'Doctor Sleep' celebrates 'The Shining', it doesn't ape it, says director

Based on an award-winning Stephen King novel, this horror film explores how childhood trauma echoes into adulthood. Director Mike Flanagan and producer Trevor Macy tell us more

10 November 2019 - 00:00 By Andrew Donaldson
Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining' and Ewan McGregor in 'Doctor Sleep'.
Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining' and Ewan McGregor in 'Doctor Sleep'.
Image: Supplied

Horror demands a lot when it comes to the suspension of disbelief. Take The Shining, the late Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film on toxic masculinity run amok. We should just accept that a luxury resort hotel in the Colorado Rockies shuts down each winter - at the height of the ski season? Really?

Be that as it may, for our purposes the Overlook Hotel needs a caretaker during the big freeze and the place becomes home from home for maladjusted writer Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) and his personal demons.

Over the course of two terrifying hours, his loathing for his family — irritatingly mousy wife, cute son Danny with psychic powers — takes form in spectacularly nasty fashion.

Over the years, The Shining has come to be regarded as one of the greatest and most influential of all horror films, a master class in dread that transcends the boundaries of the genre.

Stephen King, upon whose 1977 novel the film was based, hated it so much that in 1997 he scripted and produced a three-part TV miniseries that was truer to his original story. (Spoiler alert: this one has a happier ending, sort of.)

WATCH | The trailer for 'The Shining'

King's sequel to The Shining, the award-winning Doctor Sleep, published in 2013, has now been filmed with Ewan McGregor as the adult Danny. An adult now, he is, like his father, an alcoholic battling a few personal demons.

Given his "shining" powers, these tend to be on the supernatural side, and they are the skriks we encountered during our first stay at the Overlook. That naked haggard crone, for example, in the bath? Well, she hasn't aged a bit. Neither have the twin girls who wanted to play with Danny forever and ever ...

Returning to the hotel, Doctor Sleep's makers say, meant a return to the scenes, motifs and objects that characterised Kubrick's film: the geometric symmetry of long corridors, the deluge of blood in the elevators, the axe-smashed bathroom door, Jack Torrance's battered typewriter, "murder" scrawled backwards as "redrum" and so on.

"Once we got over the terror of going back to the Overlook," says director Mike Flanagan, "and that the film was actually happening, then there was definitely a checklist. As a kid who grew up loving the movie, I was like, 'What do I really want to see?' There was tons of stuff."

Director Stanley Kubrick on the set of 1980s 'The Shining'.
THEN Director Stanley Kubrick on the set of 1980s 'The Shining'.
Image: Michael Ochs Archives/ Warner Brothers/Getty Images
Director Mike Flanagan on the set of 'Doctor Sleep'.
NOW Director Mike Flanagan on the set of 'Doctor Sleep'.
Image: Supplied

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Most of the action in Doctor Sleep takes place elsewhere, and it is only in the final scenes that we return to the haunted hotel.

Until then, Danny the restless drifter must overcome his substance-abuse problems and deal with his anger issues. Finally settling in a small town, he finds work in a hospice and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. His psychic abilities, long suppressed by his drinking and drugging, resurface. He uses these to provide comfort to dying patients.

Meanwhile, across the US, a young girl, Abra, played by Kyliegh Curran, has been using her own "shining" powers to make contact with Danny — and to alert him to the presence of the True Knot. This is a bunch of quasi-immortals with the vampiric habit of torturing to death those who possess the "shining" and then feeding on the "steam", or psychic essence, they exude when in extreme pain.

When Rose the Hat, the True Knot leader, played by Rebecca Ferguson, becomes aware of Abra's existence, a plan is hatched to kidnap her, setting in motion a series of events that will naturally culminate at the Overlook. Returning to the hotel did, however, mean filling some rather big shoes.

