At the end of “Hush,” a slightly mischievous credit comes up “introducing” the film’s star Kate Siegel, an actress who paid her dues well before her leading turn in the latest from “Oculus” director Mike Flanagan.
“It’s interesting because we were under the constraint of such a small budget, one of things we needed to offer the actor who was going to play the [other main part] was top billing,” says Siegel, who in addition to carrying the film as an actress, co-wrote it with her partner in life and film Flanagan. “There was some back and forth, but [we felt] the introducing credit is the very special, exciting credit and even though I’ve been kicking around this industry for a while, I do still feel on some levels this is my debutante debut. This is the first time they really put a movie on my shoulders and it’s the way I’d like to be introduced to the world.”
Indeed, Siegel feels like a revelation as Maddie, a writer besieged by a relentless and highly motivated masked stalker (John Gallagher Jr.) at her secluded cottage in the forest whose footsteps she cannot hear after losing her hearing at the age of 13. Though not deaf in real life, Siegel is quite convincing in the part, a brilliant character who shrewdly uses the wiles one would develop after being deprived of their sense sound to figure out how to defend herself and stay alive.
“She has to be on screen 90% of the time and carry the stretches of this movie with just her expressions,” marvels Flanagan, who knew Siegel could pull off a long-held dream of his to craft a thriller with that pesky problem of dialogue kept to a minimum. With her strong turn at the center, he’s created his most muscular film to date with a brutal game of cat-and-mouse that is constantly reinventing itself within just one location, the crossbow-wielding killer evenly matched with his prey to make their battle of wits as riveting as their physical tussles.
As if it were some perverse joke, “Hush” will be breaking into homes around the world starting today after Netflix claimed the nail biter just in advance of its celebrated premiere at SXSW last month — you can watch it right now here — and shortly before the global release, Siegel and Flanagan spoke about finding the perfect location, collaborating on the script knowing each other’s strengths and literally taking so many shots in the dark.
Mike Flanagan: Kate and I actually went out to dinner and we were sitting there talking about movies that we really liked and we realized we both really dug “Wait Until Dark.” Kate had seen it as a stage play in LA at the Geffen Playhouse and over the course of the meal, we were talking about the kinds of movies we wish we could make. For me, I said I always wanted to do a movie without trying to adopt the crutch of dialogue, which I thought would be a really neat challenge and Kate had this recurring anxiety of waking up at night and seeing a face looking out through the window at her house. By the time the meal was over, we said we could just combine those elements into one thriller. It came about incredibly fast.
Was it a different experience to develop something together, knowing what you could bring to it as an actor and director, respectively?
Kate Siegel: It was my first time actually writing a script. Mike had so much more experience with that than I did, so I learned so much about the process from him, but Mike was familiar with my work and I was familiar with his work, so we could write things that we knew I would succeed at. I was able to bring so much of who I knew Maddie would be to the script level.
Did you actually know sign language beforehand?
Kate Siegel: No, I worked with an incredible coach who drilled me night and day on the signs and also helped me really understand the experience of not experiencing the wealth of someone who can hear. That was such a gift as to what kind of person Maddie is and the way she interacts with the world. Maggie is something that’s called latent deaf, which [means] she’s come to deafness late in life and creates a real sense of isolation because all of the people she was able to communicate with until her 13th birthday are no longer available to her. Her family needs to learn sign language while she does, but as she turns to the deaf community, she’s not as adept at communicating as she should be and her other senses aren’t developed, so she feels very alone in the world as a whole, not to mention what it’s like being a 13-year-old in general.
Just looking at that made perfect sense to me that a smart, independent woman would think, “I can’t get myself heard. I don’t feel understood or seen by anybody in the world. I just want to be left alone and retreat into my imagination,” so she’d decide to move into the woods and write. In the creation of her, her deafness, her muteness really lends a lot to what ends up being her strength, and by the time we were shooting, Maddie’s inner life was in my bones. I had been prepping her for nine months by the time we showed up.
Mike Flanagan: It was different [writing experience] for me because usually actors show up after you’ve done a huge amount of work, with their interpretation of the work that exists, so to create a character with an actor, knowing that this is the person that’s going to be performing the character was very unusual and because we’re writing something that doesn’t really have dialogue, that’s also a whole other way of writing. Once you remove that from the toolkit, we would spend most of our time acting out various scenarios and trying to figure [them] out realistically – like how I would try to break into her house and how Kate would try to survive an intruder. We spent way more time mostly up on our feet trying to figure it out, seeing what each of us would do and establish the dynamic we were in through trial and error than actually sitting and writing.
