24 Hour Construction
Winchester House picked up where The Spierig Brothers' and Production
Designer Matt Putland's
imagination left off.
"It truly doesn't have a lot of rhyme or reason," says Peter Spierig. "A room
is built on top of a room, next
to a room and they are not even on the same level. There are strange
architectural oddities, different
shapes and sizes to the rooms. Strange stairs that go to ceilings and doors
that open to two-story drops."
"At a time when women weren't allowed to be architects," adds Michael Spierig,
"this came from the
mind of Sarah Winchester." The rifle fortune "allowed her to build whatever she
wanted. She was always
into interior design, architecture and building. She was a pioneer when it came
to technology, inventing
an intercom system that was a series of pipes traveling throughout the house to
communicate from one
room to the next. She had an irrigation system for gardening and was the first
person in San Jose to have
a telephone: Her phone number was 1234! She was always looking to the future,
very inventive. I think
that's where her architectural passion came from and why she always wanted to
build something new."
Production Designer Putland had the daunting task of recreating several key
rooms in the house on sets
in Melbourne, Australia. There were then three days of filming at the actual
house in San Jose. Despite
having visited and thoroughly researched the house for duplication purposes,
since the film is set in 1906
much of the original house was destroyed after the earthquake that year. That
meant expanding on period
research and anything they could find that existed before the devastating
incident. For that reason, many
of the rooms seen in the film are those that remained intact in the house.
One of the first rooms replicated was the entrance hall. Putland says a few
tweaks had to be made in
dimensions of that space including the ceiling heights.
"The front part of the house I think was part of the original 8-room
farmhouse but as you go deeper into
the actual Winchester House you can see Sarah's influence such as some of the
stair banisters being a lot
lower as well as stair risers that were very short because of her arthritis," he
explains. "There are some
very small doors in the house. I don't know whether it was because of her
height, she was very petite, or
because of what was stored behind them."
One of the most peculiar aspects of the house is the switchback staircase. It
has seven flights of stairs
which rise to one level. The production team only created four flights (on set)
as that is all that was
needed for shooting the scene. "It was quite a complicated pattern because the
staircase sort of folds in on
itself," he notes. "Unique, it is one of the architectural elements of the house
built specifically for Sarah.
With her arthritis, she had trouble walking up stairs and standard-sized stairs
were too large and would
cause her pain. She built risers that were only a few inches high. Recreating
that on a set was quite a
struggle since we needed to get a film crew, three actors, cameras and
everything onto the set. A lot of the
pieces had to be dismantled for camera access but still hold their integrity."
There were the stairs to nowhere that ended at a ceiling. "Again, we had to
recreate them on a stage in
Australia and like the door that opens to nowhere, all of these fun, quirky,
Sarah Winchester add-ons were
great to reconstruct."
Although there is much speculation as to whether Sarah actually insisted on
the number 13 being
present everywhere in the house, for the film's purposes it was crucial to the
narrative. "We did build a
couple of references to 13 because that is quite an important part of the tour
at the Winchester Mystery
House in San Jose," adds Putland. "We made a stained-glass window with 13 gems.
As for the rest of
our stained-glass windows, they referenced the designs directly from the house.
The spider web design
will pop up in a few places and the stained-glass patterns on the doors are
patterned straight from the
In the ballroom, obscure quotes from two Shakespeare plays rarely, if ever,
performed filled the panels
of the Tiffany glass windows: One is from the prison soliloquy of the king in
Richard II, "These same
thoughts people this little world." The other is from Troilus and Cressida,
"Wide unclasp the tables of
their thoughts." Why Sarah chose those quotes is but another mystery of her
The gun display room that appears in the film is also key to the narrative.
It is one that gets dismantled at
the end of the film. There is no display room in the Winchester House today.
To recreate Sarah's Library, a space Putland found most enjoyable because it
was also the heiress' work
space, the team chose to shoot those scenes in a National Trust building in
Australia. They had to work
with the existing wallpaper and size of the room.
