A terrifying spin on Shirley Jackson’s classic horror novel of the same name, The Haunting of Hill House was a production designer’s dream, a series in which the central location was the star—a living, breathing, decomposing and perturbing character unto itself. Joining Mike Flanagan on the first season of his Netflix horror anthology, production designer Patricio M. Farrell embraced the challenge of creating the space, which was elegant and overpowering, with surprises lurking around every corner.
Alternating between three timelines, Hill House centers on the Crains, a family that moves into a New England mansion in the summer of 1992, only to encounter paranormal experiences that haunt them for the rest of their lives. Shooting The Haunting in Atlanta, Farrell scouted the surrounding area for a mansion that felt like Hill House, and could serve as his exterior. Simultaneously, he was hard at work putting together the interiors, constructing a two-story house within a soundstage, which drew its inspiration from the sprawling estates of late 19th century robber barons.
For Farrell, building an entire house on stage was an usual approach to interior set design, which came at a cost, with its own logistical challenges. At the same time, doing so offered the show immense visual depth, upon which the production designer could then further build. “Xanadú was the quintessential comparison,” the production designer says. “But we were not going to build Xanadú.” After pushing for all the scale that his budget would allow, Farrell then had to change tack, finding crafty ways to trick the eye, to make Hill House seem even more imposing than it really was.
How did you initially come to work with Mike Flanagan? How do his sensibilities as an artist align with your own?
The first time I got a call for one of his productions was for Somnia; now, it’s called Before I Wake. I was finishing a project in Mexico, so it wasn’t easy for me to read the script and put something together to send back. But finally, they gave me a little bit of extra time, and that script got under your skin so much. It was so effective that it really moved me, but at the same time, I’m not a big fan of scary movies. [Laughs] I believe in ghosts; I believe in everything. But in this case, my conversations with him were about trying to make the most beautiful sets possible, and he agreed with that concept—that the scary parts have to come from the action, from the story.
I really don’t like the idea of something that becomes a circus. I like to make beautiful sets—that’s what I aim to do in my life—and I think it’s even more scary when we can make these stories happen in environments that are not [scary themselves]. When you go into some very trippy place, that’s already scary. But at the same time, it’s like, Why are you going there? But in the case of Somnia, when you’re in this beautiful and normal, suburban-type house, and then all these [supernatural] things are starting to happen, it’s creepier. Because it’s like you could be there; that’s your house.
At the end of our conversation with Mike and [producer] Trevor Macy, they asked me if I had any questions for them, and the only thing I asked was if Mike had kids. Because I felt that if he didn’t have kids, it was too much. I said, “If you have kids and you are able to do this, I’m on board. But if not, if you’re exploiting those feelings that, as a father, get so deep under my skin, I don’t know if I want to [get] involved.” He said that he had a kid—he had a boy that was maybe four or five at that time, the same age as my boy—and I said, “All right, let’s do it.”
What kinds of conversations did you have with Flanagan as you set out to make The Haunting of Hill House?
For this show, I first had to put together research. From that, you start putting together some type of mood board, and some of the ideas and concepts. Where he was coming from was on the outline—more about this kind of schizophrenic nature of Hill House. Then, I came up with all the different kinds of styles that I was going to try to fit within this mansion, and the sense of scale was the main challenge that I foresaw. I think that’s where our initial conversations went—how I was going to be able to put together all the styles. This was basically one of those old robber baron mansions of the late 19th century, where these people with immense fortunes were trying to bring in the Old World, and mix all types of styles. So, that was kind of the conversation, getting immersed in that world, and then going through the different styles that we were going to be able to use for this—the Gothic and Baroque, Victorian and Moorish—and seeing what we could take out to use in our design.
You used Bisham Manor in LaGrange, Georgia as your Hill House exterior. How did you land on a real-world location that could play such a vital role?
The exterior of the house was a long evolution, really. At the very beginning, the idea was to build the exterior on location, and the interior on stage. But quite soon after finding a couple of fields where we could build that, I started steering the conversation into looking for an actual location, because I just felt that cost-wise, it was not going to be feasible for me to deliver what was expected. So, we started looking, and found some good places that, for one reason or another, didn’t work. Then, we fell in love with this house that was for sale, but that ended up not working out.
At this point, we already had to be building the interior, so we started designing and putting walls up before we had an exterior. So, that was pretty crazy. Finally, our location manager, Carlos Rey del Castillo, came up with one that looked fantastic, and when we went, they made it work, in terms of making a deal.
Reportedly, you couldn’t make substantial changes to the exterior. How, then, did you achieve visual continuity between the exterior of Bishom Manor and the interior sets you were building?
We did a blend of both. I redesigned some of the [interior] windows to match that exterior. But also, the main entrance to the actual house, I didn’t like it. I thought it was too small for our story, and I liked the one we had designed better. So, then we had to do our main door, bring it over to the outside, and we converted a small driveway into basically the steps. So, it was a compromise between the two.
We changed some of the designs for the interior, and some of the exterior, too. Obviously, a lot less; we couldn’t go and take a wall down in a house like that. But the door that you see on the house, in the exterior—which, of course, matches our interior—that’s ours. Then, by persevering with a lot of diplomacy, we got the owner to allow us to cut [down certain trees]. There were a few trees right against the front wall, in front of the house, and they were the wrong trees for the type of house, the year, and where it’s supposed to be in New England. These were crape myrtle trees, which are very typical of the South. The other thing is that you couldn’t really see the house that well, so after a while, the owner authorized us to remove those trees and do a couple other things. It was, like always, a give and take, and I think the house was an extraordinary find—amazing to come upon in the middle of Atlanta.
Hill House features some extraordinarily long and complex tracking shots. Was the mansion’s two-story interior built as one cohesive set, to allow for this kind of movement?
Yes. This was one of those wonderful accidents—results that come out of not having everything you wish for, in a way. The way we usually approach [the process], if we can build the first floor all together, then in some other area of the stage, or another stage, we’ll do the second floor. This way allows for lighting, and moving walls is much easier, [minimizing] costs related to engineering and stuff like that. But in this case, [with] the lack of stage space, I was just trying to keep on creating this puzzle.
Because as enormous as this house had to be, it was not the only set we built. The funeral home was another very large set, just to mention one. There were all kinds of other sets that needed to be built. So basically at some point, realizing that I was not going to get another stage, I came up with this solution, which was building the two-story house as a two-story house. This would bring some extra costs, but at the same time, I was also putting out there that it would bring this great way of shooting, [where] you could do all these continuous shots.
I thought creatively, it would be a big advantage, and Mike immediately fell in love with that, so we moved on. The house was a big, 15,000 square-foot mansion where you could enter and walk around, and go up the grand stairs, and go visit all the rooms, and go through, and that also helped with that sense of scale that I was referring to at the beginning—to be able to have this depth, and go through all these hallways and passageways, and these arches, and then look from above.
Could you break down a few of the visual components that defined the mansion’s interiors, and the inspiration behind those choices?
I think the key words you mentioned are “components” and “break down.” That’s really how I work, because if not, you can get dizzy. It gets like, where do you start? It’s really important that as we get the script, we get the needs of the environment that we need to create for the story to happen within. It’s a matter of starting to choose and curate each of these components, because ultimately, this combination of components and how they perform creates this environment.
I knew that in these stories, there’s always running, so I wanted to create a space where Mike could have the characters run around. But it was important to me that they could be turning a corner, and feel that they are in a completely different environment, a completely different place. That’s why you go from this very Gothic hallway into this other one that looks like a monastery, or the other one that was more modern. I think visually, it’s a lot more interesting and exciting, and at the same time, it gives this sense that you could be anywhere, and that this place is so big.
What other choices did you make to support a sense of depth within Hill House?
We basically had these two hallways, with downstairs and upstairs. They run for approximately 120 feet, so starting with that, it’s then [about] the process of accommodating all the other rooms. It took a lot of work to align these rooms in a way that you could stand in many different spots, and always see through many different layers of rooms. As you go through one threshold onto the next, you’re seeing these different color palettes and textures, and light sources, and it basically creates all these shadows. So, that’s in the long view. Then, as you get closer to the walls, I was trying to use depth on the molding, and the wallpaper, and all these different types of elements that we put in there. That kind of makes the moldings, and railings and [everything] a little bit oversized, so they would also create their own shadows, and you had these different layers on different levels.
Certain sequences juxtapose the pristine interiors of Hill House with a creepier and much more broken-down version of the same space. What was your approach to those moments?
This was definitely another source of sleepless nights, how to get to that, and there were different production approaches that of course I had to adapt to. One of them was going to be to basically age everything, and then have a hiatus for the company, where the art department would be going back and taking it to its original pristine [look]. What we ended up doing, in this case, was to finish shooting all of the scenes that were in the decrepit stage of the house at the very end, so we only had to do that once. We used the interior stage sets and just took them to that level of abandonment and neglect, so that took a lot of work. What it took away from us was [the ability] to have more time on our own to do it. But on the other hand, we were able to be a little bit more wild in our approach, knowing that we were not going to have to bring it back.