In theaters this week is a novel come to screen with the period piece filled with twists, turns, love and suspicion with “My Cousin Rachel.”
Director Roger Michell has brought his vision of the film that stars Rachel Weisz as Rachel and Sam Claflin as Philip — cousins through marriage. When Philip believes Rachel has had something to do with the passing of his beloved cousin Ambrose, he is surprised when they meet face to face.
Filled with emotion and suspicion, Philip is led on a journey of self-destruction at the hands of Rachel, or is she truly responsible?
I had the amazing opportunity to speak with director Michell about how the film came to be and working with a stellar cast who brought his vision together.
Jeri Jacquin: Good morning Roger, thank you for spending time with me today.
Roger Michell: Good morning Jeri, thank you, I’m so happy to do so.
JJ: Tell me what drew you to the story?
RM: It’s a book that I didn’t know and one day I was looking for book to help me get to sleep. I found a copy that belonged to my mother, an old paperback copy high on a shelf and thought it was going to be a romantic bodice ripper. I didn’t know Daphne’s work very well except for “Rebecca” perhaps, and I started reading “My Cousin Rachel” and it was dark and thrilling, sexy, confusing and I was on the edge of my bed.
About half way through I thought I’d like to have a go at this. I saw how I wanted to adapt it and Fox made the film in 1952 and own the novel in perpetuity. We approached them to see if they would be interested in making the film and they said yes they would be interested and here we are. I haven’t yet seen the original film have you?
JJ: I have to tell you that yes I have and it’s mainly because I’m sort of old school in that the older the film the more I will love it.
RM: I love old films as well and actually made a point of not watching the original thinking it would be best until I finished my film.
JJ: Well, in the 1952 version the treat is seeing a very, very young Richard Burton. One could say it is good that you didn’t see the older version so that this would be strictly your vision of the story to film.
RM: Yes, this is my take on the book. Any film you make is a version of the book. I mean the book is still there on the shelf, the book doesn’t change and it’s not harmed. So anytime you make a film from a book not only is it a version of it but you are making a film about the 1830s and its affected by the time period in which you make it. I’m sure the ’52 version is fascinating in it’s own right partly because it documents social behavior in the early ’50s and probably more social behavior in American than in Cornwall I would have thought. This film I’m sure in fifty or sixty years people will look at it and say “that’s so 2017” and that really interests me that films, whether you like it or not, carry a staining of the time in which they are made.
JJ: Was there a particular challenge in making a period piece for you?
RM: There is always a challenge in making a period piece. I’ve made a couple of period pieces in the past. I mean you don’t want to turn it into a fox show in that you want the fox to look nice and you want to capitalize on the excitement of being in a foreign country but that shouldn’t be the points of the film. The point of the film is the way in which human beings relate to one another and how the story unfolds. In fact the characters are modern, post-Freudian and you can’t imagine Jane Austin writing this book even thought its set in a period Jane Austin was alive. So I found all of that fascinating. It’s a book that was written before the word feminism and feminists was even current and yet you can’t help but think that Daphne du Maurier saw this current just being around the corner when she wrote this at the bottom of her garden in the very cold 1950s. I suppose I have teased out and exaggerated some of those elements I detected or felt in her writing in my film so that the leading character is more conscious about being an independent woman and a woman who is not frightened by her sexuality or apologetic about enjoying sex. She also doesn’t want to be in a world that is owned by men.
JJ: And who better to play that than Rachel Weisz. She has this amazing ability to be strong yet scary and very feminine but not afraid to take on a man.
RM: She is also very sensitive as her character has moments filled with swings and great round abouts and great emotional conviction. This character never feel she is manipulating him or tricking him. It all feels totally real and I think that’s kind of the point of it.
JJ: That’s tricky for her character. When she gives the jewels back you are never quite sure if she is doing it because there is a plan or if she truly is that way and Rachel makes it look so convincing – either way!
RM: Exactly, what did you decide?
