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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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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