The Haunting of Hill House Director on the Biggest Changes From Shirley Jackson’s Novel

Photo: Steve Dietl/Netflix

Spoilers below for Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Fans of The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson’s 1959 gothic horror novel, will immediately notice that Netflix’s new adaptation expands the scope of Jackson’s source material, including a new lead protagonist both inspired by and named after Jackson herself. These creative changes were spearheaded by showrunner Mike Flanagan, who not only wrote or co-wrote several episodes, but also directed all ten.

Flanagan (Oculus, Gerald’s Game) and his diligent collaborators reimagine Jackson’s four lead protagonists — overwhelmed introvert Eleanor (Victoria Pedretti), flirtatious extrovert Theodora (Kate Siegel), drunken bon vivant Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and paternal intellectual Hugh (Timothy Hutton) — as members of an estranged family who, years later, are still processing the traumatizing events they experienced while their well-meaning parents (Hutton and Carla Gugino) tried to renovate and sell a haunted house.

While this reinterpretation is much more literal-minded than the novel, Flanagan and his team play with the concept of time and fate in a surprising, imaginative way that makes this new Hill House feel original and soulful. Ahead of the show’s Friday premiere, Vulture had a spoiler-ific chat with Flanagan about writing expanded versions of Jackson’s iconic characters, directing atmospheric setpieces, and building the Hill House set.

Why did you decide to make Hill House’s residents into members of a dysfunctional family?
It was clear very early on that the novel didn’t neatly adapt to a full season of content, so expansion was a must. We wanted to approach it carefully, and knew we’d have to substantially expand the characters in order to adapt it for television. I’ve always been drawn to familial horror, and this seemed like an excellent way to recontextualize a lot of what I loved about the book. In allowing them to be a family, we actually got to avoid the “getting to know you” stretch of the show: The characters already had a shorthand because they know each other intimately, which means we can get to the meat of the story much faster.

You made a number of changes to the characters, starting with Eleanor. In the book, she goes through the process of feeling invisible, but your version of Eleanor doesn’t have any prior supernatural experiences. Where does your version of Eleanor come from?
She was a hybrid, for sure, and several characters have a little bit of Jackson’s Eleanor infused into their arc. She’s the beating heart of the novel, and we wanted to protect a lot of what Jackson had created while also spreading it out to other characters. I remember being fixated on the moment in the novel where she says, “I am like a small creature swallowed whole by a monster, and the monster feels my tiny movements inside.” That line has haunted me since I first the read the novel, so that informed how we decided to shape her — we even managed to put those words in her mouth in the final episode. We considered ways that that idea could also be applied to a modern young woman’s life, outside of the house itself.

There isn’t really a character that is analogous to Shirley in the novel. What are her origins? Is she named after Hill House’s author?
She’s absolutely named after Shirley Jackson. I wanted to have someone on the show who dealt with trauma by trying to control it, which is kind of what Steven does with his writing. But we wanted a character that took that coping further, someone who took us right up to the face of death and mortality, and turned the lights on. I felt like Jackson herself operated that way in her own life, processing social anxiety and her feelings about society by walking directly up to them and staring them in the face. It felt like our Shirley would try to conquer death that way, in an effort to understand it. She’d immerse herself in the world of death until it was completely demystified.

Lucas has an incredible and necessary transformation on the show. He’s a drunk in the book, but in the show — which is not told primarily from Eleanor’s perspective, as it is in the book — you consider him as a more fully developed character. What was the inspiration for his struggle with addiction?
He is quite the drunk in the book, so it was an easy leap to go for drug addiction. For me, The Haunting of Hill House is a series about life after a haunting, what happens after the credits roll in most horror films. When you talk about people being haunted or wrestling demons, that is a rich metaphor. I really love what Ollie did to bring him to life, and how his family so easily dismissed him for so long — something else we borrowed from Jackson’s Eleanor. Of them all, he changes the most, and is ultimately in the most danger. It isn’t just about whether something from the house will get to Luke. It’s about what he might do to himself, all because of what he lost when he was so little. That character breaks my heart.

As for Theodora, your version of the character is also much less capricious and flighty than Jackson’s version, though she retains her preternatural sensitivity and her queer identity. What qualities did you want to focus on for her?
We absolutely wanted to include the sensitivity and her sexuality, and we wanted to be explicit about it in a way Jackson really couldn’t at the time. I also felt that Claire Bloom played Jackson’s character to perfection in Robert Wise’s 1963 film adaptation, so I didn’t want our Theodora to feel like a Claire Bloom impression. That meant leaning away from some of her more capricious moments, and bringing her more inward. The idea was she wasn’t living in a world where she had to hide her sexuality, but rather a world where her sensitivity makes it almost impossible to have a real connection with someone else. That kind of damage — to be distant because you’re too empathetic — was really fun to play with. At one point, I jokingly described wanting her as a “clenched fist with hair.” That conceit felt so perfect that it ended up in our dialogue.

