Virtually as soon as he laid eyes on the eerie insides of the Winchester Mystery House, Brett Tomberlin ’03 knew he had discovered the foundation of a great movie. But back in 2006, even he might not have had the chutzpah to guess he would convince one of the world’s most acclaimed actors to make it with him.
But that’s exactly what happened. In May, Tomberlin, one of two producers for Winchester, was on location for the final shots of the supernatural thriller starring none other than the The Queen herself—Helen Mirren.
The Oscar-winning actress plays Sarah Winchester, the reclusive heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, who was convinced she was haunted by the vengeful victims of the family weapon. The spirits, she believed, had already killed her husband and infant daughter.
To appease the ghosts, she oversaw a campaign of ceaseless construction. By the time she died in 1922, the house had been under night-and-day building for 38 years, and Winchester, a virtual shut-in, had become the kind of enigma that Mirren finds totally intriguing.
“It’s very similar to playing the queen,” Mirren said on the last day of shooting. “There’s so much to learn about her and yet at the very center of all the knowledge is this character of utter mystery.”
Mirren doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but she can empathize with Sarah Winchester. “I do believe in the power of belief,” Mirren said. “I think human beings are driven, really, by their imaginations above all, and the power of that is endless.”
Tomberlin’s role as chief wrangler, cheerleader, and check writer for the $14 million project during its decade-long gestation has very Santa Clara–centric beginnings. After college, he used alumni connections, and almost obsessive perseverance, to land a job with Andy Ackerman ’78, famed for his work on a number of television comedies, including directing half the episodes of Seinfeld.
That led to a friendship with another Seinfeld alum, actor Jason Alexander, whom Tomberlin helped bring in as a last-minute fill-in for SCU’s Golden Circle Theatre Party in 2006. With time to kill before the show, the pair took in a pair of local sights—the San Jose Flea Market, which netted Alexander a $2 fedora—and the Winchester house, which resulted in much more. “After getting the whole tour, I said to him ‘Do you see this as a movie?’ and he goes ‘I was just going to say that,’” Tomberlin says.
It took years to nail down the rights and much longer to get the project through myriad hoops and false starts. Fellow Bronco Andy Trapani ’95 was on board as an executive producer. But producing is not for the faint of heart. And 11 years later, the destination nears. The announcement of Mirren’s involvement last year drove a surge of interest in showing the film, which is slated to open in early 2018. Michael and Peter Spierig are directing.
“We already have all our distributors,” Tomberlin says. “We’ve sold out the whole entire world at this point, down to Iceland and all five theaters there.”
Read more about Sarah Winchester in SCM’s article on Captive of the Labyrinth a biography of Winchester written by Mary Jo Ignoffo ’78.