This past Friday saw the release of Mike Flanagan’s highly-anticipated Gothic horror series, THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR, on Netflix. Based loosely on Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, the nine-episode series follows the young governess Danielle “Dani” Clayton (Victoria Pedretti) who has been hired by Henry Wingrave (Henry Thomas) to look after this niece Flora (Amelia Bea Smith) and nephew Miles (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) at the family country house after they fall into his care and their au pair recently passed. Arriving at the Bly estate, she begins to see apparitions that are haunting the premises. While there she must deal with the ghosts of her own past while tackling the ghosts that haunt her young wards.
Recently, I had the opportunity to partake in a group roundtable interview with creator Mike Flanagan and Executive Producer Trevor Macy. While attending the roundtable we learned about how author Henry James’ catalog of stories came to influence the development of THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR, the team’s approach to hidden ghosts this season, and more! During the course of the roundtable, I got to speak with Mike Flanagan about how the team approached the character of Peter Quint (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and whether the team had aimed to humanize the character as there was a complexity and depth given to the villainous character in this iteration compared to previous iterations. And, by the final episode of the series, it was difficult for me personally not to feel a twinge of sadness for Quint given what had been revealed about his upbringing.
When discussing the character, Flanagan shared that they weren’t aiming to humanize the character initially. To many, Peter Quint is an irredeemable character. He endangers children, possessing Miles to do awful things and, depending on which adaptation of The Turn of the Screw you watch, he goes on to commit a number of other truly awful acts. In the case of THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR, one such act is how Rebecca Jessel comes to die: “[W]hen we learned the circumstances of Rebecca’s death, that Peter essentially embodies the ultimate lack of consent within that story, I thought at that point, there was nothing left to be done to pull him back from that,” Flanagan explained. A character like Peter Quint, one that embodies this envy and awfulness that humanity tries to steer clear from, would be difficult to develop any sort of empathy for. However, once actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen got involved in the process, things started shifting.
One of the most exciting things about adapting the series for the creator was the thought of how fun it was going to be to see Oliver Jackson-Cohen portray this quintessential villain. However, as things are want to do in the creative development process, sometimes approaches change. And, sometimes, characters go in a completely different direction than what was originally conceptualized. As Jackson-Cohen got more involved in the character, Flanagan explained, the more ideas he had about the approach to the character and more specifically about providing context for why the character was the way he was without it just being so black and white. “Oliver [Jackson-Cohen] proposed a number of different things specifically for episode seven in his conversations with his mother,” Flanagan shared. “They would come in these little flurries of emails late at night and it was one of those instances where an actor changed my mind about a character.” However, this exploration of Peter Quint was not meant to sugarcoat the natural villainy of his character.
While providing context for the character of Peter Quint was key for the actor, it did not mean he was trying to create excuses for his actions. As Flanagan described it, he shared that Jackson-Cohen did not want to excuse what [Quint] does. However, by contextualizing him, he wanted to illustrate that while many people do horrible things, they aren’t just natural-born monsters. “They’re complicated human beings who come that way through a series of choices, bad luck, coincidence. And in some cases a predisposition to that kind of behavior,” Flanagan shared from his conversations with Oliver Jackson-Cohen. In the end, while both Flanagan and Jackson-Cohen knew Peter Quint would be the clear-cut villain of THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR, the idea of making the character more difficult for audiences to pin something was something they both agreed on. And, for Flanagan in particular, there would have been more regret if they had made the character simpler.
Tahirah Sharif, who plays Rebecca Jessel in THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR, weighed in as well on the development of Peter Quint. When the audience is introduced to the doomed au pair, we quickly learn how intelligent the woman is and her reasonings for taking the position at Bly rather than try to acquire a job more suited to her educational background. Given the character’s intelligence, Sharif had pointed out to Flanagan that “if he doesn’t have more complexity to him…[I]f he’s just a villain, she [would] have a hard time understanding why her character would fall for him.” Taking Tahirah Sharif’s perspective and Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s collaboration in developing the character, Flanagan pointed to the actors as to how Peter Quint came to be developed the way that he had in the series: “It was the actors, the actors really, really both contributed to changing that up a little bit.” With Jackson-Cohen’s notes and feedback, Flanagan was open to that collaboration, relying on his experience listening to his instincts working with actors. And, it is in trusting his instincts, he explained, that has led to some of the best collaborations he’s had in his career.
With all of this talk about collaboration on developing Peter Quint though, one question remained. Was this approach to such a well-known villainous character from Gothic horror fiction really the right approach? This is where Executive Producer Trevor Macy stepped in. When it came to what tested best with audiences, they experimented with different cuts featuring the character to see what worked and what didn’t: “[W]e tried, especially in episode seven, we tried on several different cuts for size and the ones that work best, including the final one were the ones where [Peter Quint] has some shading as a human being rather than just kind of the mustache twirly guy. And he was never really that, but it was that episode that gave him that shading.” This shading, as Macy referred to it, provided, in my opinion, the key audiences needed to unlock Peter Quint’s lock to better understand the character’s motivation. With Quint’s fixation on finding the right key for a person’s metaphorical lock, it seemed fitting that episode seven where the character’s background is explored shaped the key we would all need to open the door to the character.
While wrapping up our discussion on Peter Quint, Mike Flanagan did want to make sure that they hadn’t tipped the scales too much on making the character stray too far from being seen as the villain. I didn’t think they strayed too far from the original brief. Peter Quint, at his core, is a villain. He does truly unforgettable, unforgivable acts regardless of which iteration of The Turn of the Screw anyone watches. And, in THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR, it becomes abundantly clear that he is not a good person, relying on manipulative tactics to get what he wants, including violating the consent of those he truly cares for. However, walking away from my own viewing of the series, the context provided helps give the audience reasonings behind his actions. We all make choices based on what we’ve been taught, what we’ve known, and what we’ve observed. And, in providing context, the audience can better understand where Peter Quint came from and how he came to be the person that he is.
THE HAUNTING OF BLY MANOR, the nine-episode series, is now available to watch exclusively on Netflix. To learn more about the series, check out our review.
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