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Interview with Director Mike Flanagan

by Joshua Wise

If you haven’t seen the movie Absentia, you should, if you can take it.  It’s one of those rare gems of a horror film that runs slow, plays with your perceptions, and tries to present real thoughtful and spiritual human responses to horrifying situations.  Director Mike Flanagan was kind enough to answer some questions for an article I was putting together for another site.  However, as these things go, that article got turned down in the process.  So, here’s the interview in full.  Go check out the movie on Netflix and let us know what you think.  (You can follow Mike Flanagan on Twitter at @flanaganfilm).

1.  Being an Atheist, what led you to tell a story about two people who are both pursuing different spiritual solutions to their problems in a film that presents what would traditionally be called a supernatural element to the world?

Spirituality has always been an important facet of my life. I was raised Catholic – I was an altar boy, twelve years of Catholic school, the whole nine yards. In my adulthood I dove headfirst into comparative religious studies, and while I ultimately couldn’t accept theism, that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate and enjoy mythology or spirituality, or deny its role in trying to find our way through our deepest, darkest problems.

I think there’s a perception out there that atheists have no interest or appreciation for myth or the “supernatural,” but I’d argue that the opposite is true. We see myth as a fascinating and often ingenious attempts at understanding our own nature, and our place in the cosmos. One doesn’t need to believe a myth is literally true to appreciate it, to acknowledge its wisdom and values, or to enjoy tales of the supernatural for that matter.

As a student of human nature, I’m incredibly intrigued by the fact that we turn to spiritual solutions to our problems and fears. It’s a pervasive and universal quality of our nature. We’ve used myth, religion, and even narrative fiction throughout our entire history to try to make sense of things we don’t understand, as well as for simple entertainment. I love myth, religion and fiction. I suppose that when I say I’m an atheist, it just means that I don’t see much of a difference between the three. They can each be incredibly helpful and comforting, and can each be incredibly destructive as well. I can only speak for myself, but what riles my feathers is not the existence of myth or supernatural themes, but rather when a belief in them drives people to actively make life worse for others.

In this particular case, dealing with a story about unexplained loss and family tragedy, I can’t imagine examining the theme without a religious component. Even if someone rejects the details of a religion’s dogma, or its political or social teachings, the intense desire to believe that our lost loved ones are in a better place is a powerful force. It’s impossible not to be sympathetic to that desire. The characters in this film all try to imagine that their missing loved ones are in a better place, no matter how rationally unlikely those scenarios become for them. In the cases of the disappearances in the film, when there is simply no information whatsoever about where they’ve gone, we can’t help but to try to fill that void with an explanation that provides some amount of comfort. I think that requires real conversations about spirituality, and I really can’t imagine telling this story any other way.

2.  There has been debate about whether the movie leaves itself open to the interpretation that there is no supernatural element, and that the whole story has a more mundane explanation.  Do you think that the movie is open to this interpretation, and if so, was that your intent?

I think the film presents a number of possible alternatives to explain what ultimately happened, but I think the final shot leaves little room for interpretation. It explicitly confirms the supernatural element. I think it’s very interesting that, even seeing that final visual statement, people still hold onto the other explanations and call the ending “ambiguous.” That’s fascinating to me. The last image represents the worst possible scenario, so I wonder if people hold onto the ambiguity because it’s preferable to the dark, brutal “reality” that image confirms. It’s fascinating to me to hear the debate and see people seemingly ignore that shot, opting to cling to the speculative moments that precede it… particularly because the characters in the film tend to do the same thing.

3.  A conversation between the sisters has Callie presenting evidence of a perspective that Tricia sees as unbelievable.  Tricia argues that the mind sees patterns where there are none, and then says “It’s easier to imagine the most horrifying fantasy than to accept the truth” and “it’s easier to embrace a nightmare than to accept how stupid, how simple reality is sometimes.” These ideas seem to function as something of a thesis statement in the movie, yet appear to be undercut by the fact that Callie is right about the myths.  How did you want these ideas to function in the story?

I wanted those ideas to function as a contradiction. I think they’re both ultimately proven right, and both ultimately proven wrong. As Carl Sagan said, “it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying or reassuring.” I think he’s absolutely right about that, but I also think that fiction affords us the ability to define how the “universe really is” for ourselves. In fact, it’s really our only opportunity to do so. Much as we might want to, we can’t bend reality to our will… except in our dreams, and in our stories. In that sense I think movies are our dreams, and sometimes our nightmares. So I think both sisters are correct, in a broad sense. Tricia’s arguments ring true for me. But the fact that Callie’s theory seems to be proven true at the end is one of the luxuries of being a fiction writer.

