Whilst we’ve had our fair share of films featuring predators stalking victims with various disabilities, Mike Flanagan’s latest directorial feature Hush capitalises on blending home invasion, rape/revenge and slasher movie tropes to create an intriguing premise that audiences rarely get the chance to experience.
The film’s co-writer, Kate Siegel, plays Maddie, a deaf-mute novelist who lives a secluded and idyllic life in a remote cabin in the woods, trying to decide on one of seven possible endings for her latest thriller. Unfortunately, that idyllic world is about to come crashing down as she finds herself terrorised by a masked psychopath who discovers her disability and can’t resist toying with her, as jumping straight in for the kill would be way too simple.
To celebrate today’s release of the film on Netflix we caught up with both Flanagan and Siegel to talk about the fun and challenging aspects of shooting a film with virtually no dialogue and how, after their previous shocker Oculus, which revolved around a nefarious mirror, reflections continued to plague the cast and crew when it came to filming Hush.
SCREAM: Thank you both for speaking to SCREAM today. How did the SXSW screening go?
KS: Amazing. I’d seen it with friends and family but I hadn’t really seen it with an audience and so to hear them cheer when I got my punches in was really, really exciting. I didn’t expect it to be like that.
MF: I love SXSW. I was here with Oculus two years ago and had a total blast so when I found out we been accepted and were going to get the chance to head back I was thrilled and knew I’d be in for a weekend of great food, amazing barbecues, great movies and ABSOLUTELY no sleep. But it’s been a blast.
SCREAM: Where did the premise for Hush come from and what led you to work on the project together as co-writers?
Kate Siegel: We were out to dinner talking about movies we had loved growing up and we both mentioned Wait Until Dark and how great a thriller that was because it took a pretty normal concept and turned it on its head with the addition of blindness. And then Mike had mentioned that he’d always wanted to make a movie without dialogue and I was talking about a recurrent fear that I have. When I walk around my house there are a lot of windows in the house so I look outside and I can always feel like I am seeing people standing there and just staring. So we put those two together, shook it up, and by the time dessert was served we had the germ of the idea for Hush. And then we decided to write it together so we could really flesh out the idea.
Mike Flanagan: Yeah, we had just moved into a new house and it had a lot of windows and a lot of sliding glass doors and she was saying that whenever she would look outside at night she was irrationally nervous thinking that there was always someone looking in and I thought that was pretty chilling.
SCREAM: Kate, was it always your intention to play Maddie?
It was. I always imagined it would be a fun challenge to take away probably the strongest tool in an actor’s toolbox; to take away dialogue and the ability to make sound. Acting is all about listening and breathing, but if you take away the ability to hear you have to think of new creative ways to listen.
SCREAM: You mentioned it being a challenge. Creating a film with virtually no dialogue and a character that can’t speak is about as a big a gauntlet as you could lay down. What were the biggest stumbling blocks you came across?
MF: We definitely had this kind of anxiety that if we didn’t pull this off well, the movie would be interminably boring. Once we removed all the dialogue, we knew that we would be under an awful amount of pressure because the audience could lose interest if we weren’t turning the movie on itself every couple of minutes. That put an enormous amount of pressure on our shot listing. I knew we had to keep the camera moving because we could never settle down and lock the camera off and watch people have a conversation, which is how movies advance a plot more often than not. So we knew we had to really lean into Steadicam and keep that camera moving through the house and then that just created a huge avalanche of new considerations. In a house full of windows at night every window turns into a mirror and we had to choreograph the camera shot to shot from start to finish before we even started shooting.
Also, one of the challenges you create when you’re trying to do a movie that doesn’t have dialogue is that you’ve got to build a soundscape almost from scratch. We toyed with the idea at one point of pulling the sound out entirely but the problem is that when an audience watches a moment of true silence it’s not true silence; it just means the audience is listening to themselves and listening to popcorn or phones buzzing or coughing so we thought that was going to be impossible to sustain. So even when we had to have the moments of the movie where we wanted it to imply silence, that silence had to be full of sound [laughs]. People talk about the points in the film where the sound is “ripped out” so we can be in Maddie’s perspective. Those moments are actually some of the most elaborate sound designs that I’ve ever had to do. We had to imply silence whilst keeping everyone focused on the movie so they’re not listening to themselves or their neighbour. Those periods of silence are actually 40 or 50 layers thick of different sounds. We used ultrasound audio, underwater recordings of glaciers cracking, heartbeats that were slowed down and run through filters, and all things like that so that you have a sense of a world of silence but you’re still being flooded with sounds.
SCREAM: So what was it that actually made you realise that mixing so many layers of totally unrelated sounds would work to that required effect?
