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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 Winchester House."

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 creative process.

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 1906 earthquake."

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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