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NYCC: Mike Flanagan breaks a world record, talks decades-long battle to adapt 'The Midnight Club'
The famed horror filmmaker's attempts to adapt Christopher Pike's novels in college did not go well.
While attending Towson University as a young film student, director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Doctor Sleep) attempted to adapt Christopher Pike's Midnight Club novels for the screen. A script was written and the wide-eyed storyteller full of dreams was raring to go. The only problem? A cease a desist letter from Pike's publisher.
"That was my first cease and desist of my career," he told SYFY WIRE at New York Comic Con Thursday. "You never forget your first cease and desist from a major publisher ... I didn't know what I was doing in college and I didn't realize that you needed permission before you adapt the novel into a script. I thought you send the script and if they like it, you're good. The thing I regret is I did what they said and I destroyed all the copies. That was a bummer."
Even so, Flanagan was not deterred from his quest to bring the books to life and ultimately got his chance after signing an overall production deal with Netflix in early 2019 (a deal that has given us The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass, and the upcoming Fall of the House of Usher). "I never let it go and for the decades after that, it was always something I wanted to do," he explained. "So it feels really wonderful to be here talking about it today. When I got to tell that story to Christopher Pike, he was utterly unaware that it had happened at all."
"He swears up and down he didn't know," echoed the filmmaker's usual producing partner, Trevor Macy.
During the show's official panel, a representative for the Guinness Book of World Records was on hand to award The Midnight Club with a plaque for the most scripted jump scares in a single episode of television (the record to beat up until this point was 12, which the premiere does with 21 jump scares). "I hate jump scares. I just hate them," Flanagan remarked onstage. "For most of my career, people have come to me while we're working on scripts or while we're working on edits and said, 'Add more jump scares. Put more in. More! More! More! Faster! Faster Faster! And so, on this project, we thought we were just gonna empty the missile silos, put as many jump scares as could ever fit into one scene, so that, hopefully, by the end, they would be meaningless and have no more impact. And so, that in the future, if anyone ever came to us and said, 'Add more jump scares,' we could say, 'Actually, we have the Guinness record for most jump scares in an episode of television and we think it's fine the way it is.'"
A pinch of The Fault in Our Stars, a dash of Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and a heaping tablespoon of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, the '90s-set Midnight Club unfolds at Brightcliffe, a hospice facility for terminally ill teenagers. In an effort to distract themselves from their own fleeting mortality, the kids meet up every night to scare each other with spine-tingling tales of the macabre. The first member of the club to die must reach out from beyond the grave and prepare the others for what's coming in the afterlife. If there's an afterlife, that is. Until then, the stories continue, each one a separate, anthological entity that opens the door for genres beyond the realm of horror.
"I'm such a huge sci-fi fan and I'm glad that we got to do a little bit of that, too," admitted co-creator and executive producer Leah Fong. "Visually, it enabled us to kind of riff on a lot of our favorite things. I feel like there [are] Fincher references, film noir, and Terminator. All across the board." She also confirms that Dream Warriors was screened at the very first meeting of the writers' room. "It was very influential for me, it's influential on this series."
"We had a chance to do something we never got to do on any of the other shows, and it's all about these other stories. We call them 'the B stories' in the writers' room,'" Flanagan explained. "We had a chance to open up any sub-genre that we wanted to ... All of the stories for the rest of the season are actually other Christopher Pike books, and that meant that we got to work with an incredible team of fantastic filmmakers who got to throw all sorts of different stuff up onto the screen. We got to hit reset every single episode on the tone and the aesthetic when it came to our B stories, which means you're gonna see cyborgs and demons and Satan and ghosts and witches and all sorts of crazy stuff that otherwise we'd never be able to get into. So this show, more than anything else, has just got an awful lot of variety when it comes to the genre."
To further underscore their indebtedness to the 1987 classic, the filmmakers tapped horror icon Heather Langenkamp for the role of Dr. Georgina Stanton, the mysterious founder of Brightcliffe, who feels like a darker reflection of Freddy survivor Nancy Thompson. According to Langenkamp, the character helped her complete some unfinished business the third entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street series didn't have the time to explore.
"That movie was so great and yet, her role as a therapist — who was helping these kids through their suicide attempts — it never felt deep enough," she said. "Our group therapy scenes are a little superficial sometimes, but this time, I just feel like everybody's story is so deep. We really know the kids, we really know their backgrounds, and in an hour-and-a-half-long film, you just can't go that deep into people's lives. So in a lot of ways, I loved that the audience will know the kids really, really well."
The show's principal cast is comprised of Iman Benson, Igby Rigney, Ruth Codd, Annarah Cymone, Chris Sumpter, Adia, Aya Furukawa, Sauriyan Sapkota, Matt Biedel, Samantha Sloyan, with Zach Gilford, and Langenkamp. There are a slew of official guest stars, many of whom have worked with Flanagan in the past: William B. Davis, Robert Longstreet, Rahul Kohli, Katie Parker, Michael Trucco, Emily Piggford, Crystal Balint, Henry Thomas, Alex Essoe, John C. MacDonald, and Jason O’Mara.
Viewers should also keep their ears pricked for even more guest stars who haven't been officially announced. "There are voice cameos of other actors ... There are other hidden people from the Flana-Verse,' so look out for that," Fong revealed. Not long after, Flanagan dished on the identities of these "hidden" guests as Hamish Linklater, Carla Gugino, and Kate Siegel. "All three appear in the show," he teased, "but no one has yet found them..."
All 10 episodes of The Midnight Club premiere on Netflix Friday, Oct. 7.
Click here for all of SYFY WIRE's continuing coverage of New York Comic Con 2022.
Looking for more spooky thrills? Check out Season 1 of SYFY's haunted house saga SurrealEstate on the SYFY app, and get ready for Season 2 on the way later this year.