Horror movies “based on a true story” are a dime a dozen, but only one can lay claim to both one of the most haunted houses in America, the Winchester Mystery House, and an American folktale tied to one of the most prominent arms dealers in U.S. history, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Peter and Michael Spierig’s Winchester, that horror movie with the ethereal trailers that made you nudge your friends and say, “Hey, look, it’s Helen Mirren,” takes on the Winchester house and dons Mirren in a black lace veil and a soul-wrenching belief in the supernatural.
“We shot as much as we could at the actual house, and then we recreated many of the rooms as meticulously as we could on a soundstage in Australia,” Michael told SYFY WIRE. “We also built part of the original house on a farm property, so we tried to recreate it as accurately as possible based on historical images.”
To recreate the sprawling mass of the house, the Australian Spierig brothers — best known for their genre-blending science fiction thrillers Predestination (2014), Daybreakers (2009), and Undead (2003) — turned to the Winchester Mystery House’s meticulous archives. As the pair researched the house and its secrets for over two years, they grew more enamored with not only the house itself but the woman at the center of it all, Sarah Winchester (Mirren).
Upon her husband’s death in 1881, Sarah Winchester inherited 50 percent of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and came into a massive fortune that branded her the richest woman in the world. The legend goes that, for 38 years, Winchester paid for laborers to work on her house in San Jose, California, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The constant, unexplainable construction did little to belie rumors that Winchester, after visiting a psychic medium, believed herself and her house to be cursed by the souls of those killed by Winchester firearms.
The Winchester house, to this day, famously contains stairways to nowhere, doors that lead to steep drops over open air, and mindless, seemingly unplanned corridors.
Winchester tells Sarah Winchester’s story like a supernatural thriller, depicting her as a misunderstood woman far ahead of her time, plagued by loss and guilt. Mirren’s Winchester is joined by Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, Everest) as the opioid-addled Dr. Eric Price and Sarah Snook (The Dressmaker, Steve Jobs) as Mary, an understandably concerned mother and Winchester’s great-niece.
Despite the overwhelming amount of ghouls going bump in the night throughout Winchester, the Spierigs insist they never saw anything out of the ordinary while filming on location.
“Maybe we just weren’t there long enough,” Peter told SYFY WIRE. “Michael and I tend to be quite skeptical. But that's not to say that there's not a possibility, that's not to say that they're not there!”
The Spierig Brothers spoke with SYFY WIRE before Winchester’s February 2 premiere about historical accuracy, Helen Mirren's horror chops, and how their film plays all too well into the American gun rights debate.
I know you guys went through about two and a half years of rewrites on the original script from Tom Vaughan.
Peter: Michael and I read the original script and [Vaughan] had written some interesting things and had done quite a lot of research on the house. But Michael and I felt like we wanted to tell a different story. There are quite a few similarities [between the original script and ours] in that we're dealing with real people and real locations and certain events.
What, specifically, did you change or add?
Michael: We made the film more focused on Sarah Winchester, whereas I think in the original screenplay she was far more secondary — a background character. We felt like, since her story was the most interesting and her mythology was the most interesting, we wanted to bring her front and center and make her a major contributor to the story. I thought she was the most interesting part of the story.
Peter: The other thing we did was we had a sort of main idea about the characters — three characters in particular, Sarah, Eric, and Mary — dealing with grief and loss and the process of trying to overcome that. That was an element that wasn't in the original version of the script.
Since this is based on a popular true story, how much of your own research did you do?
Peter: We did a lot. This took about two and a half years to write, and through that process we visited the house many times, we talked to historians, we did our own independent research, read a bunch of material. It was a fairly lengthy process. And part of the tricky thing, too, is when you're writing a script you want to incorporate the mythology of the house and what has become kind of the Winchester Mystery House elements in terms of the stairs to nowhere and these weird architectural oddities that are in the house. So it's a combination of doing the research and incorporating what is there at the house and building the mythology around that.
I imagine you had to leave a lot of stuff out, then.
Peter: There are a number of things and there are a number of architectural things. [The film is set] right around the time of the  San Francisco Earthquake, so it was sort of understanding how the architecture was at that time and understanding how the house existed in terms of the rooms [and what was there]. But it's very unclear because so many rooms were torn down and rebuilt. We tried to incorporate as much as we could. We don't really know everything — that's the tricky part!
After co-directing movies about zombies (Undead), vampires (Daybreakers), and time travel (Predestination), a haunted house story feels almost tame for you guys. What drew you to this project?
Peter: It was the house and the fact that it was a house that was being built 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no real rhyme or reason to it. That was exciting and interesting. And then, when we began to learn about Sarah Winchester, who she was and the story behind her, the fact that she went to a medium and the medium told her that she was haunted by the deaths of the Winchester rifle for which she inherited the Winchester rifle fortune and what that meant to her and the cost of that — that was all really interesting stuff. So we were really intrigued by that, and whenever we pick a story to tell, whenever we get involved with a movie, it's always about, "Well, what's the story and what's interesting about the story?" And so that's kind of where we immediately go. And if it's a horror film or a science fiction or it ends up being a comedy, whatever it is, we'd gravitate toward the story first.
And this is a story that’s pretty relevant right no,w in a time when mass shootings and debates over gun rights are at the forefront. Was that on your mind?
Peter: It was certainly on our minds. That was an element of it that we were actually really excited about, the idea that this woman was plagued by all these deaths. What she inherited was a fortune from a weapon that basically changed the face of warfare. People were fighting with muskets and then along came this gun that could repeat-fire very, very quickly. And that technology, as we know today, has advanced dramatically, and the power of that technology can be absolutely devastating. And it all sort of starts from that point where guns can start to repeat-fire very quickly.
What do you think Sarah Winchester would have to say about all this?
Peter: I hope that we portrayed her in a way that was accurate. I hope that Helen was a good choice. That she liked the idea of Helen playing her. I have a feeling she'd be okay with that.
I also think that there's been some history or mythology around the idea that she was crazy. Michael and I strongly believe that she wasn't, that she was actually a progressive and thoughtful woman. I mean, the [house] staff, after she died, didn't say a bad word about her. She was beloved.
And she was also somebody who was ahead of her time. She wanted to be an architect, and in that period there weren't a lot of women who could do that. I don't think there was any, actually. And she was very inventive and came up with all these things. There are things in the movie like these pipe systems where you can talk to people [throughout the house]. I hope that we portrayed her in the right way, and we certainly tried very hard not to portray her as a crazy person.
Obviously, Helen Mirren is a pretty big deal, but she’s not really known for horror. She’s worked on thrillers, but not horror. What was it like to direct such a well-known artist through new territory?
Michael: Helen's wonderful. She's the best. But I think also, too, Helen was drawn to the woman, Sarah Winchester, and thought that she was an interesting enigma, certainly in terms of, like Peter said, the progressive mind of that woman. I think she was fascinated by the mythology of someone who was haunted by the deaths at the hand of the rifle. So I think those were the things.
You want to talk about Helen in a horror movie. I don't think this is — I'm fine with people calling it a horror movie, go right ahead, it doesn't bother me at all. I don't think this was a particularly gory horror movie, and we've certainly done those in the past. I think this is more of a supernatural thriller or whatever you want to call it. I think that what drew Helen into it was more the fact that there was a really interesting woman behind the mythology, and she seized that opportunity and thought she could do it justice.
How does Winchester stand out in a world so saturated in horror, particularly supernatural horror?
Michael: The thing that we're extremely proud of — and, as far as these types of haunted house movies go, we see a lot of them, and there's probably still a lot coming out this year — is that this movie has a very unique kind of mythology to offer this type of genre. I think it's rare that we get such an interesting, historical woman that was such a powerful force in that period in terms of being a progressive thinker, an independent woman who wasn't crazy — she was just dealing with loss and grief. And I think she's such a fascinating character in history, so if you're interested in history and, I know, look, it's a movie, not a documentary, but if you're fascinated by a piece of entertainment that's based on some historical proof, then this film has all of those elements, and we're really proud of it.