Oct 162014
 
Photo by Kerry Tribe depicting her depictions of the Doheny murders.

Photo by Kerry Tribe depicting her depictions of the Doheny murders.

You’ve probably seen the Greystone Mansion dozens of times, without realizing what exactly you were looking at. The house has been colonized by the fantasy logic of many films over the years – absorbed, remapped, and reassembled according to the narrative demands of the cinematic narratives into which it’s been inserted. Rooms of the house have appeared in everything from Dead Ringers and Death Becomes Her to The Witches of Eastwick and X-Men.

The Tudor Revival mansion on this (still) elaborately landscaped estate in Beverly Hills was built in 1928, commissioned by oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny for his son, Edward “Ned” Doheny, Jr., and his family. At the time it was the most expensive house built in California (price tag: between 3 and 5 million). Its 46,000 square feet feature 55 rooms. The grounds span 16 acres.

Four months after moving in, Ned and his personal secretary  Hugh Plunket died in a guest bedroom while others were present in the house. The official story, widely reported, was that Plunkett killed Ned and himself in a fit of rage over news he would not be receiving a raise. Rumors then and now suggest a more complicated scenario, having to do with an alleged romantic relationship between Ned and Hugh.  Plunkett was considered unstable and unwell and had openly refused to check himself into the Camarillo sanitarium, against the ‘advice’ of the Doheny family and associates. The deaths occurred against the ongoing backdrop of the Teapot Dome Trials, which involved bribes for oil access, among other things, and deeply implicated the Doheny family. Both Ned and Hugh had been called to testify. Hugh’s institutionalization might have prevented that. The deaths certainly did.

Plunkett arrived at the house around 9:30 that evening. The deaths occurred an hour or so later, after conversation between the victims was said to have become “heated”.  Three hours passed before authorities were notified. The staff’s testimony felt scripted and rehearsed, according to detectives at the crime scene. Most of the rumors put the gun in Plunkett’s hand. In Raymond Chandler’s novel The High Window, the Doheny deaths are thinly fictionalized as the “Cassidy Case”, and Philip Marlowe theorizes that the millionaire, not his secretary, was responsible.

Ned’s widow, Lucy, continued to live in the house for years. Along with the grounds, it was eventually sold to another egregiously wealthy occupant, then saved from demolition by Beverly Hills in 1965. The property stewed with its ghosts until 1971, when the grounds became a city park. The house has been rented out for film use for decades, and for a time (1969-1982) was the headquarters of the American Film Institute, which paid the city of Beverly Hills a dollar a month for rent.

A few years ago, artist Kerry Tribe reenacted some of these rumored theories for a piece to be exhibited inside the Greystone Mansion, shooting on location within the rooms of the house. All of the dialog in the resulting film was taken from the films shot at the house over the years and made to conform to the Doheny story’s dictates.

After seeing parts of the film, called alternately There Will Be___” and Greystone, I talked to her, and heard a few of her own ghost stories (the house is considered haunted) as well as some of the more popular accounts circulated over the years. I was curious about the shoot, the experience, and the process of conceiving the piece, so I emailed her the following questions:

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How did your piece “Greystone” come about?

I was invited to propose a site-specific artwork for a one-night black tie event to be held at Greystone Mansion called “The Ball of Artists,” which was essentially the fabulous last hoorah of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty-organized mega series of exhibitions surveying the Los Angeles art scene from 1945-1980.

I don’t know what they expected me to propose, but certainly not a film of the scale I ended up making. All of the invited artists were given tours of the mansion by the City of Beverly Hills Park Rangers who run the place now. That’s when I first learned about the many tragedies that had occurred there: in the years shortly after the murders explored in my film, a child died falling out a window, two maids committed suicide, and it’s believed that a manservant died in a fight in the basement.

And then I started to hear about the hundreds of films, videos and commercials shot there, many of which I was of course familiar with. Walking through the mansion feels less like stepping back in time than stepping into another, purely cinematic dimension. There’s the bowling ally where Daniel Day Lewis’s Plainview bludgeons Paul Dano’s Eli to death in There Will Be Blood. There’s the grand staircase where Toby McGuire’s Peter Parker encounters Willem Defoe’s Norman Osborn (a.k.a. the Green Goblin) in Spiderman.  For years I’ve been interested in the varied and complicated relationships between memory, film, history and time-based art and when I realized that the mansion was something most of us had actually seen and might remember from one film or another, while the terribly history that took place there seemed to have been all but forgotten, I started to get excited.

