(Obviously if you haven’t seen Doctor Sleep and you are worried about spoilers for Doctor Sleep, what comes ahead probably isn’t for you.)
In the third act of Doctor Sleep, Danny Torrance (Ewen McGregor) enters into the iconic Overlook Hotel ballroom we know so well from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and sits down at the bar. The bartender, played by Henry Thomas, introduces himself as Lloyd, but, boy does he have an uncanny resemblance to someone much more familiar. And as the scene plays out, yes, Danny get to confront his father, Jack Torrance, about many, many unresolved issues and Danny’s own addictions.
Director Mike Flanagan knows this scene will be controversial, because here’s one of the most notable characters in cinematic history, who was portrayed by one of the most famous actors in the world, Jack Nicholson, in what might just be his defining role, being recreated without Nicholson. What went into Flanagan’s thought process? Why did he need this scene? And why didn’t he just digitally recreate Jack Torrance from 1980? Ahead, Flanagan explains everything.
So what went into you casting a new Jack Torrance, because that seems tough? Because with Jack Nicholson, more people have an impression of that man than probably any other human being who has lived. So how do you cast that without it being just another guy with an impression?
Well, that was what I wanted to avoid the most, an impression. There are only two options, because Kubrick taught us how to deal with the ghosts — in that they appear pretty much the age they did when they died in the hotel. And the roadmap for how to handle Jack, for me, was in how Kubrick handled Delbert Grady. Especially in the bathroom scene, he denied being Delbert Grady. He said, “You’ve mistaken me for someone else. I’m just a waiter.” And I thought that was so fascinating and it saved us someone having to do a Jack impression, which I thought would have been fatal to the movie.
I also thought the only two options we have are for us to do some kind of digital creation, which even if Nicholson came back and played the part himself, just to handle the amount of time that’s gone by since he gave that iconic performance I’d have to put him into a digital avatar. And if I did it for Jack, then I’ve got to do it for Wendy. I’ve got to do it for Dick Hallorann. And I’ve got to do it for little Danny. And the idea of having a little digital Danny Torrance on a Big Wheel five minutes into the movie, I thought at that point would just make it a video game. At that point, I would spend the whole time scrutinizing the technology and I’d never get to participate in the story. So that seemed like a non-starter as an idea and it seemed like the most disrespectful way I could have gone.
After that, it was like, okay, well, if we’re going to recast, I don’t want anyone to do an impression or a parody. I really need actors who will remind me of those iconic performances and who might look a little like those characters, like those actors, as I remember them. But just enough to push my memory in that direction, to tilt me that way, so that then they could make their own performance. And the thing that Henry Thomas and I talked about when I first broached the idea of playing Jack Torrance to him is, look, I want you playing Jack Torrance, not Jack Nicholson, for one. And, for two, because people are going to expect Jack Torrance to behave a certain way — because Nicholson’s performance is that iconic — I would say for 98 percent of your scene you have to play Lloyd the bartender. And that’s the only way we’re going to survive this — knowing it was going to be the most controversial scene of the film by a mile. But the content of the scene and the importance of the scene for Dan, to be able to talk to his father, but talk to his own addiction in that scene, that was the reason I wanted to make the film to begin with.
And, oddly, it was the description of that scene that was one of the things that made Stephen King agree to let us go back to the Overlook. That scene intrigued him, I think because he was just as curious as I was as to what that conversation could be.
Well, I think it worked. And, on the surface, I’m not sure I would have believed that.
It’s my favorite scene in the movie. I love what Henry did. I love what Ewan did. I just know, and we all knew on set. I was like, look, half the people who see this maybe might hate it that it exists at all and we’re never going to win them back. So let’s just do it the most respectful way we can and tell the story as it’s important to Dan and hope for the best. Yeah, I love that scene. I do know it’s going to be a lightning rod though.
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