Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Haunting is an appallingly bad horror film released in July 1999 by DreamWorks. It was written by David Self (Road to Perdition, The Wolfman) and Michael Tolkin (The Rapture, The Player, Deep Impact), and based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House By Shirley Jackson. It was directed by Dutch filmmaker Jan de Bont, the cinematographer of such films as Ruthless People, Die Hard, Black Rain, The Hunt for Red October, Lethal Weapon 3, and Basic Instinct; director of Speed, Twister, Speed 2, and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life; and producer of Minority Report. The film starred Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor.

Preproduction and script
The film had its genesis in the early 1990s. Horror author Stephen King had always wanted to write a script about a haunted house, having been inspired by an alleged haunted house in his home town of Durham, Maine. King pitched a project, Rose Red, to Steven Spielberg as a feature film. The film would, in part, be a remake of the 1963 film The Haunting. The project went into turnaround and a script was finished, but Spielberg demanded more thrills and action sequences while King wanted more horror. King and Spielberg mutually agreed to shelve the project after several years of work, with King buying back the rights to the script about 1997 or early 1998. King returned to the project in 1999, which resulted in the Rose Red television mini-series.

Spielberg, however, wanted to press ahead with a haunted house film. He initially hired David Seltzer, the screenwriter who'd gotten his start in the 1970s with children's fare like Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (his contributions are famously uncredited, including lyrics for the songs Pure Imagination and The Candy Man) and The Other Side of the Mountain but who had also written the blockbuster horror film The Omen. He'd also written the adult comedy Bird on a Wire and directed and written the films Shining Through, Punchline, and Lucas. But the draft Seltzer turned in was far too gory, and Spielberg quietly jettisoned the script draft.

David Self was a recent Stanford creative writing graduate whose first spec script (for Dawn's Early Light, a thriller about a terrorist attack on the White House) had gotten passed around Hollywood quite a bit. That got him a job writing the Cuban missile crisis drama Thirteen Days, during which time he got to know veteran writer and director Lawrence Kasdan. After writing a couple more unproduced indie film scripts, Self sought out Steven Spielberg (using his Kasdan connection). Spielberg liked the Thirteen Days script, and in early 1998 hired Self to work on his haunted house film.

Much of the script was finished by August 1998, when Spielberg hired Dutch cinematographer and director Jan de Bont to direct the picture. He started out as a cinematographer, working on the comedy Ruthless People and a wide range of popular and edgy thrillers like Die Hard, Black Rain, The Hunt for Red October and Lethal Weapon 3. He'd also shot several horror films, including 1983's Cujo, 1990's Flatliners, and 1992's Basic Instinct. He'd only recently graduated to directing, however. He'd done three films -- Speed, Twister, and Speed 2 -- the first two of which were gigantic successes and the latter of which had been panned (even though it did moderately well at the box office).

De Bont said he did not want to make a remake of the 1963 picture, which he claimed had no supernatural manifestations. (It did, including endless banging on the walls, cold spots, people driven mad or to suicide, bending doorways, a ghostly hand clutching at people in the dark, and more. One has to wonder what film de Bont watched.) Spielberg stuck with his desire to see the supernatural events on film, up front, blatant -- and de Bont agreed. Self's script reflected this decision. Indeed, the scene in which a ghostly child floats in the curtains and crawls beneath Nell's bedsheets, and its face appears through a pillowcase was drawn directly from something Spielberg's children had done with a piece of silk draped over their face.

One wonders at all if de Bont ever screened the 1963 film or read Shirley Jackson's novel. De Bont claimed that the Robert Wise film "never did all the things the book could do", even though there's almost no supernatural activity in the novel whatsoever. De Bont claims that Wise (the editor of films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Citizen Kane, and The Magnificent Ambersons and director of such films as The Body Snatcher, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Executive Suite, I Want to Live!, West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, The Andromeda Strain, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture who'd won two Best Director Oscars) either "didn't have the money or the special effects" for his 1963 version of the novel, or that Wise "didn't dare go that far because it seemed too far-fetched". None of those are true at all. Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding interpreted Jackson's novel (correctly, according to Jackson) as one where the reader was never quite sure if the events happening in the house were all in Eleanor's mind, or if they were really happening. Wise himself was a firm believer in producer Val Lewton's maxim that not showing the horror was far more effective at generating fear. (Wise worked for Lewton's RKO horror production unit in the 1940s.) Lewton had used this device to great effect in films like Cat People and The Leopard Man, and Wise wanted to replicate it.

Oddly, de Bont said he wanted his film to be "more graphic" while still claiming that it was "leaving many things up to the audience's imagination". DeBont said he also wished to make the film resemble Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror classic The Shining. De Bont said he wanted to replicate that film's "head-trip ambiguity" -- although how this fit with the blatant, in-your-face special effects that were planned, the straightforward reconceptualization of Nell has an innocent heroine who wants to defend children, or the belief all the main characters have in the supernatural (so unlike the book or film, where the characters don't believe in it) is incomprehensible.

