Helen Mirren Improvised the Most Explicit Line in 'Winchester' (Exclusive)
By John Boone
"Who's better than Helen Mirren?" Michael Spierig, one half of the Australian directing duo, The Spierig Brothers, reasons of Mirren being the first actor they went out to when casting Winchester, the brother's new scaremonger centered around a haunted house where plenty of things go bump in the night. They just weren't sure if Mirren did horror movies. "If it was just a straight up slasher, of course that wouldn't interest her."
This, however, interested her. "I mean, Helen likes to do action movies!" Peter Spierig laughs during a call with ET. "I remember how excited she was when she told us, 'I'm going to be in Fast and Furious.' And then she's also the Queen, so I think she likes a wide range of genres."
What the Academy Award-winning dame was ultimately drawn to, the directors agree, was a role she could sink her teeth into: Sarah Winchester, an eccentric heiress living at the turn of the century who inherited a fortune after her husband, William Winchester of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company Winchesters, died. Despite living out her remaining days haunted by the legacy of the Winchester rifle and in mourning over her own loss, Sarah remained quite the progressive thinker.
"She was one of the first people to have a telephone, a shower, electricity," Michael says. "She pioneered irrigation systems, she was a farmer and she was a builder, so she was a really fascinating woman, and I think that's what really drew Helen in."
Winchester is set in 1906, the year a psychiatrist (played by Jason Clarke) is tasked with performing an evaluation of Sarah's mental facilities at the behest of her company. During his stay in her home, Sarah explains to the good doctor that she is haunted by the spirits of those who were killed by the Winchester firearm. She oversees continuous construction on the home because she has been burdened herself with building rooms for the dead, a penance on her part that allows them to move on. Not all the ghouls are so willing to forgive, though, and in one sure-to-be iconic scene, Sarah is possessed by a malevolent spirit hell-bent on exacting revenge, allowing Helen Mirren to scream the line, "This whore bitch has to die!"
"I gotta tell you that was not in our script. That was Helen Mirren," Peter exclaims. "In fact, not only was it Helen, she said far more than that that we had to chop out of the scene."
"When she's on Inside the Actors Studio," Michael laughs, "they're going to play that clip."
Winchester's movie poster proclaims that the film is "Inspired by True Events at the Most Haunted House in History." If you've never visited Northern California, you might not be familiar with the Winchester Mystery House. After purchasing the property, Sarah bankrolled nearly four decades of around-the-clock construction on her home, transforming the mansion into a 160-room labyrinth, full of stairways and corridors that led nowhere and doors that open to nothing. For skeptics, what are those true events, the core facts within Sarah's story, that cannot be disputed?
"There are the facts about the house. There's the fact that Sarah Winchester moved to San Jose after the death of her husband and child. She saw a medium who told her to build the house to appease spirits," Peter lists off, referencing a Boston medium who's said to have advised Sarah to move west and warned her that if construction ever stopped on the house, she would die. "There's truth about the nature of how the house was built, that it was 24/7. That is all true. The rooms that we built are accurate to the house. The San Francisco earthquake, obviously that's true."
And then there are the spirits. "We based everything on the research that we could gather," Michael says, explaining that the backstories for the ghosts in the movie are extracted from stories or legends concerning the Winchester family. "Then, obviously, there's some license involved. Obviously. We're not making a documentary here."
The Spierig Brothers were granted access to film part of Winchester in the real house, nonetheless, which is now a historical landmark and tourist attraction. Still, "to walk around those hallways at night--" Peter recalls. "No film crew has done that ever before. We're the first and that's incredibly creepy." And now, even after their research has been completed and the movie is in theaters, there still exist plenty of mysteries held within the Winchester mansion.
"There are so many wild angles in that house, and it's not just looking forward. You look up and down and it's like an Etch-A-Sketch. Every time I go there I see something new," Michael says, while Peter adds, "There's constantly things that are still being uncovered. There's new rooms that are being discovered...There may be a lot more in there that still hasn't been uncovered." Which certainly bodes well for a sequel. "Who knows? Ten years from now, there may be something that's really fascinating."