As February draws to a close, you could scarcely find a better film to usher in springtime than Emma. Based on the beloved novel by Jane Austen, Emma. (stylized punctuation theirs) defies the book-report stodginess that occasionally hampers classic literary adaptations thanks to an eye-popping color palette and a zippy, surprisingly modern pace that more recalls classic screwball comedy than English class. Credit goes to director Autumn de Wilde, the legendary rock photographer behind such iconic album covers as Beck’s Sea Change and Elliott Smith’s Figure 8, and star Anya Taylor-Joy, here continuing a hot streak that’s included such modern classics as Thoroughbreds and The Witch. In advance of the film’s local debut at the Coolidge, I had the opportunity to sit down with de Wilde and Taylor-Joy to discuss breathing life into old classics, “edible” fashion, and the aching romanticism of The Fast and the Furious.
BOSTON HASSLE: What drew you both to this project? How did it come about?
AUTUMN DE WILDE: I was asked to pitch on the film, which was really exciting. I had about a month to prepare, and Anya and a few other cast members were part of my pitch, to sort of dispel any preconceived casting ideas. And I was lucky enough to get the people I wanted. We did test for chemistry later between Anya and Johnny , but I just had this feeling that Anya and Johnny would be really perfect together. And I also felt that Anya and Harriet– which is almost even the bigger love story, of their friendship– I really just was fixated on the two of them together as Emma and Harriet. So when I got the film, I was flown immediately out to New York to secure the talent.
ANYA TAYLOR-JOY: And I was making Emma within the space of a day and a half, that’s what was so crazy about it. I landed in New York to do some other work, and I got a phone call from a producer I didn’t know very well, who just said, “Please, don’t say yes to anything, because I have something for you.” And then he called me an hour later, and he was like, “Right, okay, so it’s Emma, and it’s going to be directed by Autumn de Wilde, and she’s flying in to see you tomorrow.” And I was like, “Wow, okay, this is a thing!” And then Autumn and I met and we fell in love. It was strange, there are certain times when things just happen cosmically, or they seem like they’re just meant to be, because we didn’t have a conversation about, “Oh, hello, this is me, and that’s you, and what would it look like if we were making a movie together?” We sat down and we were like, “Okay, so when I do this. this is how this is gonna work out, and I think it’d be interesting if maybe we did this aspect–”
ADW: We started working right away, from our first conversation.
ATJ: Yeah, it was our first meeting, but it was our first meeting— like, work meeting.
ADW: And I joked about securing the talent, but there was never like, “Oh, I hope she’ll say yes.” You don’t even remember saying yes!
ATJ: I didn’t say yes! I never actually said that word. We were just making the movie pretty instantly.
BH: The thing that I really loved about the movie is that, while it is a fairly faithful adaptation, it doesn’t feel like a lot of other period pieces or classic literary adaptations. Could you speak to the approach that you took to make it stand out?
ATJ: I think where period drama can sometimes get a bit lost– and we both love period drama, but sometimes people seem to think that because it happened such a long time ago that they weren’t people, they weren’t human beings. And a big part of what we wanted to do with this film was show you the private moments where they are just being human beings, and even in the language, not make it seem like it was this grand thing every time somebody spoke. It’s just, no, they’re people, and they need to talk to each other, and they just happened to speak, I personally think, more beautifully, and using a lot more words than we do now to say the same thing. So it was about humanizing them, and reminding people that just because they wear corsets doesn’t mean that they didn’t fall in love inappropriately, and mess up their best friends, et cetera.
ADW: “Humanize, not modernize” was part of my pitch. Also because I love time travel, and I love Middle Earth, and I love space, and to me the opportunity to really rebuild something I fantasize about visiting was was more important to me then thinking about appealing to a modern audience, or how do you get the 12-year-olds to like it. I just don’t think that way. I never thought that way with the photographs I took of bands. And I think fear-based creation is the thing you have to be the most careful of, you know? “I made this choice because I’m afraid someone won’t relate to it.” I just think it’s such a great– Jane Austen’s a legend, and her writing is so complex and fascinating. And any time you go into it, you’re rewarded with more history. You know, in fashion history, we learn about etiquette, and the sort of social situations of that time, and you’re rewarded with understanding more and more of the book. And I love doing that with all sorts of classic stories– understanding the context. I’ve done that with art, too. I think if you look at an Andy Warhol painting, you are rewarded more if you understand what was happening in art at the time it came out. The same with music– you know, when this song came out, why did it change music forever? You have to understand the music around it at the time– you can still get it, but you can get it more by understanding that.
BH: It’s funny– I’m not super familiar with fashion history myself, but going back to what you were saying about remembering that these were real people, I never thought of there being such eye popping colors. Did you do a lot of research into that, or were there any particular influences?
ATJ: Did this woman do research! My god!
ADW: You know, like, I am a music nerd, and I’m a fashion history nerd– like, I’m a nerd. If I’m interested, I’ll go deep. And I do tell stories with color, so I’m looking for it. But the Georgian period was really colorful.
ATJ: Especially if you were wealthy.
ADW: Yeah, exactly. Rich people showed off their wealth with color. And male servants with nice legs. And sugar.
ATJ: And sugar, yeah.
