Belle’s comatose twin brother James cannot be taken upstairs, so his hospital bed is placed the dining room, which also happened to place him at the center of the house. The pulsing medical equipment contrasts with the built-in breakfront and gives the room an eerie feel...
Joan [Jennifer Jason Leigh] tends to her son, as his sister [Bella Thorne] looks on. Scattered boxes give evidence that the family is still in the midst of moving into this strange older house with its tired wallpaper and draperies...
Ah! Time for the set decorator and her team to do their magic!
October 9th, 2017 by Karen Burg
A single mother moves her three children into a haunted house, unaware of its bloody history. Belle [Bella Thorne], her little sister Juliet [Mckenna Grace], her comatose twin brother James [Cameron Monaghan] and their mother Joan [Jennifer Jason Leigh] move into the house in order to save money to help pay for the boy's expensive healthcare.
But when strange phenomena begin to occur, Belle begins to suspect her mother isn’t telling her everything...and soon realizes they just moved into the infamous Amityville house. —Dimension Films
Production Designer David Lazan, Art Director Chris DiLeo, Set Decorator Regina O’Brien SDSA and their crews created a classic setting for Cinematographer Stephen Poster to atmospherically film Writer/Director Franck Khalfoun’s latest version of the supernatural horror story set in the infamous Amityville house!
SET DECOR talks with O’Brien about the twists and details of taking the audience down this scary movie’s path...
SET DECOR: Did you include any elements as a nod to the previous incarnations, or did you avoid that altogether, in order to show this was contemporary?
Set Decorator Regina O’Brien SDSA: When you are working with something as iconic as the Amityville Story, you have to take into account not only the previous movie iterations, but the source story as well. Initially Bella Thorne’s character, Belle, does not know anything about the history of the house she has just moved into. Not only did we pick a practical location that mirrors the floor plan of the real house In Amityville (which, by the way, has had a remodel and was recently for sale!), but we also constructed a complete shell of the house, with working garages and entries, at a park in Downey. We then built the attic and the basement on stage, in order to have the whole “original” house to work with. The movie has a flashback scene in the attic on the night of the murders in 1974—and, of course, several scenes that take place in pivotal spaces from the original movie, especially the Red Room in the basement and, of course, the attic. Don’t worry, there will be flies!
SET DECOR: Did you bring in any elements from research about the actual house the stories were based on?
O’Brien: As a plot point, Belle’s new schoolmates use archival material to enlighten her about the house’s past, so we needed to research the footage and photos and other material related to the incident, get clearance for what we wanted to use, and present it in a way that would illuminate what happened in the past.
As another nod to the original story, our story frequently references 3:15 in the morning, the time at which the original murders may have happened...and if you look closely, the clocks are set to this time.
SET DECOR: Was the house supposed to have been updated from the other versions, for instance, the kitchen?
O’Brien: When Belle moves into the house with her mother Joan, brother James and little sister Juliet, it is an empty house that has been vacant for quite some time, perhaps since 2005, the year of the last Amityville movie. Creating the dinginess and age that would have happened in that time helped develop the creepy atmosphere.
The story construct was that the family’s financial resources have been depleted due to James’s prolonged illness, and therefore they did not have much money to redecorate. Additionally, their furniture is very middle-American—nice but now worn—and, indeed, we did buy and distress a lot of furniture from Living Spaces.
SET DECOR: Please tell us about decorating a practical location house for this film! The positives... The challenges, such as shooting in tight spaces...
O’Brien: Because literally every inch of the house location we selected was seen and shot, we had challenges on many fronts. The decorating of the location had several stages, the first was to thoroughly paint the house, put up wallpaper, hang curtains and sconces, age everything and decorate the house as it would have been before they moved in. Then we added the moving boxes and the furniture to look like it had just come off of a moving truck. As the film progresses, we see the family slowly start to move in and inhabit the space, by unpacking and/or partially unpacking the boxes, and slowly adding elements of dressing. It was very hard to convince the crew that boxes with bubble wrap and lamp shades coming out of them were fully dressed and part of a hot set and not to be touched or moved!! Thank goodness our on-set dresser dealt well with this continuity hassle and documented everything completely.
SET DECOR: And other challenges besides the location... How did you solve them?
O’Brien: Because we did flash back to 1975 and the house was an older house even then, we had to be concerned about period correctness even though the movie is set in the current day.
SET DECOR: How much practical lighting did you have to provide for camera?
O’Brien: Since Director of Photography Steven Poster wanted most of the lighting for all scenes to be done with practical lamps and sconces, we needed to make sure we had enough lights on the walls and on tables to plausibly light the scene. So, we added sconces and pumped up other light sources, like the pulsing lights from James’s medical equipment. The practical sources were frequently supplemented with the camera lighting package, and Steven would often light from oblique angles, which throws long shadows and makes for interesting shadow play that I tried to make the most of. And, of course, less is more when it comes to lighting in scary movies.
On another note, unlike most movies where you try not to use mirrors, in this film we tried to have fun with any mirrors that might naturally be there, like medicine cabinet mirrors and cheval dressing mirrors. In Joan’s bedroom, which was fairly tight, we installed a whole wall of the gold-veined 1970’s mirror squares, which not only seemed to double the size of the room, it also gave the feeling of not knowing where you were, or where anyone else was, in the room.
SET DECOR: You mentioned that the attic and basement were stage builds...
Since the Los Angeles house we shot in did not have a basement or an attic (especially not one that looked like the Amityville attic!), we needed to build these sets on stage. It was also important to be able to “fly” walls and have multiple takes of people breaking through walls and flying out of windows—spoiler alert!
Building these sets allowed us to take some creative freedom and really go creepy. For example, to complement the thick but brutally scratched impasto on the walls of the Red Room, I burned down hundreds of candles, just to have pools of wax to look like rituals had been performed there for years and years. Likewise, I bought small animal skeletons on eBay and had them made into desiccated carcasses that may have been involved in these rituals, or may have just become trapped and died. We also rented several dead animals like this from Dapper Cadaver prop house.
SET DECOR: One of our favorite aspects: wallpaper!* Please tell us about the choices and the why of each of those selections...
O’Brien: All of the wallpapers we used were supplied by Astek Wallcoverings, where we found prints in their stock and had them custom printed in the colors we wanted. After the papers were up on the walls, we really aged them down.
The wallpaper was especially significant in Belle’s attic room where we see one design that needed to look like it was put up perhaps 15 years ago, but still needed to work for Belle’s Goth Aesthetic. In the movie, there is a scene where she sees a tear in this paper and peels it back to discover the paper that was in the little girls’ room the night of the murders. The 1975 era wallpaper we chose was purposely sweet and homey to contrast with the acts that happened that night. The wallpaper matched the flashback set, which was a complete redress (or pre-dress) of Belle’s attic room.
Although we put up wallpaper in almost every room of the house to give movement...and lurking oppression...to the walls, the only place we decided the paper would be “new” was in little Juliet’s room. In our minds, Joan had freshly papered Juliet’s room to try to literally cover up the bad vibes in the house with a sweet and girly contemporary look for her youngest child. It is great when a set decorating element like wallpaper can advance your story, and I think it ended up being very effective.
SET DECOR: Another important set decorating element: draperies... Please tell us about sheers and patterns and textures for camera...**
O’Brien: All of the windows in the house had drapery treatments for two reasons: one because the house was completely “tented” with what amounted to a giant black plastic bag over it so that no light could get in—obviously, we couldn’t let the audience see this tent—and two, because old and dingy drapes really say “spooky.” All of the drapes and sheers were purchased at Bed, Bath and Beyond, then altered to fit the windows after being hand tea-dyed.
SET DECOR: You mentioned the bedrooms...let’s talk a little more about each...
...Belle’s attic room... Belle is like any rebellious teenager coming into her own. Her aesthetic sensibilities run to the Goth and macabre. She is filled with dark suspicion and sadness about her twin brother’s condition, which is why she is on edge from the moment she steps into the house. Remembering what it is like to try to be cool on a teenager’s budget kept the mix of vintage thrift store meets Target with a dash of Goth Girl eclectic and fun. I also tried to pick pieces that were open, with curls and twists, since their shadows on the wall would look like creeping vines. As in any horror movie, shadow play is very important to create shapes and conjure presence that isn’t actually there.
...There is also scene in her bedroom that is a flashback to 1975 and the attic room where the little sisters of the murderer were shot as they slept. I did a lot of sourcing from eBay for the vintage toys and artwork, and of course, from our great prop houses in town, especially PSW, Omega Cinema Props and Modernica...particularly for the French Provincial bedroom suite and other furniture pieces we custom painted. I always remind myself that if scene takes place in 1975, the room would probably have very few items from that year in it. In this case, my backstory was that some toys and furniture were new, and some were from older siblings, or heirlooms from their parents. In years past, people did not have the same sense of “disposable” culture that we have today.
...little sister Juliet’s bedroom...
As mentioned before, Juliet’s room is the only room in the house freshly decorated by their mother Joan. It is based on her fantasy of what a little girl’s room should be...full of innocence and free of the disappointments of life, which Joan encountered when her son became ill and Belle began to pull away from her. It is a standard trope to use dolls for scary scenes, so it was fun to be able to justify this and tweak it slightly for a little girl’s bedroom.
...“bedroom” for James – set up in original dining room...
Because James is in a hospital bed, his bedroom needed to be on the first floor, so the dining room made sense. This also puts him in the center of the house, which is important to the plot. It also sets up an odd incongruity between the domestic (the dining room with its classic draperies, built-ins and wallpaper) and the medically sterile. Because we used a 1930’s home in West Adams for this location, it did come with nice period details like the button light switch. Beyond that, some things in the location house that had been modernized we replaced with period hardware or sconces, and some things we “updated” in the style of a landlord who never wants to spend a dime on—or set foot in—the house.
SET DECOR: The palettes were obviously significant in this film...
O’Brien: Yes, our palette for the outside world needed to contrast with the world surrounding the house. The palette for the house was brown, yellow, purple, pink and red. The palette for the outside world, therefore, was predominantly blues and greens. Belle’s home situation is chaotic, to say the least. Therefore, the school sets needed to be an oasis of normalcy and safety. Blues and greens are calming.
SET DECOR: Were there any major surprises during filmmaking?
O’Brien: This show presented a lot of firsts for me. There is a scene in the movie where one of the characters comes across a line around the building made of hundreds of dead bugs. I had never purchased dead insects (fake and real) in bulk before, so the selections process for which ones looked good on camera was fun!
SET DECOR: Please tell us about collaboration on this film. What was your process with Production Designer David Lazan, and your approach?
O’Brien: David held everyone to a very high level of accuracy and excellence. He was very attuned to the set decoration details, and was very creative about how he handled all of the moving parts of this film. Even discussions about wallpaper, for example, would delve into the psychology of the scene, which I always appreciate, since so much of this job is understanding the psychological underpinnings of the different situations that are presented to us and then translating them visually for the audience.
The Amityville property is so legendary, it was exciting to be both respectful and daring with the material. I enjoyed the holistic nature of the project because the film was shot from so many of the different characters’ points of view, but still needed to have a cohesive look.
SET DECOR: You have an abiding interest in Modernist architecture, are actively involved with saving some of the buildings as heritage sites. This house is decidedly not that style. Please tell us about stepping away from that and immersing oneself in the “character” of this house...and the family.
O’Brien: One of my greatest passions is the preservation of mid-century Modernism, and I have been involved with the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Modern Committee for many years. I do love Modern sets, but really enjoy set decorating all sorts of sets, be they period or contemporary. I am fascinated with the history of objects. In truth, the diversity of the projects is what keeps this job fresh for me after all these years.
One of the things that appealed to me with this project was the opportunity to take on a character that is a building. This house is and was very alive and a very real character with quite a backstory to develop the set decoration around. In fact (another spoiler alert), the house changes and grows and becomes much more ominous as the story unfolds!
Set Decorator Regina O’Brien SDSA shares some of her key resources, and would like to note particularly the SDSA Business Members, highlighted below: Alpha Medical a.k.a. Alpha Companies Motion Picture Rentals
Angelus Medical Astek Wallcovering
Bed, Bath and Beyond Chris Art Resource Dapper Cadaver/Creatures & Cultures
General Wax and Candle
Living Spaces Modernica Props Omega Cinema Props PSW: Props Service West Premiere Props
Shutterstock Universal Studios Property
Warner Bros. Property