In the ballroom hallway scene, "our actors walk down this hall and through
the doorway on the set in
Melbourne. They will peek through a curtain. What they see is the actual house
in San Jose. That means
we will bring the elements and tones of the ballroom, lighting style, drapes,
candles here and then through
the curtain you see the real Winchester House."
One of the characters dies in the garden room and later speaks to Sarah who
then recreates that room as
part of the house. "It's a spooky set and a great scene," Putland says.
For scenes involving arrival at the house "we couldn't shoot any at the real
house because it's right
next to a freeway and a shopping center. That's not 1906," quips Putland. "So,
we built the first level
of the house in a paddock. We found some great trees that matched the trees that
were in San Jose and
we basically built a garden, a driveway, the veranda, the front door and a few
other areas as part of an
exterior set on a property just outside of Melbourne."
When Putland's team began to dress the walls, they had to find a match for
the Lincrusta wallpaper
running throughout the San Jose mansion. "Sarah had one of the largest
collections of Lincrusta
wallpaper that exists and it is still at the house. Those original wallpapers
date from the late 1800's. We
had to find an Anaglypta wallpaper that we could source in Australia. We
couldn't match the exact pattern
but found something which we feel is similar and altered the color. The color
that is in the house today,
which we believe was the original color, was a very pale green, almost white.
For filming it wouldn't
quite work with the tone we wanted so we chose a warmer tannish yellow and gave
it a texture over the
top to bring out the 3D effect of the wallpaper."
It was tough to determine the right color palette for some rooms since the
only photo references for 1906
were in black and white. The solution was simple: The color scheme would suit
the genre of the film
being made more than what the house is currently painted today. "Sarah
Winchester built the most talked
about, expensive mansion of 1906, when it was at its peak in size and grandeur.
We wanted to really
represent Sarah's aesthetic - that lush richness we feel would have been her
style of the time. She was
importing chandeliers from Germany. The parquet floors in the ballroom have
eight different timbers in
them. As a designer, to be given the task of recreating that aesthetic and that
level of opulence has been a
lot of fun and a massive challenge. We had to make those three different
scenarios look as if we are in the
same house at all times.
"I was so very fortunate to go to the Winchester House and see as it is
today. When I first saw it, I was
blown away by the scale of this great big Victorian mansion. But it's not the
extravagance and layers of
opulence that blow you away. It is the layout and attention to detail. You could
almost see the progression
of the house as it grew and grew and grew, consuming parts of the original
farmhouse. We were shown
the water tower and instead of pulling the water tower down, it was just built
into the house. I was there
for three days looking through every doorway, every cupboard and I could still
not find my own way
around inside the house. It is such a rabbit warren of staircases and corridors
and rooms and anterooms
and verandas - quite an amazing complex that little farmhouse."
There were two areas of the house that Putland says speaks to the haunting.
One is the Witch's Cap where Sarah would go alone every night to get her
building instructions from
the ghosts for the next day. "It is a real room in that house and it is an
amazing space," he says. "The
hallway that leads to the Witch's Cap was something that really stood out to me
as an architectural feat.
That area spoke to me of a presence. It's in the attic space of the house.
Reference images from the time
show us that there was a chimney that led up to the outside of the building,
which is no longer there so we
reinstated the fireplace and chimney in the witch's cap which fell down in the
Recreated on set, "I find it fascinating this woman would build this room as
a vessel to communicate
with the dead," adds Michael Spierig. "Because a lot of people sought out
mediums back then, going to a
spiritualist wasn't seen as a fringe thing. I mean people actually saw it as
science back then. She strongly
believed she could communicate with the dead, communicate with her deceased
husband and daughter as
well. And so, she embraced this."
Then there is the basement.
"It was quite spooky, but I don't know if that's because it was just deep
down in the earth and it was dark,"
says Putland. "The basement and the Witch's Cap were very cool spaces to be in."
Both, as noted on the
Winchester House Tour, are the most active areas of paranormal activity in the
house today with many
tourists reporting sightings of ghosts.
"That house," says Putland, "really feels alive."
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