Last week, on the very day the first teaser trailer for Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built dropped, CBS Films brought a small group of journalists to San Jose, California, to visit the famed Winchester Mystery House. For the uninitiated, the house is a sprawling, chaotic architectural marvel commissioned by Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Wirt Winchester and heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune.
The building's construction began in 1884 and continued ceaselessly, twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, for thirty-eight years, until Sarah's death in 1922. The legend is that Sarah began building the house (an insane, originally five-story leviathan where doors open onto nothing and staircases go nowhere) after consulting a Boston medium named Adam Coons. The Winchesters' only child Annie died six weeks after her birth, and fifteen years later William Wirt Winchester passed away of tuberculosis. Sarah suspected that the family was cursed, and Coons confirmed her suspicions, telling her that her family was being haunted by all of the victims of the Winchester rifle. Coons supposedly instructed Sarah to go west and build an expansive estate to house the ghosts. "The ghosts were to be the home's prisoners, and Sarah Winchester their warden."
That quote is from the tour guide who took us around the Winchester Mystery House, through its many shadowy nooks and crooked crannies. Whether the more supernatural elements of Sarah's story are to be believed (and there are many mythbusters out there with evidence to the contrary), it's a hell of a good yarn, and it's the basis of February's Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built, in which the great Helen Mirren will be playing Sarah Winchester and Jason Clarke is "a psychiatrist with a sordid past" who visits Sarah to see what, exactly, this mystery mansion is all about.
Winchester directors Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig and producer Tim McGahan joined us for the tour and told us that while some footage was shot at the house, mainly exteriors, much of the action took place in an incredible one-to-one recreation built in Australia, as well as in an Australian studio. The facade was rebuilt in a remote part of Australia because 2017 San Jose really, really doesn't look like 1906 San Jose (the year the film takes place, also the year of the Great San Francisco earthquake, the shocks of which took the Winchester home from its original seven stories to the three still standing). Now the Winchester Mystery House is surrounded by modernity, busy streets filled with shops and restaurants. It's across the street from a mall, and the house itself has taken on a kitschy, touristy vibe, with plastic Halloween decorations and a gift shop that sells bagel slicers and tea towels.
To build the much more ominous home we'll see in the film, drones took thousands of overhead shots of the real Winchester house, and the filmmakers overlaid a digital model on top of it using pictures from pre-1906 to help envision what the home once looked like before it crumbled. But within the sets are perfect recreations of the winding, narrow staircases we climbed and the looming ceilings built for the 4'10 Sarah. "It was really important to have the feeling of the house, cavernous and maze-like... We needed to maintain the claustrophobic feel while keeping it practical [with removable walls] for the purpose of the shoot," McGahan explained. The result is so realistic, so true to its source, that "there’s going to be a point where I forget what was real in the house and what was recreated," Michael Spierig told us.
The tour was amazing, not only because the Winchester house is such an architectural anomaly in and of itself, but also because it brought us to the real places that will be used via set in the film. We were taken into "the witch's hat," the very tip-top of the South Turret, in which Sarah apparently locked herself away every night to go into a trance and draw the next day's blueprints according to the ghosts' wishes, a scene that we can look forward to in the film. I am so excited to see Dame Helen Mirren play such a meaty, mysterious role - and the filmmakers were even more so, of course. "She said yes and we all did a little dance," Peter said. Michael added, "That's the greatest pleasure as a director, when the actors are that good, it’s just sitting back and watching... When they surprise you, when they do a take and you think, 'Wow, I would not have thought of doing it that way.' That's the greatest joy." They even had Mirren recreate a famous image of Sarah Winchester (framed and hung on the walls of one of the home's many parlors) for the film's first publicity shot.
image courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Mirren apparently did a lot of research into the history of the house and her character. "She had very strong opinions about Sarah’s sanity and her history and her relationships," Michael said. When pressed as to what Mirren thought of Sarah's sanity, he added, "She doesn't think she was crazy. And we don't either. Going to mediums was a common practice of the time. Séances were often held to try to reach loved ones from beyond the grave." And, naturally, whether Sarah truly believed she was being haunted is still debated. The filmmakers told us that they did an extensive amount of research into Sarah's story, and added as many true and provable aspects of her life as they could in the film, "but then we added a layer of the supernatural on top of it."
The question of Sarah's sanity isn't the only topic on which Mirren had strong opinions, apparently. When I asked if the issue of gun violence is at all broached in the film - considering it's a movie about the ghosts of victims killed by a series of lever-action repeating rifles - Michael conceded that Mirren felt very strongly that the discussion should be had in Winchester. "But I think I should let Helen speak for herself there."
The day ended with a second tour of the house - this time, lit only by candlelight. It was a great reminder that aside from the plastic pumpkins and bagel slicers, the Winchester Mystery House is a truly imposing place built under tragic, if not supernatural, circumstances. Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built hits theaters February 2nd, and then we can all see this labyrinthine haunted house in action.