Once called “unfilmable” Stephen King’s book GERALD’S GAME has finally been brought to screen, courtesy of horror director Mike Flanagan. The claustrophobic bedroom thriller premiered at Fantastic Fest is coming to Netflix on September 29th. Both Flanagan and producer Trevor Macy sat down at the festival to talk about how the book was adapted and cast.
What attracted you to adapting GERALD’S GAME?
Mike Flanagan (director): I’ve been a Stephen King fanatic since I was a kid. I read IT in fifth grade, which is what set the hook. I just devoured his whole collection. But I didn’t get to GERALD’S GAME until I was in college. I had loved so many of his stories, and I had these grand dreams of being a filmmaker one day. Reading it, I was sweating. I had goose flesh on my arms. I feel like I powered it down in one sitting and I don’t remember breathing while I was reading it. It was so intense. It was so visceral. It was so immediate. It was a dive-bomb into the psyche of this amazing character. I closed the book, and was like, “Wow.” I have not had that experience reading a book in my life. Wouldn’t it be amazing to make that into a film? My next thought was, “This book is unfilmable; that’s impossible.” But it stayed with me for years. When I first moved out to California and was taking general meetings, trying to get a job as a writer, I would carry a copy of GERALD’S GAME in my bag. In these meetings they will ask you, after you’ve run out of things to talk about, “What’s your dream project?” If they knew the book, they would tell me it was unfilmable. If they didn’t know the book, I’d get three sentences in, and they’d say, “That’s never gonna happen.” It took me years to crack it, in a way that would be cinematic. To take all of that amazing stuff that is happening inside Jessie’s mind, and gets it out there on a screen. I started talking to Trevor about it when we were doing OCCULUS. I really wanted to do it, and I felt like it would be my Everest. King had seen OCCULUS, and liked it. So we then got the rights to take a shot at the script. And he loved the script. But then we couldn’t find people who would make the movie. Certainly not to make it the way we had written it. That took years.
Trevor Macy (producer): By people, Mike means financiers. We always knew it was going to be polarizing for actors. Obviously Carla’s role—and thank God for Carla [Gugino]—is not for the faint of heart. But also, imagine me pitching this. “You’ve got $15 million? Great!”
How about to spend it on showing a woman handcuffed to a bed for an hour?”
Mike: Stephen King held on to the rights for years, because he himself wanted to direct it. When he gave that up other people have tried to get some momentum to get an adaptation made. All of them had to make substantial changes to it, just to make it a movie. There were changes like making it a home invasion and she has to fight off people in the house. Or they added a baby in the next room. Or she gets out of the cuffs and has to fight another guy. People in general, and studios, were afraid of showing her handcuffed an immobile throughout. It wasn’t until after HUSH was done that we were able to start a read conversation. Netflix had been so happy with HUSH that they asked what else I had. That was a real risky movie too. We told them that we had this, and it was crazy and had to be done in a very specific way. They supported it creatively. I don’t think anyone else in town would have done that.
Trevor: Well, there was some support for it. But they either wanted us to make it for $1million, which would mean you can’t have any of the production value that we had. Or, “Is Jennifer Lawrence available?”
Mike: There was that push for the “big movie star” version of it. For us, we needed powerhouse performers. We need amazing actors, not marquee value on it. Bruce [Greenwood] and Carla have a substantive amount of fame on their own, but this isn’t going to be a Jennifer Lawrence movie.
Trevor: No disrespect to Jennifer Lawrence. I’m just picking her out of a lineup.
“It was the most challenging shoot of my career, by a mile.”
When did Carla and Bruce come on board? Carla in particular carries the film and it was nice to see her not aged-down from the book.
Trevor: We talked about Jessie’s age a lot actually. There is a version of her that is the younger, not as seasoned woman.
Mike: When we first started taking this project around, a lot of people wanted to make her younger. I mean, you can make her younger, but it changes a lot.
Trevor: We had a robust debate about this ourselves, honestly. And Carla wasn’t available when we first started. We were very lucky that she became available.
