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Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy on the 'deeply personal' roots and Biblical horrors of Midnight Mass

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Sep 20, 2021, 12:56 PM EDT

Mike Flanagan is one of the most prolific creators working in the horror genre at the moment. In just a decade, he has directed and written or co-written seven feature films and three streaming miniseries, many of them alongside his longtime producing partner, Trevor Macy. With an ever-growing list of credits and an impressive number of projects in development, it seems Flanagan is always moving on to the next terrifying thing.

But, Midnight Mass was different. It's a title he's hinted at with Easter eggs in everything from Gerald's Game to The Haunting of Hill House to Hush, and an idea he's had in his head for as long as he's been making horror features. It is, Flanagan has stressed ever since the Netflix series was announced, a very personal project for him, and that's something that seemed to infuse itself into every single collaborator who worked on him.

"There's something that happens when something is so personal, that it becomes an invitation to other people, that it actually becomes more accessible," Flanagan told a group of journalists, including SYFY WIRE, during a press event earlier this month. "And I thought this project was deeply personal to me, but because the questions at the heart of it are so universal, it became deeply personal to Trevor. It became deeply personal to the writers in the writers' room. It became deeply personal to the cast, because we all, I think, are wrestling no matter where we fall with questions about, Why are we here? What's the point of being alive and what happens when we die? Where do the people we love go when they're gone? That's universal. And so I think the only thing that divides us as people are the answers we come up with to those questions. The questions are 100 percent universal. So, while it's a very personal project, it seems to have become personal to a lot of people. And that's neat."

Inspired by Flanagan's own Catholic upbringing (the church in the series is modeled after his childhood parish) as well as his own journey to sobriety, Midnight Mass tells the story of Crockett Island, a small seaside community that's growing ever sleepier in the shadow of a modern world. Life in the place residents affectionately call the "Crock Pot" is predictable, at least until the arrival of two men who will upset the balance of things in the community. One is Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), a just-paroled man living with the shame of a terrible mistake who comes home to Crockett to live with his family. The other is Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), a priest who's arrived to fill in for the local monsignor.

They exist on opposite ends of the spectrum of faith (Riley the nonbeliever, Paul the devoted servant of God) and so tend to drift away from each other on Crockett Island — at least until miracles start happening at the local church, combined with unexplained occurrences around the island itself. These events send the residents of the Crock Pot into a kind of spiritual upheaval that eventually sets Riley and Paul on a course to knowing each other better, particularly when it becomes clear that miracles on the island may come at a terrible price.

For Flanagan, who's toyed with Midnight Mass in formats ranging from feature film screenplays to novels over the years, the spiritual questions at the heart of the story — which grow more complex with each of the show's seven episodes — were rooted in a deep understanding of the Bible. It's something Macy (who's worked with Flanagan since Oculus) is still wowed by, even after having gone through production on the series.

"It is literally impossible to overstate how well Mike knows the Bible," Macy said. "I learned this pretty early when we had dinner with an investor in [Intrepid Pictures], and the conversation was not only sort of robust philosophically, but the quotations he can pull just out of the air are pretty remarkable and uniformly accurate. And I know that because I checked several afterward, but the baseline of knowledge that he kind of brought to this, and the amount of thinking he's done is part of the reason I think it's right to say that [this show] is, you know, Full Flanagan."

Though it's difficult to speak too deeply about the ways in which the show intermingles faith and horror over the course of its run without giving away spoilers, it's clear even from the trailers that Midnight Mass is the kind of show that's deeply invested in exploring that link. It's something Flanagan himself ties back to his earliest experiences reading the Bible as a boy, and to the universality of horror in storytelling.

"The Bible is a blood-soaked text. And what I think has actually happened is that a lot of horror literature has just liberally borrowed from that, and from a number of scriptures and ancient mythologies," Flanagan explained. "This isn't unique to the Christian Bible at all, and in fact, a lot of the older religions, the further back in history you go, the bloodier it is, and the more horrific. I think it's because the reason we need horror, and the reason we're all attracted to religion at various times in our lives, comes from the same issue, which is our fear of the natural world. If a volcano erupts and we don't understand what a volcano is, we create a religion around it. We create a God to explain why all this fire came out of the ground and killed everybody."

That balance of horror and scripture is, of course, baked into the text of Midnight Mass, but it's also carried by its actors, and as the teasers for the series have suggested, much of that burden falls to Linklater as the enigmatic Father Paul. Though he's far from the only major player in a series that also includes Flanagan favorites like Kate Siegel, Annabeth Gish, Samantha Sloyan, Rahul Kohli, and more, Linklater has to propel Crockett Island into a new age of faithfulness. For both Flanagan and his actor, that meant leaning away from predictable tropes.

"The thing about the show, in general, was that as we talked about morality and belief systems and tribalism and things like that, the thing [we] kept coming back to was that authentically, through and through evil people are very rare," Flanagan said. "You know, we're all way more complicated and the heroes are flawed and the villains have good traits and you know, it's hard to navigate people because of that. It was fun to not just do the evil priest or the Leland Gaunt. It was really fun not to go that way. It's also been done beautifully and we're always worried about walking on a well-trodden path and doing it less well than what came before. The humanity of father Paul was something that was baked in relatively early."

"Humanity" is a key word when it comes to Midnight Mass. It's true of all Flanagan projects, but it feels especially true of this one, for reasons that will become clear as viewers dig in. As we get to know the residents of Crockett Island and the myriad ways in which they respond to the new age of wonders that seems to have come to their home, we see much more than horror. The scares are there, but the emotion is also a constant thread running through even the most brutal moments. In a career full of ambitious projects, this might be Flanagan's most ambitious, in no small part because of how much of himself he put it into it, elements he hopes his own children will one day latch onto.

"I think when it comes to those big questions that we talked about at the very beginning, the fundamental questions that we all chew on about what it means to be alive, what's important about being alive, what happens when we die...when [my kids are] old enough to really chew on those questions, if they're ever curious about what I thought, all of that is here. There's no answer that I currently have that I wasn't able to get into the show somewhere."

Midnight Mass arrives on Sept. 24 on Netflix.