When Autumn de Wilde was asked to make a pitch for a new film adaptation of Jane Austen's "Emma," she "kind of flipped out."
De Wilde gathered silk ribbons, postcards, newsprint and 19th-century fashion illustrations to bring to the pitch meeting, laying all the material on a table.
"I think by spreading it out, you could get this sort of side view of the film, because it was in all the chaos of the cards. You can see the colors of the film emerge," de Wilde told the American-Statesman on the phone in February.
"Emma" follows Emma Woodhouse, portrayed by the wide-eyed Anya Taylor-Joy, as she plays matchmaker in the early 1800s in the English village of Highbury. Emma, who is rich, young and beautiful, traverses first loves and missteps.
De Wilde’s film is the latest in a line of screen adaptations of Austen’s 1815 novel, including a 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle and "Clueless" (yes, that "Clueless"). "Emma" — de Wilde’s feature directorial debut, though she’s well-known as a photographer — opened in select Austin theaters last weekend and expands to more theaters this week.
This "Emma" is delectable. De Wilde infused her take with inspiration from screwball comedies like "Bringing Up Baby." Viewers peer into a tightly wound imagining of Highbury. Every scene disarms the audience with Seussian hairdos and bright colors straight out of an Easter basket; chatty townspeople fling dialogue back and forth.
When de Wilde learned she had booked the movie, she flew to New York the same day to ask Taylor-Joy to be her Emma Woodhouse.
De Wilde said of learning she had won the directing job, "I think when you’re a kid, you imagine something like that, you’re jumping up and down screaming, but I think it was just like this long silence. And then, I kind of had to spring into action."
Taylor-Joy, known for roles in indie films like "The Witch" and "Thoroughbreds," agreed to the part during a lunch that was supposed to last one hour but turned into five, de Wilde said.
In Taylor-Joy’s hands, Emma is precise and polite but given to causing offense. She’s sometimes her own worst enemy. Peeking into de Wilde’s "Emma" world might make you feel like you’re back in middle or high school, experiencing first loves, embarrassments and mistakes all over again. It’s nice to remember how warm a brand new friend who just gets you feels, or how divine it can be when a romantic love appears, causing butterflies and a lump in your throat.
We talked with de Wilde about first loves, directing and more. Here are a few highlights from our conversation, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
American-Statesman: What do you hope people take away from your "Emma"?
I think that this book is so legendary that it could be interpreted and reinterpreted so many different ways. ... I think, honestly, that the world is pretty rough right now, you know? It’s pretty dark out there. We’re seeing it really clearly, and I think it’s healthy to have a couple of hours off to do a little time travel and escape. Because whether we’re at war or not, people still have crushes, and they still disappoint their best friend.
I hope that people feel that they get a sort of delicious escape into Emma’s fantasy world and feel some connection to her and that town of Highbury.
Whether things were funny or serious in the movie, the physical movements the actors made were methodical and small. What was behind that directing choice?
I studied ballet for 14 years when I was younger, and that's probably why I love old movies so much. A lot of old movies feel kind of like a musical, but no one sings. There’s a stylized type of talking and moving. I really wanted to approach (the movie) this way, and the actors were really game.
I did choreograph every scene almost like a ballet, and then the actors would sort of bring that choreography to life and sometimes move against it. What’s cool is if you start with a structure and a character needs to rebel against that clockwork movement, it was significant because everyone was sort of moving in circles. I told everyone that this movie was like Emma’s cuckoo clock, with all these mechanisms — and dancing, like a music box with a ballerina in the middle. I said, ‘’Everything physically needs to work effortlessly and gracefully and slowly." ... It made it funnier when someone was awkward.
I really loved the love story, of sorts, between Emma and her friend, Harriet (played by Mia Goth).
That was really important to me, and that was part of my pitch. I felt like what I see in that friendship is ... that (your) first best friend — especially, it feels like, between two girls — is a passionate love. Especially the friendships that happen before anyone has their first kiss. I think it’s a deep love that happens early in your years, and possibly too early for you to realize the fragility of it and the power of that kind of friendship, and how important it is and how much of it relies on trust.
There’s recently been a lot of talk about women directors, especially after none were nominated at the Oscars this year. Is that something you think about? Do you have any ideas, from your position, about how that problem can be fixed?
I don’t think it’s healthy to think of myself in another category, like another breed. I definitely came up against a lot of walls in my career as a photographer, and especially in rock 'n’ roll (photography) I was a bit outnumbered.
Every challenge that I had, I just decided to take that challenge to be better. ... I just wanted there to be no excuse why I shouldn’t have the job. Which you shouldn’t have to do, but what’s wrong with getting better and better at what you do?
As a photographer, I think that a big problem is that women aren’t being documented at work in a fascinating, cinematic way.
Studios should be investing in the fantasy documentary of that pertinent work, because that’s unfortunately also how when you vote for a politician, you tend to vote for the person you could imagine at work. And women have to deal with people going, "Well, can she do it on her period?" I think it’s really good to see people, like women, also looking tired and overwhelmed in that exciting, passionate way.