‘The Haunting of Hill House’: 66 Things We Learned from Mike Flanagan’s Blu-ray Commentary

     October 15, 2019

haunting-of-hill-house-sliceThe Haunting of Hill House emerged from the shadows last year to become something of a phenomenon, not only critically acclaimed but picked over for theories, clues, and hidden ghosts the way only a pop culture breakout could be. Mike Flanagan‘s ten-episode adaptation of Shirley Jackson‘s landmark horror tale arrives on Blu-ray October 15 if you’re looking to continue that ghoul-hunt in high quality. But the selling point for anyone interested in any part the filmmaking process—writing, directing, producing, acting, cinematography, lighting, etc etc—is Flanagan’s commentary on the premiere (“Steven Sees a Ghost”), episode 5 (“The Bent-Neck Lady”), episode 6 (“Two Storms”), and the finale (“Silence Lay Steadily”), three of which are also extended director’s cuts. This was an intensely personal project for Flanagan and all involved, and the amount of insight and emotion he brings to these commentary tracks are some of the best I’ve ever heard.

I rounded up 66 of the most interesting behind-the-scenes facts, anecdotes, and explanations, but it easily could have soared past 100. Especially when it comes to that long-take-filled sixth episode, “Two Storms”, a titanic undertaking that, not to be too dramatic, pretty much almost killed everyone involved.

Check out all the interesting bits below, and for more on the future of the series, make sure to read up on the cast announcements, story details, and the familiar faces returning for The Haunting of Bly Manor.

Episode 1 – “Steven Sees a Ghost” 

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    Image via Netflix

    Flanagan’s first reaction to the project during a general meeting with Amblin was that the source material already fit perfectly into a feature film format with Robert Wise’s The Haunting. “I was confused initially. I loved the titled, I loved the book, but I had no idea how you could stretch it out to ten hours.”

  • He found his way in when he decided to “remix” the material into a story that focused first on family. “We see what happens when a family lives in a haunted house, which is always building up to their escape. What if we started there? What if we saw the escape in the pilot and the meat of the show was about the aftermath? Even decades later, what being a child in a haunted house could to to a person, or to a family?”
  • Shirley Crain is named for the author, Shirley Jackson, while Steven Crain is for Steven Spielberg, “whose love for this material is one of the reasons I was brought in at all,” Flanagan says.
  • The scene in the pilot where Hugh Crain (Henry Thomas) gets back into bed with Olivia (Carla Gugino)was “drastically truncated for what aired.” In the extended edition, the have a sweet, lengthy discussion about parenthood and their children.
  • Flanagan fought for the longer take, because “the bed scene was setting a table for an aesthetic choice throughout the series to let things play out in one shot.”
  • Flanagan on one of a few frustrations with horror: “One of the things that bugs me about the genre is you meet these characters and you don’t see what their life is like before the supernatural elements came into play.”
  • The first moment where the Bent-Neck Lady leans over young Nell Crain (Violet McGraw) was part of Flanagan’s initial pitch to Amblin and Paramount.
  • The Bent-Neck Lady in that moment is actually Victoria Pedretti, painted dark, dark blue. “She looked like an evil Smurf,” Flanagan notes.
  • The first actor cast in the show was Michiel Huisman to play Steven Crain.
  • The scene in which Mrs. Walker (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) tells Steven the story of her dead husband’s ghost is extended on the Blu-ray. “Saidah had to basically deliver a ghost story,” Flanagan says. “This basically set the tone of how we’d tell ghost stories throughout the show….a great ghost story is an immersive monologue.”
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    Image via Netflix

    Flanagan never shot a cut-away or a reverse shot of Steven’s face. He was adamant that we wouldn’t see him until he hit “stop” on the recorder. “The more obvious, and I would argue lazy way to tell this would be to flash to the story she’s telling…I really wanted it to just exist in the imagination.”

