Mike Flanagan’s (Oculus, Absentia) new film Hush had its world premiere at the 30th Annual SXSW Music, Film and Interactive Conferences and Festivals on March 12, 2016, and we had the chance to interview Flanagan, his wife and leading lady Kate Siegel (who also co-wrote the film with him) and producers Trevor Macy & Jason Blum. The interview took place in one of the conference rooms in the Driskill Hotel in Austin, TX. Flanagan and Siegel took the lead in the conversation, while Macy and Blum chimed in occasionally, but I don’t think I can emphasize enough how much of a delight it was to chat with these people. They were incredibly down-to-earth and just lovely to talk to. I hope you enjoy reading the interview!
You can read my review of the film, which tells the story of a deaf-mute woman (Siegel) who is stalked by a psychotic killer (John Gallagher, Jr.) in her secluded home, when it goes up tomorrow (spoiler: I really liked it). You can also read Kalyn’s equally positive review from SXSW here.
Bloody Disgusting: First of all, I really really liked the film a lot. I thought it was great and I like all of your films too.
Mike Flanagan: Thank you! That’s amazing. Thank you.
BD: So I know the film is technically a home invasion thriller but there are obviously lots of aspects of slasher films in there.
Kate Siegel: Yeah.
BD: That’s my favorite sub-genre but–
Jason Blum: What is?
Blum: Oh, slasher.
BD: I think it’s really nice to see a slasher get released today because I feel like that sub-genre has taken a backseat to a lot of other things, specifically supernatural horror and things like that. Do you think labelling something as a slasher film is akin to giving a film a death sentence in Hollywood? Or do you think it hurts your film.
Flanagan: Well when I hear “slasher” I think about the 80s. I think about Jason and Michael Myers. Horror is fascinating because it’s so seasonal and it’s like you’ve got these periods where slasher movies are in and it’s like everyone loves them. Next thing you know zombies are in. Then vampires are acceptable. It changes all the time and we bump into this all the time where we take a project out and someone says “Oh, that’s a zombie movie? That genre is dead.” Then The Walking Dead shows up. So I don’t really think there’s any label within horror that would be a death sentence because it’s like these sub-genres have their moments and they ebb and they flow and they resurge and they’re reinvented or they’re repackaged. Everything is so seasonal so I don’t think there’s any kind of corner of the genre that will ever really be hurting.
BD: I think comparisons to films like The Strangers or Them are inevitable.
BD: But making the lead character death….wait….deaf, is a nice twist on a tried-and-true formula that plays very well in the film without seeming like a gimmick. Where did that idea come from?
Flanagan: [looking at Siegel] Well we talked a lot but it kind of happened because Kate and I were out to dinner and we were talking about movies we liked. One of the ones that we stumbled on that we both really liked was Wait Until Dark. So we talked about that for a little bit and then talked about thrillers in general and the things that she had always wanted to do from an acting point of view and things that I had always wanted to do from a directing point of view.
Flanagan: One of the things I had always wanted to try, which would be so challenging to me as a director, was to try something without dialogue. I coupled that with this idea that Kate was talking about a lot, which was the anxiety of seeing somebody try to get into your house. We thought that if we made the lead character deaf-mute then we would create the potential for really really fascinating version of these movies.
Siegel: At that dinner we were also discussing how the most scary aspect of the films we love was sound design. Sound design really sells a movie so we were discussing ways to make sound design more of a character on a script level. To really make sure that sound design is something that gets the weight it deserves. The opposite of that is to remove sound from the main character, since you have to balance that somewhere else in the movie. So sound design is something we really wanted to play with. I think that at the beginning Maddie being a deaf-mute was something that was more of a script challenge. Then as we started to meet this woman we realized that it was a real benefit to character development, tension and things like that. We could do things that we couldn’t do if your character could speak or hear.
BD: Was there ever an intention to do the entire movie without sound?
Flanagan: It was a discussion, for sure. It very quickly became apparent that that wouldn’t work and the reason is that if you remove all sound, which sounds like this very cool experiment, you’re actually not doing that. You’re forcing everyone to listen to the sounds that are present in the room, which meant the audience isn’t going to be immersed in silence. They’re going to be listening to the audience. They’re going to be listening to popcorn and coughing and shuffling. There was this kind of realization very early where we said “Oh, if we actually remove sound then it would be impossible to build tension.” Modern audiences, having not grown up on silent films, are suddenly going to have to seek out every kind of audio stimulus anywhere else in the environment. Then I thought we wouldn’t even have people watching the movie at that point.
Siegel: They’d be frustrated with the guy next door.
