‘Oculus’ director on smart horror, Karen Gillan’s ‘spitfire intensity’

April 11, 2014 | 11:32 a.m.

In the new horror film “Oculus,” which arrives in theaters Friday, Karen Gillan plays a confident young woman who fearlessly confronts the demons of her past – which just so happen to reside inside a haunted mirror that slowly drives its victims insane.

The film is based on a short that director Mike Flanagan made back in 2005 — the expanded feature-length treatment allows Flanagan to jump back and forth between the past and the present, as the audience witnesses young Kaylie (Annalise Besso) and her brother Tim (Garrett Ryan) become increasingly fearful of their parents’ (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff) unusual behavior. As an adult Kaylie (Gillan) decides to confront the evil spirit inside the lethal Lasser Glass, and recruits her brother (Brenton Thwaites) to assist her in her scheme.

With its time-bending, hallucinatory structure, “Oculus” aspires to the sort of cerebral scares that aren’t often seen on screen. Hero Complex caught up with Flanagan to discuss his approach to “Oculus,” his affection for the genre and working with precocious child actors.

Hero Complex:  How did you become interested in horror?

Mike Flanagan: It started in a very weird place. The first thing I can remember being terrified of as a child was an episode of “Fraggle Rock.” They had this thing there called the Terrible Tunnel, it was one of the Fraggle tunnels you weren’t supposed to go in. Of course they went into it and all the ghosts of all the little dead Fraggles who had gotten lost were trapped in it, and it just terrified me. From that point on, I was scared of watching horror movies. It’s so embarrassing, the stuff that had me hiding behind the couch — the “Thriller” video, I couldn’t make it through that. Movies like “Killer Klowns From Outer Space” freaked me out to no end. The first serious horror movie I ever saw was “The Shining.” I think I was in eighth grade. That was such a relentlessly terrifying experience for me that  suddenly the genre that I feared the most became my favorite. As I got older, it was like, now I’m just going to consume as much horror as I can, kind of dare myself to make it to the ends of movies that were freaking me out. By the time I got to college, I made it a rule to see everything. You get to that place where you get really difficult to scare – you feel like, I’ve become completely desensitized to the genre, there’s nothing out there that’s going to surprise me, and then “Martyrs” comes along and you get all excited again like you’re a kid. That’s one of the coolest things about this genre. It rewards you for loving it and sticking with it.

Director Mike Flanagan on the set of "Oculus." (Relativity)

Director Mike Flanagan with Karen Gillan on the set of “Oculus.” (Relativity)

HC: “Oculus” is based on a short you made eight years ago. How did you come to expand that film into a feature?

MF: Over a very long period of time. I did the short in 2005. The short’s just one guy alone in a room with the mirror and a couple of cameras. We didn’t have any money, I think 1,500 bucks. People really liked it on the festival circuit so there was interest immediately in expanding it but everybody saw the cameras in the room and said, “This should be a found-footage movie.” I did not want to do that.

HC: Why not?

MF: When you deal with found footage, you have to assume that what’s in the frame is objective.  You don’t have a choice. The entire conceit of that subgenre falls apart if you can’t look at the frame and say that is objective reality. Because distorted reality and subjective reality are so important in this story, it would have eviscerated the movie. It’s impossible to go back and forth with what is real and what isn’t and to destabilize an audience that way if you’re telling them that the footage they’re seeing is authentic. It seemed like the wrong fit. But because there were cameras there, everybody looked at it and would say, “It’s a found-footage movie.” We would  say, “Thanks anyway.” That took seven years until I had a meeting with Intrepid Pictures… Every step of the way with this movie has taken a long time. When we finished the movie, it took almost a year for us to secure the kind of release we wanted for it.

HC: The nonlinear structure is so integral to the impact the film has.

MF: I made my living as an editor before all this worked out, and going into the script for this movie, I was like this is going to be my Everest for editing. I don’t know how else to tell this story. There was a decision going in that we could try to simplify it and make it a little less challenging structurally but Intrepid was of the same opinion I was, which was, let’s lean into that part of what the movie’s all about – this complicated and disorienting structure. Which is a gamble. Distributors seem to think that the bigger your release is, the broader the movie needs to be, and the less complicated a movie is, the more accessible it is to a wide audience, which is something I disagree with. We wanted this to be really intricate, and getting a studio to back that in a wide release was really hard. They tend to want things simple and assume audiences do too. Every individual audience member is a complex person. I think to assume they might appreciate complexity in their entertainment, you can’t really go wrong. I guess we’ll find out.

HC: “Doctor Who” fans will be excited to see Karen Gillan starring in an American film.

MF: I’m a huge “Doctor Who” fan. She was the first name that I threw out when we had our first conversation about casting. There was a lot of that Amy Pond voice in our heads while we were writing. You almost never get your first choice, but I thought Karen brings that spitfire intensity and strength everywhere she goes. For a character like this, she’s hopefully a unique heroine in the genre because she’s more prepared for the monster in this movie than just about any other character I can think of. She’s way ahead of us as an audience, and we think at least for a long time that she might be way ahead of the mirror. There aren’t as many actors out there that I think are as strong as Karen. It’s really hard to think of Karen Gillan as a victim. I would say the same about Katee as well. I’m a big “Battlestar [Galactica]” fan as well so it was fanboy heaven for me. The people who know their work are going to be excited and the people who don’t I think will be eager to see their work after they see this.

HC: How difficult was it to find the right young actors to play Kaylie and Tim as children?

MF: It was terrifying when we started because we had cast Karen and Brenton, and we were [limiting] our casting pool because we needed kids who looked enough like them. We ask a lot of those kids, a lot more than the genre typically does. A lot of times kids cower and hide in a horror movie, and this was not that. We didn’t know where we were going to find these kids, we just hoped they were out there. We lucked out. Annalise Basso had heard of the project because her brother was taking a look at it and had auditioned for the role of adult Tim. Annalise really loved the script, so she just put herself on tape and sent it into the casting director. It was one of those rare things where we were huddled in a room freaking out about where to look for this girl and then she just landed in our lap out of the sky. Her 90-second audition that she recorded, I think, on her laptop was so good that you could have cut it into the movie. It was harder to find Garrett. We auditioned a lot of young actors. What struck me about him was that he had the poise and charm of an adult at 11 years old and a very intelligent grasp of the material. He just reminded me so much of the time I met Brenton – they have this innate vulnerable quality.

Annalise Basso, left, and Garrett Ryan star in "Oculus." (John Estes/ Relativity)

Annalise Basso, left, and Garrett Ryan star in “Oculus.” (John Estes/ Relativity)

We knew going into the shoot that both of those young actors were just as capable as our adults and what was neat – because you know the grown-up actors are concerned after they take a part, they’re like, well, I want to know what the rest of the cast looks like and everybody was worried about the kids because we asked so much. But we shot the past stuff first, so they got to watch Garrett and Annalise work first and Karen and Brenton would sit on set and watch the characters they were creating so they could let that inform their work. People were like, “If the kids are this good, we all have to be on our A game.”

HC: Your next film will be another original horror story, “Somnia.” Beyond that, are you looking to continue to work in the genre?

MF: You don’t want to box yourself into one thing because the right script and the right story could come along for any genre, but I can’t imagine going too far away from horror for too long. I just love it too much. I tend to gravitate back toward it on my own. Sometimes I’ll sit down trying to write something specifically to not do horror and it will just go that way, 10 pages in. It’s a genre I’m really at home with and I really like. I can’t imagine I’ll ever be gone very long from it.

– Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

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