How filmmakers brought Rebecca's haunting bedroom to life
Gothic romances are all about atmosphere. Nowhere is that more evident in Netflix's new adaptation of Rebecca, out today, than in the perfectly preserved bedroom that belongs to the first Mrs. de Winter.
The title character doesn't physically appear in Daphne du Maurier's classic tale, but Rebecca still looms large, her memory haunting her widower Maxim’s (Armie Hammer) new wife, the second Mrs. de Winter (Lily James). This is especially true at the shrine of Rebecca’s bedroom — the site of a key showdown between Mrs. de Winter and icy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), who strives to keep Rebecca’s spirit alive.
James’ character enters the room expecting to conquer her fears but instead is only overwhelmed. “[It] is the nail in the coffin of her confidence,” says director Ben Wheatley. “It's a moment where she thinks she's going to triumph, but her confidence is eroded by the experience. This should be the moment where she breaks through and everything is going to be all right, but it's like mountain climbing where you climb the peak and then you see another peak appear. But [it’s also] the first time Danvers shows her hand and pushes her gaslighting campaign to the edge. She really plays with all her trumps and completely sows the seeds for the doubt of her relationship with de Winter.”
With all of that at play, Wheatley and the production team had a tall order for pulling off this scene he describes as the "heart of the book." EW talked to the director, as well as composer Clint Mansell, about crafting this deliciously gothic scene.
EW has an exclusive listen to the track "Rebecca's Room," specifically designed to heighten the tension in this game of cat and mouse between Danvers and the second Mrs. de Winter. "Daphne du Maurier instilled as much gothic atmosphere as you could ever need in her writing of Rebecca," Mansell tells EW. "Immerse oneself in her writing and the atmosphere literally drips off the page. Here is where the second Mrs. de Winter feels most threatened by the presence of Rebecca, as Mrs. Danvers pummels her with memories of Rebecca and how wonderful the times were when she was still alive. So I was able to bounce off both the performance of Kristin Scott Thomas as Danvers and back to du Maurier's version of the character for inspiration. Spoilt for choice!"
Mansell says he also was able to take inspiration from production design, wardrobe, and cinematography since his contributions came much later in the production process. "The film leads us where it wants to go and if you’re aligned with that, then the right tone, the right blend will reveal itself," he notes. "There's the Michelangelo quote something like, 'Every block of stone has a statue inside it’ and I feel the same way about the music. The film will show you if you let it."
“How do you show the essence of somebody else?” That’s the challenge Wheatley faced when designing Rebecca’s bedroom, which he was bowled over by after filming on location for seven weeks prior (the set is one of only two in the entire project, not a pre-existing location). “Rebecca [came] out of this glitzy metropolitan world. She'd been transplanted from London to Cornwall," Wheatley explains. "Our idea was she brought London with her to Manderley, and that’s the most Rebecca room in the whole house. She was sort of a cancer to Manderley itself, and her influences were spreading inside the house. She'd redesigned that room to be an art deco, modern room away from the historical design at the house. If she lived, she would have completely redecorated the whole place. But as it was, she only managed to get that wing of the house done.”
The gray curtains were the final touch, echoing the sea and Rebecca’s watery demise. "We were trying to look at the idea that it was almost underwater, to mimic how they find Rebecca," he notes.
Rebecca’s nightgown rests untouched on her bed until Danvers fondly caresses it, holding it up to peer through it. Wheatley and his team changed the apricot negligee of the novel to a more sober black, while still maintaining its intimate quality. “I wanted it to be like a shroud,” he says. “There are only two bits of personal contact that Danvers has with her in the film. It’s the first time she touches her. It’s intimidating, but has that sexuality to it.”
Wheatley notes that things as small as the color of the nightgown help control the information we receive as audiences in ways that differ from a reader with a book. "[Authors] shine by torch, and they only show you the tiny bits of it. But in a film, you see the whole room all the time," he says. "The way that the elements tumble out in a book bit by bit, making out an impression is just not how cinema works."
Low angles and creeping tracking shots dominate the scene. “The whole of the film is a memory box,” says Wheatley. “There’s a lot of observation and looking through things distorting their own memories.”
Wheatley also relied on a Steadicam in this scene to suggest the haunting quality of the room. "That creeping Steadicam stuff in that room was really important," he notes. "It was like she's being stalked, basically, by that memory."
He carefully storyboarded, emphasizing the visual terror and violence, infused with Rebecca’s elegance: “I wanted it to have that movement and grace of old Hollywood. But really, it’s about those two actors going at it with all their skill.”
Rebecca is now available on Netflix.