Indie Director Mike Flanagan Shares Some Scares with his Film ABSENTIA
There is a lot of Hollywood talent who were born and bred in Massachusetts. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck from Cambridge. Friends Matt LeBlanc from Newton and Matthew Perry from Williamstown. Forty-Year Old Virgin Steve Carell from Concord. “Snake” Kurt Russell from Springfield. Uma Thurman and Ben Foster were also originally from Boston.
Now you can add Mike Flanagan (Salem, MA) to the list.
Who is Mike Flanagan, you ask?
He may not be an A-list actor but he is a damn good director with a horror bent who has proven the ability to make magic on screen with a micro-budget. He recently got together with some friends and shot his latest feature called ABESNTIA in his apartment and in a creepy tunnel across the street. He wrote the script in two sittings, shot it within 15 days and even got a horror icon actor for a small but vital role. And he completed the picture for a scant $70,000 (estimated) − about half of which he got from total strangers whom he won over within 30 days with an ingenious crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.
Intrigued? You damn well should be. He’s a fast-rising talent and by all accounts a genuine good guy. Must be his Massachusetts roots. Get ready to read about the next great indie horror film you definitely want to see coming soon to film festivals, Pay-Per-View and Netflix…
1) Have to ask … any relation to the recently deceased Oriole great left-hander and former Cy-Young winner Mike Flanagan?
(MF:) No, but wouldn’t you feel awkward now if there was?
2) According to your IMDB bio, you didn’t turn to the horror genre until 2005. Still, much of your earlier student work had a dark psychological bent. May one assume that being born in Salem, Massachusetts made it fate that you would explore your dark side and venture into horror?
(MF:) I don’t know why it took me so long to make a horror film. I picked up Stephen King’s “IT” in 6th grade and was hooked. My first student film project was a horror short called College Gothic. Why I spent so many years working on indie relationship dramas is beyond me; they were great learning experiences, but my love for the horror genre should have pointed me toward that years ago.
3) Your short, OCULUS – CHAPTER 3: THE MAN WITH THE PLAN, generated some buzz back in 2006. It was about a man who tries to prove that an antique mirror is haunted. What inspired you to write this short film?
(MF:) I wanted to make a movie that was scary, and I knew I only had about $1,000 to do so. Oculus was inspired primarily by a desire to make a horror film, and then by making one that seemed to break all the rules. All the horror films I was watching at the time were dimly lit, even in hospitals and police stations, where moody practical lightning is really counterproductive. So, we decided to make a horror movie in a bright, white room and keep those lights on for the duration. Most of the horror films I was watching were ensemble pieces, so I went with a single character in a single location. Both for the challenge and by necessity, considering our budget, Oculus was designed to strip everything else away and see if I could scare people with the simplest of ingredients.
4) How long did it take to shoot, what type of camera did you use, and what was the budget?
(MF:) The film was shot in four days on a Sony HDV camera, and the budget ended up being just under $2,000.
5) What was the most important thing you learned from that experience?
(MF:) The biggest revelation for me was that audiences have powerful imaginations. We had no set, no lights, no special effects − it was just a guy in a room with a mirror, and it scared the crap out of people. I learned that if you give an audience enough to go on, and treat them like smart, imaginative people, their imaginations will take the ingredients you provide on screen and concoct something far scarier than you’ll ever be able to depict. It was awesome.
You can watch the trailer here:
6) When you originally set out to make ABSENTIA, you goal was to not only do a feature but to also create a piece which showcased the capabilities of you and your friends. When did you realize the film was much, much better than a capabilities piece?
(MF:) I remember feeling that the script was special. It was indeed intended to be a calling card of sorts, a weekend project, something for our reels … but after the script was finished and the cast was assembled, I remember feeling like it could be something bigger. I didn’t know that it was until the film was complete, I don’t think any of us did …
7) Which came first – the story or the location?
(MF:) The location. I’d lived across the street from that creepy tunnel for years and always thought it would make a great backdrop for a horror film. I knew I wanted to create a project that I could work on with specific friends, great actors who were also struggling in LA. I just didn’t have a story. I talked to my younger brother James, who would later play Jamie Lambert in the film, and told him I had a tunnel, a camera, and a cast but needed a story. He was the first person to mention “The Billy Goats Gruff” and it all grew from there.
8 ) Give us the story premise.
(MF:) Absentia is about a woman whose husband has been missing for seven years, and she’s about to go through the process of having him declared ‘dead in absentia’. She’s pregnant with another man’s child but has still been replacing the aging missing posters around the neighborhood, trying to figure out how to finally move on. Her wayward younger sister arrives to help her through this transition and begins to notice strange things about the creepy tunnel across the street from the apartment. It turns out the tunnel plays a prominent role in a long history of neighborhood disappearances, and there might be more to the husband’s disappearance than meets the eye.
9) “Intelligent Horror” seems like an oxymoron, yet it rings true for your film. It is a character-driven tale focusing on how two sisters deal with the void of a missing spouse. The supernatural tunnel is critical, but almost secondary to the pain of emotional “loss”. Were you worried about losing hardcore horror fans who aren’t used to seeing characters with psychological depth?
(MF:) Absolutely, and I think we have certainly missed the mark with some of the hardcore fans. Our distributor came up with cover art that seems to paint the movie as a much more traditional horror film, and there have been a few IMDB reviews from people who seemed to expect a very different type of film and were bored and disappointed. That just kind of comes with the territory, though. At the same time, people who normally avoid horror fare altogether have really fallen in love with the film. The film is certainly more cerebral than most horror fare out there, and I’m proud of that. If it alienates the hardcore audience, they have hundreds of titles a year that satisfy their criteria. The people that love smart, character-driven horror have far less options, and this was made for them.
You can watch the trailer here:
10) Your award-winning student film, Ghosts of Hamilton Street, also dealt with a protagonist struggling against the mental angst of loved ones vanishing from his life. Why the interest in this topic?
(MF:) I’m not sure … I think it’s a universal part of the human experience, having people enter and exit our lives. I don’t know why it fascinates me as much as it does, and wasn’t even aware of the thematic similarities between “Ghosts” and “Absentia” until after the movie was done. I do think we are, each of us, largely constructed of the people in our lives, whether they’re family, friends, or lovers. To remove one of those pieces, especially without explanation, alters us forever. I think that’s a beautiful and terrifying concept, and it clearly has shaped a lot of my work.
11) Although the actors in the film were fantastic, they are mostly unknowns. Except for one … How did you land Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Adaptation) as part of the cast?
(MF:) Doug is very approachable − in fact, I believe you can reach him directly through his website. He is very supportive of independent filmmakers, and is very public about the fact that he tries to read every script that is sent to him for consideration. If he likes the script, is available, and trusts the director, he’ll do the project. That seems to be a true of a lot of actors, actually.
We approached him via email, and he sparked to the screenplay. He agreed to meet me for coffee, and that meeting turned into a 3-hour bonding session. By the end he committed to the film, and we’re actually friends now. We were all shocked that he agreed to do the movie, and it put a lot of pressure on us to make sure we really stepped up our professionalism when he was on set. That day might be my favorite day of production.
12) How long did it take to write the first draft? How many drafts before the final shooting script? How many pages did you shoot on average in a day?
(MF:) The first draft took a few days − I think it was actually completed in two long sittings. Courtney Bell (my fiancée) was doing a play in Palm Desert at the time so I was home alone, and we had a ticking clock that demanded a fast turnaround. I finished the first draft in early May of 2010, and we were scheduled to shoot in June, so I knew it would be fast. I didn’t expect it to be QUITE this fast, though.
We changed very little after that – I think we fixed a few lines and added a few scenes (that later were cut from the film, actually), but it was a shooting script almost immediately. We shot about 6 pages a day during our 15-day shoot.
13) How tough is it to make a film scary when you don’t have the budget for visual effects? Does the audio become more of a scare factor on micro-budget films?
(MF:) Oh, big time. Audio is critical, and that’s a lesson I really learned working on OCULUS. Knowing we had no money for effects forced us to try to be clever in our scares. It became about trying to frighten people with what they DON’T see. That’s a strategy I tend to prefer anyway, and even if we’d had a bigger budget I doubt we would have done much differently.
14) You got a lot of you funding for ABSENTIA via a clever crowd funding campaign on Kickstarter. Tell us about your approach and why you think you were able to succeed where thousands of others have failed to reach their funding goal.
(MF:) We treated it like a full-time job. The problem with Kickstarter is that a lot of people put up a project, post the link on Facebook, and sit back expecting to raise the money that way. When it seems to be going slow, they keep posting on Facebook, and sooner than later people start blocking them. No one enjoys being harassed for money. How, then, do you succeed on a site like that?
We knew we had to keep things fresh. We couldn’t just show up with our hands out every few days. We had to keep entertaining people. So, we made these short films – eight in all, one every few days – that featured a different member of the cast or crew. We posted them to Facebook, and the featured cast/crew member used the video to write a personal note to each of their friends asking for support. But after that, they left their social network alone.
This meant we were “targeting” a different group every few days, and not constantly harassing our friends. We continued to casually post the new videos, though, and that resulted in our social networks getting to see a new, funny, fresh piece of entertainment every few days. That kept our Kickstarter drive fresh in their minds without us having to bother them, and a lot of people that initially didn’t want to support it were gradually won over by the videos as the month went along. It played like a web series, and we kept trying to out-do ourselves from video to video.
