Interview: Peter Spierig

“We’re interested in the same thing and we want to keep trying different things together.”

One half of dynamic directing duo, The Spierig Bros, Peter tells Cinema Australia he has no plans to branch out on his own. He also fills us in on working with Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke on Winchester and describes what it’s really like inside California’s most famous haunted house.

Interview by Matthew Eeles.

I’m always curious to know how often filmmakers get to the movies and see the latest releases. What have you seen lately that’s really impressed you?
I haven’t seen much lately. It’s been a little tricky because I’ve been making movies back-to-back. We finished Winchester right around Christmas time so then it was families and all that kind of stuff so I haven’t really had a chance. I’m fortunate enough that I do get a lot of screeners sent to me be because I’m a member of a lot of guilds. It’s not the same as going to the cinema, but I do try to see things for sure. I just don’t get the chance to get out to the actual cinemas too often these days.

Have you been able to keep up with the Australian film industry and the films being made here?
I used to see everything. I used to see all the AACTA nominated stuff. I haven’t been able to see much from the last year and I definitely do need to do a massive catch up. I did see Jungle because it’s a project which Michael and I actually worked on for a very long time. Greg McLean ended up directing that movie and I think Greg did a really, really good job of it.

I had no idea.
Yeah. Michael and I were writing and directing Jungle for a number of years. There are many stages of getting a movie made and we at one point had the cast together and we had the finances together and we were about to go to Bolivia to shoot and a piece of financing fell out at the last minute. We had to then rebuild some of that money and because we were trying to beat the rainy season and we couldn’t get the money back together by that time. We then had to delay it by six months to avoid the rainy season and by that point all the other actors had other jobs. The whole thing began to unravel and that’s what ended up happening.
After that Michael and I went off and we made Predestination while Jungle was getting rebuilt with Greg.

Fascinating.
[Laughs]. Yeah. These things sometimes have very long histories and films are very, very hard to get made.

Jason Clarke as Dr. Eric Price and Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester in Winchester.

Winchester is a film based around the Winchester rifle and a handful of that particular gun’s victims.
It’s released in Australia eight days after one of the worst school massacres in America’s history. Do you think an event like that has the power to influence how audiences will respond to the film?
I hope that people see the film and see that we were making a point about a woman who is haunted by the deaths of people who were killed at the hands of a rifle. They call this rifle “The Gun that Won the West” but what that means is that it’s a gun that killed a hell of a lot of people. It was a time when muskets were being used and along comes this gun which can fire multiple times. You click a lever and another bullet loads in immediateluy and you can fire again while people are shoving powder into their musket. There was no competition.
You think about what we have nowadays with the AR-15 and what that can do, and the power that gun has, compared to when the gun laws in America were created it’s just a completely different world. Gun laws have not changed but the weapons have. It’s a crazy time.

You shot parts of the film in the real Winchester house. Can you give us an idea of what it’s like inside?
It’s a beautiful place. It’s obviously got a long history of construction. When Sarah was alive it was being built around the clock 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There have been many rooms built, and many rooms built on top of each other. Many rooms don’t line up and there are these strange stairwells which go to the top of ceilings and things like that. It really is a fascinating place. We shot for a few days in there and we were the first film crew to ever do so. We would have tour guides for all the different departments because as soon as people left the set they were never able to find their way back from where we were shooting. It’s a very confusing place and it doesn’t quite make sense. It’s very easy to get lost.

Helen Mirren described the house as being inspiring, moving and fascinating. Are those words you’d use to describe it?Absolutely. It’s a house built by someone with a real architectural eye. Somebody who built things clearly not from function but more from passion and inventiveness. There are certain things which Sarah Winchester did which were very unique at the time. She created an intercom system with piping and things which just weren’t done back then. She had the first phone in that area and her phone number was 1234.

You’re joking.
[Laughs]. True. There were certain things she was doing which were so unique and you can see that when you’re inside the house.

I wondered about that intercom system and wondered if it was something created specifically for dramatic purposes.
It’s real. I got a chance to use it and it works. It totally works. There are a number of things which are completely real. There is this system called the annunciator where the ID of a room drops down, like the garden room or whatever room it is. That is real and it’s something that existed in the house. There are many things in the film which may seem unbelievable but were very true to the actual house.

Helen Mirren as Sarah Winchester in Winchester.

