Crimson Peak – How A Haunted House Becomes A Fearful Character

In Guillermo Del Toro’s Crimson Peak the haunted Gothic mansion Allerdale Hall is an important element of the film and acts as a vessel for the storyline.   It is the story’s most fearful character, oozing red clay from beneath the earth.  Del Toro is an artist who visualizes before he builds, so it’s no surprise that once he had assembled a team to make his visions a reality, the house and all of the elements it embodies already existed in his mind.  The house was a character with its own biography and history.

The vast Gothic mansion sits atop a remote English hillside, with generations of secrets buried within.  Set in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a bleak open landscape of barren earth and pure white snow, Allerdale Hall is perched above a profitable red clay deposit, which earns it the name “Crimson Peak.”

Every room holds a new mystery—from the subterranean mines to the forbidden attic—from the library of secrets to the cage-like elevator with a mind of its own.  The house is designed like a butterfly killing jar…designed to allure and trap the beautiful and the innocent.  It also hides the Sharpe family’s darkest secrets and reveals unspeakable truths.  Indeed, who will make it out alive?

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No existing structure could satisfy del Toro’s vivid imagination 

Where other Hollywood productions would have turned to computer technology, creating an edifice filled with fears and terrors, the director decided to build a magnificent set of days gone by.  Building the haunted house required teams of set designers, builders and decorators to work in tandem for nearly six months in order for everything to be completed in time for the shoot.  Naturally, designing to facilitate the work of cinematographer Dan Lausten was a key part of every conversation.

Every production begins with a given set of constraints, schedules, budgets and approvals.  For art director Brandt Gordon, those pressures were a daily negotiation in order to make all the visual elements of the film a reality. 

The collaboration began at the script level.  From the very first read, he began working alongside production designer Thomas Sanders, set decorator Shane Vieau and costume designer Kate Hawley. 

Together, the team would research, and compile design elements, palettes, textures and shapes and present them to del Toro for review.  The director instantly filtered what worked and what didn’t.  From del Toro’s mandate of “We want square shapes in the US and round shapes in the U.K.,” each decision from the director helped to inform the team’s design choices and create the two distinctly different worlds that del Toro had envisioned.

Twelve weeks before pre-production began, production designer Sanders arrived in Toronto with a 20-foot trailer, ready to create a shop and build models.  Sanders’ process is unique; no one in the industry builds models of his scope.  His method, what Gordon refers to as “3D sketching,” was instrumental in determining all the features of the final set design—including proportions, wild walls, layouts, colours and finishes.  It was not a traditional art department in the beginning, but to accommodate Sanders’ process Gordon hired a support team—key scenic artists Cameron Brooke and Robert Brooke—as the model building began.

Cameron Brooke was ecstatic to work with Sanders because of his method of meticulously planning out the model, accounting for each angle that the camera would use, the scale of each wall and corridor, as well as the details in the finishes.  Brooke explains: “To create the illusion of an extremely large mansion, Tom worked out sightlines to fool the eye, fool the audience into thinking that this is an enormous space.”

Working on this level allowed the team to smooth out design problems and develop concepts more efficiently.  Morning meetings included illustrator Guy Davis,  who would make 2D sketches for the model building team.  Del Toro sifted through all the ideas on the table to create a design palette that Gordon describes as neo-Gothic, with Tudor influences and neo-Renaissance influences.  As the model building progressed, the director was also able to figure out camera angles and plan his shots, well before the set ever existed.  Brooke was instructed by Sanders to add magnets to pieces of the model so that it could be easily taken apart and put back together.  Initially, del Toro was a little hesitant about the maquette but quickly realized that Sanders created a working sketch that could change with the director’s needs and demands.

Del Toro was instrumental in informing the feel and palette of the house, providing the team with references to previous films he had worked on, as well as numerous books and other source materials.  For the clay mine, says Gordon, “He brought out a Japanese book with imagery of pools of rusty water; there was a teal-green colour to the walls.”  Del Toro had specific ideas about the characters painted on the walls, what the columns should look like, how aged the décor should look and how to give the sense that it was once a very elaborate and expensive place.

