Murder. Passion. Obsession. Three words which best describe the intense journey Roger Michell takes his audiences on in his latest film, My Cousin Rachel. Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, Rachel tells the story of a young man named Philip (played by Sam Claflin) who plots revenge against his enigmatic cousin Rachel (played by Rachel Weisz), believing her to be the murderer of his guardian. However, his plans become problematic when he realizes that his obsession with her has turned into one of passion, rather than hatred.
Earlier this week, Blast Magazine had the opportunity to speak with the film’s director and writer, Roger Michell, about his creative process, artistic inspirations, and future plans.
Blast Magazine: During your career, you have had the opportunity to work on projects in a variety of genres. What was it that drew you to the darker tones present in My Cousin Rachel?
Roger Michell: I had read the book and decided that I wanted to make it into a film. This project was fitting for me because nearly all of my films have some wretched, dark, horrible element to them with only a couple of exceptions.
Blast: Was your creative process different for this film than your previous works given that My Cousin Rachel is based on a pre-existing novel? In addition, were you in any way influenced by the choices made in the 1952 film adaptation?
Michell: I never watched the 1952 film version. I thought it was better for me not to watch it. One afternoon, I did sneakily watch the previous film’s trailer and read some of the associated reviews, but I never watched the actual film because I did not want to be influenced by the choices they made. I used the novel as my guide. I think the novel is full of fantastic choices, wonderful stage management, incredible construction, and a plot you could drive a sports car around and never come off the track. I tried to use Daphne du Maurier’s work as much as possible.
Blast: The film’s drama plays out in the most beautiful sets and locations. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to have such a peaceful and scenic countryside coupled with the intensity that is brewing between Philip and Rachel. How did the surrounding locations help to shape the story and add another layer of depth to the events unfolding onscreen?
Michell: During the film, the beautiful landscape and light change suddenly and begin to feel more foreign and threatening. There is this contrast between the beautiful environments and the rather more menacing interior dialogue. The interior lives of these characters are interesting and frightening but happen in the most beautiful places.
Blast: Rachel Weisz is a force of nature in this film. How did you manage to draw such a strong performance from her as the manipulative and captivating Rachel?
Michell: I drew from what was there. She is a wonderful actress who really understood the character. She plays it to the hilt and does an absolutely stunning job.
Blast: Philip struggles throughout the film to identify Rachel’s true intentions. What were some of the difficulties you faced in keeping both Philip and the audience questioning the honesty and innocence of Rachel?
Michell: I wanted to make a film where anyone who went over a DVD looking for clues of evidence proving Rachel’s guilt would at no point be able to say definitively whether she was innocent or not. Sometimes in the books, you feel Daphne may have gone too far and brought evidence to the table which was incontrovertible. She would then have to screech the brakes and persuade the reader that Rachel was innocent again. I tried to even out the bigger asks from the book. My intention was to have audiences leave the theater still unsure if Rachel was innocent or guilty.
Blast: Watching this film, one immediately feels transported back to the early 19th century. What were some of the challenges and pleasures of shooting a period piece?
Michell: The period is never actually mentioned in the book, so I went for a time around 1830 to 1840. I wanted it to be after Austen but before Dickens and after canals but before railways. Railways are like smartphones in the sense that they completely changed storytelling. The Victorian novel was transformed by the arrival of the railway because much more immediate contact became possible. Before that time, it would still take months or even a year for a letter to arrive. Because of this delay, letters became important and scarce. This allowed for the setting of the film to feel very isolated and built up a sense of ominousness.
Blast: It has now been 22 years since the release of your directorial debut, Persuasion. Over that time period, you have worked with a wide range of actors on an assortment of projects. How do you feel you have grown as a director from your early days to today?
Michell: Persuasion was almost the same time period as this film, so I would argue that I’ve come full circle.
Blast: Who are some of the directors who have influenced you during your career?
Michell: I was influenced by many of the great directors of the 60’s and 70’s when I was in my teens and early 20’s. I loved Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese, Tarkovsky, Fellini and Truffaut. I feel lucky to have grown up during a period of such amazing cinematic experimentation. That was a period marked with an explosion of talent, storytelling and innovation.
Blast: What is your best piece of advice for those interested in becoming filmmakers?
Michell: My advice is always to go and make a film. You used to need a proper film camera, a crew, sound, and everything else. Now, you can pick up your phone to film, cut it on your phone or laptop, and distribute it. It’s all about the quality of the story, the quality of the expression, and the quality of the action. Those are the only important things when making a film.
Blast: Now that My Cousin Rachel has been released in theaters, what are your future plans? Do you have a desire to continue working on projects featuring more menacing themes such as the ones present in this film or would you like to return to more light-hearted projects?
Michell: I never know what is going to come next. I am happily guided by my subconscious and I let it do the choosing. I normally end up in a different place than I’ve ever been before.
Be sure to head to a theater near you to watch My Cousin Rachel, beginning June 9!