“Oculus”, a new supernatural horror film, arrives in theatres on Friday, April 11! The Phoenix Film Festival also featured this movie on its crowded schedule, and I had a chance to sit down with director/co-writer Mike Flanagan, executive producer Jason Blum and producer Trevor Macy. We talked about the film’s mysterious mirror, Katee Sackhoff’s performance and what movies scared them growing up.
Q: I love the idea of a supernatural force coming through a mirror. I saw “Prince of Darkness” (1987) years ago, and mirrors creep me out anyways. Why did you choose a mirror becoming a portal for the supernatural?
MF: I did all the stuff you do in front of the mirror when you are a kid, like play Bloody Mary. It always freaked me out too. I think the thing that brought the portal to it was there is a tradition of the Jewish faith where at funerals, the mirror is covered to prevent the spirits of the deceased from coming back. I thought that was pretty chilling. Going back to “Prince of Darkness”, they used it to great effect as well. Looking at a mirror as a window or a door I think is always really upsetting.
Q: “Oculus” originally was short film. What was the decision to make it a feature length film and how easy was it to do?
MF: It was really hard actually. When the short came out and people liked it, there was immediate talk, “Is this going to be expanded?”
It took seven years to figure how to do that. Besides (deciding) what to preserve in the short and how do we expand it to feature length - and not just making (the movie) really long and boring - it was really hard to find producers who didn’t want to go to “found footage” with it. There are cameras in the room, and the minute people saw that, pretty much every company in the world was trying very hard to replicate what Jason was doing already (with his “Paranormal Activity” franchise).
(Many producers) were like, “Oh, can we do this in the “Paranormal” style?”
No, they are already doing that and kicking butt with it. Why would we? And this (film) was just not the story for that anyway. It took a very long time to find people who were behind it. It didn’t happen until 2011 when I had a meeting with Intrepid Pictures, and they were the first people in seven years that said, “Let’s try to do something really unique with the narrative structure.”
Q: Jason, you are involved with the “Paranormal Activity” series, “Sinister” (2012), and “Dark Skies” (2013), and you are known for creating movies on a micro-budget for wide release. What’s the recipe to accomplish that?
JB: Sometimes the movies have wide releases, and sometimes they don’t. It doesn’t always work, but it works a good percentage of the time. It is very hard to do. There are three secrets. The most important secret is the production company’s fee, and the director, the writer, all the actors, and everyone work for the minimum possible. That’s the biggest thing, and after that, not too many speaking parts and not too many locations. The low budget parts are those three things, and it is got to be a high concept movie. That is the short answer to the ingredients to a micro-budget, wide-release movie.
Q: Trevor, you’ve been involved with action pictures (“Doomsday” (2008), “Safe House” (2012), “The Raven” (2012)), but you’ve also dabbled in horror (“The Strangers” (2008)) as well, so what attracted you to this project?
TM: After I did “The Strangers” (2008), I started to see every horror script in town. The thing that prompted me to want to this film next is you care about the characters. In “The Strangers”, it’s a relationship. In this case, it’s a family drama, and (the characters) form the spine of the movie. That’s the thing that makes you care, relate and think about when you leave the theatre. All of which I think make the best horror. I’ll make as much horror that satisfies those conditions as I possibly can.
MF: You are definitely seeing a side of Katee you’ve never seen. I am a huge “Battlestar” fan as well, but this isn’t a part where you naturally go, “Oh my God, that’s where you go to Starbuck.”
So, it’s actually two very different sides of her in this movie. You have a real maternal and thoughtful side of her that isn’t the bad-ass, kick-ass character (who) people know her as. Then you have another side that I don’t want to spoil. It’s a complete departure from everything she’s ever done. She brought this whole other side to it. So, you are going to see Katee doing two things you’ve never seen her do before.
Q: From a horror film perspective, what are the differences between a serial killer and a supernatural force on the loose?
TM: I think they are relatable in different ways. It’s easy to go back to “The Strangers” for this one. With a ‘knock, knock’ late at night at your house, well, that could happen to you. It is relatable in that particular way. I think one of the reasons, for me anyway, supernatural horror (works) is they are taking that same base fear that everybody has. In our case, it is reflecting the worst part of you, but there’s an external force that’s magnifying it. I think that’s what makes supernatural horror so good. Every single good supernatural horror movie is exploiting a flaw in a human.
MF: I think another major difference is - there are exceptions to this - but most times, when you watch a killer in a movie, deep down, we are rooting for the killer. Deep down, we are waiting to see Freddy or Jason (or whoever it’s going to be) kill the next person, and we want to watch how they do it. There’s a celebration of it somehow. When it’s supernatural, you’re rooting for the poor mortal humans who are at risk. So, I think you are on slightly different sides of the line when you commit to that. That is why when you see a movie that’s all about different murders, you get big applause. You get this weird rush out of the audience.
If it’s a supernatural movie, you aren’t watching “Poltergeist” (1982) and say, “Yea, take that kid!! Yea! Whoo hoo!”
It’s a whole different thing.
You are saying, “Oh God, is she okay?”
You are rooting for different teams.
Q: Lastly, what were your favorite horror movies growing up? Not necessarily something inspirational, but something that really scared you when you were kids.
JB: I’m going for “Rebecca” (1940) these days. Not quite a horror movie, but a thriller. I really loved that movie.
TM: The first horror movie I ever watched was “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954). I think I was eight years-old and I made my mother sit on the couch with me and watch that movie. It just scared the hell out of me. Later, growing up, I got to say, “Alien” (1979).
MF: I have the boiler plate answers for that which are, “Jaws” (1975), “The Shining” (1980), “The Exorcist” (1973), but the first thing that really freaked me out was an episode of “Fraggle Rock” (1983). They had this thing called The Terrible Tunnel and any Fraggle who went in would get lost and never come out. The little Fraggles would go in and all the little ghosts of the Fraggles were trapped and that just freaked me out. Yea, I had nightmares about that tunnel for years.