Fear the Glass: The Making of "Oculus," the Best Haunted Mirror Movie You'll Ever See

Intelligent scares are back in Mike Flanagan's "Oculus"; here, he and the cast detail the film's origins.

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Complex Original

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Think about the best Hollywood horror movies from the last few years and where their scares came from. The Conjuring? The demonic ghost of a former witch. Insidious? Ghosts and demons trapped in a netherworld known as "The Further." Sinister? An ancient deity called Bughuul. The Paranormal Activity movies? More witches and evil spirits. The Cabin in the Woods? Lovecraftian gods that play Big Brother and employ an arsenal of classic horror monsters, everything from zombies to murderous clowns and werewolves.

Throw in the endless vampires, demonic possession victims and Michael Myers knockoffs that have populated recent indie genre films and you've got a horror market that's been impressive as of late but certainly not for an overabundance of fresh antagonists. Mike Flanagan, though, is here to shake things up. The 36-year-old writer-director is the brains behind Oculus, the latest mainstream, low-budget horror flick to have the Blumhouse production company's stamp, putting it under the same umbrella as Insidious, Sinister, The Purge and the Paranormal Activity franchise. But it's something entirely different from all of those successful wide-release horror pictures.

Oculus, as those effective and omnipresent TV commercials have promised, is about a haunted mirror. Yes, a reflective piece of glass that causes terrible things to happen to good people. Again, a frightening, malevolent mirror.

And guess what? That damn mirror will creep you the hell out. It's not quite the first movie of its kind—German filmmaker Ulli Lommel's 1980 movie The Boogeyman features broken mirror shards that glow red and draw blood. The Boogeyman is Attack of the Killer Tomatoes when compared to Oculus, though. The same with 2008's Mirrors, a film Kiefer Sutherland surely wants to forget ever happened.

Along with co-writer Jeff Howard, Flanagan has dreamt up a wonderfully unsettling back-story for his terrifying strip of glass. It's known as "The Lasser Glass," a name that refers to its original owners, Philip and Virginia Lasser, both of whom, way back in 1754, died horrifically once the mirror came into their possession. Nearly 300 years and 50 casualties later, the Lasser Glass gets bought by Alan Russell (Rory Cochrane), who, with his warm-hearted wife, Marie (Battlestar Galactica fan favorite Katee Sackhoff) and their two kids, 12-year-old Kaylie (Annalise Basso) and 10-year-old Tim (Garrett Ryan), has just moved into a new home. Before long, awful tragedies befall the Russell's one night, resulting in Tim being sent to a mental hospital and Kaylie forced to start a whole new life on her own. Flash forward 11 years—grown-up Tim (Brenton Thwaites leaves the psych hospital, reconnects with a now-engaged and well-off Kaylie (Doctor Who breakout Karen Gillan). But she has next moves figured out—she's gotten a hold of the Lasser Glass, and she's determined to prove that it, not Tim, caused their family tragedies.

Criss-crossing the Russell kids' two crucial timelines, Flanagan elevates what starts off as an unassuming and effectively unnerving supernatural tale into a narratively ballsy and downright head-spinning horror film that's unlike anything the genre has seen in a long time. It's a bold, demanding experience, especially considering that Oculus is opening on thousands of screens nationwide. With its preference for brains and characterization over gore and routine jump scares, Oculus is a risky endeavor for its backers, Blumhouse and WWE Studios. For Flanagan, however, it's exactly the movie he set out to make. Being that he shot it independently and acquired the Blumhouse/WWE distribution after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere last September, the indie-minded filmmaker never had to contend against Hollywood standards, big studio objections or pesky producers' interferences.

But will mainstream audiences embrace his unique and somewhat renegade style of horror? For the sake of the genre, let's hope so. Before that's answered by Sunday night's box office numbers, though, get better acquainted with one of the genre's most exciting newcomers. In this candid interview, Mike Flanagan explains how a Stephen-King-loving kid from Maryland worked his way through college angst, a Kickstarter campaign and numerous big-wigs' rejections to get to Oculus. Plus, co-stars Karen Gillan and Katee Sackhoff each discuss what attracted them to Flanagan's project and why it ultimately scared the you-know-what out of them.

Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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Blame it All on Stephen King and Fraggle Rock

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Born in 1978, Mike Flanagan originally hails from Salem, Massachusetts, where he only lived for one year and, on his own admission, doesn’t particularly remember much about his time spent residing in the land of those infamous witch trials. His father, Timothy, was in the U.S. Coast Guard, which caused the Flanagan family to relocate often. But you could say that the aura and sensibilities of Salem never left him.

Mike Flanagan: I guess the fact that I was born in Salem kind of pre-programmed me to be a horror fan. [Laughs.] There’s something in the air there. I was only there very briefly, but I was born there and fascinated as a kid with the Salem Witch Trials, even though I was only actually in Salem for one year. I was still just a little peanut when they moved me out of there, and then we moved all over the place when I was a kid. We did a number of years on Governors Island, in New York, which was also a really Gothic place. It had a lot of abandoned and renovated jails, and my apartment was in an old Civil War fort. As a ten-year-old, you go around the island with other kids and tell ghost stories to freak each other out. That was a great place to develop the appreciation of a well-told ghost story.

After that, we settled in Bowie, Maryland, which is just south of Baltimore. That’s where I went to school and did all that. But with my interest in the Salem Witch Trials, it was one of those things that came up in grade school, first as history and then would pop up in a lot of the books I read as a kid. I read a lot of John Bellairs and R.L. Stine and the kiddie/young adult horror writing, and it would be mentioned in their work, so I would dig into it. I think it was in sixth grade, though, when I picked up my first Stephen King book, which was It, that knocked me over and terrified me for years. Then I never went back. I had to own every Stephen King book and read them at least three times. They would terrify me completely, but I couldn’t stop. That became my preferred source of fiction.

What I love about King’s work is the attention he pays to characters. He views them with a real, relatable humanity, even in the really dark stuff. Everybody in his books felt very real to me, whereas in a lot of horror movies I was allowed to watch back then at that age, everybody felt cardboard and very basic. But King was telling really human stories with a horror lens, and I thought that was amazing. The other thing, too, about reading horror as opposed to watching movies is that you have to imagine everything yourself. That “theater of the mind” feeling you get from reading was way more terrifying to me. Even then, I wished that movies could do that. Every now and then, one would come along that did that and I thought it was really cool, but books were more consistent for me.

It swung pretty quickly, though, as I got into high school. I would always read the King books, and I got int H.P. Lovecraft and things like that, but high school was when I started getting into movies more and really studying them. I made it a rule to power through as much horror cinema as I could, because as a kid, I couldn’t watch that much horror—it freaked me out too much. [Laughs.] Embarrassing movies, too, like Killer Klowns from Outer Space—I couldn’t finish that one. I was hiding behind the couch and having nightmares for months.

The first time I can remember dealing with that feeling of intense fear was watching Fraggle Rock. - Mike Flanagan

It’s actually funny, the first time I can remember dealing with that feeling of intense fear was watching Fraggle Rock when they went into the “Terrible Tunnel,” which is where all the souls of little Fraggles who got lost in the tunnel were trapped. That scared the crap out of me. Years later, only when I started doing interviews and talking about that, I connected that to my film Absentia. It was like, “Oh, crap! That was totally just me riffing on Fraggle Rock!”

In high school, I started studying movies and not reacting to them emotionally. I would analyze them and break them down, which was neat for me because it felt like I’d overcome a childhood fear. Now, I could watch a Freddy Krueger movie and not be terrified. It did seem to me that, more often than not, the genre tended to go for the easy way—the easiest characters, the simplest story structure, relying on loud noises and startles more than lingering psychological scares.

That’s what made movies that broke that mold really exciting for me. I came upon the same ones everybody else does, like the first time you saw the The Exorcist and The Shining, when you’re like, “Oh, my god…a horror movie can do this!” Otherwise, though, it always seemed like an over-saturated genre that too often assumed the least of its audience. Whenever filmmakers would make a different assumption, I was impressed and inspired.

So Many Feels, So Few Damns Given

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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.

One Guy, a Mirror, and Some Pesky Cappuccinos

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It was only a matter of time before Flanagan gave horror a shot. And in 2005, with less than $2,000 at his disposal, he made a 29-minute short film called Oculus: Chapter 3 - The Man with the Plan, a single-location piece about, simply, a man versus a haunted mirror.

Flanagan: I finally got so frustrated with the lack of forward momentum, for me becoming a filmmaker, that I wanted to make a short. I really thought it was time to try horror. Horror had always been my favorite genre to consume, but I’d never tried my hand at it. In college, those angst-heavy stories were what was in my head. I don’t know why my thought process didn’t go towards horror at that time, and I kind of wish it had. I really felt like I was going to make this very important, with a capital “I,” cinema. It’s an instinct that a lot of people have as they get into film school, because you watch a lot of really incredible, classic, avant-garde and groundbreaking genres. You want to emulate that and get out there and be like, ”This is my voice and this is what I have to say!”

But I didn’t have any consideration for commercial viability. The student film tropes become cliched as you go through them. There’s a whole lot of people drinking, suicide themes, angst and turmoil, and it really gets kind of numbing. Or it’s the other side of it: the endless avalanche of “first date” movies. But, yeah, I don’t know why it took me so long to say, “Why can’t I make a film that I feel is personal and is a way for me to make a statement of some kind, but to wrap it up in a genre I love and focus on making it entertaining?” Horror has such a passionate and built-in fan-base, of which I’m a part, so it was like, “Why don’t I make a movie that I would actually go out of my way to watch? Why don’t I make a movie that’d I run over to a friend’s house and say, ‘You have to watch this!’” Which I don’t do with collegiate dating movies.

The penny finally dropped. “Oh, I’ve been wasting a lot of time.” So, that led to the short film for Oculus, which was really an exercise in having no resources and saying, “What can we do to make a well-lit room with nothing in it frightening?” We rented the back of a coffee shop in Venice Beach, and it was funny because we had to stop shooting whenever they’d make a cappuccino. [Laughs.] We found this sterile space; it was an artist studio in the back of a coffee shop. We had this plastic mirror we bought online, one actor, a crew of eight people, hardly any lights and no effects. A little bit of makeup. It became, “OK, we don’t have much to work with, but let’s see if we can create something interesting and build a lot of tension.” It was really just an exercise in tension.

And the short came out pretty good. I was really happy with it, and it was received so much better than my college-angst stuff, so I thought, OK, this is definitely the right direction for me.

What's More Terrifying Than a Mirror? How About a...Tunnel?!

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Back in college, Flanagan couldn’t get anyone to give a damn about his feel-y, sappy drama films, but Oculus: Chapter 3? Film festivals and Hollywood producers were all in, calling Flanagan in for meetings and asking him to pitch feature film projects. There was a catch, though: They wanted someone else to direct whatever they’d potentially buy. After all, he’d never made a full-length horror movie. Why would they give him millions of dollars to do so without any experience?

Determined to show and prove, Flanagan quickly wrote the script for Absentia, a quiet and macabre story about two sisters, one pregnant and the other a former drug addict, dealing with a potentially supernatural tunnel across the street from their house, where, one of them believes, people enter and get trapped in some kind of Lovecraftian netherworld.

To fund Absentia, Flanagan and his team, made up of personal friends who act (including his wife, Courtney Bell) and other friends who produce and work on film sets, consulted Kickstarter, after a buddy heard genre author Neil Gaiman talking about the crowd-funding service in an interview. They shot funny and personable sales-pitch videos and uploaded them onto Kickstarter, and the results were triumphant: in only three days, they’d raised $15,000.

Made for $70,000 total, Absentia is one of the most impressive do-it-yourself, no-budget genre films of the new millennium.

Flanagan: Once the Oculus short made its rounds and got me some attention, I’d take meetings and hear, “We think the short is really cool but we’d be happy to take it off your hands. You haven’t made a horror feature yet.”

That finally motivated me to do my first horror feature, Absentia. We raised some money on Kickstarter, we shot it in my apartment—it was kind of back to the Oculus short, where we didn’t have anything. Which was especially tough for Absentia because the story ultimately has a monster movie element to it. It was like, “Well, we have a monster we can never show. Anything we show is going to look stupid.” So how do we make it scary and give people enough ingredients to form what the monster looks like themselves? We can give visual cues either in the film itself or in the stories characters tell so that the audience can create their own monster in their imaginations. And that seemed to work.

We shot Absentia in my actual Glendale apartment; that tunnel really was down the street from where I lived, and where I still live today, actually. The day I moved in, I looked across the street at night and said, “That is a scary tunnel.” [Laughs.] “There’s got to be a story of some kind there.” I would walk through it everyday to see what I could come up with.

A tunnel is a fascinating thing, because you step into one and all of your senses are altered. Sound is different in a tunnel; the temperature is different in a tunnel; your pupils dilate and the light on the other side starts to take on different qualities; everything’s amplified and you can hear traffic overhead that, if you’re in there long enough, starts to sound like growls. It’s a scary experience, if you let it be. I would just stare at that thing everyday and say, “God, there’s got to be something!”

One of the things about DIY filmmaking is you’re always on the lookout for something you can do with what you have. With Absentia, it was like, “Well, this is right outside my door. I don’t have a lot of resources or money to do anything—what can I do with what’s right here?” I had been talking to my younger brother about it and said, “I have a camera and this tunnel, and I know there’s a horror movie here somewhere but I can’t figure it out.” He was the first one who brought the “Three Billy Goats Gruff” fairy tale and said I could do something really interesting with that. Just hang a “Missing” poster outside that tunnel and suddenly it’s a mouth, and I was like, “Yup! That’s it.”

I really only ever wanted Absentia to demonstrate to studios that I could direct a horror feature. I never imagined it would take on a life of its own, get out there, acquire distribution, and make its rounds on the festival circuit. It was really only meant to be proof that I can do this. For a $70,000 movie to get out and reach an audience, that was really shocking to me.

So, About That Limited "Haunted Mirror" Concept...

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With Absentia as his calling card, Flanagan was invited back into meetings with producers and distributors, all of whom were curious to see what he wanted to do next. Eventually, the Oculus concept resurfaced, but who would ever want to watch a 90-minute film about one guy in a room talking to a mirror? Even the open-minded, we’ll-watch-anything film festival crowd would balk at that.

Flanagan and his writing partner Jeff Howard needed to figure out how to turn Oculus into something more.

Flanagan: Whenever conversations would spring up about Oculus becoming a full-length feature, everybody would look at the cameras in the room and say, “Yeah, this should be a found-footage feature." That was absolutely not the direction I wanted to go with it. For years, it was the same meeting over and over again, with someone saying, “I really liked this short and I would love to expand it into a feature. Can it be done found-footage style and with a micro budget?” And I was always like, “No, it can’t.” It got really annoying, and that’s why eventually I put it away. I’d either get the found-footage question or that they wanted someone else to direct it.

Absentia is what got me a meeting at Intrepid Pictures. You take these general meetings where you walk in and the potential producers say, “OK, so what else do you have?” I’d pitch them a bunch of ideas I thought were really cool but all landed with a thud. The same thing happened at Intrepid, so I thought, well, that was a good meeting, and as I walking out of it, I turned over my shoulder and said, “Well, I have this short that’s been out for a couple years, and a lot of people have seen it and wanted to go the found-footage route. It’s a cool little horror short, and I’d like to expand it and do something crazy with it, if that interests you.” To my surprise, they wanted to talk about that. They watched the short, called me back in and asked for my feature take, with the understanding that they didn’t want it to be a found-footage movie. I thought, wow, this could actually work.

They took a big chance on Oculus and what they saw in my $1,500 short, and director who’d made a feature but had made it in his apartment. [Laughs.] They came in, we developed the script together.

There was always this thought bouncing around my head, where anyone who comes out of film school just wants that one “shot.” If someone will give me a shot, I’ll be able to do it; if someone gives me the money and resources, I think I can do something cool. But when we started working on Oculus, I said to myself, “Oh, crap! Here’s that shot. It took me 13 years, and if I screw this up, I’m finished—I’m done forever.” [Laughs.] Suddenly the excitement about making a movie turned into this intense terror. “If this doesn’t go well, this all stops here.”

You have two voices in your head at that point. One is, look at all the market trends, try to emulate successful projects, and try to line up as many safe elements as you can so that you touch enough familiar bases to make your movie a hit. Or you can you go out on as big of a limb as you can and make something that’s as weird and personal as you want, and do what you think is right for the story. That way, if this is your one and only shot and it fails, at least you can say that you made the movie you wanted to make. It’s very rare to find producers who’ll support you in that, and I just got overt lucky. I went through hundreds of options of producers before someone came in and said, “I want you to make the movie you want to make.”

When it came time to figure out how turn the short into a legitimate feature, the process became really difficult, specifically from a storytelling standpoint. It took really long and it was full of misfires. The first instinct was to do it as an anthology film. We were going to come up with three half-hour stories, but the thing that happened as we would look at that was, you never really feel like any story is complete.

If you bet on the fact that they’ll embrace something that activates their imagination, instead of making something that enables a passive viewing experience, they’ll reward you for that. - Mike Flanagan

The way it would work is, you would know the mirror is haunted definitively by the end of the first story, so unless the characters in the next stories also did, most of the movie would be putting the mirror into someone’s environment and waiting for them to catch up to you. That didn’t seem like it was going to work; it felt like it was going to be a passive and boring experience. The other option was to take just the short and expand it into 90 minutes, but it was just going to be one guy in a room—that sounded like the most boring horror movie ever made.

The first thing we did was we took the character of Tim from the short and said, “Let’s make it a female protagonist.” The horror genre owes a huge debt to its female characters, so we wanted to have a really prepared, really smarty, kick-ass female lead. The picture we hung on the wall as we fleshed out the character was of, ironically, Katee Sackhoff, and that was back in 2006—she was the voice we really liked for it. And then it was, OK, but let’s have it be two people in the room and be this sibling relationship. What if they disagree about what’s going on with this mirror? What if one of them gets to be mouthpiece for the audience member who says, “This sounds ridiculous,” or who says, “Come on, why don’t you just leave or smash the damn mirror?” We wanted to give the most cynical viewer a voice and a counterpart in the mirror, and that would create a cool kind of Mulder/Scully dynamic, as well.

So we hit on that and it felt really right. But that still would just be two people in a room with a mirror. At a certain point we’d only be able to do jump scares, which I hate. We’re just gonna be throwing things at the audience and wondering why a mirror is biding its time and respecting the three-act story structure. [Laughs.] Which a supernatural entity really shouldn’t do. And then it became, “OK, what if it’s a two-story movie? What if we show the siblings and show another story of different victims that we intercut with the siblings?” It took longer than it should have, frankly, for someone to suggest that the other story be the one about the siblings’ past, a story we hear about a lot but never get to see. Once that gear kicked in, we had two really complete narratives that we could braid together in such a way that we can watch two movies at once and then collide into and wrap around each other until you can’t tell which one is which anymore.

That distortion of reality works really well for me as an extended metaphor of what the mirror really is, and it seemed like a really cool challenge from an editorial point-of-view. The last gear that fell into places was, we were at Intrepid going through story notes, and initially we had the present story taking place in the basement of the auction house where Kaylie works, and the past took place in the house. Mark Evans at Intrepid said, and not just speaking for ease of budget, “What do you guys think about staging both inside the house?” The lightbulb went off for all of us. If I can tell both stories in the same physical space, I’m not even bound by edits anymore.

I’m a big fan of John Sayles’ movie Lone Star, and the transitions he does in that movie and its flashbacks feel so organic. It just pans off of an actor in the present and suddenly you’re looking at an actor in the past. I thought that was such a simple and effective for handling how to deal with jumps in time. If we could take that and run it into high gear, we could create a really disorienting experience. That disorientation will be way better than trying to come up with jump scares and mirror ghost moments. If we can truly disorient an audience just like the characters are being disoriented, then we might have something unique. We could create something new.

It’s a risky way to make a movie, though. There’s this pushback that it’s too complex. Well, I think audiences are complex individuals. They appreciate complexity in their fiction, and if you bet on the fact that they’ll embrace something that activates their imagination, instead of making something that enables a passive viewing experience, they’ll reward you for that. Studios and distributors have a tough time with that, because they all look at the market research and want to go as easy and down-the-middle as they can. They always use the buzz words, “Simple, simple, simple.” They want to attract the biggest audience. But it’s like, “Well, no, let’s embrace the individual complexities of our viewers and hope they will appreciate that we’re betting on their intelligence.”

Yes, You Absolutely Should Be Scared of Mirrors

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Oculus is, of course, a tough sell. Trying to get audiences to drop money to watch a homicidal maniac in a mask stalk and slash teenagers is one thing, but getting them to embrace a haunted mirror? Perhaps they’ll buy a ticket once they’ve finished giggling and shaking their heads.

Since day one, though, Flanagan knew there was something horrific about those reflective—and, yes, inanimate—glass objects we all stand in front of numerous times per day.

Flanagan: Mirrors have always creeped me out. As a kid, I played “Bloody Mary” and all the games like that; as I got older, I started thinking about them more. When you’re thinking about horror, you always want to find something that’s ubiquitous and universal—something everyone has to deal with. We all begin our days with a relationship to our mirror, and our entire perception of who we are and what we look like is based on what we see in that, and we’re wrong anyway. For one thing, it’s backwards. All of our mental images of ourselves are completely wrong. And then the other thing is, every mirror has so many tiny flaws on its surface, to where everything we think is projected reality isn’t that. It’s all distorted and we ignore that. We assume it’s completely objective. I’ve always thought that was neat.

Then, I came across the tradition in the Jewish faith where they’ll cover a mirror during a funeral to prevent the souls of the dead from coming back into the world. I think that combined with my initial view of mirrors was where it was like, “Oh, my god, this could be really cool,” looking at a mirror as a portal between the living and the dead and wondering if what’s on the other side of that glass isn’t similar but autonomous compared to what’s on our side. I thought that was really terrifying.

So that was always kind of stuck in my head. And then the other thing was, being a big Stephen King fan, I wondered if there was an opportunity to do a story where you could have a portable Overlook Hotel, to have one you could pick up and hang on the wall anywhere. Those things together kicked off the short.

The trick of it, as well as the benefit of the mirror, was that we didn’t have any money. We weren’t going to be able to create a monster or do much in the way of ghost effects. We had to center the short on this object. There’s a great Stephen King short story called “1408,” which they made into a movie a few years ago, and when I first read that story, I noticed that they spent the first half of that story just talking about the hotel room. It was all talking before the lead character ever stepped foot into the room, and by that point I was terrified to go in with him. So with Oculus, I wanted to get back to campfire basics, where you have an object in the room that we just talk about, and if the stories around it are scary and upsetting enough, we can become afraid of this inanimate object without it ever having to doanything.

There was an element of challenge to that, but it also fit with the fact that we didn’t have any resources for much of anything else. We needed to embrace the minimalism and try to find a way to make an inanimate object as frightening as we can. The normal things you go into a horror movie with are: OK, we’ll establish mood by having low light and embracing darkness, because have an inherent, inescapable fear of the dark. So what if we did this short film in a room that’s very well-lit and bright? What if we took all those things you’re supposed to do and flipped them all upside down?

Luckily, because the film was so inexpensive, we could take that gamble, and if it failed, we’d only be out $1,500. But if it worked, it could be something that excites a genre audience that’s always looking for something different, that always consumes everything in their genre of choice but want to celebrate something that’s new. If we do this right, we can generate some real excitement.

Initially, we wanted to do an anthology with the mirror concept. We wrote nine short stories about the mirror; the one we shot was the third one, which was the most contained and easiest to produce, and because it had the element of the mirror’s history. We always wanted to go back and do more, but there was no money and no time. A short film that doesn’t have any really viable distribution outlet, so you can’t make your money back. The best you can do is put it out there, get some buzz, and hope it can lead to something else. When it came down to it, if I was going to beg for money and scrape whatever I could together for an indie production, it had to be a feature.

Just a Whovian Living Out Her Nightmare of a Dream

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If Karen Gillan’s presence in Oculus isn’t a major draw for you, you’ve clearly never wanted to take a ride in the TARDIS. Unlike, you know, the millions of Doctor Who fans out there, all of whom fell in love with Gillan’s character, Amy Pond, throughout her two-and-a-half seasons as the time-traveling humanoid Doctor’s righthand woman.

When Gillan’s run on the BBC One series ended in 2012, the Scottish-born actress turned her attention to movies—specifically, movies made in America. The Oculus script was one of the first she came across. Being a longtime horror movie lover, she quickly signed on to play Kaylie Russell, an atypical female protagonist in a genre overly populated by fragile heroines who spend most of their movies running scared in minimal clothing before finally toughening up for the big climax. Kaylie, though, is the aggressor, not the victim—while her brother, Tim, remains skeptical, she’s on a one-woman mission to destroy the Lasser Glass.

Which, unsurprisingly, intrigued Gillan. As did the challenge of delivering an almost 13-minute monologue, in which the Lasser Glass' corpse-ridden history is explained.

Karen Gillan: I knew that it was a good script and a good project from the start. This film has been on such a long, crazy journey. It started off with a very small budget, then it became a bigger budget before we started shooting, and then it got taken on by Relativity and now it’s being promoted heavily, like more than any of us could have ever expected. And I’ve been a part of this project from the start, so it’s especially crazy for me to see how far it has come.

This was my first American project ever. It was a mission of mine to work in film, as well as television, and that really clicked for me once I stopped shooting Doctor Who. Unfortunately, Britain doesn’t have as much of a film industry as America—we make independent films and all that, but America is where you have to go to make the bigger films. So it was kind of inevitable that I would end up working in America if I wanted to chase that. But at the same time, I try not to map out a specific path or have a career agenda. I just try to find the best projects, and I knew this would be a great project.

Oculus a slow burn—we really earn the scares, rather than it being a cheesy slasher film. And it’s incredibly character-driven, which is so rare in these sorts of films. I love my character; I quickly, became obsessed with her after I first read the script. So at that point, I knew I wanted to work with Mike, but then I was able to see his Oculus short film. That totally sold me. After talking to him over Skype for the first time, I had a sense of what he wanted to do and what kind of film this would be, but watching the short really showed me what Mike can do. That’s the real proof—people can sayanything, but once you see the actual goods, you know what the real thing is. I was so impressed by the micro-budget, what they were able to do with so little money, and it’s this really interesting character study first and a scary story second. He manages to strike this amazing balance of really letting us invest in the character while also giving us these really good scares.

The thing that really impressed with the Oculus feature script was its dialogue. First of all, there’s a 13-page monologue that I had to do, and that was something else. [Laughs.] If anything, I wanted to take that one scene alone on as a challenge. I knew I’d have to get through the entire thing in one go, which made me think, oh my god! That’s a huge challenge. It took me about a month or so to learn it. It was really exciting at first, but once we got into production and I knew that scene was approaching, it started terrifying me. It became a real thing. I had to constantly re-read that scene over and over and over again. I had to do it with a different accent, as well, so I was doing it with a dialect coach. I was walking around Los Angeles, down random streets, saying that monologue over and over. I must have looked like the craziest person. [Laughs.] I was this girl walking around LA talking about dead people and a haunted mirror, and all of these names and dates and facts, out loud, in public. I must have looked insane.

The script as a whole is really well written. All the characters have emotional arcs, journeys, and development. Typically, I read a lot of scripts that are male-driven, and the women in those situations are girlfriends or sisters or something like that. I read a lot of scripts where there are good female roles, too, I have to be honest. I don’t feel like a huge victim of that script problem, like a lot of other women say. Also, with this character, it wasn’t just the fact that she’s a strong female—that shouldn’t even be a thing. It’s the fact that she’s the opposite of what you so often see in a horror film, where the character is running away from the scary thing. She is running tothe scary thing, and the worse it gets, the more excited she gets.

I’ve always wanted to do a horror film—I’ve wanted to since I was a teenager. But I also want to do really quality stuff, so to get to do a combination of those things here makes me really happy. When I was younger, I was really into the cheesy teen slasher movies, the ones that came out right after the first Scream. I loved I Know What You Did Last Summer. But I also loved the good stuff, too, like The Exorcist. The Ring was one of my favorites—that may be my favorite one out of all of them, actually. And Naomi Watts’ character is a lot like mine in Oculus, now that I think about it. They’re both running towards the scary thing, obsessively so. Maybe my love for The Ring helped me appreciate Oculus.

Mother's Day (of the Dead)

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To play Kaylie and Tim’s mother, Marie, Flanagan looked no further than one of his all-time favorite TV shows: Battlestar Galactica. His favorite character on the critically acclaimed Sci-Fi Channel space drama has always been Kara “Starbuck” Thrace, the military-trained pilot played with well-balanced toughness and vulnerability by Katee Sackhoff.

The five years she spent portraying Starbuck turned Sackhoff into a genre community icon, and, just as Karen Gillan’s presence in Oculus is a major draw in its own right, she’s a big factor into why there will be so many Battlestar loyalists watching a movie about a haunted mirror this weekend.

By doing so, they’ll get to see Sackhoff in a role that’s unlike anything she’s done before. Seen in the flashback half of Oculus’ intertwined timelines, Marie starts off as the quintessential ‘loving mother,’ but once the Lasser Glass gets a hold of her, she becomes something animalistic, a snarling psychopath who, at one point, has to be chained to a wall in her bedroom.

It’s an out-there role in an already ambitious horror movie, but Sackhoff was totally game.

Katee Sackhoff: I first came across Mike’s name from this script he’d written a few years back, called Relapse. I had originally heard about him in 2007 or 2008. It’s a phenomenal script, though it’s a hard one to describe—it was more of a psychological thriller than a straight-up horror film. But when Oculus came along, I was immediately intrigued because of having read Relapse already.

I read a lot of genre scripts, I guess because of my history and success with projects like Battlestar Galactica. But I read a lot of bad genre material. I’d say that there are more bad projects out there then good. Sometimes you wonder where the money comes from for these things. [Laughs.] And then every once in awhile, you see a good one. You see something like Oculus and wonder how it hasn’t been made yet. And you feel incredibly lucky that it hasn’t and you can now be a part of it. Before I read Oculus, I was reading a bunch of scripts that were all basically the same thing. These days, for example I’m reading more psychological thrillers and less script with tons of gore, but before Oculus there were a lot of action movie scripts that took place in skyscrapers. It was right as everyone was all excited about The Raid, so everything was copying that. That’s one of the best movies ever—I own it on DVD, and I know it very well. Those copycat scripts weren’t fooling me.

I did a few horror movies before Oculus—they just didn’t have the impact that it seems Oculus can have. I don’t have any regrets, though. I have very rarely ever done something just because I needed a job. Back when I did Halloween: Resurrection [2002], I was only 19, so I didn’t have the luxury to choose what jobs I did—I was just so thankful they picked me for anything. Plus, I loved that role; it was the ditzy blonde, and, come on, every blonde girl should play that role where when their head gets cut off, you’re cheering. [Laughs.] And then with the White Noise sequel [White Noise: The Light, 2007], I was a massive fan of the original, so how could I not do the second one? And I love Nathan Fillion, so I would have been stupid not to do a White Noise sequel with him, an actor I love. With The Haunting in Georgia [released as The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia, 2013], I was a fan of the documentary series, which was Haunting in Connecticut, Haunting in Georgia, and Haunting in New York. I liked the story and the history behind these ghost stories. I think they’re interesting.

And with Oculus, in that respect, I loved that Mike had drawn up this really detailed mythology for the Lasser Glass. I just like when people think about something to that extent. Sometimes you get scripts and you feel like the writer must have thought it was so easy, and that all he had to do was write a story. A lot of times that’s just not the case. You actually have to do some work, and Mike really did that with this project.

He also wrote a character who gets put through the ringer both emotionally and physically, to a degree I hadn’t seen in any scripts before. As an actor, that scares the shit out of you, too, but it’s also a big reason why I wanted to play her. You don’t know if you’re going to be able to pull something like this off, or if it’s going to look and feel incredibly stupid. I don’t know many actors who’ve been chained to a wall. I, for one, have never been chained to a wall, and I’ve never put a dog collar on, so I don’t know where I’m supposed to draw from to play that. [Laughs.] It’s definitely intimidating, and as as actor you wonder if you’ll be able to pull it off. So for me, now that I’ve seen the film, I can say to myself, “Oh, thank god I managed to get that right!”

Characters So Well Fleshed Out, It's Scary

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Though Flanagan’s two films feature two vastly different threats (not much connects tunnels to mirrors), Absentia and Oculus are contextually one and the same. Both hinge upon flawed characters, people whose personal demons allow the supernatural antagonists to do their things. In Absentia, it’s drug addiction and a widow’s mourning; in Oculus, it’s the worst kind of childhood trauma. Much like how in, say, Stephen King’s The Shining, it’s Jack Torrance’s alcoholism that makes him such an easy target for the Overlook Hotel’s horrors.

Flanagan: Because I started off making this collegiate angst movies, character development was the first muscle I ever got to flex. I think that coupled with my respect for Stephen King’s work, and how he does the same thing, leads me to want to focus more on character than anything else. I’ll approach each one of my stories and say, “This has to function first as a drama. If I were doing an art-house indie drama, the characters would need to be the same and be just as well-drawn.” If you do that, once you introduce the genre/horror elements, they’ll feel like natural extensions of those people, as opposed to this separate alien force that’s becoming the star of the movie. The genre elements in a lot of horror movies are the draw, but if we populate movies with characters who are real people? That way, the genre elements will land so much better.

We approach everything with, “Strip out the genre elements and see if the movie still stands up and works.” If it doesn’t, we need to fix it.

The reason the horror genre exists in our cinema and our literature is that it’s a safe place to explore the darker sides of our own nature. There’s enough horror in our real lives that we all have to deal with, and enough darkness, that horror cinema is an environment where we can explore that and pick it apart, but then the lights come on at the end of the day. For me, for characters to really be present in a horror story, that darkness and frailty needs to already be a part of them. And usually, that’s the crack in their foundation through which the horror in the story can gain access. If we’re dealing with darkness and demonic forces, it’s way more interesting to me if they’re already wrestling with their demons. Our cinematic monsters can be expressions of their own psyches and what they already have going on—that just lands better for me.

We approach everything with, 'Strip out the genre elements and see if the movie still stands up and works.' If it doesn’t, we need to fix it. - Mike Flanagan

That’s where ambiguity comes in and becomes really effective, too. Ultimately, the answer to whether something horrific and supernatural in a horror story is real or not doesn’t even matter. We know there’s evil in the world and we try really hard to understand it, and to give ourselves a reason why it exists. We want to give ourselves answers, but there aren’t answers for it in life. The scariest stuff just is. Part of the thing that I think will make my movies stay with people and burrow into them is that we don’t tie things up with a bow at the end. There can be room for doubts and questions after the story’s over. It doesn’t matter if it was real or not—it was real to the characters in the moments it happened, and that’s what important and what makes the horror last.

I like to hope that gives the films more staying power and encourages conversation. I love when people disagree and try to really pick something apart. Some of the most fun I’ve ever had with movies was having a completely different takeaway than someone next to me whose opinion I respect, and being able to discuss that with them afterwards. That’s what makes cinema exciting.

Anything-But-Cheap Thrills

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Attention, Horror Fans: Put Up or Shut Up

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