The wheel finally comes around for one of the most successful Stephen King adaptations yet.
Gerald’s Game premieres on Netflix this Friday (September 29th). Often cited as the impossible adaptation, director Mike Flanagan (Hush, Before I Wake) and producer Trevor Macy (Auto Focus, The Bye Bye Man) fought off derision and the confusion of others to bring this passion project into reality. It’s a staggering work of performance that may be Carla Gugino’s masterpiece. I was lucky enough to sit down with the two creators to discuss just how they cracked the transition from page to screen. We talk the challenges tackling such heavy, real-life horror, the pleasures of practical effects, and the approval of Stephen King.
I read that book, was it ’92 when it came out? So I would have been 12 or 13 years old. I remember it was middle school and I would read this book in the back of the school bus. That’s how I made friends.
Trevor: I needed somebody like you on my bus.
It was a book that I did not understand then, but it had a tremendous impact. When I heard that this production was going to happen, it blew my mind. You talk about it being the unfilmable novel –
I thought it certainly was.
Mike: I did too.
I understand you’ve been trying to make this movie for –
Mike: Half my life.
Ok. So, why?
Mike: I imagine that we probably had very similar reactions to it. I was a little older. I was in college when I read it. I was stunned by the book. I had never had such an immersive, visceral kinda breathless experience reading a book in my life. I put it down and I was, ‘Holy shit.’ Not only was that incredibly intense and harrowing, I felt like I had gotten to know a character more thoroughly in the course of reading the book than maybe I ever had before. It was such a perfectly complexly drawn heroine that he had created. So I put it down and I was like ‘this is one of my favorite of his books’ and I’m a ‘constnt reader’ so I’m a King fanatic. I was ‘God I would love to see this made into a movie.’ But I was also like ‘it’s unfilmable. It’s not possible.’ But it would never let me alone. For years I would just keep turning it over in my head and kind of be like ‘well, what would it look like?’ What would the experience of watching it be? How can you make a movie that approximates the way I felt when I read it. It took me years to crack a couple of key little changes that would allow me to take so much of his amazing prose and description, and that’s all just internal in the book, and just put it in someone’s mouth. And let somebody be able to bring it up onto the screen. I wanted to make the movie before I got to make Absentia and Oculus. This was always the one. I would carry it in my bag before I went to general meetings. Before I was getting a foot in the door as a writer, because when you run out of things to talk about and they don’t like your ideas, they always kinda end the meeting with ‘so what’s your dream project.’ I would pull It out, ‘I want to do Gerald’s Game!’ And if they knew the book they would say, ‘why?’ or they’d say like ‘how? That’s not a movie.’ If they didn’t know the book I could maybe get thirty seconds into the pitch and they would say ‘wait, that’s not a movie.’ It just took forever.
Trevor: When we started working together and it became apparent that we would work together for a while, I knew he wanted to do this. I read the book, I hadn’t read it, and I’m like ‘let’s get a couple under our belt first.’
Mike: There was a sense that this was my Everest! This is gonna be amazing if we can ever get there. There were elements of it that, when I look back at my movies, that were practice. We didn’t know how it would play to have this other version of her communicating with her so we tried it for a couple minutes in Hush. Just to kinda try it out.
Huh, I had not put that together.
Mike: It’s like these tiny little rehearsals that would happen along the way. In our structure of our last ten minutes, we tried that kind of narrated epilogue structure in Before I Wake, and so there were all these little practices –
Trevor: The history section in Oculus is very much a way of how to get across a ton of information in a confined space without loosing an audience.
Mike: Two character in one space. How do you move the camera enough in a tiny space for fifteen minutes to hold people’s attention. So there were a lot of little practices along the way. And then after Hush had performed the way it had performed for Netflix, and we had taken our Gerald’s Game script out and financiers were like ‘no’ and Netflix was like ‘you know what, yeah, we’ll take a shot at this and let you do it your way.’ Once that opportunity presented itself, we had to do this now. Who knows how long these stars will stay aligned. It was a really unique experience for me because when we finished it and finsiehd the mix. We were about to do our first final playback on the mix stage and they had qued up the movie and they had assembled the movie and it was all done and it kind of dawned on me that I had been waiting to see this movie for nineteen years. I turned to the sound crew that was in there and said ‘We get to watch Gerald’s Game! How crazy is that? I never thought I’d get to watch Gerald’s Game and I got to just watch it like a King fan. It’s been a wild trip to with one.
My fear, or dread even, going into the screening this morning, was that it could easily have fallen into exploitation and been the ugliest movie ever produced.
Trevor: (Laughing) That was our pitch!
But it comes out as this real hero’s tale. Jessie is…I don’t want to spoil the ending, but when she gets through it…I want to high-five people around me because I’m so happy.
Mike: That’s awesome. I love that! It’s a unique triumph for that character. One of the things that I loved about the book was that it wasn’t just a triumph over a situation or a monster or a vampire or the other things that characters triumph over in the brief amount of time that we spend with them in a movie. This was someone who in order to move forward with her life, had to achieve a real victory over her own past. Things that were and were not in her control. I thought that was just so cool. The monster in the movie lives in her head. The victory isn’t even the cuffs. They’re just the expression of that in her physical world. The things that she has to survie and overcome are all inside. And having to confront the things we want to confront the least. It’s something that the book accomplished beautifully and that was why we wanted to make it.
Trevor: Everybody can relate to that in one way or another. You never get to choose quite when it comes back to confront you.
Mike: But you’re gonna have to. The wheel comes around.
Did you ever think about not including the flashbacks?
Mike: We talked about it. I thought we couldn’t say we were faithfully adapting the film without them. And they were so critical to her as a character. I was more afraid to do those scenes more than anything else in the movie. I was nervous throughout that those would be the most difficult to do. They were the most perilous as far as where the tone could tilt if we weren’t careful. If you go too far this way then you’re fetishizing something, and if you go too far the other way then you’re just exploiting it. How do we thread that needle and keep it very honest and human? And make sure that the connections that are essential to the journey she’s going on are represented but that we never do anything that’s gross with them. That’s really hard to do. Those are the scariest scenes for me to shoot and watch.
Trevor: This whole thing, this whole process in a certain way, has been about doing what scares you. Make the movie, portray the characters a certain way, adapt in a faithful way. That’s been the hallmark of this whole thing. I think we’ve done that in pretty much everything we’ve done together, but this is The Crucible.
Mike: This is so much more real. You’re dealing with things that happen all the time and do ruin lives and change people. That’s a lot harder to manage that than an evil Ouija board – which is fun – but the human stakes of it aren’t like this. We knew when we were doing Ouija, we hoped that the scariest scene was when the kid was on the ceiling. That would be really scary! But with this, the scariest scene of this movie is a conversation that happens between Henry and Chiara. That’s the scariest scene. To get that right? That scared me a lot more than some of the bigger set pieces that I’ve ever had to wrap my head around. And that’s just two shots. Its just two closeups.
It definitely got me. I didn’t want to see it. When it appeared I said, ‘don’t do this, don’t do this.’
Mike: ‘Noooooo! I don’t want to hear this.’ It’s the most monstrous thing that happens in a movie that a lot of really awful things happen. That conversation is the most horrific element of the whole story. And it’s almost verbatim from the book.
But you do find way to have fun in the film too.
Mike: Sure! You have to or it’s going to be unbearable!
Right. And you get to a moment where – I think it’s maybe the most uncomfortable gore effect I’ve seen in a looooong time.
Mike: (Laughter) Bob Kurtzman will be thrilled to hear that.
That early AM press screening with all the yawns before the film starts, but when you get to that, everybody was freaking out.
Mike: It’s still fun for me to watch people watch that because he just goes on for so long. My DP has never seen it all the way through. Even when we were shooting it, we’d get a certain amount and he’d be ‘Nope! It’s in frame, it’s lit, it’s in focus, I’m just going to look over here.’ That part of the book when I read it, it’s like you’re flinching away from the page and you have to keep going. I wanted it to feel that way. How can you do Gerald’s Game and not do that. I’m glad that’s landing because that struck me in the book as even more impactful than – it was a hobbling in Misery with the sledgehammer, but in the book it was an axe when she cut off the foot. That shot in Misery has burned itself into my brain and I can never unsee it. It’s just perfectly attached in my memory forever.
Trevor: That was the bar we were trying to clear.
Mike: We have to do it at least that well.
Has King seen the film yet?
Mike: Oh yeah. He was the first person to see it.
And did you get the thumbs up?
Mike: I did! He loved the movie and he sent me an email describing why he liked the movie. I’m not exaggerating when I say I printed it, framed it, and hung it on my wall.
I believe you.
Trevor: Honestly, showing him the script for the first time, and showing him the rough cut for the first time were the two like –
Mike: That was petrifying.
Trevor: Thankfully he was both responsive and quick about it. And it helped that he loved them. He was kind enough to tweet about the rough cut which was a real shot in the arm.
Mike: And he can be really hard on his adaptations. Famously so. You know, Kubrick didn’t clear the bar for him. It’s kind of the thing, wow, if that’s how he felt about Kubrick then this could go any number of ways. I never wanted to be in the group of films that disappointed King, and I never wanted to be in the group of films that disappointed his fans. I see every adaptation of his work immediately when it comes out. Im very familiar with the King fan rage that kicks in when you see material that’s upsetting.
Sure. I watched The Dark Tower this year. (Everyone laughs) So how did you convince anybody on the cast to join you?
Mike: Stephen King recommended Bruce.
Trevor: We sent him a list of people as you do. He collaborates and approves most bits of his adaptations. Bruce was on it and he said he would really love to see Bruce Greenwood in this. The more we thought about it the more we thought it was a great idea.
Mike: I’ve been a fan of his since The Sweet Hereafter. He was not the Gerald that I had in my head, or that most people who read the book would have in their head, but I thought he was such a dynamic Gerald. Carla Gugino? Phew. (Both Mike and Trevor mime bowing to a goddess) Jessie was a much harder part to cast because she has to carry the movie on her back. That level of vulnerability and exposure and physical torture and emotional torture while removing mobility from her toolkit as an actor is enough to scare off a lot of performers. We wanted someone who would be energized by it, but also know that this pressure, the success of the movie was pretty much squarely on them. Carla, when we first started looking for actors, was not available. She became available as we got closer to production and in discussing the role with her – this is one of the most intelligent, intuitive, and brave actors I’ve ever met – and I remember saying to her ‘If we pull this off, I think this could be the performance of her career.’ I am biased but I believe it is.
Trevor: She did amazing work.
Mike: When she came on board we had a grueling – GRUELING shoot. It was a very difficult film to make for everybody on the cast and crew. And Carla, who had it worse than anybody, came in and just took ownership of her character and lifted the spirits of everyone around her. The crew, the cast. It was interesting because you’d have crew lugging stuff on their fourteenth hour and they’d be like ‘I’m not going to complain’ because there was Carla handcuffed to that bed. In a lot of ways if Carla and Bruce had not ended up being our cast I don’t know if the movie would have worked. I can’t imagine anyone else doing what they did. I think we’re incredibly lucky to have them. Man, I’m always in awe of what they created. I remember sitting back at monitor during some of the monologues, and some of their long scenes together and just being like, ‘I’m riveted watching what you guys are doing.’ And if it’s affecting me over here at video village I can only hope that its’ going to affect a viewer at home even more so. I’m amazed by them.