Every filmmaker wanders around with that unadaptable project in their head, whether it be their spin on Infinite Jest or a new vision for A Confederacy of Dunces or some sick desire to approach anything by James Joyce.
Stephen King, on the other hand, isn’t a name anybody would associate with unadaptability, but his oeuvre contains a few nuts that even the most money-hungry producers have been scared to crack.
Stories like these require more than money; they require passion. That’s exactly what director Mike Flanagan brought to his new Netflix adaptation of Gerald’s Game, King’s 1992 novel of a woman slowly losing her mind while handcuffed to a bedpost.
This week, we sat down with Flanagan to discuss that passion, which first gripped him when he read the book in college, and how he was able to bring what’s an unforgivingly insular novel to the screen.
Along the way, we also discuss the filmmaker’s longtime love for King’s work, his ballsy move to leave in a direct connection to another King classic, and the latest on his next adaptation for Netflix, The Haunting of Hill House.
We’d love to hear a little bit about your own history with Stephen King. Were you a fan growing up? If so, what were some of your favorite books by him?
I absolutely was a fan growing up. The first book I ever read was It, and I was in fifth grade.
…I was not ready for that. But I was hooked from then on out, so I think by the time I was in high school I declared to my family that he was my favorite author and the greatest author living. I started collecting all his books, and I didn’t finish catching up on his backlog until well into college. That was when I first read Gerald’s Game. I’ve been a Constant Reader my whole life, and, yeah, I’m a rabid fanboy.
Yeah, my first Stephen King was The Stand, so I find it very interesting how a lot of us are drawn to the really long books first. It’s like we want that challenge right away when we’re really young.
Yeah. I mean The Stand is just such a … it’s a world. That’s an amazing one to start with… what a story to dive into.
What did you think about Gerald’s Game when you first read it?
I thought it was astonishing, and by then I’d been through most of his library. It was unlike any of the other books I had ever read. There was something always really uniquely challenging and visceral about Gerald’s Game. I put the book down, and I exhaled because I think I held my breath. The scene everybody talks about with the cut at the end and her hand, I think I actually had to put the book down halfway through it.
I didn’t want to keep reading it. It was such a visceral experience. So I put it down and thought, This has got to be up there for my favorite King stories. What an incredible character that they built that’s better than any other character I’ve ever read … and it’s unfilmable. That was my second thought, This will never be a movie. For the next almost two decades it would just turn over in my head and I’d think, Okay well if it was a movie, what would it look like? How would you approach the material?
I actually obsessed over it. For years. Before they let me make movies, I would carry a copy of Gerald’s Game around in my bag, so when I’d have general meetings trying to be a writer and they’d say “What’s your dream project?” I’d say “Gerald’s Game is my dream project.” I’d pull out the book, and if they knew the book they’d laugh and go, “That’s not filmable.” If they didn’t know the book, I’d pitch it and they’d go “That’s not a movie.” It went on that way for half my life.
Then all the sudden, the stars aligned at once and we were able to launch into this production. It felt completely surreal; I had been seeing this movie in my head for almost 20 years and now we got to try to rip it out of there and put it up on screen. I had no idea how it would be received. I was like, “This could go one of two ways. It was either going to be great, or it was going to be utterly unwatchable.”
So, what was the early process for you like? When you’re thinking about how to streamline that story but also animate the world that exists within her head, what were some of the early conversations that you had with your co-writer [Jeff Howard] about adapting and preparing for this production?
We would read the book over and over again. I would highlight specific lines that were just in the prose, and it was just like “Someone has to say this.” The only way to get this idea into the movie is for someone to say it out loud. That was kind of the big question mark; it was ultimately going to be a movie about dialogue. I was like, “How do we frame that dialogue in such a way that it’s going to feel cinematic and carry people’s interest?” The big part of that was why Gerald has to disappear from the story after 10 minutes. Once that was unlocked, I was like, “Okay, this is a movie about a marriage. I want to hear from a married couple.”
