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WINCHESTER

The Cast That Winchester Built
While casting fell into place after Helen Mirren signed on as Sarah, McGahan says it was another key role that proved a game changer for the film.

"Jason Clarke's character Dr. Eric Price is our way into the Winchester Mystery House and to Sarah Winchester. His role is pivotal," McGahan explains.

Price is addicted to Laudanum - a preferred drug to cure many ills for its day, among them depression. He became a user after his wife Ruby's suicide, and had his own brush with death.

"Price is a psychiatrist who is trying to overcome a horrific tragedy," says Peter Spierig. "He thinks he's being hired by the Winchester Board to determine whether Sarah Winchester is crazy. If they can eject her from the company they can take over her share and do what they want, which is create more weapons. At the time, Sarah was also looking at alternative products, trying to branch out and do other things like building roller skates, all kinds of tools. This really did happen. Price, a skeptic who doesn't believe in ghosts, goes to the house to assess her state of mind with the intention of pushing Sarah out of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. But it is Sarah who actually has ulterior motives to bring him to the house.

"We had met Jason a few times but didn't really have a relationship with him. He's a fellow Aussie and had been wanting to do a movie in Australia for a while and so it all worked out perfectly. We couldn't have found a better Eric Price."

Clarke delved into Sarah's choice for Price a bit deeper.

"Sarah's having a problem," he explains. "She can't identify what a certain spirit or spirits are doing, why they're there and what's she's supposed to do to deal with them. She's hoping that a man who has crossed over into the afterlife, however short that time was, has some gift that she doesn't have. That's why out of all the shrinks she chose Eric Price of San Francisco."

Clarke believes Price would have been a psychiatrist inspired by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, the most well-known psychiatrists of that day. Familiar with their work, Clarke says he had read several books on psychotherapy that helped him prepare for the part, including "When Nietzsche Wept," by Psychotherapist and Author Irvin D. Yalom. He believes Price would have been somebody who traveled to Europe and probably studied there.

"Basically, he is a psychiatrist living in San Francisco 1906 on sabbatical. He really tried to be a pioneer in the field, explore more, but then he loses the great love of his life and he was partly responsible so he really suffered. He's a little lost, gone down the road of hedonism and doesn't believe in much anymore. It's a sad place to be particularly for a doctor who has taken an oath to help people and then starts to believe he can't help anybody at all."

But then he is made an offer by the Winchester Board's lawyer that he financially can't refuse.

"When he arrives at the Winchester house he sees this fantastical place. He's been hired to do a job and he imagines it's going to be pretty straightforward and simple," says Clarke. "But he goes down the rabbit hole like Alice in Wonderland. He arrives as a non-believer and ends up seeing and doing things he didn't think possible."

Clarke perceives Price's coping addiction to Laudanum as a narrative device. "It gives time to get him to see these things that are real. In his own mind, he is semi seeing things," he adds. "He's a man that does like to distort his reality and sit in that for a while rather than just see the clear, harsh light of day."

A psychiatrist confronting Sarah's bizarre coping mechanism with death and guilt while trying to deal with his own made his character's dilemma even more problematic. "She's lost her husband, the love of her life" and now she is left to deal with his invention's mind-boggling success. "That's the thriller they chose to tell about her building this house. Some people wash their hands fastidiously, develop a lot of different little habits, idiosyncrasies, defense mechanisms. Sarah's? Build for ghosts. That's her world - the undead, ghosts, spirits that need to pass through, to find some way to let things go."

Of Price, Mirren describes Sarah's relationship with the doctor as a "bit of a fencing match, a battle between the two." Clarke's portrayal of Price for Mirren proved a seamless collaboration. "Well Jason is the most adorable person, just a gorgeous Aussie. What can I say? He's got all those qualities humor, down-to-earth, hardworking, commitment. Just lovely."

Clarke came aboard because he saw The Spierig Brothers' take on WINCHESTER as "an intelligent thriller. I liked the character of Eric. Helen Mirren. The period - 1906 is a really fascinating time. The fact that it's a scary, thriller drama, not a slasher horror film where everybody gets killed. And, of course, the Brothers had a deep connection to it." He had met the Spierigs at a party and seen their film Predestination. "They've got ambition, like to challenge the status quo, bring something to the screen rather than just playing it safe in the middle (of a genre) and I liked that a lot." Plus, it was a chance for the Queensland native to make a film on home turf, Australia.