Kate Siegel: We blocked it in our house for the most part.
Mike Flanagan: When we got to Alabama and got into the house we’d actually be shooting in, we had to re-block and rewrite certain elements of it to fit that house. But the blocking and some of the character and emotional direction the emotional direction in the script was already present in the draft. It really was the blueprint for the technicality of the movie and Kate’s performance.
Mike Flanagan: It was definitely a real house and it was really hard to find. We had written the first draft of the script so specifically to the architecture of our house in California that when we got to Alabama, we couldn’t find anything that matched. The architecture there is just very different. We had a carpenter, a construction guy that was hired by the production, who was coming with us on all the location scouts to see if he needed to help build a room [inside a preexisting house] or knock out the wall. We couldn’t find the right house anywhere and finally, he was like, “You know, my mother lives alone in the woods” and we were like, “Can we see that?” That was the one that we ended up using.
Kate Siegel: We got to do one more draft in the house once we ran through it. We tried to break in to [figure out] how do we utilize the particular layout of this house because we wanted it to be an intimate experience where we used the whole location, so we were [constantly] thinking, “Instead of doing X, can we do Y?”
Mike Flanagan: Yeah, that”s the rub. You can write what you want to have happen from a mechanical point of view, but if it doesn’t make sense in your general location, the whole thing is going to fall apart. We had to get rid of set-pieces we really liked that didn’t work with that house. Luckily, the house provided some new ones like the crawl space under the porch. Things like that weren’t in the original draft and those are now some of my favorite scenes, just based on what that house actually was like.
Mike, was it fun for you to do a more nitty gritty, slasher-oriented horror film after doing more supernatural films?
Mike Flanagan: More than anything I was excited to do a movie with almost no dialogue because I was really keen on trying to do something without it and seeing if I could handle the pressure of having to tell a story so visually. For me, the supernatural side of things I could take or leave. It’s always the characters for me. It’s just so happened that most of the scripts that I’ve written, the supernatural ones were the ones that got produced first because it tends to be an easier sell. But I’m always drawn to something where the characters feel really interesting to me and typically, you can remove the supernatural elements [of my films] and the characters are still compelling. There’s no corner of the genre that I’m not interested in if the characters are there.
One of the other things that’s so striking to me about this film is how much of it takes place in the dark. Were there certain rules about lighting?
Mike Flanagan: The scariest part of that is when you’re in a house with that many windows, any lighting we have at night makes those windows turn into mirrors and you can see your crew. That was a huge problem from the get-go and we had to choreograph every shot very specifically before we actually got into production. If we were off on that choreography by a couple of inches in either direction, you could see the camera operator or the boom operator in the window every time. These movies that take place in one location, especially at night, sound like they should be simpler, but they’re actually much harder than doing much larger-scale projects in the daylight. It’s a real challenge, and that’s one of the things that’s appealing about a movie like this because my crews and I tend to love a challenge. By about the second week, you wonder why you ever wanted to do this in the first place, but it was a lot of fun.
Kate Siegel: Moving around in that space in the dark was all right. It was much like the sound design, when it’s actually 50 layers of sound. In order to shoot darkness, it’s actually seven or eight lights that are creating a sense of darkness and our blocking was very specific. We could work it all out with all the lights on, then we would turn the lights off and hope for the best.
Mike Flanagan: The mask was designed by Bruce Larson, an artist in Alabama who actually designed the mirror for “Oculus” and one of the main creatures in “Before I Wake.” One of the fun Easter eggs in this is that the face that he used for that mask was taken off the mold for a monster in “Before I Wake” and he just cut out the nose and mouth. He sculpted that himself and we went through a couple of different options before we landed on that one. I remember when he first broke that out in prep and brought it over to the house and put it on, we were all like “That’s fantastic.” We actually have three of those, and one is on our mantle at home. It still freaks me out.
What was the premiere at SXSW like?
Kate Siegel: It was amazing. Such a great audience and they’re so engaged and so intelligent. They have such great taste.
Mike Flanagan: When we got the second screening at the Alamo Drafthouse, which is such a great theater, that’s the best I’ve ever heard the movie sound. The sound system in that house is incredible. The picture was perfect. I don’t know that there will ever be a public screening as great visually and sonically as our experience at South by and Drafthouse. Those are very rare treats and the kinds of things which make a movie. You want to have that experience of a really amazing screening with a wonderful audience. We only had that once or twice. For me, that’s the screening we won’t ever forget.
Kate Siegel: It was a blast.
“Hush” is now available on Netflix.