Claire Bloom was intrigued to the play the role of a woman who was attracted to another woman. She said she got along with everyone on the set, except for Julie Harris, who tried everything to avoid her and not talk to her. At the end of the shoot, Harris went over to Bloom's house with a present and explained that the reason she had kept to herself was to stay in character, because Harris' role in the film was that of an outsider that none of the others understand or will listen to. Bloom was happy to hear the real reason behind Harris' behavior, since Bloom stated that she really liked Harris and could not understand what she herself had done wrong to be treated like that by her co-star.
Director Robert Wise read a review of Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House" in Time Magazine and decided to get the rights to the novel. He later met the writer herself to talk about ideas for the film. He asked her if she had thought of other titles for the novel, because the title would not work for the film. She told him that the only other title she had considered was simply "The Haunting", so Wise decided to use it for the film.
Robert Wise shot the film in black and white because he loved the depth and rich atmospheric quality of black and white and felt it would be perfect to enhance the moody psychological quality of the story.
Nelson Gidding's initial concept for the script was that Eleanor had experienced a nervous breakdown and had been hospitalized, and that the house was the hospital, the other characters were staff and patients, and the booms and knockings were the result of shock treatments. The entire story would have been inside the head of a mentally ill woman. However, upon discussing this with author Shirley Jackson (who simply regarded it as a haunted-house story), he decided to backpedal on that idea, but still emphasized Eleanor's crumbling sanity in his final script.
With the majority of the film's action taking place inside the house, Robert Wise took the time to build suspense slowly and deliberately by paying careful attention to each scene. By keeping the small cast together in the various rooms of the house, Wise emphasized the claustrophobic nature of the story, which helped to increase dramatic tension.
For some of the scenes in which characters are tormented by loud ghostly sounds coming from the house, Robert Wise had the sounds on playback so that the actors could react to them authentically. It was a technique that they found very useful and effective for creating just the right mood of terror.
According to Robert Wise, the spiral staircase, provided some unique challenges. "It was scary when you were up on that thing and it was rocking around. The one shot we did on it that fascinates people the most is when the camera is at the bottom and goes up. We designed the banister of the stairway to be so wide and thick that it would fit a small rig with wheels on it--a little, light dolly that would hold a hand-held camera. We had our camera on that and we had a control wire underneath, all the way down. We simply took the camera up to the top on this rig, started it, rolled it down, and then reversed the film. It was all done on that balustrade."
The screenplay made many changes to the story. The number of characters was cut down, the back story was significantly shortened, most of the supernatural events depicted in the novel were kept off-screen, and the greater part of the action was set inside the house to heighten the audience's feeling of claustrophobia. Eleanor's role as an outcast was also emphasised. The character of Theodora was given a sharper, slightly more cruel sense of humor in order to make her a foil for Eleanor but also to heighten Eleanor's outsider status. The role of Luke was made more flippant, and Dr. Markway (Montague in the novel) was made a more confident character.
Robert Wise had been on a contract with MGM and owed them one more film, so he brought "The Haunting" to them. They would only give him 1 million dollars to shoot the film, and Wise insisted that he needed a bigger budget. In the end he brought the project over to MGM in London, where they were willing to pay him 1.1 million, so he accepted and decided to do the film in England.
In the 50th issue of Scarlet Street magazine, Julie Harris revealed that she wished she could go back and play the character differently. "Well, I would've been odder looking as Eleanor," she said. "I think she was too ordinary. I just wanted to be -- odder."
The exterior of Hill House in the film was not a set, but an actual house (Ettington Park Hall Hotel, Stratford Upon Avon), although all the interiors were carefully designed sets on sound stages. While shooting exterior night scenes on location at the real house, Russ Tamblyn has shared a story of having chosen to take a stroll through a cemetery at the rear of the property and having had an experience nearly as terrifying as the film itself. You can hear his story on the commentary track included on the DVD of the film.
Every member of the cast enjoyed working with Robert Wise, who had a long-standing reputation as a strong director with great instincts and no ego. Julie Harris remembered him as a "calm gentleman" who never got ruffled by anything, and Claire Bloom found working with him "marvellous."
Richard Johnson later said he received invaluable film acting advice from Robert Wise. Wise told him to keep his eyes steady, to blink less, and to try not to time his acting (Wise said he would take care of that in the editing room). Johnson also credited Wise with helping him to craft a much more natural acting performance.[
Robert Wise had seen Julie Harris in a play and decided she was perfect for the leading role. She later confessed that shooting the picture had been very hard on her. She saw her character, Eleanor, in a different way than director Wise but didn't feel it was her place to disagree, so playing the part was a struggle for her. Still she claims Wise was a perfect gentleman and they remained friends for decades.
The names on the blackboard in Dr. Markway's office are all friends or family of writer Nelson Gidding. Albert Trepuk was his stepfather, Charles Stern, Ruth Murray, Rufus Matthewson, and Paul Kirschner were friends, and Joshua Walden was his then 14-year-old son.
The other cast members enjoyed working with Julie Harris, but they believed her sense of isolation was self-imposed. Claire Bloom said that Harris "wouldn't" talk to her, and Russ Tamblyn found Harris "aloof." Bloom, Tamblyn and Richard Johnson would spend time together during breaks from shooting and have dinner together often, but Harris rarely joined them. Bloom said later that she eventually realized that this was simply Harris's way of approaching the part to make her performance more effective, and she didn't take Harris's standoffishness personally.
Robert Wise was in post-production on West Side Story (1961) when he read a review in Time magazine of Shirley Jackson's novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Wise read the book and found it frightening. He passed it to screenwriter friend Nelson Gidding, whom he had worked with on I Want to Live! (1958). Gidding did a full story treatment for Wise before proceeding to work on the adaptation
Julie Harris agreed to do the film in part because the role was complex and the idea of the house taking over Eleanor's mind was interesting. But she also chose it because she had a long-standing interest in parapsychology.
The script originally contained a scene early in the film in which Theodora is shown in her apartment in the city. It is clear from the context that she has just broken off with her female lover: "I hate you" is written on the mirror in lipstick. Theodora is yelling curses at her out the window and more. However, Wise decided to cut the scene, believing it to be too explicit for a film that worked hard to make things implicit.
Overall, the small cast worked very well together throughout production. Julie Harris at times, however, often felt "isolated and unhappy" much like her complicated character Eleanor. She felt like an outsider to the group of other actors.
During the shoot, Julie Harris suffered from depression, and believed that her co-stars did not take the film as seriously as she did.At times, she would cry in her makeup chair prior to the day's shoot. Claire Bloom did not speak to Harris while filming continued, which worsened her depression. Afterward, Bloom told Harris that the lack of interaction had helped her build her own performance and the two women reconciled. Harris incorporated her own depression into her performance.