“The guy’s got stones, man,” says the Hollywood star Armie Hammer, discussing how the English film-maker Ben Wheatley approached him with the offer of playing Maxim de Winter in Rebecca. “He called me and was, like, ‘Hey, listen, you wanna do Rebecca?’ I said, ‘The Hitchcock film? You’re gonna remake Hitchcock?’ He said, ‘Yeah, f*** it, why not? You wanna do Olivier’s part?’”
“I mean, ‘remake’ is something I would quibble with,” Wheatley says, chuckling. “It’s not a remake, it’s an adaptation of the book. I know film culture is so strong that it’s perceived as a remake, but Hitchcock didn’t write Rebecca — that’s just a fact.” He chuckles again. “Also, it’s a movie that is 80 years old. There’s no one left alive, I think, who saw it in its original run. So the idea that it’s eating its tail is just madness.”
There have been numerous adaptations of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 gothic novel, in which an unnamed young woman of lowly status marries the wealthy widower De Winter, only to discover that his vast Cornish estate, Manderley, is haunted by the memory of his first wife. But it is the glamorous 1940 version — Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film and winner of the best picture Oscar — that dominates popular culture, and many people forget, or do not realize, that it makes key changes to Du Maurier’s text. Wheatley certainly got a shock when he leafed through Jane Goldman’s script.
“I was surprised. Rebecca has such a long cultural shadow that you just assume you know it, inside and out. But really I got caught by all the twists and turns in the script. And then I reread the book and thought, ‘Yeah, I’ve thoroughly misremembered this.’”
At first glance this lavish production — under the aegis of the British production company Working Title Films and the streaming giant Netflix — seems like an odd choice for Wheatley, who has previously made independent features of a harrowing, often gory nature, such as Kill List, Sightseers and High-Rise. Take a closer look, though, and the appeal swims into focus. Here is a story that hops from genre to genre (romance, ghost story, thriller, courtroom drama), much as the films in Wheatley’s back catalogue, for all of their unifying brutality, stand at 90 degrees from one another.
“Each film is very different from the last,” he agrees, pointing out that he has just shot a gritty horror film in 15 days during lockdown and will follow it with his first blockbuster, Tomb Raider 2. “I love to challenge myself. There are lots of areas of cinema I haven’t dabbled in. With this project, it’s a movement away from the super-negative, violent films I’ve been doing. There was the breakthrough in my last movie, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead — no one died.” Out comes the chuckle.
Here is a story that hops from genre to genre (romance, ghost story, thriller, courtroom drama).
“I wanted to do something that was more romantic and might have, you know, love and kissing and glamour and all those things, and to look back to an old Hollywood style. It’s an idea of making something that’s unironic and not postmodern and winking to the audience. It goes back to the solid building blocks of storytelling.”
To do Du Maurier’s story justice, the casting needs to be just so, starting with the romantic duo of the narrator, known only as the second Mrs De Winter, and wealthy Max, whose swoonsome surface hides turbulent depths. A smaller role, but no less important, is that of Manderley’s housekeeper, Mrs Danvers — it is she who gaslights our shy heroine, constantly reminding her she will never be as beautiful, elegant or beloved as her predecessor. In Hitchcock’s version the roles were played, respectively, by Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier and Judith Anderson, all of whom were nominated for Oscars. Wheatley has opted for Lily James, Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas.
“There was a huge amount of pressure,” says James, the star of Cinderella and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again! She used her anxieties to find the character. “I really related to those insecurities, the fear of not being good enough and comparing yourself. It’s a rabbit hole, and once you find yourself in it, it’s hard to pull yourself out. You start believing those voices in your head, and it’s really frightening.”
Hammer winces. “Obviously there’s some level of ‘I’m stepping into some very large shoes of a very good actor who has an acting award named after him’,” he says, explaining that his trust in Wheatley, forged when they teamed on the guns-blazing 2016 thriller Free Fire, acted as a crutch. “But we were doing something different. I wasn’t trying to emulate what Sir Laurence Olivier did. I had to be true to our script.”
Like his co-star, he found a personal connection. “Everyone has an idea about this guy because of who he is and where he came from, but his personal identity feels very different from that. Max has such a false façade. Everyone goes, ‘What a perfect thing,’ but underneath he’s a mess. And I can relate.”
“I wasn’t trying to emulate what Sir Laurence Olivier did. I had to be true to our script.”
He’s referring to both his status as a star with matinee-idol looks and his family’s fortune — his great-grandfather was the oil tycoon Armand Hammer. “I understood the things that make your life more difficult. I think there is a false assumption that if you grow up like that then everything’s peachy.”
Scott Thomas has graced our screens since the 1980s. The weight of history and expectation was not about to buckle her squared shoulders. She pursued the part of Mrs Danvers, and her preternatural poise and precision fit the character as closely as the costume designer Julian Day fitted her pencil skirts, forcing her character to move in sharp little steps.
“I wasn’t particularly scared,” she says with a shrug. “I love the Hitchcock version, but this is a different way of looking at it.” In fact, this version of Danvers is one of the biggest alterations from the Hitchcock film, along with the action spending more time in a sun-soaked Monte Carlo at the start, to establish the couple’s passionate romance. There are also climactic changes that will not be spoiled here.
“I think she’s extremely lonely and angry, and feels she has been pushed out of her rightful place,” says Scott Thomas, who created a backstory for the housekeeper to make her more three-dimensional. “She’s lost the person she brought up from an early age and poured all of her love into.”
Wheatley concurs. “I thought a lot about Danvers and the general class thing of Manderley,” he says. “I was excited about making a film where she wasn’t necessarily the villain. I feel like she’s, in a way, the moral center of the film, and everything she says is kind of right. She does get carried away a bit at times” — a particularly hearty chuckle — “but then she’s grieving, isn’t she?”
This psychological complexity, married to the observations on class and the deft swerves in storytelling, ensures that Rebecca feels as relevant as ever. But there is something else that might just connect with modern viewers.
“Rebecca is Instagram,” Hammer states. “You think everything is perfect, but the illusion of Rebecca is very different from the reality of Rebecca. All these people are fine-tuning their pictures and only posting them when they’re perfect. That’s not the real world, and someone who might be naive or young might not know that. Much like Mrs De Winter — she doesn’t get that, so she feels threatened by it.”
James doubles down on the theme. “My character is struggling with all her anxieties and insecurities, and I think that’s deeply modern,” she says. “At the moment there’s this temptation to gloss over our lives on social media and make it seem like we’ve got it all together, and it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“There’s a lot of modern neurosis within the story, the obsession with yourself and worrying about it,” Wheatley concludes. “And there’s also the weird clash of privileged stuff as well — what De Winter gets away with, and everyone just goes, ‘Oh, OK.’ There are a lot of gritted teeth in the film. There are people going, ‘Oh God, this thing that’s happening is bad, and we can’t do anything about it.’” A final chuckle. “That felt modern.”
Rebecca is in cinemas on October 16, and on Netflix beginning October 21