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It’s interesting to me, researching the Doheny murders online, that the facts are fluid. Everything from the circumstances surrounding Plunkett’s entry into the mansion that night to where he was when the doctor arrived varies according to the source. That’s different probably in news reports from the time of the event, yet those accounts seem to have been staged or scripted as well, to protect the Doheny name from further scandal and to bury all sorts of unsavory truths. Your film reenacts the story based on five different theories. What are those theories?

The five scenarios that play out in my film are the five scenarios that I feel to be even remotely plausible. The official story – what was printed in all the papers at the time — was that Hugh Plunkett, who had worked for the Doheny family for years, had been sick with a terrible cold or flu and a bad case of insomnia when he came by the mansion on the night of February 16, 1929. Ned Doheny and the family doctor had been trying to convince Plunkett to check himself in to a sanitarium to recuperate. Plunkett was nearly delirious and argued with Doheny, who placed a call to the doctor for assistance, at which point Plunkett shot him. The doctor, having been called, arrived at the mansion shortly thereafter to discover Plunkett in a deranged state. Seeing the doctor, Plunkett shot himself in the head, at which point the doctor discovered Doheny’s body in the guest bedroom Plunkett often slept in.

There was never an inquest and the case was closed after just two days. But a lot of evidence suggests a cover-up, albeit a bizarre one, and of all the possible ways these men could have died, I’m certain it didn’t happen like this. The police were only called three hours after the second death occurred, and when they arrived, they were made to wait outside. When they finally came in, they found the gun by Plunkett’s body, warm to the touch.

Mrs. Doheney, home at the time of the shootings, acknowledged that she’d heard something when the first shot rang out, but claimed she’d thought it was furniture being turned over. There was the cigarette conspicuously burned down in the hand Plunkett would have used to hold the gun. Most significantly, the blood patterns on Doheny’s head suggested that he’d died face down and had subsequently been turned onto his back. On further questioning about this point, the doctor changed his story: Doheny was in fact still alive when he was discovered, but barely. In trying to save his life, the doctor turned Doheny onto his back, but his efforts were in vain. He continued to maintain that Plunkett was alive and brandishing his weapon after Doheny had been shot— testimony that, if believed, would prove at least that Plunkett was responsible for his own death.

This official version makes no reference to the fact that both dead man had been called to testify before the Senate in relation to charges that Doheny Sr. had sent them to deliver a black bag containing $100,000 cash to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, in exchange for the exclusive drilling rights to an oil-rich government-controlled territory known as Elk Hills. The family had been trying, unsuccessfully, to convince Plunkett to check himself in to a sanitarium. The official version also sidesteps any matters of intimacy between the two dead men who, it’s widely believed, were lovers. In light of these circumstances, and the evidence found at the scene, four other explanations seem far more plausible.

Lucy Doheny, wife of Ned and mother of their five children, may have killed them both. The two men, finding themselves forced to choose among testifying against Doheny Sr., perjuring themselves or, in Plunkett’s case, going away to a nuthouse, may have conspired to take their own lives. Doheny Sr. clearly had a motive to dispose of them both before they could testify and may have hired someone to kill them, though I find it hard to believe he’d intentionally kill his only child. This is why I opted to have the hit man in my film shoot Doheny first in a case of mistaken identity before disposing of Plunkett. Finally, it’s possible that Ned Doheny, known for his love of both shooting and alcohol in the age of prohibition decided one night to take matters into his own hands and end it for both of them. This to me seems most likely, and it’s how I chose to end my film.

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Ned Doheny at the crime scene.

How do you approach a narrative like this, dealing with memory and representation and the way a story is recreated and put through the rock tumbler of memory and public opinion until its polished surface resembles something different, when really the story can never be known? What does the story become there?

The film presents the official version first, and then more or less discredits it as the other versions unfold, intercut with bits of the crime scene investigation where a young investigator tries to make sense of the bungled cover-up. Goofy as it is in moments, the film is actually very careful never to show anything that fundamentally could not have happened. It would have made for a much better story if there were some logic to the turning over of the body, the placing of the gun in the oven, the planting of the cigarette in the dead man’s hands. But the logic driving those actions remains a mystery to me. The premise of my project is that I had to shoot in the mansion, using only dialog that was originally said in the mansion, to tell the story of what might really have happened in the mansion, and not to show anything that is patently false. Not the easiest way to make your first narrative, but considering those parameters I think we did OK.