4.  In the movie Callie says that the church has an idea about souls that suffer in this world for a great reward in the next. Can you talk a bit about this idea in the context of Callie’s character and the contrast with her sister’s perspective described in the last question?

“Victim Souls.” Actually, for a brief period of time, I considered that as a possible title for this movie. The concept of Victim Souls was one of the more terrifying things I heard in Catholic School. This idea that some souls were just destined for torment and suffering utterly horrified me growing up. I didn’t understand why that would have to be the case, and why god would actively decide to do that to any of us.

Later, I came to understand that the concept makes witnessing suffering more bearable. It’s awful to see other humans suffering, but if we believe they’ll be properly (and even excessively) compensated for that suffering in the next life, perhaps it helps people live with it. Thus, the concept of Victim Souls began to horrify me on an entirely new level.

In a universe as apparently indifferent and cruel as ours can appear to be sometimes, why wouldn’t we want to believe that justice will ultimately be served? And once we see how often people live, suffer and die without finding that justice in their lifetimes, why wouldn’t we want to believe that they’ll finally enjoying their reward in an afterlife? Frankly, what other option do we have, other than to admit that we allow suffering and injustice to continue?

Callie’s clearly internalized this concept of Victim Souls. It’s what lets her walk away from the man in the tunnel (though her guilt brings her back soon after with some food for him), and when she broaches the concept of the Victim Soul with Tricia she’s actually offering it to her sister as something meant to comfort her. Expressing that idea to Tricia, after what’s happened to Daniel, is an act of love on Callie’s behalf.

It’s Callie’s way of offering Tricia a vision of Daniel without any suffering, and with an abundance of happiness as his reward for having endured it. Tricia understands that this conversation is an act of love on her sister’s behalf, she gets that the moment she hears it… and, tellingly, does not argue with Callie. Instead, she apologizes for losing her temper with her earlier, and for viewing her as “prodigal.” In a sense, she responds by reaching out to try to heal some of the older wounds in their relationship.

Ultimately, Callie’s concept of “Victim Souls” is a wish she makes for her sister, and one her sister is grateful for.

5.  The end of the movie makes some real connections between Callie’s beliefs and her actions.  The ideas of substitution and a ransom are introduced, but do not play out the way that Callie would have expected.  In fact, they play out horrifically. Were you attempting to comment here on the popular Christian idea of Jesus dying in the place of others?

Should warn that I tread into spoiler territory in this answer, but it’s tough not to…

The concept of sacrificing oneself for the good of another is pervasive in a vast number of religions. I think Callie views it as a Christian sacrifice, for sure, but it could just as easily apply to a host of ancient myths and faiths. The fact is that her actions have a nobility to them that isn’t shared by the entity in the tunnel, and it does end up horribly for her (and implies a horrible ending for someone else, as well.) The futility of that action, and how it is ultimately answered by the creature, is what makes this film a horror film.

I certainly wasn’t trying to comment on the sacrifice of Jesus, except that we see one of his followers following his example. “There is no greater love than this,” the Gospels say, and while it ends badly for Callie, I do think we are seeing her at her best. It’s probably the most noble, selfless thing she ever decided to do in her life, and from what we know of her history, it’s a fitting end for her character. Her actions are pure, but the world in which she offers up this purity is dark and corrupt, and ultimately victorious. It’s bleak stuff, to be sure. While writing the script, I tried a happier ending first and it just felt wrong.

6.  Is there anything more about Absentia you would like to point out along these lines?

I think it’s great that people can grab onto themes of faith and redemption in this film. I was initially a little nervous about doing this interview, as I worried that my own beliefs might put off some of your readers, but I hope people find that these themes are dealt with in a thoughtful, respectful manner in the film.

Each of us will have to deal with real darkness in our lives, and stare into a tunnel that seems endless and without light. Ultimately we each have to go in there, whatever it may turn out to be, and the ways that we all try to understand that actually connect us. Some of us turn to Christianity, some of us to Buddhism, some of us to other things, but we want the same thing in the end. We want the people we love to be safe, happy, and at peace, even if they aren’t with us any longer. That’s ultimately what ABSENTIA is about. If we’d gone a certain way, and allowed for our characters to be comforted, it might have been a drama. That we don’t is what makes it a horror movie, and (hopefully) speak to something we’re all afraid of.

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