The Haunting of Hill House (2018)

'Hill House' Production Design Secrets Behind the Phantom Estate

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

Part of the critical acclaim and popularity of The Haunting of Hill House created by Mike Flanagan is due to its undeniably stunning but uncanny production design. The show’s visuals are not only arresting, but the elegant work put forth is where Hill House’s brilliance reigns. Any production designer would jump at the opportunity to work on a story where the central location is the star as in Flanagan’s ghost story. In which it is a living, crumbling, foreboding character unto itself—the details of its undertaking are just as fascinating as the outcome.

Patricio M. Farrell

To begin, many may assume the house is real, when in fact, the lucky production designer Patricio M. Farrell built the 15,000 square-foot ‘Hill House’ mansion on an Atlanta soundstage. Plenty of room for the three alternating timelines, Farrell also had to scout locations for the surrounding area and what would serve as the exterior of the mansion. They ended up finding a real-world location called Bisham Manor in LaGrange, Georgia.

So, constructing a two-story house within a soundstage, the designer drew inspiration from 19th-century robber baron sprawling manors. As exciting as the job may be for Farrell, there were logistical challenges, and he had to actually build an entire house, which makes the result even more impressive. Simultaneously, this approach gave the team a creative advantage, capturing immense visual depth and the option to build and change things as they go. Overall, Farrell strived for an idyllic design that could be manipulated to trick the eye to make it more palatial and meet the narrative goals and financial budget.

Visual Continuity of Bisham Manor and Hill House

Bisham Manor in Georgia.

Since the exterior was a real mansion and could not have substantial changes made to it, Farrell had to make sure the Hill House set matched for visual continuity. We have viewed the show and may have never noticed the contrasting elements because he beautifully blended both. Interior windows were redesigned to match the exterior and the main entrance to the actual house since Farrell did not like the original.

He made it grander, built exteriors around it to match their interiors, and converted a small driveway into the steps to finish the look. Other tweaking involved the trees (Crepe myrtle), as they were the wrong kind for the type of house, the year, and where it was narratively supposed to be in New England, so they were cut to achieve the look Flanagan and Farrell wanted.

Tracking Shots

Farrell built Hill House’s two-story interior as a cohesive set to achieve those fantastic continuous tracking shots featured in the show. It gave them the ability to create extraordinary movement. He accomplished this by building the first floor altogether; then, he did the second floor in another stage. This method permits lighting, moving walls much easier (and the film crew), and minimizing costs related to things like engineering.

And remember the funeral episode? That was another extensive set that featured several long takes, including one where the character walks from a funeral home directly into Hill House. Proving the ability to convey scale was another benefit to building an entire house—story, and cost-wise. The 15,000 square-foot mansion could be entered, walked through, then to and up the grand stairs to visit all the rooms. Hallways, arches, and passageways are all visible and work to pull us into the story furthermore.

Visual Elements That Defined Hill House’s Interior

Seeing as ghost and horror stories usually intel running around, Farrell made sure to create plenty of space for that. Turning corners and the feeling of being in a different environment or place was essential. That is why we can see the halls go from super Gothic into one that looks like a monastery or into a more modern area. Effectively, it creates an interesting and exciting visual and, at the same time, the sense that we could be anywhere in this big picturesque mansion.

Designing for Depth

Working with a majority of two hallways, downstairs and upstairs, Farrell notes they run at approximately 120 feet, while the rooms were accommodated after. Therefore, allowing the camera to have greater depth-of-field, Farrell says the rooms were aligned in a way that “You would see through multiple layers of rooms and tonalities and styles that you can have in the frame without even having to move the camera.” There were different color palettes, light sources, decorative trims, textures, sculptures, and any geometric and asymmetrical shapes to add depth further when they walked through.

Farrell similarly made sure to create expanse within closer features like the wall moldings and purposely making the railings oversized. Expanding on that, he says, “There was a sense of alignment for arches and corridors and doors. You can be in one point and see through multiple rooms in every direction.” Finally, other significant examples can be spotted with the large proportioned foyer from the early episodes, very high ceilings, and Hill House’s six-foot-high fireplace.

Capturing Mood

Moreover, Flanagan made a point to direct designer Farrell, to push for giving Hill House a “schizophrenic” feeling to evoke its supernatural spirit. This request led Farrell to the best cinematically captured robber-baron home by Xanadu in Citizen Kane (1941). For those that do not know, Xanadu is the name of an ancient city known for its splendor.

Xanadu is the fictional estate of Charles Foster Kane, the title character of the film Citizen Kane.

Here is why Kane’s manor inspired Farrell, he says “With very rich people at the turn of the century who were trying to just recreate these castles and have all the riches of the world and bring them in one place, there was always this mix of style.” Besides the Xanadu influence, he also implemented the Gothic, Baroque, Victorian, and Moorish. As we can see, much consideration went into the making of Hill House’s production design to create one of the best horror stories narrative wise and visually within modern horror.

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