Debuting last week on Netflix after its world premiere at Fantastic Fest, the Stephen King adaptation Gerald’s Game is a dream come true for its director, Hush and Ouija: Origin Of Evil’s Mike Flanagan. Flanagan first read King’s novel when he was 19 and has been attempting to get the film made ever since, a feat that took nearly two decades. However, in Gerald’s Game, Flanagan resists the allure of the self-indulgent passion project, instead handing the reins of the film to stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood.
Much of the film takes place in one room, as Jessie (Gugino)—a woman trapped in a remote cabin after her husband, Gerald (Greenwood), has a heart attack and dies in the middle of a kinky sex “game”—confronts her hallucination of Gerald, as well as a projected version of herself. Both these characters give voice to Jessie’s deepest insecurities and secret self-loathing, forcing her to come to terms with her traumatic past if she is going to survive the weekend.
We spoke with Gugino and Greenwood in a hotel suite overlooking Austin, Texas the morning before the world premiere of Gerald’s Game. Together they described their close working relationship on the set, and the unusual directorial technique that allowed them to develop their characters on a far deeper level than your average low-budget movie.
The A.V. Club: Bruce, is it true that Stephen King recommended you for the film?
Bruce Greenwood: I was in The Ghost Brothers Of Darkland County, which is a musical that Steve wrote with John Mellencamp [and T-Bone Burnett]. We workshopped that in New York and then toured the Midwest, so Steve knew who I was. When I got word that this was going, I thought, “Ooh,” so I put my hat in the ring and danced around it a few times—and, thumbs up.
AVC: Carla, you came on later?
Carla Gugino: Yeah, I came on really late in the process. Basically, I got sent the script and [the producers] said, “This is happening very, very quickly. It’s shooting in Alabama. Take a look and see if you’d like to jump on Skype with Mike Flanagan.” Then they said that Bruce was involved, so I was like, “This guy is amazing.” I’m a big Stephen King fan, but I hadn’t read the novel at that point.
So I read the script, and I was like, “This is really interesting, insanely ambitious, and terrifying to start shooting in two weeks.” I thought, “I have to see if this director knows what he’s doing, because I don’t know if I can pull it off in this period of time and deliver the performance I wanted to give.” So I got on Skype, and Mike [Flanagan] was just walking around in the forest in Alabama, already scouting locations. I found out later, by the way, that there was a very poisonous [turns to Greenwood] was it an ant?
BG: Yeah, an ant.
CG: There was this killer ant, a famous killer ant of the South, just moseying around, and [Flanagan] was talking to me and trying to be cool. I was like, “He sure is moving around a lot.”
BG: Mike’s son is captivated by all things insect.
CG: So he happened to know that it was a killer ant.
BG: The only time I’ve known [Flanagan] to have a split focus, by the way.
CG: Anyway, I just immediately felt like I wanted to collaborate with this person. I flew down a week later and we just started rehearsing.
BG: We were rehearsing literally every scene, every shot. Mike had it all story-boarded out so specifically, and once you get inside what the storyboard is, it’s much easier to visualize how it’s all going to come together.
CG: When you watch the film, you see that it’s really precise. As an actor, what’s interesting is that Mike hires who he wants to be there, and then allows them to explore. He’s less about that. If something is wrong, he’ll pinpoint it, like, “Let’s go in this direction,” but otherwise [we were free to develop our characters]. It was a really nice marriage of everybody coming in at the top of their game to doing what they do best.
BG: When what we invented in rehearsal didn’t coincide with Mike’s specific shot list, he was so prepared. It was like, “He’s reading over there, let’s move [the camera] to accommodate what you guys came up with.”
CG: We did something that’s very unusual for a super low-budget, very short shoot, which this was—we shot in 24 days.
Basically, we would come in, and because we were shooting a lot in that one cabin, on a set, Mike built in an hour of rehearsal every day for us to figure out the scenes. We were playing different versions of the same people, and we would just move the cameras and do it all in one day. But we were able to come in and have these almost playlike rehearsals beforehand.
BG: We shot the movie in sequence.
AVC: Oh, wow.
BG: So we began the experience as it reads in the script—we shot it the same way. The tough thing for Carla was that she was playing somebody who’s so incredibly ravaged, and then on the same day she’s got to turn around and play another side [of the same person] who’s unaffected physically and emotionally.
AVC: You’re playing against yourself in certain parts. How would you get into different parts of the character?
CG: It was really interesting that way. I think if ever I were in that circumstance again, I think it would be interesting to have an amazing actor off screen to actually play those scenes with. We had someone—a really lovely person—who was my double and couldn’t have been more available to us. But it was [different from] when you’re doing a play, and you have an understudy, and that understudy will emulate your performance.
In this case, for me it became more about actually having to remember what we did in rehearsal, because we’d do something once as one Jessie and a second time as the other Jessie. So I’d have to remember what I was doing in rehearsal, so I could respond to myself, and do what I was supposed to do later. [All laugh.]
It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in that regard. I do have to say, though—and not just because he’s sitting next to me—that if it wasn’t for Bruce and our immediate sympatico in terms of the creative nature of this project, I don’t know if I would have been able to do it. It was a project that required a great deal of presence of mind, with much less prep than I would have liked. But from that came something interesting.