  • People wanted the scene to cut to Steven faster, but they didn’t have any footage. The compromise was to cut parts of Mrs. Walker’s monologue and shoot a close up of Steven’s hand and a shot of the recorder. “I didn’t like that. But in the interest of pacing and timing, we cut most of that out.”
  • Steven’s introduction harkens back to one of Flanagan’s favorite character introductions of all time, in “probably my favorite movie of all time”, Casablanca, and the introduction of Humphrey Bogart‘s Rick Blaine.
  • Because Michiel Huisman was the first person cast, the rest of the casting process revolved around him because the Crain siblings had to look at least somewhat related.
  • The scene with young Nell on the couch seeing the Bent-Neck Lady hovering above her was supposed to be in episode 5, but it was added to the pilot to “pull up another scare.”
  • Cinematographer Michael Fimognari and Flanagan have a dare going to include a 90-degree rotation shot in every project they do together. They’ve been successful in everything since Oculus.
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    Image via Netflix

    Flanagan on casting his wife, Kate Siegel, as Theodora Crain: “I love working with Kate on and off-screen. The collaboration of my life, right there.”

  • Victoria Pedretti was cast as Nell Crain off a self-tape. She had never booked an acting job and didn’t even have a headshot at the time. The casting director called Flanagan around 11 o’clock PM the night before they were going to offer the role to someone else. “A minute into her self-tape I knew she was Nell. And a star,” Flanagan says.
  • Mike Flanagan really, really does not enjoy having to include cell phones in his stories. “Cell phones are the natural enemy of storytelling in general,” he says, noting that’s why Ouija was set in 1967. “They’re just the worst.
  • Flanagan also has an “intense allergy” to ADR. “I hate it. I hate it more than I hate most things in the world,” he says. There is only one line in all ten episodes of Haunting of Hill House that is ADR. It’s Joey (Anna Enger Ritch) saying “hey” in the finale.
  • When they filmed the scene that sees Hugh and young Steven (Paxton Singleton) hiding behind a locked door in Hill House, they weren’t sure what was going to be on the other side of the door yet.
  • Hiding dozens of ghosts in the background of each episode was also part of the initial pitch. “We had ghosts on set every day. Two or three, depending on the day,” Flanagan says. “They’d go through make-up and wardrobe and then just be on standby. Hanging out at craft service scaring anybody who went to get a candy bar.”
  • There were versions of the pilot script that didn’t reveal these characters were siblings until the moment they all wake up at the same time.
  • The color of the trap door in the “treehouse” is the same as the door to the Red Room. The twig in the window is in the exact same place as the crack in the Red Room’s window.
  • You can see Henry Thomas on an E.T. lunchbox in the treehouse.
  • There’s a deleted scene on the Blu-ray that sees Steve driving by a horrible car crash while talking to his agent. “This is a little window into Steven’s professional life. His cynical approach to his job but his refusal to further exploit Hill House and his family’s story.”

Episode 5 – “The Bent-Neck Lady” 

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    Image via Netflix

    The ghost barely visible over Carla Gugino’s face in a bedroom scene is played by Bruce Greenwood, Gugino’s co-star in Gerald’s Game, also directed by Flanagan.

  • Flanagan on the logic of Nell as the Bent-Neck Lady: “Everything we thought was a ghost for [Nell’s] whole life was really this non-linear experience that she was having in the moment of her death where she ricocheted through her own past and haunted herself.”
  • Before Flanagan decided he would direct every episode of season 1, he was adamant about directing “The Bent-Neck Lady.” And because of that, he ended up directing all ten, because he figured pilot and finale were a given, and also the penultimate episode so he could support Gugino in her flashback episode, but also the extremely technical “Two Storms.” At that point, he decided to just do the entire season.
  • Flanagan lost 45 pounds over the course of production. “I had no patience left for anything in my life,” he says. “I felt overwhelmed to the point of attacked everywhere I went. It really felt like I was hanging on to this project by my fingernails by the time we got to the end.”
  • The two songs Flanagan told producers to procure before they even opened a writers room were “Heavenly Day” by Patty Griffin—which plays during Nell’s love story and her death scene—and “If I Go I’m Goin’” by Gregory Alan Izakov, which plays over the end of the finale.
  • Flanagan used to have dreams of Nell dancing through Hill House to “Heavenly Day”. The whole episode was built around those images.
  • “Doctor Montague” is one of the principal characters of the book, and he’s played in episode 5 by The Haunting star Russ Tamblyn. A lot of what was restored in episode 5 for the Blu-ray is Tamblyn’s material.
  • One of the main musical themes of the show was composed during a lunch break on the piano that sits on the Hill House set.
  • The bookstore where Nell interrupts Steven’s book reading is actually the showing room of Shirley’s (Elizabeth Reaser) funer home. Steven is standing right where the coffin is in episode 6.
  • When Nell stands up to interrupt the reading, she’s in pretty much the same spot she’s standing in episode 6 as The Bent-Neck Lady. (See below)

Image via Netflix

Episode 6 – “Two Storms” 

  • “Two Storms” is Inspired tonally by “The Body” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and technically by Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.
  • Production started doing a weekly walkthrough of the basic camera blocking before the set was even standing or the show had a cast.
  • Every time the doorbell of the funeral home rings it is Mike Flanagan ringing it remotely. It was his way of feeling like he had some control over this insane process.
  • When Victoria Pedretti appears as the Bent-Neck Lady in “Two Storms” she’s wearing heavy sclera lenses, which meant she couldn’t see. Several crew members had to guide her into place.
  • In the scenes set in the past, the cast had to speak louder than usual to make it sound like they were talking over the sound of hail, which wasn’t present on set. To cue them to react to thunder, production used clapboards that they’d smack together.
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    Image via Netflix

    There’s a tricky moment where the camera moves between young Nell and young Theo (McKenna Grace) where the actors had to fly out of the way and then come back to hold hands behind the camera in order to keep the single take going.

  • There is a moment when Henry Thomas steps on a flashlight but keeps going. “The DP and I would watch these shots go,” Flanagan says, “and when a moment like that, when Henry stepped on that flashlight, would go by, we would look at each other and kind of the emperor from Gladiator moment, ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’, to see if we keep going or abort the shot.”
  • Having the characters sit was one of the most complicated aspects. You can set a Steadicam to eye level standing or eye level sitting, but changing between them requires cutting and switching out the rig. “Which is the thing we couldn’t do,” Flanagan says.
  • Because the cast started the long, 17-minute shot sitting, they couldn’t do it on Steadicam. Production shot on a massive PeeWee dolly pushed through the scene. The camera operator sat on it like a go-kart, while the dolly grip used a “very complicated transmission mission” to switch it into gears, like a 10-speed bike, while he pushed it throughout the room.
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    Image via Netflix

    The PeeWee dolly had pneumatic wheels so it wouldn’t leave tracks on the carpet, but it also picked up a lot of the carpet’s fibers, clogging up the lubrication system. “We realized the dolly was getting harder and harder to push and harder and harder to turn every time we tried,” Flanagan says. By the time production realized what was happening, the dolly was about one take from breaking completely. Since Atlanta is so packed with film productions, there wasn’t a back-up available that day. They got the shot on the next take, and when they went to clear the dolly away the transmission chain snapped for good.

  • There’s a really dramatic moment where present-day Hugh Crain (Tim Hutton) takes a pause and looks to the back of the room. In reality, Hutton forgot his line for a second and was looking to the area where Flanagan and the DP were watching the scene. “The beat works in the scene,” Flanagan says. “It looks like he’s just taking a moment and kind of looking back at Theo and reflecting on where he is.”
  • Flanagan calls the episode’s third segment “probably the most stressful 17 minutes of my career.”
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    The moment late into the episode when the Crains finally lose their cool on each other was, Flanagan says, largely a result of how frustrating the shoot became. “What you’re about to see here as Michiel pushes Tim into the other room, is a level of intensity boil out of this cast that never happened in any other rehearsal, never happened in any other take. This is one of those strange accidents that is just a by-product of the way we shot this episode.”

  • But that frustration was also a bit of panic. “The actors are having two things happen at once. One is that they’re losing themselves in the scene…they’re losing themselves in the emotion of the scene but they’re also keeping half an eye on the camera and a whole other level of panic kicks in, which is that they’re doing phenomenal fucking work here. They know it. The problem is, they also know this could blow up at any time.”
  • Kate Siegel found out hours before cameras started rolling that she was pregnant, which added yet another layer of stress to the pratfall she takes off the couch. “All of this is starting to collapse on itself, which created an energy on the stage that never existed before,” Flanagan says.
  • Production built a single-passenger elevator in the middle of Hill House that lowered from the ceiling. The camera operator stepped through an open piece of the railing on to the elevator, which lowered him from the second floor of Hill House to the foyer. “That part cost us the shot so many times,” Flanagan says.
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    Throughout the entirety of Flanagan’s commentary on “Two Storms” the dude sounds exhausted all over again. It was clearly quite the process. “I’m always gonna be amazed that this worked. I never want to do it again. But for the people who enjoy this episode, I wish very much you could’ve seen what it was like to make it, because I doubt I’ll ever see anything like it. I don’t know if I could ever stomach seeing anything like it again.”

  • But, also, “I don’t know if I’ll ever be as proud of anything as I am of this episode of this show and the people who made it happen. All of them. There was no crew member on this episode who wasn’t equally critical to every principal cast member on-screen, down to our PAs. Everyone was so, so critically important to this. And they did it. They did it. It’s theirs.”

Episode 10 – “Silence Lay Steadily

  • There was a discussion early on of burning down Hill House. “We ultimately came to the conclusion of, ‘Who are we to burn down Hill House?’” Flanagan says.
  • In the fake-out beginning of the finale, Samantha Sloyan is reading Doctor Sleep on the couch. Flanagan had found out days before shooting that he would definitely be adapting the book.
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    Joey’s eyes melting in the finale is Flanagan’s least favorite moment in the entire season. “It’s just a little too digital for me.”

  • James Lafferty, who plays the man Shirley has a brief affair with, had to keep flying in from all over the world—the farthest was Paris to Atlanta—just to raise a glass to Shirley.
  • The idea behind the finale is that we’re seeing thte Crain siblings “digested” as it offers each of them some twisted form of wish-fulfillment. Each of the “digestion” scenes are extended on the Blu-ray, filled with more monologues.
  • The funeral director who walks Shirley to see herself in the coffin during her vision is Flanagan’s brother, James Flanagan.
  • “Silence Lay Steadily” is Flanagan’s favorite episode, sentimentally. “It’s everything it was supposed to be. It’s not necessarily what everyone wanted it to be. For some people, it might not be remotely what they thought it would be. But this, for me, this episode is cathartic and represents some of the best acting of the season.”
  • On Olivia Crain busting out some extremely Clockwork Orange-like bowler hats: “I’m sure you can spot the less than subtle nods to Stanley Kubrick in this sequence, which would come in really handy as I moved on to my next job, which required me to make a number of less than subtle nods to Stanley Kubrick.
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    In Nell’s final monologue to her siblings, she says “our moments fall around us like rain. Or the snow. Or confetti.” When he wrote it, Flanagan was sure “or confetti” wouldn’t work out loud until he heard Pedretti deliver the line.

  • On the conversation in the Red Room between ghost-Nell and her siblings: “This moment is what the show is for me. It’s a wish. It’s a conversation that I wish for these characters because I wish it for my family, and for the people in my life who have died. That chance to talk, to say I’m sorry, to say it’s okay.”
  • To settle the debate once and for all: “For those of us that worked on it, they absolutely did leave the room. And this is all very real here at the end. We felt that they’d earned it.”
  • Steve’s final speech is something Flanagan wrote before they had a pilot or a pitch.
  • “I look back at this first season of the show with a lot of very mixed emotion. It remains the most difficult and harrowing experience that a lot of who worked on it had professionally. And also one of the most personal, one of the most relevant. And I know I speak for all of the writers in the room and the producers and the cast. All of us poured so much of ourselves and our families into this. I look back at this show and I’m grateful we were able to remain earnest, and I think that’s, as I watch this again for the first time in a long time, that’s the word that sticks with me.”