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‘The Haunting of Hill House’: How a producer from Philly helped build Netflix’s scary family drama

Lower Merion High grad Dan Kaplow talks about finding the perfect house — and filling it with ghosts — for Mike Flanagan's reimagining of the Shirley Jackson horror classic.

"It took months" to find the right house, said producer Dan Kaplow (left) of the eerie title character in Netflix's "The Haunting of Hill House"
"It took months" to find the right house, said producer Dan Kaplow (left) of the eerie title character in Netflix's "The Haunting of Hill House"Read moreCourtesy of Dan Kaplow/Steve Dietl/Netflix

Before Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House could become television's scariest show about house-flippers, it needed a house to haunt.

Finding that house, the sprawling, Tudor-influenced mansion that Hugh (Henry Thomas) and Olivia Crain (Carla Gugino) set out to renovate and resell — with life-changing consequences for themselves and their five children — was one of the bigger challenges in bringing creator and director Mike Flanagan's reimagining of Shirley Jackson's horror classic to the screen, according to producer Dan Kaplow.

"Everything is about that house in the show, and it was very, very difficult to find that house," Kaplow, a 1983 graduate of Lower Merion High School, said in an interview Tuesday in which he talked about helping to make something that's as much a family drama as it is a ghost story.

"It's not like a traditional horror movie, where there are just jump scares," he said.

The house producers eventually settled on for the home's exterior — "it took months" — was located in LaGrange, Ga., after which the interiors were put together on a sound stage about 60 miles away in Atlanta.

And though Hugh and Olivia run into some issues with the layout of a house that's not exactly what it appears to be, the people making the show weren't quite as much in the dark.

"Mike had it all mapped out in his head, and it was our challenge to build it, put it on screen, and execute it at the highest level," said Kaplow, a veteran producer whose TV credits include United States of Tara, Trophy Wife, and Netflix's Lady Dynamite. "The interior set is the most massive set I've ever built."

The two-story set was built to the specifications required for the series' sixth episode, in which there's "a lot of traveling through the house," which was connected to "a second stage where the funeral home was … so you could walk from one set to the other set," as Timothy Hutton, who plays the older Hugh Crain, does in that episode, "Two Storms."

"All the rooms are connected. It's a real house — you can walk from one room to the next, up the stairs, down the stairs, into the kitchen, into the library," Kaplow said.

Chances are you'd pass a few ghosts on the way.

"We hid about 70 or 80 ghosts. And we would have them in makeup, standing by, you know, in hair and makeup and costume, walking around the set, just hanging out. And then when Mike would set up a shot, he would place a ghost in a corner or behind a tree [or] shrub or in a window or in a reflection. And when you go back and you find them, it's like, 'Oh, my God, there it is.' It's really eerie and haunting," Kaplow said.

"The wallpaper, the house, there are faces everywhere. There are faces in the wallpaper, there are faces in the doorknob, there are faces in every room you go into. … You think they're moving and they're looking at you. And sometimes they are."

But then The Haunting of Hill House has a lot of moving parts, such as a cast that includes the Crains as children and as adults. (Think This Is Us, but with a few more dead people.)

Kaplow was bowled over by the actors playing the younger Crains.

"These are very young kids, and what I'm just always amazed at is these kids performing at such a high level," he said. "Mike made them feel so comfortable to get the performance."

He was also impressed by the assistant directors who had to manage those performances around the child actors' schooling schedules and the limited hours they were permitted to work. "On a typical day, we would have some scenes with the adults and then we'd have some scenes with the kids. Usually the kids in the morning, adults in the afternoon. … It was really, really challenging to do the two different time periods and all the different locations," he said.

In television, the title of producer often belongs to writers or directors or even members of the cast. And then there are the people like Kaplow, a former HBO executive who describes himself as a "nuts-and-bolts producer. I put a crew together, I put a show together. I'm responsible for reporting to a studio and a network, and the [other] producers … I'm in charge of physical production."

For Kaplow, whose name appears in the opening credits right before the late Jackson's, the road to Hill House began some three decades ago, washing Dick Clark's car.

Growing up, he knew he wanted to be somehow involved in entertainment, said Kaplow, whose TV writer brother, Lawrence Kaplow (House), is a co-executive producer on NBC's Law & Order: SVU.

"My parents [Center City residents Maurice and Judith Kaplow] were musicians. My father was the conductor of the New York City Ballet, and the Pennsylvania Ballet, for a long, long time. I grew up in the ballet world and the classical music world. I just loved movies, I loved audience, and entertainment. … I just wanted to be a part of the business. I didn't even know what that meant."

After a high school career that included an internship at Philadelphia's KYW — where, he said, he became friends with Ukee Washington, who, like him, had sung in the Philadelphia Boys Choir — Kaplow studied at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and was one of a group of students who were taken during a trip to the West Coast to meet the American Bandstand host, a Syracuse grad and a prolific producer.

Clark told them, " 'If anyone ever comes to L.A., give me a call.' And so I did. He was my first phone call," Kaplow said. "I had my suit on. I walked in there, nervous. And he said, 'Do you have a change of clothes in your car?' I said, 'I have a pair of shorts.' He said, 'Great. Wash my car. I'll give you 40 bucks.' "

Kaplow scrubbed Clark's Jaguar for three hours, after which, "I walked back in, he gave me 40 bucks, and said, 'All right, you're now the assistant talent coordinator on American Bandstand. Report to this guy.' "

The car wash, Kaplow said, was Clark's test "to see if  I would complain or had that attitude of can-do, don't-complain, can-do-anything."