“Oculus” opens in theaters this week and anybody who loves a scary time will get what they ask for. As someone who isn’t a big fan of horror films, I can assure you this one has what it takes to succeed as disturbingly well-made entertainment.
While I’m still shaking off the shock from seeing “Oculus” not too long ago, producer Jason Blum and director Mike Flanagan shed some light on their journey creating this harrowing film.
Some of this interview has been edited for length.
Coast News: Jason, you’ve experienced incredible success producing horror films such as “Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious,” “Sinister,” and “The Purge.” What was it about “Oculus” that convinced you to grant Mike’s wish to turn his short film of the same name into a full-length feature?
Blum: I liked it (“Oculus”) because it shares a lot in common with those movies. I feel like all those movies are low-budget and very original. They’re original stories, it’s original storytelling, and I feel like that’s what “Oculus” has, too.
CN: Mike, it’s been only a few weeks since I last saw “Oculus” and even now it still gives me the creeps. What sources of inspiration did you turn to in order to create this truly scary film?
Flanagan: Well, I’m a big fan of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. And I’ve always been that kid who was also scared of mirrors. So, for me, it was like kind of that, in addition to the Jewish tradition of covering mirrors at funerals to prevent the spirits of the departed from coming back into the world. I thought that was so terrifying…that the mirror could be a gateway to another world. So yeah, those things all came together and the idea just wouldn’t leave me alone.
CN: If I had to name the film’s strongest asset, it would be the sibling relationship, both in the past and the present. What was it like getting to create that family bond with Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites, as well as Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan?
Flanagan: It was really fun. Siblings have this shorthand with each other that you don’t find in other relationships. Those actors would interact with each other immediately when they showed up on set.
Karen and Brenton were relatively inseparable, and spent most of their time together trying to develop that shorthand. Annalise and Garrett did the same; they would work together as well, so that Karen could look at what Annalise was doing and use that as a foundation for her performance, and Brenton did the same with Garrett.
CN: Jason, in your early years, what obstacles challenged your micro- to low-budget production model, and which ones do you face now?
Blum: I was frustrated at working on more traditional studio movies, and I didn’t agree with a lot of what they had to say about storytelling. So the way I figured out around those rules was to make movies low budget; people can make them by their own rules.
The challenges now are always trying to find new things – maybe doing slightly different genres – to keep trying to change and evolve, and that’s what we always try to do.
CN: Mike, I can only imagine the anticipation you must’ve felt prior to seeing “Oculus” in its finished form. What was your reaction to screening it for the first time?
Flanagan: The first time I really got to see it with an audience – which is, you know, kind of the only time I can really gauge how it has all come out – was (in) Toronto. And that was incredible, because you lose objectivity so completely in post-production; that’s the litmus test for all the work and all the decisions and all the different people who have come into the project and added their own piece of art to it. That’s a really validating experience, but you only know that at the very end, and going into it is utterly terrifying.
CN: Jason, since you’re one of the executive producers, what do you look for when it comes to determining the size of a film’s budget? In the case of “Oculus,” what did you have to keep in mind before, during and after production?
Blum: Never more than five million dollars; in the case of “Oculus,” these guys made the movie, and then we didn’t get involved until it was finished, which is what we did on “Paranormal Activity.” So they got to make decisions about budget before I saw it. But I recognized the low-budget spirit in the movie.
CN: What about you, Mike? Are you going to continue to do horror, or have you any interest in other genres as well?
Flanagan: I’m interested in any genre that’s got great characters and a story that grabs me. But I have a deep love for horror, so I can’t imagine I’m ever going to be out of it for very long.