With her first full-length feature film, director Autumn de Wilde aimed high. The works of Jane Austen have been adapted and squeezed into almost every format—stodgy BBC series, zombie rewrite, Bollywood update. That’s perhaps why de Wilde’s approach to once again bringing Emma to the big screen paid off. This year, stupefied by adaptation overload, audiences are given a film adaptation of Emma that comes cloaked in no gimmicks or tricks, a fresh yet faithful rendition that delights in the visual pleasures of the period without falling victim to the stuffiness of a period piece. After all, as de Wilde notes, “just because the story is 200 years old, the characters are not 200 years old. They’re 21.”
De Wilde further described the creative process behind the film, from the score to costume design to location scouting, at Coolidge Corner Theater on February 25 following an advance screening of Emma. She was joined by Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Emma in the film. Boston Globe advice columnist Meredith Goldstein moderated a discussion with the two that included questions from the audience.
De Wilde talked about her winding career path and how she eventually found her way into directing. Originally a music photographer who went on tour with rock bands, de Wilde transitioned into shooting music videos for artists. De Wilde’s first commission for a music video came from singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, who insisted that de Wilde was the only person he would allow to shoot the video.
“I didn’t go to film school, so I think every video and every commercial I did—there was a long road breaking into all of those things,” de Wilde said. “I’m 49 and I’m doing my first film, but I sort of feel like I was preparing in pieces along the way.”
De Wilde directly addressed the challenge in adapting such a familiar, well-loved work. She said she wasn’t preoccupied with forging a new path. Instead, she followed her instincts and tried to faithfully reflect the period of the story of the film while simultaneously emphasizing the youthful follies of Emma’s characters.
The production design in particular directly reflected the decorating trends of the Georgian period. The whimsical, Wes Andersonian shots may seem like a modern-day affectation, but de Wilde said that the film’s vivid color scheme is historically accurate.
“We’ve seen a lot of movies where everything looks kind of antiqued and people think that because they see things in museums or old houses with faded wallpaper that they were living in antique settings back then, and so it was exciting to do the production design that we did,” de Wilde said.
Both de Wilde and Taylor-Joy agreed that they wanted to hew closely to the way Austen wrote the character of Emma, someone whose flaws are in danger of outweighing her virtues, and who isn’t instinctively likable. Austen herself described her heroine as someone “whom no one but myself will much like.”
“Let’s make her spiky, let’s start off with somebody that’s quite unlikable and have them grow,” Taylor-Joy said of their thinking. “By the end of it she’s grown. She’s not changed—this isn’t The Taming of The Shrew, she’s still very much herself—but she’s humbled.”
By presenting Emma as the complex woman she was originally intended to be, de Wilde’s film is almost radical—among the many iterations of Emma-inspired works, this latest one stands apart with its fearless fidelity to Austen’s text. By letting Austen speak, de Wilde has found her own auteurial voice.
Featured Image Courtesy of Focus Features