SPOILER ALERT! This page reveals plot elements and surprises in the story. You may wish to avoid reading further until you've seen the movie. Click on any image in the tabs below for a larger version.
Rather than add commentary and extras to the movie's DVD and Blu-ray releases, we've decided to place that content here. We can present the same information in a more flexible and thorough way, and can add updates after the discs are released. Placing only the movie on the DVD and Blu-ray also maximizes picture and sound quality by allowing higher bitrates.
This section is also for the benefit of filmmakers who work -- as we do -- with modest budgets. As you read about some of the challenges we faced, we hope you'll come to realize, as we have, that bigger budgets aren't always the answer. It's amazing what can be achieved when you have no money or social life but lots of time and obsessiveness!
Early in the story, Claire reads a Wikipedia page covering the Love Nest Murders. Later she reads a true-crime book and consults old newspaper clippings about the murders.
When scripting House of Thaddeus, writers Mike Boedicker and Bill Kephart created a detailed backstory and timeline for the house. Though only alluded to in the final film, these details helped us greatly by grounding the story in a reality it needed. After all, the film was always intended as a natural -- rather than a supernatural -- story about the reality of living in a "haunted" house.
Though it's only glimpsed in the movie, Bill created (with permission of the Wikimedia Foundation) a complete -- but fake and unpublished -- Wikipedia entry. Because we weren't sure how much of the page would be seen in the final edit, he created a complete page; it is the entire fictional history we used in developing the story, and represents all we "know" about the house's history.
Other details of the house's past were noted in the various media that appear in the film. The fake Love Nest Murders book (.pdf) and newspaper clippings created by Mike were written with legitimate content so that anyone freeze-framing the shot would find a "real" story. The Love Nest Murders book is actually a discarded library book with photo pages pages sewn into its center and a dust jacket featuring a headshot of a young Mike Trippiedi (the actor playing author Marcus Prier), as well as an accurate Dewey Decimal number on the spine (Mike is a librarian and feels strongly about such things...).
As related by the character of Lily, Thaddeus made stylized "eyes" shortly before his death, which he placed in each room of the house to "watch over" the place after he died. The red glass globes, she explains, were filled with Thaddeus' own blood and hair.
In the earliest planning of the film, the house was intended to be a character. The "eye" ornaments on the walls were an explicit -- and creepy -- way to give the house a POV. Although we used almost all of the house's real furnishings in the film, the eyes were NOT a part of the decor and so had to be created. The design is based on the unicursal hexagram, a six-pointed star whose design dates back to at least the late 19th century (and later became an icon of the Thelema religion developed by the late Aleister Crowley).
Bill Kephart constructed the eyes. While he would have loved to have made them using plaster, real hair and human blood, the mundane truth is that the hexagram part was made of plastic, cast in a rubber mold (a real challenge to design symmetrically) and coated with faux gold leaf. The red orb was made from a novelty store "googly eye," and the red glass lens was one of those glass beads used in the bottoms of flower vases. The completely artificial construction was the right choice, because they often fell off the walls and took quite a beating!
For the eye POVs seen throughout the film, a fisheye lens was used on the camera, and in post-production the shot was colored deep red and distorted with "grit" (supposedly dried blood and other gunk) around the edges.
Digital special effects have come a long way, and convincing results are now achievable even at the low-budget level (in the image at right, for example, the cemetery was digitally added beside the house; in reality, a florist is located there).
Yet despite the popularity of digital effects, "practical" (i.e. mechanical) effects are often still the best solution for specific filmmaking problems. House of Thaddeus uses a combination of digital and practical effects, and a few notable examples of the latter are described below since they were among the film's most challenging effects. Our reasons for choosing mechanical over digital in these examples should be clear when you see what we gained using "old school" techniques.
Early in the story, Claire's left hand is crushed when a heavy window in the bedroom comes crashing down.
A low-tech "rain machine" was built using garden hoses and adjustable nozzles mounted to a frame, tubing adapters, and dowels, and was rigged above the window (photo right). The whole contraption gave us complete control with regard to the amount and type of rain we wanted.
