SPOILER WARNING! The following article contains major spoilers for Doctor Sleep. If you have not yet seen the film, please continue at your own risk!
In the last eight years, writer/director Mike Flanagan has done a wonderful job establishing a personal style in his horror stories – regularly demonstrating a strong preference for heavy atmosphere, emotional scarring and lingering terrors over simple jump scares. This in part made him an optimal choice to direct the adaptation of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, particularly because the source material allows for one of the most disturbing and haunting scenes in recent memory. I am, of course, referring to the death of the Baseball Boy.
It’s not only intensely traumatic to watch a group of monsters torture and devour an innocent child, but everything is particularly heightened because of the actor playing that innocent child: the brilliant Jacob Tremblay. During the production of Doctor Sleep there was a nice bit of familiarity involved, as Mike Flanagan and Tremblay previously worked together on the movie Before I Wake, but as I learned during recent interviews, it was a tremendously difficult time on set.
When it came to both giving Jacob Tremblay the part as the Baseball Boy (“real” name Bradley Trevor) and the actor’s preparation for the role, Mike Flanagan took a totally hands-off approach – entirely trusting the young actor with the material. As the filmmaker explained, not only was he seriously impressed when he first had the chance to collaborate with Tremblay, but he has spent the years since that experience becoming even more impressed:
My approach was to get out of Jacob's way. Having worked with him before, I know a little bit about what Jacob is capable of, but I'm always surprised, because I thought I knew what he could do, and then I saw Room, and was like, 'Oh my God. I didn't know him at all!' Jacob did that himself. He prepared that performance away from us, before he reported to set. He showed up and he said, 'I've got this. I know what I'm going to do. So, I'm okay.' And he kind of sweetly and quietly got into position.
And by “position,” as those of you who have seen the movie know, Mike Flanagan means on his back in a dirt pile pinned down and surrounded by the villainous and monstrous True Knot – the group of vampires that subsist on a steam produced by individuals who possess telepathic and telekinetic abilities. The best way to extract this steam is by inducing pain and fear, which is what leads them to kidnap and start carving into the Baseball Boy.
Watching the scene for the first time, you may not notice that the movie never shows the knife used by Rebecca Ferguson’s Rose The Hat piercing flesh. Instead, all you see is copious amounts of blood, and a child desperately screaming for anyone to help him and make the pain stop. It ultimately makes for the most hard-to-watch scene in Doctor Sleep, and it was no picnic for anyone on set to film.
Well, except for Jacob Tremblay.
Continuing his story, Mike Flanagan explained that the adult actors performing the scene – including Robert Longstreet, Emily Alyn Lind, Carel Struycken, and more – were left absolutely mortified by the experience, and Zahn McClarnon, who plays second-in-command Crow Daddy, lost his grip on his emotions. But while everyone around him was emotionally devastated, Jacob Tremblay was beaming as a result of his successful performance. Said Flanagan,
He just did it, and none of us knew how to react. The True Knot was traumatized, like Rebecca [Ferguson] and all these like big swaggery monsters were just destroyed. Zahn McClarnon had to leave. He was crying at the end of it. It was silent as a funeral when we called cut, and Jacob just hops up, high fives his dad – covered with blood, grinning ear to ear. His dad is smirking cause he knew what was gonna happen, and he knew what we were going to see, and he went off to craft service and got a snack.
As it turns out, though, Zahn McClarnon wasn’t the only one to start crying during the Baseball Boy sequence, as Rebecca Ferguson admitted that she too had an overflow of emotion during filming – though she had to power through it because she was specifically sharing the scene with Jacob Tremblay.
Per her own description, she went into filming the sequence “a little bit cocky” because of her own belief in her ability to disappear into a role – and Rose The Hat certainly would have no kind of emotional reaction to the Baseball Boy’s cries. But actually shooting that part of the movie had her eating a bit of crow:
Someone had said to me previously, 'Are you...' because I have a 12 year old son 'will this affect you? Will you go into your headset that it's your child?' And I thought, 'No,' because I get paid to act, and that's what I do. I separate them. One is called reality, one is non. A little bit cocky. And then action happens, and [Jacob Tremblay] kicks into action, and I'm so mesmerized by the sound, the guttural wrenching kind of animal sounds, that I just freeze and tears are pouring down my face. I realized that I will ruin the scene because it's a two shot. So I am wiping tears, slapping myself and waiting for my cue of desperation.
That sounds super terrible – but it has a funny ending courtesy of Rebecca Ferguson making an ironic real life reference to a Hugh Grant-Julia Roberts classic:
And then I walked up to the person, I said, 'Please ask your question again.' I did a Notting Hill.
As for Mike Flanagan, his head was in a different kind of place. Having watched the scene unfold and been seriously affected himself by Jacob Tremblay’s performance, Flanagan turned to his producing partner and wondered if what they were filming could even be allowed to play on big screens nationwide. He said,
The rest of us had to soak in this horrible. And I looked at [producer] Trevor [Macy] at that point and was like, 'We're screwed. We can't show this.' And we only showed a small fraction of his performance, and it's too much!
The icing on the literal cake? Jacob Tremblay actually had his birthday during the shooting of Doctor Sleep – which also had a particular significance for Mike Flanagan given that it was the second time that he had organized a birthday celebration for the kid. Said the director,
It was his birthday. It was his 12th birthday. This is the second time… I've had this weird experience where I have gotten to sing happy birthday to Jacob Tremblay twice in his life on my set. He turned seven while we were shooting Before I Wake; he turned 12 while we were shooting this. So twice I've had to go get a cake for Jacob, which is great! What an honor!