Interviews

Director Ben Wheatley on Re-Imagining Rebecca

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Director Ben Wheatley on Re-Imagining <i>Rebecca</i>

by Kit Bowen 20 October, 2020

The classic Daphne du Maurier novel Rebecca has been adapted many times for both big and small screens, and now we have a new version premiering on Netflix on October 21.

Taking more from the book, the story centers on a young woman (Lily James), who meets the dashing Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) while traveling abroad as a rich woman’s companion. The two fall in love, marry – and return to Maxim’s ancestral estate, Manderley, on the rugged English coast where the shy, new Mrs. de Winter is expected to be the lady of the manor.

Except she finds herself battling the shadow of his first wife, Rebecca, whose legacy lives on in the house even after her untimely and mysterious death – and whose loyal head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), won’t let anyone forget her.

In a recent virtual roundtable, director Ben Wheatley talked about making his version of the famed novel, working with his cast and more!

On weaving the title character and her presence throughout the film:

Ben Wheatley: The most present way was in the music, Rebecca’s themes. That feeling of her comes in through various levels and also in sound effects. In the sound design, the environmental stuff. How in Manderley, every door handle, every drawer that's pulled out. They don't have the sounds of the others. The house itself seems to be telling the audience subconsciously what the secret is of what's happened with Rebecca. You know she existed as someone, that's reported by the other characters, but whether or not you believe what's being said because the film itself is not just a memory. It's a memory of a dream by the second Mrs. de Winter.

Do you trust Maxim de Winter's reporting of what Rebecca was like because he's the only person who was there when she died? I would put a big question mark over what he's saying is true or not. Mrs. Danvers is also quite slippery in that perspective. Like where is the truth? The final person is probably du Maurier because she plays fast and loose with the facts across the story as well.

On the location and Manderley being a character itself:  

Wheatley: It was actually shot in five or six houses in the end. The stuff I'd read suggested du Maurier was basing it on a house that she'd seen as a child. We visited the actual house and it was a perfectly great house, but it wasn't as grand as it was being described in the book. It felt to me that Manderley was the memory of a house, from the perspective of a child. So everything is massive and overpowering and it's a place that doesn't actually exist. We were never going to find one location to make it work. It was just the best bits of the houses we got to. We’d find either a house built with new money or one that’s been around for hundreds of years that’s been built upon. You’ll have a Tudor house, inside an Edwardian house, inside another Victorian house and each generation will knock a bit down and build a new bit, so you get these houses which it just a mishmash of architectural styles. It wasn't an actual physical space, but it was like a dream space. 

On balancing the different genres, from sweeping romance to gothic, crime and mystery:

Wheatley: It’s one of the main things that attracted me to the project, to be honest. It felt like the Golden Age of Hollywood, with films of the ‘30s, ‘40s and into the ‘50s. You’d have the leading lady standing by a piano and the pop star of the day would play and you’d think, “Why did they use to do that?” It’s to do with getting value for money to entertain. I think that was in the heart of the book; it’s going to take you from genre to genre to genre. It's like four films or five films for the price of entry for one movie, you know?

It also gives you that feeling that you’ve really traveled over time. By the end of the movie, the memories of France are so far away and you have this kind of glowing warm feeling that you were on holiday a while ago. Making sure that it wasn't too jarring between each section was important but it felt like we were in du Maurier’s hands as much as anything. 

On Lily James’ performance:

Wheatley: I mean there was a lot of conversation and a lot of rehearsal, which is a luxury I never really had before. About two or three weeks with the cast, the writers and going back and forth and really interrogating the script. For Lily, the particular challenge was managing the anxiety of her character across the movie.

And, of course, the film was not shot in chronological order so that made it even harder for her to track it. There was a lot of nervousness about that and also the level and tone of the anxiety for the character. There's a risk that if she goes too far one way then she becomes unsympathetic and you question why you're following her. But then if she becomes too strong then it breaks the structure of the story. So a lot of conversations about that.

On Kristin Scott Thomas’ take on the infamous Mrs. Danvers:

Wheatley: When I read the script, I felt very sympathetic to Danvers, and I felt she's basically the moral center of the film in a lot of ways. Even though Danvers does some dangerous things, there are moments in the movie that she's a witness for Rebecca and someone needs to speak for her because no one is speaking for her. You can't just go along with this idea of romance and that it's okay to murder people for your love. I think that working with Kristin Scott Thomas on it, obviously, she's a fantastic actress and we needed someone that would be able to do the menace but also would be able to show the vulnerability and complexity of the character.

I love the balance that Kristin has in it because she really enjoys the put-downs and the aggression of it, but she can also suddenly turn it, and then there’s another load of emotion. You start to feel her loss. 

On following the book rather than any previous adaptations, like Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 classic:

Wheatley: I think the thing for me, the shadow that is across me, is the book, not Hitchcock. I didn’t really think about it. This well-beloved classic, the responsibility of putting it to screen is huge and where my focus was – the book and [screenwriter] Jane Goldman’s adaptation. It’s hard enough to make stuff without worrying about others, you know?

I think the thing the main difference between [his version and Hitchcock’s] is the Hays Code and the problems that they had with the original adaptation in 1940. For instance, they could never show a character that committed a crime and then got away with the crime, so they had to change the book. Hitchcock’s adaptation does not have Maxim de winter killing Rebecca. She dies in a weird accident which he doesn't report for some reason and then buries her, which completely changes the whole thing.

It doesn't make any sense and it doesn't have the same moral kind of jujitsu that du Maurier plays on the reader. It dawns on you that you’re willing the couple to get away with murder because you’ve been swept along this kind of idea of a romance between these two characters when really this whole thing hinges on the murder of a suppose someone who was supposed to be pregnant and there's no real excuse for that. I think that's a big difference and that's was one of the things that attracted me to it.

Check out Rebecca when it premieres on Netflix on October 21!

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