At the time she was asked to pitch a new film version of Emma, Autumn de Wilde was best known for her work with rock stars, making her far from the obvious choice to helm a period piece full of parasols and petticoats. But the photographer and music video director did land the job, and she swears that working with artists like Jenny Lewis and Florence and the Machine perfectly prepared her for her feature debut.
It’s fitting that de Wilde’s take on Emma, which will expand its theatrical run on Friday, looks beneath those petticoats to reveal multiple bare butts. The director spoke to Slate about bringing out the screwball comedy in Jane Austen, why rock stars and actors really aren’t so different, and the reason you won’t find Beck on the movie’s soundtrack. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Slate: What was your personal relationship with Emma before you signed on to direct this adaptation?
Autumn de Wilde: My mother is English, I grew up in Los Angeles, my dad’s from Brooklyn, and I had this kind of obsession with both places I didn’t grow up in, you know, England and Brooklyn. Because of that, I think, from a young age, I devoured everything, British television, British films, Masterpiece Theatre with my mom. So Jane Austen was part of my world, just like Shakespeare and Fawlty Towers.
I’m not an academic. I didn’t go to college, and I was not the best student in high school. But I am an obsessive researcher, so I see every period film that’s made. I love them, good or bad, and one of my favorite period films of all time is A Room With a View. I saw it when I was 15, and it had a profound effect on me, so that movie has always kind of been my guiding light for a lot of things. I’ve used it as inspiration in places you would never guess. I also love Sense and Sensibility, because I was a big fan of Ang Lee and Emma Thompson and her script.
I was asked to pitch on this film, which was shocking and then felt like a dream come true and felt so “me.” It felt like a sort of lightning bolt that came and hit me. I had a month to prepare, so I went deep into the rabbit hole. Like I said, I had this fascination with the 19th century and I’ve sort of had this interest in, from an outsider’s view, the strangeness of the class system. But what I did in that month is I really went deep. I went deep into fashion history. I went deep into the history of etiquette in that time period specifically, and then into the book, and all of the analyses of the book, and I started my education in really understanding Emma.
What did you ultimately come up with for your pitch? What did you think an adaptation needed that hadn’t been done before or that only you could do?
Well, I don’t think it’s artistically intelligent to think in competition, like, “This sucks. Mine would be better.” It never works that way. It might work for some, but it doesn’t work for me. What I try to take are my own obsessions, because I’ve noticed that when something tickles my fancy, it repeats in my head over and over like a broken record. It’s almost like my pitch was releasing all of that, like, “I need to do this, because I need to do it this way.” Each person brings their personal fascination with the story.
I made a physical pitch, so it was a stack of, they almost look like postcards, that I wrapped in newsprint, that I had designed with my designer and printed the first page of the book on. So [the people I was pitching] got these packages in England that they couldn’t open until we had our Skype call. What I asked them to do was unwrap it and then spread those cards all over the table. Those cards had casting ideas, design inspiration, fashion inspiration—historical and outside of the history—lighting inspiration, and filmic inspiration. They spread the cards all over the table in any order, randomly. It created a bird’s-eye view of the color palette and the sort of feeling of the movie that was very effective.
One of the really important points to me was that I find Jane Austen really funny. As an American, as an outsider, I wanted to bring American screwball comedy as a style into the making of the film. I just thought this would be so interesting, because in Bringing Up Baby, the comedy works because of the formality in that period, in that there’s this disruptor.
The second thing I wanted from the book was that I wanted to remind people how young they were, that Emma is young. She’s very intelligent, but she’s emotionally kind of stunted, with very little experience at friendship in general.
The third thing that was really important to me is, I said, “This is also a love story of two friends, not just Emma and Knightley, but Emma and Harriet.” I have a lot of heartbreak and romance in my heart for my early best friends. The most hurt can be caused at that age, when you don’t realize that people are not disposable. I think a lot of girls have to learn that about their friends, or they have to learn how not to be a doormat, which was the case for me. And then what I thought was really interesting is that by making Harriet such a powerful character that you sort of take for granted as kind of a dingbat in the beginning, you realize that there’s a piece of all of us that are both Emma and Harriet. A lot of us think we’re the victim, like Harriet. If you really think about it, there have been times when you’ve been Emma, and that’s really important.