MF: I have a five-year old son and when he was a baby he could only really sleep if we had a white noise generator in the room. That was always fascinating to me because when you play it you are aware of the sound for a few seconds but then your brain kind of changes and you take that sound and experience it subliminally; you wouldn’t be actually conscious that the sound was there even though it was filling the room. That was something from the beginning that we thought would probably be a good starting point. But then, typically when you are doing sound design, footsteps and breaths and doors closing and things like that are all meant to enhance the story but not call attention to themselves but, in our case, we needed to do the opposite. We needed it to be front and centre. That meant that our production sound had to focus on things like feet on the floor or hands opening lipsticks or something like that in a way you would normally focus on dialogue. The problem was that, because we had to keep the camera moving, to keep it visually dynamic, that meant that every time Kate was moving from point A to point B in a room there were five people moving with her and in a house with hardwood floors that sounds like a herd of elephants going by. So all the sound we were recording was meant to be a guide track but we knew we couldn’t actually use it in the movie which meant that all the sound there had to be rebuilt in post.
KS: Going back to your question about challenges, for me, when writing the script it was actually a benefit. It was a fun thing to play with in terms of building the story, coming up with challenges to be overcome by Maddie and so it was really fun to think about how Maddie would be in a room where she can’t speak and she can’t hear but we can put the killer behind her and she won’t know. We would also have him do things that she wouldn’t know he was doing which would increase the tension for the viewer.
In terms of performance, what ended up being the most difficult was not playing a deaf-mute character but the fact I can’t make ANY sound. I did tonnes of research about if your vocal chords are damaged to the point you can’t make sound any more, what kind of sounds can you make? In the film I had to do things like cry, be in pain, things that were extreme emotional states without making any noise and rely mostly on breath. That was really a challenge I tried to embrace as much as possible.
In terms of the sign language I worked with a great coach for months who helped me, not only with the language, which was so beautiful and so much fun to learn, but she helped me with the culture and what it’s like to live in the world of a non-hearing person.
SCREAM: Surely one of the biggest challenges must have been keeping your facial expressions and the sign language in harmony as I imagine expressions serve, to a certain extent, as punctuation marks for deaf people?
KS: That was something my coach worked with me a lot on. When speaking sign language, the sign is only the very first layer of the communication; it’s about the facial expressions, it’s about the body posture, it’s about the breath. It’s exactly like grammar in the English language. Punctuation helps you understand a sentence and in American Sign Language the facial expression is the punctuation. Definitely learning the lines involved going through different choices of how Maddie communicates and what was her style of communication.
SCREAM: And what about working with John Gallagher Jr. who plays the villain in Hush? Did you rehearse a lot with him or did you keep your distance to help forge the cold chemistry required for the film?
KS. What we did together was a lot of character work before the cameras rolled. He came down and we spent a lot of time with Mike discussing these characters so we had a good sense of who each other was. At that time we bonded and we would go out for dinner and things like that but then, when the cameras started rolling, we kind of kept our distance because, like you said, a cold chemistry was very important and there needed to be a sense of mystery between the characters. We were around each other a lot so it became important that we didn’t have too much fun with each other because he is such a sweet and likeable man and such a great talent. I could get carried away and want to talk to him about books and music all day but I needed to see him as a credible threat, which his performance really delivered on.
MF: We definitely wanted John’s character to be different. We didn’t want him to get into that Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees territory. We wanted him to be a guy that, if you bumped into him in the supermarket, you could probably have a pleasant conversation with him and never guess that he’s capable of the things that he does in this movie. One of the other things was that he had the advantage of being able to say whatever he wanted, whether it was to himself or to someone else, knowing that Maddie couldn’t hear him. If he wanted to communicate with her at all, to create fear, he couldn’t scare her by making noises. The only way he could communicate with her was if she was staring directly at his lips when he spoke so that became a weapon as it was like the only thing that he could send through the window. We looked at that weapon as if it was just as important as the crossbow darts that he uses in the movie. Each time he speaks to her it’s an attack and it has a very real purpose. For him, words were just another part of his arsenal to use against her.
Funnily, we shot the movie just about in order so that meant for about two weeks we, as a crew, never heard anyone speak, but then there’s a stretch towards the end of the movie where suddenly we have a five minute dialogue scene between John and Michael Trucco. I remember vividly when they showed up to do that how shocking it was to the crew to hear people talk because it had been so long. It was literally weeks since we’d had to sit there and figure out how to record dialogue.
SCREAM: Kate, apart from communicating with your neighbour and your sister, you also speak to yourself via your inner voice as Maddie wasn’t born a deaf-mute. Did you find it tough to keep how we see you on the screen and the voice-over version of you in harmony?
