Mike Flanagan (2013's Oculus) had been preparing to direct his latest film, Gerald’s Game, since he was 19 years old, when he first read Stephen King's novel of the same name. "When I first read it, and this is half of my life ago, I thought it was brilliant and I wanted to make a movie out of it," Flanagan told SYFY WIRE at this year's Fantastic Fest. "But I also thought it was unfilmable! And it took many, many years to wrap my head around a way to try to make it a movie, and try to take as much of the experience I had reading it and make it visual."
Gerald's Game tells the story of Gerald and Jessie Burlingame, a husband and wife who retreat to their lake house as a last-ditch attempt to rekindle the passion in their relationship, only for Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) to die of a heart attack and leave Jessie (Carla Gugino) half-naked and literally handcuffed to the bed. Jessie’s attempts to escape – and to save her own life – force her to confront harsh truths about their marriage, but more importantly, to acknowledge some of the painful, buried secrets from childhood that held her prisoner long before she landed in this deadly situation.
"What struck me so much about it was that it was a story about how we're literally kind of held captive by our past and how all of us have things that we refuse to face," Flanagan said when asked what he responded to most in King's 1992 novel. "And sooner or later, our continued existence is going to depend on having to confront those things."
Many take the form of Jessie herself, who appears as a vision to encourage her and sometimes offer some tough love as she struggles for survival. Flanagan said that the process of having an actor work opposite themselves intimidated some of the candidates for the role, but knew he'd found the right actress when Gugino met the challenge with curiosity and enthusiasm.
"This was a part that we knew was going to scare off a lot of actors for exactly that reason," he remembered. "But it was one of the first questions Carla asked – talk to me about 'Jessie 2' and what that relationship is going to be like, and how visually she's going to be woven through the room.'"
"There was certainly whiplash going back and forth so often, especially because she had to basically in rehearsal perform both parts so that we and her stand-in could see it and see what her intentions were, and then the stand-in could try to parrot what Carla would want to be doing so that she could give Carla what Carla needed to react to," Flanagan explained further. "And what we landed on was that the first time we see these two versions of her, the rest of the movie is about one of those versions becoming the other, and she had to map out this gradual convergence of the two of them."
The other huge challenge that Flanagan faced was trying to take an inventory of the painful and traumatic experiences Jessie went through as a child, which come flooding back because of the circumstances in which she finds herself.
"There are examples you can point at in films and books where people use some kind of storyline involving the abuse of a minor or any kind of childhood sexual trauma, and they use that to advance a plot or bring some character-shaping to things where it isn't actually necessary or part of who that character really is, and that can feel really gross," he observed. "So for this one, it was so much a part of who Jessie was in the book, and King handled it with such a careful touch that we were confident that as long as we didn't fetishize it, we'd be able to deal with the very realistic and I think important emotional impacts of things like that without exploiting it."
At the same time, Flanagan admitted he was extremely apprehensive about depicting that behavior on screen, and consequently tried to handle it with as much care and sensitivity as possible. "We were going to have to walk through that minefield regardless, given the nature of the material," he said. "And with a lot of the way it's presented in the book, it would have been way too explicit – and unnecessarily so for an audience. We also were trying to be very sensitive to our actors in Henry [Thomas, as Jessie's father] and Chiara [Aurelia, as the younger version of Jessie]; Henry has a daughter about that age, and this was very difficult material for him to perform. And so we wanted to present them kind of matter-of-factly, and with the least amount of detail as possible – just the bare minimum to get the point across, and then we back off. That was uncomfortable stuff for everybody."
Even at the original time of publication, the end of Gerald's Game polarized King fans, as it brings together the threads of Jessie's sexual abuse, the graphic viscera of extricating herself from the handcuffs, and the presence of another person who may or may not be real but exacerbates the character's fears that she's losing her sanity – and her life. Flanagan said that tackling this material felt like another potential minefield, because it compressed the aftermath of an otherwise self-contained story and took it in directions that the premise scarcely hinted at.
"I always loved that ending, and being the King fan I was, I wasn't about to try to rewrite his ending," he said. "But what we wanted to do with it was instead of having it just be a twist, I really wanted it to mean something in the context of everything that had come prior."
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"We had made the decision that instead of just a crazy serial killer, corpse-eater bogeyman that is at the heart of the twist of the novel, that her whole journey was about dealing with the darker side of male gaze and male sexual impulse," Flanagan explained. "Going through various stages of believing that it wasn't real, or it wasn't there, seemed to connect so much to where we were going with this ending, so what if we could take all of the perversions of man that have affected this character and what if we could give them bones and skin – and she could actually have a moment to confront it?"
Flanagan suggested that his approach not only meant to satisfy the details of King's story, but the themes that he was interested in exercising via Jessie’s journey. "We talked a lot about how her past and her trauma, and the secrets within her marriage, the things that led her to this horrible place, really the thing that kills those kind of monsters is light – bringing them out into the open," he said. "And so for me, I don't know how we can end this without taking this thing that was so scary in the corner and so inhuman and grotesque and just putting it under bright fluorescent lights, and trying to take away all of that shadow and all of that darkness. Once you bring those monsters into the sunlight, they lose a lot of power, and that was something we wanted to see happen."
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Ultimately, the premise of Gerald's Game sets up a life or death struggle. King's name promises an intense, certainly twisted, possibly gruesome chain of events. But for Flanagan, all of that intensity serves as a preamble for what he sees as a story of hope. "This material affected me a certain way, and I'm not trying to make it affect someone else the exact same way," he insisted. "But I want to perfectly display the material without forcing someone to respond emotionally, or without manipulating it so that they're free to have their own experience with it."
"The biggest thing I wanted to communicate is that everything we need to survive is already inside of us," he said. "But in order to access it, we might have to battle monsters – and the scariest ones are the ones that are within."