Out on Netflix tomorrow is a new version of Rebecca, based more on the 1938 novel from Daphne du Maurier than Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 film, and for it's definitely worth the watch for lovers of Gothic horror. The film is directed by Ben Wheatley of Kill List and High Rise fame, who spoke with a handful of journalists about brining this book to life during a recent press day:
*Editor's Note: There are minor spoilers for those that are not familiar with the source material
With Rebecca, you had a particularly tricky element that you had to weave through the film: the title character herself. What were the challenges of incorporating her presence and lacing it throughout?
Ben Wheatley: The most present way was within music and the creating of Rebecca's themes… so it's like her theme is assembling itself across the movie. It’s also in sound effects and sound design, so a lot of the environmental stuff in Manderley, every door handle, every drawer that's pulled out, they don't have the sounds of the things that they are, so the house itself seems to be subconsciously trying to tell the audience the secret is of what's happened with Rebecca. And it's not important that you read or don't read it within the first viewing or whatever, but it's there.
Rebecca exists as someone that's reported by the other characters, but whether or not you believe what's being said is part of the way that du Maurier works and how beautiful the book is because the film itself is not just a memory; it's a memory of a dream. It’s being reported to by the second Mrs. de Winter, so do you trust her?
Do you trust Maxim de Winter's reporting of what Rebecca was like? I would put a big question mark over whether what he's saying is true or not, and also Danvers is also quite slippery in that respect of where the truth is. And then the final person is probably du Maurier because she plays fast and loose with the facts across the story as well, so that's the way it's built into the film.
Manderley is basically its own character in the film. Can you talk about what it took to bring Manderley to life?
Ben Wheatley: It’s location [was created] over five or six different houses in the end, and what we realized is when we did the research, the Menabilly, which is the house where de Maurier wrote the book, comes up a lot, but Menabilly itself is in Cornwall, so it has the environment and the cliffs and everything, but the house is tiny. And the stuff I’ve read suggested that she was basing it on a house that she'd seen as a child, and we went and we visited the actual house.
It was a perfectly great house, but it wasn't as grand as it was being described in the book. And it felt to me, really, that Manderley is the memory of a house, or it's a memory from the perspective of a child, so everything is massive and overpowering, and it's a place that doesn't actually exist, so we were never going to find one location that was going to make it work. Sarah Greenwood, the designer, came up with [the idea] to bring together the best bits of as many houses as we could physically get to.
There are two kinds of styles of these houses. One is new money, and you just build the thing from scratch and [the other is] the family building it over hundreds of years, so you'll have a Tudor house inside of a Edwardian house inside of another Victorian house. And each generation will knock a bit down and build a new bit, so you'll get these houses which are just a mishmash of kind of architectural styles inside it. There are also passageways within it have no rhyme or reason either, and that was something that we were after… the idea of it wasn't an actual physical space but a dream space.
What were the challenges of balancing the different genres, since it goes from this sweeping romance to Gothic horror to crime and mystery?
Ben Wheatley: That was one of the main things that attracted me to the project. It felt like talking to the golden age of Hollywood where films of the '30s and '40s and '50s you would have a leading lady stand by a piano, and a pop star of the day would play a tune, and you think, "Well, why did they used to do that?"
And it’s kind of to do with the need to give value for money to entertain, and I think that's in the heart of the book is it's going to take you through [different] genres. It's not one film; it's four or five films for the price of entry for one movie. It gives you that feeling that you've really traveled over time and distance, so 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, but it was quite a very long time ago.
Working through it and policing the kind of the tone of it just to make 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, so we had faith that it would cohere as it went from section to section.
It might've been a worry if I'd not made films before that had the same issues, and I don't see it necessarily as a challenge as more of a treat to be able to go into those different kinds of environments and play there. To get to do a courtroom drama and a ghost story and an incredible romantic half hour at the top was a great treat.
Mrs. Danvers is one of the most infamous characters in literature. How did you go about finding Kristin Scott Thomas to play this role, and what was the process of making Mrs. Danvers both sympathetic and also unbelievably sinister?
Ben Wheatley: When I read the script, I felt very sympathetic to Danvers, and I felt like that the moral center of the film in lot of ways. It’s almost like there's a ghost film or an old version of the film that's happening, which is the Danvers and inspector Welch and the people who work in the house, the witnesses of what's actually happened, and they're almost winking at the audience and kind of going, "Don't listen to those two. There's something else that's happened here that's much worse than they're letting on."
Even though Danvers does some heinous and dangerous things, there are moments in the movie that poke through where she's literally telling you that she's a witness for Rebecca, and someone needs to speak for her because no one's speaking for her. You can't just go along with this idea of romance that it's okay to murder people for your love. As much as you might think that's all right, the gunning down of people in boathouses is pretty bad.
Kristin Scott Thomas on it is 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 the complexity of the character. To just do another version where she's kind of the evil Danvers, it becomes a trope and kind of a cliché.
I love the balance that she has in it because she really enjoys the put downs and the aggression of it, but suddenly she turns it, and then you see there's another load of emotion that's going on. Certainly in the scene towards the end when she slaps the guy around the face, and she's going, "My Rebecca," and doing that whole speech, you start to feel the loss, that maybe it's not all right to all kind of dog pile on in this kind of hatred of Rebecca, and maybe what everyone's saying about her is not necessarily true.
That's what I felt when I read that script. I thought it's easy just to paint her as this particular type of character when really there are all these layers of information that you're being given from different perspectives that don't all stack up.