After co-directing the 2009 indie hit Tanner Hall with Tatiana von Furstenberg, writer and director Francesca Gregorini makes her solo directorial debut with her new film The Truth About Emanuel, which stars Jessica Biel (The A-Team, Total Recall) and opens in theaters on January 10th.
While this is only her second film, Gregorini is no stranger to Hollywood being the daughter of former Bond girl Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me) and the stepdaughter of musical legend Ringo Starr (The Beatles). Her latest film, The Truth About Emanuel, follows the title character (Kaya Scodelario); a troubled young girl who becomes obsessed with her mysterious new neighbor (Biel), a woman that bears a striking resemblance to her dead mother. In addition to Biel and Scodelario, the film also stars Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2), Frances O’Connor (A.I. Artificial Intelligence), Aneurin Barnard (Hunky Dory), and Jimmi Simpson (Breakout Kings)
I recently had a chance to speak with writer and director Francesca Gregorini about The Truth About Emanuel. The talented filmmaker discussed her new movie, developing the screenplay, its genre, the title change, casting the film’s baby, directing her first film without Tatiana von Furstenberg, what she learned from making Tanner Hall, Jessica Biel’s impressive performance, and working with the hilarious Jimmi Simpson.
Here is what Francesca Gregorini had to say about The Truth About Emanuel:
IAR: To begin with, can you talk about coming up with the idea for The Truth About Emanuel and writing the screenplay?
Francesca Gregorini: The impetus for writing Emanuel was Rooney Mara because coming off of Tanner Hall we became close friends and I wanted to write her next project. So that’s kind of how that started. It was based on the character of this girl who had this longing and this missing piece in her life. The lengths she would go to creating this bond and the secrets that she was willing to carry. I thought that was an interesting and fascinating concept. So that was the impetus to that and then the wild and crazy stuff that came out was just really based on some of my own childhood abandonment and madness. Emanuel’s madness is based on some of my adult grappling with my sorrows and madness. Strangely those two aspects of my life ended up in these two characters that end up relating to each other. It’s kind of a very expensive therapy in a way.
IAR: Rooney Mara was originally going to play Emanuel. Why did that not work out?
Gregorini: Yes, she was! I had written it for her and she was going do it. However it took me about three years to raise the funding for it by which point she was really not the right age to play a seventeen year old. I really wanted Emanuel to be a young woman. So often in Hollywood someone’s 40 and they’re playing 20. But we both felt in our hearts, that it really needed to be a young actress. Kaya (Scodelario) was 19, and that’s right. To be 19 and play 17 feels right. To be 26 going on 27 playing 17 doesn’t feel right. It was challenging to find Kaya. I had to fly to London to find her, but it was definitely well worth it. I loved working with her and it was fun to discover someone new because Rooney was an awesome discovery and Kaya was an awesome discovery too.
IAR: To describe The Truth About Emanuel, as a thriller, or a horror film, or even a drama, doesn’t really do the film justice. What genre would you categorize the movie in if it has one?
Gregorini: That is one of the challenging things. If you think of your life, what genre is your life? If you had to force a genre on it, I would say it’s probably a psychological drama with some thriller aspects and some dark humor. It has a bit of surrealism in it, it has a bit of absurdity, but that’s what I tend to like. I tend to like things you can’t put into a box like a full bouquet because I think life is like that. If you’re going to challenge audiences with material that deals with heavy themes of madness, loss and mortality then I think you best have some different aspects in it. You best go to some different places because that resonates better between laughs.
IAR: The film was originally titled Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes. Can you discuss the decision to change the title?
Gregorini: Really that was just my distributor dealing with the title being too long. It’s as simple as that. We negotiated it down so it kept its essence. It still has Emanuel in the title and the word “truth,” which was important to me.
IAR: Can you talk about Emanuel’s journey in the film and why she decides to protect Linda’s secret?
Gregorini: I think that happens a lot in life. I think children carry adult’s secrets knowingly and unknowingly. I mean I know that I did for my parents growing up and I know I’m not the only one. I think that concept of not shattering someone, or someone’s delusion of themselves, or delusion of their reality was interesting to me and interesting enough to explore in film.
IAR: Without giving away too much about the film, can you discuss developing the look of Linda’s baby and getting that just right? Was that a difficult challenge?
Gregorini: That was a very difficult challenge and that question is very hard to answer without giving too much away. Casting Chloe was as long and arduous a task as casting any of the other actors. It was difficult, and it was expensive
You co-directed Tanner Hall with Tatiana von Furstenberg but Emanuel marks your solo directorial debut. How was the experience of making this film different for you than working on your first movie
Gregorini: I think it had its pros and its cons. For both of us going into Tanner Hall that was our first film so it was so wonderful to have your best friend with you like a comrade in arms. When everything was going wrong you had someone to look at or someone to lean on. We could divide and conquer when the wheels were coming off the bus. It’s like, “I’ll take the front right wheel, you take the back left and we’re going to keep this thing moving forward.” I miss that, but it was also important for me coming of age to take this on my own and stand on my own two feet. Also to develop my own filmic language that wasn’t in collusion and in tandem with hers. I think Tanner Hall is a perfect example of a movie that was good for both of us to do together because it worked like that. It is what it is because of our shared vision of that world. This film felt more personal to me and perhaps darker in some ways and it just felt like the right thing to do on my own. I’m definitely not excluding working with Tatiana again in the future. I think she’s getting ready actually to do her first solo directorial venture and that’s super exciting to me.
As a director, what did you learn from your first experience working on Tanner Hall that you were able to apply to Emanuel and what new challenges came up directing your second film that really surprised you?
Gregorini: There’s a sequence in Tanner Hall when Georgia King is walking with a tray and you see these girls dancing in the cafeteria. It only happened for a moment, and it’s not explained. It was just kind of surreal. I really enjoy that in cinema. I like to have a tale that holds together and has a narrative, but I also like to take liberties. I like to go into the subconscious and go into a more playful aspect. I feel like I got to do more of that in Emanuel and I really enjoyed the fantastical and the magical. I think I took a step further with Emanuel in that. Tanner Hall was a great training ground but the difference was walking off the set of Emanuel I finally felt like I’m a director and I should do this. Walking off Tanner Hall I still had questions. I was not 100% sure I had a right to do this. It is such a privilege to do this and everyone gives so much of their time and effort.
IAR: Ever since I saw Jessica Biel in Ullee’s Gold with Peter Fonda, which was one of her first films, I’ve though that she was a great actress. But I also think that she is often underrated because of her beauty and her off screen persona. What was it like for you to direct her on this project?
Gregorini: I think she’s going to be a revelation to audiences as she was to me. She read the script and loved it and wanted to meet for lunch. I honestly wasn’t sure she was the right person. But when I heard her talking about it and she was willing to audition, I was more open. She really blew me away. Who knew! It was exciting for me to see and it’ll be exciting for audiences. She had a lot of depth and nuance in her performance. She knocked it out of the park and wowed me. It is a challenging part because it can be overdone and I really appreciated her subtlety and her finesse.
IAR: Finally, I’m a big fan of Jimmi Simpson and have been since he first appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman many years ago as “Lyle the Intern.” He’s a very naturally funny guy. Can you talk about working with him and did you ever have to reign in his comedic instincts during the film’s more dramatic moments?
Gregorini: No, he was great. He just got it. There were certain roles where I could have gone with this actor or another, but with Jimmi’s audition it was a no brainer. The part was his for sure. He’s a super smart guy and he was great, he had the right touch. This film needs humor and he provided the right kind of humor that was not over the top. It was in tone and in tune with what was going on and yet funny. He was naturally funny and not in a ha-ha way, but just in an off-kilter way. Because the film is off kilter in many ways he just fit right in, and he was a lovely guy to work with.