‘Rebecca’ director Ben Wheatley: “Cinemas will return after COVID”

The cult filmmaker behind some of Britain's weirdest movies has just crossed over to the mainstream. He tells Alex Flood about his Netflix debut, Alfred Hitchcock and why this isn't the end of cinema

Ben Wheatley, maverick director of Free Fire, High Rise and more, does whatever he pleases whenever he pleases, thank you very much. He’s not interested in carefully crafting a career. He certainly doesn’t want his own cinematic universe. And if a journalist tries to put him in a box, well, they can bog off.

“I generally just do what I want,” he tells NME via Zoom from his Brighton home, where he’s part of a growing creative elite that includes Nick Cave (they bump into each other sometimes) and Cate Blanchett. “My new movie is a big Hollywood film; but I’ve just done a gritty, grungy horror… and now I’m working on a comic. I just follow my nose.”

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It’s served him well so far. Since smelling his way to success with gritty 2009 debut Down Terrace, Wheatley has climbed up the studio food chain after years making low-budget indies like Kill List, A Field In England and Sightseers. Fans have come to love those films which feature explicit gore, psychedelic dream sequences and brain-scrambling twists. But his newer projects find Wheatley on a more mainstream bent: an upcoming Tomb Raider sequel, and Rebecca, his new sort-of-reboot on Netflix.

Written by Daphne du Maurier, and famously adapted by Alfred Hitchcock in 1940, Rebecca is about a naive newlywed whose new husband can’t get over the death of his first wife. Shut up in an old, English country mansion – and tormented by the deliciously evil housekeeper Mrs Danvers – she soon finds herself embroiled in a twisty-turny murder mystery.

Starring Lily James and Armie Hammer in the title roles, Wheatley’s new straight-to-streaming version retains the old-school charm of Rebecca‘s inter-war setting while adding just a dash of its director’s freaky stylings. It’s very much an original – something Wheatley has been keen to point out during interviews, telling Empire last month that the movie was “not, in any sense, a remake of the Hitchcock film.” With Wheatley, we’ve learned, it’s best to take him at his word.

Rebecca Ben Wheatley
Armie Hammer and Lily James in Rebecca (Credit: Netflix)

Why are you so keen to avoid comparisons to Hitchcock – is it the pressure?

“Well, what does ‘remake’ actually mean? Is it where you take a film and copy all of the shots and put different actors in? Because this is something else. Hitchcock didn’t write Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier did. Everybody is thinking about a man, and putting him over the top of the woman who wrote the book. And that is bizarre.”

Do you think the media are trying to position you as ‘the new Hitchcock’?

“I think it’s more like: ‘How dare you do it?!’… I knew going into Rebecca that there’d be a lot of questions about Hitchcock, but I didn’t think about him until two days ago, during press. Up until that point, I was making the film of the script that Jane Goldman had written. That was the hardest thing to do. Dealing with a guy who made another adaptation of it 80 years before was not at the front of my mind. It gets in the way of art.”

‘Rebecca’ feels very different to your other films – was that a conscious decision?

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“I hear that, but I generally just do what I want. This Rebecca was the one I wanted to make, so I just did it. it’s awkward that it doesn’t fit with my other films, but the idea of a narrative that joins them together into one big, curated, extended universe… I remember going to Russia to show some movies as part of a cultural exchange recently and [they played] Down Terrace, Kill List and Sightseers after one another. I thought: ‘Why have you show them together in that lump? They’re not sequels!'”

Down Terrace
2009’s ‘Down Terrace’, about a family of regional gangsters, was Ben Wheatley’s first feature film. Credit: Alamy

So you’re not keen on the idea of a Wheatley Cinematic Universe then?

“I dunno. I can still find people who think I’ve gone downhill since Down Terrace. Rebecca is a big Hollywood film. That’s what it’s meant to be. In August, I shot a 15-day horror film. That is a really gritty, grungy, different thing. Hopefully I’ll do other studio films and they’ll be different as well. There are lots of other things I still want to do.”

Do you remember when you first held a camera?