A team of sculptors created clay models of architectural pieces from the period that would be impractical (and virtually impossible) to purchase.  The clay models would then be made into moulds, and the pieces were reproduced in the quantities needed.  The full-scale production team was upwards of 120 people and, at any one time, approximately 60 were working in the mould-making department—from the sculptors and plasterers to the people making the silicone to those creating the jackets.

Allerdale Hall was no ordinary set; it was a house complete with ceilings and hallways connecting all the rooms, the equivalent of 10 sets in one.  The idea was that the seamless set would allow the camera to move from one part of the house to the next without the need for digitally stitching scenes in postproduction.


The only room independent of the house set was the bedroom: “That was the breaking point,” recalls Gordon.  All the elements of this colossal set had to be ready at the same time.  “We needed part of the exterior going into the foyer, going into the grand stairwell, into the kitchen, into the coal room, into the scullery, into the elevator, into the great hall and upstairs.  Remember, it’s a 70-foot corridor upstairs and up to the third-floor attic.”

The performers were gobsmacked when they stepped foot on set.  “When I first walked onto the set I was completely blown away,” says Chastain.  “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

The scale of the set was something extraordinarily rare in modern moviemaking.  “It’s plain and simple the biggest set I’ve ever been on in my life,” agrees Hiddleston.  The actor credits del Toro with creating the perfect “crumbling relic of a building that houses the supernatural.  It has demons and secrets the same way that a human being does.”

To allow for larger spans and give del Toro’s crew more flexibility to decide where the massive walls should be as things developed, large parts of the set were built of steel rather than traditional wood.  In fact, all the fireplaces on the set were functioning, so everything had to be fireproofed.  The floors had a very specific wood look but were made of a very strong type of concrete to stand up to crew traffic without being damaged.

The design elements also included moths, which the director wanted to incorporate throughout the house.  According to the writer/director, “this house has to be alive.”  Sanders suggested that the wall surfaces were the skin of the house, and the cracks were revealing the flesh.  “Yes, the house will be oozing its bodily fluids,” del Toro laughs.

Gordon’s team was also involved in the practical special effects, making clay bleed from the floor and walls.  They determined the right material to achieve the viscosity, the colour and the look.  The effects contributed to the character of the house, an edifice that was living, breathing, bleeding.

Here the model served as a map to the full-scale set.  Brooke plastered and aged the model to determine where the actual patches would go.  Covering the surfaces of the set is expensive and time-consuming and, as Brooke says, “one has to deal with a very thick build-up to give the undulations in an aged wall that has been oozing clay for decades.  There’s a great amount of satisfaction to seeing something that you worked on transformed into a full-scale set.  It’s a scenic art dream.”

Crimson House 2

Finding practical locations was another logistical challenge that required not only period-appropriate interiors but also the flexibility to transform them to suit the style of the film.  One of these was Victoria College in Toronto.  Gordon had night crews working 14-hour shifts for weeks to prep and paint the locations.  Once the school opened again they could only return on the weekends.  In other cases, the difficulties were created by nature.

In mid-February, when the team began to work outdoors to set up the main façade of Allerdale Hall, the Canadian ground was completely frozen. When the shooting began in April, everything began to thaw.  “We experienced the whole freeze-thaw cycle—being up to our knees in mud as we were getting the final elements ready for the shoot,” says Gordon.  It then took almost three weeks to transport everything back to the stage, and another week to dress it in white and red snow; to accomplish this, the scenic team used paraffin wax.

Gothic Sensibilities: Art Direction

All involved with the production learned that del Toro has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Victorian Era.  To build on the classic visuals, set decorator Vieau sparred with the director on each element of the décor.  The filmmaker wanted “Bradbury & Bradbury wallpaper.”  Vieau would go on the hunt for it.  He was able to source period furniture and décor without having to go to England, as was originally planned.  In L.A., he found a 17th-century tapestry that was used in Allerdale Hall, a piece that really anchored the opulence of the great mansion.  But the discussion really began with colour and texture; “colour was the most important thing in the film for me,” says Vieau.

According to del Toro, “the way the film was art directed was by creating two completely different chapters.  The first part happens in America, and America is tobacco, gold and rich sepias; it’s the colour of progress and life.  When we go to Crimson Peak, everything becomes cold and dark.  It becomes really spooky.”

