“In the end you can’t help but make stuff in a postmodern way”: Ben Wheatley on re-filming Rebecca

With his new film, director Ben Wheatley – who made his name crafting uniquely twisted takes on Englishness – offers an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic romance Rebecca. He talks about his love of the author’s work, the necessity of side-stepping the Hitchcock film, and about going to Manderley again.

Rebecca (2020)

▶︎ Rebecca is in UK cinemas and on Netflix.

In Ben Wheatley’s new adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s beloved gothic novel Rebecca, Lily James and Armie Hammer star as the lushly attractive but deeply mismatched couple Mr and Mrs Max de Winter. Entangled in the dark secrets of the glorious English manor house known as Manderley – and haunted by a dead wife who still seems to walk its corridors as though she’d never left – the eerie story of very human foibles departs from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1940 version to explore the dynamics of the female relationships in a more contemporary light.

With Wheatley, who has offered a uniquely twisted take on Englishness in his films Kill List (2011), A Field in England (2013) and High-Rise (2015), this is far from staid literary territory.

Can you tell me about your relationship with Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca as a novel?

It sounds odd, but it’s a bit like when I realised Robert De Niro was playing all these characters in the 70s. I realised that so many of the films I liked – Don’t Look Now (1973), The Birds (1963), Jamaica Inn (1939), Rebecca (1940) – were from stories by du Maurier.

Rebecca itself was something I was aware of, and I’d watched the film in my twenties when I’d watched all the Hitchcock films. When I was working with Working Title on another project and they said they had a new adaptation of Rebecca by Jane Goldman, I thought I remembered it. I thought I had a really good, clear idea of what it was. But I read the script, and I didn’t; I was wrong.

I fell for all the narrative traps in the story. I talked to other people about it and they didn’t quite remember it either. They said, “Oh, it’s so romantic,” and I was like: “Is it?”

I have to ask about Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Did it serve as a template or a departure point in your early work on the film, or was it something you tried to avoid?

For me, the project is clearly an adaptation of the book. It wasn’t a remake of the film; that was unattractive to me. Why would you want to remake a Hitchcock film, and one that won so many Oscars? But in the end you can’t help but make stuff in a postmodern way, where other movies will help define it. Your relationship to the script, and the actors’ performances, is the thing that makes the film – not thinking about something older which has been made.

Lily James as Rebecca and Kristen Scott Thomas as Mrs Danvers in Rebecca (2020)

Mrs Danvers, the head housekeeper at Manderley, is such a linchpin of this story, and Kristin Scott Thomas in this role gets a little bit more to say than other screen iterations of the character. How did you interpret Mrs Danvers in this film?

I’m very sympathetic to Danvers. When you step back from the story, she’s the one who knows what’s happened. Don’t throw Rebecca under the bus, don’t make her a villain!

So Danvers does things that are wrong, but I wanted to make sure that she was supported within the film, so it doesn’t have the black hat vs white hat morality to it. There are shifting sands. And it’s a warning to the audience not to pin your hopes on characters too much.

How important is sex in Rebecca?

It kind of fizzles out by the time we get to Manderley. It’s like the house is a bromide that destroys sex. No one has sex, and even Rebecca was having it in a boat house, not in the actual house. There’s guilt that’s destroying it with Maxim and the second Mrs de Winter, though she mistakes it for something else.

Was Mrs Danvers in love with or having sex with Rebecca? I mean, I could see some inference of it, but it wasn’t something that, as a part of modernising the book, we wanted to lean right into.

Ben Wheatley and crew filming Rebecca (2020)

Can you tell me about the production design of Manderley, this legendary fictional building?

We started with the idea that there was no point trying to find it because it doesn’t exist. You know, it was firmly in the imagination of du Maurier. And from our research, it was a composite of a house that you could visit when she was a child and her house in Cornwall.

So we set about trying to construct something almost mythical, and Sarah Greenwood, who designed it, I talked to her about the brief being that the de Winter family itself would have had tithed land after the Norman invasion. It would have been like a small house with some land around it.

And then over the generations, this family will have grown in power and strength and money, and become colonialists, sacking other cultures, bringing money back to England. The house would be getting bigger and bigger. So the middle of it is like a Tudor house with wooden doors but as it got bigger, it became grander. All the architectural styles don’t necessarily match, which is true of a lot of these places.

One of the scenes that particularly struck me in this film is your depiction of the costume party, where things become hallucinatory and it’s full of ghostly images and faces.

It’s like the second Mrs de Winter being thrown into history. The theme of the ball is the history of Britain, so each of the costumes is a different time period. The de Winters themselves are so overwhelming, and she’s trying to fight against this stuff which is so stodgy. The Britishness of the age was much too big, so she can kind of literally time-travel through that party sequence.