“I don’t mean to make a direct equivalency between the Catholic Church and cults,” Mike Flanagan said of his new Netflix series, Midnight Mass. “But in this particular case, it happens. And you get to see the slow walk.”
Organized religions and cults: Where one topic is discussed, the other is surely soon to follow. As tricky as this subject matter is to explore, Flanagan walks that walk in his newest project. It all comes to a head in Episode 6, and as the writer-director confessed to Thrillist during a press roundtable chat, it was the most challenging thing he has ever shot.
[Warning: Major story spoilers for Midnight Mass below. Proceed with caution.]The seven-episode limited series tells the story of Crockett Island, its isolated community, and the miracles that begin to take place at St. Patrick’s Church, the town’s main house of worship. As Riley (Zach Gilford), a disgraced young man returns home to pick up the pieces of his damaged life, a mysterious preacher named Father Paul (Hamish Linklater) soon arrives and galvanizes the townsfolk. And thus, the transformation of a well-meaning belief system into something much more insidious begins.
Flanagan has acknowledged numerous inspirations and influences behind the program, which was 11 years in the making. One of its more disturbing shoutouts is the Jonestown Massacre. Probably the most infamous mass suicides on record, the tragedy unfolded at the hands of Jim Jones, the leader of the San Francisco cult known as the Peoples Temple. He led a small commune-like village in Guyana, South America, and on November 18, 1978, at his command, 909 people-including children-died either by voluntarily drinking cups of Kool-Aid laced with cyanide, or were murdered.
Episode 6 of Midnight Mass, titled “Book VI: Acts of the Apostles,” presented familiar imagery of a small-town community, charmed by a charismatic leader, being coerced into drinking cups of poison (in this case, vampire blood) all in the name of everlasting life. Drawing a clear line from the Catholic Church to cultism is a big gamble, but, as Mike Flanagan explained, the Jonestown Massacre influence was there from day one.
“Trevor [Macy] and I share a fascination with Jonestown,” he admitted. “Along with the opening car accident scene, the Jonestown sequence has always been baked into the show.”
Midnight Mass is filled with existential questions about the human experience and interrogates notions of faith, addiction, zealotry, and recovery throughout. While the show does indeed throw some darker fanatical elements of religion into the sunlight, Flanagan put extra special care into representing the positive side of the Catholic Church. Still, it’s not that difficult to imagine the path one has to take from innocent churchgoer to brainwashed cult member.
“It’s a perfect example of the most grotesque expression of this kind of perversion of faith,” he continued. “You talk about the children. You talk about the parents helping their children drink it. It’s a question, for me, as I was wrestling with my own ideas of what faith is, that I found so monstrous. [I found it] hard to understand how sane people could be brought to a place where they could do that.”
Of course, the biggest distinction between the Jonestown Massacre and the mass murder/suicide that transpires during the Easter Vigil scene at St. Patrick’s Church in the series is that this is obviously fiction. A horror series immersed in vampiric lore, to be more precise.As we found out earlier in the series, after the reveal that Father Paul was bitten and resurrected by a vampire (which he believes to be an angel of God), most of the townsfolk had been drinking weekly servings of vampire blood during mass. When the afterlife being promised turns out to be fact, how then do these truths impact society on a physical and psychological level?
“Because we had woven vampiric resurrection into the story, this gave us a chance to arm the characters with that certainty and to play with the characters who didn’t share it, who, when the moment when the cups are passed out, say no,” Flanagan said. “And to watch the community wrestle with that, because that’s some of the stuff that haunts me the most about Jonestown-it isn’t just the people who willingly drank it, but the people who forced someone else to drink it when they refused.”
Flanagan admitted that the Jonestown Massacre scares him to death, simply because “it’s a phenomenon that I’ll never truly understand.” It’s clear this subject matter was a huge challenge for him to explore on paper, but as he revealed, getting the scene perfect during production ended up being “the most challenging scene we’ve ever shot.
Now, hold up. Just three years ago, Flanagan’s groundbreaking work on The Haunting of Hill House, specifically the collection of epic tracking shots featured in Episode 6 of the series, brought him massive acclaim as a genre storyteller. And, as he previously admitted, it nearly killed him. The difficulty in shooting Midnight Mass, though, mostly fell on the rocky foundation that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed the entire entertainment industry on.
“It was 103 individual setups that were meticulously shortlisted and boarded before we got there in a confined space with 100 extras, 40 of whom were stunt people in a world where every single person next to each other in the church has to be rapid COVID tested before they can step foot on set, every day, in a scene that takes six days to film,” Flanagan explained. “That had more moving parts and more characters to track and more action to track than any other sequence we’ve ever shot. It’s a 22 minute scene with hundreds of distinct angles at play.”
Let’s not forget the candles. Just to add more complexity to the production, the entire Easter Vigil scene was lit solely by candles. According to Flanagan’s long-time producing partner, Trevor Macy, “we had to light 200 candles because the whole scene is lit by candles. We didn’t build lights. We’d light all these candles, hot wax is dripping on people from overhead.”
And then, there’s the scariest part of the day: everyone takes their masks off.
“You’ve got 100 people who take their mask off, put it in their pocket, do the scene, and then put it back on and hope they didn’t just get COVID,” he added. “Then you get through these amazing scenes and realize that of the 100 people, one of them forgot, and now you’ve got this take with someone in a mask and you’ve got to go back to the beginning.”
So, that sequence is harrowing, I think, on every level because it represents something so unfathomably terrifying and emotional,” he concludes. “Logistically, it was also a fucking beast to do.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.
Aaron Pruner is a contributor to Thrillist.