Flanagan: Right! They’ll just be kind of hyper-aware. So that made us think about the parts of the movie that we wanted to pull the sound out and be in Maddie’s perspective, and that we couldn’t do that authentically silently. It was an impossible puzzle. How do we make it feel like there’s no sound while having enough sound to still get rid of all the other ambience and keep everybody focused?
Siegel: An interesting counterpoint to that was their decision to pull out all sound from the logos that open the film, you know? The Blumhouse logo appears and there’s absolutely no sound. It gets you very aware of your ears.
BD: And then that title card just booms on screen.
Flanagan: Yeah.That worked great.
BD: It does!
Trevor Macy: Well if you can sustain it. Those opening logos are about 45 seconds without sound and you start to wonder if something is wrong with the film.
BD: That actually went through my head while I was watching the film.
Macy: Yeah, you think the sound is broken, which I think is so cool.
Siegel: It makes you think about sound from the very beginning.
BD: It’s a very interesting technique. You know, I saw Don’t Breathe Friday night which also uses silence to a considerable degree and there’s a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode–
Siegel and Flanagan together: “Hush!”
Siegel: Which we watch and love.
BD: Yes! It’s one of the best episodes of that show in one of the worst seasons.
[everyone laughs, but Blum laughs the loudest]
Flanagan: Yeah that’s true. You’re totally right. The whole Riley thing…..yeah. Anyway, yeah, um….yeah.
BD: So with that technique, I’m assuming the film did pose some challenges. [Looking at Siegel] You kind of get put through the wringer.
Macy: And she wrote it!
BD: I know! Did you know you were going to play that part when you were writing it?
Siegel: Yes, [looks at Blum and Macy] well I hoped that they would say yes.
Flanagan: That was the intention pending convincing everyone to do it.
Blum: Obviously, we said yes.
BD: Well I think watching actors and actresses do difficult stunts is really interesting, so was there a particular scene that you were having a rough time with physically.
Siegel: It’s interesting, but I was adamant about doing my own stunts from the beginning because I think I didn’t realize what that actually entailed. I thought it sounded fun because I hadn’t really gone through the whole thing before. There were two things that were rough. One was our amazing stunt coordinator Chuck Borden helped with was the door slam. I had to get my hand slammed in the door multiple times from multiple angles. I thought it meant “Oh I’ll be fine I won’t hurt at all.” No, it just means they safely slam your hand in a door.
Flanagan: So it won’t break anything, basically.
Siegel: Right, but they still need to slam your hand in the door. So what happened after Take 12 or 13 was that I would start flinching before the slam and that just couldn’t happen. We had shot pretty much in order so by that time I had already been through a lot of stuff. I was jumping out of windows, climbing on the roof with a harness and a lot of other things had happened. So I remember a point after some skin accidentally got pinched during the door slam I just went “That’s it! I’m done. We’ve got it!” I took my hand away and Mike’s deep, deep love of actors came in and he was like “Please know that you’re in the right place right now. This is exactly right. This is your talent coming out. Please can we just try this again?” So I tried it one more time and I think that’s the take we ended up using. It was just hard to stay in that place with Maddie because you have to have this deep level of focus since she can’t hear anything so as an actor I was constantly trying to touch things. That’s what my coach was telling me: when you lose the sense of hearing you want to ground yourself in the vibrations that are happening. So Maddie was so frustrated with her situation that my actual frustration with the stunt was the character coming out.
Flanagan: There’s some priceless pictures of her with the shattered, broken hand trying to eat lunch.
Siegel: Well ‘cuz they had tied my hand back!
BD: That’s a really hard thing to look at too. I mean it’s probably the last 20 minutes you’re watching her with this hand that’s been destroyed.
Flanagan: Yeah and two of her fingers were taped down underneath the application and she had to wear it for 12 hours.
Siegel: Plus the three hours to get into it and two hours to get out of it.
Flanagan: And this is toward the end of the shoot so everybody was exhausted, but she didn’t have the use of her dominant hand for the entire day. And she couldn’t take the application off so she was just stuck in it. She had to eat with it and get ready and check herself with it and she also liked to come up behind me and shove the prosthetic pinky into my ear when I wasn’t looking.
[Macy and Blum laugh]
Flanagan: That freaked me out.
Siegel: The whole thing was just Cloud Nine. So here my hand was being slammed in a door but it was like the best way that could ever happen.
BD: If I was ever in a horror movie I would want to die in a really gruesome way but I hate being sticky so I don’t like the idea of having blood on me all the time.
Flanagan: Oh the sticky blood is nasty.
Siegel: It is sticky. Oh you’ve got me right back there. Sticky is the worst. If you ever get a chance to talk to [actor/actress name deleted for the sake of spoilers] about sticky…
Flanagan: Oh God.
Macy: By the way, he/she didn’t have to. He/she sat there all day to be dead on the ground even though we offered him/her a stand-in.
