How do you make a sequel to the ‘scariest movie of all time’? And how do you make it work almost 40 years after the film came out, based on a novel written by an author who notoriously hates the original film? These were the unenviable challenges faced by director Mike Flanagan and his long-time producer Trevor Macy when they embarked upon their sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep, which focuses on a grown-up Danny Torrence.
“Yeah, no pressure, right?” laughs Macy, talking to Den Of Geek from Vancouver where he and Flanagan are working on season two of Netflix’s The Haunting Of Hill House (called The Haunting Of Bly Manor). “I don’t think we would have done this if it was someone approaching us, saying, ‘Do you want to do The Shining 2?’”
This long-awaited follow-up is a far more complex beast. Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s 1977 novel, though hailed by many as a masterpiece (and constantly lingering at the top of many ‘best horror movie’ lists) was described by King as being “like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it” – King to this day isn’t a fan – so Macy and Flanagan had a unique problem at the heart of their movie.
How do you please King and remain faithful to his 2013 novel Doctor Sleep, while acknowledging Kubrick’s celebrated work and not alienating fans of the film?
“Mike had a point of view from the beginning that this was kind of its own thing,” Macy explains. “Which is to say: yes, it’s a faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s literary sequel to The Shining, and yes, it pays homage to Kubrick in a way that is fun to talk about for people who have seen the film. But we always felt that it was kind of its own story. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, but we’re trying to do it in a respectful way that we would want to see if we were in the audience.”
Sins of the father
Picking up right after the events of The Shining, with Danny and his mum Wendy having escaped the terrible events at the Overlook Hotel, we first find young Danny still troubled by the ghosts of the hotel who are drawn to his ability to Shine – a certain psychic energy that he possesses in spades. His powers, and his past – especially his ordeal at the hands of his father Jack (Jack Nicholson in The Shining) – still haunt the young boy, and years later this will translate to the adult Danny – who now goes by Dan.
Dan (played by Ewan McGregor in Doctor Sleep) struggles with alcohol abuse like his father before him. An aimless drifter, he hits an all-time low after a drug-fuelled night with a young single mother. Dan’s at rock bottom until a chance encounter with a stranger in a new town helps him confront his demons – the real, tangible ones caused by his addiction – before the two, with the help of a little girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) who Shines just like Dan, have to face a new set of monsters in the form of mysterious travellers The True Knot, led by the seductive Rose The Hat (Rebecca Ferguson). It’s a journey that will force Dan to face the shadows of his past in an effort to save a new generation with the power to Shine.
The parallel journeys of the story’s protagonist and the film itself haven’t escaped director Flanagan, speaking to Den Of Geek and other reporters at a presentation of Doctor Sleep’s blistering first trailer, which includes multiple callbacks to The Shining.
“Dan as the protagonist having so many years between the events of this story and the events of The Shining…as much as he is a direct product of – and unable to escape – the ghosts of what happened to him as a child, I viewed the movie in much the same way,” Flanagan says. “It’s very much its own story that can be enjoyed thoroughly without having seen The Shining and without having read any of the source material, but much like Dan it’s an inevitable product of those things. The influence they have on him as a character is very similar to the way those things influence our film.”
A faithful adaptation of Doctor Sleep, which exists under the weighty shadow of Kubrick’s The Shining, means there’s scope for all manner of references that should excite fans. Early on in the movie we meet young Danny, played by Roger Dale Floyd, and see the iconic tricycle scene through the corridors of the Overlook. He certainly resembles Danny Lloyd’s original Danny (ditto Alex Essoe, who plays Doctor Sleep’s version of Wendy, originally played by Shelley Duvall) and flashback scenes allow memorable moments to be recreated. But instead of aping the original, Flanagan develops the mythology anew. More familiar characters will return in a way that should delight lovers of The Shining, but Macy says he and Flanagan were careful not to make their movie a mere greatest hits throwback.
“If you take that kind of grounded approach and think about everything like: ‘What would I want to see? What would I be excited about? What would go too far?’ That’s one way to strike a balance – and that’s Mike’s approach and certainly mine,” he explains.
Recreating The Overlook
Shooting took place in and around Georgia over 50 days, with all the interior shots of the Overlook built from scratch. Less of an ordeal, then, than Kubrick’s legendarily difficult shoot, where principal photography took more than a year to complete (“Well, it was a lot shorter,” Macy laughs).
“The day when you get to walk into The Colorado Lounge is a pretty good day,” smiles Macy. “It’s remarkable to see those places [from The Shining] physically manifested. I mean, speaking for myself, and I think for a lot of people, they’re burrowed into my imagination in such a way that I feel like I know every corner of that room. And that was true before I made this movie. You know these spaces, but then it’s entirely different when you walk into them. You take a deep breath and you think, ‘Wow. I can’t imagine what this would have been like the first time.’”
Though the familiar interiors of the creepy hotel are brand new, there are certain shots in the movie that actually come from Kubrick’s original film. Namely, those that show the outside of the Overlook. “We contemplated going to Timberland Lodge – the exteriors in Oregon where they shot the exteriors of The Shining – but they had changed the hotel quite a bit,” Macy explains.
“It’s still recognisable from the front, as I remember it. But we felt like that was an organic place to use and repurpose some of the original footage. We respectfully asked the Kubrick estate if they would be OK with that in a few select instances, and thankfully they were. They’ve been very supportive of the movie. So we’ve been very happy about that.”
Away from the Overlook though, Doctor Sleep’s main narrative is something different. And at its centre is a character who Flanagan calls, “probably the most exciting Stephen King antagonist to come out of his books in 20 years.” Rose The Hat is gorgeous – “the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in my whole life” according to Emily Alyn Lind’s character Snakebite Andi in the film. A seductive monster, she’s the leader of a group of powerful but reprehensible killers who track down and devour the energy of kids who can Shine.
Flanagan describes Ferguson’s portrayal of Rose as “one of the most charming, terrifying, hypnotic villains that I’ve seen in so, so long”, while newcomer Kyliegh Curran who makes her film debut as powerful teenager Abra Stone, Flanagan says, is “the discovery of the movie”. “Her chemistry with Ewan was remarkable from the get-go,” echoes Macy, who tells us that the emotional resonance of the film was key to him and Flanagan.
But it’s McGregor’s Dan who owns the arc of Doctor Sleep – from The Shining’s little kid channelling imaginary friend Tony and blurting out “Redrum!” while the phantoms of the Overlook torment him, to fully grown man finally confronting his background, his father, his powers and the traumatic events that shaped him. “If you approach it from the idea that: what would it be like if you had the horrible events of your childhood that were in The Shining? What are the ripples of that as an adult? Ewan’s ability to engender empathy is unparalleled,” Macy explains.
The Shining (the book and the movie) has generated its own ripples through generations of readers, authors, fans and filmmakers – and now those ripples have manifested as a new horror populated by ghosts of the old. And perhaps Doctor Sleep will generate its own ripples in horror circles. Macy modestly says that King seems happy with the film, saying he’s been “unflinchingly supportive”, while the author himself is yet more bombastic, posting on Twitter: “This movie is going to blow your mind.”
Have Flanagan and Macy managed to resurrect the spirits of the Overlook in a movie that pleases the Kubrick Estate, Stephen King and fans of the books and film alike? The movie’s knock-on effects might not be visible for years to come. But the ambitious yet respectful juggling act Doctor Sleep attempts could just have laid to rest some old demons and given Danny and the ghosts of the past a chance to Shine once more.
Doctor Sleep is in cinemas now. You can read our review here.
This article was first published in issue 5 of Den Of Geek magazine, printed for MCM London Comic-Con