Inside ‘Winchester’, a film about the most haunted house in the world

Ensconced in her sprawling California mansion, firearms fortune heiress Sarah Winchester (Academy Award-winner, Dame Helen Mirren) is visited by the souls of those killed by the her late husband’s rifle. 

Directed by the Spierig Brothers, and shot by Ben Nott ACS, Winchester invites us inside the most haunted house in the world.

By James Cunningham.

On an isolated stretch of land fifty miles outside of San Francisco, at the turn of the last century, sits the most haunted house in the world. 

Built by a real-life historical character, Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren), it is a sprawling mansion and ongoing construction that will never be finished. To the outsider it looks like a monstrous monument to a disturbed woman’s madness. Sarah, however, isn’t building it for herself. 

Sarah sees ghosts everywhere. The widow’s late husband, William Winchester, left her a fifty-percent stake in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. These are the spirits of those killed by the rifles her husband invented. The most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchester family and Sarah is building an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts.

Dame Helen Mirren plays Sarah Winchester in 'Winchester' - DOP Ben Nott ACS, PHOTO Supplied
Dame Helen Mirren plays Sarah Winchester in ‘Winchester’ – DOP Ben Nott ACS, PHOTO Supplied

Filmed in and around Melbourne, Winchester sees Australian Cinematographer Ben Nott ACS (Predestination) re-team with German-Australian filmmaking brothers Peter and Michael Spierig.“Peter and Michael always produce a ‘look book’ that is distributed to the department heads as a way of setting the visual tone,” says Nott. “Whilst they were not rigidly wedded to this document it served as an anchor from which the creative threads of each department were encouraged to unravel. 

Without doubt, the actual Winchester House in San Jose, California, proved to be the most inspirational artistic reference for the film. The Spierigs, along with Production Designer Matthew Putland, took numerous reference images of the 160-room house built between 1884 and 1922. “These images,” says Nott, “along with others that depicted simple strong photographic composition and the striking contrast typical of Film Noir populated the majority of the pages of the ‘look book’.

Nott’s preference has always been for the ARRI Alexa sensor and that was the case on Winchester. “Arguments can be provided for other sensors but I have become comfortable with the Alexa so I gravitate to it as the default,” says Nott. “As far as the body is concerned I shoot with the Mini when recording Pro-Res and in this case we employed the XT Plus for our A and B cameras because of our choice of lenses.

Winchester was shot on Panavision E-series and C-series glass. Nott also carried a T-series 150mm and the T-series 37-85mm Zoom. “The directors and I decided early on that we wanted to shoot Anamorphic,” he explains, “and went about testing older lenses in search of a more vintage look. 

I found the Cooke Crystal Express anamorphic lenses very interesting. I loved the stigmatism and chromatic aberration displayed by certain focal lengths in the set we tested. 

Given I knew we would be in low light situations and that our tests revealed these lenses required shooting at a deeper stop before they begin to have contrast, sharpness and overcome their depth of focus challenges we decided they were unsuitable. At the other end of the scale I looked at the new Cooke Anamorphic /i lenses. These are beautiful but a little too clean and crisp for this movie.” The Panavision E-series sat right in the middle and proved to be the right balance for Winchester.

Nott says his First Assistant Cameras Andrew Jerram (A-Camera) and Chris Child (B-Camera) are first-tier film technicians who did a wonderful job working with Anamorphic lenses, which can be demanding. “I relied heavily on Jerram to manage his team and the additional labor and equipment requirements,” he says. “Operator Dan Maxwell did a wonderful job on the A-Camera and Steadicam, bringing a sense of calm to the set.

Jason Clarke plays Eric Price in ‘Winchester’ – DOP Ben Nott ACS, PHOTO Supplied

Although there were no traditional storyboards created for Winchester, there were the ‘festival of cartoons’ that accompany every Spierig Brothers production. “Michael, by his own admission, is a crap artist,” says Nott. “All frames he sketched for us indicated a very general intent rather than exact representations of focal length and composition. This fact alone leverages a load of creative freedom to the cinematographer and his camera crew. To be fair, Michael’s drawings represent more of an edit sequence which can be ticked off as it is shot to ensure we get the coverage they need.

This is the fourth collaboration between Nott and the Spierig Brothers films, having worked together on Daybreakers (2009), Predestination (2014) and Jigsaw (2017). “We are at a place of mutual respect and trust that maintains no matter how deep we get in the trenches,” says Nott. “Michael and Peter are serious filmmakers who work very hard at their craft, but maintain their humility and decency under the most extreme pressure.”

“My experience with them is always rewarding because of their willingness to collaborate and whilst they very definitely occupy the driver’s seat any member of the crew with a valid opinion or idea is considered.

