Allen and Albert Hughes made their names directing two grim tales of the contemporary inner city, Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. Therefore, it may be surprising to find them in a Victorian England setting on their latest venture, From Hell, which is an October release from Twentieth Century Fox. But it actually makes sense once you hear the filmmaker brothers define their new movie as “a ghetto story.” The ghetto in this case is the London East End neighborhood of Whitechapel, a 19th-century slum populated by thieves, streetwalkers, and other desperately poor people. It was here, in the summer and fall of 1888, that the legendary Jack the Ripper murdered and mutilated at least five prostitutes before mysteriously laying down his deadly instruments, leaving his identity and motives subject to more than a century's worth of wide-ranging speculation.
The task of recreating the Whitechapel setting, which exists today as a gentrified shadow of its formerly squalid self, fell to Martin Childs, Oscar-winning production designer of Shakespeare in Love, as well as Mrs. Brown and Quills. He did so far from London, in what has become the bustling movie production center of Prague, Czech Republic. One reason for Prague's popularity is the same as the one that drives so many American productions to Canada: namely, economics. But Childs also says, “I'd been led to believe we needed to find 19th-century London — very little of which exists in London — in Prague. Well, the Czech Republic is full of the most fantastic period buildings, but none of them looks like London.”
The designer, after a fruitless scout of the city, quickly came up with a solution. “I said, ‘What if we build the whole East End of London, or as much of it as is needed for the film, here?’” And so they did, in a field several miles outside Prague, and “at about half the cost of building it in England,” Childs adds. The final set was approximately 500' × 500', and included a stretch of Commercial Street, the main thoroughfare, plus other major streets and some connecting alleys “which never existed, except in my imagination”; the entire site was dominated by a full-scale replica of Hawksmoor's Christ Church, Spitalfields.
“The set just grew and grew, perhaps because I drew it on a very small piece of paper, on a very small scale,” says the designer. “They costed it from that, Fox agreed to it, and the Czech construction company agreed to build it for that figure. It was so much less than I was anticipating; it was a thrilling thing to be able to go ahead and build more than we ever thought we'd be able to.”
And though From Hell, starring Johnny Depp as an opium-addicted police inspector and Heather Graham as an impoverished “working girl,” is based on Alan Moore's popular graphic novel, which was originally published as a 10-part series in Taboo, the anthology periodical, the goal was realism, not comic-book stylization. Childs says of the source, “Within the bounds of a graphic novel, it is extremely realistic. It's Dickensian in scope, very discursive, and full of wonderful atmosphere and speculation.” Obsessive speculation, of course, is what ties the unsolved Jack the Ripper case to the Kennedy assassination and other events that provoke conspiracy theorists. What role did the Crown and the Order of Freemasons play in the murders? Was Jack the Ripper a member of the royal family? These and many other matters preoccupy case followers and collectors, or Ripperologists. From Hell, which was adapted for the screen by Rafael Yglesias and Terry Hayes, posits its own theories on the mystery. And the Hughes Bros. were fascinated enough by Ripper lore to grab the property.
“They are both walking encyclopedias of Ripperology,” Childs says of the directors. “There were not many gaps in their expertise, but what gaps there were tended to be areas in which I specialized, such as architecture. So between us we came up with everything we wanted.”
The designer, who spent several months on Bruce Beresford's aborted project Boswell for the Defense after From Hell, and is now working on a film about Vermeer's studio, says he always scrupulously researches a period, and then uses only what suits the project at hand. But From Hell differs from his other films in that “it's post the invention of photography, so there's a hell of a lot of photographic documentation.” This means not only “grisly pictures of the unfortunate women murdered by Jack,” but photos of architecture and, according to set decorator Jill Quertier, “books about what they called the lowlife of London at that time.” Childs says, “The Boswell picture was set 100 years before From Hell, so there was a lot of research, but it was all in the form of drawings and paintings. Then you go back another 100 years to the period I'm doing now, the Vermeer period, and all the research is entirely in painting. And then you go back another 100 years before that to Shakespeare in Love, and there's almost no evidence left. I was freer to invent, within certain rules.”
But 1888 London, he continues, is “almost within the living memory of some people. And although a lot of experts who style themselves Ripperologists disagree about the circumstances of the murders, and about the identity of the murderer, what are completely inarguable are the geographical and architectural facts. So I was not left with much license to make it all up.”
Yet condensation on the Whitechapel set was not only permitted, it was required. For example, “We discovered from the research that the murders took place hundreds of yards from each other,” says Childs. “We had to reduce that geographically into a cinematically usable space. While each murder site was faithfully reproduced, we couldn't reproduce the distance between them. The trick was to make it a bit of London that you could get lost in.” The set's version of Commercial Street, like the real thing, is curved into a banana shape, with the fortunate result that “You can't see around the corner if you look north, and you can't see around the corner if you look south, which means that the set had a natural place to fizzle out. Then I designed a network of passages and small streets that you could just about get a carriage down, and tiny wee passages that you could only get people down.” This labyrinth was confounding enough that the same spot could be used again and again, with no one in the audience the wiser.
The constant presence of mist helped. Not fog: both the Hughes Bros. and cinematographer Peter Deming decided to avoid the setting's ultimate visual cliche, particularly after learning that the summer of 1888 was not an especially foggy one. But “it was drizzly, it was rainy, it was misty and dark” — about 90% of the film unfolds at night — “and you're not going to be able at the end of the film to draw a map of the area,” says Childs. “But the camera moves about quite a lot. I think there is probably one square foot of that set unexplored.”
Other than the murder sites, the most important exterior locations on the set were Christ Church and Ten Bells Saloon, both of which still stand across Commercial Street from one another. The saloon exterior was a faithful reproduction, and more surprisingly, so was Christ Church, which is an enormous Georgian English Baroque structure from the early 18th century. “We decided that to reduce it by 10%, making it 90% of its actual size, would be nothing in terms of cost saving,” says Childs. “We had this field in Prague, we had these people to build it, so we built it to actual size, because it needed to dominate the area. My art director, Mark Raggett, went and measured the actual building before flying out to Prague, and we just reproduced it as it was, all the time thinking, ‘We'll never get away with this, they'll never let us build it.’ But they did, and we did.”
To fill in the gaps between the known landmarks, the designer further used his imagination to create many Whitechapel buildings. There was an architectural turnover soon after 1888, so much of today's housing in the neighborhood dates from the 1890s and turn of the 20th century, and similarly a lot of the area's photographic evidence dates from 1895 or so. “The buildings would have primarily dated from about 80 or 100 years before, and some would have been older than that,” he says. “So I was imagining a lot of 1800 buildings.”
These buildings, according to Childs, would have been brick. Not just any old brick — English brick. “The London stocks are wonderful old brown bricks, but they're about 50 shades of brown, and you examine them and there are also yellows and reds in there,” he says. “My photographic lab must have thought I was some kind of brick fetishist, because I came over for a weekend once, and just went around my own neighborhood and Whitechapel photographing areas of brick.” Concerned that the Czech painters and crafts people who primarily made up his art department crew wouldn't be able to adequately replicate the look of this brick, Childs imported two English painters to teach them. “They caught on so wonderfully that we used a lot more brick finishes than we first thought we could get away with,” he says.
The 250,000-sq.-ft. set was constructed in 12 weeks by the 170-member Czech construction crew, and Childs has nothing but praise for their work. “Their methods are very different from ours,” he says. “We had a plan that we laid out by hammering pegs into the ground to see how long and wide the streets were going to be. And then I went to the set a few days later to find that all of these pegs had been replaced by tree trunks with their branches cut off. The whole set was laid out in trees, like a three-dimensional join-the-dots, which they then hammered the facades to. It's just the traditional way of making things there — where we would use scaffolding, they would go get a truckload of trees, dig holes, and plant the trees in cement at distances of about 10', and then span these distances with planks. They would cut the windows out of the planks, and apply the fake brick. It was unnerving to begin with — primitive is probably the word that came to mind. But it certainly succeeded in the end.”
The Prague location really served the production well when it came to paving the streets. “The construction manager discovered we could use real cobblestones, because Prague is in a constant state of refurbishment,” says Childs. “There's a constant supply of stones, because they dig them up all the time to repair them.” Having actual cobblestones is not a small thing, he says. “I've worked on productions where you make little areas of real cobblestones and then run out of money, or you have to do it with rubber cobblestones that interlink like toy bricks, and every time a carriage goes over them, they move. Having finished the set and laid these cobble roads, it just looked so much more realistic. And the moment you drive a carriage over it and it makes the right noise, it does add to the atmosphere. So it was wonderful to build a set that sounded right as well as looked right.”
After the set was finished, Childs says he stared at it, thinking something was missing without quite being able to tell what. “Overnight, it rained, and I went and looked at it again, and that was what was missing. Suddenly, because the walls and cobbles were wet, it looked like London.”
Big and comprehensive as the set was, it still only provided the major exterior for From Hell. Interiors were shot in many different locations around Prague, as well as Hostivar Stages. At the latter studio, the interior of Ten Bells Saloon was constructed, with some artistic license. “We made it very much bigger for filmic reasons, to accommodate the crew, really,” he explains. “The size of the real pub, by the time you get your cameraman and boom operator in there, there's no room for any actors.” Other sets at Hostivar included a Chinese opium den frequented by Depp's character, and Miller's Rents, the hovel where Graham's character and other prostitutes sleep, often in a single small bed. In these settings, Childs' crew worked hard to emphasize the unloveliness. “We had to multiply the squalor by two in order for the camera to notice it,” he says. “It had to be seen behind the heads of the actors. So it was further distressing, decaying, peeling wallpaper, and all sorts of unpleasantness on the fabrics, which I don't really want to go into because it's teatime here.”
Other locations included Castle Hradek, Opocno Castle, Castle Kacina, Castle Doksany (where a gruesome period morgue was reproduced), Olsany Graveyard, and the National Museum, which served as the backdrop for a party attended by John Merrick, aka the Elephant Man. At Prague's Economic Institute, a police headquarters was constructed, while Depp's residence and other sets were built at Castle Minisek. Childs found one location, an old maternity hospital in Prague, that did evoke Victorian London, and that was used as a workhouse set.
Sumptuous royal settings periodically contrast with the general grit and squalor that generally characterize From Hell. At the popular Prague Castle, the lavishly frescoed Strahov Library hosted a scene set in Queen Victoria's Buckingham Palace study. Says set decorator Quertier, “There was a distinctly Chinese feel about the room, so I thought the only way to go there was to emphasize it. Chinoiserie was very, very popular in England at that time.”
Quertier, who shared Academy Award honors for Shakespeare in Love with Childs, had to bring “great lorry-loads of furniture and props” over from England for the film. “I found what I could in the Czech Republic, but that was usually for the more rustic interiors,” she says. “Anything there that was sort of aristocratic looked Middle European. I have a production buyer called Celia Bobak, and she would always meet me when I flew over from Prague. Also I could always pick up the phone and say to her, ‘I need six opium pipes,’ or whatever it might be, and I would know that she would choose the same sort of thing I would choose myself.”
The “rustic interiors” were easier to dress from Prague partly because “Most of the prostitutes didn't have anything much in the way of possessions,” says the decorator. She says the Whitechapel markets and other exteriors were mostly sourced locally, though the gin bottles for Ten Bells Saloon had to be imported. “Then, of course, we had to add all our own coaches and trade vehicles from England, though one could get away with carts from the Czech Republic.” But anything that needed to be copied could be done with great skill by Czech workers, she adds. “For instance, police at the time had a standard-issue bull's-eye lantern, which had a candle inside and a lens in front that magnified the light. We found one that was genuine and of the period, and they copied it in the metal workshops of the studio in Prague. They were very, very good indeed. There were various other things I would show them — I could find one or possibly two, and then they would create 20 for me.” And, she says, at a much lower cost than it could be done in England.
The Whitechapel set, says Quertier, “was absolutely extraordinary. One day I was counting up all the windows to be dressed, and there were something like 300.” The Czech village surrounding the set on a couple of sides even got in on the show from time to time. “Occasionally you get to see very tiny glimpses of that village between our buildings,” says Childs. “Which is fine, because they were buildings we had particularly chosen. We were able to deliberately leave gaps in the set, because the village could fill in the gaps.”
Because the set was so detailed and impressive — indeed, it was like a playground for the Hughes Bros. and any Ripperologists who may have been in the vicinity — the designer says there was some talk about leaving it standing after filming was finished. But it was torn down, which is all for the best, Childs says. “As much as I get attached to my sets, I prefer it when they get pulled down. They're not built to last, so they just finish up looking like pretty sad places when they get hit by a few hailstorms or have weathered a winter of snow. When something's been shot as thoroughly as Peter Deming and the Hughes Bros. shot this one, then you know it's going to last forever anyway, in the form of the film.”
Photos: Jurgen Vollmer/©2001 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved.