John Paul Kelly, the film's production designer, tells PEOPLE that setting the movie in Venice was a "genius stroke"
A Haunting in Venice puts a supernatural spin on the 1969 Agatha Christie novel Hallowe'en Party. And while the original book was set in England, the new big-screen adaptation takes the spooky thriller to the film's title city.
Kenneth Branagh is back as Hercule Poirot for A Haunting in Venice, having played the mustachioed detective in 2017's Murder on the Orient Express and 2022's Death on the Nile. Now living in post-World War II Venice, Poirot accompanies mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) to a seance at a haunted palazzo full of secrets, where he stays to investigate a murder.
John Paul Kelly, the film's production designer, tells PEOPLE that setting the movie in Venice was a "genius stroke."
When it came to scouting Venetian palazzos that would work for filming, he and Branagh realized every single one they saw felt like the script.
"The original Agatha Christie novel translated just automatically to Venice," he says. "So it was a bit of a no-brainer, really, that it was a brilliant place to film this story. You want to create a visual environment."
However, it quickly became apparent that they couldn't shoot a feature film in any of the real palazzos, as they were "far too precious."
"Generally, these 500-year-old buildings don't lend themselves to chandeliers crashing onto the piano nobile," the production designer says.
So, the film's crew built the interiors and the exteriors of the palazzo that appears in A Haunting in Venice at Pinewood Studios, near London.
Kelly says Branagh, who also directed the movie, was "very keen that the environment felt like a real environment for the actors and for him as an actor as well, so that when Poirot stands at the top of the stairs in the piano nobile and he slams the gates shut, those actors are locked in a big scary house, and they're not going to get out."
The inspiration for the realistic set was a square in Venice called Campo San Boldo, which he calls “as secret a Venice as you can find.” The area is about a 10-minute walk from the Rialto in the central part of the city.
“Because the story is so specific in terms of loggias on the top floor and secret gardens and stuff, we needed to build our own version of it,” he says.
But they did shoot footage in San Boldo for a nighttime scene in which guests arrive at the palazzo via gondola for a Halloween party, where the seance occurs.
However, most of the arrivals were filmed on the movie’s set. Kelly says he rebuilt the exterior so they could have gondolas enter the building and mirror the San Boldo-area palazzos studied for the mystery film — though he noted this is rare in Venice. Most people disembark the gondola at the door.
The production design team also built a large model of that area of Venice, which let them maneuver the camera around the building. This helped them add moody effects like rain crashing against the windows and waves in the canals surrounding the building.
Kelly says Branagh had the idea early on that the setting should feel like backstreet Venice rather than the Grand Canal.
"What was extraordinary is they're really unassuming, crumbly buildings from the outside," he says of the palazzos they saw. "But then, of course, you go inside, and they've got these extraordinary 15th-century frescoes and beautiful piano nobiles."
An early scene in which the iconic detective meets Ariadne was filmed on the rooftop terrace at Palazzo Pisani, where the Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello di Venezia is located.
“When you kind of pulled back on a drone at the end, you could get an absolute clear view of the whole of the city,” Kelly says.
They interspersed that footage with another palazzo, Miracoli, on the Grand Canal, which they chose for its large garden.
"That was where film trickery comes in, and you mix a few different locations to create one world," Kelly says.
As for the interior of the haunted palazzo, Kelly says it was important that it "wasn't a one-trick pony that just felt like a kind of a spooky, dank basement with rats in the corner."
Instead, he wanted it to feel like a "cathedral-like space" where long shadows could be thrown down on ornate marble floors.
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from celebrity news to compelling human interest stories
The top floor of the house, which includes the bedroom of a grieving mother's late daughter, was meant to feel "like an enchanted forest where you got the sense of a bird in a gilded cage as she was kind of locked away from the world."
For that, they referenced a variety of architectural details and color palettes.
"The idea was that by merging all the different moods that you'd create an interesting and varied world that, I suppose, essentially isn't going to bore an audience who have to spend an hour and a half in that environment," he says.
Showing the city's macabre side wasn't much of a stretch for Kelly, who says, "Venice is eerie."
"Venice in January is a really scary place," he adds. "I know we all imagine beautiful blue skies, Canalettos, but most of the year, Venice does not look like that. It's much closer to Don't Look Now and those sorts of films. It's misty, and it's spooky, and it's damp, and it's gray, so you don't have to squint very hard to feel scared.”
A Haunting in Venice is in theaters on Friday, Sept. 15.
For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!
Read the original article on People.