Fearing the old glass window might shatter if it came down too hard, we temporarily removed it and installed a Plexiglass window. A small rod passed through the top of the window frame kept the window firmly in its open position, but was easily removed at the right moment to bring the window down with full force.
Our biggest concern was keeping the actress's hand a safe distance from the slamming window. A rubber hand wearing a cheap wedding ring (thank God for cubic zirconia!) was attached to actress Joi Hoffsommer's pajama sleeve arm, with her real hand tucked safely away. To "sell" the reality of the hand, we applied nail polish that matched her real hand. We filmed the shot from the roof of the porch in one take.
Claire's resulting hand injury was something we needed to maintain throughout the shoot. The removable cast was one of the more difficult problems that makeup and prop designer Bill Kephart faced, until actress Joi Hoffsommer suggested modifying a removable forearm brace (the kind used after carpal tunnel surgery). At the beginning of each shooting day, the brace was attached to her arm and wrapped with red medical stretch wrap. A bit of white sock at either end of the cast gave it a realistic look. It took about 20 minutes to apply. Joi wore it for long hours each day.
Though it may appear she wears it for quite a long time in the course of the story, the cast type, surgery, and healing process were thoroughly researched with local medical professionals, and we did our best to stick to a realistic time frame for the healing of the injury (and we have the spreadsheets to prove it!).
While Bill is not a professionally trained makeup artist, he learned that convincing makeup is really about having a critical eye; if you can be critical of your own work, you can do convincing makeup.
Using the Love Nest Murders book as her guide, Claire discovers that the large blood stain from Christine Mueller's corpse is still present on the hardwood floor of the living room, hidden underneath the rug.
Create a stain on a floor. How hard could that be? Well, if it's not your floor, and the house is on the historic register, and the wood is bone dry, then it's REALLY hard.
Stage blood leaves stains that are difficult (if not impossible) to remove. Paint or colored liquid of any type were going to sink into that dry wood and be impossible to remove. On top of that, we also used tempura paint for the stain, since our research showed that real blood stains usually appear brown after many years. Since we couldn't stain the real floor, we investigated other solutions, including chroma-keying the stain in postproduction (too limiting), laying a sheet of glass on the real floor and placing the stain on top of it (too many reflections), and other problematic remedies. We finally settled on building a fake floor which, while tedious and time-consuming, allowed us complete freedom with angles and lighting and looked completely realistic, even in extreme closeups. The fake floor filled approximately 1/4 of the living room's real floor. The entire portion seen in the above left photo is fake.
Sheets of paneling (lauan) were stained to match the real floor, then cut to the same width as the floor's slats. The sides of each slat also had to be painted, as that unfinished wood was clearly visible even from the top. Prior to installation, we laid a sheet of plastic over the real floor, because in addition to creating the old stain, we needed to create a "fresh" murder scene on the floor (for use in the crime book photos and murder website); that would require us pouring fake blood all over the floor and we didn't want it seeping through the cracks. The slats had to be cut to different lengths, since the fake floor was fitted to a corner of the room, edging the mantel, radiator, and walls. Once cut, the slats were laid in place and fastened to each other with duct-tape on the underside.
Next, the blood stain was applied. It was a process of trial and error, with a range of tempura paint hues added and blended. Lots of light sanding was done too, especially around the stain's edges, to imply that the previous owners had tried to quickly remove the stain and failed. In fact, we ended up adding a line of dialogue to that effect.
While creating the false floor was certainly time-consuming, it wasn't very expensive, it held up for the entire shoot, and being able to use the floor as we wanted -- without damage to the real floor -- was absolutely worth it. Once again a practical effect surpassed anything we could have done digitally.
When exploring the basement, Claire finds Thaddeus' "music diaries" -- i.e., player piano rolls he recorded. She plays one, a haunting piece, while gazing at old photos atop the piano showing Thaddeus' followers from years past.
When writing the script, we were always looking for non-supernatural ways to inject "the creep factor." The house had a working (we thought) player piano, so we wrote the above scene for it. Player pianos are interesting because you're seeing as well as hearing a past performance, and we loved the idea that Thaddeus was "performing" for (and seducing) Claire from beyond the grave. But after writing the scene, we learned that the piano did NOT work and would be costly to repair. We loved the scene too much to abandon it, so we scoured the area for a working player piano -- one located in an older home that could pass for Thaddeus' house. Because the moving keys had to be visible (and match the music), we couldn't simply dub the audio in post-production; it had to be filmed live, with a real roll providing the sound. After several months of searching we still hadn't found one, when finally a friend mentioned in passing that he was renting an old house with a working player piano; it needed only a tuning, which professional piano restorer Rod Pierce generously did for us gratis.
The next step was finding the right music. Using software that mimicked a player piano, we tried various classical pieces for solo piano, including "En Bateau" by Debussy, but found that all nuance was gone (and quickly realized why jazz rags are so popular for player pianos: they're pounded out, and subtlety is not important!). We finally settled on J.S. Bach's Contrapunctus I from Art of the Fugue. Bach's music is so brilliant that even when hammered out on a player piano, it maintains its beauty and precision. The piece originated as a public domain MIDI file, which was tweaked for conversion to a player piano, and sent to a company that makes piano rolls. When the roll arrived, it was pristine white, so we yellowed it with a solvent-based dye that wouldn't wrinkle the paper as it dried (it supposedly dates from 1929; see photo at left).
The scroll box was one of several found in the basement of the actual house, and Mike Boedicker just made an old label for it. The fictional title of the piece, "Spiritus Mundi," is referenced in the Yeats poem (The Second Coming) used at the end of the film. Though it means the "Spirit" or "Breath of the World," the phrase appears to be unique to that single poem.
Finally came the filming. Joi Hoffsommer (Claire) got a good workout that day, pumping the foot pedals in take after take. With each new angle, the entire roll was run, and all sound was recorded live. In postproduction, these angles were synched and the editing began.
While we had intended to let the player piano be the only instrument in that scene, once we began working with our composer, John Toenjes, we realized the piano alone lacked a certain seductiveness that is needed in that scene; Claire is being wooed by Thaddeus' music. John suggested gradually augmenting the music with additional instruments. The result was a song that begins simply in the player piano and slowly becomes a romantic orchestration in Claire’s mind. This was one of many times when John's music redefined how we felt about a scene.
PHOTOS ON PIANO
The antique photos on top of the piano showing Thaddeus' followers, originated mostly from public domain images in the Library of Congress dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most were used as is, with no Photoshopping save one: a large photo of Thaddeus on the front porch of the house, surrounded by followers (seen here). For this, Bill Kephart Photoshopped a photo of Thaddeus (AKA Director of Photography Johnny Robinson) amidst real people culled from public domain images of the period.
Shortly after separating from Claire, Tom learns she is pregnant. He shows up to discuss the situation, promising to help raise their child if she'll move out of the house. She refuses, and Tom realizes the full extent of the house's "hold" on Claire.
The final scene between Tom and Claire was unique in that it was not written until the end of shooting. Screenwriters Mike Boedicker and Bill Kephart knew there would be a final confrontation between the two characters, but they didn't know what it would entail. Many possibilities were discussed, ranging from understated to over-the-top. In one version of the latter, Tom is so disgusted by the house he attempts to destroy it (either by burning it down or blowing it up), but is stopped before succeeding. In another version, he does succeed -- which led to practical questions about how the hell, on a microbudget, we could appear to demolish the house!
Ultimately, we went with something more subtle and tragic: the house untouched, continuing to divide Tom and Claire -- a couple at a stalemate who will likely end up fighting in court for custody of their unborn child. But we didn't know this outcome until the very end of shooting. In fact, this is how the shooting script describes the scene:
Here will appear a FINAL CONFRONTATION between Tom and Claire. Ostensibly Tom goes to The House to check on Claire's pregnancy. But exactly what happens is unclear at this point -- do they simply talk, does it escalate into something physical or violent, is it angry, tender, or a combination of emotions? This scene will be written late in the shooting and informed by everything we've learned about Tom and Claire throughout filming.
And so, as principal photography drew to a close, Boedicker, Kephart, and lead actress Joi Hoffsommer had long discussions about what they'd learned of the characters during the many months of shooting. The final confrontation was written, rehearsed, workshopped, and re-written, and the actual filming of it went quickly and smoothly. Waiting until the end to write it was risky, but resulted in a scene that is believable and real. It was a small taste, perhaps, of the method British director Mike Leigh uses, and something we might do in future projects.
Near the end of the film, Claire, alone in the house since Tom moved out, finds a DVD left anonymously on the front porch labeled simply "Copy." She watches it, and is horrified to discover that it's the snuff video alluded to in earlier newspaper articles.
In the scripting stage, we knew we wanted to recreate a self-shot snuff video featuring a static camera and a madman's rant. In the first draft of the script it occurred halfway through the story, but we soon realized it would be much more effective placed at the end. The real writing challenge was the rant. We had no idea what a murderer would say, and our creative attempts sounded contrived. A phrase from the William Butler Yeats poem The Second Coming came to mind, so we looked up the full poem. The message and sentiments of the poem were perfect for our story, and the poem was public domain, so we decided to use it almost in its entirety. Rather than write the kind of rambling rant that mass-murderers often post online, we realized a literate poem would be much more powerful. The fact that Victor says nothing but the poem makes the scene even more disturbing.
We wove several aspects of the poem throughout the film: "a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun" (the Eyes); the drawing of the lion with the skull of a man; the title of the piano scroll ("Spiritus Mundi"), and ultimately, Claire’s pregnancy.
The snuff video was a major sequence and required careful planning. It had to feel raw and real. While we could have dubbed in voices of the actors upstairs, or had them just sitting up there saying their lines, we chose to have them act out the murders entirely unseen. We choreographed the entire crime; off-camera the actors played out the whole massacre, reacting gunshot by gunshot, and falling dead where the bodies appear in the crime photos. Everyone involved was really living it. And the actors who made it downstairs carried that panic and horror with them. The off-screen recreation of the action made all the difference in the world.
The video was shot entirely with a static, tripod-mounted camera in single, long takes. Beneath the camera was a "stab pad" which consisted of stage-blood-soaked foam encased in dryer vent tubing. Each time Leslie Boedicker (playing Christine Mueller) fell beneath the camera at the end of her crawl, she actually fell onto a blanket that was used to pull her out of the way -- so when Victor Mueller (played by Steve Keen) knelt down over her body, the only thing beneath the camera was the stab pad. The pad was designed to put a realistic amount of blood on the blade with each stab, unlike the typical Hollywood horror film spatter fest.
The rough cut of House of Thaddeus ran nearly 20 minutes longer than the final cut, due partly to a subplot in which lead character Tom (Bill Kephart), high school science teacher and owner of the titular house, befriends one of his students, a girl named Brooke (Amy Randall). Though Tom never enters into an inappropriate relationship with Brooke, he comes close.
We wrote the subplot to both dimensionalize Tom (countering the stereotype of skeptics as unfeeling rationalists) and to heighten the conflict with his wife, Claire (Joi Hoffsommer), who becomes distanced from Tom as she's increasingly "seduced" by the house.
But as film editors know -- and screenwriters painfully learn -- you can have the best justifications for including scenes, but if the material doesn't support the film as a whole, it should be cut. "Never be afraid to kill your children" is the cliche. The subplot scenes were well performed but didn't add anything compelling to the film's core conflict involving the "triad" of Tom, Claire, and the house. Audience comment cards at rough cut screenings indicated this, and we had to admit it to ourselves. We finally realized that the main problem was the writing: Brooke, of all the significant characters, had no real relationship to the house. All the others -- Tom, Claire, Prescott, Lily, Jacy -- had a direct, personal connection to the house.
Below are all of the deleted scenes from the Tom-Brooke subplot; we've included a few seconds of surrounding footage to indicate context. There were other (minor) scenes cut as well, and a great deal of trimming to remaining scenes, which we haven't included.
SCENE 1: INTRODUCTION TO BROOKE
The classroom scene, which shows us Tom on the job, was originally longer to introduce Brooke and reveal her as a freethinker. Immediately following this scene, Tom encounters Brooke in the school parking lot, where the two discuss her idea for starting a "Skeptic's Club" with him serving as faculty sponsor.
SCENE 2: SKEPTIC'S CLUB MEETING & COFFEE TALK
The first meeting of the Skeptic's Club is not well attended, and Brooke is disappointed. Afterward, she and Tom go for coffee and talk further.
SCENE 3: PRINCIPAL TALKS WITH TOM
The principal (played by Nancy Henderson) at Tom's school confronts him about the publicity surrounding his house and his sponsorship of the new Skeptic's Club.
SCENE 4: BROOKE TOURS HOUSE
While raking leaves, Tom gets a text from Claire, informing him that she's driving to the west coast to locate Jacy. Brooke arrives unexpectedly and asks for a tour of the "haunted" house. Tom complies, then opens up to Brooke about his decaying marriage.
"This huge dark house swallows light." That was Director Mike Boedicker's first comment to Director of Photography Johnny Robinson when they scouted the main location. However, our biggest challenge was not the house itself, but our standards. We expected to make a film as good as any out there, yet on a micro-budget. How hard could it be?
Pretty hard, as it turned out. The dark house, and our "slow" camera (with an ISO of only 320) dictated that we thoroughly light almost every interior scene in the movie -- and a good many exteriors. Even on the front porch we had to add light to reduce the contrast between it and the bright surrounding daylight (see photo at left of Johnny adjusting fill light). We had less than a dozen lights to work with, none over one thousand watts. This gear was borrowed from Johnny's workplace and had to be back every weekday for paying jobs.
The first thing we did was map out the house circuitry. Knowing every breaker for every outlet enabled us to run cords from all three floors and the basement -- often out windows -- to avoid blowing fuses. Ingenuity and high ceilings were our saviors. The party and seance scenes required a 360º view, so we clamped lights on molding and across doorways with furniture clamps so there were no cables or stands in the camera's view. For the dark foyer, we created a bank of six paper China lanterns hanging from a tight cable, which made shooting in that area very efficient.
For day exteriors, we often used scrims (see photo at right) to soften the sunlight striking the actors. For night exteriors, we used a 14-foot ladder filled with blue-gelled lights to simulate moonlight. To light the entire three-story house broadside at night, we used every light we had, on the ladder and the roof, positioned right in the shot. We shot multiple takes, moving the lights around each time. Later in post production, we combined these shots digitally and "erased" the visible lights, but kept the illumination they gave the house.
The film had a continuous motif of people showing up at the front door day and night. The high contrast between indoors and outdoors meant we had to light the person inside and also reduce light outside. To do this we positioned a large neutral density filter frame on two stands behind the actors, darkening the background scenery. At night we ran cables across the street to light the area in the distance.
In a conventional film, all this work would be done with a grip truck full of gear and a lighting crew of a half dozen. Although we had production assistants sporadically, much of the time the crew consisted of only two or three people -- Johnny, Mike, and Sound Recordist Victor Miely, with actor Bill Kephart handling makeup and props. Johnny frequently operated a second boom microphone, working with Victor so that conversations between two actors could be captured cleanly without the need for re-recording. Wireless lavalier mics hidden on the actors and planted mics were also used occasionally to capture good sound. In the end, we didn't have to dub in a single line due to bad sound.
"Necessity is the mother of invention" might be a cliche, but it became our mantra during production. When we created the necessity in our heads to make House of Thaddeus look like a high-budget film, we found ways to do it.