The production was run out of Docklands Studios, in Melbourne. Nott says Melbourne was a great choice in which to base the production because it offers some striking examples of Victorian architecture that well suited their purpose. “It would have been great to have access to the actual Winchester House for the entire shoot, but for reasons of practicality this would never be considered an option,” explains Nott. The crew did take a small unit to the Winchester Mansion in San Jose, California, for a couple of days to shoot various interior and exteriors.

The high costs associated with sound stage rental and constructing forced us to shoot most of the work on location,” Nott says. However the Production Design team were able to build in Sound Stage Four, at Docklands, in which Putland designed the house’s front entrance and corridors, rifle room and garden room. “All stood simultaneously and once shot out Putland filled the stage again,” says Nott. The remaining sets were dressed on heritage-listed locations around Melbourne and Victoria.

Heritage-listed locations present major restrictions to film makers and their custodians are understandably particular due to the historical value of the site,” Nott says. “Our schedule was so tight that we were often faced with shooting big page counts in these sensitive locations each day in order to clear them as soon as possible. 

Restrictions involved; no ability to rig from the walls or ceiling, no atmospheric effects, and the majority of structures and furnishings having sensitivity to heat and light intensity. “Luckily the locations we chose were quite grand with high ceilings so Gaffer Matt Slattery and his rigging team built 200mm box trust skeletons within each of the rooms,” says Nott. 

The art department would dress out the vertical supports giving the crew a substantial grid from which to rig in the ceiling. To counter the heat problem Slattery installed ARRI’s LED Skypanels dressed with their chimeras and snap grids for control. Art Department candles and small oil lamps were augmented with small fresnels. 

Sarah Snook in Winchester’ – DOP Ben Nott ACS, PHOTO Supplied

These challenges were identified early in pre-production, and producers allocated the funds to the Art Department who were able to design their dressing to accommodate the disguise. “Putland and his team are due a special mention in light of the quality of work they produced when faced with serious financial challenges,” says Nott. 

His genius was to take the relatively meager resources and produce impressively lush and textured sets that blended beautifully with his treatment of the Melbourne locations, and the Winchester House in San Jose. To his credit, the film looks far bigger than the modest budget might otherwise dictate.

Our way into the world within Winchester is by Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke), a former soldier-turned- self-medicating doctor who once caught a bullet in battle. Grieving his wife’s death, he’s summoned to the estate to assess Sarah Winchester’s sanity.

I particularly like the sequences we shot in the Garden Room,” says Nott. “Putland built a lovely set that replicated the conservatory at Rippon Lea House in Elsternwick. We used the actual location for a scene in the first act. The scene involved Dr Price being confronted by the ghost of his wife. We were at a place in the narrative that encouraged a dark atmospheric feel and took full advantage of it.

One real spectre at the heart of the film is Mirren’s Winchester, a black-veiled dowager who stalks her own hotch-potch asylum at the stroke of midnight. It’s a treat to see Mirren go all-out in the horror genre,. “Mirren is a professional. She has a good grasp of the on set film making process and understands that whilst she is undeniably ‘the star’ she is also a member of the team,” he says. 

On occasions, I watched her say to the Dolly Grip and Focus Puller that she was going to move a little slower than the last take, or stand a little quicker. She protects her performance from technical issues that can be avoided by simple communication. Apart from all that she is bloody good fun.

Winchester’s Colourist, Adrian Hauser, worked out of Cutting Edge in Sydney on a Baselight console. “Hauser and I have built a relationship over several films to the point where I feel comfortable to work remotely if my schedule does not coincide with the final colour-timing window. As was the case with Winchester,” Nott says.

Nott was only filming an hour’s flight away from Sydney, so was able to spend a couple of weekends with Hauser. “I am diligent about having frame grabs, to which REC 709 has been applied, pulled from the RAW files to keep as reference,” he says. “I use the frame grabs during the initial ‘look’ discussions with the Colourist to re-establish the original photographic intention as our starting point before he or she goes through and does a pass to balance the images.

With the exception of multi-camera action scenes that will always need a little more love and care I am usually seeking to have the end result look just as the image did on my on set monitor,” says Nott.

Dame Helen Mirren is Sarah Winchester in the film ‘Winchester’ – DOP Ben Nott ACS, PHOTO Supplied

Being careful not to diminish the fantastic contributions of Rangi Sutton and his team I would not say that the film is necessarily VFX heavy. Beautiful Matte paintings, set extensions, eye replacements and a major sequence involving floating rifles comprised the majority of their work.

Nott has just finished a Chinese film called At Last, shot on the Gold Coast, about a busy Beijing couple struggling with their relationship decide to holiday in Australia and focus on conceiving a baby. “We worked with a Chinese Director, Yiwei Liu, and actors who only spoke Mandarin,” he tells us. “There were challenges that came with that arrangement but the international language of filmmaking is universal ..ish and within no time we were all on the same page …ish.”

James Cunningham is the Editor of the Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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