Director Mike Flanagan and producer and Intrepid Pictures principal Trevor Macy talk to Jeremy Kay about their latest horror film and Netflix acquisition ahead of its world premiere at SXSW on Saturday.

Mike Flanagan

Intrepid and Blumhouse Pictures co-financed and produced the story of a deaf-mute woman alone in a remote house who is terrorised by a man.

Kate Siegel stars and co-wrote the screenplay with Flanagan. It was announced on Thursday that Netflix had acquired global streaming rights and will launch the film on April 8. WME Global represented the film-makers in the deal.

Firstly, sound is so important in horror/thrillers, so talk a bit about what you wanted to achieve, especially given that the lead character is deaf-mute.
Mike Flanagan:
We knew from the beginning that sound design would be have to be a full-blown character in this film. There is so little dialogue; it forces the sound design to carry huge stretches of the movie without support. People take sound for granted. Generally speaking, it’s meant to be designed and mixed in such a way that it enhances the story without drawing attention to itself. We wanted to do the opposite. We wanted to take the sounds people generally process on a subconscious level (ambiance, footsteps, room tone, crickets) and bring them right into the foreground. 

I wanted the viewer to feel immersed in a symphony of sound design one moment, but experience the film through Maddie’s perspective in the next; to make them acutely aware of sound, and then acutely aware of its absence. That meant creating a series of sounds that would imply the experience of a deaf character. If we had simply removed the sound entirely, it would have backfired on us, as the audience would suddenly be listening intently to the sounds they were making. So we needed to create a soundscape that gave the audience the impression of a soundless world, but without forcing them to focus on the chair-shifting, or popcorn crunching, or things like that.

Going back and forth between these two audio perspectives was incredibly challenging, and it became clear when we finally got into the final mix that Jonathan Wales and his team at Sonic Magic had created an auditory experience unlike anything else I’d ever heard in a movie theatre. I only wish more people could experience the sound design of this film theatrically; it’s bound to lose something in a home viewing.

Making Maddie deaf-mute must have presented interesting choices. Can you take us through some of the opportunities and pitfalls a character like Maddie presents?
The opportunities are truly exciting – here is this character who experiences the world differently, and has adapted. It gave us a lot of opportunity to create suspense, as we’d be able to perceive threats to her safety that Maddie herself would be oblivious to. It also meant that we had a character who was intuitive and adaptable, and has experience rising above challenges. 

The biggest pitfall was that it removed a major facet of the character that audiences rely on – dialogue. So often in films, characters express how they feel and what they’re thinking with words, and we didn’t have that option. That meant we had to rely almost entirely on visual storytelling, and it put a great deal of pressure on the visual style of the film, as well as Kate’s performance. She had to gain the audience’s sympathy non-verbally. To convey such a rich character using only her facial expressions and body language is an amazing achievement, from an acting perspective.

Where did the idea for the story come from and can you tip us on some of the reference points that you had in mind?
Kate and I were out to dinner one night, talking about ideas for thrillers, and both expressed a lot of love for Wait Until Dark [the 1967 film in which Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman terrorised by home invaders.] I’d been impressed and inspired by several episodes of television that had foregone the spoken word (Battleground from Stephen King’s Nightmares And Dreamscapes, and Joss Whedon’s brilliant episode of Buffy, also called Hush, come to mind.)

She talked about waking up late at night and looking at the sliding glass doors in her bedroom, and always being afraid that she’d see someone standing outside, looking back at her. That was such a universal fear. That really started the ball rolling, and once we began discussing trying to execute that type of cat and mouse thriller in a world without dialogue, we had the bones for the movie figured out. I think we had most of it locked down before dessert arrived. 

We pitched the idea to Trevor Macy at Intrepid, and Jason Blum at Blumhouse, both of whom I’d had great collaborations prior to (and after) Hush. Trevor and I had collaborated on Oculus and Before I Wake before this, and Blumhouse is easily the boldest, most prolific force in genre films today (I later did Ouija 2 with them as well). I was worried that it would be a tough sell, even despite my previous relationship with both of them. 

Jason and Trevor had to be very brave to get behind this movie. It certainly wasn’t the most obviously commercial pitch in the world, especially without dialogue. They saw the potential immediately, and got behind it with enthusiasm that I never could have expected. I think they were both very courageous to get behind this film, as I think the movie would only make people nervous out on the open market. This isn’t an easy movie to produce, and I was so grateful to have their enthusiasm and support. They’re two of the most courageous producers in Hollywood, I believe. 

You co-wrote this with your star Kate Siegel. How did that writing partnership operate?
We were in the same room for all of it. We live in Glendale, California, in a house with a lot of windows and glass. We started by moving through our house and really learning about its strengths and weaknesses, and then began to walk through various scenarios of someone trying to break in. I’d look for ways into the house, and she’d think of ways to defend herself. Once we had a scenario that we both liked, we’d sit together and type it out. 