Casting the film was a no-brainer and apparently went quite easily for the most part.

Within a month after de Bont took the helm of The Haunting, Liam Neeson and Lili Taylor were cast as Dr. David Marrow and Eleanor "Nell" Vance. The 46-year-old Neeson was at the top of his career, having been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 1993 for Schindler's List and having completed Rob Roy, Michael Collins, and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in the past few years. He had the "British accent" (Irish, but Americans have trouble telling the difference) that signalled authority and class to U.S. audiences, and he had the gravitas and seriousness of demeanor that could bring off the role of a paranormal psychologist. Taylor was largely an indie film star at the time (I Shot Andy Warhol, Pecker, A Slipping-Down Life) with a single feature film to her credit (a small role in 1996's Ransom, the Mel Gibson kidnap thriller), and she was looking to break out into feature film in leading roles. A blockbuster film guided by Steven Spielberg and directed by Jan de Bont would be just the ticket.

Catherine Zeta-Jones was the third actor cast. She'd just finished wowing audiences with standout performances in The Phantom and The Mask of Zorro and was wrapping production on Entrapment with Sean Connery. A blockbuster film guided by Steven Spielberg and directed by Jan de Bont would be just the ticket. Again.

The film's final main character, that of the snarky Luke Sanderson, was the hardest to cast. The film needed a good-looking male with a somewhat athletic body type, because the script called for running around, leaping, climbing, racing up stairs, and so on. Most films would cast an overweight, spiteful, nerdy guy with plain looks, but The Haunting required a more all-American type. But there was no romance for this role, there was little for the character to do but crack jokes, and a major decapitation scene at the end but the kibosh on any sequel or "save the day" heroism. It was not very appealing. In the end, indie star Owen Wilson took the role. Wilson had broken out huge with performances in 1996's Bottle Rocket and supporting roles in 1997's big-snake action thriller Anaconda and the big-budget meteor movie Armageddon. Without any leading man roles coming his way, a blockbuster film guided by Steven Spielberg and directed by Jan de Bont would be just the ticket. Again. Yet again.

There is a lot more about the terrible production of this awful movie behind the link....

Script problems
Principal photography was scheduled to begin in January 1999. DreamWorks, however, moved the film's release date up from fall 1999 to late July, and now principal photography had to start in November.

Rehearsals began in Hollywood at the begining of November. Right away there were problems. The actors had numerous problems with the characterization of their roles and the dialogue. The complaints were so strong and made in such public ways (in front of crew and producers) that novelist and screenwriter Michael Tolkin was brought in. Tolkin sat in on rehearsals, cut scenes, and changed the ending of the film (which had Nell losing to Hugh Crain's ghost). Tolkin's revisions were done by November 10.

Things were still so bad that John Logan -- the young screenwriter who had written Any Given Sunday and RKO 241 and was working on Gladiator -- was brought in to do dialogue polishes. In particularly bad shape was the Liam Neeson character, Dr. Marrow, who had long, awkward speeches and whose character was particularly too conniving and too vicious for anyone's taste.

The production moved to the United Kingdom, where principal photography began on November 30.

Caleb Deschanel was hired as the film's cinamatographer. He'd lensed films as diverse as The Black Stallion, Being There, The Right Stuff, The Natural, and Fly Away Home, and had been nominated for Best Cinematographer for The Right Stuff, The Natural, and Fly Away Home.

Immediately, de Bont and Deschanel clashed over how the film should look. At the end of a week of shooting, de Bont fired Deschanel.

The German cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub was hired on Sunday, the day after Deschanel left the film. He met with de Bont, reviewed the footage shot by Deschanel, and began shooting the film on Tuesday. Lindenlaub was well-known for his work on Stargate, Rob Roy, Independence Day, and The Jackal, but not an Oscar nominee. (Most of his films are B-grade.)

De Bont was clear about what he wanted from Lindelaub. He loathed match-on-action editing, and avoided all cross-cutting unless it was for a static dialogue scene. Any time there was extensive action, like walking across a room, de Bont wanted it chopped up into eight or 10 different different shots from different points of view. There was little attempt to shoot coverage -- extra footage that can make it easier for a film editor to assemble a picture. De Bont said he knew what he wanted, and there would be no extra footage to choose from.

A single camera was used for about 80 percent for the shoot. Two or three cameras were used only for complex scenes involving physical effects or stuntwork. The use of a single camera, which had to dolly or pan through scenes where there was movement, meant that sets had to be lit for all possible action. Usually, an actor walking across a room is lit three times: One lighting scheme is used to light them coming into the room, one lighting scheme is used as they walk across the room, and one lighting scheme is used to light them as they leave the room. But with a single camera used most of the time, all actions had to be lit simultaneously. This created very difficult lighting schemes.

Raleigh Studios in Manhattan Beach, California. Sets constructed here consisted of Nell's apartment, Nell's Hill House bedroom, and the bathroom adjoining Theo's Hill House bedroom. The rest of the sets were constructed at the Manhattan Beach Studios (now owned by Raleigh Studios, but at the time an independent production facility). These soundstages occupy the former airplane hanger were the gigantic Spruce Goose airplane was once housed. All other sets were built here, due to their extreme size and other issues.

Oscar-winning Eugenio Zanetti was the set designer. He'd worked with de Bont on Flatliners in 1990 (de Bont lensed the film), and since then had worked on Soapdish, Last Action Hero, Restoration, and What Dreams May Come. He'd won an Oscar for Restoration, and his designs for What Dreams May Come were Oscar-nominated. Oddly, The Haunting would be his last major Hollywood film.

Zanetti wanted to imitate the type of building constructed by American robber barons in the 19th century. These homes were ornate, highly detailed, and luxious structures built in the Victorian style. The finest materials were used to construct them, and Victorian and Neoclassical artwork (primarily statuary) and Beaux-Arts decorative elements were extremely common. He described the look as "The Shining meets Citizen Kane." Zanetti decided that Hugh Crain (the building of Hill House) was mad even before the house was constructed (which makes no sense, given the story told in the film). Subsequently, Zanetti decided that the house should be built on a mega-grand scale and incorporate Baroque, Gothic, Hindu, Moroccan, and Neoclassical design elements. The design of Hill House in the novel is a series of concentric rings. Zanetti came close to this by designing a house whose corridors were both circular and semi-circular. At the center of the house was the Great Hall, and at the center of the Great Hall was the portrait of Hugh Crain.

The cost of the sets alone was $10 million. Twenty-five draftsmen, 40 sculptors, 25 painters, and more than 400 carpenters worked for two months in September and October 1998 to build the sets.

De Bont wanted sets which connected to one another to create a sense of reality for the actors and to allow the camera to follow an actor as he or she left a room. That way, there would be no need to build extra "doorway" sets (which showed just a portion of the interior of one room witha portion of the interior of another behind a door) and the single camera coverage could be maintained. Included in the Hill House sets were a circular ballroom with a mirror ceiling and walls and whose glass and mirror floor rotates, and the enormous and elaborate "Red Parlor" set. Another enormous set was the 40-foot-high glass-and-steel Arboretum, complete with statuary set in a pool and a double-helix metal staircase set to one side. The largest set was the Great Hall, which 225 feet deep from the front door to the double-swept staircase at the far end. On the staircase landing was a 20-foot-high portrait of Hugh Crain. The Great Hall set also contained eight serpentine columns 50 feet high, and a patterned marble floor. To the left was a 15-foot-wide fireplace guarded by stone lions, and on the right was a doorway to an ornate, oblong dining hall. The Great Hall also featured 70-foot ceilings and a working, 14-foot-long chandelier.

Eight 20-inch-wide steel support towers were located inside the marbled columns of the Great Hall. A scaffolding and truss system was built overhead, and ceiling pieces could be hung from it as necessary to create the appearance of a roof over the room. Zanetti designed the truss system according to Deschanel's specifications. But when the cinematography (and thus lighting) scheme changed after his departure, large numbers of lights had to be hung from the truss to create the correct lighting scheme. It was discovered that the truss could not support these lights, so two reinforcing arches were built above the truss to help redistribute the weight back to the towers.

A light layer of smoke was used in almost every scene to help distribute light and reduce contrast problems due to the intense light. It also helped create shadows in corners.

The color scheme for all the Hill House sets was brown and red. These colors were especially strong in the Great Hall. But because red absorbs light, extra amounts of light had to be used to ensure the right look.

The Arboretum set also had lighting problems. Half of the Manhattan Beach soundstage was taken up with a giant Batcave set for Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin, and this meant there was almost no space between the Batcave and Arboretum sets. But light had to stream in through the Arboretum windows somehow. Anotehr complication was that all the Hill House sets were connected, and Zanetti's design meant that the Arboretum was attached to the Red Parlor (which was attached to the Great Hall). Frosting the Arboretum glass was out of the question because the glass panels would appear opaquely white. So they were painted white, and then scratched to appear dirty. White fabric was placed behind the glass, and front-lit with strong flood lighting to create the look of grey sunlight. (As it turned out, de Bont never shot anyone going from the Red Parlor to the Arboretum, so the whole "connecting" idea created problems for nothing.)

Most of the film's special effects were mechanical rather than CGI. Walls and ceilings had panels built into them that allowed them to move up and down and in and out. The decorative elements over Nell's bed were hydraulic, and could extend outward and downward as if curved to achieve the effect of holding her down and in place. The double-helix staircase in the Arboretum was actually supported from the ceiling, not the floor. It was rigged to appear unstable. When it collapses in a critical scene in the picture, supports are withdrawn that allow the lower sections to come loose and fall to the floor -- while the upper section (up which Liam Neeson is to crawl) stays in place.

Principal photography in the U.S. ended in April 1999. Shooting then moved to the United Kingdom. Exterior photography was done Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire. The Great Hall of the manor served as Hill House's billiard room. Kitchen scenes were shot at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire.

By May, The Haunting was in post-production

That's when the reshoots began. A few were needed to replace the footage shot by Deschanel way back in November and which did not (in the end) fit with the rest of the film. Because some scenes clearly were not working, de Bont called Taylor and Zeta-Jones back to the set, where they shot entirely new scenes. (Taylor was forced to fly from New York to Los Angeles four times!)

A draft cut of the film was ready for studio executives in the middle of June. But the producers and Spielberg felt that the film's conclusion as too amorphous... Tolkin's draft included Self's decapitation of Luke and the explosive release of the bones and ashes of the children from the fireplace's ash-collection bin. Nell, Theo, and Dr. Marrow race up the staircase, where the bronze griffin attacks. Nell fends it off, and Dr. Marrow and Theo rush off down a corridor. The house seals off the corridor, trapping Nell in the Great Hall. Nell goes back down the staircase to the floor (careful not to step on any bones), and an apparition of Hugh Crain appears at the top of the steps. Theo and Dr. Marrow rush in from a side corridor, not seeing the apparition. Nell challenges the ghost, shouting that she knows that Carolyn Crain did not die but killed Hugh Crain, burned his body, and dumped his remains in the ash-bin. She reveals she is the grand-daughter of the child that Carolyn Crain ran away with (and which did not die in childbirth). Crain halts his attack on Marrow and Theo, and rushes at Nell. His ghost dissolves into nothingness when it hits her, but Nells body is then slammed into the wall. She dies. Unseen by Marrow and Theo, a carving of Nell's beatific face, her body embraced by children, now appears in the carved paneling.

Two endings were suggested. In the one which was filmed, Hill House (it's ghost banished) now opens its doors. Dr. Marrow and Theo walk out into the daylight, and leave. The alternate ending had Dr. Marrow write up the results of his fear study in a book dedicated to Luke, Nell, Rene Crain (Hugh Crain's first wife), and Carolyn Crain. He mumbles that they are now immortal. Meanwhile, Theo is shown returning to a still and peaceful Hill House, seeking Nell and happiness.

Tolkin scripted yet another ending. In this one (which made it into the film), Crain's monstrous ghost again challenges Nell. But Nell challenges him, saying that she's there to rescue the spirits of the children. Crain howls in rage. Marrow and Theo fall to the floor, the stone lions above the fireplace roar, the griffins on the staircase flap their wings and scream, and the angelic carvings of children in the room look horrified and cover their faces. Nell shouts about how "it's all about family!" and tells Hugh Crain to go to hell. Suddenly, the figures in the "Doorway to Hell" bronze doors come to life, fly through the air, seize the ghost, and pulls him through Nell. The ghost vanishes, and Nell's body slams into the door. The figures gently lower her to the floor. She dies, and her soul -- accompanied by those of the dead children -- rises into heaven. The film ends with a part of the original ending (Theo and Dr. Marrow by the gate as the caretakers arrive in the morning, asking Marrow if he "found out what he wanted").

Additionally, Tolkin scripted a number of new scenes for Taylor and Zeta-Jones. These scenes change the exposition, so that instead of a first wife (Rene Crain) who dies in childbirth and is killed by Hugh Crain and a second wife (Carolyn Crain) who gets away with a child, there is now just a single wife and she is murdered by Hugh Crain. Additional mechanical and CGI work had to be done to add a number of shots of carved angels reacting or reaching out, and the shot of the Crain wife's hanging changed to depict it as Carolyn Crain's death. To incorporate these changes, scenes of Luke and Theo flirting were cut.

De Bont continued to edit the film almost up to the release date.


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  2. Ha! I for one enjoy this film every time I watch it. Not the best, certainly - the "plot" seems to fizzle out at what should have been the climax, when Eleanor confronts the demonic spirit of Hugh Crain with, "This is about family!". My enjoyment rather comes from the sets themselves. Even Liam Neeson said that the house was the star of the film, and he was right. Incredible sets, props, furnishings, all evoking a gorgeous, yet menacing atmosphere.