'Doctor Sleep' Director Mike Flanagan On Reconciling King And Kubrick, Finding Hope In Horror, And Why His Work Is Full Of Hand Injuries [Interview]

With Doctor Sleep, writer/director Mike Flanagan finds himself serving three masters. First, there's Stanley King, who penned The Shining and its literary sequel, the subject of this new film. Then there's Stanley Kubrick, whose iconic 1908 film adaptation of The Shining has legions of fans but remains hated by King himself. And then there's Flanagan himself, the impressive filmmaker behind The Haunting of Hill House, Gerald's Game, Hush, and more, whose distinctive voice blends chills with honest sentimentality.

I attended an early screening of Doctor Sleep in Estes Park, Colorado, home to the famous Stanley Hotel, the place where a young Stephen King was inspired to write The Shining in the first place. And the real miracle is this: Flanagan has made a movie that is a direct sequel to Kubrick's film, a loving tribute to King's original vision, and, most importantly, a proper Mike Flanagan movie through and through.

Shortly before I sat down to interview Flanagan, I learned that he was staying in the famously haunted Room 428 (AKA "The Cowboy Room")  at the Stanley Hotel, the same room I had stayed in prior to his arrival. Figuring this would be my only chance to talk to a noteworthy horror director about our experiences in the same haunted room, I used that to break the ice.

Maybe a slightly odd question to start with, but I was told you were in Room 428?


I was in there the other night before you arrived. So we have two people who have both been in a famously haunted room. Did you see anything or hear anything or feel anything odd while you were in the infamous Cowboy Room?

I did not see the Cowboy. The biggest thing I noticed was the wind against the window and the wall that night was loud, like a fist punching the wall. Those noises were startling, but no, I didn't see anything.

I heard movement above me, where there is no place for there to be movement.

That's messed up! I've stayed in there before, though. The first time I ever stayed here, I stayed in that room.

I'm a skeptic by nature, but I believe in ghosts. Where do you fall on this?

I'm a skeptic by nature, and I do not yet believe in ghosts. But I'm wide open. Like any good skeptic, my mind is wide open to the possibility and I actively seek it out. That's why I ask for rooms like that.

Do you think that's part of the thrill of being a horror fan? Wanting to find that stuff?

Yeah, nothing would make me happier. Because even if I have a really scary experience, to be able to say with certainty that there is something waiting for us on the other side of this life would be so cool. I'd love to know that. For me, it doesn't feel knowable, and I haven't seen it. But I know other people claim to have, and who am I to argue with that?

Interestingly, Doctor Sleep also has a similar viewpoint of "life goes on," and in the world of Doctor Sleep and lots of Stephen King stories, being a ghost isn't necessarily a curse. It's being there to watch and help the people you love.


Can you talk a little bit about finding the optimism in your horror? I feel like you, like Stephen King, are an optimist at heart. I feel like you believe people were persevere.

Yes, I do. I didn't always used to be this way, either. It's funny, I look back at some of my early work – when I watch Absentia, for example, I'm like, 'Wow, that's bleak.' Oculus is bleak. That optimism has kind of grown in me as I've gotten older, and it's grown in me because I had children and I want to be optimistic for them. I want the world to be OK for them. And it's because I met my wife and as my life congealed into a really positive thing, for the first time I wanted to believe in those things. I wanted to have faith in the existence, in the universe and purpose and justice. I want to believe all of that. It's comforting for my kids. I can't imagine them growing up in a world that is completely indifferent and hopeless. That wrecks me. I can't let it happen.

It's interesting, because you also see that in Stephen King's work. He grows more humanist as work goes on, and even the creator of The Walking Dead, Robert Kirkman, ended his comic book run recently and wrote an essay in the last issue saying that his original plan was to end it with humanity wiped out, but changed to the opposite ending because over the years he had kids and realized he could not bring himself to do that. Do you agree with me when I say that there's a wisdom in growing older with horror like that?

Yeah, I think so. I agree with that completely. I think, when you look at what horror is meant to do, it's a safe space for us to entertain the things that scare us the most. As a kid, I used to look at it as a chance to be brave in short bursts. That making it through a scary movie or reading a scary book, when I didn't want to look at the screen anymore or hide behind my fingers or a pillow, if I was able to push through that for five minutes, for 90 minutes, whatever it was, that was like exercise. I think even our darkest expressions of the genre are really a wonderful exercise for us to cathartically – they say when you're really terrified of something happening, [you should try] exposure therapy. Experience it. Realize it isn't the end of the world. See how you react to it. See how you really are on the other side of an experience like that, because there's nothing flimsier than untested virtue. I think horror is optimistic, because it basically says that for as dark as this is, as scary as it is, it's going to end and you'll still be here. As the viewer, as the reader, you carry on. I think it's incredible.