By the end, a lot of people felt that they’d been so entertained throughout the month that donating a couple of dollars didn’t bother them. People even wrote us to tell us that we’d “won them over.” That’s the secret, I think − be entertaining, continue to put out fresh material, and don’t blatantly ask for money more than once. Treat it like a full-time job and earn every dollar that you get.
15) Making indie film means long, grueling days on set with cranky cast and crew. One of the stars of the film is your fiancée (Courtney Bell). What was it like working 12-15 hour days and then having to share the same apartment?
(MF:) It was challenging, of course, particularly because we were filming IN our apartment. We had a crew and tons of equipment crammed into our space, there was nowhere to hide from the movie. AND, she was actually six months pregnant at the time, so nerves ran high anyway. All in all it went better than I ever would have guessed. We had our moments where the stress became too much to handle, but everybody did. If anything, I think having her there the whole time helped keep me sane.
16) Who was your cinematographer on ABSENTIA?
(MF:) Rustin Cerveny. It was his first time shooting a film, and he was the one who sold us on the idea of using the Canon 5D.
17) Speaking of cinematography, you were the DP on the cult horror flick CHAINSAW SALLY (2004) about a young woman who witnesses her parents being butchered and then grows up to be a serial killer who is inspired by horror movies as her murderous modus operandi. Although not necessarily ”art-house” theater, it must be pretty cool to have a popular B movie like that on your resume!
(MF:) CHAINSAW SALLY was a ton of fun to make. I shot that right before I moved to Los Angeles. I’m glad it’s as popular as it is, and it is certainly an entirely different tone from my work. The director, JimmyO Burrill, has a very specific and unique voice and it was really fun for me to try to help realize his vision of the film. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as much working on a movie in my life.
18) Your work gravitates toward dark psychological/horror. But the funny, self-deprecating videos you and your cast created for the Kickstarter promos show you have a funny side. Do you ever think you will venture into comedies?
(MF:) It’s funny − I don’t think I’m any good at comedy, but those videos made a lot of people say “screw horror, you should make a comedy”. My writing partner, Jeff Howard, has a very successful track record of selling comedy scripts and talks about wanting to do a project like that in the future. I’m sure it’ll happen one of those days. I’m really on a major horror kick right now, and plan to be for most of my career, but I’d love to give it a shot. Those genres really use the same mechanisms … they’re both about setting up a reaction, and then paying it off in a way that is slightly unexpected. They’re both about causing immediate, instinctual reactions in a viewer. Whether they laugh or scream, a lot of the methods to get them there are the same.
19) You’ve done quite a bit of work on TV. Which do you prefer – working on a TV series or doing an indie film?
(MF:) Absolutely narrative film. Reality TV is a great way to make a living, but it’s hard sometimes not to feel like you’re making the world stupider.
20) What are you working on now?
(MF:) I have two projects on the horizon. One is a feature version of OCULUS that I’m dying to shoot, and it has a major company producing it. It’ll be the biggest project of my life so far. Beyond that, I’m looking at making another indie horror film with Fallback Plan Productions, the company that produced ABSENTIA.
21) Where can we buy, rent or watch ABSENTIA?
(MF:) Beyond its festival screenings, of which there are many in the next few weeks, it’s on Video on Demand right now on Comcast, Cablevision, Cox and Insight. It’ll be out on DVD in February 2012, and will be playing on Showtime and Netflix streaming in June of 2012.
In the interim, here are a few websites where you can follow the film:
21) Last question – Did ABSENTIA succeed in opening doors for the cast and crew? And now that you will likely have much bigger budgets to film with, how tough will it be dealing with a Studio mentality and not shooting films with your best friends?
(MF:) It has certainly given them a lot of exposure and some great reviews. Several of the actors landed roles in other films based on their work in ABSENTIA, which makes me very happy. It’ll be different working in the studio world after this, particularly on OCULUS, but I’m hoping that we all grow together and keep working together. I think as the film is released wide on DVD that’ll help the cast a lot more, and I’ll do everything I can to work with people I know and trust in the future.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and hope you enjoy the movie!
You are most welcome, Mike. You’ve not only done a great micro-budget film, but set a great example for others who have a love of horror and film. And you did it with your best friends and life partner − how sweet is that?! We’ll be following your success.
An award-winning indie comic creator and screenwriter, Bob Heske is currently writing/producing a micro-budget horror film called UNREST (http://www.indiegogo.com/unrest). Bob wrote THE NIGHT PROJECTIONIST, a vampire horror series to be published by Studio 407 (http://www.studio-407.com) with film rights optioned by Myriad Pictures. Through his Heske Horror shingle, Bob self-published his critically acclaimed horror series COLD BLOODED CHILLERS. Bob’s trade paperback BONE CHILLER (a “best of” CBC anthology) won a Bronze medal in the horror category at the 2009 Independent Publisher Book Awards. His “end times” anthology 2012: FINAL PRAYER was also released in late 2009. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.