Doctor Sleep isn’t merely another film for writer-director Mike Flanagan; it’s the fulfillment of a lifelong creative dream. Having already proven he could adapt Stephen King’s “unfilmable” novel Gerald’s Game, Flanagan set his sights on merging his love for King with his reverence for monolithic director Stanley Kubrick. But how exactly does one merge King’s sequel novel to The Shining with the film version the author despises? Turns out, very carefully.
For those who haven’t read Doctor Sleep, it’s a rather sprawling, years-long story of adult Dan Torrance, buried under years of repression and hereditary alcoholism, trying to make himself right with the universe. His ability to shine eventually puts him in psychic contact with Abra Stone, a little girl with the biggest shine ever. But the shine-hungry vampires the True Knot are also on the trail of Abra. Naturally, they’re all destined to meet.
The novel spends roughly the first third of its page count on giving us the context for these three different stories that will eventually converge. Naturally, in a single film, Flanagan wasn’t able to do that. “What I’m trying to do is protect as much as possible, the intentions of the of the author, the arc of the characters, and to try to do it in a way that I think is going to be compelling cinematically,” Flanagan told Nerdist during a press trip to The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, CO. “Because a book is an internal experience, and I think movies are an external experience and they don’t translate necessarily.”
But he’s also a huge fan of that book; how do you decide what to keep? “There’s no way to know really kind of in the moment if it’s going to work,” Flanagan continued. “A lot of it just boils down to when I put down a book, especially a book that big, if I had to describe the book to a friend and say, ‘here’s the story of the book,’ what are the things that I remember? What are the things that I think are at the heart of it? And if anything doesn’t kind of jump immediately to mind in that retelling of it, that’s probably something that can go away.”
“When you talk about a haunted house story,” Flanagan said, comparing The Shining and Doctor Sleep, “isolation and claustrophobia are kind of it. Containing these characters within walls they can’t really get out of; this is really the name of the game.” He of course knows this all too well, given his 2018 Netflix smash The Haunting of Hill House. “And that’s what makes The Shining The Shining,” he put forth. “Doctor Sleep is so weird because it is everywhere. It’s sprawling. And having any kind of sense of narrative claustrophobia, it’s really hard to build when you’re ricocheting off of so many different storylines. I very much wish that I could have spent more time with all of them.”
One of the bits Flanagan had to truncate was Dan Torrance reaching rock bottom with his addiction. So much of the story depends on Dan’s recovery, but how could the filmmaker ask the audience to stay in misery for too long? “Dan at rock bottom in particular is a tough place to live for very long,” Flanagan told us. “And yeah, and that’s a lot to ask of an audience to wallow in that. You want to get the point across because you need his arc to make sense. And without that rock bottom, the redemption doesn’t work. But it is a lot to ask someone to stay in this state of just you know.”
From the original 1980 The Shining, Warner Bros
It wasn’t just adapting King, of course. Doctor Sleep the film’s centerpiece is its return to the Overlook Hotel of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film. And with that came the challenge of re-casting some of the characters from The Shining, 40 years later. Particularly, Wendy Torrance and Dick Hallorann, played in the original film by Shelley Duvall and Scatman Crothers, respectively. For obvious reasons, they couldn’t come back to play the 1980 versions of themselves. In their place, Flanagan cast Alex Essoe as Wendy and Carl Lumbly as Dick. It’s an astounding replication, totally without CGI.
This is just another of the very daunting tasks Flanagan set up for himself. “It’s an incredibly intimidating thing for any actor to step into another actor’s character, especially characters that are so iconic,” He said. “We could have tried to digitally recreate those original actors, which I think would have been a horrible mistake. It would have ripped everyone out of the movie. So I wasn’t interested in doing that. We could have gone in a direction where we didn’t need to have any kind of connection to the original film and just cast whoever we wanted. But our visual language for the hotel was definitively Kubrick, right? That meant the characters had to be as well.”
Flanagan found a way, as in so many amazing things with Doctor Sleep, to do both. “So the the decision was how about we try to find actors who remind me of those other actors but who aren’t doing impressions,” he told us. “[We had to find actors] who can still make the characters their own and take the characters in different directions. Alex Essoe has some some rather uncanny similarities to Shelley Duvall. And Carl did just an incredible job channeling Scotland Crothers, but also made the characters their own.”
It’s one thing to recast some characters; it’s another entirely to rebuild the entirety of Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel set, using Kubrick’s original blueprints. A set that, infamously, doesn’t make any sense at all. “I learned about why it made no sense,” Flanagan told us with glee. “Yow why there are stairs in the [Torrance’s hotel] residence, right? It was because there were stairs on his soundstage that they had to build around. Kubrick was using every available square foot. And that meant taking physical attributes of the soundstages in London and incorporating them into his Overlook. It was as simple as that.”
But it’s one of the most effective practical sets in film history; perfect for a movie about people slowly losing their minds. This was all part and parcel to Kubrick’s grand scheme, according to Flanagan. “The other thing I learned as I really studied the blueprints,” Flanagan shared, “was that he clearly didn’t care if the building didn’t make sense. There were elements of our movie where we had to make a decision based on contradictions that were in The Shining. We have one scene that shows you know, the Adler which was the typewriter; robust conversation about what color it should be. He had multiple typewriters in the film and it boiled down to, how do I remember it? If I close my eyes and think about The Shining, what color is the typewriter? Whatever the answer is, that’s the one we need.”
And just like all those people who’ve spent way too much time trying to make sense of Kubrick’s version of the Overlook, Flanagan had to figure out where things were in relation to everything else. “We had scenes where we had characters walking in and out of the lobby. And I couldn’t find the damn doors,” Flanagan told us, to our utter delight. “I studied the movie, hundreds of times, studied the plans, studied the [real location] Timberline Lodge; based on where the lobby is in relation to the other rooms downstairs, where those doors are in relation to the hedge maze, where that is in relation to the parking lot. None of us on the film could come up with the answer to where the lobby was to the Overlook Hotel as Kubrick designed it.”
“We decided,” Flanagan told us, “we have to care about logic and continuity about as much as Kubrick did. It was forensic. We’re only kind of learning about the decisions he made by trying to walk in his footsteps.”
You can see if Mike Flanagan’s dream of blending Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick succeeds when Doctor Sleep hits theaters, November 8.
Featured Image: Warner Bros