JJ: I don’t know if you have ever heard or seen a film called “The Egyptian” (1954) and there is a scene where a doctor named Sinuhe is in love with the woman Nefer. To win her love he repeats constantly that he loves and wants to know what he can give her. Nefer’s reply is consistently ‘I ask for nothing’ yet he fills up a trunk with gifts while she gets to play innocent. When Rachel gives back the jewels that’s the first thing I thought of!
RM: That’s right, absolutely right. That’s the kind of excitement through the whole film for me because you just don’t know, you really don’t know. She is either playing the longest game you can imagine or she is genuinely just trying to live her life. She is engrained into these activities by this rather impetuous and naïve young man that has really never come across a woman before.
JJ: Sam Claflin, is he just not the doey-eyed character here?
RM: He is doey-eyed and his character is like a wet nosed puppy isn’t he? He played this marvelously portraying this masculine, handsome man but he is instantly besotted and long footed by this very sophisticated woman who steps into his life.
JJ: Nothing like a little mystery to grab you.
RM: Mystery is a great aphrodisiac
JJ: Phillip has been surrounded by this dusty old house and never really had a woman in his life.
RM: Phillip is probably a virgin and never been in the company of a woman before. We decided he is probably a virgin and he’s like he was struck by lightening with Rachel. Not only is she beautiful, funny and sweet natured but add to that exotic being from Italy.
JJ: You have a really great supporting cast with Iain Glen and Holliday Grainger as the Kendall family trying to tell Phillip this young man what is happening. At the same time it’s interesting that the kind of stand back knowing that if they talk down Rachel to much they could make it worse.
RM: That’s so right, particularly with Iain Glen character. He is terribly, terribly sad to see this boy you helped to bring up, known him since he was a toddler and see him just throw everything away for this woman. He does that and still manages to be civil when he is in her presence.
JJ: I love the character of Louise and let me tell you why. This girl is watching everything that’s going on and the scene where she basically is responsible for asking for the return of the necklace. Just the look on her face I knew she wasn’t to be trifled with. I was secretly applauding her.
RM: Holliday is amazing in the film as well. I think how she handles herself in the end is amazing, even when Phillip becomes distracted.
JJ: She gives you hope in waiting.
RM: All things come to those who wait.
JJ: She is always just so lady like yet on her face the wheels are turning. You have a film with so many themes going on, how was that for you?
RM: It’s just working away at the script and then the actors and in the edit trying to keep everything balanced and keeping them in such a place that you never wink at the audience to give anything away. You compel the audience to constantly make up their own minds as the evidence slowly arrives in front of them. The timing of the letters are very important in the film. You think she has to be totally innocent and then you see she is sending letters to her lawyer in Italy or the coat pocket. It is really, really well plotted in the book and I hope that extended itself to the film in a way that is very satisfying.
JJ: You take it all to the end where you are still left wondering. By the end the craziness is with Phillip.
RM: Yes, absolutely.
JJ: How do you stop the madness once it’s started?
RM: He ends up cursed by it and he will never be happy and rubbing his head for the rest of his life thinking “what the hell was that all about?”
JJ: How many of us have not had that in our lives right?
RM: Yes, we all do that.
JJ: What would you like people who see the film to take away from the experience?
RM: I would like them to really enjoy the ride of it. It is a roller coaster of did-she-or-didn’t-she and I think that’s very exciting. I think that’s one part of it and I think it’s also without doubt it is a love story whether you like it or not. It is a desperate love story and a love story that goes wrong and still beguiling as a love story. It is also a beautiful mystery and I think people leaving the theater will be arguing with each other about who did what. People going to have a drink after the movie with ‘come on she did it’ and someone else saying “come on she didn’t do it.” That’s what I would like.
JJ: That’s pretty much what is still going on here after seeing the film.
RM: Oh wonderful, I appreciate that.
JJ: Thank you so much for spending time talking about the film and your vision for it.
RM: Thank you so much Jeri!
There is nothing better than having a very cool conversation with a director about his vision for a film but even more so a director that understands the characters. That is what speaking with Roger Michell offers everyone, a deeper look at the complexity of the human condition.
This Friday in theaters it is “My Cousin Rachel.”