Ouija: Origin of Evil director Mike Flanagan, who was born in Salem, Massachusetts and is a die-hard horror fan, knows how to make a quality scary movie – he has the terrifying Oculus and Hush in his filmography. Because of this, Ouija: Origin of Evil is the rare follow-up that is a marked improvement over the first film, 2014’s dismal Ouija. In the sequel, a young girl falls under an evil entity’s influence when her mother adds a Ouija board to the family’s scam séance business.
We talked to this spirited horror director about correcting some of the wrongs of Ouija, what classic films influenced his prequel, and why this is a great time to be making horror movies.
Fandango: First of all, do you pronounce the word Ouija as "we-zha" or "we-gee"?
Mike Flanagan: I say "we-zha." Hasbro will use both. I heard that it was born of the French and German words for "yes"— oui and ja — so that's what I default to.
Fandango: You set Ouija: Origin of Evil in 1967 Los Angeles. Did you choose this time period because there was a newfound interest in the occult at that time?
Flanagan: Yes, in part. I was very aware the occult and especially mediumship in the '60s was very different than what it is now. I've always been fascinated with the '60s in general. I'm a major NASA nerd, so I've spent a lot of time learning about the space race and the Apollo missions. I also really like that the country was in such a fascinating place at the time, coming out of the innocence of the '50s and into so much civil and political turmoil. This was all juxtaposed with some of the most incredible technological advances our species has ever made. It's also so cinematic. I like the look of it—the cars, the wardrobe and the hair—just everything looks really cool.
Fandango: Ouija: Origin of Evil has a few parallels with The Exorcist. Was it an inspiration?
Flanagan: Absolutely! The Exorcist was one of the most terrifying introductions to the genre that I had while growing up. We knew we were doing a story centering around possession, so you kind of have to acknowledge The Exorcist. I have so much love for the film, and it certainly was in the front of my mind when we were working on it. Another big one was The Changeling with George C. Scott; we talked about that a lot in prep. I looked at this movie like, what was it like when I was 13 and introduced to the genre? How can I try to create that for a contemporary audience? So there's a lot of nostalgia in it, and certainly a lot of loving nods to the kind of movies I watched growing up.
Fandango: Young Lulu Wilson, who plays Doris Zander, is terrific in a challenging, dark role for a little girl. Where did you find her and how did this subject matter not freak her out?
Flanagan: I knew when we were writing it that we were asking an enormous amount from a very young actor. Whoever was going to play Doris was going to have the weight of the movie on her. Lulu came in, and I remember being struck by how poised she was. I think I said to the casting director that she was 9 going on 40. She is such a unique and unusual kid, but she has a sophistication to the way she acts that I was not prepared for.
It really manifested itself in her first audition piece, which was this monologue in the movie about what it feels like to be strangled to death. It's a really intense monologue, and the obvious acting choice that most people made was to come in and deliver the words as creepy as possible. Lulu came in and delivered the entire thing nonchalantly with a smile. I thought it was such a sophisticated choice that the part was hers immediately.
One of the things about horror movies that I've noticed with the children I've worked with is that they have a great time. Lulu wanted to climb the walls herself; she didn't want a stunt person doing it. When the demons would come in with makeup, Lulu was up there dancing with them. It turns into a playground. Horror movies feel like comedies when you're making them because everybody laughs so much.
Fandango: You cowrote the movie Hush with your wife, Kate Siegel, who starred in it. Did she marry you before or after you put her through hell on-screen?
Flanagan: We weren't married when we made the movie, but we got married before it came out. She killed it. She's at the séance table at the beginning of Ouija 2 also. She's the blonde.
Deaf writer + masked murderer = Hush, starring Flanagan's wife, Kate Siegel
Fandango: Hasbro owns the rights to the Ouija game. Were there any concerns about depicting the use of the game in this way that they might not like? Or did you have their blessing?
Flanagan: They were actually very supportive. They had so much to do with the first film, which actually had a lot of pretty intense things connected to the board. There was a whole suicide angle in the first movie. One of the things they never wanted to shy away from was trying to present their product as something that was frightening. I think that was smart. If they were like, "Behold the Ouija board and all its terrifying abilities, none of which are that scary because we don't want to turn off the marketing people," you're kind of in no-man's land.
One of the things they really got excited when we were talking about the time period was the art. Even the box art you see for the Ouija board in the movie was authentic to 1967. They handed over their old planchette and board designs and said, "Here is everything we have. Try to build the best movie around it that you can." It's interesting because the idea of the spirit board is ancient, but mass producing it as a game is relatively new.
"I didn't want to make a movie about eliminated teenagers."
Fandango: Ouija: Origin of Evil feels like a very different film than the first one, and it's not just the period setting. What cues did you take from the first movie and what did you decide to leave behind?
Flanagan: I didn't want to make a movie about eliminated teenagers. That doesn't really appeal to me, and it's been done so much. We didn't talk too much about the first film except for the light continuity we were going to have between them. We wanted this to be a movie people could enjoy even if they hadn't seen the first.
We wanted to figure out what made people come out and support the first movie financially in such numbers. I think it's the board itself, and that people are interested in a scary movie around Halloween time. Beyond that, it was important to make this our own thing.
Blumhouse has been very transparent about what they see are the failings of the first film. They didn't want to just do a smash-and-grab sequel; they wanted to correct some of the wrongs of the first. That is how they approached me with the idea to begin with. I thought that was very unusual for Hollywood. They could have just said, "Eh, do that again." In which case, they wouldn't have wanted me, and I wouldn't have wanted to do it.
Fandango: It seems like this year with movies like The Conjuring 2, Lights Out, Don't Breathe and Ouija: Origin of Evil that there is a bit of a horror renaissance happening. Do you feel it?
Flanagan: I absolutely agree that this year has been wonderful for horror. I think it even goes back to last year, seeing movies like It Follows and The Babadook coming up and really mobilizing an audience that respects tone and character development. The reason we're seeing so many horror movies performing very well—critically and financially—is that people are supporting them, and studios are more willing to take a chance.
I'm hoping this trend continues because I love the genre and plan on always returning to it. I have aspirations to try other stories and play around in other genres, but I'll always come back to horror just because it's home for me. It's one of my favorite things to watch. I've been able to go to the multiplexes this year and see exciting, dynamic horror over and over.
Ouija: Origin of Evil opens in theaters October 17.