“I was about 18. It sounds ridiculous now, but it was a Video8 camera and it didn’t have built-in playback. You had to take the tape out and pay to transfer it across to a different thing and see what you’d shot. That would have cost £500 in 1991, which you could buy a house for. I managed to blag it for free, [but what I’d filmed] was a load of rubbish. It took a long time to understand the process. Now it’s fine, you can watch YouTube videos for hours on how to do it.”

Before you directed films, you made TV adverts – is that People Just Do Nothing‘s Asim Chaudhry in your GoCompare ad?

“Yes! I cast him on that out of an open auditions thing. I thought: ‘God, this guy’s so funny!’ and we had a great time. Afterwards, he said, ‘I’m making my own short films’ and I was like ‘Oh yeah? Good luck with that!’ Much later, he emailed me explaining he’d got a commission with the BBC to make something and did I wanna direct it? I said no because I was really busy and it turned out it was for People Just Do Nothing.”

“Then, in 2018, I was casting my new movie Happy New Year, Colin Burstead and I said to Andy Stark, the producer: ‘I really loved that guy from the advert, I wonder what he’s up to now?’ Then he said: ‘I think I saw him on something recently. I’m pretty sure he’s won a BAFTA!’ I was like: ‘What, that guy who worked in a phone shop? What are you talking about?!'” So I emailed him and he said he’d be in the film.”

You often work with actors again and again – do you struggle to find good people?

“You don’t really get to know someone on the first film. I know Armie [Hammer] because we did a load of press together for Free Fire. Then when I visited LA, we had a few drinks because we’re friends. Once you enjoy working with someone, why wouldn’t you work with them again? I don’t like doing auditions because I see no reason for it. I’m not setting people up against each other, you should know what they’re like.”

Free Fire
(L-R) The cast of ‘Free Fire’: Armie Hammer, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley. Credit: Alamy

Cillian Murphy sought you out personally to be in ‘Free Fire’ – would you direct an episode of ‘Peaky Blinders‘ for him?

“Yeah, it’s kind of fairly well-established now. I’ve never been approached by them. Laurie Rose [who was cinematographer on Free Fire] shot a season of it. I dunno what I would bring to it, more Nick Cave songs probably.”

An excellent idea – now tell us about the horror film you shot in lockdown…

“It’s still under wraps, but it’s terrifying… The actual production of it was something else. There were about 30 crew and we all ended up in this hotel. We had to rent the entire building out and no one went home. We just did it.”

“It’s a post-COVID film. The thing about COVID, to talk about it in a particularly trivial way, is that it destroys everything. It’s the thing that cinema has been warning us about for years – and subsequently makes a lot of those zombie apocalypse or global panic films quite unpalatable now. You can’t pretend it never happened, so this new film is within the context of COVID, but it’s not about it. It’s not like, ‘*cough cough* oh my god!’ – or ‘I’ve been trapped in the house for weeks!’ It’s not one of those films. We’ve all lived that, we don’t want it.”

Will we ever see it though? Cinemas are closing all over the country…

“If you look at the numbers before COVID, cinema audiences had never been bigger. Streaming audiences were also massive. So that says people like watching movies in the cinema, and they also like watching them at home. People have had films offered to them in all different ways and they still choose to go to the cinema. Why would they change that behaviour? There’s a lot of talk about cinemas closing down but I think it will be fine. In the end, audiences will return, unless they’re terrified by COVID forever. Look at what happened after the Spanish Flu. Cinemas were closed for two years and then they opened again because people wanted to go and see stuff.”

What about the lack of big blockbusters – how will cinemas draw people in without James Bond and the like?

“Well there’ll be a new economy won’t there? People will go bust, and other people will come in and buy them up. That’s just business-y stuff that will happen in the background. As long as there’s a demand for people to watch stuff, then stuff will get made. There’s no way that people with money are gonna sit around with it in their pocket going: ‘Oh no, we’re not gonna pay for any of that!’ As long as there’s money to be made, they’ll be making it.”

‘Rebecca’ is streaming now on Netflix

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