skip navigation
Behind the Camera - Rebecca
Remind Me

Behind the Camera on REBECCA

Rebecca started filming on September 8, 1939, five days after the United Kingdom entered World War II. This proved particularly troublesome to director Alfred Hitchcock and the film's largely British cast.

Hitchcock's perfectionism slowed production from the start. Within two weeks, Rebecca was five days behind schedule.

Some of the delays were caused by the director's careful coaching of leading lady Joan Fontaine. Cast in her first major film role, she was understandably nervous. Things weren't helped by co-star Laurence Olivier's clear dissatisfaction with her casting. Since her character was supposed to be unsure of herself, Hitchcock spent as much time playing on her anxieties as he did coaching her. Among other things, he questioned her suitability in a cast of British stage veterans, told her nobody on the film liked her, pointed out how much less she was being paid than the other actors and even suggested she could have found a better husband than British actor Brian Aherne.

Another factor slowing down production was Hitchcock's refusal to rehearse while the crew was setting up lights. He claimed he found the noise distracting, even though rehearsing during camera set-ups was standard Hollywood practice.

Selznick was concerned with both stars' performances. He asked Hitchcock to speed up Olivier's reactions, which he thought were being played too slowly, and slow down his line readings, even asking the director to make sure the leading man knew what the lines meant. With Fontaine, he thought Hitchcock was directing her with too much restraint, and urged him to go for "a little more Yiddish Art Theatre" (from David O. Selznick's Hollywood by Ronald Haver).

Hitchcock frequently clashed with producer David O. Selznick over the director's habit of cutting in the camera. Rather than give the producer several complete shots of each set-up so the film could be assembled in a variety of ways, Hitchcock had the final cut already worked out before shooting and filmed only as much of each long shot and close-up as he planned to use in the film.

Selznick was so thrown by Hitchcock's methods he began questioning his own judgment. In October, he asked his wife, Irene, to come to the studio to look at some of the footage, a practice he rarely exercised. He even confided that he wanted her to tell him if he should just cancel the production. She viewed what had been shot and reassured him that the film was excellent.

To underline the character's menace and present her through the leading lady's eyes, Hitchcock rarely showed the Mrs. Danvers character walking. Instead, she just appears, stationary in the frame, when Fontaine least expects her.

Having started in film as an art director, Hitchcock was well-versed in using miniatures to save money, but had to convince Selznick that the process wouldn't look cheap.

A half-sized version of Manderley was built on a separate soundstage for the film's opening sequence, in which the camera moves up the drive to the ruined estate in the moonlight.

Many of the architectural details of Manderley, including ceilings and chandeliers, were matted in from drawings made by Al Simpson. The same was done with some of the flames during the climactic fire.

Second unit shots of Maxim de Winter's first meeting with his future second wife were filmed by stand-ins on the coast of Carmel, which stood in for the Riviera.

Some of the exteriors at Manderley were filmed at Del Monte, California, while the beach scenes were filmed on Santa Catalina Island.

The principal photography on Rebecca was completed on November 20, 1939, 27 days behind the film's original 36-day schedule. Three of the lost days were caused by Fontaine's contracting the flu and another three by a sudden strike by the stagehands' union.

After completion, Rebecca sat on the shelf for a month before Selznick could work on the final cut. He was too busy preparing Gone with the Wind (1939) for its premiere.

A very rough cut of Rebecca previewed in San Bernardino, California, in December 1939. The audience applauded when the title appeared and responded enthusiastically to the film as a whole.

Selznick insisted on personally supervising re-takes of the fire scene, which he thought had been indistinct as originally shot. The final shot of flames engulfing the title character's "R" monogram were redone because he thought the initial had not been as carefully framed as Mrs. Danvers would have placed it and the flames hadn't come up quickly enough or high enough.

Selznick borrowed Franz Waxman from MGM to score Rebecca, forcing the composer to work from the script and a rough cut rather than the final edit. When this posed problems later, Selznick had some of Max Steiner's music for A Star Is Born (1937) inserted where he felt Waxman's score wasn't working. This caused animosity between Selznick and both composers.

Rebecca's final cost was $1,288,000, approximately $500,000 over Selznick's original budget.

by Frank Miller