Though some dismissed Stephen King’s 1992 novel Gerald’s Game as unfilmable, director Mike Flanagan kept his aspirations film it anyway. This year, he finally succeeded, with an adaptation set to premiere on Netflix on Friday, September 29th. It tells the story of Jessie (Carla Gugino), a woman who goes out to a remote cabin with her husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) to try and rekindle the romance in their marriage. The film screened at Fantastic Fest where we chatted with both Gugino and Greenwood about the unconventional and emotionally taxing process they endured bringing Gerald’s Game to the screen.
This was director Mike Flanagan’s dream project for several years now. What was it like working with him to bring it to life?
Bruce Greenwood: He was massively prepared and equally willing to let new things happen, which is not common.
Carla Gugino: You know, it’s so weird because you would imagine that he had been aware of it for a long time, and had thought about it a lot, but he was not attached to a single thing if it felt like it didn’t work. It’s really interesting, it’s very unusual. Obviously, I think it was also because we were suggesting ideas that were in keeping with telling the best version of the story possible, so there was a lot of trust. From the beginning he was like, ‘Take ownership with the script. Get in there. This is our movie, we’re all making this together,’ and it was such an intimate group doing so.
Greenwood: And he was open to confusion too, I’m realizing, if there was something we didn’t understand, or I didn’t understand in a scene –
Gugino: I understood everything. From the start. [Laughs.]
Greenwood: But if there’s something that didn’t really coalesce, didn’t really gel in the scene, that we couldn’t find, that he couldn’t adequately explain, we’d massage it and tease what his original intention was out of what was there. And we did that several times. Just tiny little things, little details that make you go ‘Oh, click, there’s the scene,’ and he was willing to experiment with that.
That seems like it’d be important, given that so much of the movie is just you two in a single room.
Greenwood: And nothing’s wasted, so there’s no exposition to drive through with arbitrary motion and arbitrary choices. It all has to be, it’s intended to be, and it is really specific all the way through.
Gugino: And because we shot the stuff in the cabin all in sequence, what was also interesting was we were able to lift certain things because we realized “Oh you know what, we’ve kind of had that moment.”
Greenwood: Right, right.
Gugino: Or, “Oh, we didn’t get this moment, so maybe let’s find it here,” so there was a really nice, organic nature to that, because even though making movies is like a puzzle, and sometimes it works great when you shoot the last scene of the movie on the first day. It’s like sometimes you complain about those things and then there was something really interesting that happened because of it. But there is something undeniable about getting to go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning with the continuation of that same beat.
I can see how that’d be imperative for a film like this, but filming in sequence is very unusual, isn’t it?
Greenwood: Really unusual, yeah.
How did that play out in regards to the character of Jessie, considering you had to play more than one incarnation of her, often in the same scene?
Gugino: That was really challenging, but it was more challenging because we had to shoot so quickly. We had a set, the cabin was on a stage so that they could get really nice overheads and all that stuff. They brought in the Technocrane, because there’s no way we could have shot the coverage we needed to shoot in the amount of time we had if it weren’t for that, because, you know on a Technocrane they can just literally go *chink* and put a new light in as opposed to a whole new dolly track, which takes so much more time.
And because of that, the turnarounds were extremely quick, so we had literally 12 minutes to change [my character] from being absolutely destroyed to, you know, not just inside but, physically: the hair, the makeup. I mean it was like everyone it was like a race car pulling to the side and put the wheels all on it and.
Greenwood: Wheels on.
Gugino: And then whir you go back out. It was really bizarre. I think the thing that helped was Bruce was like the solid force there, that was able to be sort of the beacon of like, okay this is where we are. And even just in terms of how you’re oriented in a room, and also which way were you looking to the other person. The best thing was that hour of rehearsal in the morning. I was able to rehearse each character so that then when I played one I knew what I had discovered as the other, so it wasn’t like a literal representation that I was remembering but like, “Oh, okay. This is where that person’s coming from and how this person is responding to where that side of her is coming from.”
How did that play out with the character of Gerald, considering we only get a few scenes with the “real” him.
Greenwood: The imaginary Gerald is much freer because he is her projection. That’s not to say that the imaginary Gerald wasn’t remembered accurately, now and then. So, what’s real that she’s remembering? What’s accurate, what’s not? What is she rejecting that needs to happen to facilitate the journey she needs to make? What is completely and utterly fabricated in order to have Gerald usher her toward that resolution, that reconciliation. So that required a whole lot more physical sort of availability.
Talking about these tight turnaround times, and the rather bleak subject matter, what was the mood like on set in-between takes?
Gugino: Pretty light. I mean what’s interesting is we didn’t have a lot of down time on set. It wasn’t a lounging around kind of set, but we did a lot of dinners after, with a glass of wine and some delicious Southern food, because we shot in Alabama.
Greenwood: Pretty focused and energetic, though.
Gugino: It was very focused and energetic, and then it was definitely communal and fun. It wasn’t a heavy duty vibe on set, other than that the crew, I think, because it was such a small space and everything the crew was so intimately involved in it in a way that I don’t think happens that often. They felt very invested in what we were doing so there was a lot of respect and quiet and there was this very good feeling of, you’d walk over to craft service to get an apple or something and someone goes, “I’m glad I’m working on this movie, I think we’re making something special.” That doesn’t happen that often.
Greenwood: They we’re watching it in sequence, as we were experiencing it in sequence. And the crew doesn’t often get that luxury.
It’s almost like they were watching a play, then?
Gugino: It felt more like a play in that way, too.
Greenwood: Mahabharata, like a 24-day Mahabharata.
Now that you say that, it makes the viewing feel like one in retrospect.
Greenwood: All natural light.
Greenwood: Yeah. Well, I mean they used lights but there were no practicals. There wasn’t a light used in the house.
Gugino: So we were on a stage, so it was lit with lights, but no lights in the room.
Greenwood: So everything was informed by the sun moving. And if you watch it carefully, the shadows rotate as the day gets longer.
Gugino: It’s incredible, he really does do an amazing job.
Hearing you two describe it does sound like a unique experience, but tiring nonetheless.
Gugino: Well, definitely I worked every day, and you worked most days, and we shot it [in] I think it was 24 days. I think it was four six-day weeks.
Greenwood: I don’t know what that breaks down to in terms of pages per day, because he has a lot of shots, there was never lounging around, it felt like you get to work and you are driving at it all day long.
Gugino: And six day weeks of that material is intense, for sure. I mean for the first two weeks I felt like, “No big deal it’s all good” and then third week I was like “Okay, yeah,” because you realize when you have one day off you don’t really have a day off. Because it’s literally just a day that your body is actually recovering, you don’t have like a “I’m going to go see a movie!” or “I’m going to take a walk!”
Greenwood: It’s all prep.
Gugino: Yeah, and then you’re prepping for the next week, so I didn’t realize until the very last day how exhausted I [was]. You know it’s that thing where your body can let go then. I’ve been on a lot of movies too where they’re spending three hours on the closeup of ash falling from a cigarette to the floor, and where you’re just like, part of your job is just to maintain energy. And this was like you never could stop the energy so it was just a constant flow.
Greenwood: That’s right. You were never flagged, because you were always working.
Were you able to harness this real-life exhaustion for your performance?
Gugino: Yes, definitely.
Greenwood: It came for free. Got that for free.
Gugino: Exactly, exactly, exactly. It informed things for sure. But, you know like “Hush Little Baby,” that song was not ever in the script, but we felt that the idea of a lullaby, the idea of someone consoling you to death, was sort of like going “goodbye,” and that kind of filtered in and there were a lot of moments like that that came from being exhausted, just continuing as the path was going on it was like oh this, now we feel like we need this to make this different than the last time that she, you know.
Greenwood: And who knows if that would have occurred if we hadn’t been doing it in sequence and we weren’t burned.
Does doing a film straight-to-Netflix change your expectations at all as actors?
Greenwood: For me it’s a more personal thing because we had such a good time doing it, and enjoy each other’s company so much. My expectations are now way out of whack with reality, where I think, and I hope, that the next time I work I’m going to have this privilege of working with Carla, or somebody like Carla, with her commitment and her work ethic.
Greenwood: And her intellect, and likewise Mike. It happens rarely, you know? And in terms of the Netflix of it all, It’ll be interesting to see if this global access is something that we feel we can participate in, or whether, I don’t know. I’m looking forward to seeing what it feels like to everybody.
Gugino: Yeah, I love the notion, I love that they let the filmmaker make the movie that the filmmaker wants to make, and then that they are able to give it to a hundred million people on the same day, and I keep pitching for “Can’t we do pop up screenings with people in them also so we can all have a communal movie experience?” But that’s what we get Fantastic Fest for.
Let’s put it this way: the business is changing so radically. It has to change, it is changing. Netflix is at the forefront of really trying to figure how to best use that and give people the most access to things they want to watch. So for that I really applaud them and I’m very excited to have this be with them. And that we get this great moment down here to see it with a really devoted audience, an audience that loves movies.
Greenwood: Maybe there’s a world where Netflix can enjoin people to watch this collectively, right, where they can gather round and get 15 or 20 people in a room to experience it together, because the collective experience in this kind of genre is very powerful.
That’s a good point, especially since it’s not the kind of film you want to watch alone.
Greenwood: At least you gotta have, like, someone with you and a pizza, for God’s sake. You know, Mike is obsessed with pizza. His Instagram is all pizza.
Gugino: Seriously, he’s obsessed with pizza.
Gerald’s Game is available to stream on Netflix on September 29th. In the meantime, you can peruse director Mike Flanagan’s pizza-filled Instagram account here.