The last time director Mike Flanagan followed up on a past supernatural film, he made Ouija: Origin of Evil about 100 times better than its predecessor. So from the moment it was announced that he would tackle a new Netflix version of Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House, there was every reason to believe it would be leagues ahead of the misbegotten 1999 big-screen adaptation The Haunting. Certainly, when the cast of the series (debuting October 12) sits down for a group interview at the just-concluded New York Comic-Con to discuss it, the ’99 flick never comes up, with the actors referencing only the book and Robert Wise’s classic 1963 Haunting.
“We’re living in a world of remakes and sequels and prequels,” says Oliver Jackson-Cohen, who plays Luke, “and Mike has treated the text and the book with such respect. He was not trying to remake the book, he was not trying to remake the Robert Wise film, he was trying to take this source material and update it for a new generation.”
Adds Kate Siegel, who starred in Flanagan’s Hush, had roles in almost all his other features and plays Theodora, “He’s taken these themes and concepts and a lot of the colors you see in Shirley Jackson’s novel, and kind of shattered them. He gives you a brand new lens, a more modern lens, of family and grief and trauma to experience them through. Die-hard fans of the book will find language from the novel in there, characters you know that you’re going to recognize in a different way, and fans of the Robert Wise movie will find homages to certain shots.”
This Haunting of Hill House eschews the original’s focus on ghost-hunting to tell parallel stories of the Crain family as children and adults, and their experiences in the title abode. This allows Flanagan and his cast to dig deep into their beset characters, though sustaining that dramatic intensity over the prolonged shoot required a different skill set than dealing with a shorter feature schedule. “Acting in something horrific for that period of time was a really interesting thing,” remembers Carla Gugino (star of Flanagan’s Gerald’s Game), who portrays Olivia, “because a lot of us came and went, and each episode sort of centers on a particular character and their experiences. So I had to keep it on the back burner for all those months I wasn’t working, since I couldn’t really let it go, and we were all exploring very intense material. That was a challenge I hadn’t expected, to sustain it for that amount of time, and be ready to jump in. For the first month and a half, I think I screamed once and walked past a hallway once, you know? And then the meaty stuff came.”
“It was a full-time job keeping track of the timelines,” says Henry Thomas, who appears as Hugh in the flashback sequences, “and trying to keep track of where these characters were in the story at a particular time, over this long form.”
“Shoutout to script supervisor Andrea Manners!” Siegel interjects. “She was constantly able to answer the question, ‘Where am I?’ ”
As opposed to Wise’s power-of-suggestion filmmaking, this Haunting is rife with manifested spirits that, if a clip shown during a panel presentation at NYCC is any indication, will give viewers some serious heebie-jeebies. The scene, in which young Luke (Julian Hilliard) takes an unintended dumbwaiter ride down to a creepy basement, where a grotesque specter crawls out of the shadows at him, got some big screams from the audience.
“[Makeup effects creator] Robert Kurtzman did a great job of creating the ghosts,” Siegel says, “so it was always a joy to watch them walk out of the makeup trailer and be like, ‘What? That’s crazy!’ For me, every time that trailer door would open, it was like Christmas. The basement ghost would come out, and you’d think, ‘That’s the most creative way I’ve ever seen of dealing with a traditional scary thing in a basement.’ Or the tall ghost that just hovers—what a unique and cool way to deal with the common trope of being followed. As an actor, I didn’t get to work with a lot of the scary ghosts, but I got to follow them around set and beg them to hang out with me, and that was great.”
The cast in general appreciated the production’s emphasis on prosthetic and practical effects over CGI. “A lot of the magic tricks in the show that seem like they could not have possibly happened, happened practically,” says Victoria Pedretti, who plays Nell, and Thomas notes, “The VFX were usually safety precautions. Without giving anything away, there are some things that go bad in the house, with broken glass and shattered windows and such, and it was just unsafe to do those as physical gags.”
“There was always an old-school way to do these things before we could do them so easily in post,” Gugino points out, “and there’s something about that energy that affects you differently, when you’re watching something like that.” It created positive vibes for the filmmakers, too, as Siegel reports: “That’s something that had Mike Flanagan and Michael Fimognari, the DP, turning into the little-boy versions of themselves. They had so much fun coming up with creative solutions for these monsters.”
Filming with scary stuff live on set might be a treat for adults, but what about their little co-stars? Apparently, there was no reason for concern that Hill House’s child actors might be traumatized by their haunted roles. “Those kids were pros!” Gugino says, and Thomas recalls, “They were auditioning for other roles between shots—putting themselves on tape on their iPads!”
“I was actually concerned about that going in,” Gugino continues, “even though Mike’s great with kids, and they were always made to feel very comfortable. But there’s the scene that’s in the trailer where I’m talking to the two kids in bed, and they’re talking about this horrible dream and waking from it, and I was so worried about shooting that scene with them, and them having to say all of that. When we were in rehearsal, Michael Fimognari, who’s a very stoic, extraordinary guy—I saw tears streaming from his eyes and thought, ‘Oh gosh, how are we going to do this?’ And then the kids were just like, ‘Hey! Hot chocolate?’ [Laughs] Yet they are fantastic in the scene. So I think somehow, they’re going to be OK.”