The Making of ‘Oculus’ – An Interview with Filmmakers Mike Flanagan and Jason Blum, Part 1

©2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Garrett Ryan (left) and Annalise Basso (right) star in Relativity Media´s OCULUS. ©2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

If you didn’t get the chance to see Oculus when it was in theaters a couple of months ago, now’s your chance. The film hit Blu-ray and DVD this week and it’s certainly worth picking up. The darn thing is simply creepy.

What we have for you today is part one of an interview with director and editor Mike Flanagan and producer Jason Blum. The interview was conducted in Los Angeles a few weeks prior to Oculus‘ theatrical release.

We hope you enjoy it! Check back soon for part two!

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JOURNALIST: Jason, I have to ask, working with a director who’s also being the film’s editor must have helped incredibly with the construction of this dual timeline that intercuts, because that’s key to the ingeniousness of the story.

©2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
©20th Century Fox/2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

JASON BLUM: Well, actually I think you’ve got to answer that question by starting with how he writes. Because one of the interesting things about working with Mike – you have to forgive me for talking about you as if you’re not in the room – is when we developed the script, when it was in the early drafts, it was a bit hard to tell, and we ended up doing something very simple which was [we put] all the past time-line was in italics and all the present time-line wasn’t.  So on the paper, on the page you could ultimately see the difference.

But at the time [Mike] was writing, and he and his writing partner Jeff Howard were planning the editorial transitions, what was interesting about that was … pretty much everything you see – all the key transitions that blur the lines of reality in the second and third acts – were all planned in advance.

The other thing about working with an editor as a director, which honestly I hadn’t done before, is it’s an independent film, it’s a small budget, and you never have enough time or enough money. But what was really fun on set was Mike was able to come up with a lot of creative solutions that happened as a practical matter.

You know, 12 hours into your 12-hour day, you can’t afford more than an hour of overtime, you have more shots left, and you can’t find it … so, you know, when Mike and I would huddle about that, it was always like, “Okay, I can cut this, and I’m going to cut that so the coverage will work. I’m going cut from here and here but then I don’t need this and I can transition this to here.” He knew exactly what he was doing and we were able to make choices as a result that allowed us to make the movie look a lot bigger than it was. It’s just about committing creatively to that path on the day.

JOURNALIST: Mike, did you want to talk about that story structure?

FLANAGAN: Yes, I braided the timeline structure. It was something that existed in the very first outline for the feature treatment and that we always knew was going to be really, really difficult to pull off.

I’d been working as an editor [in Los Angeles] at that point for a little more than a decade, and so kind of going into it was like you never know with a movie if it’s going to be your last, especially if it’s your first. So, kind of coming at it like, well, if everything goes away and this doesn’t work out, how can I make the coolest movie that I’d want to watch if this ends up being like, my only shot? So for me it was like, how can I set this up in a way that’ll be kind of my own Everest of editing.

And you know, we really kind of lean on all of that sensibility from the script point of view so the idea was always there that we can take these two stories and parallel them in a way that the transitions are getting tighter and tighter and tighter and we’re bouncing back more frequently. Hopefully to the point that the two stories bleed together in a way that we can’t tell the difference any longer, and the characters can’t tell the difference any longer.

Because when you’re dealing with a monster that’s an inanimate object, the only way you can kind of sustain tension over a long period of time – which is a big concern coming off the short, because I felt like we had kind of pushed the limit at that point where it was interesting for a half hour, and how are we going to triple that – was to create a sense of distortion and disorientation that would be similar for the viewer as it was for [characters] in the room. That could only work, I thought, by making the narrative as disorienting as possible; which of course means you’re creating a nightmare from a continuity perspective, making it much more difficult for actors to maintain continuity within the performances. But because that was clearly going to be the challenge of it, that was something we leaned into. It was like, okay we’re going to go with the most difficult road and just really hope that comes together.

©2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Star Karen Gillian and Director Mike Flanagan set up a scene in Relativity Media´s OCULUS. ©2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

JOURNALIST: Jason, I remember asking you about Oculus back in October. You seemed particularly excited about it. Of the many projects you had in development, this one … I could see your eyes kind of light up.  What was it about the short [film] and the story? Is there anything inherent in that short or that story that grabbed you and spoke to you?

