Mike Flanagan is not one to repeat himself. The horror filmmaker hand been cranking out excellent horror films like “Oculus,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and “Gerald’s Game” when he started crafting horror shows for Netflix, carving out a niche with binge-worthy limited series like the Shirley Jackson adaptation “The Haunting of Hill House,” the Henry James love story “The Haunting of Bly Manor” and the religion-centric vampire drama “Midnight Mass.” And for his next trick, Flanagan is trying something he’s never done before: kick off an ongoing series.
“The Midnight Club” is based on the Christopher Pike book of the same name and follows a group of teens at a hospice for terminally ill kids who gather at midnight every night to tell each other ghost stories. Flanagan admits in an interview with TheWrap that leaving things off on a cliffhanger is not deeply comfortable for him, and he promises that if Netflix doesn’t renew the series for a second season, he’ll answer lingering questions on Twitter.
But here’s hoping he won’t have to. “The Midnight Club” is an emotional, spooky twist on the YA subgenre that finds Flanagan and co-creator Leah Fong carefully plotting compelling arcs for each of the many members of the ensemble, buoyed by a stellar ensemble cast made up largely of newcomers.
Below, in a wide-ranging conversation with TheWrap, Flanagan talks about his long journey to finally getting “The Midnight Club” made, why he found himself leaning on his young cast members, spoilery questions and why he’s finally ready to take a bit of a break after crafting five Netflix shows in five years.
Where and when did this start for you? I know you’ve been a fan of Christopher Pike’s work for a while now.
It started for me kind of in the end of grade school and in high school. I loved Christopher Pike growing up, it was really my gateway into horror. I would get those paperbacks from the Scholastic Book Club or from the local bookstore whenever I could, and I always kind of felt like clearly my parents and teachers didn’t know everything that was in those – I felt like I was getting away with something every time (laughs). It was a huge thing for my friends, too. We would trade them, we would talk about them, we would tell each other the stories that we hadn’t read yet. It was a really big deal socially for me. So in college, when I was starting to make my first kind of foray into digital indies and trying to make my own movies, the first one I wanted to do is ‘The Midnight Club.’ And I wrote a script and everything off the book and put together a business plan to try to raise money and then finally got in touch with the publisher and told them what I was up to and I thought they’d be really excited to hear that this college kid was doing this (laughs). They did the appropriate thing, which was they sent a cease and desist and told me to destroy the script because I didn’t have permission to have generated it in the first place. Which I did, I was terrified of a lawsuit.
And then I moved on, but for years and years, I was like, ‘Ah, I wish I could have made that and I wish I hadn’t destroyed every copy of the script.’ So it’s crazy to me now that it all has come back around, but I found Christopher Pike on Facebook while I was making ‘Doctor Sleep’ and just said I’m a huge fan, and you’re one of the reasons that I got into this genre, and if you’re game I’d love to talk to you about adapting ‘The Midnight Club,’ but maybe as a series and what if we could fold a bunch of your other books into it as well.’ And he was he was excited to talk about it.
I read that this writers room was one of the first to be conducted over Zoom. How did that go? How did you all go about cracking how this would be as a TV series?
It was weird. It was one of the first Zoom rooms, as I understand it. We spun it up right as ‘Midnight Mass’ shut down, and we retreated kind of into quarantine. Rather than lose momentum while we waited for ‘Midnight Mass’ to come back up, we spun up the ‘Midnight Club’ room, which initially wasn’t supposed to happen then. And it was weird, you know a writers room is a lot about the rhythm of conversation and ideas, kind of getting new ideas and this popcorn effect when things are working where the table comes to life and everybody starts kind of contributing. Zoom is weird. It’s not a natural way of communicating, or at least back then it sure didn’t feel like it. Now it feels like the norm, I feel like if we started the room today, no big deal whatsoever. And it took some adjustment. It led to a style that’s much more like how the kids interact on the show around the table where we took turns. We had to kind of divvy it up. But it was novel and it was interesting and it kind of told us from the start that we were doing something that wasn’t going to feel familiar to us in any way, and it never did.
When did you start thinking about what this series would look and feel like? It feels different from your other shows.
