Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel on ‘Hush’ and Making a Film in Secret
In a short amount of time, Mike Flanagan has become one of the most prolific directors working in horror today. After releasing his micro-budget debut feature Absentia in 2011, he followed it up with Oculus in 2013, which went on to get a wide theatrical release. Since then, Flanagan has been hard at work, and he now has not one, not two, but three films slated to come out this year: his passion project Before I Wake, the sequel to the 2014 genre hit Ouija, and Hush, a slick, low-budget horror film he made in secret. In fact, no one even knew of its existence until editing was completed.
The reason for Hush’s secrecy has to do with its approach, which some might consider radical for a horror film aimed towards mainstream audiences. The film takes place over one night at the secluded home of Maddie (Kate Siegel), a deaf-mute author working on her latest novel. Her house is a gorgeous cabin in the woods, but she soon finds herself trapped when a serial killer (John Gallagher Jr.) shows up at her door hoping to make her his next victim. Because Maddie can’t speak the majority of Hush has no dialogue, and the film plays out as a wordless game of cat and mouse between Maddie and her stalker.
With a slim runtime and minimal plot, Hush is a lean, effective, and fun little horror movie. Fans of home invasion films like The Strangers will find plenty to enjoy here, with Flanagan’s efficient direction and editing keeping the tension up thanks to the incredibly tight screenplay (written by both Flanagan and Siegel). In advance of its worldwide release on Netflix, I spoke to Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel about why the film’s production was so secretive, the challenges of doing a film with little dialogue, and why we should all be excited for Ouija 2.
Hush comes out Friday, April 8th on Netflix.
This film appeared to have come out of nowhere. How did the ball get rolling on this production?
Mike: [Kate and I] had gone out to dinner and were talking about movies we really liked, and the kinds of movies that we wanted to make. We both talked about our mutual admiration for Wait Until Dark and high concept thrillers like that. For years, I’ve wanted to do a movie without dialogue, or mostly without dialogue because I thought it would be a really cool challenge. So we had pretty much figured out what we wanted to do with this at that meal, like before dessert showed up.
I then went to [producers] Jason Blum and Trevor Macy who I had worked with before and pitched them. I said I really want to do this but I think it could be really awesome or it could be a disaster and they kind of agreed. They were nervous about it, so we didn’t tell anybody about it because we didn’t know how it was going come out. If we did kind of announce the movie early, there was a fear that a studio would want to get involved, and they would show up and start messing with it. They’d be like, “Does she have to be deaf?” or “Can’t there be some dialogue throughout this middle section?”
Kate: Or “Can everyone be a teenager?”
Mike: You never know how many different ways this can go bad, so that was another reason why we didn’t want to tell anybody about it. So we wrote the movie in secret, and we shot it without telling anybody what we were doing. We shot it really fast, a three-week shoot, cut it really quickly back in LA, and then looked at the film and said: “I think this is working, now we can start telling people about it!”
This feels like a little bit of a departure compared to Absentia and Oculus. Those films dealt with characters pitted against supernatural forces, but this film is grounded in reality. What made you want to go down this route for your next film?
Mike: I’m certainly not eager to repeat myself as a rule, and I thought this film was going to be a challenge for me on a number of levels. Even just removing dialogue takes away half of your storytelling tools, and I love the pressure of that. For me, it’s about character and suspense, and I think that can be achieved with or without supernatural elements. So there was nothing about it that felt like a departure for me, except for the dialogue angle. That felt like the biggest stretch to me, especially since my earlier movies were, like, 95% dialogue. Letting go of that crutch was really exciting, but also really scary. And I know it’s really tough for Kate too because that’s kind of half of your toolkit as an actor. She was going through the same thing I was.
Kate: At the first glance you think “Great! I don’t have to learn any lines,” but once you get in the intense circumstances, you realize that you can’t make any noise. And you can’t listen, which is what acting really is about. It took away these two things that are the majority of acting. It was very frustrating, but they say when you put a lot of restrictions on creativity often times it will grow to fit the space. You ever see those square watermelons that will grow in a box? It was a lot like that, where at first it was like “This is so uncomfortable!” but then when I watched the movie it ends up feeling like it really pushed my limits in a way that feels successful.
Did you always see yourself playing Maddie?
Kate: Yeah. In the writing stage, I was making jokes like “I don’t want to learn any lines. I hate hearing myself talk on camera,” and whatever insecure, accurate things were coming out of me at the moment. And so because it was such a private, secret project, part of it was, “If we keep this under a certain budget and under the radar then I can probably play Maddie.” One of the thoughts was that, if the studio got their hands on it, then the very first thing they would have done is replace me. I had the support of Mike, Jason, and Trevor in my performance, so they kind of protected me from the Hollywood machine who would have given this role to…
Mike: They would have quadrupled the budget and tried to bring in somebody with a certain amount of foreign sales value.
Kate: I’ll always be grateful for Jason and Trevor for supporting me in the face of people who asked them to do that.
Because there’s no dialogue, you also need to have much more physicality in front of the camera with your performance.
