‘Blood’ work: digging up a mansion’s mystery

Special to The Times

CHANCES are you’ve seen the grand entry before. And the immense hallway. You’ve probably seen the kitchen, the dining room and a bedroom or two. Greystone Mansion, the house designed by Gordon Kaufman and completed in 1928 as a gift from oil tycoon Edward Doheny to his son, is a versatile estate that film crews descend upon often for its opulent beauty, acres of manicured grounds and Beverly Hills location.

But there’s one room in the house -- a partially subterranean, two-lane bowling alley --that hadn’t made it onto the big screen until Paul Thomas Anderson featured it in “There Will Be Blood,” his epic saga that opened this week about an oil prospector in turn-of-the-century California. And the reason is simple: “There was nothing there,” says Daniel Lupi, one of the movie’s producers. Just water damage, crumbling plaster walls, rotted wood flooring and some junk. “It was basically used as a storeroom,” he says.

Though much of the early life of the fictional prospector Daniel Plainview was shot on sets in Texas, a proper home was needed for Plainview the successful oilman.

“We looked all over Texas,” says production designer Jack Fisk. “And in New Mexico.” None of the mansions there was right. Then they looked at scouting shots of Greystone.


“It was built by an oil baron,” Fisk says, succinctly explaining why the director -- and the rest of the team, including star Daniel Day-Lewis -- fell for the location.

“The scale was proper, and it’s been kept up so well,” Fisk says.

Plus, he adds, “we knew the house had a bowling alley in it.”

With their limited budget, this pre-built set was a draw.

Soon after moving into the house in 1928 with wife Lucy and their five children, Edward “Ned” Doheny Jr. was killed by his personal secretary in what was deemed (but often questioned as) a murder-suicide. Lucy remarried and raised her children in the house. In 1955, when the children were grown, Lucy sold the property to a Chicagoan who had plans to subdivide and demolish the house. The city of Beverly Hills stopped the scheme by buying the historic estate in 1965 and -- hoping to get upkeep and repairs -- leased the mansion to the American Film Institute from 1969 until 1982 for a dollar a year.

In 1971, the estate became a city park, and in 1976 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.


Set designers have long transformed the house to make believable -- and almost unrecognizable -- environments for everyone from Austin Powers to Spider-Man to the Big Lebowski. Look close enough and you’ll recognize the intricate carved-oak balustrade in the entry, the black and white marble in the hall, rich wood paneling and 18-foot-tall leaded-glass windows that offer sweeping views of the city below.


But it was the history of the home and its intrigue that inspired the team behind “There Will Be Blood,” Fisk says.

“It permeates the air,” he says. “You get ideas you wouldn’t normally get if you were working on a cold stage.”

As Day-Lewis worked in this storied location, his character became more finely focused.

“We wanted to reinforce [Daniel’s] performance visually and help solidify the character,” set decorator Jim Erickson says. To make Plainview’s imposing study look lived in, Erickson says, “we kept adding things.” They brought in a Victorian settee for Plainview to camp out on and a pot for him to urinate in. The costume designer gave him a pair of holey shoes. In the end, these details tell us, the successful oil baron hadn’t left his prospector days far behind.


Another scene, in which Plainview sets up a hallway as a shooting range for target practice, was entirely sparked by the space itself -- and vividly reveals the state of Plainview’s declining mental health.

Although inspiring, a historically important home can also be limiting.

“The Beverly Hills parks guards are real protective of the property,” Fisk says. “You can’t make structural changes that can’t be restored.” And you can’t paint over carved wood or nail anything into the walls. Fisk went to great lengths to show the guard that the paint used to make “hundreds of hits” on the wood and other surfaces during the target-practice scene was easily removed.

“The last thing you want to do is damage these places that are already very fragile,” Erickson says. And when you’re restoring a historic room, you want to make sure you get it right. This responsibility weighed on the team as it worked on the decrepit bowling alley.


The crew could have constructed a bowling alley on a set -- one with expandable walls, a removable ceiling and plenty of room for a large crew and lots of equipment. But, Lupi says, Thomas Anderson wanted a real location. Lupi went to the city of Beverly Hills and pitched an idea: We’ll renovate the bowling alley in exchange for a discount on Greystone’s rental fee for filming. The city agreed.


“The lanes and gutters were boarded over with plywood,” Fisk remembers. Under the plywood, the floors were painted red. The ball returns and light fixtures were missing, and the electricity didn’t work. AFI film students are rumored to have used the long, narrow room as a roller-skating rink.

“We couldn’t find any photos of the original room,” Fisk says of his search for historical guidance. “Reconstructing it took some detective work.”


He and David Crank, the art director, had the red paint stripped off the floors and were surprised to find inlaid toe lines and holes where the ball returns must have been installed -- the first of their clues.

They found fragments of the original rails, which helped them with proportions. A single original bowling pin served as the Paramount craftsmen’s model for 10 reproductions.

A small label with the manufacturer’s name was still attached to the heavy manual pinsetter that sat at the end of the room and led the team to a 1913 bowling catalog from the same company. Using a photograph and description in the catalog as guide, Fisk and Crank designed wooden loop-the-loop ball returns.

Before automated pinsetters were invented, pin boys would wait at the end of the bowling alley and roll the balls back up toward the players. Never having seen a manual bowling alley before, the men worked faithfully from the catalog.


“There wasn’t any actually bowling in the scene,” Crank says, “so the returns didn’t need to work.”

But, after repairing the lanes and gutters and fitting the alley with period fixtures, Crank and Fisk couldn’t help but be thrilled when the returns actually did their job.