I started thinking about it a bit in college and then kind of over the years. I do think it is very different from the other shows, and a lot of that’s because it’s tapping into the way these things were playing out in my head when I was a teenager. The other big difference about it is that because we are telling all these other stories, there’s no need to try to protect the aesthetic and the tone beyond just the A story, beyond kind of the spine of the show. Every episode lets us hit reset on the aesthetic for our B stories, the ones that they’re telling. And that meant that more than anything, this show needed to be more collaborative, we needed more filmmakers, we needed people to come in and make each episode their own so that we had a chorus of voices instead of one voice. So that made this very different and much more collaborative than a lot of the other work that I do.
Then I think the biggest difference is that it’s designed for a young audience. It’s really meant to kind of play best for viewers who haven’t seen my previous stuff and who haven’t already immersed themselves in the genre. Pike was a gateway into the genre for me and the show is designed more to be a gateway into the genre for younger viewers. It’s the first thing I’ve ever made that I’ve shown my oldest son, who’s 11. He hasn’t seen anything else I’ve ever made. This is the first one where I thought he could watch this, and he really loved it. I could see that same spark in him or being like, ‘Oh, I actually think genre can be fun.’ I recognize that spark from when I was his age.
That’s really what it’s for, for me, and I I’ve been nervous. I’ve been thinking, for the people that loved ‘Midnight Mass,’ for example, this is a very different show with very different goals (laughs). I’ve been nervous about that, because a lot of my stuff has been building in a certain direction and this one was always kind of a really unique little outlier, but something that was very important to me and is a side of my past that I haven’t gotten to play with at all before. So this was really fun.
I was delighted to hear you were presented with the Guinness World Record for the number of jump scares in a single episode, which I find very funny because I know you’re averse to jump scares. But I was surprised to hear you say that you had gotten notes saying the show need more jump scares and I was curious what the threading of that needle is like for these Netflix shows and specifically for ‘Midnight Club’ of is it scary enough? Because to me, like, dying is scary.
I don’t want you to think I’m picking on Netflix with this because I’ve gotten this note my whole career. I have gotten this everywhere I’ve worked. But there’s a general misunderstanding, I think, that can happen with a lot of studios and in particular with a lot of executives. There’s a general misunderstanding that having a jump scare makes the movie or the show scary. And it doesn’t, I think. We had 21 jump scares in this pilot, I don’t think it made the episode scarier at all.
No, it’s funny.
It’s funny. And that’s the thing about a jump scare is it actually dissipates tension, for the most part. The noise you hear right after the scream in the theater is a laugh, and once the audience is laughing, if you’ve been trying to create tension and foreboding, that’s gone,” Flanagan continued. “You let the air out of the tire. And there are some jump scares I think are art, you know when you look at Ben Gardner’s boat in ‘Jaws’ or you look at the hallway shot in ‘Exorcist 3’, those jump scares are all-timers and they build upon the tension that’s existed up to that point and they make the danger of a situation even more palpable but terrifying. And while it gives you a bit of a release and a jolt and you still might hear the communal laugh afterwards, it’s a desperate laugh.
More often than not, the note that I would get is ‘More scares, faster, sooner.’ There’s a sense that horror fans will abandon a project unless you put a jolt every three or four minutes. You have to have three of them in the first 15 [minutes], these rules that come up. All of the great horror movies break these rules, and when you point that out – you count the jump scares in ‘The Shining,’ count the jump scares in ‘The Exorcist’ for the first hour – it doesn’t necessarily move [the studio] and so the notes keep coming, and in this particular case because it was a YA show there’s going to be a little bit more pressure of scares.
I think this Guinness thing is kind of hilarious because, you know, this was really kind of an attempt to take the power of the jump scare away from the show and kind of get it all over with. Just say, ‘Now it’s done and it’s not going to have the impact. We can focus more on the stuff that’s important,’ but it kind of went a different way. And you’re right that having this record, to me, is something that I think is really funny and something that I’m also really grateful for and I think is really fun.
How do you balance the horror in a series like this? Because there’s a way to read this season where nothing supernatural has happened at all.
