How to make a successful Stephen King movie? 'Gerald's Game' director Mike Flanagan tells all!

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer
Bruce Greenwood and Carla Gugino in Gerald’s Game. (Photo: Intrepid Pictures/Netflix)
Warning: This post contains spoilers for the film version of Gerald’s Game.

When Mike Flanagan started production on his dream project — an adaptation of Stephen King‘s “unfilmable” 1992 novel Gerald’s Game — last year, he had no idea that he’d be part of 2017’s great King-aissance. The calendar year has brought such major motion pictures as The Dark Tower and the reigning horror blockbuster, It, as well as TV adaptations of Mr. Mercedes and The Mist. Even though it’s coming at the tail end of this fresh wave of King adaptations, Gerald’s Game, which premiered on Netflix last week, has arguably received the best reviews of the bunch. And this film’s critical success, along with It’s monster box office, means we’ll be seeing a lot more Stephen King real soon. “As a lifelong fan, I love it because I’m getting new King stuff every couple of weeks,” Flanagan raves. “I hope what it does is shake loose a lot more opportunities to get his other properties made that, even a year ago, people would be reluctant to take on.” We chatted with the rising horror star — whose credits include such well-reviewed frightfests as Hush and Ouija: Origin of Evil — about the secret to making a great Stephen King adaptation and some of the notable differences between King’s book and his film.

Yahoo Entertainment: One of the interesting things about this current Stephen King boom is that it hasn’t just been a string of horror movies in a row. It has encompassed a sci-fi/fantasy film with The Dark Tower, a detective yarn with Mr. Mercedes, a ghost story with It, and now a chamber room thriller with Gerald’s Game. It really speaks to his range as a novelist.
Mike Flanagan: 
Oh, yeah. He’s capable of so many different things when it comes to characters, suspense, and tone. His library is so diverse. It’s lovely to see people discover Mr. Mercedes, which I’m loving, and then going out to see It and having a completely different experience

Mr. Mercedes. (Photo: AT&T Audience Network)

The odd film out in this case is The Dark Tower, which wasn’t very widely seen. Maybe more people will come to it on DVD or via the planned TV series.
I have high hopes for the TV series. I’ve heard a rumor that the series is going to be based on Wizard and Glass, which is my favorite of the book series. So if that’s the case, I’m all in. But that’s an almost impossible property to adapt, and having just done Gerald’s Game, I feel confident saying that! I’m still amazed that people would try [adapting] The Dark Tower. It’s like trying to adapt a mountain; I don’t know how you’d approach it.

Having just come off your own challenging adaptation, what’s the secret to getting Stephen King right?
The secret for me, even just as a fan, is to stay as close to the book as you can. Then, when you come up to elements that aren’t easy to translate cinematically, rather than try to reinvent the wheel or take off in some other direction, the best thing you can do is ask yourself, “What was the experience emotionally that I had when I read this? And if I can’t do literally what’s on the page, how can I still protect that emotional experience and be true to the experience of reading it?” That keeps the train on the tracks. The further away you get from the experience of reading the book, the more likely you are to see an adaptation go off the rails.

With that in mind, what was your experience of reading Gerald’s Game for the first time?
I first read it in college when I was 19. I had started reading Stephen King in the fifth grade and declared him my favorite author, so I had been catching up on his stuff for years and finally got to Gerald’s Game. I remember putting the book down and exhaling for a solid minute. It was so visceral; I don’t know that I’ve ever been dive-bombed into the psyche of a character as completely as I was with that book. Outside of all the terrifying stuff, what I thought was incredible about it was what it had to say about survival and female empowerment, as well as the lasting effects that abuse and trauma have on women in particular. I put it down and thought that if someone could re-create the experience I just had reading this on film, what a movie that would be.

Gerald’s Game. (Photo: Intrepid Pictures/Netflix)

But I also thought it was unfilmable! [Laughs] Still, it wouldn’t leave me alone, and for the next 19 years it kept turning over in my head until I started to see a version I thought would work. I carried the script around in my bag to meetings, and if someone said, “Hey, what’s your dream project?” I’d pull it out. So it’s a real dream come true for me to have made it. I don’t think it would have happened without Netflix taking an interest and Stephen getting behind it.

