From director Mike Flanagan, the 10-episode supernatural drama series The Haunting of Hill House (available to stream on Netflix) is a modern reimagining of the acclaimed Shirley Jackson novel of the same name. As the story weaves an unsettling tale that focuses on five siblings who grew up in the most famous haunted house in America, the audience gets to see how that experience affects them now as adults when they’re reunited by the suicide of their youngest sister. That tragedy forces them to finally confront the ghosts of their past, but when it comes to Hill House, that could also mean some real ghosts are lurking in the shadows.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, done while he was on a break from shooting The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep, filmmaker Mike Flanagan talked about why he was drawn to the material in The Haunting of Hill House, rearranging the pieces of the story to make something new, how directing all 10 episodes was the hardest thing he’s ever done, when he realized that he was actually pulling off what he had hoped to achieve, and balancing serious real-life issues with the supernatural horror of it all. He also talked about what drew him to Doctor Sleep, why he’ll turn off the internet for two weeks when the movie comes out, and the film’s rating.
Collider: I’ve watched all 10 episodes of this and sincerely have to congratulate you on what I think is really, truly a masterpiece of storytelling. Thank you for that!
MIKE FLANAGAN: Oh, thank you for that. That makes my day. Thank you!
What made you want to tackle this material, specifically? What it the potential for the horror that was inherent in the story, or was it more the complex family drama that had the horror woven into it?
FLANAGAN: Well, I’m always drawn to the drama first. A story is really only interesting to me, if you can remove all of the genre moments and remove the supernatural element, and it still works. Then, I’m interested. This one, in particular, I worshipped when I was a kid. I also adore the Robert Wise film, which is the ‘63 adaptation. I think that is a near perfect adaptation of this material. And so, when they approached me about this and said, “We want to make a series based on The Haunting of Hill House,” my first question was, “How?” It fits so perfectly into a feature film format. There isn’t enough for a whole season of television. Not as it is. You’re stepping into Robert Wise’s shadow, and you’re not gonna do that material better than he did it. So, how are you to do this? The answer for me was doing a reverent remix that would dig out the characters, the theme, the moments, the lines of dialogue or prose from the book, and just rearrange them all to see if we could make something new. I’m always drawn toward family drama, and dysfunctional family stories. It speaks to me, in a really profound way, and I think there’s so much to explore within it. The whole thing just started to get pulled in that direction, once we opened up the source material.
Was it your idea to do 10 episodes, or was that the number that you had been given to explore this with? And were you always going to direct all of them?
FLANAGAN: Well, that was quite a discussion. Ten always felt right. I thought you could do a really balanced story in 10 chapters. From the beginning, I wanted to direct all of them. It was a big conversation about whether or not that was a good idea, and I went back and forth on that. Ultimately, I did it, and it was the hardest thing that I’ve ever done. I don’t know that I could ever do it again. It’s brutal. Now, I look at it, and I can see why people come in and do a couple of episodes. That makes sense. But this story, in particular, touches on a lot that’s very personal to me. I really wanted, for this one, to be at the helm for all of it.
How did you approach the production of this? Did you shoot it all at once, as if you were shooting a movie?
FLANAGAN: We shot it like we were doing a 10-hour movie. We cross-boarded it like a movie. We would do blocks of three episodes at a time, all cross-boarded around each other. So, it felt like we were making five movies, back to back. It was exhausting. It was impossible to stay ahead of it all.
During any shoot, there are countless unexpected things that happen and you have to figure out how to deal with all of it, as it comes up. So, as you were prepping this, shooting this, and then going through post on this, what were you most nervous about, along the way, and when did you realize that you had actually achieved what you’d hoped for?
FLANAGAN: I think I was most nervous about maintaining tension, over such a long period of time. That was something that was all new territory for me. And I think I really started to feel like we hit our stride and that it was going to work when we shot Episode 6, which was the hardest episode of the series, by a mile. When I got to sit back and watch that episode start to come to life, that was the first time I really felt like, “We’re gonna be okay. We’re doing something really cool here.” You’re always second guessing yourself.