As for Mirren, he relished the 1906 earthquake scenes with his co-star. "When the quake hits, things are smashing down all around us. That was really good. I remember thinking I'm down in the dirt, in the muck and grime, with a Dame. She is one of my mother's two favorite actors. If Mum found out I didn't do a film with Helen Mirren she wouldn't have forgiven me. Helen is fantastic. She's done it all. Witty. Intelligent. She played Cleopatra three times! And Phaedra (of Greek mythology - she kills herself, as did Cleopatra) which, probably helps you play parts like Sarah where you are having to summon ghosts. It's very primal, very Shakespearean in a basic kind of way. There are demons all around us and Helen was great, always with a sense of humor and just class. She is very, very funny."

Sarah Snook, who previously teamed with The Spierig Brothers on Predestination, plays Sarah Winchester's niece Marion and mother of young Henry (Finn Scicluna-O'Prey). She says The Spierig Brothers casting of Mirren as Sarah was "a no-brainer. This is a woman who can command such respect, she's so generous and a talent of such amazing strength."

A second chance to work with The Spierig Brothers and their crew was the key reason Snook took the part of Marion. "They're quite good at using the same people and that creates a certain tone and atmosphere on set. I really love working in that way so in the initial stage, that's what drew me to the role." She also reteamed with Scicluna-O'Prey, who played her son on the ABC Miniseries The Secret River, and Angus Sampson who plays Winchester House Foreman John Hanson (the two previously costarred in the TV series Spirited).

Of her character, Snook reveals "Marion and Henry arrive at the Winchester House after the recent death of her husband Frederick. He died very suddenly and Sarah believes it's because of the Winchester curse now spreading through the family. Marion is probably a little on the fence about that. She has her own beliefs of why her husband died. When Eric Price enters the Winchester House, Marion is still in a state of grief. When Eric comes into the house Marion doesn't really want anything to do with him. She believes he's there to declare her aunt insane.

"I would say Sarah Winchester represents the illogical, supernatural, fantasy side and Jason's character, Eric, represents the rational, tangible, realistic side. Marion? She has experienced spirituality throughout her life in connection with Sarah but once it starts to impinge upon her son, well her feelings towards her son are obviously very strong. The consequences for her son are quite severe." The character of Henry is fictionalized, though it is believed that Marion had an adopted daughter.

Mirren was "thrilled" to learn that Snook would play Sarah's niece. "I'd seen Sarah in The Spierig Brothers' earlier film, Predestination. She was spectacular. I'd never seen her work before. I was so blown away by her. And Finn, the young man who plays my grandnephew in the film, is a wonderful actor. I think there's a director in there. It's going to be fascinating to see what happens to him in 10 years' time."

And then there's the character of Ben Block (Eamon Farren), a key reason why Sarah Winchester builds. To play the role, the filmmakers found actor Eamon Farren. Farren was immediately attracted to the script, the chance to work with The Spierigs and the cast, and to the role itself.

"(Ben) can mysteriously exist wherever he wants inside the house," says Farren. "But I think in the mind of Sarah Winchester, there's a part of me that likes to think she evokes some sort of his spirit from her own paranoia and guilt. And that is fed through the image of Ben Block. What interests me is that perhaps Ben Block was a real person, his intentions and his motivations are his own. But perhaps, just maybe, it's also channeled through her paranoia, guilt and hurt."

Ben Block was also a Confederate soldier. Once.

He learned firsthand the awesome power of the Winchester Repeating Rifle. Through a three-hour daily process of prosthetics, Farren would reveal just what that power did to Block.

"He blames the Winchester family and Sarah Winchester herself for taking away everything that he loved and therefore he's going to do the same to her," says Farren. The entire film builds to an encounter between Sarah, Block and Price.

"One of the most powerful things we have in our world is the power to affect people and be affected by people, for good and bad, to destroy each other or to build each other up. This is a supernatural thriller that explores that. Why do people like films with supernatural elements? Escapism, the human condition to wonder about the unknown - the things we don't know, that there is something out there and of course, the endless possibilities of how "they" can get us, something we can't stop, something coming for You! To have no idea of what's coming, well that's the joy of it.

