We go behind the scenes of the film starring Liam Neeson, Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta Jones

By Jeff Jensen
July 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
DreamWorks/Getty Images

The following is the cover story from the July 23, 1999 issue of EW. 

There are many secrets lurking in the shadowy recesses of The Haunting. Here’s one of them: Liam Neeson, the Jedi stalwart Qui-Gon Jinn of Star Wars, is afraid of heights.

It’s a stunningly sunny spring day in Long Beach, Calif., but within the cavernous hangar-turned-soundstage that once housed Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose and now holds The Haunting‘s mammoth, menacing sets, it might as well be a dark and stormy night outside. Director Jan De Bont finds himself squeezed out of a cathedralish greenhouse set overcrowded by cameras, cranes, and crew. From the hallway outside, via monitor and microphone, he’s staging a haunted house staple: the rickety spiral stairwell that goes creak before collapsing in a flourish of heart-palpitating clatter. Inside, Neeson bites down hard on his acrophobia to climb a dozen squeaky steps to chase after Lili Taylor, who’s stranded atop the precarious structure.

”It was very hard to get him on the staircase,” De Bont says after wrapping the production. ”And we had to shoot that for a week.” It did produce the desired effect: Later, watching his stuntman tumble and dangle on the playback, Neeson utters his sweaty-palmed approval: ”F— me.”

DreamWorks hopes you’ll have the same reaction to The Haunting when it hits theaters on July 23. Here’s hoping it has the goods. Despite its abundance of virtues — an estimated $80 million budget; a director who knows how to thrill (Twister, Speed); a design, sound, and F/X team rich in Oscars; Entrapment and The Mask of Zorro beauty Catherine Zeta-Jones; and the blessing of his highness, DreamWorks partner Steven Spielberg — The Haunting arrives exhausted from racing to meet its studio-mandated release date. The mad rush was further burdened by this summer movie season’s most ominous sign: reshoots (resulting partially from losing cinematographer Caleb Deschanel over creative differences one week into filming). And just last month, De Bont was back on the set with Taylor and Zeta-Jones, shooting new scenes. Taylor, making a leap from serious indie fare like I Shot Andy Warhol to leading roles in summertime extravaganzas, estimates she shuttled from New York to L.A. four times for The Haunting. ”You put a character to rest, then you have to bring it back,” she says. ”My brain felt like it was going to split open from the concentration level.”

Bursting brains in a horror film? How unoriginal (see Scanners). But The Haunting isn’t an original idea either. De Bont’s film is the second adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. Luckily for DreamWorks, its target market wasn’t breathing in 1963 when director Robert Wise’s Haunting was released, so the story should be fresh. To wit: Dr. Marrow (Neeson) lures three insomniacs — Nell (Taylor), a fragile soul searching for someplace to call home; Theo (Zeta-Jones), a cosmopolitan bisexual beauty; and Luke (Armageddon‘s Owen Wilson), a charming cynic — to the allegedly haunted Hill House under the pretense of helping them. In truth, he’s using them as test subjects for a research project about the experience of fear. Hill House, possessed with the souls of suffering children and one very foul father figure, has even more diabolical plans.

That’s not exactly the premise of the first film, but this new Haunting was never intended to be a remake. The first adaptation had all the haunted house cliches — wall bangings, slamming doors, whispery voices, and a creepy caretaker — but no ghosts, no supernatural manifestations. Spielberg, a Jackson fan who put The Haunting in motion at DreamWorks last summer with producers Susan Arnold and Donna Arkoff Roth, wanted to travel the road not taken by Wise. “Steven felt like we needed to deliver the goods for modern audiences,” says screenwriter David Self. Hence, where once curtains merely billowed, now they ripple with the ghosts of children. “Steven and his daughter were playing with this sheet of silk and it made this impression of her little face,” says Self. “He calls out of the blue and says, ‘We need a scene where there’s a spirit of the child in the sheets!'”

De Bont, of course, had some ideas as well, and went after the kind of head-trip ambiguity of The Shining, one of his horror favorites. “Basically, The Haunting is a story about four people who won’t accept the things that are happening to them because they seem to be explainable,” says De Bont. “When something freaky happens to us, as long as we can explain it, it’s okay, but when you can’t, you’re in trouble.”

Zeta-Jones liked the idea of messing with your mind too, but she doesn’t share her director’s genre appreciation. “I liked the psychological aspect of the story, but I’m not really what you’d call a horror-flick girl,” says Zeta-Jones. Still, she swears she can fulfill the signature function of any fright flick actress. “I’ve got a great horror-movie scream. Jan loves it.”

De Bont also loved playing with the new Dolby Digital-Surround EX, which was inaugurated earlier this summer with the Star Wars prequel. “There’s no doubt in my mind that a lot of fear begins with sounds,” says De Bont, pointing to a scene where an unseen evil crawls within and around the walls of Theo’s room. The search for fresh sound effects sent sound designer Gary Rydstrom (Saving Private Ryan) to old wineries, condemned buildings, the echoey underground parking garage of Skywalker Ranch, as well as a coworker’s home. “He’s got the worst plumbing in the world,” says Rydstrom. “The pipes sound like ghosts moaning.”

De Bont used those sounds while directing action on his $8-10 million sets, designed by Eugenio Zanetti (Restoration) with Turkish, Gothic, and Victorian architecture in mind. The most ambitious work orders, however, went to visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett (Jurassic Park), who had to map out the movie’s gradual escalation of supernatural manifestations, from buckling, breathing doors to sheet-slithering ghost kids to the phantasmagoric finale. “In everybody’s mind, a dinosaur is the same, a twister is the same, a giant bug is the same,” says Tippett. “But ghostly events and creepiness are different; one person’s idea is different than another’s.”

When it came to the ending, though, DreamWorks had the final say. Feeling De Bont’s conclusion lacked clarity, the studio sent him, Taylor, and Zeta-Jones back to the sets in late June to shoot a new plot thread (scripted by The Player‘s Michael Tolkin). “We added some shots of the spirits of the children…well, I’m not going to give it all away,” laughs De Bont. Meanwhile, a scene exploring the romantic flirtation between Zeta-Jones’ and Taylor’s characters was left in the editing room — though De Bont says the studio didn’t force the cut. “It doesn’t surprise me that it was lost,” says Taylor. “It didn’t feel very integral to the story, anyway.”

What the studio is forcing is the release date. While Zeta-Jones recently embarked on a hard-earned vacation with boyfriend Michael Douglas, De Bont kept at the editing bay even as preproduction got under way for his next project, Minority Report, which he’ll produce with Tom Cruise starring and Spielberg directing.

One mystery remains in the minds of fright fans everywhere: Will this vision of The Haunting be scary or not? Scary enough, claims De Bont, to flirt with an R rating. “It was a little hard to get a PG-13,” he says. “They basically said it was too tense. So we trimmed a couple of things. This is a movie that kids can see. There’s no foul language, no guns, no violence, really. What’s happening is…it’s more surreal. It’s not like someone’s surprising you with a chain saw.” Still, in today’s post-Columbine cultural climate, De Bont tacitly concedes he hasn’t made a film that’s as scary as The Exorcist, which he knows shot for shot. “A movie like The Exorcist could never be made today. It would be at least NC-17,” says De Bont. “It’s kind of a bizarre situation where movies we all like would not be able to be made today by any studio. Does that mean we can’t make any of those kind of movies anymore? That would be a big loss, I think.”

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