'Truth About Emmanuel' Director on Big Plot Twists and Jessica Biel's Brave Spirit
Francesca Gregorini believes an audiences' emotion suspension of disbelief with her new female-centric drama.
Everything's a little off in the opening scenes of The Truth About Emanuel. Teenage Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) is in a state of grief, but capable of surviving her daily life. Her new next-door neighbor, Linda (Jessica Biel), is secretive, but warm enough embrace a budding friendship that emerges between the two. Sure, the fact that she looks like Emanuel's deceased mother is a little strange, but comforting. And then… twist.
Early on in her second film, which debuted at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Francesca Gregorini throws a killer curveball, flipping the action on its head and watching carefully as her characters pick themselves up. It's a huge spoiler — to reveal would take away from The Truth About Emanuel's impact. But it's a doozy, and plays perfectly into Gregorini's themes of femininity, maternity, and ghosts of the past few of us are powerful enough to shake. Here, we talk to Gregorini about developing a script from her personal memories, clinging tight to an unconventional reveal, and the early days of developing The Truth About Emanuel, when her Tanner Hall star Rooney Mara was set to star:
THR: Emanuel and Linda may not be sides of a coin, but they feel like extensions of a similar personality. Do you feel a stronger connection to one of them? If so, how did you conceive the other one?
Francesca Gregorini: In many ways, Emanuel, with lots of poetic license, is a representation of me in my youth, and Linda is me in my adulthood. I'm not quite as crazy as Linda, or not yet [laughs], but in terms of the things they are facing and struggling with, they very much parallel my own life. I think in many ways I find that to be true. You write something and read it back and it's a conversation between the unconscious mind and the conscious mind. I began to realize that Emanuel represented my struggles as a kid. My mother issues. Thank God my mother isn't dead, but i had an absent mother for various reasons throughout my childhood. I think I carried her secrets in ways Emanuel does for Linda. Out of love. That brings you to some interesting places. It's a psychological drama/thriller and I think the psychological part was a major component in the interplay between the women.
THR: Without spoiling, I imagine Linda's demons were a very difficult to ground in reality. What was required to keep that idea from flying off the rails?
Gregorini: When I write, I do zero research. I'm not that kind of person. It's film — it gives you the latitude to do whatever you want. I take that to heart. But after writing it, I did some research and there are cases where someone is fully functional in their life but they have a singular delusion. Which is unbelievable but is really, really true. I think in the true emotions of things, I think the audience is willing to go anywhere if the performances are believable. Jessica Biel did a fabulous job. She's very nuanced and true. That's to her credit.
THR: Did Jessica come to the table with a specific choice on how to play this role?
Gregorini: She was very passionate about this film and getting this part. She was willing to audition for it — I wasn't sure if she was the right choice. I hadn't seen her do this kind of work before. She blew me away. We had lengthy discussions about who this woman was. It's hard to talk around the issue… but in the hardest scenes, the scenes where you're holding your breath because you're hoping they pull it off, because it's the kind of movie where if one scene doesn't work the whole movie falls apart, she just hit it out of the park. She has a brave spirit. I think the job as a director is to connect and gain the trust of an actor and so they go into uncharted water.
THR: Were you ever worried about having a "twist" so early on in the film?
Gregorini: I think it's much more impactful for people to see the movie when they don't know what the twist is. I think a more standard film about this would have revealed the twist at the end. Like an 'a-ha!' That wasn't interesting to me. I was interested in what happens after the cat's out of the bag. What that relationship looks like after. The length were able to go after carrying each other's secrets. Emanuel is stuck in this place and can't get herself out, but to help Linda, she has to overcome what she needs to. But the overriding message is of hope and that we need each other.
THR: What were things like post-Tanner Hall, your first film? That came out in 2009. I know you originally developed this script with Rooney Mara in mind.
Gregorini: I wrote it for her and it just took forever to find financing. As you can imagine, it's a hard movie to pitch. It's a female-driven, psychological drama with some elements of thriller. It's a little absurd, it goes into magical realism — people aren't lining up to give you the money. I think that was the biggest challenge of making this movie, getting the financing. I made the movie for one-fifth what I was told I needed to make the movie. I ultimately think you just have to do it. I have too many friends with great scripts waiting for permission and enough money to do it. There's no excuse for that. It's cheaper to make films. What I learned from Tanner Hall was… that script was 75% there and we had to struggle in the edit to compensate for that. I feel the script for Emanuel was all there.
THR: As a working filmmaker, do you have to juggle multiple projects at once? I know you were involved with an Emma Watson project called Your Voice in My Head — is that something you worked on while traveling with this film?
Gregorini: I think if you're smart that's what you do but I sink my teeth into one thing and I have blinders on. I'm a freight train. I'm making a movie and I think eat and sleep all about one thing. A lot of people are developing four or five things and whatever catches fire they jump at, but I do that. I've stepped off [Your Voice in My Head] and I'm on to another project. I'm starting to write something that's been cooking in me for a few years, but I'm stepping into something written by someone else. An [original] period piece, Paris in the '20s. I'm going to try my hand at something completely different, and yet still female-driven and something I can say something about.