My interview with ABSENTIA director Mike Flanagan

There are fates worse than death…

Several weeks ago I wrote about Absentia, a horror movie recently out on DVD and Amazon Video on Demand.  Absentia has very Lovecraftian themes, and any fan of Lovecraft will greatly enjoy it.

Tricia’s husband Daniel has been missing for seven years. Her younger sister Callie comes to live with her as the pressure mounts to finally declare him ‘dead in absentia’. As Tricia sifts through the wreckage and tries to move on with her life, Callie finds herself drawn to an ominous tunnel near the house that might also be connected to other neighborhood disappearances. Soon it becomes clear that the ancient force at work in the tunnel might have set its sights on Callie and Tricia … and that Daniel might be suffering a fate far worse than death in its grasp.

Recently I had the opportunity to interview the director of Absentia, Mike Flanagan:

There are fates worse than death

MIKE DAVIS: I heard that you are a huge Lovecraft fan. Did this influence the film, and if so, to what degree?

MIKE FLANAGAN: I’m a huge Lovecraft fan. I’ve been wearing out the spine of my “Complete Works” for a long time now. His work is certainly a major influence on this film, and a lot of my other work as well.

It’s tough to explain too much without getting into spoilers, but I have always been haunted by his stories of extradimensional entities, particularly the concepts explored in “From Beyond” and “The Shunned House.” His depiction of the vast expanses of existence beyond the veil of our perception have influenced an awful lot of my writing. ABSENTIA deals with a lot of those ideas, through an admittedly minimalist lens.

There is that great plot element in “The Music of Erich Zann” that connects a nightmarish other realm with the disappearance of an entire street, and I’ve always found that so haunting. We obviously couldn’t take it anywhere near as far as that story does, but the idea of people going missing near the mouth of some inexplicable other realm is undoubtedly a major inspiration for ABSENTIA.

The people who come in contact with that place that connects that realm and ours are in great danger, both of losing their lives, and their minds.

I’m fascinated as well by his concept of the “Old Ones,” of ancient forces so alien to our experience that comprehending them is nearly impossible on our limited terms. I always imagined that the creature at work in ABSENTIA is a small inhabitant of something much bigger; just a cockroach in one of the cracks of a truly Lovecraftian realm that only barely overlaps our reality. They’re just little pests in that realm, but utterly horrifying and inexplicable by our standards.

I’m developing another film with Fallback Plan Productions (the company that produced ABSENTIA) called SCARE DARES, and it has even more specific references to Lovecraft’s work.

MIKE DAVIS: That sounds awesome. Can you tell me anything more about SCARE DARES at this point?

MIKE FLANAGAN: I can tell you a little bit, but we’re keeping it mostly under wraps right now.

The story centers on a smartphone app that leads users to known areas of paranormal phenomena in central California, kind like Four Square or Yelp for ghost hunters. Things go wrong when a group of estranged friends kick off a reunion weekend by visiting ghostly hotspots and engaging in occult dares.

I can’t really get into the Lovecraftian side of it without spoiling some things, but suffice to say that the script flirts with several horror sub-genres before revealing its true nature. Lovecraft fans will really get a kick out the second half of the movie.

There is a video element to the story, as they film themselves doing some of these “dares,” and a lot of blogs have inaccurately described the movie as a “found footage” film because we said in our initial press release that it would have a found footage element. It’s actually only five minutes of the film.

I’m not a big fan of found footage movies, and for us it really is a very, very small element in what is ultimately really fun play on classic horror. I wince whenever I see it called a “found footage” movie, as what excites me about it the most is that it functions as an homage to some of my favorite horror influences, like Carpenter, Del Toro, King, and Lovecraft. I don’t want it to be mistaken for just another “Paranormal Activity” knockoff.

We’ve offered roles to the entire principal cast from ABSENTIA, I can tell you that much.

MIKE DAVIS: One of the strong points of ABSENTIA is the acting. Have these folks acted before? Any other comments about the cast?

MIKE FLANAGAN: They’ve all acted before, but not in feature films (with the exception of course of Doug Jones). I’ve known Courtney Bell since college, and she and Katie Parker have a naturally sibling-esque relationship that played perfectly into the movie. In fact, those parts were written specifically for them.

The same is true of Dave Levine, who has been a friend for a long time. Justin Gordon was cast as Detective Lonergan after he came on board as a producer, and my Jamie Lambert is played by my brother James, who is a very successful theatre actor in DC. Scott Graham, who has a brief cameo as the psychiatrist, was the star of my short film OCULUS.

The cast generally only had one or two takes to get a scene correct, and then we had to move on because of our horrible shooting schedule. Considering this was their first feature, I think they did an amazing job.

MIKE DAVIS: It’s amazing to hear that they haven’t been in feature films before, for the most part. The acting was superb.  You wrote the film as well, correct? As you said, Lovecraft is a huge influence on you, but what inspired you to write this specific story-line?

Mike Flanagan

MIKE FLANAGAN: This was conceived very much out of order. I knew I wanted to make a horror feature, and had been trying unsuccessfully to sell scripts around Hollywood for a few years. I was a little fed up and just wanted to make something on my own.

I approached the cast, who were all friends of mine, and told them I wanted to make a movie and would love for them to be in it. I had a just purchased an HD camera for a documentary project, so I knew I had that. And I live across the street from the tunnel that would eventually become the backdrop for the film, so I knew I wanted to do something involving that creepy tunnel. But I didn’t have a storyline in mind.

So it was all about looking at the ingredients I had at hand. How could I combine these actors, that tunnel, and a barebones production package (no lights, no dollies, no nothing) into a story that would maximize all of those elements? The script and story were the last things to fall into place.

I was talking to my younger brother James about it, and told him what I had to work with. He was the one who threw out the Billy Goats Gruff idea, and it really sparked something for me. The moment I had a mental image of a Missing Person’s poster in front of that tunnel, the rest fell into place fast. It was easy to write, on one hand, because I knew I couldn’t put anything into the script that I didn’t have immediate access to.

The idea was to shoot on weekends with no money and no crew, and hopefully it would just be something that we could use on our reels to help our careers. My Lovecraft influences (and Stephen King, as well) bubbled up in the first draft, which was written in May of 2010. We started filming in June.

It was a very backward experience; writing a script based entirely on what was available. It worked out in this case, but I hope to never work that way again.

MIKE DAVIS:  Have you had experience with special effects before? I thought the amount of special effects used was just perfect — not too much that it would overwhelm the story. How did you create the special effects for ABSENTIA?

MIKE FLANAGAN: I haven’t had much experience in the way of special effects. We knew we couldn’t afford any, so we had to do a lot of thinking about how to paint a picture of our creature in the minds of the viewers without showing much. Our practical effects were beyond low-tech … in fact, one of the creepiest images we have (the final shot of the film) was accomplished by picking up two twigs off the ground and putting them on someone’s shoulder.

What little CG we have in the film was created by Mark Sniffen of Synergy in Motion, who took on the project and really delivered on the minimalism and subtlety that we asked of him.

MIKE DAVIS: ABSENTIA has the “less is more” concept down cold; in other words, not showing as much of the “monster” created even more terror. Lovecraft’s “fear of the unknown” and all that, which I’m a big believer in. Was that deliberate?

MIKE FLANAGAN: The “less is more” aesthetic is certainly something that was intentional. I really believe it makes for a more frightening experience if the viewer is an imaginative person. Of course budget played a big part in that, but people have asked if we’d do it different if we’d had more money, and I really feel like we wouldn’t have. Not much, anyway. Maybe we would have shown just a LITTLE more, but keeping the horror mostly unseen was a major philosophical decision early on, and truly ingrained in the DNA of this story.

Lovecraft knew when to be explicit and when to give people just enough to really drive them crazy. He was so good at planting seeds, of letting us realize that the horror we glimpsed was only a tiny fraction of a much bigger picture (sometimes a much bigger creature) that was truly beyond our comprehension.

That lack of context, and lack of scale, that seed that takes root in your own imagination and grows into dark, twisted shapes … that’s what really resonates with me when it comes to Lovecraft, and he has given me many a night where I wonder what’s there in the dark.

If my movies can do something like that as well, that’s a real honor for me. Hearing the film called “Lovecraftian” has been a little surreal, and truly validating. It’s a description I take very seriously, and am very grateful for.

MIKE DAVIS: Thank you for talking with me and I’m sure this will result in more attention for your fine film.

MIKE FLANAGAN: Thanks Mike!

Rent Absentia on Amazon VOD, or buy Absentia on DVD.  View “behind the scenes” photos here.

If you’ve seen the movie, comment below with your thoughts.

6 responses to “My interview with ABSENTIA director Mike Flanagan

  1. It’s a great film. I’d suggest his earlier film Oculus as well. Flanagan is adept at building dread and introducing a subtle menace that threatens to become overwhelming. When I see what guys like Ti West and Mike Flanagan have done so far with such limited budgets I have increasingly high hopes for their films.

  2. I watched this film last night, and thought it was wonderful, It’s really amazing to see a horror film this good that doesn’t rely on tons of gore and/or CG effects (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things, when they’re used effectively) to make it creepy and scary.
    –Ann

  3. I have seen both oculus & Absentia…
    Oculus is an awesome movie & hoping for a sequel…
    I will also see somnia!!

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