Mike Flanagan talks about his Midnight Madness entry Oculus, a chiller about a mirror that is “like a portable Overlook Hotel”. Jeremy Kay tries not to gulp too loudly.

Focus Features International handles sales of Oculus outside the US, where Paradigm represents the Intrepid Pictures production.

The film, Mike Flanagan’s follow-up to his well-received Absentia, stars the likes of Karen Gillan, Katee Sackhoff and James Lafferty, and premieres tonight at Toronto in Midnight Madness.

What’s it about?

It’s about a young man who has grown up in a mental institution after the murder/suicide [according to police reports] of his parents. He’s 21 years old and is being released back into society and is reunited with his sister who was in foster care. She tells him she found this haunted antique mirror that their father owned that she believes was responsible for everything bad that happened to their family.

He has spent his life trying to rationalise things and she tries to persuade him that the mirror has supernatural properties. The artifact has a long history of many owners. The mirror is like a portable Overlook Hotel. It took us a number of years to find the right producers to expand [the short] into something layered and complex while retaining some of its claustrophobia.

What got you into filmmaking?

I started making little DVD features when I was in college. I did my first feature when I was 19. I moved to LA [from the East Coast] in 2003. I was editing reality TV for a long time and got a bunch of friends together and made a short of Oculus in 2005. That was a 20-minute movie we shot for $1,000 that did pretty well on the festival circuit. The short was about one guy alone in a room with a mirror and two cameras.

Have you made other features?

I made Absentia a couple of years ago and that was the one that broke open for me. We financed it via Kickstarter and cast friends and shot it over 15 days in my apartment. Phase 4 Films release it on VoD and DVD.

How did you develop Oculus into a feature?

I met with producers and Intrepid were the ones who didn’t want to go the found footage route. People wanted to replicate the Jason Blum model of making it under $2m, but we wanted to do something totally new. Trevor [Macy] was the first producer who felt the same way and it ended up being the best creative experience of my life.

We developed the script in 2011 and they announced the project in Cannes 2012 and we started in October. Focus Features International came on board at the script level [to sell international rights] and were very enthusiastic and got behind the project.

When did you shoot?

We filmed it over 25 days in October 2012 in Mobile, Alabama. I had never worked in the South and we had this crew that embodied that Southern hospitality you hear about. We came back in November and I ended up editing the movie right after Thanksgiving and feel I have only recently stepped out of that cave. It has been a very immersive or so.

How did you hear you’d been accepted into TIFF?

I was in London visiting friends and got a call. We had had all of our appendages crossed. I was in a pub and I was jumping up and down for about a week. When I saw the line-up of Midnight Madness it was mind-blowing to be included in that.