Monday, September 21, 2015

I absolutely love production design and the way movies are made.

Psycho was made on an extremely limited budget. The film was shot on the Universal Studios lot, with the exteriors for the Bates Motel and Bates House constructed on a small hill on the far eastern part of the property. This was a largely vacant area of the backlot, and at the time was occupied by "Singapore Lake" (used for ocean scenes; it's now called "Jaws Lake") and Laramie Street (a street of American Wild West facades).

In this photo, you can see the Bates House to the right. Laramie Street is to the left (north) and below (west), curving around the motel and house set.

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Art Directors Joseph Hurley and Robert Clathworthy were responsible for the design of the Bates House. Some authors claim that they loosely based the design on an Edward Hopper painting titled House By The Railroad.

But this is mostly myth.

Many Web sites claim the Bates House was cannibalized from an existing house facade on the Universal lot -- the Harvey House, on nearby Colonial Lane.

Not true.

The truth is that Universal Studios built a house on a soundstage for the 1946 movie So Goes My Love. The house was dismantled and erected on the backlot's Colonial Street in 1950. It was next seen in the 1950 motion picture Harvey, starring James Stewart, which is where it got its name from.

The Harvey House design was so good, Universal made a bunch of copies of it and kept them in storage. This was quite common back in the day, as studios often needed to erect large numbers of building facades quickly (and then tear them down just as fast). These "stock houses" were modular. This meant they were easily assembled and easily disassembled, and came in a wide variety of designs. The Harvey House was one such design, and Universal kept maybe as many as five or six disassembled copies of the Harvey House in its storerooms.

Hurley and Clathworthy used a portion of the Harvey House stock elements -- the front wall (but not the porch), the tower, and the mansard roof -- and built the Bates House out of them. The Bates House only had two walls: Hitchcock storyboarded every single shot in his film, and knew it would be filmed only from one vantage point (dead on and from below and left). So only one corner of the house needed to be seen. The only parts of the Bates House which had to be designed from scratch were the left-side wall and the porch.

(FYI, the Harvey House was later used as Delta House in the comedy Animal House. It currently serves as the Gabriel Solis house on the TV series Desperate Housewives.)

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Here's Colonial Street in 1950, shortly after the Harvey House was rebuilt here. Harvey House is dead center here. That house to the left? It'll be used in the TV series The Munsters!

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A right-side wall was added to the Bates House in 1963. The reasons for adding the wall are unclear, but it was probably done so that shots of the house could be made from the "lower" part of Laramie Street.

You'll notice something about the right-side wall. It's flat. This is unlike the left-side wall (as you can see in the photo). The left-side wall extends about halfway to the rear of the house. Then it "cuts" inward, creating a side entrance to the house. This narrows the kitchen in the back of the house by about six to eight feet.

It's not clear why a side entrance was needed in the house design. Wouldn't an implied rear entrance do as well? Nor is it clear why the right-side of the Bates House has no entrance.

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The Bates House stood for more than 15 years at its original location. Facades which were intended to be permanent usually had some sort of back to them, so that electricity and plumbing could be run behind the facade. This allowed for water faucets (for sprinklers and garden hoses) to project from the facade, and for "interior lighting" to be seen through windows. Having a back also meant that window curtains wouldn't be exposed to the elements. In some cases, the back of a facade permitted paintings to be inserted so that "interiors" of the rooms behind the facade could be seen through the window.

The Bates House, however, was nothing more than haphazard rough-timber braces. There wasn't even a platform behind the window to Mother Bates' bedroom. For the scene in which Norman -- dressed as Mother Bates -- is seen moving across the window, backlit by lights inside the house, a matte was used. There certainly was no platform back there for an actor to walk on!

For most of the period from 1960 to 1975, the "inside" of the Bates House was used for storing lumber and timber to be used on nearby productions.

The Bates House was restored and an enlarged, wrap-around porch added in 1976 for the television mini-series Captains and the Kings. (That's a photo of the miniseries version to the right, with the horses in front.)

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The Bates House was dismantled in December 1980. Weather and use as a storage area had taken a heavy toll on the set, and it was in dire need of repair, refurbishment, and conservation. The Bates House was moved to the Universal Studios Mill (a carpentry area and lumber yard) on the Universal backlot, where replacement parts were fashioned. ("Stock houses" having gone the way of the dodo decades ago, there were no stores or replacements on hand.) Here's a photo of it, partially dismantled.

The Bates Motel facade was dismantled in early 1981. That's because this part of the backlot was undergoing rapid transformation. Denver Street -- another street of Western facades -- was built parallel to Laramie Street in 1967. Shortly after Denver Street opened, a massive fire on May 15, 1967, destroyed all the sets on Laramie Street and Denver Street. For a time, even the Bates House was threatened. At first, there was talk of rebuilding Laramie Street.  But it became apparent by the late 1970s that a wider road was needed to accommodate the rapidly-expanding Universal Studios Tour.  The tour had purchased new, larger trams to provide more seating. But these larger vehicles could not climb steep hills and needed a very large amount of space to turn a corner.

To accommodate the larger tour trams, the remains of Laramie Street were bulldozed and the area around "Psycho Hill" filled in. This would have buried the Bates Motel at the bottom of the hill, so the motel set was demolished. A new street, Industrial Street, was built partially on top of the old Laramie Street (now about 35 feet beneath the earth). This replaced an older Industrial Street, constructed in 1955 on the north end of the backlot. Nine houses were moved from other parts of the backlot to populate the new Industrial Street. They included several houses from the 1955 Industrial Street, some houses from Colonial Street, and some houses from the Maycomb set -- the town seen in To Kill A Mockingbird. (FYI, the Maycomb set was real: When Dodgers Stadium was built in Chaves Ravine in the late 1950s, Universal Studios purchased a whole street of buildings from the deverlopers for $1 each. These real homes were then dismantled and moved to the Maycomb set on the Universal backlot.) Later in 1981, the original Colonial Street in the northern part of the backlot was demolished and a "new" Colonial Street northeast of the Bates Motel site constructed. (The remaining houses on "old" Colonial Street were moved to the "new" Colonial Street at this time.)

Industrial Street was renamed Elm Street in 2002. Sadly, most of the houses on Elm Street were torn down for production of Hulk in 2002. The only one remaining is the "Boo Radley House", and it was substantially altered: A new porch replaced the original one, a new railing encircled the house, and the interior floor and walls were replaced. Four new houses, each of which can serve as a soundstage (or "practical house"), were constructed. These have steel frames, which means none of the interior walls are load-bearing. Thus, production crews can completely change the interiors at will. Five other new houses were built as facades. In 2007, a "practical house" and circle was built at the end of Elm Street for the movie Hancock.

About halfway up what used to be "Psycho Hill", a new, wide street was carved. Today it's known as Steven Spielberg Drive, and it serves as a tour tram avenue. The site of the Bates House is now occupied by "Chicken Ranch" -- the "practical house" set built in 1982 for the film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. (The set was originally built inside Stage 12, and moved to its current location after filming.)

Refurbishment of the Bates House at the Universal Mill lasted a year. Production began on Psycho 2 in 1982, and the Bates House was reassembled at the south end of Falls Lake. At this time, Falls Lake was in the shape of an elongated diamond, set in a deep bowl in the earth and surrounded by hills about 40 feet high. It was located at what is now the War of the Worlds plane crash set, northeast of the 1982 Bates House location. Falls Lake was constructed in 1926, and an artificial waterfall at one end of the lake was featured in numerous film and television productions. Falls Lake was used for the swamp set in the original Psycho! However, most of Falls Lake was filled in from 1981 to 1982, so that only a shallow, irregularly shaped, east-west trending depression in the earth remained. The house faced Falls Lake, and a portion of the Bates Motel (office and Cabin 1) was recreated from scratch to serve as an exterior set.

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In 1985, the Bates House was moved again. This was due to the construction of New Falls Lake just north of the 1982 site. Construction of the lake -- which is really a shallow pond lined with concrete -- necessitated the construction southward of Steven Spielberg Drive and westward of John Williams Drive, destroying the Bates Motel mini-site and ruining the 1982 Bates House site as a filming location.

The new location of the house was a slight promontory at what used to be the northern tip of Falls Lake. A road, Psycho Pass, approached the house from the southwest, passed in front of it, proceeded southeast a hundred feet, then made a U-turn and proceeded northwest. It formed a T-intersection there with Janet Leigh Drive, and a new storage warehouse was built at the end of the street.

The Bates Motel was fully rebuilt, facing the warehouse. For the first time, the house was "blocked in" by adding a rear wall.  The right-side wall was also altered from Psycho II to make it identical to the left-side wall.  Psycho Pass was made to look like a rural highway, so that it could double for the "old highway" in front of the motel.

The relocated Bates House and the newly-built Bates Motel were used for the filming of Psycho III in 1986.

Here's an aerial shot in the picture to the right. North is to the upper left.

In 1988, a fancy log cabin house was moved to the south side of New Falls Lake for the production of the comedy The Great Outdoors. The fancy log cabin home was not built for that production; it's not entirely clear what it was built for, or when, but Universal Studio officials believe it was constructed at Jaws Lake in 1986, and then moved here. It was repositioned across John Williams Drive from the 1982 Bates House site.

Much of the original Falls Lake, now dry, was renamed "Psycho Flats". In 1996, the south side of the western pond of Falls Lake was occupied by the "Site B" research laboratory set for the film Jurassic Park. A bridge of concrete spanned the lake north to south, along which the actors ran as they tried to reach the laboratory. (The rest of the parking lot, ruined vehicles, and jungle were composited in with CGI.)

In 1997, Gus Van Sant masked the front of the Bates House with a new facade for use in his Psycho shot-for-shot remake. Big red letters spelling out the word "MOTEL" were added to the roof of the Bates Motel. Three years later, after filming was completed on Jim Carrey's The Grinch That Stole Christmas, the Whoville houses were moved in front of the Bates Motel. They are slightly below Psycho Pass Road, and screened by some trees.  (In that aerial image, you can see them in the upper left, as the big, round, ice-cream-cone like structures.) The red "MOTEL" letters were removed from the Bates Motel in 2001.

Most of the remaining part of Psycho Flats were taken up for the construction of a street of ruined houses for the "747 Crash Set" constructed for Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds in 2005. This took over nearly all of what remained of Psycho Flats.

The Bates House underwent a refurbishment in 2004 and again in 2005. The 2005 refurbishment added the ice machine from Psycho II to the side of the Bates Motel, Marion's suitcase and Norman's mop and bucket to the Bates Motel veranda, and Marion Crane's car to the Bates Motel parking lot. As the studio tour tram goes by, an actor portraying Norman Bates emerges from Cabin 1 carrying a body wrapped in plastic -- which he places in the trunk of the car. Trams usually stop here for a moment, and Norman menaces the tram car with a knife. (If the actor is not on duty, a cardboard cutout of Anthony Perkins is placed in the office window, as if he were peering out at the tram.)

In 2014, a major petition circulated on the Internet demanding that Universal Studios "save the Psycho House!" Fans mistankely believed that the structure -- meant to look like a rotting Victorian home -- was, in fact, rotting away and in danger of collapse. More than 5,000 signatures were gathered, which Universal Studios pretty much ignored as there was no problem to be solved.

The Bates House (and Bates Motel) may not have taken their last move, however. In 2010, Universal Studios adopted a master plan for development of its front and bank lots. The plan, which will take 20 years to implement, will add seven new rides and attractions, a 500-room motel, new soundstages, mixed-use residential housing (to be rented to the public at market rates), and a new mass transit station (so studio workers don't have to drive to work). A large number of existing sets and attractions, including the Bates House, are affected. Universal says the house (and, possibly, the motel) will be moved some time before the plan is completed in 2030.

FYI: Psycho IV was shot at Universal Studios Florida in 1989. A replica of the Bates House and Bates Motel were built there at that time. They were torn down in 1998.

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