Director Roger Michell on the sacrifice and timely vision of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘MY COUSIN RACHEL’

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Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin and Director Roger Michell in MY COUSIN RACHEL. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

It’s so beguiling to not know whether she’s good or bad. It’s a brilliant ride in that respect.

Author Daphne du Maurier’s novels have been the stuff of cinematic profundity for decades now. Each focuses on timeless themes and strong character development, frequently pitting love and obsession as the villain. In the long line of silver screen adaptations (REBECCA, THE BIRDS, HUNGRY HILL, DON’T LOOK NOW), comes a more modern take on her classic from writer-director Roger Michell, MY COUSIN RACHEL.

The taut romantic mystery, which was originally adapted in 1952 starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton, tells the tragic tale of a man (Sam Claflin) driven crazy by a woman (Rachel Weisz), who he suspects murdered his beloved father figure for financial gain. However, once he meets her, he becomes smitten and confused whether or not his doubts are unfounded.

At a recent press day for the film, I spoke over the phone with the gregarious filmmaker about everything from the film’s feminist streak, to the sustainability of the mystery, to his unsentimentally when it comes to cut material – even if it involves a family member.

I loved this movie. I hadn’t seen the 1952 version.

Me neither.

And because I couldn’t shake the feeling from your movie, I immediately watched the other one.

Tell me what the other was like.

Well, it was different. Your film adds in her perspective, which I greatly enjoyed and found lacking in the ’52 version. This is a very feminist protagonist/ antagonist, whatever you want to call her.

It’s impossible to tell a story like this in our world without thinking of it as being something to do with feminism – even though it had been written before feminism had probably been coined.

Absolutely!

But clearly this is about a woman. In a way this mirrors bits of Daphne du Maurier’s life – a woman who wanted to be free of men, of structures put up there by men, of the idea of being owned, of not being able to express her sexuality in a way they wish to.

Even though, like you said this was written prior to the notion of “feminism,” was there that specter of modernity to keep in mind, or modulate during filming?

Any period film, whether you want it to be or not, ends up being in part about the era in which the film was made. When we watch 60’s films set during the second World War, you can tell they were made in the 60’s because of the sensibilities, what people were wearing, the eyeshadow. The costumes aren’t really quite right, but they look cool through 60’s film stock. Whether you like it or not, these films are partly about now and partly about when they are written. This film has the added complexity of being written in 1950 but it was set sometime in the 1830’s. I embraced the idea it was something which will have some kind of leverage and connection with the world we live in. I suppose I wanted to push this strand of feminism a little further than it’s stated in the novel without it being egregious or salacious.

Another thing I loved was how you maintained the ambiguity in the material – that mystery about Rachel’s true motivations. It seems like when I’d have it figured out, it would zig when I would zag.

That’s good! That’s the intention.

Was there a challenge to keeping that mystery alive the entire time?

Yeah. And it’s important to keep that mystery alive. It’s kind of an obsessive love story on one level, but on another level, it’s got to work as a thriller. And I think it does work as a suspense thriller. You’re hurled around like a car on a fairground ride put through all the switchbacks. You’re confused in a good way because it’s so beguiling to not know whether she’s good or bad. It’s a brilliant ride in that respect. It’s one of the things that attracted me to it.

I read on Wikipedia – so, grain of salt – a little about the making of the ’52 version. How du Maurier wasn’t happy with the adaptation and it caused the studio to lose the original director, George Cukor.

What’s grain of salt?

Like I cast a little doubt if the fact – especially on there – is actually true or not.

Okay.

Did you feel intimidated going to the du Maurier estate asking for their blessing?

Of course. You always feel worried or concerned, but all you can do is buddy up with the author. And I really sat by her side all through the adaption and thought about what she was trying to do and make a film to honor her book as much as possible. I made some changes from the book, but they are all changes that I think she would embrace. I know there’s something from the book she wasn’t entirely happy with that I tried to improve or at least tidy them up. I sent the script to her son before we started shooting and they came back enthusiastic. They eventually saw the film and I’m very pleased to say they were very excited by it. According to her son, Kit, Daphne wasn’t very happy with the 1952 film. That gave me some courage.

All these things are only versions, aren’t they? The book is still there. The book doesn’t care. The book’s not going to change. And in fifty, sixty years, someone else will make another film version of this book. I hope they look back on my version and say, ‘God. I hope we can do it as good as that.’ That’s why I didn’t want to watch that film.

Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin in MY COUSIN RACHEL. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

The symbolism with the bluebells is pretty striking. I loved it.

The bluebells are something else, aren’t they? I was living in this rented farmhouse down by the set – a few miles from the location. On my days off, I’d wander off into the woods around where I lived. I could see the bluebells were just starting to arrive in this little secret bit of the woods I discovered. We then had to really juggle our schedule to get a coincidence of the woods being available, the bluebells being perfect and the sun shining – which in England is a hard triple. I’m really pleased with that scene. It’s not a scene in the book.

Speaking of challenges, you’ve got horses in this movie, barnyard animals and dogs.

The horses were really good. We had wonderful horse people. They were really helpful. Sometimes you work with them and they couldn’t be less helpful – like everything is too difficult. This was a really wonderful group of people who made all the horses work for us. I didn’t realize how sensitive horses were. On the first day, there was a scene where a horse is dragging a Christmas tree through the forest and they turned up with two horses. I said, ‘We only need one horse. Why have you got two?’ They said, ‘This one always comes to keep the other company. Don’t worry it won’t be on camera. But it will make the other one feel more comfortable and calm the other one down.’ Horses need a little whispering.

This cast is incredible. Rachel is phenomenal and Sam has this great ability to balance the sweet with the sour.

Yeah. That’s right. He has to be a lot of things. He has to be handsome, virile and all that, but he also has to be a little coltish, a little immature, a little naive, a little impetuous. There are moments in the film where we’re not supposed to like him very much, but there’s moments where we’re really rooting for him. It’s a complicated thing that he’s done, but he’s done it very, very well.

Were there things they would bring on the day you hadn’t thought of?

Oh. Every day. They both brought such a spirited truthfulness and creativity to their roles. It was a true joy.

I’m not used to hearing swear words in period films. I fully support it, but was there a reason?

I was only allowed one swear word. If I had been allowed more swear words, there would’ve been a bit more swearing. In those days, people swore. It’s just that Jane Austen didn’t write people swearing, doesn’t mean people didn’t swear.

What was the biggest challenge for you to shoot and why?

Technically the piece where he nearly falls off the cliff was really hard to do. It was a combination of animals, stuntmen, stunt coordinators, big drops and cliffs. It was absorbing and interesting. It took a lot of preparing and thinking through.

Other integral things are the editing, cinematography and score. Are these things that took a lot of time in pre-production?

Certainly the cinematographer. We were together a lot now. We spent a lot of time plotting and how we wanted to do this. Spending time in locations together – just the two of us – reading through the scenes, planning, thinking. When you’re in prep, everybody wants to be part of the process the whole time and you need a bit of calmer time with your principle collaborators – particularly your DP.

The editor [Kristina Hetherington] and I have done five things together, but we didn’t talk about this at all before we got into the cutting room. We started hacking away at it. It was long to begin with – three hours.

After that the composer [Rael Jones] comes on board. You can’t really start talking to the composer until you know what you want them to do. You have to wait until the film tells you what it needs. The film will also begin to tell you what music is required and where it’s required. Rael’s contribution is outstanding. I don’t think I’ve done a film where music has been such an important part.

Was it hard to lose scenes from your three hour cut?

You have to be unsentimental about these things. I’m not one of these directors who likes to cling on with every whitening knuckles simply because you shot it. If it’s not making the story work, then cut it.

Was there anything you really wanted to find a place for, but couldn’t?

There was one scene where my daughter, who’s four, was playing young Philip being taught how to read. I cut that. Listen, that’s the kind of brutal person I am. I cut my own daughter  from my film. But I had a daughter who was also four when I was doing NOTTING HILL and I cut her out of NOTTING HILL. It just goes to show this is what you have to do. Cut everything. No sentimental!

MY COUSIN RACHEL opens on June 9. Read our review here.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.