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Murder at Harvard | Behind the Scenes

Webster's Laboratory

How do you portray an event that occurred over 150 years ago, in a location that no longer exists?

Murder at Harvard's producers chose to recreate John Webster's chemistry laboratory, where Simon Schama imagines George Parkman's murder to have occurred. A crew built the detailed set in a Newton, Massachusetts, warehouse, basing it on a surviving floor plan from the original trial transcripts.

"We spent months scouting eastern Massachusetts for an abandoned school chemistry lab we could transform into the 1849 Harvard Medical College chemistry laboratory. The closest we got was an empty school in Waltham, but the lab was on the fourth floor, had no elevator and no heat.

Finally, in desperation, we decided we'd build our lab."

— Eric Stange, Producer/Director

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Floor Plan | Boston Public Library

This floor plan is taken from the Report of the Case of John W. Webster, the trial transcript by George W. Bemis, published in 1850. The production team used this schematic as a basis for reconstructing Webster's laboratory.

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Artist's Sketch | Katha Seidman

Production Designer Katha Seidman sketched out how Webster's lab might have looked, with an emphasis on a cluttered workspace.

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Panoramic view of the set

Below are behind-the-scenes images and comments for the numbered hotspots from the cast and crew:

1

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WGBH

"Since Simon Schama's book is about the nature of truth, we were as careful as possible. We tried to get the larger details and the smaller details just right."

— Melissa Banta, Producer

 

2

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Courtesy Liane Brandon

"It's very important to pay attention to the character whose space it is. You are telling the story as much with the space of the character as with the actions of that character."

— Katha Seidman, Production Designer

 

3

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Courtesy Liane Brandon

"...Webster had facial hair that was glued on. When an actor is under hot lights and begins to perspire, the moisture under the artificial hair would make the glue visible in close-up shots. On the set, I removed any moisture so you couldn't see where the hair was patched on. "

— Anna Brecke, Makeup Artist

4

murder_behind-the-scenes_4.jpg
Courtesy Liane Brandon

"...we needed to capture the crucial fight scene both visually and aurally. The dialogue here is very important as Schama imagines what Parkman and Webster might have said to one another... our sound recordist and boom operator managed to capture great stuff."

— Amy Geller, Co-Producer

5

murder_behind-the scenes_5.jpg
WGBH

"The lab tables and other set pieces were designed to be moveable, depending on the shot. We used what we call a 'dance floor,' pieces of smooth masonite -- in sections -- which we put over the rough board floor when we needed to do a dolly shot..."

— Boyd Estus, Director of Photography
 

6

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Courtesy Liane Brandon

"Blocking out all the actors' moves for the violent fight and murder scene took careful planning if we were going to make it look at all realistic. And because our film noir-style lighting relied on small pools of light among deep shadows, the actors had to hit their marks precisely or the camera wouldn't see them at all."

— Eric Stange, Producer/Director

7

murder_behind-the scenes_7.jpg
WGBH

"Focusing is usually very difficult on a film set. There's so much going on behind the scenes: cameras moving about, cords being laid, lights being set -- a lot of stuff right in front of your face. Here, it was so easy. Because everything was real."

— Tim Sawyer, Actor ("John Webster")
 

8

murder_behind-the-scenes_8.jpg
Courtesy Liane Brandon

"When shooting in black and white, you have different color concerns. With the color liquids, you need to make sure that there is enough contrast and range. If you have the same color-value liquid in all the bottles, you get 'blah.' You've got to give it more punch when it's lit."

— Katha Seidman, Production Designer
 

9

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WGBH

"It was a surreal experience from the first day of filming. I had thought about the characters' motivations for so long and to see them come to life... I felt like I learned new things about them. It was thrilling."

— Melissa Banta, Producer
 

10

murder_behind-the-scenes_10.jpg
WGBH

"I loved the costume, but the first day I put it on, we realized the shoes were a size too small. So I used that for my character. Anytime you see Parkman with a pinched look on his face, that's the shoes talking."

— Sean McGuirk, Actor ("George Parkman")
 

11

murder_behind-the-scenes_11.jpg
Courtesy Liane Brandon

"Newspaper accounts described Parkman striding around town in his purple vest. We had this red coat with matching vest for Parkman, but Eric [Stange] asked, 'Couldn't you put a purple vest on him?' So we did."

— Ann Yoost Brecke, Wardrobe Supervisor
 

12

murder_behind-the-scenes_12.jpg
Courtesy Liane Brandon

"For this shot, we were tossing Parkman's hat into the frame, as if had just fallen off his head. It's like shooting dice -- you keep shooting it until you get it right, with the hat landing in the proper place."

— Boyd Estus, Director of Photography

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