JASON BLUM: Well, I actually got involved with the movie after these guys had made it; kind of like we did on Paranormal Activity. It screened in Toronto and I loved it and the distribution was kind of a question as to how was going to happen. So if there was a way to try and lend our name and marketing and a lot of the stuff we did on Paranormal Activity to this movie, I was psyched to do it and help out. So we got involved at that point.

And the reason my eyes lit up when we talked about it in October is because of exactly what we’re talking about. I think that this story, I mean, the studio would never make this movie, it would never get made on a traditional $30 million studio-type format. Like a studio-produced horror movie as opposed to a studio-distributed movie, so I love that. I thought that was really original and that’s why my eyes lit up.

JOURNALIST: Mike, how many mirrors did you look at before finding the one. It’s the same one in the short, right?

FLANAGAN: Close, it’s very close. Looking for the mirrors for the short film was challenging mostly because we couldn’t afford any, and so it was like trying to find something that would have character and be Gothic but also beautiful, because I didn’t want it to be like, Who the hell would hang this up in their house? That was really tricky.

So, we found this mirror. It’s plastic.  It was a bathroom mirror, I think, from the Howard Eliot collection. And got in touch, and we were able to get the mirror in. And when it came time for the filming, it was like, Okay, we want to design our own thing, taking some DNA from that original mirror but kind of trying to come up with something that was going to be even more impactful, more organic and kind of have more living qualities to it.

There’s something really awesome that [the production] did with the mirror. When you get really close to it, the frame itself is comprised of these writhing humanoid forms, that are all interlocked and you can’t really see it from a few feet away, you have to get right up against it to really pick up that detail, which I loved about that. We had crew walking right up and leaning in their face right up against it and so they could see it. It was like only as you really examined it did more elements become obvious. I thought that was so cool for the movie. It’s hard to show it. There’s only one shot I think in the film where Karen reaches up and touches it in the auction basement, where you can see that design work.

I liked having the idea that this was an organic creature that was digesting souls of the people it would come in contact with. We had an idea early on to that we could say that the frame had actually been growing subtly over the years, and it kind of kept feeding. By kind of looking at it as a living thing, it’s really important to the design. So I think the one they come up with is a really interesting riff on some of the elements that the actual mirror sort of had, which is actually the mirror that’s still hanging in my son’s room [he laughs]. It was Russell Barnes and an artist in Alabama named Bruce Larson who kind of came together and created that frame for it. I really love that frame. And I really want one of those for son’s room as well.

©2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
The mirror. The monster. ©2013 Lasser Productions, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

JOURNALIST: How did the experience of directing the short prepare you for directing the feature? How did you prepare?

FLANAGAN: The short was a fantastic exercise because we didn’t have any resources. And in order to create tension and kind of satisfy the genre elements that we wanted to hit, without any of the tools you’d expect to have, was a great exercise for us. With the short we didn’t have money for lights, so we just had to wash the whole thing with white colors. The short [film] was low light and high contrast and things like that. It’s a bright white room. I mean, there’s kind of no shadow to hide in. If we can make that scary, then we can get away with almost anything.

So the other things that it was really useful for was we learned really fast that you can only put a camera in a room with a mirror in only one of three places before you’d see it reflected back at you. Shooting a small space with a large reflective surface is actually a terrible idea. So it was really good to kind of work all that out early when we got into dealing with the feature. The questions came up very quickly, How are we going to make this visually interesting if we have to shoot with a reflective surface? How are you going to not see the crew? How are you going to make it aesthetically pleasing with variations in shots? How are you going to get to move the camera through the space without giving everything away? Things like this we learned from doing the short, which was not only dealing with the reflective surface of the mirror but with these live monitors that were hooked-up to the cameras – the crew would get caught in that too. So it was like we already had to learn the hard lessons of that.

The beauty of the feature was with the one room we built on the stage … we could have wild walls. We could give ourselves just a couple of feet of extra room so that we could keep the camera moving and have a wide variety in our coverage without bumping into problems with the glass, so that was a big lesson that carried over.

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Click here for Part 2.

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