There are a number of masterfully patient monologues in the show, like the story about the girl with the runny-egg eyes, and you almost never cut away during these big moments. Was it challenging to direct scenes like that, where you had to shoot one actor speaking for an extended period of time?
I love a good monologue and had wanted to revisit some of the fun we had with them in Gerald’s Game. It’s a wonderful thing to watch an actor just act. There’s always fear of audience pushback when you don’t cut away, fear that your viewers won’t have the patience to just watch someone tell a story. But a monologue paints a vivid mental picture if it’s done right. I fought hard for each of the monologues in the show, and I always shot them as single takes, usually with an imperceptible push or zoom employed to bring the viewer closer to the story — to fall into it, as it were. Sometimes I lost the battle and we’d have to put in a cutaway or two, but other times the scene survived untouched. My favorite one is in episode seven, with Mr. Dudley. Robert Longstreet hit it out of the park. The crew was riveted as we shot it, and even the grips and electricians were applauding him when he finished. Keeping that monologue intact was a hill I was determined to die on, if necessary. We’re all storytellers in this business, and I personally love to sit back and watch someone tell a story. If it’s done well, there’s nothing like it. It’s pure. But man, it puts pressure on the actor. That pressure can yield magical, one-of-a-kind moments, though.

I’m curious about the way that the characters experience time because of Hill House, which is a unique and harrowing way to dramatize their post-traumatic stress. We see their experiences as simultaneously psychological and supernatural: They’re haunted by their personal problems, but also by literal ghosts. How did that idea come about? 
We came into this with the philosophy that there’s nothing more boring than a normal “ghost.” For us, the ghosts that were the most interesting were the ones that we create in ourselves, throughout our lives. We needed the characters to inform and create their own monsters, or else it’s hard to care about what would happen to them.

I’m particularly curious about the Red Room since it’s different for every one of the Crains. What was the process of designing and building the Hill House set like?
We built the interior of Hill House on a soundstage in Atlanta. It’s a fully functional, two-story set. You could walk through the whole house, as it was meant to exist onscreen. For the Red Room, we built an interior, and we would repaint and redecorate it several times throughout production. Patricio Farrell designed the set, and it was a thing of beauty. There was so much care put into the tiniest of details, most of which you’ll never notice onscreen. I used to be fascinated just looking for all of the hidden faces he put into the design. Every inch of that house is staring at you, quite literally. Even the handles on the desk drawers had faces.

Visualizing the past and the way it informs the present is so crucial to the show. You directed all ten episodes and wrote a couple, too. What was shooting, writing, and then editing that kind of densely layered narrative like?
I approached it like one long movie, like a ten-hour feature film. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. The structure was a house of cards, and we couldn’t simply remove a scene or move a moment somewhere else without threatening to topple the whole thing. I’d get very frustrated as we tried to navigate the budget and scheduling limitations, because where typically someone could say, “We can lose this scene,” I’d have to say, “Actually we can’t, it’s holding up this other scene three episodes later.” But if a scene didn’t have a “twin” in another episode — if it wasn’t integral to the success of a different moment — it had to be jettisoned right away. Nothing could be left that wasn’t holding up that house of cards.

The Steadicam-like camera movements in episode six are amazing. Watching the camera float from one character to the other really shows how hard it is for them to reunite, even at Lenny’s funeral. What was directing that episode like?
That episode was part of our original pitch to Netflix. I’d said I wanted to do an episode that appeared to be executed in a single take. The reality of what that entailed didn’t become clear until we started rehearsing the episode. We shut down the company for over a month to choreograph and rehearse each of our five long takes. The longest was 17 minutes. There was no room for error at all, and if we made a mistake, we had to start over. We rehearsed for almost a month with our second team stand-ins before we even folded the cast into the process. By then, we had already filmed the entire episode with stand-ins and rehearsed the camera moves. When the cast arrived, I showed them the shots and said, “This is what we have to do.” It was the single hardest thing any of us on the crew had ever attempted, and it almost killed us. I remember sitting at monitor when it finally came time to actually shoot, and I was powerless to do anything but watch and hope. The entire crew had to work together, and if one element went wrong, we were cooked. It was harrowing.

The scare scenes are remarkably quiet and patient, with a lighting pattern that’s often varying degrees of bluish-gray. How did you and cinematographer Michael Fimognari work out the lighting and the general look for those darker scenes?
Seeing in the dark is a consistent challenge for us. Gothic horror relies on shadows, but also on being able to see the architecture and use it as an accomplice in a scare. Michael devised a pretty beautiful look for our darkness, and the rest was just having fun with the camera frame. We actually hid dozens of ghosts throughout the series, in plain sight, in the deep background of shots. We don’t call any attention to them, but they’re there. If you look in a door frame, or under the piano, or behind a curtain in a lot of otherwise ordinary scenes, you’ll see someone there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Haunting of Hill House Director on Adapting the Novel