Emma Autumn de Wilde Anya taylor-joy

Emma is not modernized, but humanized

Director Autumn de Wilde tells us about taking on the Jane Austen novel and applying her love of A Room With A View to her debut feature.

Photographer Autumn de Wilde makes her feature directorial debut with Emma, an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel that is probably best known for being the basis of 1995’s Clueless. It might seem somewhat surprising, given that de Wilde’s background is mainly in the rock world (she’s photographed several of Beck’s album covers and is also responsible for the iconic photograph of Elliott Smith that makes up the cover of his album Figure 8, amongst many others), that Emma is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the book — though it takes inspiration and style cues from de Wilde’s particular influences.

“We did take some liberties, but they’re pretty subtle,” says de Wilde. “I don’t really believe in fear-based creation: I’m afraid this won’t translate so we must make the bonnets a little shorter, the curls a little wider, or make Emma seem more like a girl who’s popular now. That’s not how I work. I personally love time-travel and I love world-creation, so it wouldn’t be wrong to modernize it… but then again, the story’s rock solid. Jane Austen wrote a character that we recognize in daily life and situations that we all go through, but with a different set of etiquette and social rules. She really nailed human behaviour in an interesting way. But I’m a history nerd, and the opportunity to go back in time and rebuild the original colorus of that world were irresistible to me. It wasn’t so much loyalty I felt — that was part of my pitch, in fact. I didn’t want to modernize it; I wanted to humanize it. I just want to do things that remind people that they’re human.” 

Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the daughter of a rich, elderly man (Bill Nighy). Her function in life is nominally to take care of her father, but it seems he can more or less take care of himself as long as he doesn’t feel a draft coming in. That leaves Emma plenty of time to focus on her real life’s work: matchmaking. She takes a particular interest in the affairs of her friend Harriet (Mia Goth), a woman from a less fortunate background who nevertheless attracts plenty of male attention. Uninterested in marriage herself, Emma begins to meddle in the love lives of people around her, which will inevitably bring some attention onto her.

Emma Autumn de Wilde
Autumn de Wilde

I bring up something that I invariably bring up with nearly everyone who makes a period piece: that the chief flaw of any period piece is an airlessness born of too much reverence for an era that none of us have known. The worst — or dullest — period pieces are ones that feel like a museum.

“I went to drama school and I studied Shakespeare and Chekhov a lot,” de Wilde says. “I remember one teacher who specialized in Chekhov said the reason that it’s often unsuccessful with British or American actors is that Chekhov meant for it to be funny. The core personality of the Russian way of life is these quick dips of tragedy to comedy. In order for Chekhov to be successful here or in England, the actor really has to be able to go there and bring out the comedy rather than just walk around in the museum of Chekhov.

“I thought about that a lot when I was making this, and Room With a View was a big influence when I was making this movie. That movie had a profound influence on me when I was 16. I loved that Helena Bonham Carter’s character was so grumpy and dissatisfied, but she was still completely following the rules. She just found these sideways ways of showing her dissatisfaction and boredom. She was following the rules, and that was a big inspiration for me, as was the nude scene in the pond. You can see that the men were confined by their clothing and the rules, as were the women, and that this was a rare moment of freedom for them that was interrupted. I kept Room With a View in mind a lot when I was making this movie.”

If there’s any attempt to reorient the material to something more contemporary, de Wilde admits that she found inspiration in a genre that’s ultimately almost as far removed from contemporary mores as Jane Austen.

“I think that the rules of etiquette throughout history are fascinating, and there’s this assumption that everyone follows the rules the same way,” she says. “What’s really fun is to see people push the boundaries of the rules that they’ve accepted in their lives, and that to me is great comedy. I did use American screwball comedy as a style inspiration. I love Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. It’s influenced a lot of my work in photography, that style of comedy. I think that the reason why it translates really is that what makes Bringing Up Baby so funny is that everyone except Katharine Hepburn is following the rules of society and their position in that society. And that is hilarious. Seeing Cary Grant come unwound because of her behaviour is hilarious, and I felt that it translated really well to this period.

“I do think Jane Austen is really funny, and it gets funnier when you know the rules of the craft and what else was going on around that time. When you have that knowledge, you’re rewarded with more subtle humour. It was a personal decision not because it’s more right, but because I wanted to go there.

Emma is in Montreal theatres now. Watch the trailer below.

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