That’s right. That’s a great question, and one of the big ones we wrestled with in the room. The horror of the show is a tough thing to define, because if the horror of the show is a ghost in the hallway or a scary shadow, that’s hard to sustain over the course of any longform story if the horror of the show is wrestling with the fact that what should have been a long life is being cut short and prematurely. Wrestling with the fact that no one knows what to expect on the other side. That kind of horror, that’s something that isn’t visceral. It isn’t going to pop out and terrify a viewer. But I think we’ll be kind of burrowing into them throughout the show. We focused on on the latter. There are still a number of genre moments. There are still a number of scares. There are plenty of other jump scares that aren’t tongue in cheek. Those moments, we took our biggest cue from Christopher Pike and how he would disperse them among his stories.
The horror fans in particular, they want, expect and need that and it’s important to the story. So I guess the best answer your question is, in so much as those genre moments feel that they’re bringing the characters forward, or moving the plot forward in a meaningful way. That’s as many as we felt we needed. But anything that felt like it was it was servicing neither the character or the big picture plot, we would stay away from. A lot of this stuff regarding the specters of the man in the mirror and the old woman with the cataracts and things, we have a terrific answer for, it was just never meant to be revealed this season. So they were really just there enough to hopefully pull people into interest into the second season if we have one.
So the intention is that this is an ongoing series then, correct?
Yes. This is the first one I’ve worked on that was designed to be ongoing. I don’t know if that will happen, we’ll have to wait and see, but if it doesn’t, I promised everybody at Comic Con yesterday that I’ll put up all the all the answers to the central mysteries on Twitter, which I will honor. But yeah, the show was designed to carry forward and we made the decision in the writers room not to reveal two of our bigger existential secrets of the show so that we’d have something to say in the second season. It’s a gamble. I haven’t had to operate this way before
How does that feel?
It’s not terribly comfortable. It’s tough to figure out a way to end a season in a way that will feel satisfying enough, but will also encourage people to come back for more. I’ve enjoyed the definitive ending, always. Even if it was an ambiguous definitive ending. This is not a muscle I’ve gotten to exercise very much.
I know in Pike’s novel there are these issues of past lives. Is that that kind of what’s going on with the old woman and the old man or is that that to be revealed?
It is to be revealed but we are very much aligned in our read of Pike’s source material and the importance of that particular idea to the Midnight Club. Very aligned in that. So you’re absolutely onto something there.
The last shot of the season is shocking. What can you tell me about that reveal the wig coming off and the tattoo on Dr. Stanton? What do you what do you want viewers to be thinking there?
We wanted people to rethink assumptions they may have made about who Dr. Stanton is. It’s a very Pike-ian moment. There’s one major clue, I think it shouldn’t be too tough — looking back at the season – to kind of figure out why the tattoo is there and who she may be in actuality. I don’t think we tried to hide that very hard. As for the wig, that’s a much bigger deal and whether that is indicating that there’s something sinister going on with her or something else, that we do have in store for very early in the second season to reveal.
How far are you into developing Season 2?
I have a rough outline for the season. It just depends. Netflix has to let us know if they want it. But we know kind of who is still alive of the original cast by the end of the season and we know where we were going to reveal two huge truths about the central mysteries of the show, about the elderly couple and about Stanton. We’ve got a really good idea of which other Pike stories would take center stage for a potential second season, and that’s some of the more exciting stuff as a Pike fan. We were gonna get into some of his very well known titles and try to draw them out beyond just a 25-minute B story in one episode, we were going to kind of have a secondary longer story running through the season. It would be pretty awesome. But we’ll see, you know, we’ll find out in a month, I suppose. We’ll see if the viewers enjoy it. It’ll be up to them.
Are you looking at this as just a couple seasons, many seasons or is that just kind of too early to tell?
We thought it could go on for a pretty long time. Pike has just an enormous library of available IP to pull from and the thing about a show like this is that, you know, the cast changing is actually something that’s very intrinsic to the central concept. So that could be pretty great, too.
The ensemble cast is incredible, and the show really gives each character time to shine. Can you talk about developing those characters on the page and then the casting process?
I’m so glad that you brought them up because I am so blown away by this cast. So many of whom this was their first job or their second job. The characters on the page, I’ve always loved the characters that Pike created, and we knew we had to expand on that just given the size of the show. In the writers room, we were all we were all nerds in high school. We were all kind of outcasts in high school. So everybody in the writers room was pouring elements of themselves into different characters that could kind of hold on to things that reminded us of our own awkward experiences as teens.
