The Story Behind The Most Important Scene In 'Doctor Sleep' (And How It Won Over Stephen King)

The most important scene in Doctor Sleep isn't in the trailers. You won't find a glimpse of it in the marketing. And a recognizable actor, who appears exclusively in this scene, has been left out of just about every cast list. It's all by design, of course. Because the most important scene in Doctor Sleep is a big swing from writer/director Mike Flanagan, one that he knew would prove controversial with horror fans. Somehow, it works. Heck, it's even the scene that convinced author Stephen King to give the movie his blessing.

I was able to speak with Flanagan and his longtime producer Trevor Macy about the scene, their conversations with King, the casting of that actor, and more. There are major spoilers for Doctor Sleep from this point on.

Winning Over the King

As you may expect, there was one major hurdle involved in the early days of Doctor Sleep: winning over author Stephen King. After all, King has never been shy about his disdain for Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film adaptation, so any plan to make that movie canon would require walking on some thin ice.

However, Mike Flanagan had one scene, not present in either The Shining or the novel of Doctor Sleep, in his back pocket – an encounter between Dan Torrance and the ghost of his father, Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson in Kubrick's production). Despite being purely the work of Flanagan himself, this is the scene that convinced King to allow Doctor Sleep to return to Kubrick's Overlook Hotel. As Flanagan told us:

This was the scene that convinced Stephen King to let us go back to The Overlook. That was my whole pitch. I said, "I want to go back to The Overlook." He said, "No, I don't want to go back to The Overlook. I did that very intentionally." And I said, "But imagine, if you will, Dan Torrance, walking through The Overlook alone, comes to the bar where a drink is waiting and the bartender is there, and the bartender is his father and they talk." And that's what made him say, "OK, I would like to see that."

While the scene was enough to win the blessing of King, everyone involved knew it would be a highwire act that would require some careful writing, casting, and filming to pull off. As producer Trevor Macy explained, it's the kind of thing that may not work on paper – you have to see in action to fully understand and appreciate:

That was the most discussed scene in the movie from the time it was conceived until today. We've been quiet about it with everybody for an obvious reason, the same reason we were happy to have it be presented to the world, but we don't want to discuss it philosophically. You need to see it.

Recreating a Horror Icon

With the scene written, the next stop was a big one. Who do you cast to fill the boots of a horror icon like Jack Torrance? Flanagan new from the start that the scene would prove controversial among fans and critics, chiefly because the shadow of Jack Nicholson looms so large. The trick, Flanagan realized, was to capture the spirit of the character without asking an actor to do a potentially hokey Nicholson impression:

That was the whole reason I wanted to make the film. I knew immediately it was going to be the most controversial scene in the movie because of Jack Nicholson. There was no interest in my part in doing a digital Jack. I thought the technology would rip you out, and this is about Dan, it's not about Jack. So it became about, how do we best present Jack Torrance? So we're using the Kubrick visual language in everything else, so it's gotta be someone we recognize as Kubrick's Torrance. But that doesn't necessarily mean Jack Nicholson. The same way we approached Wendy and Dick Hallorann and young Danny. The mission was to try to cast actors who remind us of those performers, but who aren't doing a parody, who aren't doing an imitation.

While the production ultimately decided to recast the role with an actor, Macy does acknowledge that digital trickery and recreation was something that hovered over the early conversations, even if they decided to not go that route:

Obviously, Nicholson's Jack Torrance is iconic. There's no two ways about it. But, there's mythology of the hotel that serves the story, which is you live as a denizen of The Overlook as you were the day you died. So there was no version in the world where we could cast somebody who wasn't 40. There were a lot of conversations, all exploratory, nothing went down the road of "Jack's going to be de-aged" or anything like that. And he's firmly retired, so that was not a conversation that went anywhere, but we did talk about it. At the end of the day, we're casting Jack Torrance, not Jack Nicholson. Like Wendy Torrance and Dick Hallorann, we needed to cast somebody who was familiar enough to viewers of Kubrick, but not doing an imitation.

Ultimately, Flanagan cast Henry Thomas, the character actor who has worked with the director on multiple occasions (including his stunning work in Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House), to take on the part. But Flanagan also made sure Thomas knew what he was getting into:

Henry is one of my best friends, one of my favorite actors to work with, and I called him up and said, "I have two parts that I think you'd be perfect for in this. One is Billy, the best friend part. You could play it in your sleep. You've done it a million times. You know that part. The other one, though, I just need you for one day, but holy shit, will you be under the microscope." I let him think about it, and he came back and said, "Look, if you're stepping into Kubrick's shadow with all the pitfalls of that, I'll go with you and I'll step into Jack's and we'll sink or swim together."

Sticking to Kubrick's Rules

While this new Jack Torrance scene won over Stephen King, it was decided that the inclusion of the character would have to stick to the rules established by Stanley Kubrick in the 1980 film. As Macy explains, the key was to echo the ghost of Delbert Grady from the first film, a specter whose identity had been rewritten by the power of the Overlook Hotel:

Really, the guy who did the blueprint of that was Kubrick, with Delbert Grady. The idea that – we always call him The Bartender – is little part Lloyd, little part Jack, is a nod to how Kubrick handled Delbert Grady, who may or may not have been the caretaker. That kind of ambiguity, we felt like was central to the mythology and that's how Henry approached the character.

These rules turned out to be a blessing for both Flanagan and Thomas. It allowed Thomas to play Jack Torrance as Jack Torrance, never even allowing for a moment of Nicholson's iconic mania. After all, as Flanagan noted, attempting to imitate that could've derailed the entire performance:

So what we did with it, was we decided that Kubrick had shown us how to handle Jack with Delbert Grady. He had made it clear that when the hotel digests you and you're part of the hotel, Delbert always denied who he was. He was just a waiter. Even as Jack Torrance called him out and said, "You're Delbert Grady, you killed your family," he said, "You've mistaken me for someone else. I'm just the help." That was the key to Jack. As long as we weren't ever trying to do "Here's Johnny!" and we weren't ever trying to do Nicholson at his most Nicholson, because no one is capable of doing that – if he was Lloyd, then that was the scene.

Ultimately, Flanagan is thankful that Henry Thomas wasn't tasked with having to pull off a full-on Jack Nicholson impression and the filmmaker feels the scene is all the stronger for it:

Henry's whole mission was, "I don't play Jack. I play Lloyd and now and again, here and there, for a sentence or two, for a look, for a moment, Jack comes out a little bit." It was the most respectful way we could think to do it. That way, it kept us out of some crazy digital creation. It kept us out of trying to out-Nicholson Nicholson, which is just a fool's errand. It kept us out of doing some kind of pale imitation or parody, and it let us do Jack Torrance in a way that was consistent with the mythology that Kubrick created, consistent with the iconography and the look that Kubrick created, but was still Henry's character.

Doing Right By Dan Torrance

Flanagan knows that people will be divided by the scene and the choice to cast a new actor as Jack Torrance. In conversation, Flanagan himself makes it clear that the whole scene was a tough one to conceive and create because they were dealing with such potentially explosive material. However, the scene is also the crux of Dan Torrance's emotional arc and Flanagan believes it's the best scene in the movie:

I know people are going to have strong feelings about it. I do, too. I walked down every possible road and this was the only one that felt appropriate. I love the scene. It's my favorite scene in the movie. The three of us – Henry, Ewan, and I – knew as we sat down to do it, it was like, "You know, we're not going to please people with this. People are going to love it or hate it. Let's do our best to make a scene about what a conversation between Dan and his dad – and, in a sense, Dan and his own addiction – what that conversation would be. If we do right by Dan, we'll do right by everything else." So I hope we did. We'll see.

Doctor Sleep is in theaters now.