Some film directors live to entertain. Some follow drama to uncomfortable places. And then there are folks like British director Ben Wheatley, who court a challenge, then gleefully volley it back to the audience. In films like the aggressive, twisty 21st-century horror masterpiece Kill List; the black-and-white psychedelic trip A Field in England; and the slippery, psycho-nightmare take on J.D. Ballard’s book High-Rise, Wheatley has made a name for himself by sinking his teeth into material that pushes the understanding of what cinema can do and can make an audience feel.
His latest project, a lavish take on Daphne du Maurier’s renowned novel Rebecca for Netflix, feels like a departure. But as the surprisingly warm, affable Wheatley tells Polygon, he had plenty to lock horns with. Most people would not step on turf claimed by Alfred Hitchcock, whose take on Maxim de Winter, his new flame, and the long shadow of his deceased wife Rebecca struck a nerve in 1940. Being faithful to du Maurier’s book, while also bringing in a modern lens, might have ruffled viewers’ feathers. But together with Kingsman and Kick-Ass screenwriter Jane Goldman, Wheatley found his way into the horror-adjacent drama, all while clinging to his prickly instincts.
As he tells Polygon in this in-depth interview (which, beware, dips into the ending and other spoilers halfway through), a great Rebecca movie trolls as hard as du Maurier did back in 1938.
Many of your films seem to start with experimental thesis. “If this, then that.” Did Rebecca have that for you? What drew you to re-adapting the novel?
Ben Wheatley: I was doing some development work at [the production company] Working Title, and we were working on some stuff for a year or so, and then they said, “We’ve got this script of Rebecca.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s a crazy thing to do.” Generally, my choices are like that. There are so many reasons that this is a dangerous thing to do, so that’s probably exactly why I should be doing it.
When I read it, I thought it was great. What Jane Goldman’s script had managed to do was solve a lot of the pacing issues that I felt existed toward the end of the story. And she’d also translated the book fully onto the screen, which hadn’t really been done before. There were major plot points missing out of the fall 1940 adaptation because of the Hays Code, basically. They couldn’t have characters that committed crimes and then got away with them. So the whole idea of Maxim de Winter killing his wife was something you couldn’t do.
Then, when I re-read the book, I loved the idea of du Maurier basically going out there to troll her fan base. She’s basically going, “So you like romantic fiction? I will write you a romantic novel, which will totally ruin the genre for you forever.” The idea of taking the rich widower on holiday, the holiday romance, and the Cinderella thing — all the tropes of romantic fiction, and then turning it into this thing of him being a murderous swine and dragging this poor, innocent women through all this misery, you get it in your hands and go, “This is fantastic!” And then 40 pages in it’s a ghost story, and another 40 pages in it’s a courtroom drama, and another 40 pages it’s a thriller. And that’s when I started to get excited about it.
Do you think your Rebecca also trolls the audience?
I hope so. That’s the heart of the of the du Maurier book. That’s why this stuff in the south of France is so straight up. It’s romantic. You can taste the white wine and you can feel the briny air and the warmth of the sun. It takes it all super seriously, and it’s there to lull you into this feeling. I wanted also what you get with ’40s films, where they’ll just stop in the middle of the film and do a song, the actress will just rock up and stand next to a piano and, and a pop star of the day will play a tune and then Bogey will come in and the film will start again. And it’s unashamed entertainment in segments, and I think the idea of the beginning of the movie being literally like a free holiday somewhere ... we’re going to take you on holiday. “Enjoy your holiday!” And then we’re going to take you to these grand house. “Enjoy the grand house!” But now you’ve got the memory of the holiday and then that will all be soured as the film goes on.
[Ed. note: The rest of this interview contains bigger spoilers for Rebecca.]
The film takes place in the past, but how did modern context affect the telling of it?
The sadness of it all is is that it still remains relevant. I wish it wasn’t relevant, but it is. It’s a tale of privilege: What do you do when you’ve got nothing, and when you’re dealing with people who’ve got everything who are good looking and super rich, and who literally get away with murder and saunt through life as a charmed life? That is Maxim de Winter’s story. The other thing was the shifting sands of reality. It’s reported by the second Mrs. de Winter as a memory of a dream. But at the same time, Maxim de Winter is the only person who reports the murder of Rebecca. It’s probably highly unlikely any of that’s true, or how much of Danvers’ account is true as well. So you really are slightly on the backfoot.
Then there’s the general human story stuff of how much you trust your partner, how much do you deal with relationships of the past, how jealous should you be, how worried should you be. Unfortunately, again, that is a story that will never date, because that just is life.
One of the obvious distinctions between your version and Hitchcock’s is color. Did that play a major role in how you went about making the film?
Color came into it a lot. There’s obvious stuff, like the contrast between France and England, and the yellow and the electric blue to the green and the gray of England. We looked at a lot of color photography from the ’30s as well and used that as a way into thinking about the whole film as contemporary rather than thinking of it in the distant past. Black and white, in a way, makes things safer in terms of historical stuff. You feel like “It’s generations away,” but when you see [World War II] photography or film footage in color, it becomes much more immediate and closer to you. I felt like the ’30s, in terms of style, felt very familiar: Their sunglasses, their trousers, their bikinis, or they were wearing or tops and beachwear and stuff, it felt like it could have been shot last week. That helped bring it forward.
You have a background in horror, and while Rebecca doesn’t deal directly with the supernatural, it’s often considered a kind of haunted house story. Did you come at it from that genre perspective?
I think that the haunting is a haunting of the mind, which is probably closer to what an actual ghost is, something that you’ve conjured yourself out of the fragments of memory. And we achieved it through a lot of sound design. The elements of a house, like the door handles and drawers, all the noises those things made were the noises of things weren’t actually those objects. They were foleyed from weapons and stuff. So everything in the house was kind of suggesting how the murder happened in the boathouse. There are weird watery noises across the whole movie. It doesn’t matter if you if you spot it or not, but it’s the kind of subliminal building of evidence for something that’s going to be revealed later on.
Talk about the ending. The tone is actually a little sweet? Maybe?
It’s bittersweet, in a way. Rebecca is still dead, there’s no getting away from that. The proper version of this movie is much more like a Miss Marple thing where Maxim de Winter is led off in handcuffs and the star of it is really Danvers, who’s like a detective. Normal movie morality does not lead us to them getting away in Cairo. Even the most cynical movies of the period would still punish those people. Even something like [Stanley Kubrick’s] The Killing: You don’t get away with it, you don’t ever get away with the money. But in this, they completely get away. That feels really brutal to me in a way that that most thrillers won’t go anywhere near.
The book does end up back in that hotel room. There’s a bit that’s different, the death of Danvers, going to the burning of the house, and the capering about in London. But a lot of that stuff had to be done because it works in the book, but it’s a very difficult thing to portray. In the book, they just kind of stand around in the car park and basically give up and then drive home again. You’d ever get away with having Kristin Scott Thomas as Danvers and not see the end of her story. In the book, she just kind of fades out. She’s not seen building the house — she just disappears after that. Those inventions by Jane really helped the drama.