I'm a Mike Flanagan fan. A Flani-stan, if you will. So to get new entries in the Flanagan horror universe every year on Netflix has been a dream. His latest project, The Midnight Club, was co-created with writer Leah Fong and dropped on Friday.
Based on a novel of the same name by Christopher Pike, the show follows teens in hospice care who meet every night to scare each other with made-up stories. At the same time, young Ilonka (Iman Benson) searches for a miracle cure to her illness, uncovering a creepy cult in the process.
The show features all the grim looks at mortality, tragic love, and creepy settings that a Flanigan fan could want, although it feels a bit tempered with the younger characters featured here. All our favorite Flanigan players pop up again here, including Samantha Sloyan in another fantastic role. (And, side note... director Axelle Carolyn helmed one of the episodes. Check out our interview with Carolyn here!)
No Film School spoke with Fong via Zoom about how she got started, what their (online) writers' room was like, and advice for writing horror. Settle in... if you dare.
Editor's note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: You basically have a lot of people's dream job. How did you get into TV?
Leah Fong: Well, I actually did go to film school at USC, but that's not where I learned my stuff, I have to say. So being in LA, I feel like that was one of the great things of going to school there because you got an early introduction to the industry, and getting the lay of the land of everything. But right out of school, I started working as an assistant to a producer in feature film development, and I read a shit-ton of scripts.
In school, I was a production major, so the overview was a lot of everything but not deep diving into anything. And so post-college, I just feel like I honestly learned how to write from reading so much and watching a lot of TV. Honestly, I wasn't a huge TV watcher before Netflix, which is funny. I've always been a cinephile, and there are a few shows that I watched, but I think that just opened the floodgates on the TV side for me, which is funny because now I'm working with them.
Iman Benson as Ilonka, director/writer Mike Flanagan, Sauriyan Sapkota as Amesh, Chris Sumpter as Spencer in episode 110 of 'The Midnight Club.'Credit: Eike Schroter/NetflixBut yeah, watching and reading—while you're an assistant, trying to pay your bills and stay in LA and make connections, you have to hustle like crazy on the side too, which means working on your own material. So on the side, I started writing pilots. I also produced some micro-budget features of various friends, and my now-husband being one of them. I was writing on the side, and I wrote a pilot and was able to get it in front of some agents.
And one agent at WME was like, "Write another one because this one is great, but I want to see if you can do two. You're not a one-trick pony," basically. I mean, she didn't say that, but that was the vibe. And so I wrote a second one. And then from there, I sold my first pilot, the first one I wrote. And the second one basically got me staffed on every show that I've ever worked on.
My reps signed me. And then at that time, I was no longer an assistant. I was producing commercials, music videos, just a bunch of short-form stuff. And then from there, after developing a pilot with Uni TV, I ended up getting staffed on a Uni TV show. And then from there on, I was staffing like crazy, which is great. So I got so much experience working on different shows, meeting some really great people along the way. And I would say I call actually Once Upon a Time my grad school, because going on to such a big show in its later seasons, they're just such great people who had just amazing story-breaking muscles because then you have to do the old network format of 22 episodes a season. You're just turning it out, and you really have to work those muscles. So yeah, I call that my grad school. And from there, this is my first time now jumping in the driver's seat, or not fully by myself. So I obviously have all the support of Mike Flanagan and Trevor Macy. And that made it a little less scary.
Camera operator Quincy Paglaro, Iman Benson as Ilonka in episode 103 of 'The Midnight Club.'Credit: Eike Schroter/NetflixNFS: Having written on Bly Manor and now Midnight Club, what are your strategies for writing strong horror?
Fong: I think grounding it in a place of existential horror, which is a horrible, horrible place. I think that brings something to it as opposed to just keeping it in the pop horror elements, which it's fun with The Midnight Club, because we had both of those things. We had this sort of crazy pop horror B-story, and then the A-story, which is obviously very, very much rooted in very real-life existential, confronting mortality themes. So I think that's definitely one of them.
NFS: I know that development of this one was a little bit of a process, with Mike having his eye on the property for a long time. But when it finally did get to you all, what did development look like in terms of the writers' room and combining those stories that you were pulling from, other books, and things like that?
Fong: Oh, it was great. We were one of the first Zoom rooms to get up and running in April 2020. So that was very new for all of us. Luckily, I had worked with all the writers before, either on Bly Manor or some other shows that I've worked on in the past, so that was nice to have that shorthand. But yeah, we were our own little Midnight Club. We were getting together every day on Zoom to tell stories to each other and process what was going on in the world at large, and also our very internal lives that had been suddenly very minimized. Because people had been working on Midnight Mass, all of a sudden they were on set, and then they had to go back. And it was like this whole thing.
But with the books, there's so many of them, and we actually had a lot of them. And so what we did was we did this thing we called book reports, where we divvied up the books between writers, and they had to orally tell those stories, like a Midnight Club story, in the writers' room. And so that's how we started refining which ones made sense for the format. And before we even got into it, Mike and I had outlined a few that we definitely wanted to use, and then the rest just organically came together as writers brought their takes in on the different books.
Ruth Codd as Anya, director Axelle Carolyn in episode 107 of 'The Midnight Club.'Credit: Eike Schroter/NetflixNFS: I've heard other writers talk about writing specifically for Netflix and the binge model. Do you have any advice for adapting to that viewer style, where you know people are going to go right through potentially five episodes?
Fong: Well, the one nice thing is that you don't have to continually remind people what happened last week, which I think is great. But I think naturally serialized storytelling lend stuff to that. You don't have traditional act breaks because there's no advertising—right now.
But I think those things help you understand. I mean, we still follow all those things. I think on every Netflix show that I worked on, there's still a sort of act-break thing where, "Okay, this is a moment we know." And even features, they have that too. You don't notice them as much, but they're definitely there. And so I would say that it isn't really any different. I think it's just more streamlined in a good way.
Director Morgan Beggs in episode 110 of 'The Midnight Club.'Credit: Eike Schroter/NetflixNFS: I do know that you got your deal earlier this year at Netflix. What stories are you interested in developing there?
Fong: I'm a big genre fan, so a continuation of the stuff that I've done before. But I am working on something for the first time that doesn't have some supernatural element crop up in it, but there's murder. So—you know what I mean. I feel like it snowballs balls into that. But yeah, I'm super excited to be working with Netflix. It's been a great home for the past few years, and I'm just excited to keep making fun stuff with them.
Aya Furukawa as Natsuki in episode 101 of 'The Midnight Club.'Credit: Eike Schroter/NetflixNFS: What other advice do you have for writers?
Fong: I mean, I said this before, but just read and watch and take stuff in. And I think that really is the best way to learn. You can't get a better film school than that because I myself feel like that's where I got it all. You can't make stuff without watching and reading. It's super important. So watch stuff on Netflix and go out to the movies. I will still keep on pushing that. Watching something with an audience I think is also a really—it was formative for me, but it was just super educational. It was so great last night at Comic-Con, being able to watch it in a room with a bunch of people, because you don't usually get to do that with TV, so that was great.
You can watch The Midnight Club on Netflix now.