You've spoken before about how childhood trauma and its effects is like horror to you because you had a good childhood, so that scares you. But my real question, the pressing question, is why are you so afraid of hand trauma?


Because in Doctor Sleep and Gerald's Game, my hands hurt so much!

It's become a running gag now. I have a phobia of fingernail injuries. It's the most uncomfortable thing I can imagine. In Oculus, we had a scene where Rory [Cochrane] pulls off his thumbnail. I still haven't been able to watch the whole thing. I can't. It was a reshoot. It was a last minute addition to the movie. I was against it because I'm so uncomfortable with it and I can't look at it. But with Hush, Hush was kind of, in a lot of ways, it was me feeling like I was never going to be able to make Gerald's Game. Kind of riffing on a lot of things that are in that book. The crushing hand injury in that felt right for that story, and it was also kind of Gerald's Game-y. But I didn't have a vendetta against hands.

But then with Gerald's Game, it was like, OK, now it's starting to feel like a vendetta. And with [The] Haunting [of Hill House], Henry stuck his hand in the fan, he was like, "You're starting to do this on purpose, aren't you?" In Doctor Sleep, that's why happens to her hand in the book. It gets pretty mangled. But I was like, "Here we go again!" At this point, it's just becoming a dare, like how can I get a really gruesome hand injury in there. Because fuck hands! What do they do for anyone? Nothin'. But yeah, it's just kind of fun.

I think the strength of gore like that is we don't know what it's like to have our face ripped off by a masked killer, but we've all stubbed our finger, we've all had a hangnail. We all know what that feels like.

Yeah, it's like when you pull that hangnail just a little too far, and the tiny little tear happens? We all know how that feels. Because we use our hands for so much of our lives, an injury to those? It's really frightening to me. It's eyes and hands for me. Having any impediment to sight or being able to manipulate things. It scares me to death.

Doctor Sleep, by returning to many of the ideas and imagery of Stephen King's original novel The Shining, in addition to being a sequel to Kubrick's film, feels like a direct response to saying Kubrick's worldview is "we're doomed" and Doctor Sleep's view is "no, we're not." So I want to talk about your process of staying true to Kubrick while also putting Stephen King's proper vision out there in front of millions of people for the first time.

Yeah, and that was one of the things that was so exciting to me about this, was being able to do the ending of The Shining. To do the ending of the novel. But I don't know if I'd put it all on Kubrick, to say that he's got this kind of "we're all doomed" [outlook]. I don't know that I can speak to his worldview that definitively. What I will say, though, is that The Shining is very much about addiction, which is doom. It's about annihilation and the destruction of a family. How addition can destroy an individual, and how that destruction can reach out and destroy others around it. I think that's what King was writing about the most. He always had this note of redemption and sacrifice to it. He had this wish of how it would go, and Kubrick was more interested in the madness. He was more interested in the destruction, for sure.

But I think Doctor Sleep, written by the same author but with decades of sobriety under his belt, Doctor Sleep is about recovery. In the way that addiction feels like doom and annihilation, recovery is rebirth, and recovery is salvation, in a way. I think they're two sides of the same coin, these stories. I think Kubrick gravitated very naturally toward certain notes of that story. And clearly, Stephen King, I think, desperately wanted the redemption because he needed it for himself and he needed it for his own family. When that wasn't included in the movie, I think he took that personally, and I understand why he would. But I think that's why he's so passionate about it. To finally kind of be able to give him back in this story, it was an honor to be able to do that. I hope, though, that we're also able to honor Stanley Kubrick and the masterpiece of cinema that he made. Because as many liberties as he took with it, he made a film that has profoundly formed me and has shaped the way I see cinema, and will always. That was the hope. Not to say, "this was right" or "this was wrong" or "this is the real Shining and this isn't," it was more to try to pull all of that together and celebrate all of it.


The rest of the interview delves into spoilers and will run on Monday. Prepare for that by checking out Doctor Sleep, which is in theaters now.