We wrote the first draft very quickly, and the entire script was modelled after our own home. Once we finished that draft, we wanted to get out of that environment and give it one more pass with a different perspective. So we went to the Stanley Hotel in Colorado (the hotel that inspired Stephen King to write The Shining), and finished the script there. We even stayed in room 217… the room King stayed in on his visit. We couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring place to write. 

Did the story change much through the various drafts?
It really didn’t change much. The story was always somewhat straightforward – we knew it took place basically in real time, and that the various turns of fortune between her and the Man would define the structure of the movie. When we got to Fairhope, Alabama, to begin production, we rewrote several key sequences to accommodate the reality of the house we’d actually be filming in. That meant we had new opportunities for set pieces, but it also meant saying goodbye to a couple of things in the script that really didn’t work for that physical location. 

Did you meet Kate on Oculus?
We met a little while prior to that. She had auditioned for another project of mine, and I had seen her headline a stage production in LA. I thought she was a phenomenal actress, and even though she had a very minor part in Oculus, it was clear that she was making a huge impression with it. I always thought she was a leading lady, and this particular project was such a phenomenal showcase for her. I would tell her, while we were writing, that she certainly wasn’t making this easy for herself… it was clear early on that the entire movie would live or die on her performance, and she’d be approaching the character without her voice; a tool most actors and writers lean on quite heavily. I think her performance in this film is the very definition of “tour de force.” 

You’ve been with Intrepid all the way. What does Trevor bring to the equation?
Trevor and I have collaborated on four films in the past three years, which is amazing. He’s a true partner, both creatively and logistically. We’ve developed a kind of telepathy with each other, and we’ve both earned each other’s trust over the years. He’s been an ardent champion when it comes to getting my projects off the ground, and once they are, I never have a moment of doubt that he only wants what’s best for the film itself. That’s a rare quality – a lot of people in this business will bend with whatever the prevailing wind may be, whether it’s from the studio, or a test screening, or what people perceive in the marketplace. With Trevor, it’s always been about the film itself. He’s managed to fight battles on movies that a lot of other people would be too afraid to see to fruition (Hush for sure, and Before I Wake as well.) I’m proud to call him a friend and a partner. 

Before I Wake is done. We knew it initially as Somnia. Are you happy with how it’s turned out?
I’m absolutely thrilled with the movie. It is something I’m enormously proud of. It’s a very emotional experience, and it features some amazing performances, particularly by Jacob Tremblay, who filmed this movie before he was cast in Room.

And what was the experience like working with Universal and Hasbro on Ouija 2?
It was actually a blast! A lot of people were sceptical about that project when I signed on, but the opportunity was too good for me to pass up. I had massive, sincere creative support from Universal, Hasbro, Blumhouse and Platinum Dunes. I said from the beginning that I only wanted to do it if I loved the story, and could do something very different with the film. I was constantly surprised by what we were getting away with. 

I can’t say too much about it, other than that I think people will be very pleasantly surprised with the film. I had a wonderful time making it, and I’m very proud of what we did. I think it’s going to throw a lot of people for a loop. 

Trevor, you just closed a deal with Netflix to stream the film worldwide on April 8. Why go with them?
Trevor Macy:
Netflix was the right fit for the film because they stepped up and made a compelling worldwide offer that we felt would be a great way for the film to reach a global audience.

Can you remember what Mike said when he pitched Hush to you?
Yes, verbatim. Mike and I have a running riff, which requires our favourite ideas to be prefaced with, “You know, I have this crazy idea…” And in this case what seemed a little crazy at first turned out not to be. We brought Blumhouse in and we were off to the races.

It’s always a risk for a producer to have a relative newcomer play the lead, so were you always on board with having Kate play Maddie?
I did the diligence any producer would do, as did Jason. I had known and worked with Kate on Oculus in a more limited capacity, but this was quite a step-up. There was one inherent advantage in casting Kate as an unknown: when you have a deaf-mute protagonist, a fresh face helps sell it. Beyond that, Kate really proved herself in the role, and I’m very proud of the result.

Where and when did Hush shoot?
We shot last March [2015] in Alabama, where we shot both Oculus and Before I Wake, and we were fortunate to have quite a few crewmembers back from those movies as well.

How did you get the financing together on it and can you tell us the approximate budget?
The project was co-financed by Intrepid and by Blumhouse as equal partners. As to the budget, I would say the budget fit the risk profile of the film, and it was low seven figures.

You’ve had a long association with Mike. What is it about him that excites you as a collaborator?
Mike and I have a creative collaboration going that we are both enjoying very much. Both of us feel that we raise the other’s game, and we have an awful lot of fun working together. We also swim in the same waters in terms of taste, which makes generating and developing material easy as well.

What are you working on next?
We have several things cooking, but the next movie we are putting together is called Diver, a thriller that both of us are very excited about.