Jamie Flanagan talks horror, writer’s rooms, and “breaking in”

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If you’re a horror fan, the odds are that Jamie Flanagan (he/they/she) has worked on something you love. They acted in The Haunting of Hill House, and have written for The Haunting of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass, The Midnight Club, Fall of the House of Usher, and Creepshow. There is a lot that makes these shows special, but one of the most significant factors is the writing. Lyrical, haunting, and touching on the deepest, darkest depths of the human psyche, these scripts really stick with you. I was so honored that Jamie sat down with me and let me pick her brain, touching on topics ranging from her journey as screenwriter, to our mutual love of horror, the experience of working in a writer’s room, how to break into the industry, and so much more.

Jamie didn’t start out as a screenwriter. In fact, he explored a lot of different career paths before ending up here. They went to school for acting and were an Equity stage actor for a decade. “This meant that I waited a lot of tables, tended a lot of bars, taught a lot of adjunct teaching, sold Vector Cutco knives for a while,” she says with a laugh. “Mid thirties that didn’t seem sustainable, so I went back to community college while I was still acting occasionally at night to do medical prerequisites. I ended up becoming a cardiac sonographer, so ultrasounds for the heart. I did that for about six years, and then I started writing screenplays in my spare time.” His brother, Mike Flanagan, was doing well in his own film career. Jamie had been involved in Mike’s work before, usually as an actor. “I sent him two spec scripts, and that got me into The Haunting of Bly Manor writer’s room as a staff writer.” Since then, she’s written on many of Mike’s other series. 

Midnight Mass trailer

I ask them if they wrote growing up, or if this was a totally new path. “I wrote short stories,” she replies. “Usually genre–horror–short stories.” These stories were just for him; he didn’t sell them or post them online. “I took a couple of creative writing courses and really enjoyed those. And, you know, when you develop new works for theater, there’s a lot of writing on the fly. You don’t really call it writing because you’re not writing an entire play, but if it’s a collaborative process, a lot of times you’re tweaking dialogue, making changes to scenes, sometimes even scene order. So, writing wasn’t new to me by the time I started writing screenplays. The only thing that was different was the format. It’s the same type of storytelling, only you have to pop open Final Draft and learn to use that as an instrument.”

I ask them what it’s like to work in a collaborative environment like a writer’s room. As a novelist, a lot of my work is solitary (although of course I lean a lot on my creative community) so I’m deeply curious about how this whole process works. “Basically, you come into your writer’s room; usually, the showrunner already has an idea of what the show is going to be, and sometimes a pilot that they can hand you to say hey, here’s the first episode, here’s my general idea for these story arcs for the season. Now we have 8-12 writers in the room, and what we do collaboratively is we break the season. What that means is we map out where everything is going to go, in outline form first, scene-by-scene. Then we assign those outlines to individual writers in the room, and then those writers write the episodes. Then those episodes go back to the showrunner, the showrunner does a rewrite on all of them to put them in their own voice, and that’s it! Then you have a season of television.” Of course, the showrunner and the other writers aren’t the only people you have to keep in mind when you’re writing for television.

 “There’s a whole lot of other people involved outside of the writer’s room that dictate where a season of television will go. A lot of that is executives at, say, Netflix or Amazon, or whatever your platform is, and they’ll have marching orders based off of any number of statistics they’ve been crunching to figure out whatever it is that will make money for their platform. So you have this sort of dance between the showrunner, who is building something collaboratively with their writer’s room, and that thing is […] at conflict with what the executives want it to become.” 

The Fall of the House of Usher trailer

Usually, what they want it to become is something familiar, something they feel certain will turn a profit for their platform. “For a while, after Stranger Things, everyone wanted teenage protagonists with some kind of magical powers, and it’s like, God, no, this is about children dying in a hospice, they don’t have magical powers!” Apparently, this is how the cult element of The Midnight Club came to be. The original conception of the show didn’t have the Paragon or any of the associated characters in it. In fact, Jamie tells me that element was actually added after the writer’s table closed. “You make these compromises, and they really knock the shows in these other directions.” Sometimes these are positive changes, sometimes they are to the show’s detriment, but either way, they alter the story in major ways. They are also highly necessary, because if the executives aren’t happy, the show doesn’t get made. “There’s the show that Mike conceives, there’s the show that we write collaboratively, and there’s the show the network makes.” As many tweaks and changes as the executives make, there are still more steps in creating the final product. “Things evolve over time and the collaborative process reaches all throughout the production process all the way to the editing room, where stories that you thought you knew get sort of tossed up in the air and reordered to create something new.”

My next question is about how one maintains one’s own creative voice while working in this type of environment. “It helps to remember that you’re there to help the showrunner or the creator of the show realize their vision more than anything else. You do get to put your own grace notes on it, usually in the dialogue, or even within the collaborative process when you’re brainstorming scenes, you certainly get input in there. You do get to be creative in that way. But it’s more of a ‘yes, and’ exercise. You’re tossing around ideas, you’re sort of stress-checking them as a group, and once something gets a ‘yes’ you try to ‘and’ that, and then you just keep going.” 

We pivot the conversation into talking about horror. At New 32, we’re passionate about using horror to examine real-life issues, especially things that are traumatic and difficult to talk about. I ask her what her thoughts are on this, as it’s something all the works she’s been a part of do so well. “Horror is not knowing and horror is uncomfortable,” he says. “These things together are scary.” They give me the example of nightfall; not being able to see is frightening, and then you add in another person, someone who you don’t trust and whose intentions you don’t understand. The unknown plus being uncomfortable lends itself to scary situations. “I think these things go hand in hand. The fear of not knowing something, whether it’s what the person beside me is thinking or what’s behind a closed door or underneath my bed. That’s horror in general.” 

The Midnight Club trailer

“I think horror lets us approach these things in a heightened way, but in a safe space. When I watch horror, I want to be confronted with something that makes me uncomfortable, and I want it to mean something, ultimately, in the end. I think the challenge is finding a balance between those two things that feel satisfying.” They list a few movies that do a good job of this; The Babadook. Tale of Two Sisters, A Dark Song. “I think horror gives us an opportunity to elevate these issues that we have in a way that lets us explore them safely. As opposed to, say, a ten episode, grounded in reality drama. Sometimes those themes might come across in a way that’s off-putting. I actually think horror makes the medicine go down a little bit easier, strangely enough.”

“There’s the sub-genre of horror that is torture porn, or there’s the really hardcore horror without the horror that’s really bleak and is essentially an exercise in cruelty.” That’s not the type of thing they like to work on. “I like to write things that touch on problems that I recognize, either in the world or in myself. In terms of my brother’s work, it’s stuff that echoes things I’ve seen in his life, or in my own. Midnight Mass has a lot of our extended family trauma in it, so that one was particularly cathartic to write on. And then there’s the fun shows. Usher we just had a blast.”

Next I ask them about the strikes and the particular moment our industry is in. New 32 was founded on the belief that artists deserve to get paid for their work, and this is obviously a big topic in the industry and in the world right now. “I think what we’re seeing in the film and television industry is really no different than what we’re seeing in every other industry in America right now,” he says. “A small group of very rich people are finding ways to get even richer at the expense of the larger populus, and that’s it. That’s the whole game.” 

“What we’re seeing with the labor movements coming forward, whether it be WGA or whether it be SAG… these are people fighting for their rank and file members to give them sustainable jobs. I don’t think acting has been a sustainable job for a very long time, at least when I was there I couldn’t make it work, even when I was working three or four shows a year […] I couldn’t make it work, I couldn’t make ends meet. You burn out, like anything else. I think with writing it’s the same. Nobody works all the time as a writer, you don’t work year-round, and most of your paycheck goes to things like managers, agents, and entertainment lawyers, so that’s 30% off the top right there. Say you made $200,000 in the year, you subtract 30% of that, and then out of that you subtract 40% for taxes, and then you’re left with a considerably smaller amount. And if you’re doing this from Los Angeles, you’re doing this in a place where the cost of living is through the roof.” I crunched the numbers, and with those percentages taken out, $200k very quickly becomes $84k, turning what sounds like a very nice salary into something that is difficult to live on in a major city, especially when you consider factors like inflation, student loan debt, and the cost of medical care. “I think that’s why a lot of writers below the rank of showrunner and creator tend to vanish after about two to three years. Even if they work, they can’t sustain it. They can’t make a life out of it. So they bounce off, move away, and figure something else out. I think the same thing happens with actors all the time, ubiquitously throughout the United States. I think that actors are just so screwed, unless you’re Brad Pitt. Hopefully these deals will move things in a direction where people can find work, work that actually will pay their rent and their bills, and on top of that hopefully provide protections from things like generative AI.”

I ask her how, as a working artist, she balances this financial aspect of the business with nurturing her own creativity and doing her best work on these collaborative projects. They laugh. “Oh, wow, I don’t. I’m always in a state of panic.” Honestly… deeply relatable. “Everyone’s afraid that this job is going to be their last job, everyone’s afraid that they’ll never work again once it ends. Nobody has the coffers to just sit at home for five years and hope the work will come. There’s no guarantee that when you grind out spec scripts that take you months to write that anyone will want to buy them. And if you’re trying to gauge the winds of the industry and figure out what people want, by the time you write it, the winds have changed.” This is true across industries; I always advise aspiring authors to never try to chase trends, because by the time your book is completed, the trends will be different. “In terms of creativity, in my own stuff, my spec work, I write things that I love and I care about so that even if they don’t sell I can feel a sense of accomplishment.” That’s just what works for him, but I think it’s a good tip for young artists; since chasing trends likely won’t get you anywhere unless you get incredibly lucky, so it’s a good idea to focus on work that you love. They tell me about an experience they had writing a script that they absolutely loved, selling it to Netflix, only for the project to be shelved and never see the light of day. It’s a brutal industry, and for me, at least, an experience like that would feel crushing. In this industry it’s easy to lose hope.

That leads me to the question, what exactly do you do if you want to make this your career? “There’s the obvious answer, which is to be related to someone who somehow breaks into the industry and makes it big,” she laughs. “The business is too hard to get into in the first place, so if somebody that you know makes it there by merit, grab on and off you go, with my blessing.” There are so many hardworking, talented storytellers who never get a shot, so if you have a way in, take it, regardless of if that shot is based on nepotism or merit. “Run with it. And if you’re terrible at it, you’ll eventually get the boot.”

“In terms of just pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, I can’t tell you how I did it because obviously I came in through Mike, but I can tell you how Mike did it, which was Absentia. Originally it was writing specifically for his friend, so he knew which actors he was writing for, then he needed a story and he didn’t really have much money, so he had his apartment to shoot in, and then a tunnel right outside of his apartment. The idea–and I can take a little bit of credit for this–is that he could do Billy Goats Gruff with a tunnel nearby. So what he ended up doing […] was writing an entire script that was a modernization of Billy Goats Gruff. Work with the people that you love, work on a shoestring budget, crowdfund, that one was completely crowdfunded, and as long as the people who are working on it are passionate, you’re proud of what it is you’ve written, and you’ve kept it contained enough that it can be made given your resources, that’s it. You make it, you put it out into the world by submitting it to festivals, and you hope beyond hope that somebody with means and resources sees it and recognizes something in it that they might want to invest in.” After that, it’s about building connections. “Somebody might tap you on the shoulder after seeing you at an indie festival and say ‘what else do you have?’ And then the key thing to making it in the industry is having an answer to that question. If they love the thing that they saw you already make, and they come to you, and they say what else do you have, and you say I don’t know, what do you want, the conversation is already over. They don’t want to develop something from scratch. They want you to bring them something they can sell. So I would say write a lot of scripts. […] It may seem impossible to do, but it’s never been more achievable than it is now.” 

That’s great advice for someone who’s a writer/director, but what if you just want to be a writer? He has a word of advice for you, too. “Another way you can get in is by becoming a PA, a writer’s assistant in the writer’s room. You can be doing a number of things as a writer’s PA. You can be the person who’s taking lunch orders and getting lunch, do some kind of clerical work outside of the writer’s room while they’re doing their job, or you can be the PA that’s actually in the writer’s room, in which case you’d be taking notes about everything everyone says. Every pitch, every second, every sentence, you’re taking notes. They usually have two of those to keep up with it. And then at night, after the room, it would be your job to compile all those notes into a document that you can send all the writers so they can comb through and see what was pitched.” That’s not the only path, though. “Another good way to get into the business is to become the personal assistant of a creator or an executive. That’s a great way to do it too. You just climb that ladder. If you’re a good assistant, and the person you’re an assistant to is an actual good person, after a certain amount of time they will start bumping you into producer roles or staff writer roles, depending on which track you want. […] Do you want to make something of your own, throw it out into the world and hope somebody sees it and taps you, or do you want to climb the ladder starting at PA? Either of those are viable paths.”

Thanks again to Jamie Flanagan for taking the time to speak with me and share such valuable, concrete information and advice. Readers, take this opportunity to go stream Fall of the House of Usher and then send me a message so we can gush about it.

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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