Why 'Doctor Sleep' Director Mike Flanagan Makes Horror Movies About Family, Trauma And Redemption [Set Visit]

What if one of the best modern horror filmmakers also had a big, gooey heart? That seems to the case with Mike Flanagan, whose work blends visceral scares with shattering humanism. With The Haunting of Hill House, Gerald's Game, Hush, and more, Flanagan has proven adept at breaking hearts and eliciting scares in equal measure, something that will surely serve him well with the upcoming Doctor Sleep.

Based on the novel by Stephen King, Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining and follows a grown-up Danny Torrance as he battles his alcoholism and attempts to overcome his childhood trauma. Of course, there are also psychic vampires to deal with, because this is still a thrilling horror story. In other words, it sounds like the right fit for Flanagan.

When we visited the set of Doctor Sleep late last year, Flanagan was asked why he continuously returns to stories of childhood trauma. Flanagan admits that he doesn't have the same emotional baggage as his characters frequently do, but the idea of a shattered childhood and the repercussions of that terrify him. In other words, they fuel his ideas for scary stories:

It's funny because I think I had a pretty idyllic childhood, but I'm fascinated by the way that traumas that were passed on...not only echo in our present, but how they shape us. That theme..it's not something I was consciously, fully aware I was doing, especially my earlier movies. But as I look back at it, you know that there's definitely a real gravity toward those kind of stories for me. And one of the things about this movie is that, I mean as far as the types of stories that get you out of your chair and really get me excited, this hits all of these. It's like you've got probably the ultimate example of childhood trauma in Dan, and how that affects him as an adult is why I like to tell stories. And the different ways he tries suppress that and dull that shine with alcohol and with removing himself from people. This is kind of like a bingo card for all that I like about stories. Everything is in here. I think the thing for me is because I feel like I had a safe childhood, and I had a very nurturing and warm upbringing, that the idea of the safety of that family unit and the safety of being a child, that protection that you expect, the idea of that being infiltrated and punctured by something – that that really frightens me. And since I've had my own kids, you know, the idea of a threat coming into that family is the kind of stuff that really keeps me up at night. That's the thing I find the scariest. So I think that's why stories like this scare me, and I don't want to work on a movie if it isn't scary to me. So it all seems to kind of always tilt that way, you know? And sometimes in unexpected ways, you know, when we were first developing Ouija, it wasn't like, let's do this as a story about a fractured, traumatized family. You know, it just kind of always goes that way. I don't know how to stop it at this point, so I think it really is just imagining what could have happened in my own upbringing and didn't, thankfully. But that freaks me out the most.

Doctor Sleep is a story about family. Dan Torrance is on the run from the events that destroyed his family. And the film's villains, the above-mentioned group of psychic vampires led by Rebecca Ferguson's Rose the Hat who prey on children with the ability to "shine," also see themselves as a family. Of course this appealed to Flanagan:

It's funny, one of the first things she ever says about them in the book and... I think verbatim for the movie. Snakebite Andy says, "Who's your friend?" and "It's not my friend. That's my family." The True Knot as a family unit that is also threatened from the outside is a really fun, kind of twisted reflection of Dan and Abra. And the True Knot in the book...we're taking them into a bit of a different direction because they went through the kind of kitschy polyester RV culture that I think might be funny if we were to kind of present that literally. So Rebecca and the cast really kind of helped shape this new, very weird, interesting and darker version of them that I think is gonna be a pleasant surprise for a lot of fans of the book. Because as cool as I thought it was in the story, these kind of silver haired, plaid, kind of geriatric vampires. It's funny. And so our cast is much younger because part of the appeal of that family for me is what if you can bring a family unit together like that with the promise of living young forever, which is I think at the heart of all vampiric stories. So we've taken some liberties with that. But you're watching this family unit that just has one kind of caveat ....what keeps them together is the brutal murder of children. But aside from that, when they're not doing that, they really get to live and explore the world, and amass wealth and go where they want and kind of operate completely outside the grid. And that family has its own weird little connections and hierarchies, and she's a very maternal figure and feminist, which is a little different than in the book. And the family suffers its own losses. As viewers, we're going to be like, "Yes, good. Kill them please." So yeah, it's a twisted little family unit and the collision of these two families being kind of completely opposed to each other as far as interests is a really neat balancing act to play with.

And it turns out that Flanagan's interest in family extends beyond the screen and to the crews making his movies. Ewan McGregor, who played Dan Torrance in the film, told us about his directing style, which involves making every single crew member feel invested in not just the technical aspects of their job, but also the story being told:

He's very positive. He's got a very nice, inclusive way of working with the crew, which is unusual in a way. I don't know if you've seen him this morning, but we rehearse a little bit and he brings the crew on and announces the scene. And that's never done. And for most of the crew...they're technicians, they're working people who are taking care of the technical aspects of the film. They're doing light on the scene, taking light off the scene, moving the camera. There are some technicians that aren't involved in the story, necessarily. But Mike pulls everyone into the story by announcing each scene and saying, "About this point in the story, Ewan's character or Kyleigh's character..." And suddenly everyone on set is, whether they like it or not, is drawn into the storytelling of the scene. And that's quite unusual, I don't remember any other director doing that before. So it's quite nice, it feels like everybody pulled together as a team making a film. There's a very good crew here, a lot of people who have worked with Mike on his other work. And that's good. When you feel that people want to work with the director again and again, that's nice.

Doctor Sleep opens in theaters on November 8, 2019.