"But whatever it is that's really out to get you, maybe it's demons already too close...the ones inside." While a rigorous prosthetic process helped inform Farren's character, the costumes, say Mirren and Clarke, were critical tools used to inform theirs.

"Our costumes were absolutely designed for us," Mirren says. "With mine it was just repeating the photographs of Sarah and, like the set of the house, they were reproduced as accurately as possible. But is never fun to wear a corset all day long!"

Clarke's costume was tailor made by Melbourne's Adriano Carbone. "It is a bespoke handmade suit, herringbone, blue within blue flannel," recalls Clarke. "I loved the attention to detail." Turns out Clarke needed five of the same suit because playing Price was a very physical role. "I got cuts, scratches. Maybe I throw myself a little bit too much, but it was in the house of horrors. Then the earthquake of '06. We trashed a lot of things, the suits included. It was pretty rough trashing. They're beautiful suits with really wonderful fabrics. I just ripped my pants."

With ghosts killed over many decades, in different places and in many ways, Costume Designer Wendy Cork and her team experienced a panoply of costume creations in one film as never before.

"You know the 1906 silhouette can be a little bit alienating to a modern audience," she quips. "It's those pigeon-chested, slim-waist, S-bend corsets and strange hats. This is a thriller not a historical document. Our aim was to find a balance between historical accuracy and a relevance to a modern eye so audiences can engage the characters, run with the story and enjoy the film."

To do that Cork merged 1905, 1910 and 1895 silhouettes and came up with a compromise, sans pigeon chest. Think Victorian slim with a soft bustle at the back and a bit of authentic Edwardian embellishment for Mirren's Sarah and Snook's Marion.

"Since her husband died in her early twenties and she's nearly 70 in the film, Sarah has worn black mourning all her life," Cork says. "It was a bit of a challenge (dressing Mirren in) black on a very dark set. To see the details of her black silhouette, we had to embellish it with textures and shine from the period." She created an Edwardian mourning cape for Mirren with real Edwardian and Victorian embellishments. The evening dinner dress, in fact all Sarah's costume pieces, were detailed with original Edwardian laces, jet beading, gelatin sequins, and glass buttons. The inspiration for Sarah's mourning veil came from an Edward Steichen photograph of a woman with lace over her face, Cork notes. That element of Edwardian lace gave "not only interest to the camera but softness to Sarah as well."

Cork actually had to dress two widows for the film. Marion, who also lost her husband, would have also been in mourning dress. To differentiate between the two widows, Cork limited the black of Snook's costume to a jacket and veil. Most of her clothing was purple and green, the color of suffragettes for the time.

"I love that Helen was really particular and very practical in understanding what she needed on camera and what she could get away with," Cork remembers. "She really understood the value of where to put the attention on camera and where not to. She understood how to make the best of her silhouette. She was quite extraordinary to work with, very efficient and very professional. She came in three days earlier than scheduled and the extra time meant the costume department could really achieve what they needed to achieve. I find this with actors that have gone through the British system. They really respect the costume department and what it takes to get period costumes on set."

Aside from the key cast, Cork's team made costumes for all the ghosts - "cowboys, Native Americans, Texas Rangers, Confederate soldiers, Union soldiers, farmers and their wives, Mexican workers and Mexican women - ghosts across a 30-to-40-year period. It was incredible to actually try and represent those periods and silhouettes." But her team felt genuine sadness at the end of their part in the production, repeatedly telling Cork, "I don't want to stop making this film."

At the end of the day the tale belonged to the lady in black.

It is Sarah Winchester's story and it took an actor the caliber of Mirren to capture the power of Sarah's psychosis and ferocious effort of an elderly, crestfallen widow coming to terms with her life. "This role was written for Helen," says McGahan. "There are so many parallels between Helen Mirren and Sarah Winchester. What I really loved about Helen is that she's got this strength and this vulnerability as Sarah."

Michael Spierig says Mirren was "fascinated by Sarah's inventive mind and that she was such a progressive thinker. I think Helen could relate to her. Helen had never done a haunted house or horror movie before. We initially thought, 'Gee, wouldn't it be great to get Helen Mirren tied into this film'." Who knew she would say "Yes."

"It's a gargantuan 7-storied structure with no apparent rhyme or reason..."

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