Mike Flanagan on the Personal Influence on the Series

Dec 28, 2022

As Ghosts of Christmas past come out to play this holiday season, we’re looking back at one of our favorite Mike Flanagan series, Midnight Mass. In this interview, from when the series premiered on Netflix, Flanagan and his producing partner Trevor Macy, spoke about the concept of the series and how personal it was for Flanagan. Set in the small town of Crockett Island, the seven-episode series begins when Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) returns after a long time away, but he hasn’t been able to escape the demons from his past. The arrival of the charismatic priest Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) and the occurrence of unexplained miraculous events lead to questions of religion, faith, and whether such miracles come at a price.

During this in-depth roundtable interview which Collider participated in, Flanagan spoke about the ways that his own road to sobriety influenced the storytelling, the big life questions he wanted to address and explore, the collaborative journey with Linklater in crafting Father Paul, the role of religion in genre stories, the most challenging sequence they’d ever shot, what he hopes his children learn about their parents when they watch the series, and whether he’s concerned about burnout.

In addition to Gilford and Linklater, Midnight Mass stars Kate Siegel, Rahul Abburi, Crystal Balint, Matt Biedel, Alex Essoe, Annabeth Gish, Rahul Kohli, Kristin Lehman, Robert Longstreet, Igby Rigney, Annarah Shephard, Samantha Sloyan, Henry Thomas and Michael Trucco.

Question: Mike, this story feels deeply personal. What was different for you, in terms of the creative process on Midnight Mass versus other things that you’ve done in your career?

MIKE FLANAGAN: That’s probably the biggest difference. The biggest difference between this and everything else is that I’ve been working on Midnight Mass for so long. Most of the other things I get to work on, come in these very prescribed windows of time, but Midnight Mass started before Oculus started. It’s existed as a novel. It’s existed as a screenplay for a feature. It’s existed as a TV show, twice, before we got it made. The biggest difference for me is that this project has always been where my focus on putting all of the personal stuff was. It was gestating for so long and changing so much, as I changed, that it just feels like it’s been a part of it, for so much longer than everything else. It is certainly the most personal of the projects for me, in so much as it deals with a lot of what I think about faith and religion, and what it means to be alive in the world, and what the hell happens when we die, and all of the little questions like that. It also was born of a deep anxiety that I had, before I admitted that I had a drinking problem and found a sobriety. I see cries of that throughout a lot of my past work, but this is the oldest, and it’s so embedded into it. This feels like a project that has been part of my life for so long, whereas the others are very much isolated into their own little periods of time.

TREVOR MACY: This is the full Flanagan.

FLANAGAN: Yeah. I’ve heard people say this about other projects that are very personal, but there’s something that happens when something is so personal, that it becomes an invitation to other people, and it actually becomes more accessible. I thought this project was deeply personal to me, but because the questions at the heart of it are so universal, it became deeply personal to Trevor. It became deeply personal to the writers in the writers’ room. It became deeply personal to the cast. I think we all are wrestling. No matter where we fall with our answers, our questions about, “Why are we here? What’s the point of being alive? What happens when we die? Where do the people we love go when they’re gone?” are universal. The only thing that divides us as people are the answers we come up with, to those questions. The questions are 100% universal. So, while it’s a very personal project, it seems to have become personal to a lot of people.

MACY: It’s very much an invitation. Certainly, I felt this way, and I know the writers and cast did as well. We hope the audience feels the same way because these are questions everybody wrestles with.

Mike, as someone who’s on their own journey of sobriety, did it take an emotional toll to showcase one of the characters going through that process, or did you find it to be a cathartic way to deal with your own sobriety?

FLANAGAN: I’m really grateful to talk about this actually because it’s very important, not only to the show, but to me. It was both. It was very frightening to be vulnerable about it because I spent a lot of years in complete denial that I had an issue with alcohol. It was also incredibly cathartic because this was a chance to give voice to where I was, in a number of steps along the way. The show opens with an anxiety that I think represented my biggest fear about my alcoholism, which wasn’t that I would ruin my marriage, or my children, or my career, or my friendships, all of which I was absolutely worried about. It wasn’t that I would die in a horrible drunk driving accident. It was that I would kill someone else and live. That was the worst fear. That was the nightmare scenario. That was always the first scene of Midnight Mass. It was the first scene of the book. It was the first scene of the script. It was the first scene of every iteration of it. The first image of the Jesus fish on the back of the car, pulling out into the car accident, that has never changed, in every iteration of it. That fear was so baked into who I was. And that was before I admitted just how bad of a problem it could be.