Kate: There were things I loved about it and things that were very frustrating. I learned a lot about acting in the course of this whole movie. With Maddie, who isolates herself and is isolated from the world, you would think that would cause her to be closed in. But there’s something about sign language that is so communicative with the body that kept her so open to the camera. I developed a real intimacy with the camera because it was the only thing I could really listen to and focus on. So where I think there was a certain amount of trepidation and fear in my earlier work about the camera who sees deep in your soul, that’s right in your face in your emotional world, through Hush I learned how to make the camera my best observer and my most trusting friend. That’s something I will take into future projects, knowing that the camera is there to support and trust as opposed to judge and watch.
This is such a lean movie, there’s no fat whatsoever. How important was it in the writing stage to structure things?
Mike: Very important, especially for a movie like this. Our initial outline had it beaten down almost by the minute, where we were like “We know we need the sliding glass door to open by minute 15.” It’s an 83-page script, it’s pretty much a page a minute of a very dense, very weird read. Kate said it reads like a novella more than a script.
Kate: Because you’re getting a lot of internal cues about how the characters are feeling, a lot of cues about what the house looks like, and what you’re seeing at any given moment, which generally speaking you don’t do in a script.
Mike: For this we had to choreograph it on the page. We had to have the layout of the house on the page, [because] we needed to know that house intimately while we were writing.
Kate: As my first feature script it was a boot camp. There’s no room for full dialogue scenes or a lot of exposition to eat up some time before the killer shows up. It was throwing me into the deep end and being like “these are the bones of how you make a narrative story,” and Mike was really generous with his knowledge.
Mike: There’s this thing that happens all the time with young writers where you overwrite dialogue. It’s because you want to get these story points out, but you want it to be conversational. And almost without fail, you can identify a young writer based on how much dialogue they put into the script, how circular the conversations are, and how long it takes to get to the relevant information. The more experienced a writer is, the less important it is to focus on the conversation and the more important it is to get the information out in the most efficient, artistic way possible. And with a script like this it couldn’t really be overwritten, so there was no opportunity for that. This was all about choreography and sound design, which was also scripted. There’s a ton of information about what we wanted the sound design to be in the script.
Kate: The other dialogue scene came in about draft two or three, where we really needed to step away from Maddie for a second.
Did earlier iterations of the script have no dialogue whatsoever?
Mike: There was something really attractive right away about doing a movie with no dialogue. I thought that would have been so fun.
Kate: And in black and white.
Mike: Yeah! We did talk about a black and white version of this.
Kate: We started so artsy.
Mike: It turned out that having no dialogue is not really feasible.
Kate: Or fun to watch. It’s interesting artistically but it’s not exciting.
Mike: There was certain information about who Maddie was and about her situation that, we realized early on, someone needed to say. It would take us five or six pages to get that information out using strictly visual cues, and we just needed someone to say it to set the table so we could pull the dialogue out and let the tension of the movie play out.
Kate: It’s also super cool because part of what Maddie’s deafness and muteness does is bring you into her perspective, and why it’s so specifically terrifying to have this happen to her. And so let’s say when [the other dialogue scene] shows up 60 minutes in, it’s such a weird feeling, and the reason it feels weird is because we haven’t heard anybody talk for about 40 minutes. I love that because it is weird, and when we cut back to Maddie you’re more familiar with what she’s missing out on.
Mike, you edit all of your films. Tell me about your editing process.
Mike: It’s pretty much the same on all of them. I get dailies on set and I’ve got Avid Media Composer on my laptop, so I will do rough cuts and assemblies on set at the monitor in between set ups. I tend to construct the coverage for a scene based on what I need for an edit. There’s really nothing else. I’ve heard my assistant editors describe my footage when it comes in as being like Ikea furniture, in that everything fits together in a specific way and there’s nothing left over. That can be really scary to me, and to a studio in particular because they look at it and say there’s no option to change this. It kind of is what it is, which is one of the only ways you can accomplish [shooting] a movie like Hush in 18 days. It has to be very specific and surgical.
I’m really lucky that they let me keep editing my stuff. It doesn’t happen for everybody, and it almost didn’t happen for me. They weren’t going to let me edit Oculus at first, and I had to actually show them what I wanted to do with it because the editor they hired wasn’t getting it. He was having that Ikea furniture panic where he was saying “I don’t see how this fits.” I had to sit down and actually edit and show them how it works, and they let me do it. But yeah, I think the writing process and everything I do on set are designed to serve me as an editor.
This is a crazy year for you, with three of your movies coming out in 2016. Tell me about Ouija 2, because I was surprised when I heard you were working on a franchise film.
Mike: Everybody was. I was. The thing with Ouija 2 was, it’s through Blumhouse, and I’ve worked with those guys a bunch now. So when they first brought it up to me, my gut reaction was “No way.” Then they said I can do whatever I want and I said, “Really?” I didn’t believe it, so I kind of tentatively moved forward with it, feeling like at any moment they would swoop in and stop me from doing what I wanted to do and then I could just gracefully step away from the movie. But it was irresistible, this idea that I could just do whatever.
So I got to do something really cool that I can’t talk about too much, although I know Blum and everyone’s so happy with the movie they’re going to be screening it for critics well before the release, which is really surprising. We got to do something really unique and unexpected. I think you can pretty much let go of the first movie. Mike Fimognari, who’s been kind of my regular DP, and I got to do things visually on this movie that we never thought we could get away with. So it’s actually a pretty cool and ambitious little movie that I think is hopefully going to really surprise people and defy the expectations that the first movie established.