SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “The Haunting of Hill House,” streaming now on Netflix.
When telling a genre story, writer/director Mike Flanagan has one rule: play with perspective.
The man behind “Hush,” “Absentia,” “Gerald’s Game” and the upcoming “Shining” sequel “Doctor Sleep” has become accustomed to having to “constantly escalate tension” while simultaneously offering reveals to the characters and the audience. But for his 10-episode adaptation of “The Haunting of Hill House,” he took playing with perspective even farther.
“I can shamelessly say it was something I learned watching the first season of ‘Lost,'” Flanagan tells Variety. “I loved the way that it put me in one specific character’s shoes for an episode and then handed off. It created this anticipation for me because I said, ‘I can’t wait until I get to explore this character.”
“The Haunting of Hill House” dives into each Crain sibling’s perspective — from eldest Steven (played in the past timeline by Paxton Singleton and in the present by Michiel Huisman) to the youngest, ill-fated twins Luke (Julian Hilliard in the past, Oliver Jackson-Cohen in the present) and Nell (Violet McGraw in the past, Victoria Pedretti in the present) — from the time they lived in the titular “Hill House” to decades after, when they were still dealing with the trauma of having to flee in the middle of the night after something terrible happened to their mother. Each sibling had his or her own experiences with supernatural elements in the house, though each was willing to admit it to a different degree.
Flanagan started with Steven’s perspective (he “went in birth order,” he explains) in order to create an experience where the audience would sit with one sibling for a while but then reveal larger truths as their stories began to overlap, The “idea was that with families and with life, you think you understand something or someone or a moment, and you can’t — you really can’t,” he says. “You’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg with anybody.”
Flanagan identified easily with the character of Steven, the skeptic of the family who created a career out of writing ghost stories, even though he didn’t believe anything supernatural had really happened to him. The other Crain children weren’t as easy for Flanagan to crack, though.
“It was almost like casting the show when we were building the [writers’] room — it was finding the people to represent these characters,” he says. “I was looking for someone to step up and take responsibility for each character. It was like, ‘Oh you have experience with addiction and recovery, you’re going to be my point for Luke’ or ‘You’re a new mother who went through a bit of postpartum, you’re going to be my point for Olivia.'”
It was also important to him to be patient with rolling out new developments to give viewers answers. That’s why he chose not to bring in present-day Hugh (Timothy Hutton) too early on in the show’s run. “He’s the only character alive that has the answers the audience wants, and the longer he’s on screen not providing them, the more we risk people getting frustrated,” Flanagan says. “Once he was there he’d have to speak up at some point. [We were] trying to withhold enough to keep them watching but give them enough that it feels like a satisfying show instead of a maddening one.”
Creating the complicated family dynamic was much more interesting to Flanagan than playing in the supernatural.
“For me the most important thing is if you remove the supernatural entirely the story and the character need to be just as compelling,” he says. “The supernatural stuff is the easy stuff. But all of that stuff is really boring to me if it’s not grounded in some kind of really relatable honest human experience.”
But he did dabble with the supernatural, planting “70 to 80 ghosts that we never call attention to” in the background of scenes. For this, he kept four or five extras on-hand in full ghost makeup at all times to lurk under pianos and behind curtains.
“I loved the idea of being able to do that on the show and calling no attention to it — just leaving [the audience] to have to back it up and go, ‘Did I actually see that!?'” he says.
One extra special house ghost was Bruce Greenwood, who Flanagan confirms appears in the fifth episode, when young Nell has a nightmare and goes into her parents’ room. “In Carla’s medium closeup, on the left side of the frame, he’s sitting there behind her and he’s out of focus enough that he looks like he’s just part of the wall,” Flanagan points out. This particular moment is also an easter egg for fans of Flanagan, as putting Greenwood, Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas in a scene together created a mini “Gerald’s Game” reunion.
The house itself also became a key character in the story. “I wanted the house to feel schizophrenic — I never wanted it to settle into any one particular thing, so the mystery builds,” he says, noting that he leaned heavily on Patricio Farrell, his production designer, to make the interior of the house “as weird as possible.” “I told him, ‘I don’t mind if I turn a corner and it’s all stone and stained glass and I feel like I’m in a convent, and then I turn another corner and I’m in the kitchen.'”
The house was also integral to diving into each individual sibling’s memories — especially because of the Red Room, which presented itself differently to each family member. Although the true nature of the room is not revealed until the end of the season, Flanagan said he “always wanted to have an element of red whenever we were in the room…just to tease it a little bit.” He used the same set, re-dressed, whether the scene was Olivia (Gugino) in her reading room, young Steve in his game room or young Luke in his treehouse.
“It had that weird window, and we talked about just having one feature that was so unique to that room that we didn’t see anywhere else in the house so that by the time we’d seen it five times, we’d assume it was a common feature in the house,” Flanagan says.
In fact, Flanagan even toyed with the idea of putting that Red Room window in the back of the final scene with the family, in which they are gathered around Luke and his two-year sobriety cake but thought it would be “too cruel.”
But although Steven finds his place in his family again, Luke gets sober, Shirley (Elisabeth Reaser) confronts issues within her marriage and Theo (Kate Siegel) takes off her gloves to really be a part of the world, their father walks into the Red Room to be with his deceased wife and daughter, leaving the house and all of the responsibility that comes with keeping others away from it to Steven.
“I wanted them to have a moment of peace at the end — I thought they deserved that,” Flanagan says. “But the house is still standing. They may have to go back at some point — they may not be able to help themselves. We thought the characters and the audience would deserve peace at the end, but we knew it would never really be over.”