Jason Clarke and Helen Mirren in a scene from the movie Winchester. Supplied by Studiocanal.
Jason Clarke and Helen Mirren in a scene from the movie Winchester. Supplied by Studiocanal. Ben King

How three Aussie movie-makers lured Helen Mirren

Working with Helen Mirren was a dream come true for Queenslander Tim McGahan.

The Brisbane-based producer helped the Spierig brothers, directors Michael and Peter, secure the Oscar winner for their biographical thriller about eccentric firearm heiress Sarah Winchester.

McGahan and the Spierigs are best known for the acclaimed sci-fi drama Predestination, but they have been making films together since they were kids - Peter was McGahan's best mate growing up.

"Helen Mirren was the number one pick for the guys," he says. "It took a bit of lobbying. She's never done a supernatural thriller like this before. She looked at the merit of the project and then it was a process of convincing her it was a good project to do. She read the script and was intrigued by Sarah Winchester, this being a true story and she a woman ahead of her time.

"She then went back and had a look at Predestination and that convinced her."

In Winchester, Sarah believes she is haunted by the souls of people killed by the Winchester repeating rifle. The only way to keep the evil spirits at bay, she believes, is to expand her mansion and thereby imprison them. Spanning nearly four decades, the constant construction results in an architectural oddity standing seven storeys tall and containing hundreds of rooms.

"Sarah Winchester was a reclusive character - the creepy woman at the end of the street - but not a lot is known about her," McGahan says.

"The film certainly has been inspired by true events. The house exists; it's got hundreds of rooms. We also know she went and saw a spiritualist and the spiritualist suggested she was haunted by the spirits of those who died at the hands of the rifle.

"It's just a great story about a woman who is dealing with guilt. She inherited this fortune and she's empowered by all of this money but the cost of that is this guilt over the lives taken at the hands of the rifle."

McGahan, the directors and some key crew travelled to San Jose in California to tour and map the house, now a tourist attraction and National Historic Landmark, so portions of it could be recreated in Melbourne. Mrs Winchester's staff supposedly needed maps just to navigate the sprawling house, which was damaged in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

"It's a pretty amazing house. You go in with a preconceived idea of this crazy maze," McGahan says. "There are doors that open into nothing and stairs that go to nowhere.

"We visited the house a number of times to find rooms and where she spent her time. Then we sent our production designer over with a draftsman and they photographed and sketched so if we needed to reproduce the staircase, for instance, in Australia we could. We also used drones to do some photo mapping of the house to create a full 3D model."

Starring opposite Mirren are Aussies Jason Clarke as Doctor Eric Price, Sarah Snook as Mrs Winchester's niece and Angus Sampson in an unnamed role.

"Jason's character is a fictional character but he is based on some of the sceptics who were around," McGahan says. "His character Eric draws us into the film and we get to see this world (through him). He is a man of science, he's a psychologist, a doctor, so he doesn't believe anything he can't see.

"Sarah thought she was haunted. But are the ghosts just a manifestation of her guilt? What the audience goes out with will be up to them."

Winchester opens in cinemas on Thursday.

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