For the cast and crew of TNT’s new mystery drama “I Am the Night,” filming in the John Sowden House was all too real. Nicknamed the “Jaws House” for its sharklike facade, the famous Los Angeles residence was once home to Dr. George Hodel, a well known Hollywood gynecologist in the 1940s and prime suspect in the Black Dahlia case.
The limited series tells the true story of Fauna Hodel, a young girl played by India Eisley who finds out that she’s Dr. Hodel’s biological granddaughter. Alongside Jay Singletary (Chris Pine), a washed up journalist obsessed with the Black Dahlia murder, the two delve into the secrets of the past and soon get twisted up in the surreal world of Dr. Hodel.
Variety spoke with the stars of the show, along with director Patty Jenkins, at Thursday’s premiere at the Harmony Gold Theater in Los Angeles.
“It has a very, very heavy energy there. During filming I felt physically ill a lot of the time,” Eisley said of shooting in the Sowden house. “It’s just so isolated, it feels like a mausoleum. You could imagine someone screaming in there and not being heard.”
Jenkins, known for the “Wonder Woman” franchise and her working partnership with Pine, stressed the importance of filming the series in the house where Dr. Hodel lived during the time of the alleged murder in 1947.
“That house is one in a million. It’s unbelievable. It’s also such a huge character in the story. I felt so lucky that the people who live there are so lovely and made it possible for us,” Jenkins said. “But I did feel nauseous a lot when I was there, and odd. I was thinking, ‘Maybe this is how I sense hauntings.’ I definitely didn’t feel well.”
Fittingly, Jefferson Mays, who played Dr. Hodel, was the only one who felt at ease in the house.
“This sounds so sick to say, but I felt oddly at peace and comfortable,” he said. “I learned so much about the man’s character by seeing that place, which is truly a monstrous place. It’s based on a Mayan temple. There are no windows. There’s this great, gaping, toothed maw of an entranceway, and it’s utterly dark. You go in and you’re sort of sucked up this esophagus of an entrance, a lightless hallway scourged into the central courtyard, and all the rooms are arranged around the courtyard like cells. I felt like I was in a penitentiary, one of those 18th century panopticons. It’s the house of a control freak, and it’s a super villain’s lair.”
Despite it’s certifiable creepiness, most of the cast was hesitant to brand it as haunted — despite the persistent rumor that in the early 2000s, cadaver dogs confirmed the presence of human remains on the property.
“I can’t tell [if it’s haunted],” Jenkins said. “You go to some places that really feel haunted, but [the house] doesn’t for some reason.”
Eisley agreed: “I wouldn’t say haunted. It could very well be, but it just has very heavy energy to it. I just wanted to get in and get out.”
Speaking to the crowd before the screening, Pine, Jenkins, and her husband, “I Am the Night” screenwriter Sam Sheridan, reflected on the making of the series.
“I’ve wanted to tell this story for a long time, but to tell it was going to require the best actors in the world. And I already had one of them,” Jenkins said, gesturing to Pine.
“It was an absolute pleasure to be premiering this in my hometown Los Angeles. We shot this on film, that’s a young actor’s dream to do something like ‘Chinatown’ and to shoot here,” Pine said.
Supporting her “Wonder Woman” team, Gal Gadot was present at the screening, along with Leland Orser, Yul Vazquez, Dylan Smith, Golden Brooks, Justin Cornwell, Jay Paulson, and Fauna Hodel’s daughters.
An after-party was held at the Chateau Marmont, featuring surrealist art created by Brooklyn immersive art collective Little Cinema. Founded by Jay Rinsky, the collective was commissioned and flown in by TNT to take over the Marmont to re-create a scene from a future episode in which Dr. Hodel hosts a surrealist art party. With an atmosphere reminiscent of old Hollywood glamour and ’60s dreamlike weirdness, one room, bathed in red light, featured a live band playing classic jazz standards. In the center of the room was a performance artist inside a cage, dancing on pointe in ballet slippers and wearing a headdress covered in butterflies. Surrealist paintings were on display throughout the event, along with several other live dancers, artists, and performers dressed in delicate, silken red and white costumes, and mime-like face paint.
Another room featured an interactive installation, called “Universal Light,” where guests could write on walls covered in white sheets, painted in black with words and phrases like “black or white,” “feel,” and “human kind” to symbolize Fauna Hodel’s journey of identity as a white-passing woman raised by a woman of color.
But upstairs in Room 29 was the real spectacle of the night. Select guests were given secret envelopes instructing them to meet in a hidden suite and “tell no one.” At the door, attendees were immersed into a guided tour of an art gallery “curated for Dr. Hodel himself,” with a Black Dahlia-inspired motif of surrealist paintings of disembodied women. Actors interacted with guests as if it were actually 1965, discussing the art over Old Fashioneds and dirty martinis. In another dark room, real daily footage from “I Am the Night” was projected onto sheer screens, behind which performers dressed in ’60s garb acted out the dialogue, beckoning guests to join them as part of the installation.
“I Am the Night” premieres Monday on TNT.