Staring Off a Cliff: Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy on MIDNIGHT MASS

By Richard Newby · @RICHARDLNEWBY · October 6, 2021, 1:11 PM PDT
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MIDNIGHT MASS (2021)

Midnight Mass is Mike Flanagan's masterpiece. If you've seen it, you know. And if you haven't, well stop reading and go watch. It is a story that has sat with me for weeks since the initial viewing, and I'd make a case that what it explores is the very foundations of horror.

On the small, isolated Crockett Island, a devoutly religious community is forced to reckon with their beliefs and faith after the arrival of a young man who thought he'd escaped for good, and a mysterious, but well-intentioned priest. Featuring a troupe of Flanagan's frequent collaborators, along with new faces, Midnight Mass is an expansive and deeply personal voyage into the depths of human fears.

FANGORIA had the privilege of talking to director and writer, Mike Flanagan, along with producing partner, Trevor Macy about Midnight Mass, their impeccable casting choices, faith, fundamentalism, and what happens when we die.

As someone who has watched all of your projects, from Absentia to this, I'm always struck by your ability to find the perfect actor for the role. With Midnight Mass, in particular, every role is just pitch perfect. I know this story has lived in your head for quite a while. Did you already have most of the cast in mind before the project was officially announced?

Flanagan: The original started long before I actually met a lot of the people that ended up being part of our company. At the very beginning, Father Paul, Riley, Erin, and Bev were always just characters for me. That said though, it did not take long over the years, as we built this repertory company, for people to just fall into their characters and for me to start reframing those characters with these actors in mind. By the time we actually opened the writer's room and got into generating the scripts for this show we had a board up on the wall with everybody's faces. So, Kate [Siegel], Sam Sloyan, Henry Thomas, [Robert] Longstreet, they were already up there on the wall. And there were gaps too, which was really neat. Some of the huge ones, Father Paul and Riley, I didn't have an idea who could play them. And so that led to some of the most fun we had, which is going out there and really digging through auditions and finding people to fold into the family. But by the time we sat down to write, absolutely our staple people were already up on the wall, and it let me do what I love to do more than anything, which is to write to them, to try to keep their voices in mind as everything gets onto the page.

Trevor, do you weigh in on the casting decisions as well, and go to the auditions?

Macy: Yes. I've said this before, but there's a certain precision to the way that Mike directs in particular. And it requires a high level of preparation and skill on the part of the actors. I think we apply a very high bar to that. But it's always a joy to have people back, because it improves the overall quality of the show and allows us to punch from our weight in other ways. Sometimes it happens that things are written to an individual repertoire member, and sometimes it doesn't. But either way, we always like to mix it up. And I think the infusion of people like Zach [Gilford] and Hamish [Linklater] really kind of offered a new palate to work with. I think that balance is very important. But it's really great to work with people who share our work ethic and actors who are very skilled and have them back.

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Father Paul is such a fascinating character. He's unlike any other character I've ever encountered. We're all familiar with the type of mysterious character who comes into town and stirs things up, but Hamish's portrayal is very different from what I was expecting. I love that there's this life that he brings with him, along with good intentions. He truly does want to help people like Riley. So, I'm curious about the conception of that character, and learning more about what Hamish brought to it.

Flanagan: The idea that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" has always been really married to that character. Hamish, more than any other actor we looked at for the part, understood that Father Paul's motives are good. And that is what I think makes him so compelling. We very much didn't want to do the sinister newcomer. It treads too much on familiar territory and felt to all of us like it didn't give us many places to go because if he's the devil come to town then it's just Needful Things. If we're going the Something Wicked This Way Comes or Storm of the Century route, then it just didn't seem nearly as interesting as someone who was really, honestly, trying to do something good. It's one thing to see someone who comes in with an evil belief system doing evil things. That, I think, would have positioned the show to be making a statement about religion we did not want to make. We were way more interested in looking at what happens when good people with good intentions have their belief systems corrupted and how far that can take us. I think that's what the majority of us on the planet Earth are in danger of. Fortunately, it doesn't seem like there are that many, one hundred percent, purely evil human beings. We all tend to be way more complicated, and a lot of us, believe anyway, that we're the heroes of our own stories, even as we do awful things. So, Hamish absolutely understood that. It was one of the hardest elements on the page for an actor to approach. From his very first audition, he was very clear. He said, 'I'm a good guy. I've just made a mistake because I'm someone who approaches everything with deep conviction and faith that I can't mess things up because God has my back.' He carried that with him in every scene. That genuine care that you see is very real, and what made Hamish our guy. I think his performance is my favorite thing I've ever seen him do as a result. It's so joyful to be onset and watch him do that. It's always wonderful when there's nothing to say to an actor but 'great! Let's move on.' And that's typically what my interactions with Hamish were.

