'Gerald's Game' Director Mike Flanagan On THAT Scene And Other Spoilers And Easter Eggs [Interview]

Gerald's Game premiered on Netflix over the weekend, so now we can talk about spoilers. If you have not yet watched the latest Stephen King adaptation, you might want to come back to this interview later, because director and co-writer Mike Flanagan discussed all the details and Easter eggs with /Film.

If you watched the movie, you know the set-up: Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) go to their vacation home for a weekend. Gerald wants to play a sex game and handcuffs Jessie to the bed, but has a heart attack and dies, leaving Jessie stranded. While trying to survive the weekend and escape, Jessie also recalls the time her father (Henry Thomas) molested her during a solar eclipse. In the book, Jessie had her own internal monologue, but in the movie, manifestations of Gerald and herself speak to her throughout her ordeal. This felt like a good way to kickstart our spoiler-filled conversation...

Was inventing the manifestations of Gerald and the other Jessie who talk to her throughout this ordeal your big breakthrough in cracking the adaptation of Gerald's Game?

Oh, absolutely. That was kind of the thing that turned it all around for me. Initially, coming off the read of the novel, there was so much wonderful material in there. I just couldn't figure out any damn way for that to be in the movie. It needed to be in someone's mouth. They had to say it. It didn't feel right to be introducing new characters into this equation to try to get some of that out, even though that's one of the paths the book had taken. I remember once I had that image of Gerald getting back up off the floor and sticking with us for the rest of the movie, that really blew it wide open. It's like, wow, this is suddenly becoming a really interesting conversation between three people, which is still our way to deal with the conversation she's having with herself. That was really the heart of it.

Was the other Jessie an even bigger development, representing a different side of Jessie than we see in the real world?

Yeah, and it was fun because we always looked at Jessie 2 as who Jessie needed to turn into by the end of this. Carla and I talk a lot about how different they were at the start but that the movie was about Jessie in the bed turning into this other version, so that that would be the version of her that walks out of the courtroom in the end. That was some of my favorite stuff, watching those two halves collide which is all Carla.

I imagine she had a double doing her lines when she was attached to the bed. When she played Jessie 2 was there a double attached to the bed for her to react to?

Yes. She preferred to start her day as Jessie 2. She liked to come in in the morning, come in the makeup and do the hair and come from a place of real strength. Then she got her Jessie 2 material for the day with a double cuffed to the bed. Then Carla would change over and finish the rest of the day handcuffed to the bed, which was exhausting for her and I'm sure incredibly difficult to track both of those arcs together. But it's really funny because there was another performer in the movie the whole time who isn't in the movie, who performed all of those scenes with Carla and Bruce.

What's her name?

Kimberly Battista. She was a local hire in Alabama, initially just brought in to be a stand-in for camera department but she got kind of saddled with the third leg of this acting work. It was really amazing to watch. Carla had wanted to rehearse both sides of it ahead of time so that she knew what she was doing on each side of that conversation. That was the tough part. We'd intended for her to be able to have a stand-in who could try to recreate at least the tone of the choices so that she could react to herself appropriately, even given that we'd be shooting different sides of the same conversation hours apart. It was a really bizarre way to work. Anybody other than Carla might've had a really hard time making it all come together as organically as she did. I just have nothing but intense admiration for her.

I couldn't imagine anything more graphic than the way Stephen King described the hand scene. How did you one-up that scene and make it even more cringe-y and awful?

I'll tell you, the principle difference is the sound. I think that's the only difference. When I was reading it for the first time, I had to put the book down. It turned my stomach just reading it. Visually, I don't think we even took it as far as he took it in the book. I think the hand/glove came just about completely off. For us we had it kind of flop back down afterwards because it was just too grizzly. I heard people say, "Oh my God, it's even worse than described." I don't think it actually is. I think the difference is, for all its description, the thing you never consider is the sound. Because we weren't really using music in the film almost ever, all that sound design is just front and center. That's kind of what makes it so intense. Even when I would look away while we were shooting it and when we were editing, you can't get away from the sound. It's some of the most uncomfortable noise and we just crank it right up. We just wanted to hear every little squish and pop and stretch. It's gnarly stuff. Someone fainted at the Fantastic Fest screening which is the coolest thing I've ever heard.

How did you get her lips to look so dry for her final day on the bed?

[Laughs] Well, a good amount of that, there was a lot of exhaustion emotionally and physically, pretty much in story order. She was pretty much toast by the time it got there anyway. I think they actually used Elmer's glue on her lips. They definitely did some things to that but the strain of the shoot was all over her. I think there times we actually had to cover up the extent of the bruising on her wrists that was just natural from those horrible cuffs. She was really put through the wringer. Everybody involved in the movie was incredibly reluctant to complain about anything after about week two, just watching what poor Carla had to endure.

Anyone who knew the book, when we heard she was cast, it was like hats off to any woman who takes that role and commits to it because we know what it entails.

It was really hard to cast because it's a role that's very frightening to a lot of actors. That level of exposure and vulnerability and physical discomfort. Also the fact that you're essentially carrying the movie on your shoulders without having arms or any mobility really for most of it. It takes an extraordinary level of bravery. I can't imagine anyone else playing the part. It was a hard search to find Carla and I'm just so glad we did because if it had gone another way, I think the whole enterprise would've collapsed.

gerald's game stephen kingI'm sure as a fan you knew the eclipse was the same eclipse in Gerald's Game and Delores Claiborne. Even though the movies were 22 years apart, do you imagine they could still be the same eclipse?

In my imagination they are. I can't separate those two stories in my head just being a fan. The math [doesn't work out]. I was kind of hoping against hope there would be a secret Delores Claiborne adaptation that would come out sometime in the next six months that could really just link it all together officially for the cinematic world. As far as I'm concerned, those two characters and those two stories are kind of permanently connected. It was really important for me to try to at least shine a subtle light in the direction of Delores in this, which I think fans will appreciate but won't knock anybody else out of it.

How did you direct Chiara Aurelia about what was happening in the eclipse scene?

Oh, to be honest, it's one of the things about working with young actors which I've done quite a bit at this point, we were all so incredibly uncomfortable with the content of the scene. I think the person who was the least upset by it was Chiara who got a little impatient with us as we went through. It was like, "Okay, guys, let's stop walking on egg shells. I can handle it. I know what the part is. I know what's happening in the scene. Let's do the scene." I think we were overly cautious of how we dealt with her because at the end of the day, she had a complete grasp of it and got a little impatient with our squeamishness. I had viewed both the eclipse scene and the bedroom scene that takes place afterwards as the two most horrific scenes of the film. A lot of horrible stuff happens in this movie but those were the two scariest, most upsetting scenes for me. I know for Henry as well, we were both really feeling it as we were getting closer to those scenes. He has a daughter that's about Chiara's age and I know that was some of the more difficult work he's ever had to do. We actually filmed both of those scenes, we had almost no coverage in the bedroom except for the closeups. I think we did two takes on each and called it a day. The eclipse stuff, we just tried to get through those scenes as quickly and efficiently as possible. They weren't scenes we wanted to hose down with coverage and force people to have to live in any longer than necessary. Chiara understood the material really, really well and went into it with the kind of bravery I think even the older actors and older crew members involved didn't have that level of bravery that she had.

Cujo is an obvious callout when there's a dog in a Stephen King story. What are some other Easter eggs fans may have missed?

There's a really critical nod to The Dark Tower that happens toward the end of the movie in a line that Bruce Greenwood says to Carla, which is "All things serve the beam." That was one I really wanted to make sure we got in there just because I'm a Dark Tower fanatic. You'll hear a couple other things dropped like she describes the Moonlight Man as "her visitor with the bag of bones." We drop a couple titles in there. At one point, when Henry's talking to Chiara and recommending they tell her mother what happened, he says, "I think we should just take our medicine" which is what Jack Torrance would call after Danny Torrance as he chased him through the halls of The Overlook Hotel. Of course, Cujo was right there to be had.

Does the epilogue go a little further than it did in the book?

A little bit. It's funny, the epilogue was one of the most polarizing aspects of the book. Even die hard King fans are very split about how they feel about that coda so I expected the same reaction to the movie. But being the fan I am, if I'm doing this, I'm going to do it faithfully. I love it. One of the things about that epilogue is that without seeing the effects that this experience has had on her life and without giving her a moment to confront not only Joubert but Joubert to me is kind of a conglomerate of all the crimes that have been committed against her by the men in the movie, wrapped up into one diseased figure. In the novel I think she spits in his face when she finally gets face to face with him. We acted against that. We thought, to go through all this, the message we wanted to send was something that wasn't violent and wasn't a primal reaction, but something that took all of that, acknowledged and minimized it as much as possible, made it as small as possible and let her turn her back. We worked on it throughout production. We weren't sure what would happen in that courtroom until about a week before we filmed it. That's when we had the idea that the last line of the movie, which is, "You're so much smaller than I remember" is actually the first line we hear young Jessie say about the lake house with her dad. When she says it, he responds with what is pretty much the point of the film for me. When little Jessie sees the house and says, "It's so much smaller than I remember." He says, "That's because you're bigger." The symmetry of that felt for me like the right ending. I felt that without all of that at the end, it's going to divide people about whether or not they felt liked the movie required it or not, I think without that coda, everything in the movie just means a little less.

[Co-writer Jeff Howard] told me that the Haunting of Hill House show you're developing for Netflix is more of a family drama with scares. Does that mean creating new characters to be this family?

There's definitely some need for invention. The Shirley Jackson novel, of which I'm a devoted follower, the material that's in the novel can comfortably fit in a feature film, but expanding it for a season of television is pretty difficult. So it required us to come from a place of being as true as possible to Shirley's style and intentions, but allowing the story to expand so we can make a really long, detailed arc. So we've had to make some inventions but I think fans of Shirley Jackson's will be pleased.

Are there different tactics for scaring people in their own homes with these Netflix movies and series, versus in a theater?

Oh absolutely. One of the primary differences is that the tension you create in an environment when you're working for Netflix isn't going to be interrupted necessarily. You're not listening to the other people in the theater around you. You're hopefully not distracting yourself, which I know a lot of people do when they watch at home, but you're not interrupted with commercials with the Netflix shows. And, you can sit there and power through three or four episodes at a time. You can binge it which means that you're not in the business of creating these isolated little pockets of tension. You can sustain it throughout the run time which is something that's so exciting. I love the communal theater experience. I always will. I had the privilege of seeing Gerald's Game with the Fantastic Fest audience. Just hearing them all lose their sh*t is one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had, but I think there's an intimacy to home viewing that's going to make Gerald's Game, and certainly worked very well for Hush. There's nothing quite as satisfying as turning off a movie that really gets under your skin in the safety of your own home, looking around and realizing that your sense of safety is now gone, or at least threatened for a little bit.

That's so interesting. I think the biggest difference for me between the book Gerald's Game and the movie is I'm 25 years older, but it's also that I watched the movie in a straight shot. The book took me a few weeks to finish reading on and off. 

I think that's very true. With the way we're used to reading books and the way we're used to experiencing television shows, all that has changed. We're kind of locked in the chamber with these stories now and I think that's a wonderful thing. I think that's the tradeoff you gain when you give up the theatrical component for projects like this.