Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke on Bringing a Ghost Story to Life in ‘Winchester’

     October 24, 2017

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On May 5, 2017, Collider was invited out to the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, Calif. for a few hours, on behalf of CBS Films’ upcoming release Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built (in theaters on February 2, 2018), to get a private tour of the massive labyrinth-like mansion that’s considered the most haunted house in the world and to learn a bit about the upcoming feature film. Having never had the opportunity to see the house in anything other than photographs, I wondered what it would be like to explore and what the vibe might feel like, and I left feeling like every oddly shaped room, each hallway with a low ceiling and the endless staircases, all added up to a fascinating story about a woman who will forever remain a mystery herself.

Inspired by true events, the story of the film follows Sarah Winchester (played by Academy Award winner Helen Mirren), heiress to the Winchester fortune, which included $20 million and the equivalent of $25,000 per day for the remainder of her life, and was amassed from the manufacturing of the repeating rifle that was acclaimed for both its speed and accuracy. After the sudden deaths of her husband and child, Sarah Winchester used that money to keep construction of the house going, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for decades, until it stood seven stories tall with hundreds of rooms, some of which had stairways to nowhere and doors that opened into the courtyard, with quite a drop to the ground below. From the outside, all of the building looked like the manifestation of a disturbed woman’s madness, but Sarah believed that she was working to imprison the hundreds of vengeful ghosts who were affected by the Winchester rifle.

Along with touring the house, Collider was able to participate in an on-camera interview with Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke (who plays Eric Price, the brilliant psychiatrist summoned to the house by Sarah Winchester) inside of the ballroom, and a small press conference with the co-stars and their directors, brothers Peter and Michael Spierig. On video (which you can watch above), Mirren and Clarke talked about first impressions of Sarah Winchester, why Eric Price is drawn to her, and what it’s like to be in the real house, as opposed to the recreation they worked in on a set in Australia. During the conference, the actors and filmmakers further discussed what they shot in the actual house, the need for recreating the house on set, the research they did, what makes Sarah Winchester such a compelling character, and the genre the film falls under.

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Image via CBS Films

Question: Have you been to the Winchester House before?

HELEN MIRREN: It’s my first time here. I’ve never been here before, and I’ve been blown away by it. It’s amazing!

Peter and Michael, what are you actually filming in the house?

PETER SPIERIG: We’re here at the real house to shoot elements of the real rooms – the real ballroom, certain bedrooms and hallways. There’s also quite a lot of aerial stuff we’re doing, flying over the house with drones. It’s a combination of cutting what we’ve built in Australia and the real house, as well. 

There’s not exactly a lot of room to shoot inside the house itself.

PETER: It’s complicated, yeah. Getting gear upstairs is pretty tricky.

MICHAEL SPIERIG: This house is so amazing. The rooftops are so extraordinary that we’ve shot a lot of the rooftop here. The interesting thing is that we’re recreating the house in 1906, and San Jose was quite different in 1906. There were a lot of orchard fields. It was pretty open farmland. Now, there’s hotels and Winchester Blvd., and it doesn’t look like it did in 1906. We shot aerial units, but there’s a lot of visual effects work to do to bring it back to the period of 1906. 

Is it eerie to be in the real house, after shooting in a recreation of it?

MIRREN: Eerie is not the right word. It’s inspiring and moving and fascinating. I haven’t actually shot any of my scenes here. I finished in Australia, a few weeks ago, but it’s been fantastic for me to be in this house. It was immaculately reproduced in Australia. In Melbourne, in this very era, there was a wave of enormous wealth that came in and architecturally there was a lot of building in Melbourne, in the European style of building, at that time. There is a connection there. We shot in a couple of big houses, of this era, in Melbourne, but to be in the real house has been a really amazing experience for me, actually.

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Image via CBS Films

MICHAEL: We’re set in 1906, and there was non-stop construction for 40 years. We’ve shot a lot of the actual rooms here, but it’s hard to determine exactly what existed, in that period. There are some photographic references, but she would build rooms and tear them down, almost instantly, so it’s very hard to know exactly what was there, in that period. That’s been fascinating. 

This house has its own history to it. Did you go anywhere else for background and research?

MICHAEL: There are several books on Sarah Winchester that are quite interesting, and we certainly used them as research material. One, in particular, was a book called Captive of the Labyrinth, which was an interesting, well-researched book on the history of Sarah Winchester, growing up in New Haven and meeting William, her husband. There were stories about all of the Winchesters and about how the family progressed, through the years, and that was helpful. And there are books on the Winchester rifle and the development of that weapon. There’s not that much about Sarah Winchester out there, but some people have done some pretty extensive research, here in San Jose, on her. She was a very private woman.

What did you do to get into Sarah Winchester’s head?

MIRREN: Sarah is an incredible gift for an actress. It’s very similar to playing the Queen. There is so much known about her, and yet, at the very center of all that knowledge, is this character of utter mystery, and Sarah is very similar. As an actress, you’re allowed to have your own understanding and feeling of what this person is, but there is a lot of research material. There are photographs of her, and we have this amazing house. Imagine if this house didn’t exist and we had to imagine what it was like. We don’t. We can sit in it and see it and feel it, and you do feel something when you’re here. You feel the personality and the character of the person that created it. So, it was a real gift, as an actress. Obviously, we have to be true to the script. That’s a further influence on what you’re doing. The most important influence is what’s described in the script.

Is there anything that you’ve learned, since you’ve been in the actual house, that you wish you’d known before you started filming?

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