The filmmaker loves teal greens inspired by foliage; his colour choices create mood, setting—a mystical world of his imagination.  Much of Lucille’s wardrobe was about “blending into the architecture and that was the footprint for how we approached colour,” says Vieau.  The Sharpe master bedroom was filled with deeply textured velvets, the drapes in rich silks.  The great hall was decorated with cotton ribbons on the bookcases to add gold highlights; the sofa was draped in deep green silk; the furniture was reupholstered in tapestries.

Fittingly, the word “Fear” was layered into the house, throughout the design elements.  The wallpapers were custom-designed to incorporate the moth and butterfly motifs that del Toro wanted to be repeated in the floors and hallways—symbolizing Lucille’s fascination with trapping things, people, designing fear into the fabric of the house.  “Fear” was inscribed into the chair, in the mantle—subliminally brewing dread, anxiety and terror, as an authentic haunted house should.

Beware of Crimson Red: Costumes of the Film

Costume designer Kate Hawley describes Crimson Peak as a dreamy, theatrical Victorian film rather than one resembling reality.  When the project began, del Toro declared to Hawley: “We’re going to build the costumes, and we’re going to couture the architecture.”  She and her team created a wardrobe to mirror del Toro’s sculptural visions.  Indeed, the designer notes: “His work is about layering…there are elements of a fairytale, there is history, there is poetry.”

In the early stages of the design process, Hawley recalls the discussions about mood and colour: the wardrobes in America represent summer, gold and tobacco, growth and progress; while in England is winter, with withering foliage, deep blues and teal greens.  To add to the challenge, she was to avoid white, black and red for the Buffalo wardrobes—forcing her to work with a palette of cream, charcoal and burnt orange.  There are no true highlights or shadows in those scenes, she notes; whereas, in Allerdale, the heavy dark fabrics weighted the characters in the depth of the Gothic romance.

Hawley’s team became so attached to each creation they began naming the costumes.  She sums: “All of the dresses have their moods.”  The “Buffalo Bookworm” is Edith’s “Mary Shelly-romanticized-writer” ensemble, which is masculine in tailoring.  The “Heartbreak Dress,” based on a Klimt painting, is a delicate and fragile gown with a small flower with a heart in the centre.  “It was how we found our language in terms of decoration, adding to support the story,” says Hawley.  Flowers were a theme in Edith’s costumes conveying “richness and fertility… her generosity in spirit.”  Her bride’s dress was decorated with a string of violets, a Victorian symbol of memory and morning.

Lucille’s dresses were barren with motifs of withered leaves that were full of catastrophe, starvation and barrenness.  The embroidery on Lucille’s wardrobe mirrored the details in the architecture of the house.  “So she was wearing the house in many ways,” says del Toro.  The tailoring of her wardrobe was decidedly different as well.  Hawley’s designs accentuated Lucille’s thinness; the dresses were very fitted and slim “so you could feel the bones through the clothes.”  Her frail silhouette resembled the long, narrow shapes of the house.

Crimson 2

The costume department worked closely with del Toro to explore and help each of the actors to identify the demands of each character.  The director wanted the costumes to play with scale and shape, so the choice of textiles was informed by his ideas.  “We wanted to echo the architecture,” says Hawley, “so we tried to make the clothes very sculptural.”  When Edith begins to fade at Allerdale, she becomes frail “more transparent, like a chrysalis” and that idea translates to her nightdress.

The layered delicate silks of the costume were intended to aid Wasikowska’s performance in its movement.  For their part, Lucille and Thomas were like chameleons in their world.  Against the blues and shadows of the house, Lucille blended into the walls like a moth.  To further accentuate the director’s motif, the wardrobe team spent hours hand-stitching fine fabrics by using antiquated pleating techniques; this made the outfits flow and flutter like the wings of del Toro’s favourite insects.

Given the challenge of working with a restrictive palette for the main cast, when the colour red was finally introduced for one of the spirit’s dresses, Hawley remembers feeling the intensity: “It was so theatrical, such strong imagery.”  Unlike any ghosts we’ve seen before, del Toro’s spirits’ feet real, like an eerie version of their former selves rather than ethereal phantoms.  Discussions between Hawley and del Toro often ended in the conclusive idea that “horror has to be a beautiful thing.”