So we felt like we knew them, and then the cast came in and we realized that we didn’t know anything. That these actors were going to take those characters and breathe life into them in a way that we couldn’t have imagined on our Zoom sessions. Iman Benson really carries us through as Ilonka, she’s the conduit for the audience. She has a tenacity and a strength to her and a charm to her. When I first met her, she reminded me very much of how I felt when I first met Victoria Pedretti. Ruth Codd, who we found on TikTok, who had never acted before, is just a force of nature. She’s so great. Two weeks after she landed, I kind of looked at that first A.D. and I was like, ‘That’s a movie star.’ The whole cast, there are people familiar to me like Igby, who I worked with on ‘Midnight Mass’ who I just love and adore. But Chris Sumpter, this is his first job. He’s marvelous and I think just incredibly endearing as Spence. And Sauriyan Sapkota, who plays Amesh, is another one who I think really kind of fell out of the clear blue sky and just emerged as ferocious talent. He plays a really sweet kind of introverted kid in this show, but when you see him in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ you won’t recognize that human being (laughs). He’s unimaginably versatile and that’s someone I’m incredibly excited to work with. And Aya who plays Natsuki, a bunch of them moved over, I pulled them right into ‘Usher.’ Ruth is in ‘Usher,’ Igby, Aya and Sauriyan are in ‘Usher’ and I would have pulled everybody in if I’d had parts.
But I have to work with all these all these fine young actors again, they’re really, really incredible. And I think they’re the heart of the show, and even on the elements where I don’t feel as sure in my own footing, they really carry me through them. So I’m enormously grateful to them, because this kind of storytelling in this YA world is alien to me. I felt like I was in good hands with them, if they weren’t always in perfect hands with me.
Do you have you know something else lined up? Are you looking to do another movie soon or stay kind of in the series realm?
I am desperate to get back into theaters, I’ll tell you that. We shot five series in five years, and it’s a lot and it asks a lot of our families. The footprints just on our calendars our lives is huge. We came back after wrapping ‘Usher’ to LA and my daughter has no memory of ever living here (laughs). She thinks of Canada as home because the whole family’s been in Vancouver for so long. I think these five series have been an enormous and extraordinary gift. It’s been an incredible just kind of ceaseless burst of energy. It feels like we’ve made one giant show in a lot of ways, it’s a lot of the same cast and crew. It’s kind of crazy. So Trevor [Macy] and I as we hit the ground and got back into LA took a breath and said, ‘Boy we really missed the movies. We missed creating something for the big screen.’ It’s been since ‘Doctor Sleep.’ So we are trying to refocus some energy in that direction. We’re still developing our television business in a big way. I have a half a dozen other series that I’m dying to make, and I’m sure we’ll settle in on what’s next very soon. But for the moment, kind of for the first time in half a decade, I promised my wife and myself that I would take a breath and just kind of stop moving for a minute and make that next decision very carefully.
I’m sure directing an entire series like ‘Midnight Mass’ takes a lot out of you.
It does and I’ve only done that twice. I did with ‘Hill House’ and I did it with ‘Midnight Mass.’ With this one, I only did two episodes myself, and it was way more fun to just be on set and watch the other filmmakers do what they were doing. With ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ I directed four out of eight the other four are directed by Mike Fimognari, who is my brother and my director of photography for most of my career. He’s wonderful and this was such a wonderful thing for us. It was kind of designed for us to share and it’s been remarkable. But directing all of a season of TV, it’s grounded me into the ground each time. I lost an enormous amount of weight doing ‘Hill House’ and was kind of a mess and ‘Midnight Mass’ was mercifully shorter. It was only seven episodes not 10, but even that, I was limping at the end. So for my marriage and my children and my health I need to be very careful about when I do that.
Unless it’s ‘Dark Tower,’ in which case all bets are off.
Correct if it’s ‘Dark Tower,’ I’ll do it all no problem (laughs). If it’s ‘Dark Tower’ you’ll have to drag me off that set. I will keep hoping on that one.
“The Midnight Club” is now streaming on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed.