In the recent feature “Shirley,” Elisabeth Moss plays novelist Shirley Jackson, who is hard at work on her second novel, “Hangsaman.”
She has thrown herself into writing the story, based on the disappearance of a young woman Paula Jean Welden from Bennington College, where her husband teaches. Jackson spends her days and nights working on the novel from home, and her home soon becomes a reflection of the inner workings of her mind.
“Having Sarah Gubbins’ script and Josephine Decker’s imagination as the foundation for my work was an embarrassment of riches,” Chan says. “These, coupled with Shirley Jackson’s writing, gave the art department a lot of conceptual ideas to play with. The canvas of the house was a great beginning, and it was a lot of fun channeling Shirley from this foundation.”
Chan shares her process and thoughts in bringing the haunting world of Neon’s awards contender “Shirley” to life.
Shirley’s Home – A Cluttered Look Inside her Mind
Josephine Decker and I discussed making Shirley’s desk and her office area feel like the base of a tree–heavy, rooted, formidable. Objects that defined her like her books, tarot cards, bits of nature would then spread out from this base into the living room and the rest of the house as if growing and spreading out. We liked the idea that she would have a strong will and preferences and that she would scatter them everywhere and see where they would again take root. This is true of her creative endeavors, her general approach to life and her marriage.
Finding the Right Home
We scouted several historic homes in upstate New York and landed in the town of Catskill. The house was almost perfect in every way including being a bit in need of care like Shirley. A lot of the wallpaper and furniture was right for us as well. We had to add greens to the front yard, completely redo the kitchen and add a bathroom upstairs. We chose an area of the living room that was framed by an arched proscenium to be Shirley’s office as we liked the idea that she chooses to frame herself in that way and found lots of great places to frame our characters within the house.
Wallpaper – Shirley’s Relationship to Nature
A lot of the wallpaper was existing in the location but it was such a bonus that much of it was botanical in theme as Shirley has this relationship with nature and the organic world. The papers that we added were always highly textured Anaglypta papers both to hold the aging that we needed to put into the paper but also to balance the high level of detail and rich patterning in the rest of the house. We painted the kitchen wallpaper a mustard yellow and over-glazed with a lot of nicotine. You could see that a once cheerful color has faded and gotten a bit worn down–like Shirley. In the bathroom, we wanted a bit of a gothic feeling for the nightmare vision that Shirley has so went for an oxidized bronze color below and a very vivid saturated blue green above. For the Fitting Room Set, we discussed making an environment that Shirley would feel the utmost discomfort in, so we went with a vivid pink which is nowhere in her home or world, and a high-end silk textured paper that would feel more like the Dean’s world which is the party that she is getting the dress for.
Anytime we built or dressed for Shirley’s character, we wanted to convey a fertile, active and mercurial mind. Shirley wouldn’t choose something bland, plain or simple so we never did either for her character. In contrast, the Fitting Room, Dean’s House and College spaces were much more subdued and straight-forward.