The question on Dan Torrance’s mind as he returns to the Overlook Hotel in Doctor Sleep is the same thing the audience is wondering … Are we going to encounter his father again here?
With the follow-up to The Shining opening in theaters this weekend, moviegoers are finally getting the answer — but the how and why of Jack Torrance’s presence is a major spoiler. If you’ve seen director Mike Flanagan’s film, it’s okay to proceed further. But be warned.
Vanity Fair spoke with The Haunting of Hill House and Gerald’s Game filmmaker about how he chose to tackle this issue, deviating significantly from Stephen King’s own 2014 sequel in this regard even though the movie overall is fairly faithful.
He also revealed a number of King and Kubrick Easter eggs hidden throughout Doctor Sleep.
Flanagan rejected the idea of using digital effects to mimic actors from Kubrick’s 1980 movie. Rather than simulate young Shelley Duvall as Wendy Torrance or recreate the late Scatman Crothers as psychic cook Dick Halloran, he recast them with Alex Essoe (Starry Eyes) and Carl Lumbly (Alias.)
“The strategy for that was to find actors who remind us of those actors, that have just enough similarities that you can check off a couple of boxes that help really clearly point you to the character,” Flanagan said.
When he decided that Ewan McGregor’s Dan Torrance would have to encounter the spirit of his father in the ruins of the Overlook, he took the same approach — even though the shoes were very big to fill.
He didn’t have Jack Nicholson, but he had someone else who is unrecognizable in the hair and make-up, but also eerily familiar. Shockingly so. Even people who see it aren’t sure who plays the part afterward.
“It’s Henry Thomas,” Flanagan said.
Yes — that Henry Thomas, the little boy from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Thomas has become a staple of Flanagan’s films and TV projects, often playing unsettling fathers, from Hill House to Gerald’s Game. At first, he considered casting Thomas as Billy Freeman, Dan Torrance’s sober buddy, which Cliff Curtis ended up playing.
“Talking to Henry about it I was like, look, there are really two places that I could see you really working,” Flanagan said. “One is Billy, the best friend, and you’ve played that part before. You know what that part is. The other — it’s only one day but holy shit, man, you’re going to be under enormous scrutiny.”
That part was Jack Torrance or whatever remains of him in the Overlook Hotel.
“I let him think about it, and Henry went off and thought about it overnight, and called me back the next day,” Flanagan recalled. “He said, ‘Look, you’re leading with your chin here to get hit for stepping into Kubrick’s shadow.’ He’s like, ‘Let me go with you and I’ll slip into Jack’s [shadow] and we’ll go down together.’”
“There’s no other actor I would have trusted with it,” the director added. “There were ideas to try to really stunt cast it with big names who reminded people of Nicholson or were associated with Nicholson. Leonardo DiCaprio was thrown out there. At one point it was like, ‘What if you find a Nicholson impersonator?’ What if Christian Slater does it? People always compare the two of them anyway. But for me it was like, no, I really think it’s got to be Henry, and we’ll do what we can with his look to help point us toward Jack.”
This role was kept hush-hush, even among the crew, and Thomas’ role remained under wraps until the release of the movie. “It was the secret that had been whispered about,” Flanagan said. “Even on the production we never had his name on a call sheet, we never had his headshot on a casting wall. It was always really, really down low.”
Not Exactly Himself
When Dan Torrance returns to the site of the Overlook Hotel, hoping to unlock monsters that are even more starved and ferocious than the one chasing him, he wanders into the giant lounge where his father once encountered a presence named Lloyd — a bartender — who supplied the recovering alcoholic with irresistible temptation.
Lloyd appears to Dan — this time in the form of his father. He never says his own name, resists acknowledging that he is speaking to his son. It’s like he’s brainwashed, like his soul has been hollowed out and used as a mask by the malevolent presence of the hotel.
“That was all rules from Kubrick,” Flanagan said, recalling an encounter Torrance had in The Shining with a waiter who refused to acknowledge he was the previous, murderous winter caretaker. “I looked at that Delbert Grady bathroom scene. I was like, Delbert never admits who he is, he doesn’t behave the way he did as a caretaker, he’s part of the staff now. He just acts like he’s a waiter. That was my aha moment for how to handle Jack.”
This freed Doctor Sleep from the ghost of someone who is still very much alive, and looming impossibly large — Nicholson himself.
“No one was going to be able to handle someone coming in and doing a Nicholson impression, especially at the full ‘Heeeeere’s Johnny’ level of it,’” Flanagan said. “But Jack [Torrance] having been digested by the hotel in the same way Delbert was, and now he just works there, he’s just on the staff. He said, ‘No sir, you’ve mistaken me for someone else.’ I thought that was Kubrick, in his way, pointing to the solution to how to handle Jack.”
Kubrick’s estate signed off on Doctor Sleep, but did Nicholson provide his blessing? “He was aware we were doing it,” Flanagan said. “The studio had reached out. There were initial things where I had been curious about whether or not he wanted any participation in the film whatsoever, in a cameo, any capacity, but he declined. I think he’s serious about his retirement. But he offered his support and wished us the best and was aware of everything we were doing. If he had anything bad to say about it, I never heard it.”
The tension of Dan’s encounter with his father’s spirit is in the younger man trying to conjure some humanity out him, to break through the facade and awaken or recover some of his old identity. Meanwhile, his father is trying to lure him into the hotel’s grasp.
“I think it’s the most controversial scene in the movie. I think people are going to have really strong opinions,” Flanagan said. “There was trepidation about including that scene in the finished film all the way up to it, we locked the cut. But I thought the scene was too important.”
It was actually critical to getting the approval of the book’s author, even though this scene wasn’t in his novel, who disliked Kubrick’s film and wasn’t sure he wanted the movie to replicate any of it. “That was the pitch to Stephen King that won him over —Dan and Jack sit over a glass of whiskey and chat. That’s what made him let us do this whole thing, was that moment.”
This is where Dan decides, once and for all, whether he was going to follow in his father’s snowy footsteps.
Easter Eggs of the Overlook
There are many other references to Kubrick’s original film placed throughout Doctor Sleep, some so subtle they play on the subconscious.
One of them is in the Jack Torrance sequence — unblinking eyes. “You’ll notice when you watch that scene again, he never blinks,” Flanagan says of the spectral character. “It’s unsettling when you realize that none of the ghosts in The Shining blink. You might watch that movie a hundred times and wonder why you’re so affected by Lloyd the bartender, by Delbert Grady, and it doesn’t occur to you until the hundred and first viewing that they never blinked. That’s a level of genius. What you expect to be natural and human about those interactions isn’t, and that’s magical Kubrick. You can’t even put your finger on why it’s so uncanny and why it disturbs you so much.”
Another lowkey parallel is Dan’s costume, which is an echo of what Nicholson wore in the original film. “They were similar but ultimately different,” Flanagan said. “Jack is present in a lot of Dan’s wardrobe in his mannerisms at times, but Dan is still his own man. That was something we worked on with wardrobe and props and with Ewan quite a bit.”
The big difference in. their wardrobe is the jacket, but you can see Flanagan gave the wine-colored coat to Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), the pyschic little girl Dan is protecting.
There are also some significant audio Easter eggs. “Anytime you hear any source music on a radio, it’s songs that were used in various points of The Shining,” Flanagan said. Another aural homage was to young Danny Torrance riding his big wheel through the Overlook’s Halls. Kubrick amped up the rumble of the hollow plastic tires on the hardwood, which became hushed when the little boy rolled over carpet.
When the villains of the story, a caravan of beings called The True Knot who feed off the energy of psychic humans, are driving through the woods, Flanagan played with the same motif. “When they go off of a gravel road onto a paved road, it’s the sound of the big wheel going off the tile and onto the carpet.”
In King’s novel The Shining, the most dangerous room in the hotel is Room 217 — but Kubrick’s film changed it to Room 237. Flanagan created a nod to the original in the old age home where Dan Torrance works, using his psychic abilities to comfort those who are near death. “He goes into Room 217 with the first patient he goes to visit,” the director said.
King’s own expanded universe also got some shout-outs. “There’s a pile of Dark Tower references. There’s stuff like when Snakebite Andy walks out of the movie theater, there’s an ad for ‘Joe Collins — Live!’ a standup comedian who’s a shape shifting emotional vampire in the Dark Tower universe.”
A bus in Doctor Sleep bears the brand name “Tet Transit,” which is an otherworldly tech company in the Dark Tower mythology.
One of the most obvious references to Kubrick’s film comes in the office of a small town doctor played by Bruce Greenwood, who talks with Dan about his unusual powers. The room’s structure, the camera angles, and the objects on the doctor’s desk exactly mirror Jack Torrance’s interview scene at the beginning of The Shining, right down to the little American flag and the salmon-colored walls.
“That was a bit gleeful, and might be a little excessive, but I just couldn’t help it,” Flanagan said. “It was like, well if we’re doing this we’re going to do it. Most people miss it. I’ve seen it screened at the test screenings and people just miss it completely.”
If you want to spot all of the references, just remember the lesson of the Overlook’s ghosts — keep your eyes open at all times.
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