As director Mike Flanagan put it following the film's SXSW premiere, “Hush” should have made its producers very nervous. Flanagan co-wrote the screenplay with wife Kate Siegel, who does double duty as the film’s lead actress. That script features only two primary players, one of whom is a deaf mute, making for a largely wordless movie. Such uncommon characteristics can be red flags signaling a noncommercial thriller, but producers Jason Blum and Trevor Macy went forward with confidence. Flanagan, Siegel, Blum, and Macy tell Culture Crypt what made “Hush” such a passion project for everyone involved.
MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
Culture Crypt: You mentioned at the premiere that the germ of the idea came from “Wait Until Dark.”
Mike Flanagan: That was kind of the focus of the discussion that started it.
Kate Siegel: We’d both recently seen the play at the Geffen.
Mike Flanagan: Allison Pill did it.
Kate Siegel: It was such a strong performance and it was such an interesting story. We were talking about the play, we were talking about the movie, and I was like, “I’ve always wanted to do something like that.” Mike had always talked about having a deaf protagonist and so it sort of started in that way.
Culture Crypt: Was part of your idea to see how you could make a movie without relying on dialogue?
Mike Flanagan: I’ve wanted to do that for a couple of years. Mostly because I’ve leaned on dialogue so much, especially in my really early work. It’s a crutch. It’s kind of the easiest and most familiar way to tell a story. So whenever I come across something that gets rid of it, like that “Battleground” episode (of “Nightmares and Dreamscapes”) and the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode (“Hush”), which is awesome, I’m always incredibly impressed. I was just hungry for that challenge. The trick was it’s not the most obvious or commercial thing to put on a movie. “And we’re gonna rip out the dialogue!”
Culture Crypt: How much did that concern you?
Mike Flanagan: It’s a tough sell because it can go so wrong. The concern going in was that to me, this movie was always going to be an experiment in that direction. I was just very nervous that if we didn’t do this just right, it could be the most excruciatingly boring feature film of the year! It was really a relief that isn’t the way that went. To take away half of your toolkit for telling a story and half of Kate’s toolkit for performing that character is simultaneously super exciting and also really, really terrifying.
Culture Crypt: With an unconventional idea like this, what about Mike’s pitch convinced you to trust his vision?
Jason Blum: (Trevor and I) really feel like Mike is a super compelling storyteller. I think both of us would say that’s the primary motivation behind why we said yes. I was saying before, there are 900 other people who if they pitched the exact same thing, I don’t think either one of us would have done it. We’re both really lucky to get to work with him. He’s an incredibly creative, incredibly visionary person. The way that he talked about it, I thought, “I can’t wait to see that movie. Let’s go make it so we can go see it!”
Trevor Macy: I think this was the seventh script you and I have done together?
Mike Flanagan: Something like that.
Trevor Macy: We got to know each other because I saw “Absentia” and then we had this terrible pitch meeting.
Mike Flanagan: It was awful.
Trevor Macy: It was awful. One of the worst I’ve ever had. We just weren’t connecting at all for whatever reason and then on the way out he said, “you know, I do have this thing about a haunted mirror.” And so we actually wrote the script for “Oculus” from scratch and it was such a positive experience we just kept at it. Although it came as a really tiny, tiny pitch.
Mike Flanagan: Strange, yeah.
Trevor Macy: Mike starts a lot of his best sentences with, “you know, I have this crazy idea…” There was a lot of confidence there and I think I speak for Jason as well when I say when we saw that, we knew we’d get there despite it being a kind of unorthodox and scary producing proposition.
Culture Crypt: Did I miss it or was there not a Lasser Glass cameo in “Hush?”
Mike Flanagan: There was not.
Trevor Macy: There was not, but keep watching future films.
Mike Flanagan: Keep watching because-
Kate Siegel: Your instincts are right.
Mike Flanagan: Your instincts are correct, just not for this movie. But there are some fun little things like – Can I talk about the mask and the connection there?
Trevor Macy: Yeah, of course!
Mike Flanagan: The mask was designed by Bruce Larsen, who designed the “Oculus” mirror, but also designed a creature for “Before I Wake.” The mask of the killer in “Hush” is made from the same mold.
Trevor Macy: That was a discarded early version of the creature. We both loved it, but thought it wasn’t right. So when Bruce came back with, “hey, I have this…”
Mike Flanagan: It was kind of like, “ding! Oh, I think that’s kind of weird!” Then we altered it to make it fit what we were doing with “Hush.” When “Before I Wake” eventually comes out into the world, when you look at a specific creature in that you’ll be like, “huh!”
Kate Siegel: “Was that John Gallagher?!?”
Mike Flanagan: “Is that John Gallagher?!?”
Mike Flanagan: But you will see the Lasser Glass this year.
Culture Crypt: 2016. But if it’s not “Before I Wake” then will it be “Ouija 2?”
Jason Blum: (laughs)
Mike Flanagan: It very well may be! Which we’re going to talk about when we’re finished talking about “Hush.” But I do want to talk about that.
Jason Blum: Speaking of which, we have a special treat for you later.
Culture Crypt: You mentioned you saw Allison Pill in “Wait Until Dark” and then you have another “The Newsroom” connection with John Gallagher Jr. Kate, you said last night that something so important about him was likability and that he had a Ted Bundy quality. We know what you meant by that, but how important was it that John Gallagher Jr. be that person? What was it about his persona?
Kate Siegel: It was very important to Mike that the “Hans Gruber scene” needed to play believably. You needed someone likable for that moment. When that scene showed up, we realized we couldn’t have a scarred-faced monster guy. We needed somebody that could play that turn. And I think John was the first choice for you guys?
Mike Flanagan: I remember vividly the first time his name came up at Blumhouse. Because Jason, you could hear him down the hall shouting, “that’s who I want!”
Jason Blum: (laughs)
Mike Flanagan: He’s like, “that is the one! You need to get John!” And everybody thought it was such an unorthodox idea, even John.
Kate Siegel: Yeah.
Mike Flanagan: When John got the script, he thought, “I really like this, I wonder when my character shows up.” Then he called his reps and asked, “so am I the neighbor?” They said, “no, they want you to be the guy.” John was like, “what? They want me to be the guy?” It was just so against type for him. That excited us to no end especially because we really wanted it to be somebody who we hadn’t seen this from before. Someone you could believe who if you bumped into John Gallagher at Whole Foods you’d think, “what a cool guy!” And then he could go home and kill somebody.
Kate Siegel: “Cool guy! Nice neck tattoo!”
Mike Flanagan: Yeah, “nice tattoo dude!” For John, he got to completely throw aside all of people’s perceptions about the kind of guy that (he is). Everything that he’s built on “The Newsroom” and “Short Term 12,” he just got to shove it out of the way and completely dive in.
Kate Siegel: Also for Maddie, she believes all the things she tries are going to work. She thinks she has the answer every time. So when she writes the note, ‘I didn’t see your face, just go,’ she’s thinking it will work. There’s this horrible moment when she realizes what he is doing, which is he is going to show her his face and that’s how she knows she is in big trouble. This guy isn’t here to just mess around and rob her. This guy is here to toy with her.
Kate Siegel: It’s one of those “monster in the closet” moments. She is imagining something terrible, terrifying, some guy with a scar over his eye and it’s going to be really awful. And then when it’s sweet-faced John Gallagher, it’s worse! It’s worse because she can’t even comprehend why this person is here, what’s going on, and it’s shocking that this man would stand at her window and want to murder her. That’s when her sense of instability starts to really kick in. Is this happening? Am I really going to die? Then when she sees her friend’s body, she has her breakdown because she realizes this is real, this is now. I better arm myself and I better make a plan. His face is the beginning of that whole journey. So John was very important.
Mike Flanagan: Ted Bundy, Dennis Rader, those guys. Even after they were arrested and had confessed, they had good friends and family members that didn’t believe it. They’re just like, “no, they’re good people. They’re too nice and charming and normal. There’s no way in Hell they’re guilty of doing what they say they were doing.” That always fascinates me.
Kate Siegel: I also like the unknown evil. It’s like ‘Schrodinger’s Murderer.’ You don’t know why they’re doing it. You open a box and that’s how you know. But you don’t really want to know. I guess you do want to know once you’ve seen the movie and I’m sure John will talk about that if he chooses to.
Mike Flanagan: Yeah, John has a whole backstory.
Culture Crypt: Did you develop that with him at his request or did you let him come up with the origin on his own?
Mike Flanagan: Once we were all in Alabama, most of what we talked about prior to production beginning was both of their characters’ backstories. The way it usually worked was that the three of us were in this little house in middle of the woods and there was this pond a little ways down. Me, Kate, and John would wander over to the pond and just sit there and talk about who these people were. So all three of us got to play with it.
Mike Flanagan: Kate got to imagine a history for Maddie that gives John more to play with in how he is going to look at her as a victim. Some of the things he came up with for this guy’s backstory were fascinating. If we were to include all of it in there, at a certain point, it would be difficult not to have a little bit of sympathy for him. One of the other things I really appreciated about this was there was never any kind of pressure, which is something you would get especially in a studio kind of world with a story like this, to put that other story in there front and center. I always tend to feel like the less you explain, the better.
Trevor Macy: When we showed it to an audience the first time, a lot of them asked the question (about John’s backstory). But it’s the tension of them wondering what that is that actually in part drives enjoyment of the movie.
Culture Crypt: How many interviews have you done for “Hush” so far?
Mike Flanagan: Two.
Jason Blum: You’re our second interview.
Culture Crypt: That ruins my last question!
Jason Blum: Oh, sh*t! What was it?
Culture Crypt: What’s one question no one has asked you yet that you have really wanted to talk about?
Jason Blum: Just say it about interviews generally! Ask Mike. Because there have been nine million interviews and I’d love to know the answer.
Mike Flanagan: That’s a great question! I have no answer for that question!
Jason Blum: (laughs) I have a question. Can I give it to you?
Culture Crypt: Yes, please.
Jason Blum: I’ve never heard an answer. Why do you make movies?
Mike Flanagan: I don’t know how not to. In fifth grade I was out in the backyard with a VHS camera trying to recreate De Palma’s “The Untouchables.” I have some pictures from that. I actually have a VHS tape of it somewhere. But it’s me and my brother and all of our friends in these oversized fedoras and these trenchcoats that don’t fit with these little plastic guns.
Culture Crypt: Did you play the Ennio Morricone theme over it?
Mike Flanagan: I did! Because I didn’t know what editing was, of course. So it was all edited in camera. What I would do is when we finished shooting the movie, I wanted it to have music and I wanted it to have the Ennio Morricone score. And so I had to put the tape in the VCR, set up the camera in front of the TV so it would play through, and then I would sit there and-
Jason Blum: Oh my God, hilarious!
Mike Flanagan: -and play and pause on the tape deck to make the score go over the edits. Because in fifth grade, I couldn’t wrap my head around how they got music to go over when you cut the camera. I couldn’t wrap my head around it!
Kate Siegel: So you were into sound design at a young age!
Mike Flanagan: I had to time it just right when I would hit play so that it would have the score. The only bummer is when I look at all those little movies, they all look like they’re shot off of TV! The quality of the VHS is triple degraded because I’m taping it off this 19” TV in the living room. The sound is all tinny, you can hear my dad coughing, my mom in the kitchen… “Quiet! I’m scoring the movie!” Since then, I don’t know how to do anything else. I don’t think I’d be functional at much else. I don’t know if I could hold a job if this wasn’t a job. I don’t know what I’d do.
Jason Blum: Alright. Changing topics. I know the first “Ouija” was not your favorite movie.
Culture Crypt: How do you know that?
Jason Blum: I remember. I’m aware.
Culture Crypt: You’re aware?
Jason Blum: I remember certain things that you wrote about it. And I will say this to you. It was not our finest hour. I will say, for instance, I feel like “Hush” is a million times better than the first “Ouija.” As a result, we went to the director and producer of “Hush” and “Oculus” and said, “can you help us with the second Ouija movie?” And my personal opinion is, they killed it. And how often is it, you know I don’t have to tell you, that a studio shows anything to do with a sequel of a movie. It almost never happens, right? They just don’t do it. I really think what these guys did with “Ouija” is so cool that we have had many, many conversations with Universal and they have agreed to let us show you some of the movie. Actions speak louder than words, of course. So if you’re interested, we’d love to show you these guys’ notion of what a “Ouija” movie would be.
Culture Crypt: I can tell you honestly it was the best news I heard when it was announced Mike Flanagan was going to direct “Ouija 2.”
Jason Blum: You know what? Me and you both! Believe me, the best deal we ever closed was that deal.
(The group shows me two clips from “Ouija 2.” From those five minutes, I can say that the mood conveyed is well within the style of suspense that has been Mike Flanagan’s specialty in his previous films.)
Mike Flanagan: This kid, Lulu Wilson, she’s nine years old. She’s incredible.
Jason Blum: Pretty cool, right?
Mike Flanagan: It was a total blast. I think people are going to dig it a lot.
Jason Blum: Obviously, you’re not alone (in how you felt about the first “Ouija”). I totally get it. Like I said, it wasn’t our finest hour. I don’t agree with all of what you said, but I get where you’re coming from. And one of the reasons I’m psyched about “Ouija 2” is because I think a lot of people feel that way. But when they see this movie, they’re going to be like, “holy sh*t!”