In love with Stephen King’s horror novels, the teenage Mike Flanagan entered high school with both his storytelling and horror-centric sides already in place. It was there, at Archbishop Spalding High School, in Severna Park, Maryland, where the notion of being a professional filmmaker first took shape. 

Once he enrolled into Towson University, Flanagan was determined to make movies. At first, though, he wasn't concerned with horror. He wanted to get emo.

Flanagan: I started off making backyard movies. I think it began in fifth grade—I’d get the friends together and we’d make little home movies. I always wanted to make movies but I didn’t know how. It was always something really fun to do. Oddly enough, one of the first movies I ever made was a 22-minute adaptation of Stephen King’s It. We had a little clown mask, and it’s adorable. [Laughs.]

Filmmaking was always something I wanted to do, but I never knew how to get into it and I never really saw it as a realistic career opportunity. When I got to high school, they had a morning TV show you could become a part of, and I started making short films for that, most little satirical, laugh-y films about the dean of students being chased by a dinosaur or something like that. And I really just enjoyed it.

When I finally got to college, my plan was actually to major in secondary education and be a history teacher. Towson University had a film program, and I decided in my freshman year to take that as a great elective. I finally had access to equipment and to other people who wanted to do this for a living. It was like a drug, like, “Oh, my god, I have to figure out how to do this!”

My first feature in college, Makebelieve, was all about sophomore college dating angst. I thought I had so much to say about love, and I didn’t. At all. - Mike Flanagan

I wasn’t patient enough to wait for the curriculum to allow me to make a movie—you’d wait for three years until your senior year, when you’d make something as part of a team on a 20-minute, 60MM short. But I couldn’t wait. My sophomore year, a mini DV has just shown up on the market, and people were going off and making these little mini DVD features. So I rounded up a bunch of people, scraped together a little bit of money, and made my first feature, which was called Makebelieve. It was all about sophomore college dating angst, which, at the time, I thought I had so much to say about. [Laughs.] I thought I had so much to say about love, and I didn’t. At all.

That movie and the two following it [Still Life and Ghosts of Hamilton Street], which were all made as an undergrad and on DV and all about college dating, were, I like to say, unfit for public consumption, but they were incredible learning experiences. I learned a ton about the mechanics of actually making a movie. That’s where I learned how to edit because there wasn’t anybody else to do it. I had to get used to editing my own stuff.

So I made the college dating movie three times before I realized nobody wanted to see it. [Laughs.] After that, I moved out to LA. You show up there, look around, and say, “I want to make movies,” but quickly realize that everyone there does, too. There’s no path or real answer for what steps you need to take to get to that point, so I started working as a freelance editor where I could.