As director Mike Flanagan has risen to become one of the most distinctive voices working in modern horror, he’s always had one man in his corner: producer Trevor Macy. The two have collaborated on Oculus, Hush, Before I Wake, Gerald’s Game, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and The Haunting of Hill House and their partnerships continues with Doctor Sleep.
I was able to sit down with Macy to discuss how they received Stephen King’s blessing to make a sequel to The Shining, how his creative process with Flanagan works, and how he views himself as an “audience’s producer.”
What was your relationship like with Stephen King after Gerald’s Game? How did that help you get this movie made?
It was super supportive. I used to joke that it was like Robin Masters on Magnum, P.I. because we never spoke to him, but he’d email me back in two minutes. He’s super responsive, and so is his longtime agent, Rand Holston, who was kind of instrumental in the process of getting it done. But he’d had a really good experience, and we’d had a really good experience. Netflix took great care of that movie. They supported us in making the movie we wanted. We’d kept King very close throughout the process, and I think he appreciated the work, I think he appreciated Mike’s script a ton, because only a couple people had taken a run at that script over the years and he really liked Mike’s draft. So I think that sort of cemented the relationship, and he was very proud of the movie, so that put us on good footing to talk about this.
I was on the set visit last year and you addressed this a little bit then, and I’m hoping you can go into a little bit more detail. I want to know about the email that you and Mike had to write to Stephen King saying, “Hey, we’re going to do the Kubrick stuff.” I always get the impression that he hates that movie more than he probably lets people know. How long was it, what did you have to say, was it hands-and-knees begging? How did that email read?
The general take – because it was still via email at this point – was “hey, we’d like to do this,” and he was like, “well, I like you guys, but…what’s up?” You know? So that led to the presentation of a pitch document. A short outline, a few pages. In that, we declared our intention to more or less be faithful to the book in the first two thirds, and more or less not faithful to the book [in the last third], although the same sequence of events happens, just the setting and mechanics of it were very different. He thought about it for not long, sort of a day, and it was a couple of things that really – I think the scene that we talked about in the Gold Room bar that really convinced him, from a character point of view, that this was a story worth telling. Because we obviously wouldn’t have done it if King had said “don’t do it.” I say “obviously,” though I don’t know that that’s true for everybody, but our relationship with him is very important.
And we also wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t have the blessing of the Kubrick estate because we didn’t want this to be an exercise in cynical exploitation. If Warner Bros. had offered us The Shining 2, whatever that was, we would have said no. But Stephen King’s book was a blueprint that we were super passionate about. Mike and I share a real excitement for how childhood trauma affects adults. That’s our favorite brand of scary, I suppose. I don’t think there’s a better literary or cinematic example of that than Danny Torrance, and King was super interested – that’s why he said he wrote the book. What’s it like to have that experience as a child and how does it affect you as an adult? That was our way into this.
Doctor Sleep has to walk that fine line between being an adaptation of a well-liked book that many people have read, but also please the people who have only seen the movie. You’re trying to please Stephen King, King fans, Kubrick fans, and Warner Bros., who knows the power of the iconography of that movie. As the producer, I’m assuming your job is to keep Mike out of that fight and take care of all those fights for him. Is that how that works?
More or less. Look, I don’t write, but we do tackle all of our creative stuff together. One of the benefits of that approach is it makes it easier for me to take on a lot of that stuff and Mike can go do his thing. We thought a lot about it at the script stage. He was writing the script in no small part while we were shooting Episode 6 of [The] Haunting [of Hill House] season one –
The big one.
The big one. So he’d be sitting at a monitor and passing me pages and I’d be like, “yes, great” or I’d give him a couple of thoughts or whatever. So we didn’t talk to Warner Bros. They were aware of the same outline we showed King, and they had shared it with the Kubrick estate, and everybody was broadly supportive, so we kind of kicked those conversations down the road until the script stage. Then the script kind of spoke for itself. And we decided to take that same approach with the movie, because what we didn’t want to do is have a philosophical conversation about it. It was like, look, we’re happy for people to engage with and respond to the work, but we don’t have a “should you go back to The Overlook” conversation. We were very careful until the first teaser came out to say that we don’t go back – we couldn’t say whether we went back to The Overlook or not. We said it was an adaptation of the book and kind of let people draw their own conclusions. But once we had work to show that we at least tried to approach respectfully and with gratitude and we were trying to be reverent but not mimic Kubrick, because you can’t. So there were elements of his language that we adopted from a cinematography point of view: center framing, 1.85 ratio, diffusion filter that made it look a little filmic, that kind of thing. But also departures to make it feel like its own story. I give a lot of credit to Michael Fimognari, our DP, for helping develop that style. That language, for people who want to watch the movie carefully, is there, but Mike would say and I agree, that we’re not trying to out-Kubrick Kubrick. You can’t do it.
I feel like Mike’s worldview seen through all his movies and Hill House is that people can and will persevere, whereas Kubrick’s point of view is that we’re all fucked, constantly. I think King shares a similar worldview with Mike. Can you talk about trying to integrate the aesthetics of Kubrick while realizing that not only are you different filmmakers, but you have different beliefs in how the world operates?
Mike would say that he probably picked that up from Stephen King. But we’ve made movies that are more redemptive and less redemptive. It flows from character to story. If the character demands redemption, then the story does it that way. Look, Doctor Sleep the movie and as well as Doctor Sleep the book is inherently a more optimistic interpretation than Kubrick’s The Shining. But King says his movie ended in ice and my movie ended in fire. It’s one way he describes the difference. So I think there is something inherently valuable to – you know, redemption is a hard thing to pull off. It’s something we all seek as human beings. Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. I think there’s room for both, but this felt like a story that needed a bit of that.
I want to talk about your relationship with Mike, because in the local filmmaker scene, I’ve heard stories about directors saying, “I need to get this done, but I don’t know what to do,” and they call their producer and the producer gets it done. So what kind of shorthand have you developed for you and Mike. What do you get done that he can’t get done?
Well, we do a lot of stuff together. I think it depends on the movie. I quarterback some things, he quarterbacks others. It’s really a partnership in that sense. We don’t co-direct, we don’t co-write, but am I there for every word? Yes. So I like to think of it as making sure the movie gets made, and then making sure it meets the world in the right way. Everything from a creative partnership to if there’s a conversation about what the marketing department needs for a trailer on set, I’ll have that. If there’s a, “I’m worried about this in the test screening or how audiences are going to perceive this,” because first and foremost, I think of myself as an audience producer. If I separated myself from that, I wouldn’t know how to do my job. I talk a lot about that and Mike and I have a lot of really robust debates about that, and one of the central features of our partnership is that when we disagree, the work gets better. So we have a pretty longstanding commitment to, if there’s a bump, find the third way. What is that, how do we deal with it? But fundamentally, I fit the role of creative partner, guy that gets things done, I usually hire people, I usually deal more with finance, marketing, distribution, that kind of stuff as you’d expect a producer would. But it’s different. I don’t work like most producers, because I’m more involved.
I’m noticing that. I really like the phrase you used, “audience’s producer,” because one thing Doctor Sleep has in common with Hill House, Hush, and even Gerald’s Game, is that these are heavy horror movies, but people come out of them excited. They had a good time. Hill House is the heaviest show that, my wife works at a regular office and people were constantly water cooler-ing about, “My God, that show was so heavy and so scary, but I can’t wait to watch more.” Can you talk more about what it means to think about the audience when you’re breaking stuff that actually is heavy and how you make heavy ideas fun?
Sometimes they’re fun, and sometimes they’re relatable, but not fun. Mike’s so good at that to begin with, but like I said, the debates usually make the work better. Every story you tell is a struggle to find a balance between provoking and relating, because you have to do both. You have to know the audience in order to understand that. That also involves knowing distribution. Like for Gerald’s Game, that’s a movie that probably wouldn’t have gotten done theatrically. That is why I love Netflix. It is why they take certain creative risks that other people won’t take. It’s one of the reasons we’ve worked so much with them: they’re really passionate about that.
But it’s also – this obviously could have only been done at Warner Bros. and could have only been done theatrically, and that’s great, too – but it’s different. The requirements for cutting a trailer for this are different. Netflix reaches a lot of eyeballs, but this will probably reach more than most of them. That’s OK, and that’s healthy and normal and right. The connective tissue about all that stuff – and this has been the fun part about working with Mike for a long time – is the work we do, that relationship with the audience, they’re starting to expect something that’s character-forward, that’s relatably scary, that stays with you, that’s terrifying, that may not be jump scares. There’s a certain expectation for how that work is going to meet the world, and I think the relationship with that audience is the most exciting thing about the multiple times we’ve been able to collaborate. People expect it a little bit and then we can navigate in that world. Those are stories we’re super passionate about telling, but it always comes back to the audience.
Doctor Sleep is in theaters now.