Flanagan: He/she was just like “No! I’m doing it!” Like it was a challenge to overcome.
BD: Something that irks me about horror criticism is that people like to say “Oh, it’s violence against women” or “Horror hates women.” I do think that what happens to the women in Hush is more brutal than what happens to the men. But Kate, from your standpoint, how do you feel about that? I feel like that trait is inherent of the genre, but that criticism is something I feel is thrown around a lot.
Siegel: Yeah, first thing is that I really like that people are sensitive to that. I have at times fallen on that side of the argument where I’m like “How many girls need to run into the woods in their underpants?” The answer is many.
[Everyone laughs, Flanagan and Siegel poke fun at each other and it’s adorable]
Siegel: You bring up Wait Until Dark, but what we really loved was Die Hard. So I didn’t think of Maddie as a girl running in the woods in her underpants. I thought of her as an action hero, and what we love about Die Hard is that our main character is beat to Hell! His teeth are bloody, the whole building is used and he’s vulnerable, but he’s a warrior. So I think that with Maddie, there was never an iota of intention to do anything with sexual violence or rape.
Flanagan: Yeah we did not want to go there at all.
Siegel: But I actually think if you switch the genders you can keep all of the story points. Nothing happens to Maddie because she’s a woman and she doesn’t choose anything because she’s a woman. We could neutralize gender in this movie and you would have the exact same movie. That to me was very important and I wanted to make sure that my female friendship with Samantha [Sloyan, who plays Sarah in the film] wasn’t about about boys. It was about reading a book and talking about books. I wanted to make sure the relationship between the sisters was familial and didn’t need to be girly and giggly. I had a strong eye on that most of the time. A lot of this movie is, with a risk of putting too much into it, a metaphor for feeling unheard. It’s a movie about asserting yourself and of course as a female writer I brought a lot to that.
Macy: I also think if you look at his filmography that he’s pretty equal opportunity.
BD: Oh, absolutely.
Siegel: Mostly children.
Flanagan: Yeah the ones I keep putting in the crosshairs are the kids, but I tend to think that there’s no person who is more or less acceptable to be treated violently than another. Within the genre I think it should be just as horrifying if the victim of violence is a man as opposed to a woman. Although I do think there’s a special kind of discomfort that comes when it’s a child. That puts me in a place of intense discomfort.
Macy: It’s more special if it’s a child.
Flanagan: Or a dog. People go nuts when you try to kill a dog.
Blum: Across the board, people are much more upset about killing a dog as opposed to killing a person.
Macy: Yeah I wouldn’t let him kill the dog in Oculus.
BD: I thought you were going to kill that dog, too. I also though you would kill the cat in Hush.
Blum: Cats are okay. People don’t care as much about cats.
Flanagan: That was the other point we had made. We knew people would be upset if it was a dog but a cat, people would be like “Whatever.”
BD: I think I’m getting the cue to wrap up, so I’ll ask my last question. I think the film plays very well with an audience and will play very differently at home on Netflix. The more I thought about it the more I thought if I was was watching it home alone it may not be as much of a “cheering” movie than I thought it was —
Flanagan: It will be a “hold your breath” kind of movie.
Flanagan: I wish we could put a card up in front of it ahead of the Netflix thing that tells you to turn the volume up. Something like “The producers humbly request that you turn the volume up and turn off the light.” Home is where we’re meant to feel the safest, so it’s kind of a great place to interfere with.
Macy: I mean I would hate to watch The Strangers at home by myself.
Flanagan: Yeah sitting at home alone watching this, sooner or later you’re going to look at the window.
BD: My last little thing, and it’s totally unrelated to Hush, but I know that you have been linked to I Know What You Did Last Summer in the past.
BD: Is that still happening?
Flanagan: My connection to that was strictly writing. We delivered a script to Sony.
BD: Alright, so a script exists?
Flanagan: Oh, yeah. Like fifteen drafts of that script exist. From what I understand with where that project is, is that the producers and the studio were thrilled with the script and they were just getting started trying to figure out how to proceed with it.
Siegel: And finding so many children to murder.
Flanagan: [jokingly] Yeah it’s just killing kids. The whole thing. But that one was always me and Jeff Howard, who have written together so much. It was always just a writing job that we were thrilled to have but there’s never been any conversation about me directing.
BD: I grew up with that book and the movie so I’ve got a special place in my heart for that one.
After the interview, the group showed me a clip from Ouija 2, which Flanagan directed. While I’m not able to give any specifics about the scene that I saw, I can say that it looks promising. Of course, the bar wasn’t set very high with the first Ouija, but with a man like Flanagan behind the lens, I’m confident it will at least turn out decent.