Mike: Stephen King recommended Bruce. Which is funny, because people have commented on how different Gerald is physically in the movie and in the book. In the book, he is like Jason Alexander. And then you get Bruce. But it was Stephen’s recommendation, as they had worked together before. I had loved Bruce since THE SWEET HEREAFTER.
Trevor: THIRTEEN DAYS for me. He is so good in that.
Mike: Bruce came on board first. The search for Jessie was a really difficult one. There was either concern because we had candidates we did not know if they could pull it off, or the script was intimidating to a lot of actors. It was too much pressure or too much exposure and vulnerability. It is clear when actors read it that the movie lives and dies on that performance. Period.
Trevor: Also, “I can’t move for the entire movie.”
Mike: Carla is an extraordinary person, and one of the bravest actors I’ve ever met. When we first started talking about it, she was completely aware of the challenges and the pressure of it. She found it energizing and frightening, in the best way. That was what we were looking for. We needed someone to feel it was an amazing journey to take. We also wanted them to recognize it was going to be really hard. She saw that right away. When Carla was cast—which was pretty close to when we would start production; it was a close call—that made the movie. It wasn’t just in the performance, she started crafting immediately. Even before got on the ground for rehearsal. It was also in what she brought to the set. The set was claustrophobic and intense for everyone. Carla had it worse that everyone, but she would come in and lift the crew. She defined the movie for us. It was the most challenging shoot of my career, by a mile. I don’t know that we would have survived it with anyone else.
Trevor: And Mike is such a passionate advocate for crew. He even got in the handcuffs.
Mike: I would not ask them to do anything I was not willing to do myself. I lasted five minutes. It hurt so much. They pinch your nerve, from the weight of your arms. There is nothing to rest on. You might think that it would be the same as just lifting your arms for that time, but no.
Trevor: We shot in the wide aspect ratio for the expressed purpose of being able to see her hands and be close to her face. When you are shooting like that the camera sees everything. You can’t pad the cuffs. They are real and they hurt.
Mike: You don’t even need to move in them for the cuffs to hurt. My little five minute experiment left me in pain. And by Carla’s third week she was bruised. Everyone on the staff had keys to the cuffs.
Trevor: There was always someone running in there to let her out.
Mike: As I finished saying the word “cut” there would be someone running in there. It was vicious being in those things. I can’t imagine anyone else playing her, and I can’t imagine us surviving it without her.
Trevor: She was remarkable.
In terms of seeing everything so clearly in the frame, the bed’s design, and the whole room is so important here.
Mike: Oh man, the bed design! Everything in that room had to be precise. She had to be able to lift the shelf, but not too far. She had to catch the glass, but not get it to her mouth. Every single measurement had to be precise. If you put a different person in the cuffs, they could get up and grab the items, or they could never reach them. All of these little things had to be run though.
Trevor: Yeah, and the bed had to be attached to the wall so that there was some give, but not too much.
Mike: The bed was assembled in thirds. Sometimes we needed just part of the headboard to get a camera over here.
Trevor: And fans of OCCULUS should look closely at the headboard.
Mike: There are a lot of little Easter eggs in it. And the bed because such a tool for us, that any semblance of comfort was long gone. The cuffs hurt. The headboard hurt. And the mattress was poking and sticking. It was horrible. I feel like a bad person.
But you have that huge smile on your face?
Mike: Because it all worked out! At the time, we all thought it was a nightmare.
How long was Carla in that bed?
Mike: Our entire shooting schedule was 23 days, and she was in the bed for most of it.
Trevor: 16 of the 23 were in the room.
Was it coincidence that we had a major solar eclipse recently?
Mike: It was almost perfect. I wondered if we could release it during the eclipse, but then everyone would be watching the eclipse and not the movie.
Trevor: My family invited me and my daughter to their land to watch the eclipse, and I can’t do that now.
The more horror films you make, the fewer things you can do with your family.
Trevor: Thanks, Flanagan. You’ve ruined that for me now.