We took this show out in 2014, to try to sell it as a pitch, and that was before I got sober. I’m very glad that we didn’t make the show then because I don’t think I knew enough about what I was talking about to have executed the show properly. It’s a very different show with three years of sobriety behind me than it would have been before that. I feel like it would have been an incomplete conversation. One of the things that struck me, as I first tried to get sober, was how integrated religion was with AA, in particular, and with the 12 steps, and I had a pretty complicated reaction to that. It’s a tricky thing to navigate. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked into RR, which I thought was very fascinating, but check it out. It’s really neat. The literature is terrific, and it was important enough that I wanted to get it into the show, as an alternative because I didn’t like how recovery was so baked into what I perceived, at the time, as a required acknowledgment of Christianity.

Whatever works, when it comes to sobriety, is the right way to go. I wanna be very clear about that. But those conversations were so inseparable in my head, that this show was always where they were dumped. It’s where they live, as a record of my perspective of sobriety, in various points in my life – in the full grips of it, in the denial of it, and then in the acceptance of it. I find it to be vulnerable, but something that I’m proud to put out and put into the sunlight. I only really was able to take a meaningful step towards sobriety when I heard other people’s stories. That is something that AA is absolutely correct about. In particular, it was reading Stephen King’s words about his sobriety that were inspiring to me. That actually helped me finally push it into being. I’m beyond grateful to have a platform, in case maybe somewhere down the line, it can help someone else. That’s why I’m thrilled to talk about it.

Image via Netflix

Mike, how did you approach crafting the meetings themselves, as satisfying dramatic scenes, and contrasting Riley’s perspective with Joe’s perspective and with Paul’s perspective who, in his own way, is an unconfessed addict, at that point in the story? Were there more meeting scenes, at any point?

FLANAGAN: There weren’t more, but the ones that are there were a little longer. These are scenes that really took up space and the reason why was that I always felt like these conversations were the heart of the show. Because they were dealing with addiction, because they were dealing with recovery, and because they were dealing with faith, or a lack of faith, it was very important that we talked about it, even in how we framed them, but the camera couldn’t lend credence to one character’s perspective, more than another. You couldn’t frame Riley in a closeup, and then dump Father Paul into a less flattering shot, or you couldn’t drop the lens to give power to one of them and raise it to take it away from the other. We needed to play out all of these perspectives, sincerely. What I would talk about in the writers’ room was, you’d see those stories of people playing chess against themselves and trying to pour all of their effort into both sides of the board. I thought, “This is the best way to look at how to write these scenes. It’s the only way they’re gonna work.”

It became about a balance in the frame. Any angle that we selected for one of the characters, there needed to be the exact same angle for the other, and they always had to cut to each other. You couldn’t favor one of them in the edit and in a nice close-up, but back out to the profiles on the other. Everything had to be matched and symmetrical. From a writing perspective, it was really neat because it was about taking multiple passes at the scene, wearing the hat of one of the characters. I would usually start with Father Paul and try to get his perspective out there, put it away for a day, and then come back to it and start from scratch as Riley, and try to dismantle Father Paul. But then, I’d come back, take another pass as Father Paul, and try to dismantle Riley. The good news for that was that I’ve been working on Midnight Mass for so long that I have records of versions of these scenes that I wrote when I was in very different places. In a lot of ways, there are versions of me, throughout the years, arguing with each other in these scenes. It was fun to really try to take a position that I believed in, and then honestly and authentically try to dismantle that position, which I think is healthy for all of us.

The biggest thing that I will say, though, is that these scenes hinge 100% on the actors. There is not a 14-page AA scene you can write that is gonna work, if you don’t have actors in place who can handle it, internalize it, make it visceral, and give it momentum and emotional stakes. In that respect, we were very fortunate that we had Hamish [Linklater] and Zach [Gilford]. In Episode 5, you’re just sitting back and watching them. There were times where it was important to move the camera to underline something they did, but we approached the scenes in their totality, always, so we were not gonna break it up. It would drive them and us crazy to take a 15-page scene and cut it up into tiny bits, and jump in and out of those bits, and expect them to track it all. So, when we shot it, we just went from beginning to end and let them do the whole thing, knowing that the actors would carry us through and if we got the right coverage, we could cut the scene into something that would feel like it did when we watched it on stage. What you guys see and the feeling of the way they played off each other is pretty much just what they did. There’s very little editing.

MACY: The scaffolding we put around them is different. I give a lot of credit to Michael Fimognari, our DP, who helped design the shots. On paper, if I just pitch you a 14-page scene where people are articulating to each other in a room, the core questions of the show, you might think that’s gonna be a little boring. It’s incumbent upon Mike and Michael to design the shots and to find other gears. The introduction of negative space, later in each of those scenes, and when the transition happens, and how you determine the level at which you’re addressing each of the people, and how you find that symmetry, so that you’re not preferring one idea over another, that’s the scaffolding that the actors stood on to deliver these performances. God, they were prepared and they were amazing. All we can do is hope that the audience feels like we did, when we were watching these at the monitor for the first time.

Mike, you’ve been working incredibly hard, going from project to project, and none of the projects seem easy, from a production standpoint or an emotional standpoint. Do you worry about burnout, or is telling these stories something of a cathartic therapy for you that you’re just going to keep taking advantage of right now?

FLANAGAN: The answer is yes to both. I do worry about burnout. Trevor worries about burnout. Kate [Siegel], especially, is now worried about burnout. This year, I hit the ceiling of what I can handle. That happened this year. It is incredibly cathartic to work. I’ve eliminated a lot of addictions from my life, at this point, between booze and cigarettes, which is the one I really miss, but I cannot eliminate work. I’m such a workaholic. That’s the one vice that has survived unscathed and is now running amuck in the absence of any others. First of all, I’m very lucky to be able to work, especially at a time when the world is in such shit shape, and people’s jobs and stability are constantly under threat. There’s a sense I’ve always had that I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to work and that I’d better hold on to it with everything I have because it can go away at any moment. That, for many years, kept it so that the projects overlapped. There’s also this fear that if you really shit the bed with a project and people see it, you don’t get another project. So, I like to have the next project already shooting before one comes out, so that if that one sucks, everybody won’t be able to stop me from making the one that’s already in prep.

MACY: We’ve managed to do that since Oculus, by the way, because I share that worry.

FLANAGAN: It’s a crazy thing. But I am getting to the point in my life where I’m getting older and my kids are getting older, and I’m getting tired and wanting very much to stop and sit back and just take a little break, here and there. I think that’s finally in the cards. But every time I say that, we jump into something else because an opportunity pops up. As it stands, we’re flying back to Vancouver tonight to prep a new show. It is a bit of a compulsion, if I’m honest. I think it is hitting a point where I’m actively trying to find balance. I hope I do because this past year was a lot.

MACY: It was a lot for everybody. I hope that empathy comes through in the show because it was how we felt when we were making it. We’re hoping to invite people into this world. We were the first series back up in North America on August 17th, when we started shooting this, and mostly we just felt grateful. We huddled together with our crew and our cast, all sequestered in a bubble in Vancouver, and made this thing. Everybody was feeling that same way, at that time, one way or another, and we hope it shows. We hope it’s a little bit of balm.

What are some of your vampire inspirations?

FLANAGAN: My favorite vampire movie is [Werner] Herzog’s Nosferatu, with Klaus Kinski. That is my favorite movie vampire. I think that film is a vampire story as high art. I also adore From Dusk Till Dawn. That will always have a really wonderful place in my heart. And Salem’s Lot.

MACY: I have to give a possibly unpopular shout-out to Interview with the Vampire.

FLANAGAN: Oh, no, Interview with the Vampire is great.

MACY: Not only do I love the book, but I love the movie, for largely different reasons.

FLANAGAN: I forgot about Interview with the Vampire. That’s a great, great, great film. I read Dracula young enough for it to really burrow in for me, and I read Salem’s Lot young enough for that to color an enormous amount of the work I’ll do for the rest of my life. The thing that I love about the vampire as a cinematic tool is how malleable it is. We all agree that there is no canon and there are no rules. In fact, part of the joy is seeing what rules people cherry-pick, as they approach a vampire story. I get a thrill out of it. You put on 30 Days of Night, and it’s like, “Oh, what are they doing? All right, so they’re pulling this, and they’re not doing that. Oh, cool.” I’m watching American Horror Story right now and going, “We’re back outside. We’re back in the sunlight. Okay, cool.” It’s really neat to see what ingredients people choose, and then how they mix them together into something fun. For me, Herzog, had it nailed and used the vampire to say the most about human nature. I also think Klaus Kinski’s creature design is perfect. We winked at it a few times, when we designed our guy.