Is Helen as incredible to work with as she is to watch on screen?
Absolutely. She’s fantastic. All directors will say she’s amazing, and it may seem like a very generic thing to say, but we really did have an amazing time with Helen. She is really sweet, highly intelligent and a real team player. She was there to work and she got along with all the crew and cast. She was just great and everything you would hope it would be to work with someone like Helen but you’re never quite sure if it will be as good.

Jason Clarke is going from strength-to-strength as an actor and he’s very good here, very intense. Did you guys have any influence in his casting?
Completely. We absolutely did. Michael and I were set on Jason. He was our first choice and he was who we wanted from the beginning. We are big fans of Jason for the reason you mentioned, he’s intense, he’s highly intelligent and just a damn good actor.  

There are a lot of conflicting stories out there about what Sarah Winchester was like. From all of your research, how would you best describe her as a person?
She was a woman in mourning. She was a woman who had dealt with some real tragedy including the loss of her husband and her very, very young daughter. She was someone who felt tremendous guilt about the rifle and having made so much money off of it. I think she was really, really bright and very creative. When she died the staff had nothing negative to say and they didn’t say a bad word about her. I think she treated people very kindly and very respectfully.

The perfect horror film character. Are you surprised there hasn’t been a film made about her already?
Yeah. When we first got the material for this we were surprised that no one had made a film. When we started digging and getting to know the producers we learnt many filmmakers had tried throughout the years. I think at one point Stephen King couldn’t get the rights to it and ended up making the story, Red Rose, which is based around the Winchester house. There are a number of other filmmakers who tried and chased this story for a long time.

Sarah Snook and Finn Scicluna-O’Prey as Marion and Henry Marriott in Winchester.

How different is the final cut of the film compared to the original script you were presented? The film was written by Tom Vaughn but you and Michael also have writing credits. What was your influence on the script.
We had read Tom Vaughn’s original script and we were intrigued by certain aspects of it but Michael and I wanted to do a significant rewrite so we did. It wasn’t a page one but it was close to a page one rewrite on the movie. There are certainly aspects of the script which are the same because we were all dealing with the same historical events and the same characters and so on. We took a few aspects of Tom’s material but we did a fairly significant rewrite.

More scares?
Not really. It was always going to be a scary movie which was always the intention from the beginning when we got the material, and that was the intention of the producers, and we agreed that that’s what the film should be. We just tried to dig into the facts a little more and who Sarah was and tried to develop a mythology around the ghosts which was tricky because there are so many different stories. There are so many aspects to that which we tried to decipher.. We tried very hard to ground it in some sort of reality.

The film has some great CGI effects. Personally, I prefer my horror films without CGI as I’ve always found practical effects more realistic, no matter how dodgy. As someone who has dabbled in visual effects and 3D animation in the past, what’s more fun for you, CGI or practical effects?
Michael and I would always opt for practical. We did a lot of CGI ourselves and we even did some CGI on Winchester as well. We always try to start from a practical standpoint and I agree with you. Sometimes I agree with you in that sometimes I prefer a puppet which isn’t perfect over a digital version of it. We’ve also done our fairshair of B stuff as well, and I don’t say that as a bad thing. I think that B movies are awesome [Laughs]. We started off in low-budget zombies and we had a lot of practical effects in that one. The same guy who’s been doing our effects since we were in TAFE has been doing all of our movies, including Winchester, with the exception of one in between. We love practical. We never once said we wanted out ghosts here to be a CG aspirition. We always wanted it to be a person in the room with the actors.

The Spierig Bros, Michael and Peter, on the set of Winchester.

You and your brother have made quite a few films together now. Has there ever been a project which has tempted you to branch out on your own as a director?
We haven’t even gone there. It doesn’t make any sense for us to go that way. We’re interested in the same thing and we want to keep trying different things together. Maybe somewhere down the line. He’s got a few personal projects which he wants to do and I’ve got a few projects which I want to do. There not going to happen any time soon. There are other things, but in the feature film world we will continue to split our paychecks. [Laughs].

So what’s next? A romantic comedy?
[Laughs]. Yes, a romantic comedy. [Laughs]. Look, I actually love romantic comedies. They’re very, very hard to do. A romantic comedy won’t be happening any time soon. [Laughs]. We have a number of things we’re working on at the moment including television. We’re working on things that haven’t been announced so I can’t say much. We’re working on television that’s super exciting. It’s a generic answer, but I can’t say too much. We have other feature film scripts which aren’t horror based but in the genre of thriller or science fiction and action. Those are all on the horizon but it’s just a matter of time and deciding which one goes first.

Winchester is in cinemas now.

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