With a lush new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma hitting theatres, we spoke to the movie’s director Autumn de Wilde about making her first feature film.
“A heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Jane Austen’s divisive protagonist Emma Woodhouse (handsome, clever and rich) graces the big screen once again in a new adaptation directed by Autumn de Wilde.
Talking on the phone from New York, where she has just attended a screening of the film with US Vogue, Autumn’s passion for the project (her feature film debut) is palpable. “I couldn’t have picked a better first film,” she gushes. “I hate saying this because it’s so corny, but it really was like a dream come true.”
It all began with a phone call from British production company Working Title Films; they were adapting Jane Austen’s book, originally published in 1815. Eleanor Catton, the New Zealand author of Booker prize-winning book The Luminaries, had written the first draft of the script, and they were looking for the right director. To her shock, they asked Autumn if she would put in a pitch to direct the film. “I almost dropped the phone when I heard that they wanted to have a conversation with me about it.”
The answer was yes, and she spent a month with the script putting together her proposition. “I just went deep and dark into my research,” she reveals. The result was a-typical; a non-digital pitch. She supplied a box full of cards depicting her various inspirations – fashion illustrations from the periodical Ackermann’s Repository, paintings, lighting, and scenes from A Room With A View, the 1985 James Ivory film based on the book by E. M. Forster.
Once she secured her role as director, Autumn worked closely with Eleanor to develop the script further – a process she describes as a magical couple of weeks. “[Eleanor] has a very generous intelligence; I feel very lucky that she was so excited and respectful of my contributions.”
Together they wove in their own stories to humanise and contextualise the story. “I put in a lot of my personal experiences with female friendships and love – you know, the love for all the men I’ve loved in my life and, and the heartbreak.”
With a witty protagonist, nimble dialogue and visual gags, Emma is an unexpectedly funny film. “What I love about Eleanor is that she’s so brilliant and she’s very academic, but she also loves a good dumb joke.” Autumn pitched her adaptation as something of a screwball comedy, reminiscent of films like His Girl Friday and Bringing up Baby, as a way to physicalize the comedy she discovered in Austen’s writing.
“I personally didn’t understand until I started doing my research how funny Jane Austen was,” she admits. “A lot of my ideas were physical and without words – there’s a lot of silent moments in the movie – and [Eleanor] wrote them in, which was really helpful to map out really what our production needed to be. She was a great partner that way.”
Autumn is refreshingly candid about the turbulence of the filmmaking process, an experience she describes as addictive. “You know, when you’re making a film, it’s always a crisis; it just feels like the film is gonna kill you,” Autumn explains passionately while shutting a car door. “A big part of making a film is the mindset you have to put yourself through keep going; you have to keep rebuilding your pride and your soul.”
“It’s a humiliating experience, which I love,” she reveals. “I love doing things that sort of break me down and I have to build myself back up.”
“I think that a mistake that people make in art is trying to prove that they’re infallible or that they’re the most powerful or the most intelligent.”
She likens directing to the power, fear, and insecurity of raising children. “It’s so much like being a parent,” exclaims Autumn, whose own daughter is now 20. “You’re protecting and guiding and then you’re just like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t fucking know!’ You have to have a healthy balance of intimidation and tenderness.”
For Autumn, Emma comes after a lengthy career spanning photography, music videos, and commercial work, and is a long-awaited opportunity. “I felt like, ‘Oh God, I’m 50 and finally getting to make a film.’ ”
A self-taught photographer, Autumn was born in Woodstock. She studied ballet for 14 years before going to drama school. She learnt her craft from her father, rock photographer Jerry de Wilde. During the late ’90s and early 2000s she occupied a position in the cultural zeitgeist, capturing iconic musicians like The White Stripes, Fiona Apple, and the late great Elliott Smith.
On the fashion front, Autumn has worked with Rodarte for a decade – you’ll recognise her picturesque campaign imagery for the brand – as well as creating work for Prada, shooting for magazines that include Vanity Fair, Nylon and Elle.
Her whole career was, in many ways, building up to this moment. “Every day I was grateful for this sort of random set of experiences I’ve had that made making the film make sense to me.”
Collaborating with musicians for years was, Autumn believes, vital in allowing her to both adapt Austen’s novel and draw the most from the cast of Emma. “I had to come in with ideas and give them confidence that I could lead the way, but also really respect what was pre-existing – what they had made, what they had built without me.”
Not only did she direct Emma, but Autumn was behind the camera for the film’s evocative promotional imagery, as well as a recent US Vogue editorial featuring the film’s stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn.
The subject of the film’s title, Emma Woodhouse is played by Anya Taylor-Joy – an incredibly talented young actor whose breakout role was in The Witch, one of the best horror films in recent years.
