Doctor Sleep and The Haunting of Hill House

Mike Flanagan has directed many a horror film and even has a successful Stephen King feature film adaptation under his belt. But it was his work with the Netflix anthology horror series The Haunting of Hill House that helped prepare him best for Doctor Sleep.

The first season of the 10-episode anthology series was Flanagan’s first major foray into scripted television, and presented all manner of obstacles for the filmmaker. /Film visited the set of Doctor Sleep, and learned from Flanagan and producer Trevor Macy how The Haunting of Hill House played an influence on how they approached the upcoming The Shining sequel.

The Haunting of Hill House was a major hit for Flanagan, who saw a breakout success with the Netflix anthology series. Though Flanagan has been directing feature films for nearly two decades, the director revealed to journalists at the Doctor Sleep set visit that he learned some critical things while writing and directing The Haunting of Hill House.

“Drawing out any narrative for 10 hours…it seems like a really exciting prospect when you start. But keeping all the plates spinning is really, really difficult,” Flanagan said. “As much as people like to talk about structure and rhythm when it comes to genre moments, the thing that really gives a story a sturdy skeleton is character development.”

Flanagan had “believed for a long time” that character was always essential when it came to longform storytelling, but Haunting of Hill House confirmed that for him, he said:

“I think the only thing that makes Hill House endurable for a viewer is the character work, because as carefully as we tried to pace out the scares, and as carefully as we tried to make sure each episode kind of ticked a few boxes for the genre requirements, I really don’t think it as a story could have sustained itself if we didn’t put as much energy into the characterizations as we did. And that was a lesson that the cast and I were constantly relearning and refining as we went. That if we started to drift away from who each of those characters really were, and stopped thinking of them as the engine of a particular episode, and instead started looking at the genre stuff, we started to lose steam. And on a shoot that long…you know, it was almost a full year…I mean, these eight months of straight shooting, on a shoot that long, it’s almost impossible to keep momentum going, and if we start to drag the story followed suit. So it definitely more than anything kind of has made me…I’ve always believed that everything comes out of the character work. But I know for a fact now.”

That enabled him to tackle the “sprawling story” of Doctor Sleep, Flanagan said. More than working the other Stephen King adaptation that he recently directed, Gerald’s Game, Flanagan said that The Haunting of Hill House and its character work was what explicitly prepared him for Doctor Sleep.

That was great training ground for a lot of work we’re doing here too. But it’s the same philosophy. You know, we’re leaning heavily on three really fascinating characters, who don’t really fully collide with each other until the end. We’ve got Dan’s movie, Abra’s movie, and Rose’s movie, and the way we braid those together and kind of bounce off of each other…it thematically doesn’t really doesn’t really bring those worlds together until our final act. And that’s a really fun structural difference for me. It’s neat kind of juggling three narratives. Hill House was definitely a great way to kind of flex those muscles early and get ready for this.

With such a sprawling ensemble and wide-reaching narrative, did Flanagan and producer Trevor Macy, who had worked with Flanagan on Haunting of Hill House, ever consider taking Doctor Sleep to television? “The short answer is no,” Macy said. Haunting of Hill House was their first major TV project, but it was one suited toward the medium, he said, adding, “I mean, we always thought of [Doctor Sleep] structurally as a movie from a story point of view. So if we thought creatively it might be more interesting as a series we would’ve pitched it. The source material is certainly long enough to warrant, you know, a longer telling.”

Doctor Sleep opens on November 8, 2019.

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