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I’d never heard of Greystone Mansion –  or the back story – before we talked. Immediately I was bummed that all this time the grounds, if not the house, have been open to the public, free of charge. It’s like a public domain haunted house, and I’ve missed it during all my trips to LA. What I love about your piece is how it uses the lore surrounding the house and the Teapot Dome scandal and brings all those assorted ghosts back into the house in a different way – a film haunted by other films and ideas inserted into the house that spawned them. Those movies re-purposed Greystone, and you re-purposed them. What appealed to you about the idea of combing through the screenplays of the films which have used Greystone  as a set and recycling them into a reenactment of the Doheny deaths?

Your idea that this is a film haunted by other films is so great. It’s also about a home haunted by its own repressed history. Somewhere in the writing process I began to think of the mansion as my film’s actual protagonist. All my characters are amalgams—collages who speak exclusively in phrases written for someone else. But the mansion is somehow always just itself. Greystone has been witness to a lot of crazy shit—the drama around the Doheny family, but also the drama of the countless film productions that passed through since.

As I tracked down and transcribed all the scenes of all the feature films that used Greystone as a location (I couldn’t simply work from the screenplays because what’s on paper often differs from what makes it into the can), I was struck by how much of the existing dialog so genially inserted itself into the story I wanted to tell. It quickly became clear that Greysone Mansion is where people with budgets go if they want to demonstrate the corrosive nature of excessive wealth (Indecent Proposal, The Big Lebowski, There Will Be Blood) or show a home where the logic of normal social relations don’t apply (Flowers in the Attic, X-Men, House of the Damned). Conveniently for me, lots of movie characters have been shot at or killed in the mansion, so finding the words to make those scenes work was never much of a problem. I had this 333 page Word document with all my transcribed dialog and I’d just search for the things I needed people to say. At times it felt like the piece was writing itself.

How many days did the shoot last and what special considerations did filming inside the house involve? What interested me, hearing you mention a brief overview of the conditions imposed by the organizers, was how the efforts to protect and preserve the house seemed to mirror the efforts to protect and serve the various stories all these years.

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Filming at Greystone was tough. The organization that helps with archiving and fundraising is protective of the Doheny family legacy and didn’t provide any assistance. They only gave me the green light after I promised that all names would be changed. This, of course, was easy – my leads by necessity have the names of characters from the films their lines come from.

The City of Beverly Hills Park Rangers that look after the mansion and oversee all shooting genuinely care about protecting it and I have a lot of respect for how personally they take their jobs. They are the mansion’s first line of defense. The history is so rich, and these guys are really experts in it. One of them told me you could still make out blood stains on the murder room floor when he started working there ten years ago! So I appreciate all the restrictions they place on film crews. When Greystone was leased to the American Film Institute (from 1969 – 1982) the place apparently got trashed. They did a major renovation arecently and the place is finally back to its original glory.

The rangers agreed to allow me access for five days strictly limited to 8AM-6PM. If we were late getting out, we were expected to give up the extra time the following day. We were not permitted to use a full sized generator, which seriously limited our ability to light the most magnificent (and most frequently filmed) areas of the mansion—still a huge regret to me. We were not permitted to rig anything to the walls or molding. No dollies, no jibs, strictly limited crew, no liquids or food of any kind in the mansion. They were doing me (or I suppose the Getty Museum) a huge favor by waiving the usual fees, and I am so grateful for the trust they placed in me. But I’m not trained as a filmmaker, rather as a visual artist. I use film or video when it’s the right format for an idea, and I’d never made a narrative film before. The learning curve felt incredibly steep and the restrictions made it especially challenging.

Inspecting the gun.

Inspecting the gun.

What kind of direction did you give the actors? The performances feel almost like a séance, like mediums delivering messages from the dead.

We all agreed that it would be important to strike a balance between a kind of naturalism or authenticity and an acknowledgement that these lines had had other lives in other contexts. A few statements get repeated by different characters in different situations — lines like “Dear God!” and “It sounded like a gunshot!” seem to come up again and again.

Other lines are a force-fit: finding a gun warm to the touch is followed by “Look at this! Hot off the press!” These are some of my favorite moments, because they allow the film’s structural premise to show through without asking the actors to betray their characters. A lot of the dialog is so schlocky, it would have been easy to turn the film into a spoof of noir drama, and I didn’t want to push it too far. It’s also hard to keep an audience identified with your leads when you kill them every five or six minutes. We tried our best. I have tremendous respect for my cast. They worked very hard through many rehearsals to bring out the humor and the pathos in their often very clunky lines.

The foyer, circa 1965.

The foyer, circa 1965.

The security guard took you on a tour of the basement the night you wrapped, right? What were some of the stories he told you?

This is a hard one. If I start trying to explain these stories, I’ll sound like a fool, or worse yet, make him sound like a fool. There may be “logical explanations” for the many bizarre and disturbing things that have happened at the mansion in recent years, including things that happened during our shoot, but the cumulative effect is quite unnerving. I’ll offer a few examples, and you can make of them what you will.

A few years back, a park ranger was making her rounds at the end of an uneventful day. The house was empty. As she approached the top of the grand staircase she felt a rush of air and a sudden hard push on her back that sent her tumbling down the stairs. I don’t think she was seriously injured but she never went back to work.

A young woman, touring the house during pre-production for some shoot or other, was checking out the closet-sized meat locker on an upper floor. (Doheny Jr. had game brought onto the mansion’s grounds which he would routinely shoot from his window.) It’s a horrible space: the walls are tiled like a shower, there’s a hole in the floor where the blood could drain and it still smells faintly of mildew and death. Sadly, it’s also where a maid in the 1930s committed suicide. The metal latch on the locker door had been removed for safety reasons, but it was apparently still possible to find oneself locked inside because of how the meat locker door could get jammed closed if the hallway door was closed outside it. At the end of the tour, when the crew was ready to leave, the young woman was noticed to be missing. A search ensued and she was discovered, screaming and hysterical locked inside that dark meat locker. She had no idea how it could have happened.

On the evening we wrapped, the lead ranger kindly gave several of us a tour of the basement, which until then had been strictly off limits. The basement runs the full length of the house and is accessed by a broad staircase with a metal gate at the bottom. The gate is locked with a fat padlock, the keys to which only the rangers wear on their belts. There were two rangers still on site that evening: the guy giving us the tour, and the guy who was keeping an eye on the loading of our trucks a good hike up the hill.

Our ranger began the tour by using his key to unlock the gates, swinging them open, and leading us through. There were five of us, plus him. We spent perhaps 20 minutes down there. It was the worst-feeling place I’ve ever been, and I couldn’t get out fast enough. When we returned to the gates, they were closed again, just as they had been when we arrived, the padlock shut tight. I remember the flash of confusion that crossed the ranger’s face. He looked at us and asked when or why one of us would sneak off to do that. We were all dumbfounded and suddenly he looked truly spooked. Then he laughed it off. He had a key, after all, and he easily reached through the gates from the inside to unlock the padlock on the outside. He suggested that Plunkett or Doheny was probably messing with us, a little goodbye trick to remind us that they could have made things more difficult.

I nearly shit my pants. I rushed up to the trucks to ask my crew and the ranger who was watching them if anyone had left the group and headed towards the mansion. Nobody knew what I was talking about. Little things like this happen at Greystone all the time there.

How did this project relate to the work you’d done before, and how did it extend into different areas or directions?

In the past I’ve made works that use the literal mechanics of the medium to try to explore issues related to memory and cognition. Working with the medium metaphorically and phenomenologically, you could say. Often the film and the apparatus that allows us to experience it have been front and center in my work – a single film plays through two adjacent visible projectors in H.M. (2009) for example. Or audio tape traces the gallery walls in Milton Torres Sees a Ghost (2010). In this case, the structural and phenomenological interests have less to do with the physical material than with how the story is told, and the idea that there is this vast repository of semi-remembered cinematic history we share. In both cases, I’m interested in producing a kind of self-awareness in the viewer: a kind of balancing act between identification and critical distance.

The Great Room, as it appeared in There Will Be Blood.

The Great Room, as it appeared in There Will Be Blood.

When you screened it outside the mansion, in a theatrical environment – when the ghosts were removed from the house and installed elsewhere – what kind of response did it get?

It only showed in Greystone Mansion for one night, and that was great. I wish I could go back and see it there again. I felt like something was coming full circle; like I was finally bringing to light other ways of thinking about what happened that horrible night. I was screening it for the guests of the Ball of Artists and a few key members of my wonderful cast and crew, all decked out in their finest. But I was also screening it for the real or imagined ghosts of Hugh Plunkett and Ned Doheny whose presence, for the first time, seemed absolutely quiet to me that night. Everything had come full circle. And of course the mansion is just so incredibly gorgeous. That night there was art everywhere, and festivity and light.

On the other hand, it’s great to see Greystone getting into festivals like Rotterdam and London and Views from the Avant-Garde, because the piece tries so hard to look like a normal film, and I find myself relieved that it can pass. I also like to think about film buffs in the audience recognizing lines here and there. On the other hand, showing it in a gallery / museum context is more comfortable for me. This sort of conceptual, programmatic way of making work has a legacy people are familiar with, and I have a modest but loyal audience who I can trust will read this work in relation to other things I’ve done.

 Posted by on October 16, 2014

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