How has your work directing music videos and taking photos of musicians prepared you to direct movies?
I had times in my career when I couldn’t pay the bills and I wasn’t sure if anyone cared about anything I did, which is, I think, a natural path for anyone as an artist. I have always been grateful for the experience I had on the road with bands, because—I mean, I went on the road with Jenny Lewis. I went on the road with Beck. I went on the road with Death Cab for Cutie and the White Stripes. I consider myself going on the road with Rodarte, the fashion designers, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, because I treated it the same way. You’re in a hotel room with them, or you’re on a tour bus, and you get to be a witness to the hubris of youth and the drama of being human and being in love, or having crushes, or trying to get something done, or just the struggles of being an artist.
I also had a lot of character study that I had collected over the years, because of my own nerdy fascination with why people do the things they do. I was like that from a really young age. I remember in first grade, there was a girl who was really mean to me every day. And I had once gone over to her house, and I had seen her mom be mean to her. I remember thinking, “Oh, she’s mean, because her mother’s mean to her.”
I think my personality-collecting has always been a fuel for ideas. I see connections in things in my life and things I’ve observed. By the time I got to making this film, I had a world of stories and experiences to share with the actors and with [screenwriter] Eleanor Catton. She also, as a writer, obviously is a personality collector and story collector, and we just had a lot of fun adding her human experience into the inspiration that Jane Austen brings with this story.
I want to talk about your vision for the music in the movie. Did you ever consider dipping into your contacts from the music world and taking a more contemporary route?
It’s funny you ask me that, because when I was making the movie, I had this feeling that folk music was going to be really important. In my years with Beck, I had learned so much about the history of folk music in America and in England and in other countries. He’s a wealth of information as far as music history goes in general, so I was lucky enough to learn so much from him and from Jenny Lewis and Death Cab. Every band that I worked with, I had a new library of inspiration, musically.
But when I was making the movie, I kept thinking about Beck and Jenny Lewis, and I was like, “Should I ask them?” I [decided], “No, I know that I want to go into music history.” Even though it would mean writing an original score, I want everything to be dancing around this time period. It felt a little bit frustrating because I was like, “I have all these amazing songwriters that trust me, that love me, that can’t wait to do a movie and use their music.” It felt just a little bit cruel to have it not be the right movie for that, but that’s how it was.
What happened was I was obsessively listening to Peter and the Wolf, even though it’s [from] a later time period than Emma. I kept thinking about the orchestra as like each character being an instrument. When I found [the film’s composer] Isobel Waller-Bridge, because of her sense of humor in music and her work on Fleabag and in general, her personality, I told her I wanted the music to be like a misbehaving orchestra, like the conductor is overwhelmed and the oboes are escaping. We ended up making this thing that has a lot of inspiration from animated films and clocks and clockwork and music boxes. I did use my music knowledge from years of being in the studio, with all these different bands and musicians, but I didn’t get to use them—except for Johnny Flynn [the actor and musician who plays Mr. Knightley and contributed a song to the soundtrack].
Have you noticed any differences between working with actors and working with musicians?
I pretty much mostly worked with rock ’n’ roll music, but I kept thinking to myself, “I don’t know why people see such a difference.” What I do is I go into the world of the artist, and I heighten, I bring the fantasy to it, I document it. So I actually set out to prove that my process with musicians was the same for any genre, and that’s why when I met [fashion designers] Kate and Laura [Mulleavy] at the beginning of their career, I wanted to document it. They were fascinating, and I had never met women like that in my life, that spoke the way they did. They broke the mold when they made Kate and Laura. So I treated them like a rock band. I went on tour with them. When I shot [director and actor] Miranda July I did the same.
I feel actors should be treated more like rock stars. They shouldn’t be treated like they’re there to advertise food or a dress. The fantasy-building of who this actor as an artist is, is so fun to do as a photographer for me. I think that’s why I had fun working with actors as a photographer over the years. I did some posters and stuff. I love working with actors and bringing out the things I see in them that make them such brilliant artists.