“I did want to make an escape film, and I didn’t know how badly we would need an escape film,” describes director Autumn de Wilde. Her sumptuous adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma” landed in theaters just before the pandemic forced movie houses to shutter. The timing of its release saw “Emma” make a quick jump from theaters to video on demand, where the newly quarantined masses gobbled up its bright and witty story. “One of the biggest things for me,” explains the director, “is that people have told me that it helped them through a hard time.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.
The screwball comedy is de Wilde’s feature film directorial debut. She is widely known as a photographer, famed for portraits and album covers of rockers like Elliott Smith, Beck, and Jenny Lewis. Directing was a natural evolution for her, as de Wilde notes “I’ve always been a storyteller.” Obsessed with film stills from a young age, the artist wanted her own photos to “seem like scenes from movies.”
Some of her earliest collaborators asked her to direct their music videos, where she continued to hone her storytelling. De Wilde also discovered how much she enjoyed helping rockers embody a new persona. “I liked to help the musicians I was working with create a character that could give them a relief from the diary of their life that was present” in the music, she explains.
The director compares “Emma” lead Anya Taylor-Joy to a rock star in many ways. “I’m not dealing with an actor who is ‘vanity first’,” claims de Wilde, “she’s not trying to look like a fashion plate.” Taylor-Joy was part of de Wilde’s initial pitch for the film after the director was stunned by her performances in “The Witch” and “Thoroughbreds.” “She successfully plays both the victim and the villain,” explains de Wilde. It’s an important quality for Emma Woodhouse, whom the audience must root for despite some unpleasant actions.
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“Emma” has seen multiple adaptations over the years. There’s the Gwyneth Paltrow film, a BBC miniseries, a stage musical, and it even serves as inspiration for “Clueless” with Alicia Silverstone. For this 2020 update to be unique, de Wilde explains that she “pitched a screwball comedy angle” on Eleanor Catton’s first draft script. It delighted the screenwriter and the studio.
The director describes Catton as “the Jane Austen translator” for her ability to “really get inside the language.” This collaboration allowed plenty of flexibility, allowing the director to insert small touches of her own life, such as Emma’s constant nosebleeds, and still make them feel organic to the story. These individualistic flourishes combined with the directors strong visual language, sets this adaptation apart from those that came before. According to de Wilde, there’s space for so many iterations because of the genius of Austen’s words. “She’s so good that you can claim the book as your own and do your own interpretation of it,” de Wilde explains. “That’s great writing.”
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