Let’s talk about some of the changes you did make to the book, starting with the casting of Bruce Greenwood. He’s a very different Gerald than the one described on the page, much more fit and movie star handsome. Reading the book, I pictured someone like John Carroll Lynch in the part.
We talked about him! It’s interesting, the person who first suggested Bruce to me was Stephen King. I had put together a list of actors, whittled it down to a top five, and Bruce was on it. Stephen had worked with Bruce on another project and said, “I would love to see Bruce Greenwood tackle this.” It is very different from the character in the book, but I figured if Stephen was talking him up, he wouldn’t be too upset.

What we liked about having this aggressively masculine Gerald is that it gave us a whole other tone to play with; I thought of him as the failed alpha male. Another important thing to me was that it needed to be someone we realistically believed Carla would marry. In the same way that Forrest Gump is built like a linebacker in the novel, I didn’t think that the physicality of Gerald was the element we needed to be the most faithful to. In the battle of the sexes seen in the movie, [Bruce’s version] made him a much more formidable opponent and a much more meaningful victory for her.

Bruce Greenwood in Gerald’s Game. (Photo: Intrepid Pictures/Netflix)

On the other hand, casting Henry Thomas as Jessie’s abusive father almost seems like a cruel joke.
As soon as he was cast, I remember saying, “Take that, decades’ worth of goodwill of audiences!” [Laughs] I’d worked with Henry on Ouija: Origin of Evil, and people are so quick to remember him from E.T. that they forget he’s an incredibly gifted actor and capable of so much more. We could have cast someone as her father who you could look at and see immediately that he’s slimy and disgusting. The fact that it was Henry actually made it feel so much worse, because you sympathize and trust him [because of E.T.]. For that trust to be betrayed, I thought, was incredibly powerful. It’s some of the hardest work he’s had to do. He has a daughter about the age of Chiara [Aurelia, who plays Jessie in flashbacks], and that was hard material for him. But I also thought it was very brave. I plan on working with him many, many times. He’s in the Haunting of Hill House series I’m making for Netflix.

Chiara Aurelia and Henry Thomas in Gerald’s Game. (Photo: Intrepid Pictures/Netflix)

Stephen King is very precise with his song choices; in the novel, the eclipse sequence where Jessie’s father abuses her is set to a Marvin Gaye song. Here, it’s Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.” Was that change, in part, due to licensing issues?
I had written the Sam Cooke song into the script; that was the song I wanted. It took us a long time to get the rights, because we did have to say, “This is what we’re doing,” and it was a bit of a battle. What was amazing to me was when the film was finished, Stephen asked me, “Was it Sam Cooke in the book? Because that’s one of my all-time favorite songs!” And I was like, “Um … yeah, sure.” [Laughs] I’m so grateful that we got that song, because I think it fits the movie so heartbreakingly well. We can ruin Sam Cooke and Henry Thomas!

Last, but not least, the ending: The final section of the book is a challenge to adapt because you’re basically introducing an entirely new character in the form of serial killer Raymond Andrew Joubert. Did you consider completely rewriting the conclusion? As it is now, it has a very different tone than the novel.
I knew the coda was polarizing, even among King devotees, but I always loved the ending of the book and wanted to execute the book as I read it. What we did do was view Joubert as a collection of all the diseased maleness that Jessie has been victimized by in her life. If we could take every injury and wrap it up in this tumorous figure, she deserves the chance to confront it. In the book, she spits in Joubert’s face in the courtroom. To us, that didn’t feel sufficient. What we settled on was her line of dialogue, “You’re so much smaller than I remember,” which deflates and defeats him.

That’s the last spoken line of the movie, and it echoes the first line that young Jessie says when she sees her summer house. She goes, “It’s so much smaller than I remember,” and her dad says, “Because you’re bigger.” We loved the symmetry of that. Jessie has earned moving on with her life, and we wanted one last moment to crystalize that. I take it as a compliment that the ending is as polarizing in the film as it is in the book! That tells me that we adapted the book very well.

Gerald’s Game is currently streaming on Netflix.

Watch: Here’s what’s going to be in the It director’s cut:

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