Unlike previous incarnations, Anya’s Emma, though captivating and intriguing, is more openly calculating (and even a little caustic) than the performances given by her predecessors Gwyneth Paltrow, Alicia Silverstone, Romola Garai and Kate Beckinsale. Earlier adaptations seemed intent on making Austen’s protagonist more palatable and appealing, a fate regularly bestowed on female protagonists.
This incarnation feels truer to the author’s vision of a heroine that is hard to like, which was important to Autumn. “What I wanted to do was to confuse the audience about whether or not it was okay to love her.”
Her personality is one that Autumn believes many viewers will find familiar. “I think all of us have had a friend like Emma, that you really believe has the best intentions at heart, but they’re also just those assholes, and you’re just like, ‘Fuck, I know you can be better than this.’”
Emma Woodhouse is the centre of her own world and – in her mind anyway – the worlds of those around her, and Autumn thinks it’s important to view her as an unreliable narrator. “One of the things that has misled a lot of people is that the book goes both inside Emma’s head and outside Emma’s head, and we take Emma’s word about people as true.”
A perfect example of this is the film’s portrayal of Jane Fairfax (below), played by Amber Anderson, who is presented as pretty and talented and relatively charming – an active decision by Autumn to question Emma’s internal narrative. “[Emma] says Jane is boring, and I think Jane is often cast and played boring. But I talked to Amber Anderson and I said ‘Emma thinks you’re boring but you’re not!’ ”
These social games are heightened in Autumn’s film, and she embraced the high school-esque politics of the narrative – something that’s also embraced in the Clueless adaptation. “I really wanted to sort of make a Regency high school movie,” Autumn reveals. “I’m obsessed with the disastrous side of teenagers and people in their early twenties.”
Emma’s relationship with Harriet Smith, a parlour boarder in the nearby town (played by Mia Goth, seen below) begins superficially, and Autumn was intent that their story arc be key to Emma’s character growth. “Harriet needed to be disposable to Emma in the beginning,” she explains. “It’s very much like the popular girl in school choosing the underdog – a girl who might do well with a make-over, who might make her look hotter because she’s pretty enough. I think that’s a very familiar kind of girl dynamic, that many people have either been or suffered [through].”
Through the course of the film, we see their relationship develop and evolve, with Emma sabotaging Harriet’s proposal and dabbling in some disastrous attempts at matchmaking, before realising she truly cares about her. “Much to Emma’s dismay, Harriet becomes someone that she can’t live without,” says Autumn. “And that is part of the transformation of her becoming a better human.”
She elaborates further about why their relationship is so intriguing. “Harriet has this very innocent trust of Emma and that’s what’s so horrible for us to witness,” she reveals. “Emma is a loving person and it’s really only someone like that could hurt you so badly.”
The picnic scene, in particular, is hard to watch and will be painfully familiar for anyone who, seeking to elicit laughter, ended up with their foot in their mouth – or was on the other end of social one-upmanship. “Emma didn’t mean to be cruel,” Autumn laments. “But by choosing to be funny she’s being horrible. I think that that was how you build sympathy for Emma – through her hubris, and through her youthful errors.”
Emma possesses a jarring combination of naïveté and maturity that, for Autumn, reflects her educated yet cloistered upbringing. “She probably has the emotional maturity in friendship of a 12-year-old, but she has the remarkable intelligence of a 35-year-old; she’s mature beyond her years but inexperienced with friendship and love.”
In many ways, Emma Woodhouse is a socio-economic fantasy. “Jane Austen wrote a character that had power that she did not have,” Autumn explains. “Emma has the power that none of [Austen’s] other characters have because she has a father that doesn’t want to marry her off, she has some money to stay unmarried and she’s in charge of the household and her daily life.”
Emma’s home is the grand house of Hartfield, resplendently decorated, and the perfect setting for Emma to live out her perfect life. The film is a visual feast, with every shot more indulgent to the eye than the last – evocative of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, or Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick.
Unlike many visually anaemic period films, Autumn’s Emma is a sumptuously colourful affair – a veritable candy box of hues that extend beyond just the costumes, with the walls of Hartfield and other locations painted an array of bright, evocative colours. Autumn explains that this was historically accurate. “During my research, I was really struck by how colourful the time period was.” And for rich families like the Woodhouses, colour served to reinforce their social status. “Colour was how you showed your wealth in that time period.”
Many other period productions are curtailed by their locations. “If you’re making a movie or television show in a great old house, most of the time you can’t touch those walls. So they’re making films in buildings with faded wallpaper and faded paint colours, or something was repainted in a more sensible colour.”
Comparatively, Autumn and her creative team had a great deal of freedom on set. “I was lucky enough to have to been granted permission by Working Title Films, Blueprint Pictures and Focus Features [the film’s production companies] to actually wallpaper and paint rooms.”
Each house served as a character unto itself, and a way of contextualising each characters’ personality and actions. “You had to believe that although [Emma’s] trapped, she is sort of willingly and happily trapped,” Autumn explains. “She’s the mistress of the house, and I thought it would be nice if the house reflected her taste because she is in charge.”
With a narrative that spans several locations, colour was used to identify the different houses. “I thought that with all the characters and all the different buildings, it would be very helpful for the audience, even if they didn’t realize they were being guided.”
British composer Isobel Waller-Bridge (sister of Fleabag’s Phoebe) created the score. “I was really looking for a composer that had a sense of whimsy and comedy to their music,” Autumn explains. She describes Emma as a musical where no one sings, adding that she asked Isobel to write the music in the key of the actors speaking voices – a decision she said was hugely inspired by the orchestral composition Peter and the Wolf. Autumn cites Pollyanna as another influence, alongside old Disney films and Merrie Melodies. “I told Isabel that I wanted it to seem like the orchestra is misbehaving, or the conductor is overwhelmed, or Emma is driving the conductor crazy.” Johnny Flynn, who plays Mr. Knightley (Emma’s love interest) fittingly wrote the end credit song. “He’s so romantic.”
Central to the film is Emma’s close relationship with her father, played by Bill Nighy, and Autumn says this underpinned the art direction and costume design. “Mr. Woodhouse and Emma, we decided that they had a lot of taste in common; they like things to be beautiful and well-presented like a perfectly operating, decorated clock.”
Colour also denotes class – a key subject of the book, and much of Austen’s oeuvre – for example, the wardrobe of the unmarried Miss Bates (played to perfection by Miranda Hart, seen below). “[She] wears a lot of brown because it doesn’t get dirty as quickly and she has probably not enough money to support her and her mother for the rest of their lives.”
Conversely, Mrs. Elton, a member of the nouveau riche, wears garish colours and outlandish hairstyles. “She has a very bright orange dress (pictured) to show the power of her money and that she has access to colourful clothing, because it would’ve been more expensive.” Played by Tanya Reynolds of hit Netflix show Sex Education, she hilariously professes her love for minimalism and refinement – one of the many fashion jokes Autumn and Eleanor wove throughout the film.
When realising each character, Autumn and her team undertook a lot of discussion around Emma’s reliability as a narrator. “[We] wondered a lot, is this how Emma feels about this person? Is this how this really is?” In the case of Jane Fairfax, they wondered whether her hairdo is actually ridiculous or is that Emma’s own prejudice about the person.
To create the colour palette for each season (the film is divided into four chapters) she spent hours with production designer Kave Quinn, costume designer Alexandra Byrne, and Marese Langan, the makeup and hair designer, going over swatches of dyed silks and wool, wallpaper samples, and paint chips. “We started with Emma as the centre of this universe, and then we built up the assignment of colours to each person off of her and how they will look next to her.”
For visual cohesion, Autumn ensured the different departments had a collaborative, non-siloed approach. “It was really important to me that the production design was not having to operate as a separate country from costume design,” she reveals. “I think it’s unfair when departments find out too late what the other one’s up to. And I think that it’s up to the director to encourage and welcome the communication early so that decisions could be made.”
Although the costumes worn by the film’s women are gorgeous, those worn by Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse are an unexpected delight – particularly the floral three-piece suit (pictured) that he wears in several scenes. “Mr. Woodhouse’s costumes show that he loved color,” Autumn muses. “He looked like he loves cakes, but he just doesn’t want anyone to eat them.”
A notable point of difference about the film is its inclusion of the servitude that’s central to the Woodhouses’ and the Knightleys’ privilege. “It was really important for me to [both] glorify and poke fun at the lives of each character,” Autumn reveals. “The scenes where Mr. Knightley is dressing and Emma is being dressed were a way of showing the difference between the way they treated their servants, and their maturity.”
She also uses domestic dynamics to highlight the difference between public and private life, and explore how little privacy the wealthy had. “I wanted Mr. Knightley to be basically in total control of his life and then [when he has a panic attack in front of his servants] realise that he’s a fucking hot mess like everyone else, because he’s in love.”
As much as Emma is a romantic story, Autumn believes it is a story about friendship – with the resolution of Emma’s conflict with Harriet just as moving as the acceptance of her love for Mr. Knightley. “I think that this book is a fantasy of a friend like that realizing they’re wrong.”
Autumn is adamant that fantasy is nothing to be ashamed of. “The world is a hot mess right now,” she laments. “So I really wanted to give a little moment of escapism.”
“A little escape fantasy does not make you weaker.”
Beyond seeing the film, she believes everyone should explore Austen’s writing. “I want to encourage people to read Jane Austen because I think every reading is more rewarding,” she implores. “I also want [everyone] to appreciate the genius of her work, because she wrote about such human things.”
While steeped in decadence, hegemonies, and privilege, in its simplest iteration Autumn sees Emma’s story as universal.“Everyone has fallen in love with their best friend and wondered ‘Should I have kissed them?’ ”