You subverted a bunch of tropes with vampires, but you also subverted a bunch of tropes for the evil priest, with what we tend to see in horror. What was it like to work with Hamish Linklater, in crafting Father Paul?

FLANAGAN: The thing about the show, in general, was that, as we talked about morality and belief systems and tribalism, and things like that, the thing we kept coming back to was that authentically through and through evil people are very rare. We’re all way more complicated. The heroes are flawed and the villains have good traits, and it’s hard to navigate people because of that. It was fun to not just do the evil priest. It was really fun not to go that way. It’s also been done beautifully and we’re always worried about walking on a well-trodden path and doing it less well than what came before. The humanity of Father Paul was something that was baked in relatively early. The project did start as a much more polar battle between Riley, who was good, and father Paul, who was bad. As my worldview evolved, over the years, the line between them got blurrier and blurrier. When it became clear that Father Paul could still do all of the horrible things I needed him to for the story while being a good person with a pure motive, then I felt like we had to show that was about something. Most of us don’t wake up in the morning and set out to do something awful. Even when we find ourselves doing awful things, we started out wanting to do something good. I think we see this all the time. If you look at January 6th, I don’t think people woke up wanting, consciously, to do exactly what they did. I think they believe they were fighting a good fight. In the way that good intentions and a willingness to have faith in something can be corrupted, it can be weaponized, and it can make good people do bad things, is something that this show is fascinated with. There’s only one character in the whole show who I think is evil, and it’s not Father Paul. And even there, there’s nuance.

MACY: Father Paul is really interesting. It would be easy to say the road to hell is paved with good intentions about him, but the more interesting questions, and Hamish done such a good job of wrestling with these are, why is he doing it, and what’s he telling himself? And those things, I think you can really see in his performance. They were on the page, for sure, but Hamish was incredible to work with and he really brought dimension to those two questions that I think was well beyond what’s on the page.

FLANAGAN: And he said it the first day. He said, he’s doing something good. He’s the hero of his own story. He’s doing something difficult. He sees himself as sacrificing much to do something really good for people he cares about. Hamish tuned into that instantly and never wavered from it. Even filming scenes where he was like, “This one’s tougher to justify, but I’m there. I got it.” He’s a remarkable performer. You’re gonna see him in more of our stuff because he’s family now.

MACY: Anytime we can get him. He showed up on set, the last day, dressed in a tennis ball yellow colored pear, that was mid-thigh at the bottom, and it covered his head in a pear shape and his arms were sticking out. He showed up in this, completely without comment. I was like, “Hey, Hamish, what’s up?” And he said, I shit you not, “I’m in dis-pear.”

Image Via Netflix

Mike, you’ve previously talked about leaving breadcrumbs in your work for your children to discover when they go researching who you are. What are you hoping these breadcrumbs lead them to? What sort of reaction are you hoping for, when they watch this?

FLANAGAN: When it comes to those big questions that we talked about at the very beginning – the fundamental questions that we all chew on, about what it means to be alive, what’s important about being alive, what happens when we die – when they’re old enough to really chew on those questions, if they’re ever curious about what I thought, all of that is here. There is no answer that I currently have that I wasn’t able to get into the show somewhere. The monologue, to me, that is the reason the show exists is Erin’s monologue, as she’s dying at the end. For my kids, they’re also seeing their mom articulate this perspective. I said to Kate, and to a few other people on the production, and Trevor and I have talked about this too, for my kids, this is the project through which they’ll see the most of me. We have talked about that and how important I think that is, particularly in the moment at the end with the angel.

I thought about this, when we were trying to figure out the ending because endings are hard. I’ve hit endings in the past where I felt really good about it, and gotten reactions from viewers and critics that said they didn’t like the ending. In this case, I wanted to put that aside. I didn’t wanna try to come up with an ending that I thought would please people. I wanted to come up with the ending that I thought would have the most to say, down the line. When Warren and Leeza watch that angel flying away, the thing is, if this is a parable, and it is, then the angel doesn’t represent vampirism or horror, but represents a corruption in any belief system and represents fundamentalism and fanaticism. That’s never gonna go away. You might chase it away from your community for a minute. You might send it off into the dark and hope the sun will rise and that corrupting ideology will disappear, but it won’t.

