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This old haunt redone

Holiday Sneaks | GETTING IT RIGHT: THE SET

November 09, 2003

Shortly after finishing "Chicago," for which he would win an Academy Award, production designer John Myhre reported for work on the new Eddie Murphy vehicle "The Haunted Mansion." Considering how important the house would be to the film, the producers and director Rob Minkoff, in an unusual move, assembled a small art-department team to assist in visualizing the house -- the latest beloved Disney theme park ride to hit the big screen -- extremely early in the preproduction process.

"I wish all films could be done this way," Myhre says. "We worked for six weeks, working with the director on what the architecture should be like, the scale of the rooms, what sort of rooms we needed. We did research, some sketches and some small models to give the house some geography.

"It was helpful not only for the visuals and the budgeting, it became hugely helpful to the director and writer. Before, there was a general vision -- this idea in their heads -- but nothing concrete. I was constantly walking in and finding them over the model, mapping out new ideas."

As decisions were being made, Myhre realized one important dividing line among the crew.

"Every department head brought on board was a huge fan of the theme parks. As a kid, I lived in Seattle, and every year the family went down to Disneyland. When I thought of the haunted mansion, I immediately saw the Southern mansion that is at Disneyland.

"But then people came on who went to Disney World as kids, and they saw the haunted mansion as the English Tudor it is there. And other people had seen it in Paris, where it's the 'Psycho' house, an old Western town. Luckily, in my mind, it came down to this creepy old Southern mansion. And I think that's primarily because Rob [Minkoff, the director] grew up in California and I grew up on the West Coast. In my mind it couldn't be anything else. We took some liberties, but it's still the iconic house I grew up with at Disneyland."

When production commenced, an exterior set was built on a privately owned ranch ("The Disney ranch was too well maintained," Myhre says), and the massive interior sets, including a 60-foot-by-120-foot ballroom that was more than 30 feet high, were built on a series of soundstages in Glendale. The biggest problem, in a way, was knowing when to stop.

"Everyone had a different favorite part of the real haunted mansion -- 'It's got to be in there.' Some of the things are pretty obvious, like the singing busts, but hopefully if people see the film a second time, they'll keep noticing things. There were certain things we wanted to include but couldn't come up with a logic for. If we put something in, it had to work for the story."

As for his own favorite, he chuckles, "I was the one who had 18 favorites. I always liked the portrait wall, with the paintings that change, and we got that in on a last-minute second-unit reshoot."

-- Mark Olsen

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