One of the things that hooked me is that Midnight Mass asks questions rather than making judgments. As viewers, most of us can see which choices are morally valid and which ones aren't. But I also think it's interesting that faith offers a shield that allows people to convince themselves that what they're doing is right. That's what I found so fascinating and chilling about Bev Keane, a Biblical literalist who sees herself as the hero. What was it like to find the balance in that for her character?

Flanagan: Bev, to me, is the scariest kind of character. Bev's conviction can be backed up scripturally. When I came of age of enough to finally be able to read the Bible for myself, and not just have it read and explained to me every week at church, but to actually read the text, what really knocked me over was how ideas could be cherry-picked from the text and used to justify so many awful things. And we see that all the time. Bev Keane, to me represents the scariest things about the Westboro Baptist Church or Pat Robertson. These kind of, fanatical is the word, but these people who can take a book that purports to be the crown jewel of our collective human morality and use that exact book to justify treating each other horribly, if not outright killing each other. The Bible has a passage for just about everything. You can spill rivers of blood in God's name, and there's something in there to back it up. It's that malleable. As a human being, that frightens me more than things that go bump in the night, or ghosts, or vampires, or things like that. This is the real horror. Bev, to me, is the monster of this story for that exact reason. Sadly, I feel like Bev is someone we can see all over the place in our world today. And they keep ascending to higher levels of power and influence. That's scarier than the monster you see in the window at night.

Macy: You don't encounter the scary monster you see in the window at night in real life…most of the time.

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Being a Stephen King fan, like yourself, I've always appreciated how he's used these religious figures like Mrs. Carmody in The Mist. But I also think, as much as I love King's writing, that these religious figures are often larger than life, almost tip-toeing into caricatures. But with Bev, she's a smaller physical presence, relegated to the shadows early on, and whose role in the church and community is supposed to be that of a background figure. But she desperately wants to be seen and be the center of this community.

Flanagan: We never wanted to go over the top. And Sam Sloyan, who's one of the sweetest, nicest, kindest human beings I know, who was tasked with playing this woman, noted how important it was that we not ask the audience to sympathize with her but we need to understand her as a person. We need to know enough about her to understand how she gets to the place she's at. There are things that you do see happen to her. She's dismissed by a lot of people, including Father Paul, which ends up being pretty critical. In most of the first half of the show, she's interrupted. Bev, as that kind church lady, is seen as being somewhat diminished. And I think that creates more and more formidability to her when she finally steps out of those shadows. But Bev, as a human being, is, unfortunately, someone I can relate to a lot. I can't relate to what she believes, but how that kind of anger can be animating, I absolutely understand. There's an enormous amount of repression and guilt that comes with belief systems, especially the more fundamentalist they become. There's a scene with Bev and Father Paul on his bed in episode four at the very beginning when she comes in to bring him food, that Sam infused with a whole backstory of subtext that, maybe for the only time in the show, I felt a little sympathy for Bev Keane. And then, of course, she obliterates it [laughs]. As monstrous as she is, it was still important that she be a fully formed and real person. I don't know of anyone else who could have delivered her the way Sam did.

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I also want to talk about Rahul Kohli's brilliant performance. I was a big fan of what he did as Owen in Bly Manor, so it was really cool to see him again here. There is something iconic about Sheriff Hassan. You've mentioned before that you'd love to make a Western. I immediately saw Sheriff Hassan in this Western archetype mode but even more interesting because he rejects so many of the conventions of Western society and the things we (not me) value, like cops, guns, and forceful masculinity. Rahul imbues such humanity in these characters. He's quickly become one of my favorite performers in your work.

