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Sitting at the outdoor bar at the Chateau Marmont, director Autumn De Wilde was being encased in a distractingly bright mint green. Replicas of the set from her movie were being erected around the first floor of the famed hotel for the world premiere of Emma, the latest adaptation of the oft-adapted Jane Austen classic. The patio was going to be a haberdashery.
“My movie is being built around me. This is so crazy,” said De Wilde, a veteran photographer and music video director. Emma, which hit theaters on Feb. 21, marks her feature directorial debut.
For the film, De Wilde constructed a Georgian-era dollhouse, complete with a cacophony of greens, pinks, blues, oranges and yellows that she describes as a “confection perfection.” Despite being displaced several times during the interview — moving from the outdoor bar/haberdashery to the patio/faux garden party and finally settling in the hotel lobby/Woodhouse family parlor — the filmmaker appreciated the inherent comedy in having to continually relocate due to the construction of her own movie sets.
“If I was doing a movie about this interview happening, this is what I would do,” she said, laughing and ducking between artfully wallpapered palates of pressed particle board.
De Wilde actually had a chance to make her feature debut several years ago, but that project lost funding 10 days before filming was due to begin. “It was heartbreaking, and then I realized I was not heartbroken enough to stop, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m fucked. I really want to do this,'” she said. For De Wilde, Emma, a story that deals with love in its many forms, was worth that initial heartbreak.
The filmmaker talked to The Hollywood Reporter about her unconventional pitch (complete with an embroidered silk pillow), screwball comedies and the types of crying for every occasion.
I would like to think I was bold enough to suggest it, but I was asked to pitch for it. I had about a month to prepare my pitch, and when I got it, [writer] Eleanor Catton and I were put together, and she really liked my screwball comedy approach. My mom’s English, so I had my fantasy life in England. Anything that was British I was interested in. But I don’t think I really got Emma. I mean, I got the basic story. But it was when I was researching it, I was like, “Oh, my God, she is so funny.”
What made you think of Emma as a screwball comedy?
Like with Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, there are certain rules of screwball comedy that Howard Hawks invented. Like running at an insane pace in high heels and a tight dress and casting everyone a different size, so there’s a sort of already a comedy where you just look and it seems funny. The other thing is really fast talking. You are at war with the body. [Screwball comedy] is a great vehicle for the comedy of passive-aggressive behavior.
I think Jane Austen is so funny, and that is in the language. And Eleanor really liked the idea of the screwball comedy because it allowed the actors to physicalize what was being said in the writing. It educates the audience on the need to set the rules of society, etiquette, and their class system. I wanted the language to be thrown away intelligently and for the audience to feel like they were understanding the beauty of those words. But also, if you turned off the sound, you would understand what was going on. That’s what’s fun about screwball comedy and physical, choreographic styles.
How was the pitch process?
My pitch was something that couldn’t be e-ailed. It was two packages that were wrapped in the first page of the book that was on newsprint — because newsprint existed in the Regency period — and then wrapped with silk ribbon. Inside was stacks of cards and a silk pillow that was embroidered by a friend of mine. I wanted it to be really tactile. What happened when you spread all those cards out, it was a bird’s-eye view of the film. They were postcards of my lighting inspiration, film inspirations, color palette, and I had cast the roles with my dream cast, which I was lucky enough to get. It was all to help you picture the shape of what I was pitching. I have done a lot of pitching for commercials, and one image often doesn’t satisfy what you’re trying to prove you can do. The combination of images is what really actually makes someone be able to use their imagination. It also creates engagement. They had to touch the cards and look through them, and it prompted real questions.
What drew you to the cast so much that it prompted you to put their pictures in your pitch box?
Johnny Flynn was one of the first actors I cast in my head because I called up Keaton Henson, who is this British singer-songwriter who I’m friends with. I was like, “Okay, I need the leading man. I’m pitching on Emma.” I’m sort of tired of these leading men being cast only for women’s desires. So I was like, “I need an actor that men also tend to obsess over.” And he sent me five photos of Johnny Flynn. Maybe he just had them on his desk. He’s like, “I am obsessed with Johnny Flynn. I want to be Johnny Flynn. I kind of want to marry Johnny Flynn. My wife would be fine with that. She wants to marry him, too.” Johnny is so good at creating a hero that also has panic attacks. He’s fragile and too romantic — and all that was really important to be convincing.
[Mr. Knightley] is a specific type of man that I recognize. And that’s what’s so genius about Jane Austen’s writing — it’s just like the perfect love song, where you immediately think that love song was written for you and your breakup. Great writing makes you immediately think of someone that you know.
Did you immediately identify with anyone in Emma when you first read it?
I think Harriet. But I think we all think we are Harriet, and we don’t want to admit that we’re sometimes Emma. We’ve all stuck our foot in our mouth and said something horrible that we thought was funny. We’ve all meddled in our friends’ lives thinking that we know better who they should date. When she meets Harriet and she really chooses her friend for the wrong reason, it’s like picking out her favorite puppy. Like a popular girl choosing a friend for a makeover and then getting attached. And I definitely had a couple Emmas in my life. I believed in them. These early female friendships are so passionate. Before the first kiss, those are the most passionate feelings, probably, you would have for a peer. And that’s confusing. That person had a lot of power over you. I think that often two girls don’t realize how special it is until it’s too late.
When you’re watching the movie, you can see where Emma and Harriet’s friendship is headed, and you sit in the audience going, “Oh no.”
There was this part of the movie where we called it the “doom section,” where everything is so fucked. Someone said to me early on, “Do you think there’s too much crying?” And I’m like, “Have you ever met a girl in her early twenties?” We cry all the time. So Anya [Taylor-Joy, who plays Emma] and I really planned out the crying, like this will be the “shame” cry and this is “I’m a spoiled brat” crying and this is “true heartbreak.” And this is “I can never get out of this, so I’m crying because my life is changed forever and I’ve ruined everything.” When someone’s apologizing to you, like after you have a fight when you’re in your early twenties or in your teens, the way they cry is how you know if they’re really sorry. You know when [they] are not sorry. We know. We’re witches. We get it.
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