Gerald's Game hits Netflix this Friday, bringing another fantastic Stephen King novel to life, fresh after the release of IT. The film premiered at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX this past week and has been receiving overall high praise from critics, citing Gerald's Game as one of the best Stephen King adaptions yet. I had the opportunity to chat with the Director, Mike Flanagan, as we discuss taking on this "unfilmable" novel.
A husband and wife's plan to spice up their marriage by handcuffing her to the bed goes horribly awry when he dies of a heart attack, leaving her chained up with no help in sight.
This is one of Stephen King's novels that may be the most difficult to translate to film, and you were able to do so brilliantly. What attracted you to taking on this film?
It was a really long process. I read the book when I was in college. I was 19 years old when I read it. I thought it was the most moving and visceral novels that I have ever read. I loved what it had to say about survival, trauma and strength. It was one of those novels that never left me alone. It just burned into my head. So when it came to adaptation, I thought "Wow, this is a movie I would love to see one day", but I also thought it was unfilmable. It took me half my life to figure it out. I was obsessing with how to adapt it for over two decades before I was actually in a position to do it. By the time we acquired the rights to the material and to do it, I had so much preparation to fall back on. When I first read the book, I thought there was no way this could ever translate. It was a juggernaut for sure.
What it's like working with King on the film?
I've actually never spoke with Stephen. I mean, we have been in touch. When this project first came around, it was because he saw Oculus and he said he loved it. So he gave us a shot at doing a script but he tends to stay away from most of his adaptations because he wants the filmmakers to do their thing. He is very involved when it comes to approvals, the script, the cast, every step of the way but he doesn't really interfere. He doesn't really get into your hair, which is a double-edged sword because it lets you make the film you want to make but it also means at a certain point when you are finished you have to send it to him and that's one of the most nerve-racking experiences I have ever had. He said he loved the movie though. We have actually been in touch since the movie has been completed. We talk back and forth now. At the time, his involvement was in support and approval which was incredibly pleasant. To answer your question, it was a great experience working with him but it was working with him from a distance.
He has been very vocal about his adaptions in the past.
Oh yes, just ask Stanley Kubrick. He very famously won't pull a punch if he doesn't like what you have done with his material. Being such a fan of his, and watching that my whole life, I've watched the various quality of his adaptations and his different reactions to them. I was really terrified with sending this to him. No matter how this goes, I could not live with being put into that pile that disappointed Stephen. But he loved the film, he sent a really long email after he watched it telling me what he thought. I am not exaggerating when I say I printed that email, framed it and it's hanging in my living room. Where I still push it on visitors and pizza delivery guys and anyone who walks into my house, asking "Hey, have you seen this?" I'm still a fanboy more than anything. He has loved the movie and its really gratifying. If it had gone the other way I would have been ashamed. Probably wouldn't show my face in public.
There has been a bit of a trend lately with Stephen King Adaptions coming out left and right. What are your thoughts on more writers/directors taking on Stephen's novels? Do you happen to have a favorite, aside from Gerald's Game, of course?
I think it's exciting as a King fan. I didn't know when we started we were going to be part of this wave. I didn't know it was happening. Now we are in the middle of this storm of new King stuff. As a fan I am elated. One of my theories about it, is that a lot of the people that grew up like I did, just reading his books and watching his movies, and being formed by them. You know, a lot of them are filmmakers now. That generation is grown up and in a position to make their own and for a lot of people like me it is irresistible. Oh, there is a chance to play in Stephen King's universe? Oh my god, Yes, I have to. I think that's a very remarkable thing. It's hard to say what my favorite is this year, especially with his adaptations. There is a big hit-or-miss quality as you are navigating as a fan. IT was great. I loved Mr. Mercedes. I haven't seen 1922 yet, I have heard great things. I am on pins and needles on what they are going to do with Castle Rock. There is a lot out there. It's great to have so many well-done adaptations landing in such close proximity.
This isn't just a treat for long-term fans, but I think it's great for new and upcoming fans as well. Those who many not have read the original novel, or missed seeing Tim Curry's Pennywise on screen are now getting the introduction into King's universe. It's a great time to introduce the newer generation as well.
What an exciting thing for those new fans that are being generated from this resurgence of interest. What a neat thing for them to turn around and realize they have such a prolific library of material to discover. People who are just now being turned onto this world have a decade or so worth of books to read. It's a really cool time.
It's pretty well known that King's stories are all connected, especially this and Dolores Claiborne. Did that affect how you approached the film?
Absolutely. One of the most exciting things about being a constant reader is finding a connection within the stories and seeing how they all play off each other. The connection between Gerald's Game and Dolores Claiborne is really profound in the book and I did not want to lose that. Even though the story worked really well on its own, to be part of this expanded universe is really exciting. I have this little corner of the King universe and I want to take care of this corner but at the same time I want to honor the rest of the universe as well. I wanted very much to make sure we included the Dolores reference but also we had little winks to The Dark Tower, The Shining, Bag of Bones. There are little Easter eggs for the fans. What I love about it is if you catch the references, it's the same feeling I got when I read the books. But if you don't get them, it doesn't take away from the film in any way.
Now this is a film where majority of the film takes place in this one room. Can you talk about some of the hurdles of depicting this story that's basically confined to this single room?
The first step in that was shotlisting the movie with my director of photography. It is easy for a movie to get stale if you keep repeating the same angles and keep planting the camera in the same three basic places of the room. One of the biggest challenges for us was to make sure the camera was always moving and we were carrying the audience back and forth onto various sides of the action axis and keeping everything as dynamic as possible with the camera work. So we designed and shotlisted and blocked the movie long before prep began. Every camera shot had been diagrammed and outlined how they were going to go to cut into each other and that was a huge part of it. The other part is casting. If you are going to spend that amount of time in a closed room, in a small space with people, those actors need to inject energy into the film and to that end, we're incredibly fortunate to have Carla and Bruce who turned in phenomenal performances. Even though we've been living on this sound stage for weeks, we were hanging on every word they were saying and that made me feel like if that was how we were feeling at the monitor, then that's how audiences would feel as well.
Carla knocked it out of the park with this one. Carla's vulnerability is depicted really well on-screen, as the duration of the film we see her unravel, you even see it in her face. What was the process like when it came to bringing Carla on board and preparing her for the role?
We were just blessed to have Carla. Casting that part was really difficult. At the hands of the right actor, they would carry the movie on their shoulders, and in the wrong actor, the whole enterprise would collapse. Carla and I, we were on the phone for about 90 minutes the first time we discussed the script. I hung up the phone thinking this is someone who really understands the character and who understood the amount of pressure she was going to be under, both emotionally and physically to pull it off. Carla showed up and elevated everyone. She set the tone for the cast and the crew. Bruce was already in place at that point, he was actually suggested by Stephen King. When Carla came in, they hit it off so well and they were able to play off each other so well. This is such a high watermark for me, as far as what to expect from actors because I have never been as blown away watching what was happening as I was watching these two.
If you had the opportunity to adapt another one of King's novels, which would you be interested in tackling?
I would love a shot at Pet Sematary. It's one of the most disturbing books I have ever read in my life and one of the most emotional. I love Doctor Sleep, that would be a blast to give a try even though you are standing in Kubrick's shadows. My most sentimental of all is Lisey's Story. It's not his most well-known but I think it is his best. That would be a special project to get a crack at. We had a wonderful experience in this, hopefully we will get another opportunity to play in that universe some more. I would love nothing more.
Gerald's Game will launch worldwide on Netflix this Friday, September 29th. The film is directed by Mike Flanagan and stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood.