How They Did It: Why Storyboarding was Crucial to Creating the Gothic Big House of The Lodgers

A brief history lesson: After the Cromwellian invasion of Ireland in the 17th century, when Irish land was confiscated from Irish Catholics to pay British Protestant soldiers, a new class of wealth emerged.

This new British ascendancy made up a tiny percentage of the population, yet they held all the land and power. It was this class who built the so-called Big Houses. Mini palaces on huge estates, where the local landlord lived in complete luxury, contrasting with the abject poverty of his tenants and servants.

To protect themselves from uninvited guests, the landlords often fabricated ghost stories and tales of satanic visitors, which were then shared with the villagers via the well-compensated local priest. This is where many of the haunted house ghost stories originate from, though there’s no doubt some of the fictions are mixed with horrible truths.

During the Irish revolution of 1919 to 1923, when the country was reclaimed by the Irish, many of these houses were burned to the ground in an effort to sweep away symbols of British rule. But some of these ostentatious and strangely beautiful stately homes can still be found scattered all over Ireland to this day.

Jump forward almost 100 years, to 2015: we find ourselves preparing to make a film set at the end of this era. While the history behind the fictional family in The Lodgers is murky, with both a British and Flemish past hinted at, the story takes place in one such Big House. Set in a crumbling manor in 1920, right in the middle of the War of Independence, we find Rachel and Edward, 18-year-old twins and the sole inhabitants of a once great house who are being consumed by a family secret which plays out in the form of a tragic Gothic ghost story.

Charlotte Vega as Rachel and Bill Milner as Edward in the Gothic horror film The Lodgers.

In many ways, the house in our story can be considered a character equal to both Rachel and Edward, for it is very much the un-beating heart of the story. And for that reason, we knew we had to find a house that would satisfy both the exacting demands of the story and also the expectations of the audience. When you think of a Gothic period ghost story, you think big, dark, and very creepy. High ceilings. Dark wooden fixtures. And sweeping stair cases. Yet with close to 600 of these Big Houses remaining in Ireland there are very few fitting that brief. Some have been restored to almost new condition. Others were painted white in the earlier part of the century, hiding their beautiful natural wood finishes. Many, however, are so dilapidated they are too dangerous to shoot in.

Hook head peninsula, which is said to have found its way into common English usage in the saying “By Hook or by Crook,” is in County Wexford. And on this windswept piece of land, which houses the oldest working lighthouse in the world, sits the darkest and most creepy Big House of them all—Loftus Hall, which turned 666 years old in 2016. To step across the threshold of this incredible house is to step back through time. Remodeled over 250 years ago by its owner Lord Loftus, today the house operates year-round as a very popular haunted house tourist attraction by its current owner Aidan Quigley. Considered the most haunted house in Ireland, even during the day there is something creepily eerie about this spectacularly peculiar time capsule. Today it’s almost impossible to imagine why such a big, ornately detailed house was built in such a remote location. And wandering through the corridors and rooms alone you can absolutely feel the presence of the many lives that tread across its now warping, creaking floorboards, and lived and died in its many vast and now sadly decaying rooms. Loftus Hall is a very special house.

Throughout the script, there are demands put on the house beyond simply serving as a dwelling for the twins. The layout of the bedrooms and a very specific physical characteristic required of the area at the bottom of the staircase meant the chances of finding a house to serve our needs, without requiring expensive CGI to communicate them, was very unlikely.

And yet here it was. A huge, extremely creepy house with much of its original wood finish still exposed. Mirrored bedrooms placed at opposite corners of the front of the building. A master bedroom door right in the middle of the two, which looked out over the stunningly detailed Gothic staircase. And most importantly, due to water damage to the ceiling in the 1990s, the area at the bottom of the stairs had been destroyed. This allowed us to add that very special physical characteristic the film relied upon so heavily, something no other house could have accommodated.

Not only did we have a house that looked exactly like the house pictured in our mind’s eye, but there would be no need for CGI to satisfy an integral part of the story. This was the perfect house to tell the story of The Lodgers.

Inviting your audience in

I’ve always felt it was very important to give the audience a clear understanding of the geography of an important location the first time it’s seen in a film. Once an audience knows where everything is, the next time you return to that location you can shoot it however you want, because the audience is informed. This allows you to be more inventive, and more sparse in your coverage as the job of communication has been done. I did this in both the upper police station office and the cells below in Let Us Prey, leading the viewer into the space, exploring the interior, and leading them back out again. In both instances, I did more coverage of the first scenes than their duration might have suggested, however it meant anytime I went back to those spaces I could get to the point quickly or shoot from angles that were less expositional.

As part of the opening sequence of The Lodgers, our protagonist Rachel races from the lake, through the forest, into the big house. Once she enters she rapidly ascends the staircase to the chimes of midnight. It’s a fast paced sequence designed to establish the curfew that’s been imposed upon her and her brother.

During this sequence, we introduce: the obscured painting on the wall. The chiming grandfather clock which reminds us throughout the film that midnight is approaching. The staircase where the most important exchanges in the film occur. The position of her bedroom in the house. The brief introduction of her terrified brother Edward, and how his room is mirrored directly opposite hers. We then end the scene facing 180 degrees in the opposite direction with the geometry of the space clearly established, returning to an overhead view of the bottom of the staircase. Here we introduce the most important physical feature of the whole house—the trap door that oozes black water on the final chime of midnight.

Milner as Edward in The Lodgers.

That’s a huge amount of information to convey in what amounts to just 40 seconds of the opening sequence, and without careful planning, it could have been a jumbled mess. Thankfully, due to my 15 years of experience directing TV commercials, I always storyboard anything I’m directing. This was true of both Let Us Prey and The Lodgers, for which I produced close to 3000 individual drawings to cover every scene in both scripts. It’s a pretty painstaking process, but one I would strongly advise any first-time filmmaker to do, regardless of directorial style. Even if you like to shoot on the fly without pre-conceived notions of shooting structure, by boarding your film you will have in some way directed the scene in your head, which gives you huge insight into the essence of a scene well in advance of the shoot. On the day you can choose to follow or abandon the boards, safe in the knowledge you’re making informed decisions that you’ll remain satisfied with in the edit.

The boards for the opening scene were done well in advance of finding a location. This isn’t ideal as you tend to place everything wherever you feel it’s appropriate. Once you have your location that all changes. Where is the painting hanging in relation to the grandfather clock? Where is the clock in relation to the stairs? Where are the stairs in relation to the twins rooms?

In the location, during prep, I worked all this out with production designer Joe Fallover and cinematographer Richard Kenrick. This then allowed me to return to my boards and adjust them to reflect the physics of the real location.

One thing I identified even at the early stages was the need for a crane arm to lead Rachel up through the staircase to her room, and then be positioned high above the trap door at the base of the stairs. This didn’t change when we found the location. Through my boards I had identified two instances where a crane was needed—once for the final shot of the film, and once for this opening. This knowledge meant the producers Ruth Treacy and Julianne Forde could allow for that in their budget and schedule, meaning expensive equipment wasn’t lying around on set waiting to be used.

I feel crane shots are often seen as a way to bring a sense of the “cinematic” to a film, often without consideration for what it’s communicating to the audience. They certainly are cinematic, but in truth, they should only be used when absolutely essential to a communication in the story. Otherwise, they’re nothing more than self-indulgent window dressing. In Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in The West, one of the greatest crane shots in cinema is used to take us from the small train platform, up over the roof of the station, to reveal the growing, bustling town of  Sweetwater. It’s necessary, and majestic, taking us from the central theme within the story—the building of the rail road—to the town where the story begins.

We shot The Lodgers at 5K on Red Dragon using vintage Kowa anamorphic lenses (posted at 2k, though in theory a 4k version could be created relatively easily if required). They’re a beautiful lens filled with the anomalies expected of older anamorphic glass. Our budget didn’t allow for the renting of the superior Cooke anamorphic lenses, however as the film was set in 1920, I knew the less than pristine optics of these vastly less expensive lenses would bring a beautiful texture to the film that would enhance the tone of the story. They tend to fall off out of focus quite heavily at the edges but shooting at 4:3 on the sensor for a 2:1 squeeze, a great deal of this softness was cropped out. This resulted in a 2.40:1 frame which was ‘relatively’ sharp across the frame.

To save valuable time balancing the crane, we used Richard’s own Arri Amira for those few crane shots. This camera doesn’t have a 4:3 sensor, so all shots done on the arm used spherical lenses in 16:9. One of the issues with mixing spherical lenses with older, less precise anamorphics is a noticeable difference in texture and color reproduction when shooting darker scenes. In daylight, it’s less apparent, but the different sensor will reproduce colors differently, and spherical lenses will produce a sharper image, which in darker lighting conditions can be quite apparent. In the finished film this isn’t something that your eye will be drawn to hugely, but we did have to color correct and add a slight softening to the edges of those few shots to get them to match within a sequence.

As we only used the second camera for that one set-up in the opening scene and a few closer shots during the climax it never represented a problem. But if you’re shooting a feature on anamorphic and are thinking of using a B camera throughout but with a different brand camera body and spherical lenses, be very careful! Do some grade tests to make sure they’re going to match under different lighting conditions.

Vega as Rachel in The Lodgers.

Rebuilding a house through editing

In our film, the twins enter the large master bedroom via a doorway that is positioned in the center of the balcony, perpendicular to the stairs and equidistant from the twins’ room. It couldn’t have been designed any more perfectly for our story, with a symmetry that echoes the mirrored lives of the twins. However, the truth is behind that central door was just another small room. While the layout of the bedroom doors in relation to the staircase was spot on, beyond those doors not everything was as ideal as it seems in the finished film.

The stunning master bedroom where we built our Gothic red parental bed out of two-by-four and some fabric was in fact hidden behind a long multi-connecting corridor on the other side of the house. It was really important to me that there was a sense of the master bedroom not only being central and symmetrical to everything else, but somewhere that was also veiled behind not just one locked door, but a long corridor and then another locked door. I wanted it to be somewhere very private. Somewhere you had to make a conscious decision to enter. Not somewhere you could stumble upon with the turn of a handle. The significance of this empty master bedroom becomes apparent later in the film, but throughout the story the twins have to access the room for various reasons so I needed to establish that very deliberate journey through several locked doors and a corridor.

In order to create this journey, I used three different locations inside the house. The first door was as it appears, centered on the balcony above the stairs. But for the corridor, I used the servant’s corridor which is in fact directly behind the staircase on the ground floor. We only shot in that space once, for about an hour during the entire shoot, and thanks to my boards I knew the scenes I needed insert shots for. This allowed us to plan the two wardrobe changes for Charlotte Vega, between which we did a few shots of Bill Milner entering and exiting the room. Behind the door at the end of the actual corridor, which thankfully swung in the same direction, was a small wooden paneled rectory. So we had to be careful not to open the door too wide or we’d reveal an entirely different space.

Once a character entered the actual master bedroom they were again in a different location in the house. Eagle-eyed viewers with a good sense of three-dimensional space can work out the impossibility of the layout. But in the flow of the action and through the magic of editing, the jigsaw puzzle comes together seamlessly.

In addition to this, the script originally placed the master bedroom on a third floor. But the third floor in Loftus Hall was hidden away behind narrow staircases and low slung ceilings, with no view of the stairs or the trap door at its foot. So rather than pass on a location that offered so much to a production, we revised the script to place the master bedroom between the twins bedroom on the first floor and used our conceptual rebuilding of the house in the edit suite to make that seem like a natural characteristic of the house. It’s a perfect example of a great location imposing changes upon the script, which result in an enhancement of the story.

For indie filmmakers embarking on a project soon, I can’t emphasize enough the need to do storyboards. Boarding 100 percent of both films on reflection wasn’t entirely necessary and next time I’ll likely do around 60 percent. I’ll focus on the opening and establishing sections. The introduction of characters. The various set pieces throughout, including important dialogue exchanges. And then I’ll cover the climax and ending. With those key scenes in place, the complex sections are pre-visualized, giving you the freedom with the remaining 40 percent to allow the actual space and the cast to inspire your choices. But that’s something I’ve learned over the course of two films.

When it comes to shooting a horror movie or ghost story in a house, keep this in mind—if the house doesn’t enchant and creep the hell out of you, then don’t expect it to work for the audience. I wouldn’t have believed it before making the film, but if you can find a house with an energy to it, even the energy of absence, then that energy is going to manifest itself on screen. And that’s added production value you cannot buy.

Loftus Hall is, to this the day, the most remarkable location I’ve ever filmed in, and each time I watch The Lodgers I’m still blown away that we managed to find such a cinematic location for the story.  Despite having spent close to a month in the house, I would shoot there again in a heartbeat. It’s everything a haunted house should be, and maybe 100 years from now, its caretaker will tell the story of twins who faced a horrible family curse and the price they paid. The horror stories used to protect these houses from superstitious invaders have become part of the fabric of the house, and I kind of hope the fiction behind our story is lost in time, going on to scare visitors for generations to come. MM

The Lodgers premieres at Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2017. Photos courtesy of Martin Maguire.

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