Francesca Gregorini’s vision should never be underestimated. The Italian writer-director is responsible for introducing the world to Rooney Mara with her directorial debut Tanner Hall, and now she’s doing the same with Kaya Scodelario, the UK darling who’s making her U.S. debut with The Truth About Emanuel. In limited release today, Gregorini’s sophomore effort follows a troubled teenage girl who becomes intrigued by her mysterious new next door neighbor (Jessica Biel). What unravels as the two grow closer is mind-boggling, and to give away any more would spoil the movie—it’s something that must be seen to be believed.
Complex got the chance to speak to the multi-talented filmmaker to discuss her muses, her latest movie, and her thoughts on the landscape for women in Hollywood.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
I saw Tanner Hall awhile ago and it was the first time that I saw Rooney Mara. And now that you have Kaya Scodelario in The Truth About Emanuel, I’m convinced you have a crazy eye for talent.
Oh thank you! Finally somebody is recognizing it.
Do you write with these people in mind or do you hope for the best during the casting process?
With Rooney, Tatiana Von Furstenberg (her Tanner Hall co-director) and I just found her through casting. We just saw tons of girls and Rooney hadn’t done anything, but she had that special something that is just unquantifiable that you are just drawn to. Then Rooney and I became close friends in the shooting of Tanner Hall, so I actually wrote Emanuel for her. It took me three years to raise the funding for it, by which point she was 26, which was verging on too old to play a 17-year-old. That’s when I stumbled upon Kaya.
I saw all the girls in that age range here in Los Angeles and even though there is tremendous talent here, none of them were right and none of them were Emanuel. I mean, Rooney is a pretty high bar. So then I got on a plane to England. On day two, I met Kaya. I knew from the moment that she walked in that she was the girl. There’s something super special about her. She has wisdom beyond her years and yet a true innocence.
Where did the idea for Emanuel come from?
Both the characters of Emanuel and Linda are pieces of myself. To me, the whole piece is dealing with loss, heartbreak, and mortality. Those are three things that I think are worthy of investigation and are prevalent in my existential thinking. The whole mother-daughter bond and abandonment are part of my childhood. I had a mother who was absent and even though we have an incredible relationship now, I think the issues you take on as a child you end up sorting out the rest of your life. That manifested itself in character of Emanuel. The character of Linda is inspired by dealing with my own adult heartbreak and issues. I wrapped them both in one movie and let them sort it out.
The beauty of art is that you get to take poetic license and make things as dramatic as you want, and that is the fantasy part. And to me, I am a filmmaker and I am not a documentarian. I like to be able to take the fantasy and stick a toe into the surreal. My films are more heightened reality, and not life as is because life as is is not terribly interesting to me. What is interesting to me is the subtext and the madness that lives within all of us, one layer below the surface. That is where the heart of the matter is as far as I am concerned so that is what I like to happen to my characters.
Jessica Biel often gets overlooked. How did she become a part of the project?
I am not too sure how she got her hands on the script. I am assuming through her agent or her manager—I never actually asked her. She read it and really loved the part. Initially, I wasn’t sure that she would be right for it because I haven’t seen her do this work before.
We met for lunch and she said that she was willing to audition and I thought that was very generous and brave. I was only a second-time filmmaker and she is a huge international star, so I was like, “OK, wow, this woman really wants this part.” She blew me away at the audition.
I think she’s going to be a true revelation to fans of hers and people that aren’t familiar with her because I think she gave a very nuanced and brave performance.
How did you break into the movie business initially and when would you say your career really took off?
Well, I am also a writer, so that kind of made things easier. You can write your own material which you can attach yourself—there is step one. Usually, if you are just a director, you have to go out there and find a script that the writer is willing to have you do and if you have never made anything ever, then that is really a high bar.
For Tanner Hall, Tatiana and I found a producer that was really interested in the material and we were a part of the package. That’s how I got my foot in the door. Honestly, even before that, I got my foot in the door as a writer because I sold a pilot to HBO. That got me into the business.
Was screenwriting and filmmaking something that you went to school for? Or a hobby you just developed?
I studied Theatre Arts and Semiotics at Brown, so I kind of went to school for it. But I was a songwriter before I was a screenwriter and, strangely, I think that my screenwriting is an extension of my songwriting. I know that sounds bizarre, but I have always been a writer and someone who needs to tell stories. Filmmaking, I found, is the best medium for me to be able to express things I know or things I am grappling with.
Are you a musician as well?
Yeah, I used to have a band. I used to play bass and I sing. Back in my youth, I definitely kicked around for a while.
No. I still have my bass but it is really just for me now. I sit down at my computer and write more than I tend to sit down with my bass—as sad as that sounds.
What is the status of your next movie, the Emma Watson-starrer Your Voice in My Head?
The status of Your Voice in My Head is that it’s at a standstill. I don’t know what is going to happen with that project but I have two other projects that I am currently working on, which I think are going to go. So Voice is not going as far as I know.
How would you characterize the landscape for female directors in Hollywood?
My experience has been good thus far—knock on wood. When I went to Sundance with Emanuel last year, it was the first year that there was an equal number of male and female directors represented. I take that as a very positive sign because it’s a sign that things are shifting. The shift is slow and small in the “real world” of Hollywood and we have a long road to traverse, but it is starting to change.
The important part for people to realize is that it is an ecosystem. We don’t just need more female directors. The truth is we actually need more female executives, more female financiers, and more female film critics because it all feeds itself. At the end of the day, if you have a film that is very female driven and the majority of critics are white middle-aged males, it is a problem. If you have a female driven film and you are looking for funding and nine out of the 10 of the financiers are guys, it is a problem. Nothing against them, but their sensibility or their interest in certain themes or topics are going to be slightly different.
So we do need more female filmmakers, but we also need more women in other positions that will help move forward the female writers and directors. There are obviously appetites for it. There are so many more films now with female leads that are box office successes, like Hunger Games and Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and there are tons of TV series that star women. We are getting there.