Daphne Du Maurier is one of the greatest female writers of the 20th century and ‘My Cousin Rachel’ is a great example of her ability to tell a story that leaves the reader constantly unsure as to how they feel about the central characters.
In his adaptation, Roger Michell wanted the audience to experience the evolution of the story in a way that made them continually question their judgment of Rachel (Rachel Weisz). Is she really a cold-blooded gold-digger, or simply a grieving widow who doesn’t conform to the gender stereotypes of the time?
Having worked with Roger before on Le Weekend and Hyde Park on Hudson, VFX Supervisor and Union Co-founder Adam Gascoyne and his team were enlisted to help recreate the world established by Du Maurier as well as adding suspense and drama to the story.
The story is set somewhere in the West Country, but the principal location was in West Horsley in Surrey – miles from the sea, but annoyingly close to a major road. Green screens were added to the windows of the set and to some of the exteriors allowing the team to create a different landscape which apparently falls away to a sparkling coastline. Several matte paintings were required to show the passing of the different seasons as an important part of the story is that it appears to unfold over the course of a year.
The team also added atmospheric rain and snow effects in multiple scenes, including a shot filmed on one of the hottest days of the year which they transformed into a winter landscape.
Birds were also added here and there throughout the film, partly in homage to Du Maurier’s novel ‘The Birds’ – famously committed to celluloid by Alfred Hitchcock.
Visual effects were also used to accentuate specific plot points in the story. For example, Philip discovers a weakness in a cliff path when his horse stumbles and he nearly plunges over the edge. The horse was filmed faltering on a drop platform and composited into drone footage of the cliff edge. The edge was also built in 3d and the collapse animated in Houdini.
Another poignant moment sees a very emotional Philip clasp at the pearl necklace round Rachel’s neck, breaking the thread and sending them cascading down a huge staircase. Live action was filmed at high speed and combined with animated CG pearls to create a dramatic, slow motion sequence.
Director Roger Michell commented: “As always Adam and the team were terrific. I ended up asking Adam to second unit direct the two tough horse stunts as I reckoned he had all the expertise necessary and could really make the best judgement calls about speeds and the use of robot arms, dummies, doubles etc. He did a great job pulling all the various departments together and delivered a seamless sequence.
“CGI in my view is all about restraint… you can do absolutely anything these days and you have to learn to pull back and make sure that the work is absolutely integrated into the story and the image. The last thing you want is for anyone to come out of the cinema raving about the CGI. It’s a tool that should be wielded poetically… a little can go a long way in the right hands.”