Macy: He certainly does.

Flanagan: We love Rahul so much. And we're going to work with him a ton and a ton. He's family now. Islamophobia was really something we wanted to bring into this story. It's so Christian centric, and as we dealt with ideas of what elements of our show are about the potential persecution or the perceived persecution of faith, and of Christianity specifically, having an element of that that relates to a very real and potent Islamophobia, especially in the United States, was something that was very important to us. What Rahul and I were really excited about was that our Muslim character was the sheriff. He's responsible for law and order within the community. And what Rahul thought was, this is a part that is so steeped in Americana, and goes back into the most American of American leading men, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and he really wanted to step into that and just inhabit the character the way Gary Cooper would play it, and then let that be a little shocking to the viewer who isn't used to seeing this version of that character. He went into the classic Western iconography. He's wearing cowboy boots the whole show. You can't really see just how far he took it because his jeans come down to the heels, but the boots are impressive. He wanted to feel it. He wanted to feel that Gary Cooper swagger. And Rahul being Rahul, once he built that character, the last thing he did was go into Joel from The Last of Us, and put a sheen of that on there as well because Rahul is a creature of pop culture and a true student of storytelling, especially in the gaming world, which is so exciting. But I love what he did with it. I think it's an important piece of representation that I'm so grateful we were able to trust an actor like Rahul. I can't wait to work with him again.

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Before I let you both go, I have to bring up the "what happens when we die?" scenes. Those gutted me. To be honest, that is the fear that dwells in my mind all the time, that question, and in part what has led me to love the horror genre. I think the way you come to it three different times in the series through these three monologues is really interesting. I love what Kate did with those. I'm not someone who tears up watching shows, but it got me. It's clear that Riley and Erin's thoughts are true to the character, but how much of what they say is a reflection of your own, personal beliefs?

Flanagan: I'm really glad you asked this question. Of the three of them, when Kate first talks, that represents what I thought about what happens when we die for most of my upbringing. When Zach talks after that, that represents what I thought about what happens when we die for most of my 20s and 30s, so about half my life. And at the end, Kate's final monologue represents what I think now. I take some flack sometimes from my executives, and from critics, and some fans too about monologues and about the length of them in particular. In the case of those three in the case of this show, these questions are ones that have really dominated my mind for most of the time I've been alive, and to your point, it has dominated your mind as well, and not in a casual way. I think we're all walking up to this cliff, and we're all looking over it and trying to look at that darkness underneath and form it into some answer. Whether it's in the front of our mind, or the back of our mind it's happening. And people who can watch sequences like these monologues and say, 'I was bored,' I'd say give it a minute. You're just not toes up to the cliff yet, but sooner or later, you will be. This is the show, for me, that I want my children to watch when I'm gone, because if they want to get to know me, and they really want to look into the way my mind was chewing on these questions that I'm sure will chew at them too, the answers are here. There's never been a piece of writing or a piece of filmmaking that is as personal to me as those three monologues. The final one, in particular, represents what I think happens, at this moment in time, anyway. And it still has a giant question mark on it. The fact that it's delivered by the woman who I love more than anyone else in the world, who shares my life with me, and who has saved my life in very real ways over the years, and who is the mother of my children, the fact that she is the one memorializing this and performing it so beautifully makes this all the more profound to me. So, the most honest answer I can give you is that by the time we got to that last monologue, it really felt like it was only me and Kate in the room, and it's really for our kids. That it can resonate with you, and hopefully with other people as well, I think speaks to how universal that question is and how important that is. I'll never know the answer. And if I did, it will be at the exact moment I'll no longer be able to tell anyone what it is, so if nothing else, I hope it's a good meditation on it, and that it at least tells people who have the same question that they're not alone in that question. And maybe we stare off that cliff together, for a few minutes, anyway.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Midnight Mass is now streaming on Netflix. Click below to watch: