Director Frances O’Connor talks about bringing Emily Brontë to the big screen

With her feature debut Emily, Frances O’Connor tries to capture the genius behind Wuthering Heights.

Compared with films about other art forms, films about writers can be tricky. Films about dancers show them dancing and films about musicians show them playing. But films about writers rarely contain more than a scene or two of them writing. Perhaps filmmakers haven’t found a way to show writing without recreating a version of the laughably unrealistic “writing montage,” whereby a wastebasket slowly fills up with crumpled paper until genius strikes and the writer types furiously until a thick manuscript is dropped on some publisher’s desk. Writing is an extension of thinking, which is difficult to render cinematic. Instead, filmmakers tend to focus on the lives and inner worlds of writers. 

With Emily, Frances O’Connor does so beautifully. O’Connor’s vivid rendering of Brontë’s life is suffused with passion, heartbreak and traces of surreality. Emma Mackey’s Emily is shy and hot-blooded, but Mackay never devolves into sulkiness or empty melodrama. She plays Emily Brontë with the thoughtful fierceness of her character in Sex Education. Although a period piece set in the wild and windy Yorkshire moors of the 19th century, the film bears a contemporary sensibility — too much, I suspect, for some Brontë fans. As O’Connor admits in the interview, historians will likely be offended by the intentional inaccuracies. And yet, O’Connor is faithful to the feeling and to Emily’s genius. So maybe If you want more facts, read a book instead. 

We spoke about her directorial début the day after the film’s World Premiere at TIFF.

Sarah Foulkes: What inspired you to specifically write about Emily Brontë?

Frances O’Connor: I’ve always really loved who she is and what she represents. She was kind of an introvert, but she was very much her own person and she really didn’t care what people thought. She was just herself and I think that’s quite inspiring. I’ve also just loved Wuthering Heights since I can remember. When you read her work, you can feel who she is behind the words, which is quite tantalizing. And I thought there was a story in there that I feel like would help express what I want to say about my experience growing up, and how maybe I felt like, “Oh, I don’t fit in, but I’ve got this creativity in me.” 

SF: And you wrote the script on spec?

Frances O’Connor: Completely on spec. I think you have to as a first-timer. No one’s gonna pay for you to write something until they can see if you can do it or not. 

SF: You’ve spoken in interviews about how this film is more historical fiction than biopic. How do you work within the framework and the freedom of historical fiction? 

Frances O’Connor: I did all my research and I wanted as much as possible to look real, feel real and be true to who the real people were in terms of dynamic and personality, but then to have the freedom to be inspired by the themes that were in Wuthering Heights. And I think that’s probably from the research I’ve done on how Emily wrote Wuthering Heights. She was playing Beethoven at the time. I feel like when you read her book, you kind of feel that. So just to be inspired by different elements that are not linear to create. I thought that it could be an interesting combination to be strongly accurate in terms of chronology, but then let my imagination play. I’m sure this film’s gonna offend historians, for sure. But I’m kind of okay with that. If the film reaches people who have a kind of heartfelt reaction to it, then I feel like, oh, I did a good job. You know, because I’m saying something about Emily Brontë, that will get communicated to them and will move them, hopefully. 

SF: And also if it inspires young people to read the Brontës.

Frances O’Connor: If I get some millennials to read Wuthering Heights, that would be amazing. Because it’s such a beautiful piece of work. 

SF: Yeah, that’s what always frustrates me about this dodged devotion to factual accuracy. There’s no art in facts.

Frances O’Connor: Totally. Like I’ve watched some things on the Brontës and it’s so respectful that it’s boring. You feel like you’re watching it behind glass and it might be 100% accurate, but it’s still not revealing. It’s not being pushed by a theme or something that you really wanna say. It’s just showing their life, you know? And I can read a book to do that. 

SF: Exactly. You can convey so much more facts in a book than you can in a film. Might as well just do what film can do instead of doing what books can do.

Frances O’Connor: I agree. Because cinema is emotional and it affects us and it’s one of the most powerful mediums that we have to tell a story in a way that’s emotional. So you wanna get in there. 

SF: And in terms of the Brontë Industrial Complex, did you try to read and watch everything you possibly could or did you read a little bit and then, as you say, fill in the dots yourself? 

Frances O’Connor: There are some really great books, and actually, while I was writing it, some other books came out. So I kind of kept dipping in. Juliet Barker has written one of the best books on the Brontës and her perspective on who they are is very common sense and not dramatic. So that’s a great reference. And then Lucasta Miller wrote this amazing one called The Brontë Myth and it’s about perspective on the Brontës. And that was also really helpful. So I read a lot of things. The mask was a little fact I came upon and then I kind of parked that. And then as I was evolving the rest of the story, I thought that could be a great kind of metaphor for how we feel about Emily. Because we do feel she’s kind of behind a mask and we don’t really know who she is, but also a great kind of symbol for the mother that they lost and creativity and wild female power. So that’s an example of something I found historically that then helped the theme of the piece. 

SF: And what was the most surprising thing that you learned in all your research? 

Frances O’Connor: I think that Charlotte burnt all of Emily’s poetry. I was kind of shocked at that, but at the same time, I understand it because Emily got a lot of flack for writing Wuthering Heights. It was seen as a very controversial novel. And I think Charlotte was very cognizant of protecting everybody and projecting an image of the family as normal and respectable. But the cat was out of the bag. She’d written Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre was a beloved novel, but it was still slightly controversial. So I understand why she did it, but it was pretty extreme. I mean, there’s a rumour that Emily was writing a second novel. 

Emma Mackey stars as Emily Brontë in Emily

SF: That’s true. And in terms of the love plot, were you trying to echo Wuthering Heights

Frances O’Connor: When I did my chronology, there was a period of time when Emily had kind of screwed up at the school and was just at home and everyone else was off working and it was just Branwell, Weightman and Emily kicking around the parsonage. So I was like, well, what happened? I don’t think she had an affair. But I think Weightman is actually a great prototype for Edgar and Branwell is a great prototype for Heathcliff. And I thought maybe she watched them interact and maybe a story formed in her mind about those characters as well. Then thematically it’s just very helpful in terms of what Weightman represents. He represents religion, dogma, but he does have a poet inside him. He does have an artistic side that he’s afraid of. And then I think the thing that’s in Emily, her wild artistic self, has a great magnetism for him. He’s afraid of it and that’s what eventually undoes the relationship. So yeah, it kind of happened organically, and I thought, “Now this is gonna be controversial if I go down this path, do I really want to do that?” And I thought that because of how it reflected really well into the themes of Wuthering Heights. I thought it will be cohesive. If I just kind of plunked it on and it wasn’t connected, I think people would go, “I’m not going with you on that journey,” but I feel like people are going on that journey. 

SF: Do you think a love plot is a necessity for making films like this? Do you feel like this film could have been made if it hadn’t had that love plot? 

Frances O’Connor: I did think seriously about not having it there and then what would the story be. But because I was also using Wuthering Heights, I felt like it kind of had to happen. It just felt too perfect for the themes that I was kind of working with. But there is another film in there definitely, which is more about Emily wandering on the moors with her dog and a little kind of hawk that she had. A quieter, more of an art house film. I think that maybe that wouldn’t reach as many people. There is something about being a young person, apart from fulfilling yourself, is that you’re trying to find someone to love. It’s very much on your mind as a young person. And I don’t think it’s anti-feminist to have a love story in a piece like this. That’s the thing about any path that you go down in terms of narrative structure and you close yourself off to something else that always has some weight to it because you never went down that path. So I’ll never know unless I write another story about the Brontës. 

And I thought it was important for her to write the novel and the writing of it and the emotionality of that. When life doesn’t work out, at least you can still write, you can correct anything. You can resolve things through the pen. And I think there’s something really beautiful in that. And then just her seeing her name on the book. That’s the other thing. She published as Ellis Bell, but it would be quite late in the story to bring it up. So I decided that it’s nice that she doesn’t have to do that in the film. Like she could just publish under her name and she could see her name and think, “I did it.”

SF: One question that I had was about the performances. I really appreciated that you don’t keep the actors at arm’s length from us. The performances are very naturalistic and not playing into some idea of stuffy Britishness. Was that decision informed by your own work as an actor in period pieces? 

Frances O’Connor: Yeah. I think a lot of the time, when you’re doing a period film, it’s like you’re acting within a picture frame. And I’m like, what is this? These are not real people. I really wanted to talk about Emily Brontë. I wanted to create a world that felt very real for everybody and very immersive, where you feel like you’re really there and that the acting’s very real and very natural. so that people can kind of fall in love with the characters, like they’re watching real people.

SF: I was so glad to see these lived-in performances. I guess I just don’t even understand what the motivation is when I see that. 

Frances O’Connor: I don’t know how it happens on a set either. Like, when do people start acting like that? I mean, I think it comes from being insecure and feeling like I’m gonna do it perfectly or something. But people were normal then. People were just people. It was just the same. So I think it’s important that you just have to keep it real. Especially for this story, because Yorkshire people are very earthy and grounded. And all the traditional crane shots with carriages — I didn’t want any of that. Handheld. Follow the characters and let’s see what happens was our modus operandi.

SF: A bit like Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, which is very much not a BBC film. 

Frances O’Connor: She shot that in academy ratio, right? And as soon as you start doing that, you’re saying “this is not a commercial film.” But we kind of did the same thing by having like a 2.39 aspect ratio and an anamorphic lenses. So you get this thing where you feel like it’s kind of epic, but then the anamorphic makes it super personal and intimate. And then with the handheld on top of that, it just creates something that feels a lot more real than a traditional period drama. ■

Emily (directed by Frances O’Connor)

Emily opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 3.

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