The show could never show the angel die, for that reason. That last moment of the next generation, of two kids looking out at the ashes of what the grownups made, I feel like that’s what my kids are gonna get, no matter what. That’s what all of our kids are gonna get. I wish it wasn’t so on fire as it is right now, but it really is, and we’re never gonna be able to explain that to them. We’re never gonna be able to explain adequately to our children what happened to the planet that they inherited and why their parents’ generation treated each other the way that it did. We’re never gonna have words to articulate that and this, for me, is my best guess. It’s my best answer for them, in a series of questions that I don’t know that they’ll ever really be able to answer.

I hope when I’m gone that, if they’re looking for me anywhere in my work, I hope they look here because this is where I was able to put the most of me and Kate too. Kate put an awful lot into this as well, for them. I’ve never seen her as raw and vulnerable and exposed as she was when she did that last monologue. Before her take, and not even the verbal performance, but where the overhead slowly pushes in on her for three minutes, she was shaking, and she was freaking out. It was the closest she came to breaking down, in the whole process, and it was a shot in which she didn’t have a single word to say, that went on for four minutes, I believe. It was never lost on us, what we were leaving in this and who would ultimately be watching it. I’m sure that that’s true, as well, of our other actors. I know it’s true of our other writers. This became a time capsule. I really hope that it has something useful to say for them, when the time comes.

Religion and genre stories are very interesting bedfellows because they’re not as different as people think they are. Can you talk about drawing some of those parallels in this story?

MACY: It is impossible to overstate how well Mike knows the Bible. I learned this pretty early, when we had dinner with an investor and the conversation was not only robust philosophically, but the quotations he can pull out of the air are pretty remarkable and uniformly accurate. I know that because I checked several of them afterwards. The baseline of knowledge that he brought to this and the amount of thinking he’s done is part of the reason I think it’s right to say that this is full Flanagan. It really informed the worldview that he brought into the writing process.

FLANAGAN: When I was a kid and in Bible study, the horror elements embedded in the Bible were impossible to ignore. We didn’t [connect horror and religion] at all. That was already there. If you open the book, you’ve got angels patrolling through Egypt and slaughtering the firstborn, and you’ve got the river turning to blood, and you’ve got plagues of locusts and a pillar of fire, which is the first sky beam in entertainment history, and you’ve got a God who’s thrilled to just murder people at will and full of wrath, and women or children doesn’t matter. He gets angry and drowns the planet. You’ve got demons. You’ve got talking serpents. You’ve got people being torn apart and tortured. It’s all there. The Bible is a blood-soaked text. What I think has actually happened is that a lot of horror literature has just liberally borrowed from that and from a number of scriptures and ancient mythologies. This isn’t unique to the Christian Bible at all. In fact, a lot of the older religions, the further back in history that you go, the bloodier it is and the more horrific. I think it’s because the reason we need horror and the reason we’re all attracted to religion, at various times in our lives, it comes from the same issue, which is our fear of the natural world.

If a volcano erupts and we don’t understand what a volcano is, we create a religion around it. We create a God to explain why all of this fire came out of the ground and killed everybody. If there’s a drought and our crops die, or there are predators in the night that are breaking in, we are storytellers. That’s how we explain and understand the world. We can only seem to process the world around us, if we put it in a story, and we let the story deal with it. And so, a lot of our myths and a lot of our religions come from the same anxieties that we also explore in horror fiction. We don’t wanna deal with the violence inherent in us as individuals, so we confront it cathartically in a slasher movie.

MACY: Or more often, as is done in the Bible, with a supernatural explanation.

FLANAGAN: Yeah, we trade in parable. I think that’s why it’s so hard to extract the supernatural that we use for entertainment from the supernatural that we use in our everyday religious worship. You can’t be a Christian without believing in a man rising from the dead. That is a prerequisite for membership. That’s right there. We’ve built a wall between the horrors that exist in biblical texts and scripture, in a number of religions, and the horror we consume as entertainment, but it’s a pretty flimsy wall. It’s something that makes us feel more comfortable at church. I used to ask at Bible school, “Does the wine literally turn into Jesus’ blood?” And they’d say, “Yes, it’s literal. It’s not symbolic.” It’s literally transformed into blood and we’re drinking it, so that we can live forever. That seems, to me, like a short leap to vampiric myth. So, yeah, I think they are inextricably linked. I think it’s all just a function of how we confront ourselves in the world. I also believe the Bible is malleable as well. You can find a text or a passage to support just about anything, if you try hard enough. The challenge of, can we use the Bible to explain and justify vampirism?, and that the answer was yes, was delightful and really, really fun to dig into.

Image Via Netflix

Are you concerned that people who watch this, who have a strong religious faith, may not enjoy how the religious aspect plays out?

FLANAGAN: That’s a great question. Of course, we’re concerned. But the counterargument that we’d wanna make to them is that this isn’t a show that attacks religious faith. In particular, I would argue that the show celebrates faith itself. Where the show is critical doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with religion, so much as fundamentalism, fanatical thinking, and any extreme system that robs you of your empathy for your fellow man, to the point that you can do horrible things to them. We have seen that is just as true and impossible in the scientific community as it is in the religious community.

MACY: It’s easy to look at the show, if you haven’t seen it, and think that it has something negative to say about religion. We were very careful about that, and it was subject to a lot of debate. It really doesn’t. Its core values, in a sense, are very Christian – empathy, kindness, concern for your fellow man. The show doesn’t glorify fanaticism or aggressiveness. Those things are baked into the DNA of the show. In a sense, we’re very pro the values that most religions espouse and we’d invite anybody who is worried about that to watch the show, and I hope they find that in there too.

FLANAGAN: One of the things that I was worried about the most, my parents are still practicing devout Catholics. They’ve been aware of the show, from the beginning, over the years and in all of its incarnations. One of the things that was important to me was to put it in front of them, as soon as it was done, to see what they thought because they were gonna be the best test case and I don’t wanna hurt my parents with my work. Both weekly church-going Catholics loved the show. I think there were things about it that challenged them. There were ideas that spoke to them more politically, frankly, at this point. The fact that it encouraged them to look at that, made it successful. We were very careful to make sure that this show has an open invitation to people of any belief system, and that it celebrates our capacity for belief and our capacity for faith. If anything, it warns us against the kind of people and the kind of forces that would take advantage of that in us.

One of the things that this show does well is [it] creates a sense that we could follow any character in the congregation around for the whole show and they would have their own perspective on the whole story. How did the Crockett Island community evolve, as the story evolved?

FLANAGAN: In that we were always taking a page out of Salem’s Lot, to talk about how to paint a giant community, because we were dealing with issues that we both felt were really prevalent in the country. We knew that we needed a big cast, and we knew we needed to represent multiple points of view. It took me a lot longer than it should have to realize Riley wasn’t the star of the show. That was a revelation that came relatively late. One of the things that this ensemble accomplished is that these actors were able to give you the impression of the complexities of their lives off camera. That’s what makes a show like this work. There was no way we’d have time to follow them around the island. The challenge for the actor is to make the viewer feel like they could, and that these people have homes on the island, they have lives on the island. All of that comes into the very subtle work that the ensemble accomplishes. Trying to make sure that the characters weren’t repeating each other’s perspectives and opinions was important in the writing of it, to make sure that each of these individuals was always gonna be on their own path. Sometimes they would converge, and sometimes they would diverge with each other.

That’s just part of the fun of writing an ensemble piece. But really, I can’t imagine this working without having actors who know each other. There’s a sense of history and shared history that comes when you put Henry Thomas and Annabeth Gish on screen together. They’ve worked together, not only on a lot of our things, but they’ve also worked with Mick Garris a ton together. There are relationships and histories among this ensemble that are wonderful to exploit and that bring the sense of lived in real life to them. And then, it also makes the new people, like Hamish who hadn’t worked with any of us before, come in and start to feel like they’re on the outside of the community and infiltrating. I would actually give way more credit to the cast in this then I would to the writing, but that was certainly something definitely on our mind during writing process.

Image via Netflix

Trevor, you’ve worked alongside Mike for a while now, and not to make this uncomfortable since you’re sitting next to each other, but in what ways does he make your job as a producer easy and in what ways does he make it challenging?

FLANAGAN: This is my favorite question we’ve had.

MACY: At this point, we’re as close to married as you can get without actually being that. Naturally, we have our love affair going on, but we also have our disagreements. The reason I think our partnership has lasted and flourished is because whenever we disagree, the work gets better. We have an implicit, well explicit because I’m about to say it, understanding that, if something isn’t working for one of us, regardless of when that is, there’s gotta be another way or there’s gotta be a solution, and we’ve gotta find it. What that does is it promotes a process where there’s always a robust dialogue. We can anticipate a lot of other people’s concerns, and that’s what we live with. That’s what makes it easier. If he sends me pages that I think aren’t up to snuff, I feel completely free to say so, and I know there’s a path through the woods.

What makes it difficult? We do disagree, and it isn’t always neat. But it always comes back to a shared passion for the kind of stories we tell, so that that’s good. It’s never that easy. Mike is a responsible filmmaker, but there are days when I don’t wanna be the guy giving him bad news about the budget. But those days are few and far between because we also share a belief that there are usually creative solutions to financial problems. The reason we’re partners and not just frequent collaborators is because we have a way of working that stuff out. I don’t worry. We take punches every day. We’re very productive, and we’re very fortunate to be productive, but it’s because we’ve gotten the shit beaten out of us quite a bit too. We take those punches together, which is nice.

And you haven’t killed each other yet.

FLANAGAN: Not yet.

MACY: Stay tuned.

Image via Netflix

In vampire literature, like Dracula and Salem’s Lot, the final human characters that confront creatures of the night, at the end, and that are brave enough to actually go through with this impossible task, always seems to come down to six people. How did you go about deciding who would be the last people standing to confront this menace at the end and was the number six an actual conscious decision?

FLANAGAN: That’s a great question. I wish I could take credit for the number six now. That would make us sound real smart. That’s an incredible connection. The number was certainly not intentional, if we have six. Our thought process, once it was clear that Riley was not gonna be carrying the torch to the end, and that came relatively late in the writing process, was really about, who are the characters in the very beginning of the story that seem to be at a disadvantage? Who are the characters that are underestimated or actively oppressed, in some cases, and how do we empower them at the end? There’s a neat hand-off there where, in the beginning, this story was always about Riley versus Father Paul, and it took us awhile to realize that the more interesting story was Erin versus Bev. The people who would be fighting that fight, wouldn’t be about amassing an army to confront Hamish. This really was gonna be played out by Sarah Gunning and Sheriff Hassan, and everyone would get to just give a little piece. We poor humans only have so much that we can give, and each little piece would take it a little further. It would take every last bit of effort by each of them, to get it over the line. To the point about the group of people having to come together to confront evil, that’s a very profound trope, in a really good way, because I do think that we’re ill-equipped, as individuals, to really make any kind of meaningful stand that isn’t just confronting something within ourselves. The only way evil in the world can really be brought down is through collected effort. I think that’s something Stoker understood inherently. I think it’s clearly something King understands. We’re thrilled to piggyback off of that understanding.

MACY: One of my favorite things about the end of the show is the comfort and encouragement that the characters give each other, as they each take the baton and do that one brave thing that gets us to the end. That’s where some of the most profound things come out.

FLANAGAN: Like most of us, most of them will never live to see whether they win, which is something else that I think unfortunately is just true of the human condition. We’re all just pushing it a little bit further, and we’re never gonna see it.

MACY: But the ultimate act of empathy is to pay that forward, and you see that on the show.

There’s one moment where we hear the angel speak, and he’s echoing exactly what he hears, and it never happens again in the show. Why that moment? Why allow the angel to speak, in that way and at that time?

FLANAGAN: The angel very much represents a mirror for us. I love that he doesn’t seem to have any complex plan or any real personality. It’s just a thing that does what it does. When it comes to fundamentalism and fanaticism, it isn’t something that necessarily comes to us with a well-thought-out plan or an ideology. What it does is it parrots back to us our worst ideas, in some cases. It uses our own voice. That the angel would never have any real agency to itself and it’s so inhuman that it can only just mimic humanity back, and when we hear ourselves, we’re drawn toward it, is all fun metaphor. It also just makes for a super creepy scene. The obvious versions of it, in the very early [stages], was like, “Help, come in, I’m in trouble.” The bad versions come out first, and they’re obviously bad. They’re, “Oh, my God, save me.” We put all of these things on the table. I remember when the idea came up that all he hears is his own voice, and we just took exactly the actor’s performance and altered it a little. What we ended up doing in the show was using a different take, so it’s still John’s voice, just a different take. There was something that just really chilled us both about that. I loved the idea that this thing wouldn’t even have anything new to say to anyone and all it could really do was regurgitate what they already had, which makes it even sadder for Father Paul and Bev.

