Emma. director Autumn de Wilde on Jane Austen, colour theory and humanising her heroine

Autumn de Wilde makes a triumphant directorial debut in Emma., the endlessly charming and visually sumptuous adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic novel. De Wilde’s background as a rock photographer and music video director – having worked with the likes of The White Stripes, Fiona Apple, and Death Cab for Cutie – infuses Emma.’s world with a dynamism and vibrancy that heightens Austen’s world without ever smothering it.

Outtake had the pleasure of speaking with de Wilde about her feature film directorial debut, which stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Miranda Hart and Callum Turner.

© 2019 – Focus Features

How did you get involved in this project, this being your feature film directorial debut?

De Wilde: I was asked to pitch on Emma., back when Eleanor [Catton] had already written the first draft – and I got a call, which was super exciting. We had a conversation about it and they asked me to formally pitch, so I had about a month to prepare and I went deep into research. I prepared a physical pitch, there was nothing digital. It was a box with an embroidered silk pillow in it, and there were these stacks of cards that I printed with inspiration images and fashion illustrations, and lighting references, historical references in art and basically, I had made two boxes. I sent one to them in England and I had one, and they had to open it while we were on over Skype. The idea was that by spreading it out on the table, they sort of got a bird’s eye view of the colour palette. And then as they looked at each card, I could discuss the details of my vision for the film.

I can’t imagine that’s a very common way of pitching!

To create it was such a great exercise, and I think what was cool about it was it sort of became the Bible for production. So, you know, the first time I met Bill Nighy and I was asking him to play Mr. Woodhouse – he was part of my initial pitch. Some of my cast, like Anya [Taylor-Joy] and Johnny Flynn and Mia Goth, and Miranda Hart were part of my pitch because I thought that by using certain actors to represent these characters, even if I wasn’t going to be able to use them, it immediately broke the expected, stereotypical casting ideas that people might have for the characters.

You know, I think by showing a picture of Bill Nighy mixed in with all these historical references and colours, and fashion, I think they immediately saw the Mr. Woodhouse that I was talking about. And screwball comedy was a big part of my addition to the script, you know, like Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), and Eleanor and I felt that Jane Austen’s comedic talents are sometimes overshadowed by her amazing panache for romance. But what I find really funny about her writing is that it’s satirical, and I thought that old Hollywood-style physical comedy would really serve that well. Eleanor Catton found that as well, so she brought those ideas into the script and incorporated that style into the viewpoint of the movie.

© 2019 – Focus Features

It’s interesting that you already knew what cast you wanted before even approaching them. What was it about Anya Taylor-Joy that made you want her for the lead?

Well, Emma is just so well written obviously, because Jane Austen is a genius. And I think the book could be interpreted in many different ways, just like with Shakespeare, you can take the core structure and you can apply it to a lot of different points of view. And that’s why Clueless (1995) [film starring Alicia Silverstone, loosely based on Jane Austen’s Emma] works so brilliantly. Because I think we forget, when we’re looking at an older piece of work like that, just how young those characters are.

So I felt that Anya in The Witch and to an extent in Thoroughbreds, she plays a young character that starts out as the victim, and slowly you realise that you may have guessed wrong about her. And that’s what’s so masterful about her performance, is that you maintain an interest in her succeeding even as she becomes the bad guy. And to be able to do that aged nineteen, which she was in The Witch, is an incredible tour-de-force. And in Thoroughbreds, she starts out as the victim and becomes the punisher, and I saw a lot of intricate detail in the way she plays those characters. And Emma requires that in my version.

I really wanted to make sure Emma was unlikable at times and yet, ideally, you see yourself in her. Almost everyone with a dominant personality has stuck their foot in their mouth and hurt someone they didn’t mean to hurt. And I think it’s caused of that mob mentality too, where you join in on bullying without realising it; I think it’s really funny that most people think they’re Harriet, but all of us have times where we’re Emma. So I knew I needed the audience to flip flop between being frustrated and wanting to strangle Emma for being so selfish and being so horrible, and loving her so much that you want to see her improve, because this story is about someone like that realising they’re wrong, as well as about romance and friendship.

© 2019 – Focus Features

And those themes are of course as relevant today as they were when it was written, but how did you balance the spirit of Jane Austen with the modern tone of the film?

Well, I didn’t feel like I had to modernise it. I just wanted to humanise her and hopefully dispel preconceived notions about what the story is. And, I mean, a lot of the world is literally on fire, things are bad and I just love the idea of giving some people two hours off to escape in a fantasy film and then go back to the good fight, you know.

Plus, there’s this idea that we never forget the people that hurt us in high school when we were teenagers, it just sticks with us forever, these wounds that remind us of our more fragile side. I think that you can forgive Emma because she’s young, and Harriet is her first friend that hasn’t been paid to be her companion. So what practice does she have to realise the stakes? I think hopefully it feels modern and fresh only because it’s such a reminder that they were flesh and blood too, and that there’s something that never changed about our natures and our needs.

And with Emma’s relationship with George Knightley, that’s When Harry Met Sally (1989), and Reality Bites (1994), and all the cop shows where two people argue but really, they’re in love. It’s such a human condition that Austen pinpointed, that doesn’t really age. It’s the same with the relationship between Emma and Harriet, which I really wanted to highlight in the movie. I think for girls, their first best friend is a passionate, thrilling friendship, and it often catches people by surprise how much they need that person, and that sometimes creates a lot of problems. Then romantic love interferes with that friendship, it challenges it… crushes challenge that first friendship, you know? So I think that’s why it might feel modern, because we can relate to all that – but that’s in the book!

And then I think what might seem modern too might be the colours, but actually the Georgian period was a very colourful period. We are just looking at old houses and wallpaper, and clothes in museums that have faded. There’s a sort of misconception that things from the early 1800s are muted, pale, faded patterns and colours which are still beautiful, but there’s so much research being done now about how brightly coloured murals were… I just read an article about Van Gogh’s work and how most of the blues in his painting might have actually been purple. So it’s fun to go into colour history and try to rebuild what it was. And of course, I love exaggerating worlds, so I created a full world of colour, but it does come from my research.

© 2019 – Focus Features

What’s funny is that there were influencers invited to the preview screening, and I overheard quite a few of them praising the film for how Instagram-able it was.

[She laughs] Earlier in my career, I was shooting bands before the internet became a big part of the advertising and promotion, and before it became a big problem for advertising. Timelines on the internet are all jumbled up – it used to be that there was a clear timeline, like if you saw a photo that belonged to this record in a magazine, you knew it was coming out soon. You wouldn’t see old covers of records just bouncing around, but then we started time travelling on the internet, and so I started connecting things by colour. So one record would be these three colours, and the musicians loved that because it gave them a sense of like, chapters in their careers. Obviously, The White Stripes are the masters of that, they did that on their own. That was Jack White’s [half of the rock duo The White Stripes] obsession with colour, and it was interesting to see how not just myself, but other people were finding ways to communicate with colour.

You can really establish a character’s personality by using colour; you can tell an audience what season you’re in, I can tell you where they are emotionally and for me, colour is another layer of communication. And I like the idea when you’re dealing with another language like Jane Austen’s words, unfamiliar words, unfamiliar ways of speaking… Eleanor and I didn’t want to oversimplify that language, and so colour and design, the passive aggressive behaviour, the things people don’t say, all of these are layers of communication that translate meaning to an audience, even when they might miss what a word or phrase means. They’re going to get it another way. If you could turn the sound off and understand what’s going on in a movie, that movie is pretty successful. The Shining (1980)is a great example of that, we can turn the sound off and the lighting, the colour, the mannerisms of the actress all tell you what’s happening. I’m very influenced by that kind of storytelling.

And lastly, could you tell me about the significance of the full-stop in the title?

You mean the period?

Yes!

Yeah, it’s a period film. I thought that was funny.

Emma. releases in UK cinemas Friday 14th.

Laura Potier

Co-founder and editor of Outtake, feel free to drop me a line with any questions or article pitches at laura@outtakemag.co.uk