Emma, directed by Autumn De Wilde, is one of several films being released early today on video-on-demand. In this first-person piece for the latest issue of MovieMaker Magazine, Autumn De Wilde discusses the wide range of influences and life experiences that inform her stunning Jane Austen adaptation.
I’ve often been asked about how being a photographer helped me become a moviemaker. The answer is that my long road to directing my first feature, Emma — based on the Jane Austen novel and written by Eleanor Catton—has been paved with many seemingly random influences and career pursuits.
I studied ballet for 14 years. I went to drama school. I grew up in a home of artists. I was in a band. I photographed records being made. I documented bands on tour. I shot magazine and album covers. I documented 13 years of the career of fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy from Rodarte. I directed music videos and commercials, published four photography books (Elliott Smith, Death Cab For Cutie, Beck, and The White Stripes). And I raised my daughter, Arrow. Every one of those experiences and detours created my style, my bag of tricks, my work ethic, and my obsession with humans and how very strange we all are.
My father is a photographer and he taught me how to see light, remember it, and tell stories with it. When you attach light from your memories to a story, you have one more character at your disposal in a photograph or a scene. I grew up spending a lot of time in the darkroom with my father, watching him edit photos and print in the black-and-white darkroom he’d built in our shed.
This taught me many things, but especially composition and about controlling the center of interest. It also taught me the valuable lesson of not falling in love with the potential of a photograph. This applies directly to moviemaking. As a director, you have to forget about the glory of all your plans at a certain point and really be able to judge if you, the camera, and the actors actually achieved it right there on the screen. My father often quoted the photographer
Ansel Adams: “There is nothing worse than a sharp picture of a fuzzy concept.”
A photograph is silent and often only affords you one image with which to tell your whole story. Color, locations, and light are actors in that story, with the last puzzle piece being your subject. I used my experience in these areas to build the world of Emma with my team so that we could create a visual palate for the actors to perfectly fit into.
Cut out shortcuts
I speak the same language as the camera department, so my cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and I had a shorthand when we started painting with light. His camera was an “actor” and we established rules for its behavior.
It’s one thing to love color and another thing to clearly communicate the color plan to all departments. I brought Blauvelt’s team, production designer Kave Quinn, and costume designer Alexandre Byrne together often to make sure we were all speaking the same language.
Because I do this in all my work, my teams naturally develop a healthier creative environment for the entire crew. Your work doesn’t have to be miserable and competitive in order to be successful. There is no excuse for abusing and betraying the trust of actors or crew. That kind of abuse is a shortcut, and if you can’t get there any other way, then you simply are not creative or talented enough. (I also think abuse from a director exposes his or her tragic insecurities.)
Getting in touch with your characters
In a photograph, we have the time to study all the clues that tell you how that person is feeling. Laying out these clues is one of my favorite parts of being a photographer. But during the making of Emma, the actors and I had to always discuss the story that was being told in words, in addition to the story that was being told without them.
We created rules for public behavior and rules for private behavior for each character. For example, since the characters were rarely allowed to touch one another (because of the etiquette rules of the regency period) the moments in the film in which they do touch are very significant. Whenever Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy), Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), or Harriet (Mia Goth) touch each other in the film, it seems electric to me. I believe this is because of the restraint we practiced, as well as the focus that the camera puts on these moments. Some moments are tiny clues to the larger story and some moments are the singular focus of the camera.
The eyes have it
Looking back, I think I’ve always tried to make my photographs feel like scenes from movies.
With most of the musicians I shot, I suggested that they choose a character from a movie that they really connect to, for whatever reason, and then pretend to be that person when they felt self-conscious.
That often worked well, because basically, playing pretend is fun. Playing pretend is infectious and it can be a great relief from the limitations you dictate to yourself about who you think you are. It has helped my subjects think more about story, and less about vanity. Everyone wants to look beautiful and that’s OK… but since we are human animals, I feel that we’re less attracted to ourselves or others in a photograph who are only thinking about what they look like. Vanity—whether it stems from arrogance or self-loathing—is a sort of lie in the eyes.
Confidence and fragility are both deeply attractive and engaging, even though they are seemingly on the opposite ends of the spectrum (Perhaps that’s because we can feel voyeuristic toward others’ experiences.) The simplest version of the advice I have given my subjects is this: Make sure that whatever you are looking at, you are actually looking at it. Whether it’s the wall, out the window, the ceiling, the floor, or the camera, see it. That honesty in the eyes goes a very long way.
One of the reasons my director-to-actor relationships have flourished is because I spent my many years as a photographer building trust with my subjects, finding new routes and bridges through the empires of their visual images. I have found great glory in tapping into their creative language, instead of forcing my process on them. Emma is certainly a dream come true. I would never change the time- line or the road I have traveled to get here.
Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde, is now available on demand.