Image via Netflix

Bev is carrying around poison a lot in this show. Did you always want to draw a parallel to Jonestown with that?

FLANAGAN: Trevor and I share a fascination with Jonestown. When we first met, that was something that organically came up in conversation. Along with the opening car accident scene, the Jonestown sequence has always baked into the show. That’s a perfect example of the most grotesque expression of the perversion of faith. When you talk about parents helping their children drink cyanide, as I was wrestling with my own ideas of what faith is, I found it so monstrous and hard to understand how sane people could be brought to a place where they could do that, or they could watch that happen. Jonestown, and other situations like that – Heaven’s Gate was the same way – are so hard to understand, but we keep doing it. It’s something we humans are capable of doing and don’t seem to be stopping. So, that was always baked into this. It was always going that way.

One of the things that struck me with Heaven’s Gate, even more than with Jonestown, is that in order to drink the poison, or the Kool-Aid, and to take that last step, you have to truly believe that you are not dying, in that moment, at least not in a meaningful and permanent way. Because we had woven vampiric resurrection into the story, this gave us a chance to arm the characters with that certainty and to play with the characters who didn’t share it, who say no when the cups are passed out, and to watch the community wrestle with that. It wasn’t just the people who willingly drank it, but the people who forced someone else to drink it when they refused.

MACY: A lot of the people who drink the Kool-Aid in that scene are people you really feel emotionally connected to. The answer to, why do people keep doing this?, it’s one step at a time. What are those steps? How do you take somebody who is a rational person, or a person of faith, or a person that you think is a little like you, and walk them into this place where they would willingly kill themselves for an idea? That’s something that’s so resonant about cults, in general. I don’t mean to make a direct equivalency between the Catholic church and cults, but in this particular case, it happens and you get to see them walk that slow walk. That’s what’s so interesting about these characters.

FLANAGAN: In the way that the opening car accident also represents something that truly terrifies me, or terrified me when I was drinking, the stories like Jonestown truly terrify me, as a person, because I can’t understand it. In the way that we can try to use parables or fiction or horror to try to understand it, this is definitely an attempt, at least to put it up there and attempt to chew on it, to see what we could glean from it, but it is a phenomenon that I’ll never truly understand and that scares me to death. This was the project where all the stuff that scared me to death went, so it was always baked in.

As a sequence, it was also the most challenging scene we’ve ever shot, by a lot. I think back to Episode 6 of Hill House, which was really hard to do. This was, in its way, harder, and not because we had to nail one perfect shot, but because it was 103 individual setups that were meticulously shot-listed and boarded before we got there, in a confined space with a hundred extras, 40 of whom were stunt people, in a world where every single person next to each other in the church had to be rapid COVID-tested before they could step foot on set, every day, in a scene that takes six days to film and that has more moving parts and more characters to track and more action to track than any other sequence we’ve ever filmed. And it’s a 22-minute scene with hundreds of distinct angles at play.

MACY: You’ve got 80-something people in an enclosed space, singing in the middle of a global pandemic in December 2020, and every day, I’d be waiting for the test results like, “Oh, God, I hope nobody [tests positive].” And nobody did.

FLANAGAN: Before every shot, we’d block it all up, and we had to light 200 candles. The whole scene was lit by candles. We didn’t build lights. We’d light all these candles and hot wax was dripping on people from the overheads. And then, we had to get to the scariest part of every day, which was, “All right, we’re ready to go, everyone take your masks off.” And you’ve got a hundred people who take their mask off, put it in their pocket, do the scene, and then put it back on, and hope they didn’t just get COVID. And we knew we had another week of that. And then, you get through these amazing things and realize that, of the hundred people, one of them forgot, and now you’ve got this take with someone in a mask, and you’ve gotta go back to the beginning. It’s stuff like that. That sequence is harrowing, on every level. It represents something so unfathomably terrifying and emotional, but logistically, it was also a fucking beast to do so.

Midnight Mass is available to stream at Netflix.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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