Tuesday, March 21, 2023

‘The Night House’: Designing the Isolated Home for the Supernatural Thriller

The Night House” production designer Kathrin Eder jumped at the opportunity to work on David Bruckner’s new supernatural thriller, since the project represented an opportunity for her to flex her creative muscles.

The blueprints of the house would also feature heavily as part of the storyline.

In the film, Rebecca Hall Hall plays Beth, a young widow still reeling from her husband Owen’s (Evan Jonigkeit) death. She’s now alone in their isolated home that sits on a lake that Owen built for them.

Optical illusions and creepy windows imply there is something sinister at work as Beth experiences the supernatural.

It was up to Eder to find a location and built Owen’s dream home that makes the perfect haunting.

What was important to you when finding the perfect location for “The Night House?”

I was very clear with David – because my background is social and cultural anthropology, so I like to dive heavily into world-building from a place of backstory and a place of geography and how location influences our main characters, socially, economically and physically. It was understanding that this house was buyer-made, in isolation, in a general American town, and that immediately set a very clear tone for the story that took place. It would look very different if the story took place in New York City, for example. From an archetypal place, it immediately opened up so many questions, and that was a great challenge.

Where did you find the house that was eventually used in the film?

We shot in Syracuse, New York, which is beautiful in terms of landscape and the rolling hills and the lakes. There was lush green vegetation which gives a lot of room for opportunity.

We had very little prep, but I think David and I must have spent three weeks in the car, knocking on every door with our location scout. When we finally found this place, we needed to see how it looked from the water. We couldn’t dial it in. We also had to rent a boat to take a photo from the water to make sure the movie poster will work, because we knew from the very beginning, this is going to be the poster.

When we found the house, we changed quite a bit on the interior and the exterior. We needed to figure out the geography and create not only a specific feeling about the house as a character, but we also needed to figure out the mirror logic.

We had to add an entire wing because we couldn’t film the master bedroom. We did augment the house by adding windows and stairwells. We turned the ceilings into wood ceilings and painting everything. We added fireplaces and built a lot of furniture.

You mentioned the windows, can you elaborate on that since they add this psychological eeriness to the house?

In creating a home, human beings try to go back here to something cavernous that makes us feel protected. But when you choose to live by a lake in the middle of nature, there’s this juxtaposition that no one can watch you, we protect ourselves from other people and not necessarily from nature, so there wouldn’t be any window dressing. We chose to keep the window dressing very minimalistic so we constantly have this interactional preference of the outside forces of nature. Water in itself, throughout history, has always been tied to the subconscious, the hidden, to the unknown and the mysterious, it was very important for us to have a constant presence of water.

The main theme of the film deals with suicide, isolation, mourning, rebirth and making a choice. David wanted to be very sensitive about how we tie the outer world to Beth’s state. The windows provide much insight into her world and her psychological state. I think the dark force and the presence that emerges throughout the film also has something voyeuristic that you are completely exposed to. The windows and that interaction between the outside and inside dive into that feeling of discomfort.

Windows helped illustrate the voyeuristic themes of “The Night House.”
Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

The house doesn’t seem very lived in given Owen built this for them. Can you discuss how you decorated it and why you opted for the minimalist approach?

We dove into the backstory and the relationship between Beth and Owen. Since we only see him in a few scenes, we realized that his character needs to be represented in the architecture of this house. David and I spoke a lot about traditional relationships that are often interpreted or seen as patriarchal or masculine. We made a clear decision to work with that dynamic, rather than fighting it.

With Beth coming from a dysfunctional family and being book-savvy, but socially awkward, and dealing with an incident of death that she had early on, it triggered a responsibility in Owen when they met to take over the role of protector.

We chose the architecture and the set decoration of the house to resemble Owen’s interest. We give him this line between utilitarianism and his interest in the occult. David wanted us to place symbolism in the environment.

All the elements that are found in the environment were how we chose the green wall colors to reflect the water. We added the black slate found in Syracuse and the color palette came together through that.

The film and trailer feature blueprints of the house, how did that work for you as a production designer?

David wanted to make sure that the book itself has a story where it starts with different themes, and then slowly works its way to the idea of the mirror logic house that he was going to build to protect Beth. The blueprints and drawings were a combination of my handwriting and drawings by our scenic painter. Our set decorator went to the Department of Architecture at Syracuse University and worked with a bunch of architectural students who also contributed to those blueprints.


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