expectations we have for marriage in our society, which really don't make sense when weighed against the history of the institution. Courtney is also very passionate about that topic and we just started making the movie. We started flying across the country conducting interviews, and soon it became a real project.

 

The real challenge has been finishing it - the project keeps growing and growing and there's so much to cover! We've got over 100 hours just of interview footage so far and carving it down into a feature running time is going to be the challenge. But it's a passion project and I expect to be finished with by next year, and hope people will really enjoy it.

 

Obviously we took a break to shoot Absentia, which Courtney also stars in, and at the time we were shooting that she was six months pregnant with our son Rigby, so we really haven't had the kind of available time we need to get the doc finished quickly. But we're still chipping away at it, just last week in fact ...

 

Any other films of yours you'd like to talk about, any future projects?

 

I'm slated to direct a feature version of Oculus in a few months, which will hopefully be real game changer. It looks like we'll have a proper budget and with Absentia finding global distribution, I have high hopes for it. Beyond that, Jeff Howard and I have a handful of spec script projects we're working on.

 

You have also directed quite a bit of television and some commercials. How does this differ from making actual films (if at all)?

 

A lot of fun, but completely different. The TV and commercial work I've done tends to be comedy oriented, which is weird for me to think about ... I tend to think of myself as a really, really unfunny guy when it comes to my work, but almost all of my stuff outside of the features is smart-ass comedy.

 

Besides being a director, you have also quite a resumé as an editor. A few words about that aspect of your career?

 

Editing is really my most valuable skill, I think. It makes a far better writer, a really efficient director, and has also kept my bills paid for the last decade. It might be what I do best. It's certainly the skill set I rely upon the most, even when writing or in production I'm just trying to make sure that I've got what I need as an editor. It's the aspect of filmmaking I'd most recommend people put their energy into mastering.

 

Directors who inspire you?

 

Frank Darabont, certainly, and I love Brad Anderson. I have deep respect for Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Jee-woon Kim; Chan-wook Park is an absolute genius. Outside of the genre stuff, I'm a Terrence Malick fanatic. I'm also really into Rian Johnson's work so far.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

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All over the place on that one ... Casablanca, Jaws, The Thing, A Tale of Two Sisters, Oldboy, The Shawshank Redemption, Paris, Texas, Ju-on and The Tree of Life.

 

... and of course, films you really deplored?

 

That's a much longer list, it's tough to remember them all. I violently hated 500 Days of Summer, and I tend to be unable to make it through more than 5 minutes of any Michael Bay film.

 

Your website, Facebook, whatever else?

 

www.absentiamovie.com

www.mikeflanaganfilm.com

FB: https://www.facebook.com/AbsentiaMovie

 

Anything else you are dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?

 

Thanks so much for your interest ... I really hope people keep learning about our little movie, and that they enjoy it. It was made for horror fans by horror fans, and we're so thrilled for your interest and support.

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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On the same day
a Burglar wants to kill you
and your Ex wants
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... and for the life of it,
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WHICH IS WORSE!!!

 

A Killer Conversation

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directed by
David V.G. Davies
written by
Michael Haberfelner
starring
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Rudy Barrow

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