Abra, played by Kyliegh Curran, in 'Doctor Sleep'.
Abra, played by Kyliegh Curran, in 'Doctor Sleep'.
Image: Supplied

"It's an unbelieving and very daunting kind of feeling," Flanagan says in a joint interview with producer Trevor Macy.

"You know, we kind of looked at this movie as a descendant of The Shining rather than as a straight sequel and that helped show us the way ... If we were the child of The Shining then, as parents, that DNA of Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King would be part of it.

"The one thing that was at the front of my mind from the beginning — it sounds obvious — is that I am not Kubrick. Not even close. And will never be. No-one else will ever be. And so the way to proceed at all was not to try and be him, but to celebrate him and to celebrate The Shining, but never try to ape it or appropriate it.

More than any other movie, I knew that we couldn't please everyone, more so in this case than any other, and that was very freeing
Mike Flanagan, director of 'Doctor Sleep'

"More than any other movie, I knew that we couldn't please everyone, more so in this case than any other, and that was very freeing. If we're not going to please everybody then we might as well make the movie the way we'd want to see it. As fans."

This approach, according to Macy, was preferable to rebooting the film. As a team who have established themselves in horror with crowd-pleasers like Oculus (2013) and Before I Wake (2016), they would have turned down the opportunity to shoot what Macy calls "The
Shining II".

"With [Doctor Sleep], though, we could really ground the creative work in King's novel and Danny Torrance's story, because one thing that we've done in our work is explore childhood trauma as it affects adults. There's no better example of that than Danny Torrance. If you think about it that way, it's a little less scary standing on the shoulders of King and Kubrick," says Macy.

Happily, Flanagan adds, both King and the Kubrick estate are pleased with the film.

"As far as I'm concerned," he says, "those are the two most important reviews the film will ever get."

WATCH | The trailer for 'Doctor Sleep'

Fans of The Shining — and particularly the unhinged malevolence that Nicholson brought to the film — may, however, be disappointed that, thematically, Doctor Sleep is a wholly different film. Whereas his father raged unflinchingly about the Overlook as "a kind of distorted alpha", as Flanagan puts it, McGregor brings a "vulnerable masculinity" to his son's character.

"As a novel," says Flanagan, "Doctor Sleep played directly into some of my favourite things to explore, the echoes of childhood trauma into adulthood, addiction and recovery, the kind of dangers that can besiege a nuclear family and what effects there could be on the children years later, when they have grown up. These themes do pop up again and again in the work that I gravitate towards."

"Everyone has that," says Macy. "When I ask what are you afraid of, you're immediately going to say something from your childhood. Every audience member can relate to that, and every parent fears the same thing, you know. I'm a parent, and anything, any threat to my child is, you know, the most terrifying thing I can think of."

Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining'. Lloyd played the role of Danny Torrance.
THEN Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Jack Nicholson in 'The Shining'. Lloyd played the role of Danny Torrance.
Image: Michael Ochs Archives/ Warner Brothers/Getty Images
Ewan McGregor as the adult Danny Torrance in 'Doctor Sleep'.
NOW Ewan McGregor as the adult Danny Torrance in 'Doctor Sleep'.
Image: Supplied

King felt this anxiety when writing The Shining, says Flanagan. "If you look at the novel, it's obviously the work of a man who is terrified of what his alcoholism could do to his family, and at the time his alcoholism is not at all in check.

"Then look at Doctor Sleep. It's written by the same man, but with decades of sobriety behind him, pondering what happened, essentially, to the child of an alcoholic when they grew up and this is at the time when King's own children were grown and starting to navigate their own demons and problems in life."

Readers of King's memoir On Writing will know that he battled with substance abuse for years. He admits, for instance that he cannot remember writing Cujo, his 1981 novel about a rabid St Bernard.

"In a way," Flanagan says, "I think The Shining is about addiction and Doctor Sleep is about recovery. The Shining is about alcoholic parenthood and Doctor Sleep is about the adult children of alcoholics."