KS: It was. A lot of that was done after the fact during an ADR session. That was neat by that time though because I had written the script and worked it out and gone through the phase of having 7 endings with Mike. So now I was able to talk to myself, watching myself just as I would while I was writing. And then when we shot, I had an incredible stand-in who gave an absolutely solid performance. She was so engaged in listening to what I was saying that it was very, very helpful to have someone sitting there that I could actually talk to and she really showed up for me.
MF: Yeah. Kate had to come in and do a four hour ADR session that was all breathing and trying to match her breaths. All the two hundred different kinds of breaths that she had to use for that performance was the only way that she could imply all that emotion. It all had to match what she had done in the moment and what was happening facially; it was incredibly difficult. But it’s funny because, when the movie plays, it appears incredibly simple and that wasn’t something I was really aware of when going in: how difficult it was going to be to make something look simple.
SCREAM: I imagine you spent a lot of time working with the Newton Brothers, who score the film, so as to keep their input in line with the film’s sound design.
MF: We’d worked together on two other movies prior to that so we already had a pretty good shorthand. But when they got the script I asked them to start thinking about themes straight away and to start working with Steven Iba, who is our sound designer, so that whatever they did with the score had to be a dance with the sound design. They had to create it in a way that wasn’t going to be competitive. So the Newtons had to absorb the level and the density of the sound design we were creating and then try to balance it with their score. Often music, as great as it is, can take the back seat to the dialogue. You’re often mixing music down to make sure that you’re telling the story with words and we just never had that chance. I love what they ended up doing with it because a lot of the elements that they decide to use for the score sound like sound design. They were using a lot of percussive, strange instrumentation and they were implying a melody in a lot of cases, without actually creating one. That was one of the really fun parts about this. Every single department, whether in production or in post, was very aware that they were telling the story because no one was going to be doing it with words.
SCREAM: Kate, how was your relationship with another important character, the camera? I ask this because cinematographer James Kniest uses a lot of moving camera shots to make the film much more visually dynamic, as Mike mentioned earlier.
KS: Jimmy was fantastic with his inventiveness of moving the camera around in that small space and then we had Thom Valko who was our camera op and we all ended up working together much like a dance team. We all worked very close quarters. They used to call me the roadrunner because I would sprint across the room and they would be like, “We have six people and a camera and we can’t move that fast,” so I really had to work with them physically to make sure everyone was on the same path.
SCREAM: How was the experience working with Blumhouse on this project?
KS: Jason Blum is incredibly supportive. He adores Mike and gave him a certain amount of liberty. It’s just really an honour to be in the Blumhouse stables right now; they are really at the top of their game.
SCREAM: Is there anything you can share with us about your future projects? I know you are working together again with Ouija 2.
KS: Ouija 2 is coming up now and then we’re working on a script for Bold Films but that’s really all I can say about that one right now.
MF: As you’re probably aware, we finished a film called Before I Wake a long time ago and it just got stuck in this Relativity bankruptcy situation. I’m very proud of the movie and I really can’t wait for it to come out. It’s been a real bummer. The real reason you make a movie is because you want to have that experience of handing it over to the audience and to finish a movie and have it sit as long as this one has, it’s disheartening.
SCREAM: Unfortunately, a lot of people have a tendency to assume that if a film is pushed back time and time again then it’s most likely not up to scratch.
MF: Exactly. The other sad part, especially if they’re not familiar with what’s happening with the company, is that it’s very easy to say, “Oh, something must be wrong with this movie.” That’s something else that makes me very sad with this movie because it certainly isn’t the case. The movie hasn’t changed a frame whilst it’s been sat there and delayed four times now.
And then in terms of Ouija 2, it’s really fascinating. I was really not in favour of doing a sequel initially but I was given an incredible amount of creative support from Blumhouse, Universal, Platinum Dunes and Hasbro. They basically said, “Look, if you could do anything you wanted, what would that be? If you were to forget the typical trappings of a sequel what would you do?” I can’t really talk about what we did yet but I think it’s going to pleasantly surprise a lot of people. Any kind of reluctance someone might feel about going to see Ouija 2 is something I felt acutely when going in to make Ouija 2 but I came out of it completely thrilled that I got to do it. We finished the movie a few weeks ago and screened it for the studio and they are very proud of it. That is a great thing and it doesn’t typically happen with a sequel, especially to a movie like that one.
Hush is released on Netflix today, April 8th, and we’ll leave you with the trailer which we’re confident will have you wanting to see the whole shebang.
Despite the title, Hush is SCREAMING out to be seen! Don’t miss it.
You can also check out our rather praising review of the film over here.
Words: Howard Gorman (@HowardGorman)