One of the marquee features at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is EMANUEL AND THE TRUTH ABOUT FISHES. THN were lucky enough to talk to writer/director Francesca Gregorini about her intriguing new film. Check out our review here.
THN: First of all, congratulations on the movie.
FG: Thank you, and thanks for getting up so early to see it.
THN: Let’s start at the beginning. The first thing we see is the opening titles over water and then Emanuel washing her face. The symbolism of water and flooding grows throughout the film which leads to some incredible visuals, particularly the shot where she swims out of the window. I was wondering if you had the visuals in mind first and then gave it meaning, or you had the significance of the water in mind and the visuals came after?
FG: Actually I had none of it in mind (laughs) which is, I think, part of the beauty of writing and you just go with it. To see where your subconscious takes you, and as I was writing it, the water just kind of seeped its way in (laughs). It just felt right, and I didn’t worry at the time about how I was going to manifest it in the film, because that’s part of the beauty of being a writer, you don’t have to worry about that. And then when you hire yourself to direct, you think, “Oh bloody hell, how am I going to do this?” And then you just find a way. I have an affinity with water. I love when I snorkel or scuba dive, I feel like I know that world, so it felt right to bring it in. I think for a lot of us, water symbolises the unconscious.
THN: There was a lot of talk at the beginning of the film about the mind – Emanuel’s Electra complex, for instance. Did you do a lot of research into the subconscious, dreams and fantasy?
FG: None, no research. I hate research. And I’m just a lazy bugger (laughs). I just write honestly and have to trust that I’m tapping into the source, and whatever needs to be told will be. I think writing is about letting go. I’d like to say it was more of an educated process, but that isn’t true. I’m fairly well educated, so hopefully some of that’s coming through, but I just try to stay open. I was a songwriter before I was a screenwriter and I think that helps you open up and say what you want to say and I brought that into my writing.
THN: Speaking of your earlier work, your previous film was based partially on your own experiences. It must have been exposing to put that part of yourself onscreen.
FG: I guess that’s what you do as an artist, that’s how you stay sane. You exorcise your demons and I think the more personal you get, the more universal your work becomes – the more people connect with it. You tap into the humanity of the situation. We all need love, we’re all gonna die, we all need to cope with loss, we’re all on the same ride.
THN: I think the dysfunctional family you present in your film is a universal thing that’s something many people can relate to. Alfred Molina and Frances O’Connor, who of course play the parents, can be brilliant in their sleep, whereas Jessica Biel is famous for her action roles and is not considered a character actor. I’ve never seen her as good as she is in this film. What led to you casting her?
FG: Well I was very fortunate to have the cast I got. Jessica is certainly not an obvious choice, and in fact she read the script of her own accord and came after me and the movie. She really wanted that part, and to be honest I wasn’t sure if she was right for it because, as you so rightly said, I’d never seen her do anything in this realm. But I was more than willing to meet for lunch and have a chat about it, and in that lunch she convinced me that she should audition. I was like, “Fair enough, if you wanna come in, I won’t stop you.” I still wasn’t convinced that she was right. I’d initially written the part to be a bit older than she is, so she had those two things going against her. But she blew me away in the audition and showed me a side of herself I’d never seen. What she could do was really breathtaking and I was like, “Right, I stand corrected. Here’s your part.” I think that’s one of the best aspects of the film, people really are discovering that she’s an actor’s actor, not just this beautiful woman. The British know Kaya and what she’s capable of, whereas the Americans don’t. So both of these women are discoveries in this film, to a large extent.
THN: Hopefully audiences will be more receptive to Jessica Biel now. Speaking of audiences, I must say that the reaction to the screening was rather split
FG: Oh, do tell!
THN: Well, to be diplomatic, the people who didn’t like it were overwhelmingly male and those who did enjoy were practically all women. I don’t know what that says about the film. Maybe they had trouble relating to the theme of maternal love and loss.
FG: Well I think this is an issue. First of all it’s only about four percent of filmmakers who are female, and there are so few movies with a female lead that are female driven films. And a lot of times, the less evolved of the male gender –
THN: – of which there are many, unfortunately…
FG: (Laughs) Yes, unfortunately, they sort of take offence to films about women such as this. The male characters are essentially supporting, whereas ninety five percent of films are the complete reverse, it’s the man’s journey, the boy’s journey, whereas the women are supporting. The wives, the mothers and so on, but it’s not their story, and as a filmmaker it’s my intention to make films where the females are the central characters. And if the men don’t like it, that’s too bloody bad. We’re fifty percent of the population and it’s wildly important that young girls and women go to the cinema and see themselves, see their journeys reflected back to them. When I went to the cinema, that really wasn’t an option and I found myself having to relate to the male characters because they were the only ones that would do anything, and I was a doer. So for critics to dismiss a film because it has female central characters is a problem, because that affects people going to see the film and the box office, which in turn affects your next movie and it’s a chain reaction. We’re all part of an eco-system and we have to be quite mindful of how we conduct our business.
THN: That’s very refreshing to hear. Are you familiar with the Bechdel test?
FG: No, I’m not.
(THN explains the Bechdel test…)
FG: Oh, so I’ve passed this test?
THN: Smashed it.
FG: What’s her name?
THN: Alison Bechdel. She’s a great feminist writer.
FG: I’ll have to go get a cup of tea with her. I think the male characters in my film are well depicted, it’s not like I throw the boys under a bus. They’re very nice, the film isn’t about them, hopefully you’ll tolerate that.
THN: I think we’ll survive, as a gender. There’s a lot of ways the film could be read, for instance some viewers will agree with Emanuel’s stepmother in seeing a sexual frisson between Emanuel and Linda, whereas others will interpret that as merely maternal. Did you have a specific intention?
FG: Well to me, the interplay between those two women has a sexual component, an undercurrent if you will. When you genuinely like someone and you’re a human being, sexuality will play a part in that. There is a sexual element to people liking each other – that doesn’t mean you’re going to act on it or have sex with that person. It just means that I connect to you so much that there is a sexual energy between us and I think that’s fine. That’s part of the layering in the film and possibly some people may be uncomfortable with that and not know where to out it. But that happens in life all the time, and that’s part of the journey.
THN: What are your plans for your next feature?
FG: I’d like to be hired as a director for my next film. I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing my own films, but I really want to get on set more often, so I’m very open to getting hired to direct someone else’s film because I think it’d be an interesting experience for me.
THN: Specifically something you haven’t written?
FG: Yeah, because the last few films I’ve written, produced and directed, and it’s a fuck of a lot of responsibility and takes a lot of time. So I’d like to kick back for a while and just direct, see how that goes.
THN: I’m sure it’ll go very well. Francesca, thank you so much.
FG: Thank you.