Warning: Spoilers from Midnight Mass are discussed in this article.
While two men sat in opposing fold-up chairs in an otherwise empty room, sharpening their tongues for the mental match of will and wit about to commence, a complex dance played out all around them.
Two cameras adapting to 10 camera setups were mapped out around actors Hamish Linklater and Zach Gilford on the checkered-floor set in British Columbia doubling as the Crockett Island church rec center in Netflix's Midnight Mass. The actors had about 15 pages of material to digest and execute. The setup: Riley Flynn (Gilford) returns to his hometown after serving prison time for a drunk-driving crash that killed a teenage girl. Father Paul (Linklater), the mysterious priest who arrived out of nowhere a few days earlier and has since been flooding the community with strange "miracles," offers to host a local Alcoholic's Anonymous chapter. With just the two of them, the first meeting quickly morphs into a tense, weighty conversation about religion versus science, faith versus facts. It's a debate that not only speaks to the heart of what Midnight Mass is all about, but foreshadows all the shock-inducing twists to come in the remaining episodes.
"We needed these two people to be fencing, but we never wrote it in such a way that one of them clearly had the upper hand, either intellectually or morally," Flanagan says. It was crucial for the cameras to translate that idea.
Sitting down over Zoom with EW to unpack the show's first AA meeting sequence in episode 2, Flanagan, his producing partner Trevor Macy, Linklater, and Gilford describe what ensued as "a ballet."
"We're going to watch some theater"
Netflix Hamish Linklater as Father Paul and Zach Gilford as Riley Flynn in 'Midnight Mass'
Rather than shoot the AA scene in shorter portions, Flanagan had his stars run through the entire 15-minute-long segment from beginning to end to maintain "the integrity" of the moment and to preserve "the best, freshest, and most energetic conversation between them," he says.
The producers didn't want them to rehearse the sequence before filming at the risk of burning out the actors too quickly. Flanagan adds, "We'd just rehearse a few lines and then have them sing to [cue] the cameras. So we'd skip the rehearsal and then just roll, and we'd sit back and say, 'Well, everybody get comfortable because we can't make noise for the next 15 minutes. Don't move. Make sure your phones are off. And we're just going to watch some theater.'"
This meant that those cameras and the operators behind them had to be finely choreographed, with Flanagan as the conductor. He and Macy don't prescribe to storyboarding, but their shot lists are quite extensive. At any given time, one camera sits in the back righthand corner of the rec room, favoring the wide shot of the two actors centerstage. The other nine setups take various markers around Linklater and Gilford, each one determined to capture a different angle; two peer over each of their shoulders, while others go in for the close-up. And neither actor could be framed in a way that emphasized their power. Shoot from below and either one of them would appear taller, as if in command of the debate. It was all about balance, fairness, a willingness to consider someone else's opposing views — things Flanagan says are missing in our current discourse. Thus, the dance begins.
Flanagan recalls how "the camera operators would sit and have the [shot] list in their hand as we were going, and they'd all be silently dancing on cue [to the dialogue] with each other." One camera would break into another's frame for just long enough to capture the actors' profiles before resetting to first position to allow another camera to swoop in. "It was very elegantly choreographed that way," Flanagan says.
In the editing phase, the sequence would be trimmed and cut together into an eight-minute scene.
All the scenarios set in the rec room, including the AA sequences, were shot back to back. Rather than force Linklater and Gilford to run through these extended takes upwards of 40 times each, the camera orchestrations allowed the filmmakers to capture all the footage necessary over two-to-three takes max. It was the actors' jobs to just be in the moment.
Netflix Hamish Linklater as Father Paul in 'Midnight Mass'
Netflix Zach Gilford as Riley Flynn in 'Midnight Mass'
Gilford was already in "a dark place" when he arrived on the set in Canada to film Midnight Mass in 2020. He remained in that rut for the first two months of production. It wasn't the pandemic that tainted his spirits. The constant negative results from day-to-day testing actually gave him a peace of mind many outside their small production bubble couldn't afford. But because of COVID-19, he was unable to be present to welcome his newborn into the world.
The Friday Night Lights and Good Girls alum had both of his children with actress Kiele Sanchez through a surrogate, and with the pandemic, he couldn't ask her to travel to Canada, nor could he travel without being forced into a two-week quarantine. "I was alone without my family. It was just me and my dog," he recalls. "I'm [feeling] like this neglectful father who can't even be at the birth of his son."
His costars, including Kate Siegel and Samantha Sloyan, would invite him to dinner, but he chose to linger at home doing nothing. "I didn't even fold my laundry," he says. "I just washed it and threw it on the floor because what's the point? And I do all the laundry for my whole family. I have a folding board, so it's all folded perfectly. For two months, I was just like, 'Well, it's clean. Whatever.'"
For better and worse, Gilford channeled his emotions into the character. The Flynn's eldest son believes "there's no justice in the world" and, at times, that he "doesn't deserve to live and doesn't understand why he's alive," the star explains. "Riley is a little embarrassed and ashamed that he needs to be in this AA meeting. It's just me walking into a room and sitting down, but I'll look around — I don't want to look anyone in the eye. I'll just be here. I don't want anyone to notice me."
Gilford found it "weird" how he could connect to Riley. He and his character held a similar belief system that made his scenes easier. "I feel like, honestly, if I was any good in this, it's just because I was mostly... not playing myself, but I would have a hard time pretending to believe in God," he says with a laugh. "I'd be like, 'What's that look like? I don't know. I don't believe in it.'"
As one of the leads of the ensemble cast, Gilford had a lot of dialogue to sift through. So he put his script pages up on his walls in chronological order. Every morning while filming, he'd wake up and orient himself around the current events of the story. Flanagan saw Linklater take note of this.
"They're constantly pushing each other forward," he says. "When that happens, it's our job to not interfere. If anything, it's our job to encourage them to look at what the other one's up to and let them drive each other."
Netflix Hamish Linklater as Father Paul in 'Midnight Mass'
"I went over to [Gilford's] apartment and I saw that he had put everything up there," Linklater recalls. "His family was coming up later, and he had really turned his Airbnb into an echo chamber for the AA stuff. I just did long walks along the beach. I would just go and talk like a crazy person to get the stuff in."
The first AA scene loomed over Linklater's mind during the days he and Gilford needed to prep. It wasn't just learning the lines — "'cause it was a lot," he says — it was about figuring out "how to score" the scene, "like a very long piece of music." Linklater considers his part as "just one bit of melody" within the "harmony" that includes Gilford and the camera operators zooming in on dollies. "You have to stay [focused] within your own piece of the music, otherwise there's no harmony."
Both actors came to set with a long history together. Gilford and American Horror Story actress Lily Rabe, Linklater's life partner, were scene buddies together while studying at Northwestern University. Their families now live close by each other in Silver Lake, Calif., and their children are relatively the same age.
"That was a real advantage, just to be able to look across at my friend," says Linklater. "The funny thing about our dynamic is he's usually the one giving me advice. We just swapped hats a little bit."
As Father Paul, Linklater had a complex part to play. This priest seems to miraculously arrive on Crockett out of nowhere, inciting a string of unexplainable events. People seem to be getting younger by the day, a wheelchair-bound girl can suddenly walk, a woman in the dark throes of dementia wakes up one day with her mind intact. A religious fervor spreads throughout the isolated community, though people are blissfully unaware that Father Paul is actually their old Monsignor Pruitt made young again by a vampire — and now he's trying to do the same by transforming his parishioners.
Linklater had many conversations with Flanagan about addiction and faith. The actor didn't grow up with organized religion, but he jokes how his thespian education could seem like a theater cult ("It's Shakespeare instead of God!"). With the AA scenes, Linklater thinks he and Gilford "found our own correct, natural rhythm."
"Those meetings in general are a place of support," he says. "That felt authentic and useful, to lean into the collegial vibe. He can't leave the room, he'll burst into flames" — he adds, referring to the final AA meeting after Riley himself has been turned into a vampire. "I think that's how it feels when you have an addiction like that. This is the one place I'm not going to burst into ash."
In that final AA scene — "the meeting," as Father Paul calls it — when everything that has been brewing all season long is now out in the open, the conversation erupts. Father Paul tries to get Riley to admit his jealousy over the fact that he can take a life, drink their blood, and not feel remorse, while Riley is plagued with guilt for killing the girl in the car crash. Linklater accelerates the rhythm of this situation and shouts at his costar, a moment that made it into the final cut of the show.
Flanagan remembers it more as an explosion. "That only ever happened once that way," he says. "It knocked Zach back so much. To be sitting there with the same two actors in the same location and what is relatively the same lighting for a week, going through these long scenes, and to be able to surprise each other like that, that's really awesome to see."
"Churches popping up like ticks"
Netflix Zach Gilford as Riley Flynn in 'Midnight Mass'
Both Linklater and Gilford credit the genius of Flanagan's writing, while Flanagan credits the writer's room for shaping the dialogue of Midnight Mass, especially those juicy lines in the first AA scene, such as Riley describing churches as "popping up like ticks" to drain communities dry.
"'Churches popping up like ticks' was something we debated a lot about because we didn't want that to be an indictment of any particular church or any particular religion," Macy explains. "But it is true that churches can drain communities in a certain way, if they're misused. I think that's something the show has to say. We have those debates, for sure."
The crafting of the scene began as a "robust conversation" among the writers. They received the premise: an AA meeting that turns into the characters declaring their thesis "of what they think of the world through the lens of recovery." Then people started throwing out ideas.
"We encourage people to argue their ideas," Flanagan adds. "In particular, I have a real passion for RR [Rational Recovery]. When you talk about sobriety, you talk about AA, and other similar 12-step programs in general monopolize what people assume you're talking about. We talked about AA, so we have to talk about RR. And someone called it 'AA for pirates'" — another line that made it into the scene. "It's those lines that are really us just talking in the writer's room."
The first draft of the AA meeting in episode 2 was written by Elan Gale, the second was written by Flanagan's brother James Flanagan, and then Flanagan himself got a pass. By that time, there was "already a really great robust conversation happening on the page," the director says.
Flanagan feels these AA meetings are perhaps the most invested he's been in the writing of any scene. He began by writing fervently from the atheist perspective of Riley. Then we would return to the material the next day and firmly take Father Paul's side "to look for every opportunity I could find to dismantle Riley."
"As long as that process stayed in place, I felt like the scenes would work," Flanagan says. "I'm impressed because I would say 90 percent of what we wrote is in the show, even though each one of those scenes got [edited down] — but not much. What's there I think represents that fight."
Netflix Hamish Linklater's Father Paul hosts an AA meeting with Zach Gilford's Riley Flynn in 'Midnight Mass.'
The entire time, in every scene in that rec room, out of sight from Linklater and Gilford, tucked in the back of the stage, lay the Lasser Glass.
Flanagan's fans know that name well. It's the haunted mirror from the filmmaker's 2014 movie Oculus. Its presence in the AA scenes is one of many Easter eggs sprinkled throughout the show's seven episodes. It's also symbolic of how meticulous Flanagan is at crafting scenes.
As he puts it, "I want all of [my projects] to just be a big ball of rubber bands by the time we're done. Just impossible to extricate from each other."
Midnight Mass is streaming now on Netflix.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated there were 10 cameras filming at once. There were two cameras utilized across 10 camera setups.