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Exclusive: The Spierig Brothers talk Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built

If you were not aware of the Winchester Mystery House before, surely the trailer for WINCHESTER: THE HOUSE THAT GHOSTS BUILT put the property on your radar. The upcoming Lionsgate/CBS Films release revolves around the stranger-than-fiction figure of Sarah Winchester (played by Helen Mirren), the widow of William Wirt Winchester, who was the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune. After the deaths of William and their child, Annie (who sadly was only a few weeks old), Sarah uprooted herself from the east coast and moved to California, where she proceeded to expand on a farmhouse she bought in San Jose.

According to legend, Sarah believed the ghosts of all those who were killed by a Winchester rifle were haunting her, and that continuing construction on her mansion would keep her hidden from them (while also housing friendlier spirits). Construction on the mansion went on day and night for years, until the 1906 San Francisco earthquake substantially destroyed parts of the house. Sarah ceased building on some of the property and continued on others, which explains the erratic, bizarre architecture of the place. There were no blueprints or designs, hence the mansion has quirks and curiosities you won't find in most other houses, such as staircases that lead nowhere, hallways that are impossibly small, and winding corridors that make it easy for anyone to get lost.

WINCHESTER: THE HOUSE THAT GHOSTS BUILT, directed by Michael and Peter Spierig (JIGSAW, PREDESTINATION, UNDEAD), will focus predominantly on the mystical aspects of Winchester's beliefs; the brothers admit that, for the purposes of the film, the supernatural elements have been embellished and heightened. While parts of the film were shot on location at the Winchester Mystery House, most of the legendary place was impressively (and painstakingly) recreated on a soundstage in Australia.

Recently, myself and a handful of lucky journalists were fortunate enough to take an up-close look at the Winchester Mystery House, which is now a popular tourist attraction open to the public. (In October, the mansion hosts candlelight tours that come with added frights.) Everyone who goes inside the house must be accompanied by a guide, lest they get confused within the unorthodox building. Even with a guide, the place is disorienting and eerie; one can see why some people still claim it has permanent residents lurking about. It's a must-see for anyone even slightly interested in the occult, unusual architecture or - ideally - both.


Yours truly in front of the House That Ghosts Built

Also haunting the premises on this particular day: The Spierig Brothers themselves. I was lucky enough to get a few alone minutes with the filmmakers, who discussed the origins of the project, how much truth there is to their version of Sarah Winchester, and if there are more WINCHESTER movies coming our way in the future.

Q: How long have you been fascinated by the story of Sarah Winchester? When did you know you wanted to make a movie about her legacy?

Michael Spierig: We finished a film, Predestination, with Sony, and they had a Winchester Mystery House script. So there was an existing script that we read, and there were elements of it that we liked, but we kind of were fascinated by the woman, Sarah Winchester, so we came to the house and got a tour and fell in love with the story. We essentially went back and re-wrote the script and molded it around our experience with this house, and we included the things we liked about the house, like the incredible rooms, but we were also fascinated by the legacy of Sarah Winchester herself. The notion that she was haunted by all the souls who were killed at the hand of the Winchester rifle, it was a fascinating blueprint for a story. The more we researched about Sarah Winchester, we learned she was an inventor, she was a builder, just a fascinating, progressive woman. I think that's what Helen [Mirren] fell in love with too, was just how progressive this woman was.

I remember when Undead came out all those years ago. Did you ever think you'd be making a movie with Helen Mirren in a setting quite like this?

Peter Spierig: Of course! [Laughs] Of course. You make a splatter zombie movie in Brisbane, Australia, you're going to work with Helen Mirren soon enough. No, of course not. When Michael and I made Undead, we didn't even think it would be seen by too many people except our friends, we didn't think it would be released all around the world. We've been very fortunate enough since that film to work with some really amazing people, and certainly Helen is right at the top of that list.

How close are the events of the film to what really happened to Sarah Winchester and how much of it is embellished?

Michael: It's difficult to define, when it comes to the supernatural elements of this story, what you would define as true. Depending on what you believe. We certainly tried to integrate what we know about the woman, what we know she believed in, what she was doing at the house. We incorporated as much as we could of the existing rooms, and we've incorporated as much mythology as we could based on historical evidence. Of course, we've embellished and created our own villains, but we tried to incorporate as much historical truth as we possibly could.

Have you guys gone through the house and experienced any of the unusual phenomena that is said to lurk within?

Peter: We've shot here at night and had a chance to walk around at night alone, and that's a pretty creepy experience. The house makes sounds at night, it moves, it does certain things. Is it the house? Is it something else? Certainly, when you're walking around it's a creepy feeling. We're the first film production to shoot here, I know some TV documentary crews have come through here, but as a full blown film production it was exciting. All the different units of the production had to get their own tour guide, because everyone would get lost all the time, just trying to run lights or whatever it might be. It's a very interesting location to shoot in.


Some people see a face in this photo I took in the cellar. See it?

How much of the film was shot at the actual house, and how much was a set?

Michael: We shot as much as we could here, as far as exteriors, and we shot in certain rooms here. We recreated a lot of rooms as accurately as we could on a soundstage in Australia. And we did that for several reasons. One is, it's hard to shoot here because it's a popular tourist attraction. The other reason is, we destroyed a lot of stuff. [Laughs] I don't think they're appreciate us smashing up their walls. We actually built the front facade on a farm property in Australia, we recreated a lot of it as accurately as we could. We brought our production designer out here and he measured everything. It was so weird to come here and walk through the rooms, and then back in Australia in a soundstage and the rooms look exactly the same. It was bizarre.

Peter: There was some artistic license too, because our film is set in 1906 so there are things about the house that are going to be quite different just given the nature that she built around the clock, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And she tore down so many rooms, we don't really have any blueprints or plans or any idea of what it was.

Michael: There were no blueprints.

Peter: They were all hand-sketched, but we can have a look at the house and the architecture and recreated certain rooms that are original.

Michael: You look at San Jose today, and you look at it in 1906, and we found as close as we could as far as historical photographs. There was nothing here, it was farm property, it was orchard fields, it's changed so much since then. It's lost a little of its mystique.

This could be a crazy question, but since everything has franchise potential nowadays, do you see Winchester becoming a franchise, or is this just a one-off story?

Michael: Well, there were hundreds of rooms built, we've only told one story, so... [Laughs] It all depends. Sarah Winchester is such a fascinating character, so it would be great if it continued. But that's out of my hands.


Standing in front of the famed "Door To Nowhere"

You're be able to get a look at the first chapter in the Winchester saga when WINCHESTER: THE HOUSE THAT GHOSTS BUILT opens on February 2, 2018. Visit the film's official site HERE. For more information on the house, check out the official Mystery House site.

Extra Tidbit: Have you ever visited the Winchester Mystery House?

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