And if they’re the only other people in the room with her, that just set up this triangle that’s as classic as a devil and an angel on your shoulder. It just seemed so simple and clear, like, “Yes, we can get all of the ideas out and into the picture as long as we can kind of turn this movie into a conversation between people,” which is basically ultimately the conversation that she’s having with herself. Then, it just became about what specific moments from the book we want them to talk about, and how many could fit before people just revolt and say, “No, something physical has to happen now.” That was always the balance.
I guess what I really dug about that approach was that you really made it consistently clear that even with these conversations happening, just how ensconced they were in Jessie’s head. What I loved was how Gerald talked in a way where you could tell that all of her deepest fears about him, he was spewing them out. There was nothing ghostlike about him, he very much existed as a sort of figment of her imagination that was very much yanking out all the dark things in her head. Was that something you were conscious of as you were writing?
Oh yeah. There was a moment where… Bruce Greenwood and I talked about this with Carla [Gugino] when we were first getting into it that, you know, he plays Gerald for a certain amount of time but after that he plays Jessie.
That’s a great way to put it.
Yeah, and that was really kind of exciting, when he was like “I’m playing your character. I’m meant to perform this in a way, in your head, you would expect him to be saying this.” So he would say to her before we do scenes, “How are you feeling? How anxious are you? How discouraged are you? How is the Gerald in your head going to best serve the needs of this – whether it’s to discourage you from a course of action or to point you in the right direction in a reverse psychology way.” They have a very detailed kind of rhythm together, of being aware that they were actually playing the same character, and that was just fascinating. That was just a real treat, which is why they’re kind of … there are maybe half a dozen subtly different Geralds in the movie. They were built very carefully to make sure that they were all coming from Jessie.
I’d love to hear a little bit about creating that physical world, particularly your use of lighting, from how the Moonlight Man emerges about halfway through the movie, but then also the use of color with the eclipse. Was that a vision you had early on or was this something you were kind of discovering when you were heading into production?
It was all kind of how I saw it when I read it. Then you filtered out through the 19 years that went by afterward, and so every image I had of the memories that kind of popped into my head when I was reading it were all tainted by this very removed … kind of long stance of time. With the light in the room, we didn’t want any practical lights on. We just wanted to use the sun and the moon, and keep those constantly revolving around everybody.
But the eclipse in particular … that was, for me, kind of a hybrid between the way I remembered the scene from reading them the first time, and from a certain amount of Dolores Claiborne presentation. I had seen that movie before I read this book, and when I was reading it, I was like “Yeah, I saw the fiery red sky and I saw the boats on the water,” and, you know, that kind of strange separation that seems to happen between the characters and the environment around them as the color became twilight but then something sort of equally in tone. We always have tended to be very expressionistic.
You really leaned into the eclipse storyline and the vision that Jessie has from Dolores Claiborne, and people who haven’t read the books might not understand that reference. Why did you include it? What does it mean to you personally?
I’ve always tended to love those moments. As a Constant Reader, you get this moment of delight when you make a connection between one of the books and another, and it’s like you’re part of this secret, invisible web that connects all of this incredible universe together — something that maybe not everybody’s aware of. My sense with all of the books was like, “Yep, this is a little corner of that King universe and when it’s all taken together, in context, it enhances itself.”
With this, I wanted to take excellent care of my little corner of the King universe, and I really so desperately wanted to kind of fire off little flares into the other areas of that universe that are already connected to this story. There were a couple that I tried to squeeze in just as a geeky fan, but the Dolores one … when it came by in the book, it was like, “How do I not do that?”
I didn’t want to knock people who were unfamiliar with the connection completely out of the moment, which is another risk you always run, but those two stories to me are two sides of a coin. I couldn’t adequately tell that story without honoring that connection. It was very important to me.
The reference served its purpose in that Jessie really needed to feel some kind of connection at that moment, to not feel so alone, and the way you framed it was in the sense of, “I don’t know who this woman is, but we share something together.”
Yeah, and that’s exactly what it’s for. Thematically, in both stories, they’re about women who think they’re alone in a very traumatic situation for most of their lives. You know, whose connection to other women is kind of revealed very gradually in both of those novels. That momentary sense of understanding and not being alone … I think it’s pretty critical. Both of those characters deserve that kind of comfort — even if it is in a fleeting, dreamlike moment.
Another thing that I was struck by was the chemistry between Carla and Bruce, and I’m curious about what the casting process was like for that. I think I read that King recommended Bruce, am I correct in that?
That is correct. Stephen had recommended him because they had worked on Ghost Brothers of Darkland County together. So he said, “You know, I think Bruce would be marvelous for this.” Bruce was already on my shortlist because I was a big fan of his from The Sweet Hereafter. So it was like “Perfect! Yes! Let’s make that happen immediately.” He was cast first, and then Jessie was much harder to find. There was always a sense that we needed a fearless actress, and the success of the movie would live and die on her. If we messed that up, we were all doomed. [Laughs.] It was all going to be on her shoulders. Carla wasn’t available when we first started looking for candidates, and then became available — which struck an amazing good fortune for us.
She and I just got on the phone and we talked for … I think 90 minutes while I was out in the woods. I was out scouting her driving escape route for the end of the movie. I was out there in the middle of the woods by myself on the phone with Carla, and very shortly into our conversation, I could tell that she not only understood the character, but understood and was appropriately excited and afraid for just how much of this was going to be resting square on her shoulders and the challenge of it. I remember hanging up and being like, “That’s her.”
Having seen what she did with it and what they did together — the whole movie’s a dance between her and Bruce and it’s a beautiful dance to watch — I can’t imagine anyone else playing those parts. I think they just inhabited and owned them. It was one of the most exciting and rewarding moments of my career, just being able to sit back and monitor and watch them do this movie. I was awestruck daily at what they were doing.
Yeah, that long monologue that Bruce had where he’s just sort of whispering — speaking like a lover does in bed — just about the process of people finding her body and then discovering what’s missing was, to me, an astounding moment of stillness and calm in a movie that’s really sort of embroiled in a tumultuous and grotesque situation. I guess I just really appreciated that there was a moment like that. I haven’t read the book in several years, was that section pulled from the book?
Yeah. It’s just the first-person segment of it where she’s contemplating how it will happen. But we just listed the … I think it’s four pages? We just listed it and put it in Gerald’s mouth. I think we had 15 or 16 angles that were meant to cover that scene, and the closer we got to shooting, Bruce and I would talk about it. I’d listen to him run it and — you know, he’s one of the most prepared actors I’ve worked with — he knew that back and forth. I’d listen to him read this incredible monologue and the day before we got there, we were both like, “You know? This is risky but what if we threw out the coverage and we just designed this as a oner.”
That, to me, was one of the most striking moments, that we never pulled from him and he had such command over that. It was so sad, and also so menacing at the same time. To me, it was a real standout in a movie that has a lot of big moments. So, to have such a quiet moment in there is one of the things I think makes this movie stand out.
I think you’re right, and he just slaughtered that. If I remember right, it was a second take. I think we did one and then the camera had to rotate as he laid down, and I think the camera bumped. It was a bump in a oner. The camera operations had worked out all the kinks so we did it again, and I think what’s shown is our second take.
So we were at a talkback for 1922, the other King Netflix adaptation that’s coming out, and the filmmakers were discussing this idea of embracing King’s idiosyncrasies. They kind of remark that we have three pretty great Stephen King adaptations that are out right now — which is awesome — and the filmmakers were saying that the reason this is working is because they’re sort of allowing themselves to be weird and to embrace King’s idiosyncrasies instead of trying to box his narratives into a Hollywood template. Do you think that idea of embracing the idiosyncrasies and the weirdness is kind of a key element in creating a solid Stephen King adaptation?
Absolutely, and I think the minute you start second-guessing that is when the adaptations can stray off the rails into something that … especially when it’s in the interest of something that you think will be more appealing or commercial that gets away from his unique voice. That’s when they lose their way, and the experience of reading him. It’s his voice in your head, and he’s a distinct voice. If you try to force him, his structure, and his characters into a mold that they weren’t intended for, it’s not a good fit. Even that sense of just an awkward fit is just enough to knock people out of adaptations, and, in my opinion, it spirals so out of control that you lose sight of what even made the story good in the first place.
He’s idiosyncratic for sure, but he’s a confident storyteller. One of the things that I knew going into this was that we were going to do this as faithful to the book as possible, and that means that half of my audience is going to hate my ending. [Laughs.] If I do it right, you know, if I really honor him, half of the readers hated the ending of the book. It’s the same ratio. There was this sense of like, “Look, I can swing away from that, but I don’t want to bring in that same polarized response that his material naturally generates.” But instead, I tried to presume that I could fix something for him, because I loved the ending and the book was perfect, but I know a lot of people felt differently, you know?
For me, it was like, “Look, I’m going to lean so far into that. I’m doing Stephen King’s Gerald’s Game, and I’m doing it the best way I can.” The only goal was to recreate the experience that I had reading it, which was such a wonderful experience for me. It’s not my goal to change it or make it more or less palatable for certain people. If I can recreate the way I felt when I put that book down, great. If someone else felt differently when they put it down, odds are they’re going to feel differently when they stop my movie. To me, that’s the goal. That’s how you know you’ve done it right, when the same people that complain about the idiosyncrasies of King complain about with your film, and the same people that love the idiosyncrasies of King will love what is done with the movie. That’s kind of the only way to approach it. Otherwise it’s just … you’re stepping into a world of madness.
You clearly have a strong reverence for King, so are there any other stories that are calling your name from an adaptation standpoint? Are there other King stories that you really have a yearning to tell?
There are so many. So, so, so many. The one thing I would love — and I think Andy said the same thing last week after It came out — he said he really wanted Pet Sematary. I was like, “Yup.” Pet Sematary is such an astonishing book, and one of the most fearsome and fearless books. It scared me probably more than any of his other books, especially because it had children. That would be a blast. I know they’ve been flirting with the idea of a remake. I’ve read adaptations over the last couple of years from some of the scripts they’ve been showing to me. They’re taking it a different way than I would, so I’m kind of staying away from that one, but the other ones I would love to do … I have a huge place in my heart for Lisey’s Story. I adore that book, and I think it would be just as challenging as this one was in a lot of ways. What a beautiful look at a marriage. Since it was published, I wanted to crack Doctor Sleep. I think that could be a blast.
But you’re working on The Haunting of Hill House now, correct?
So, did you present that project to Netflix or did they approach you about that?
Amblin Television actually approached me about that. They said, “Are you familiar with the book?” And I said, “Yes! It’s one of my favorite books.” Interestingly, I only discovered it because it was one of King’s favorite books [laughs], and one of the books that inspired him when he was a kid. I’ve always loved the book, and they approached me, so here we have The Haunting of Hill House and we need to come up with a take for television.
My first response was, “I don’t know how I’m going to adapt this for television!” There’s just barely enough material for a feature film in the book, so we have to do something kinda different than the spirit of Shirley [Jackson]’s original intention, and I said “Well that’s kind of exciting.” So I went away and thought about it for a while and came up with an idea for how I thought it could be a series, and we took it to Netflix together to pitch along with Paramount TV. And then they liked it! So…
Are there any sort of teases or hints you can give us about what we might be able to expect?
I can say … I think it’s the scariest thing I’ve ever gotten to work on.
And in a way that fans of Robert Weiss’ brilliant adaptation in ‘63 will appreciate. The lessons of that movie about activating a viewer’s imagination as opposed to leaning on kind of explicit special effects is something that is very much in our minds. I can’t talk about plot, but it’s probably the most complex story that I’ve gotten to be a part of and I’m having the time of my life so far.
Gerald’s Game is currently available to watch via Netflix. Subscribe now to The Losers’ Club: A Stephen King Podcast.