ADW: When you’re doing a Jane Austen film with Working Title Films, you have access to an amazing amount of historical knowledge and people who are at the top of their game with understanding it. So I was able to look at old caricatures that hadn’t faded over time from being in the sun. I was able to look at a lot of references, and really get the best people to talk to about all of these things. And the wallpapers from that time period were electric! It makes sense– there’s no electricity yet, the houses are pretty dark in mostly cold weather, and color I think would cheer you up. And I also did want to make it like a big pastry shop too, you know? I love when color is delicious, so this movie needed to be delicious.
ATJ: There were moments when I would come on set, and someone would go, “You look so edible!” And I would say, “Thank you! I was going for edible! We were going for edible!”
BH: I can tell that a lot of fun was being had. One of my favorite gags was how Bill Nighy’s costumes would blend into the scenery.
ADW: Yeah! The production designer and the costume designer, Kave Quinn and Alexandra Byrne, are legends that way. When we put all those things together, we stood in that room, and we’re like, “What if he’s wearing this–” and then Kave’s like, “–with this upholstered chair!”
ATJ: And everyone goes, !
ADW: And then Bill comes in, and he’s like, “Well, yeah, of course. Like, of course I’m sitting there!” And then what’s so great was when all the actors knew that their job was to pretend like there was nothing spectacular about any of it. Except for Emma.
ATJ: Except for Emma. Yeah.
ADW: She’s like, “Check this out.”
ATJ: It was truly wonderful to have so much time with Alexandra Byrne, because all of the clothes were made on my body so that was. I was trying to work it out the other day– every fitting was around four and a half hours long, and I must have had about nine or ten, so I spent a lot of time learning everything about the clothes, learning why I would have chosen this particular thing. Alex would let me pick things, because we wanted to build a wardrobe, and what was very interesting about playing Emma– and I’m very grateful to her, because she definitely opened my eyes to fashion, and made me a much bigger lover of fashion– is Emma loves clothes. So, when she’s wearing something that is spectacular, you better believe I’m delivering my lines over my shoulder, showing you my coat, because Emma was like, “Look at my new coat. Like, it’s amazing!”
ADW: Which was so great, because then when Mrs. Elton comes in fuck shit up in the town, she’s like, “Look at my hair! And look at my curls!” In that scene when Mrs. Elton appears at the church for the first time–
ATJ: God, it’s so good!
ADW: –and is sitting in Emma’s pew, Alex was like,” I’ve got this great idea! She’s gonna be wearing a veil, because she’s like, ‘Guess what bitches, I’m the bride!’”
ATJ: “One must, as the bride, go first!” And Emma’s like,
ADW: And actually, in one scene I told Tanya, “What you’re really saying to Harriet and Emma is, ‘You two are virgins and I am not!’” So that’s why, every time she touches Mr. Elton, she’s like, “We’ve had sex!”
BH: Before we wrap up, I did want to mention Little Women. Both films are very familiar stories, but they feel like new spins on the female protagonists’ viewpoint. Was there any particular approach you took in regard to that?
ADW: I don’t really think about that, because I’ve been very much part of a man’s world as rock photographer, and also, you know, a part of a woman’s world with the female musicians I traveled with, and I don’t really think of that separation. But I think in general I have had a lot of observation time of men and women, young and old, in contained environments like the tour bus and the van. And I think that I brought to the movie a lot of personal stories and observations that I photographed for many years. So I do think that that is an expanded view, probably, of how female characters have been seen, perhaps. But I kind of think it’s also for the male characters as well. You know, I have worked intimately with so many different types of people, photographing them, and it’s a beautiful observation role as a photographer. You have to gain their trust for that. But I think it’s funny– I mean, I’m so excited that Little Women did well, but it’s funny. I think there’s this– and I don’t mean that you mean this in your question, but there is this sort of like, “Hey, we’ve had one woman movie! Do we need another?”
ATJ: “We’ve had one period film with a female lead! What is this new one?! Why?!” And it’s just like, guy, come on! You don’t ask that about Shakespeare! You don’t do that.
ADW: And I also think– this might be slightly off topic, but I don’t think so– action movies are rom-coms. It’s so clear! I mean, like, The Fast and the Furious is so romantic! They look at each other with tears in their eyes as they establish their manly-man friendship. And I think that men and women need escape, and they might feel more comfortable sometimes saying it’s an action movie. But come on, it’s a rom-com! You know it is!
ATJ: It’s an escapism movie. They’re both the same thing.
ADW: And I love action movies, so I’m not criticizing them at all. But I think that, you know, Jane Austen, it’s sort of like, “Oh, that’s a romance for girls to play dress up and escape.” And like– well, there’s nothing wrong with that, first of all– but also, Jane Austen really understood how to poke fun at the class system and small town life.
ATJ: A brilliant satirist.
ADW: I mean, you could put Emma in the office. You could put it in high school– obviously, Clueless is so genius for that. You could put it anywhere. These are just basic human conditions, like the hubris of youth, and our foolishness as humans, and what we do and fail at in love and in friendship. And I think that Jane Austen was really funny, so I wanted to bring a lot of that humor forward.
dir. Autumn de Wilde
Opens Friday, 2/28 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre