Things are rare as they appear in Ben Wheatley films. Even the murder business is a nightmare. In Kill List (2011), two killers struggling with PTSD are mistaken for Wicker Mannish types. A caravan vacation – which includes a national park and a tram museum – turns into a grueling rampage in Sightseers (2012). A Raggle Taggle group of English Civil War deserters fell under the psychedelic spell of a necromancer at A Field, England (2013). And you don’t want to know what’s going on in a luxury apartment in Wheatley’s anarchic adaptation of JG Ballard’s High-Rise (2015).
In Wheatley’s unlikely new film version of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, there comes a moment when menacing, laughing guests take on cultic undertones and Pentangle’s anachronistic Let No Man Steal Your Thyme appears on the soundtrack. But this Wheatlian outbreak only lasts a moment. For most of the film’s duration, the contemporary king of folk horror eschews ley lines and the uncanny in favor of elegant storytelling from the time.
It is something of a departure, he says. “It’s different from the other films, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this wasn’t a fight. That’s why I did it. It was trying to expand the types of films I make. I made this film into film. From the kill list to the Sightseers was a huge leap. From a field in England to a skyscraper was a giant leap. It is not an uncommon thing to do something unusual in the way I work. “
Wheatley admits that making a large, shiny picture is consistent with a more general tone shift. He’s getting older. His most recent film, Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, was a portrait of family conflict, extramarital affairs, and seasonal squabbles that aired on BBC2.
“Colin Burstead was the first movie I made that nobody died,” says Wheatley. “I’ve been very happy about it. It was a conscious choice. You know, when you’ve made nine feature films, are we counting the Doctor Who episodes played in theaters? – and when you get older, the films can’t all be about people who have been beaten to death. When Rebecca showed up I was like oh yes brilliant. It’s romantic and glamorous. It’s not as punitive as the other films. It’s great entertainment. “
Wheatley’s Rebecca doesn’t skimp on glare. The opening act, in which the dashing, wealthy widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) sweeps the companion of a penniless lady (Lily James) off the feet in Monte Carlo, could be a themed Vogue photo shoot. The lavish pre-war costumes and backdrops take on a sombre hue when James’ second wife de Winter is installed in Manderley, her husband’s estate, a manor house with a strict housekeeper named Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) and a Cadish neighbor (Wheatley regular Sam Riley).
The already creepy Manderley is made even more unsettling by Max’s long absence and flashes of temperament, constant reminders of the beauty of Mrs. de Winter’s predecessor, and Mrs. Danvers’ plot against her new lover.
Rebecca 2020 is one of Netflix’s prestige projects. Bafta nominated costume designer Julian Day is fresh from his duties at Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman and has put on the handsome cast. It took eight country houses to stand up for Manderley. (The iconic property is an amalgamation of Cranborne Manor, Hatfield House, Mapperton House, Loseley House, Petworth House, Hartland Quay, Blegberry Farm and Osterley House.) Darren Aronofsky’s musical collaborator Clint Mansell composed the orchestral score.
It’s all a very long way from Down Terrace; Wheatley’s 2009 Raindance Award-winning debut feature was filmed at Robin Hill’s mom and dad home.
“There was a lot of FX footage in the film, but they are mostly clean and environmentally friendly,” says the filmmaker. “The bedroom windows in Manderley were green. But technically, that’s no different from what I did in High-Rise. Rebecca was a much longer shoot. It sounds a little pathetic, I know, but it’s about having the strength to get through day in and day out and not lose focus. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“And maintaining that focus is difficult. Down Terrace was shot dead in eight days. They think if you shoot something like that and work 10 or 15 pages a day, all the time you have in the world doing two pages a day with Rebecca. There seems to be the same pressure regardless of the time frame. But a lot of classic films were made in six or seven weeks, so there’s no excuse.
“Last night I dreamed I had gone back to Manderley,” begins Daphne du Maurier’s bestseller from 1938 and all five film adaptations of the Gothic novel, not to mention four TV series, an Orson Welles radio version, a West End and Broadway play and a 2006 musical. With all of this iterating, it’s hard to miss Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940’s Best Picture Winner, a Hollywood classic from the Golden Age that brought together British director, studio mogul David O Selznick, and actors Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier.
Wheatley’s version makes some notable innovations. Scott Thomas transforms the strange subtext of Judith Anderson’s much-admired performance into frank (sometimes hissing) explanations. Decades after the Hays Production Code, which banned the portrayal of Max as a murderer in Hitchcock’s film, the new script by Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse contains sex scenes.
How exactly did the director study previous incarnations? How exactly did he study Hitchcock?
“Well, I’d seen the movie several times,” says Wheatley. “So we saw that. And we saw the BBC. And we saw the Charles Dance as part of a due diligence. It was more about making sure that the material that is specific to these films – that isn’t in the book – didn’t end up in our film. I don’t like to work like that.
“Postmodernism doesn’t bother me that much. I’m not the type of filmmaker who goes to work every day and thinks I’m making a movie like this or something or I’m going to use all of these tropes. Sometimes I sit down to watch a movie that I’ve made. I see something and think, “Oh God, this has crept in from this or that place.” The process of filmmaking is difficult enough, however. You are there with the script and the actors and the crew and the mood swings in the room. It is enough without having to think about other filmmakers and films at the same time. “
Wheatley began his career with short films and animation without a budget before a few viral hits earned him multiple commercials. In 2006 he won a Lion Award at the Cannes Advertising Festival. This was followed by television work with the black comedy Ideal and Sketchen, which were written and directed for Armando Iannucci’s Time Trumpet. Wheatley has won awards at South by Southwest, Karlovy Vary, Toronto and Cannes since studying film.
Change of technology
Netflix – and its Rebecca production partner Working Title – isn’t just touting the Brighton-based director, who recently returned from the US, and directing Strange Angel, a historical drama based on the life of the thelemic magician and rocket scientist Jack Parsons (played by Dublin actor Jack Reynor).
“Working on Strange Angel changed the way I work,” says Wheatley. “In my previous films, I relied on swing camera coverage. Now I see a lot of blocking. I look at Spielberg films and the movement of characters in spaces. I’m trying to develop that side of it, thinking of Steadicam and Technocrane, and looking for that longer, classic take. Technically – and this is very boring – American crews are different because the handle department is swallowed up by the rigging department. But they are structured to work fast as you would have to plan much more carefully in the UK. And that’s great. I’ve wanted to do long form television for a while. “
Wheatley still enjoys making movies, he says, even if the feature film version of Ideal and Tomb Raider is currently in Covid-Hold.
“Tomb Raider is especially very complicated because it takes place everywhere,” says the director. “There are a lot of international trips. I really hope this will only be two years and how the Spanish flu will end. But right now, entertainment is a bit like a return from WWII. Everyone went through this massive, shared experience that is not reflected in the stories that are told.
“I felt that early in the first few weeks of the lockdown. I looked for what was on TV and thought, “Well, that’s past; The story doesn’t make sense to me now. ‘Even movies about great spies. What is the relevance?
“Likewise, everything could go back in the other direction and everyone could decide together that they never want to talk about it again.”
Rebecca will be on Netflix October 21st
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