Production designer Matthew Putland blended historical accuracy with artistic licence for the recently released Helen Mirren thriller Winchester. In recreating rooms from the famous San Jose mansion that Sarah Winchester (Mirren) started building in the late 1800’s, Putland drew inspiration from old images and a visit to the mansion. Filmed at Docklands Studios Melbourne in early 2017, Winchester was Putland’s second project at Docklands with writer-directors Michael and Peter Spierig and producer Tim McGahan, following Predestination (2014). Putland spoke to Bel Tromp.

MP: When I first did a Google search on the Winchester mansion I found there wasn’t much online because they don’t let anyone take photos at the house. When I visited I was overwhelmed – the layout was such a confusing mix of architecture. Michael Spierig joined me on the first day for the guided tour and for the next three days I was there by myself. Even on the last day I needed a guide because I kept getting lost. It was mindblowing to think this widow Sarah Winchester had built such an expansive house, adding on rooms and corridors and hallways and staircases.

An exact replica of the switchback staircase was built at Docklands Studios (still from trailer).

BT: The mansion has been described as a labyrinth and has more than 160 rooms. Which spaces did you build as sets?

MP: The (Tom Vaughan and Spierig Brothers) script dictated where the scenes took place, and those scenes were written to take advantage of the eccentricities of the house. For example, the switchback staircase is a notorious part of the house that we recreated stick for stick at Docklands Studios. There was another staircase that led nowhere, stopping at the floor above, so we built that oddity as well. Then we built the main entry and corridor where characters come and go, to replicate as close as we could to what existed in San Jose. As well we built a séance room – a cone shaped tower which, at the real house, has a strong presence and was something that Peter and Michael wanted to include. This was an iconic room because it was here that Sarah spoke to the spirits to find out the layout of the room they died in, so she could appease those spirits by having that room reconstructed at her mansion.

The séance room at the California mansion was recreated as a set at Docklands Studios (photo: Ben King)BT: An earthquake damaged the original Winchester house. How did that affect the way it’s depicted on screen?

MP: The film is set in 1906, the year of the big San Francisco earthquake which destroyed a large part of the house, so we wanted to show the house before and after. The historian had a photo of a seven stories high tower that was severely damaged in the earthquake so we created that.  Also there was a chimney on the front of the house which had crumbled and fallen over, so we built that. We used the earthquake to give us some freedom with how we showed the house before that event, adding some rooms that may not have been in the original mansion. One of these was a garden room modelled closely on one at Rippon Lea mansion in Melbourne – we  shot scenes there and built that as a set at Docklands Studios.

The conservatory was built to match one at Melbourne’s historic Rippon Lea Estate where a number of scenes were shot (photo: Ben King)

BT: What are some of the tricks you used to make the house look creepy?

MP: A lot comes through lighting, such as lighting at the end of corridors to silhouette the cast. With the colours, we deviated from the palette inside the real house. The historian showed us a very pale lime green but for the horror genre we decided to keep the colours intense – a darker green was our main colour along with a tobacco colour and the richness of timber. On the exterior we kept the colours as they were historically – a dark grey trim with a grey green façade. We created a sense of luxury and opulence using designs and features from the actual house such as stained-glass windows. The Victorian era had layers and layers of decoration and we sourced great props from all over the place including the antique shops in Melbourne which are some of the best.  I had a great team, including Janie Parker (art director) and Vanessa Cerne (set decorator) who are both Melbourne locals and were key players in achieving the look of Winchester.

BT: You made the most of Melbourne’s historic mansions from the same era?

MP: We did a lot of location shooting at heritage buildings. At Rippon Lea we not only used the conservatory but also the servants’ quarters. We used the Werribee and Labassa mansions to shoot interiors and an old railway workshop at Newport. It was great to find all these locations that we could pass off as the house. The spaces were more expansive than rooms at the real house which  helped us fit in our film crew and we confined the spaces with furniture.

BT: What was your biggest challenge?

MP: Other than budgetary I think it was dealing with the various depictions of the house that we shot in Docklands Studios and around Melbourne, along with scenes shot at the real house in San Jose. We brought it all together in one cohesive look. For example there’s one scene in the beginning where you start inside the set, followed by a point of view from the real house, then you end up on location. It’s all in one fluid movement and made to feel like it’s in the one place.

BT: You were on familiar ground working with the Spierigs?

MP: I went to university with Peter and Michael Spierig and I was in Tim McGahan’s class at uni, so our connection with film goes way back, to around 1996 at Queensland College of Art in Brisbane. I designed the Spierig’s ultra-low budget zombie film Undead, and I was involved as set decorator on their film Daybreakers. Then we did Predestination at Docklands together, so I was glad they were willing to give me another go with another subject – same directors and same D.O.P. (Ben Nott) so the process is the same.

BT: What do you like about working at Docklands?

MP: The biggest bonus with Docklands is its position. It’s smack bang next to the centre of Melbourne so to get anywhere is easy and to get to the studios is easy. And you’re in amongst everything – it’s just around the corner to a vintage wallpaper shop or an antique emporium.

Official synopsis: Inspired by true events. On an isolated stretch of land 50 miles outside of San Francisco sits the most haunted house in the world. Built by Sarah Winchester, (Academy Award®-winner Helen Mirren) heiress to the Winchester fortune, it is a house that knows no end. Constructed in an incessant twenty-four hour a day, seven day a week mania for decades, it stands seven stories tall and contains hundreds of rooms. To the outsider it looks like a monstrous monument to a disturbed woman’s madness. But Sarah is not building for herself, for her niece (Sarah Snook) or for the brilliant Doctor Eric Price (Jason Clarke) whom she has summoned to the house. She is building a prison, an asylum for hundreds of vengeful ghosts, and the most terrifying among them have a score to settle with the Winchesters…