BG: She brought a work ethic like I’ve never seen, and I’ve worked with some pretty intense people. I don’t mean intense like [in a bad way], just intensely prepared and ready to jump from the first day. We knew the clock was like “tick, tick, tick, tick, tick,” so we had to lean in. But it was fun! It was exciting to come to work, because you knew you partner was as excited to be there as you are.
AVC: A lot of the film is a chamber piece. It’s almost theatrical, with just the two of you for long stretches. Did you spend a lot of time prepping with each other?
CG: We did as much as we could. We were both shooting virtually every day. We had dinners after [shooting], and on weekends we got together, and we were just talking constantly about the characters, and what their relationship was, and why they had gotten to where they were, and what’s her invented idea of him and his invented idea of her.
BG: [We talked a lot about] the prism of their respective points of view, of what the marriage was and how those prisms differ. And then there’s memory—who remembers what, and what was true and not true, and the whole Rashomon of it all. We would spend every night at a restaurant, picking at a salad and racing through the following day’s work.
CG: With me out-eating Bruce…
AVC: [Turns to Greenwood.] Because you were in your underwear for the entire movie?
CG: [Laughs.] Yeah, no bread and no wine for him. I can eat any man under the table anyway, but especially this time. I was like, “You’re not going to eat that? I’ll take it.”
But you know, something that really impressed me about Mike is that the film is a chamber piece, and you could choose as a filmmaker to do more gimmicky things to “keep it going.” I think, in fact, he did the opposite. He was so confident in his visual storytelling, and he allowed us to dive so deep into these characters, and he has enough respect as the audience that he allowed it to just exist as it was, and it ended up being quite compelling because of that. You’re living this with them. There’s not a lot of flash.
BG: I think that’s one of the reasons [Flanagan] didn’t want to use a lot of music. He consciously laid way back on the score, because he wanted all the breath in the room to mean something. [Flanagan later confirmed that this was, indeed, his thought process. —Ed.]
CG: It’s more in the vein of Misery than it is some of the more recent adaptations of Stephen King’s work. I do like the sobriety of it, something that holds itself back. It’s in keeping with the idea of a psychological thriller, which is as it should be, as you’re going inside the mind of this woman.
BG: Mike’s not a big jump-scare guy. I’m not familiar with horror, particularly, but Mike is so schooled in the genre. Him and Carla can make any reference to any horror movie. They both just have this insanely broad frame of reference. I had never heard the term “jump scare” before, but Mike was like, “Nah, we don’t really need to do that.” We wanted to scare people in different ways. Disturb them in different ways.
AVC: You get a lot of the dread from revealing different aspects of their personalities, particularly when Bruce’s character first dies. Carla, that spectrum of emotions you go through—it’s like you’re experiencing every stage of grief at the same time.
CG: I mean, it’s the nightmare of all time. Can you imagine being in that position? You’re like, “Sure, honey, let’s try some handcuffs,” and cut to… you know. When I read the script, I was compelled, but also terrified to push myself into the fire. Stephen King delivers in this genre like no one else. He really is unique in that way. And the fact that he decided he wanted to [go] into such serious subject matter, really dealing with someone’s past, and being silenced, and what that does to a human being—that was fascinating to me.
And I thought, what an interesting thing to use this genre to tell that [kind of] story. And maybe that’s actually more effective than doing it in a heart-on-your-sleeve, after-school special kind of way. We all have these demons, and we all have these secrets, and we are usually freed by sharing them. Sometimes we have to be forced to. I haven’t gotten to talk to [Stephen King] about that yet, actually, and I’m so curious, where this came from, in his own experience. I don’t know that answer.
AVC: That being said, there are some pretty intense effects sequences and horror elements in the film. Carla, you know which scene I’m talking about.
CG: That was so gnarly. When they came to try an early model of the hand on me—it was Mike, and Trevor [Macy] our producer, and Bob Kurtzman, our special-effects guy—all of us were there. I was standing there watching it peeling off of me, and I was like, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this.” I really was in those cuffs, and I was in those cuffs a lot—[the crew] were ready to get me out at any moment, but when your’e in cuffs for so many days, it gets really uncomfortable—so I was bruised and all that stuff anyway. I already felt like I had a sensitivity to the whole situation.
And when we were doing that entire sequence, there were some technical aspects that meant that we had to have the cuffs small enough that it looked really horrible for me to pull myself out of them, but big enough that I could physically get through them with the prosthetic. And that proved to be really painful, getting it out. So that scene’s 60 percent acting and 40 percent me dealing with the reality of the situation. And again, that’s the interesting thing: The movie isn’t shying away from anything in the horror genre. It’s just only using it when it’s needed. And I really appreciate that.
BG: You know with Stephen that it’s going to happen. So Mike is just making you wait.
AVC: Bruce, I wanted to ask you—there was one shot, it must have been an effects shot—where the fly lands on you…
BG: That was so much fun! We talked about it, and I think it might have been in the book. I said to Mike, “Are we going to try to do it?” And he said, “I think we can, but I don’t know how.” So I said, “I’ve just got to find a reason to smile, and… you know.” But I didn’t know how it was going to work until they’d done the CGI, and Mike calls me, and he goes, “Ohhhhh, dude!” [Laughs, turns to Gugino.] Remember they had all those little sticky fake flies that they had on a round ball, and they were just waving it in front of us? We joked around a lot that day.
CG: He was having such fun trying different fly-catching faces.
BG: I was overdoing it and underdoing it, until eventually we found a spot that was just enough for the fly to land, linger, and scoot.
Gerald’s Game is now streaming on Netflix.