The Interview: Francesca Gregorini

Published on 04 February 2013

[D]irector Francesca Gregorini wowed crowds at Sundance Film Festival with her solo directorial debut, Emanuel and The Truth About The Fishes, a psychological coming of age drama starring Kaya Scodelario and Jessica Biel. Here the director talks inspiration, loss and the difficulties of being a woman in Hollywood. 

WHAT INSPIRED EMANUEL?

Emanuel is about loss and redemption and I think that is one of the quintessential struggles of the human condition. For starters, we are all going to die and everyone we have ever loved will too. Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s about the size of it. So, that puts the concept of loss pretty much front and center in all of our sub consciousness. Mortality is arguably the most difficult thing that we must come to terms with.

Like all of us, I have experienced my share of loss, not just in the form of actual death, but in the form of: discovering that I am not able to have children, losing my mother to addiction for a decade of my childhood, romantic heartbreak, all these experiences of profound loss are a form of death and what interested me was mining where we go internally when faced with death. I think everyone’s instinct is to avoid those feelings because they are so immensely sad, that you feel like you yourself might die and that’s where coping mechanisms come into play…drinking, workaholism, etc… and then there is of course the tried and true: denial, a human favorite. Taken to the extreme that can have some pretty dire consequences and leave you living in, for lack of a better word, an altered reality, which is precisely what we are trying to achieve: alter our reality because it is too painful to withstand.

WERE YOU ALWAYS GOING TO BE THE DIRECTOR, AS WELL AS WRITER?

Yes, this is a topic very close to my heart, demons I needed to purge so I had to see it through from the beginning to end. No use in just cutting off the tail of the dragon. If you’re going to step into the ring and grapple with these core issues, you best be prepared to slay the dragon, not just injure him or you might be worse off than when you started.

TELL US ABOUT THE CASTING PROCESS, YOU DIDN’T ORIGINALLY HAVE KAYA SCODELARIO AS THE LEAD?

I actually wrote Emanuel for Rooney Mara, who Tatiana von Furstenberg and I cast as the lead in our film Tanner Hall (Toronto Film Festival, 2009) when she was still a complete unknown. Rooney and I became close friends and she became my muse for this role. However, it took several years for me to raise the funds to shoot it, by which point age-wise and schedule-wise, Rooney no longer seemed like the right choice to portray Emanuel. So, Deb Aquila, my fabulous casting director and I, set about finding Emanuel. I met with every young girl in Hollywood and auditioned a great many of them and even though they were for the most part great, some even amazing, none of them were Emanuel. And since the whole movie rides on her, I was at a loss as to what to do. We went into a holding pattern. Then Tatiana, traveling in Italy, severely injured her back, so I flew out there to be with her for the lengthy recovery. Once she seemed to be on the mend I excused myself for a couple days and went to London to continue my hunt for Emanuel. When Kaya sat down next to me on the couch of the hotel lobby that I was using as my “casting office” I knew I had found her. She has a toughness matched in equal parts by a heartbreaking vulnerability and a courage in her eyes that was unmistakable. Her cracks run deep, deep enough to let the light shine through. This was the girl who could and would go the distance. And there’s nothing more that you can ask of someone as a director.

WHY DO YOU THINK THE FILM RESONATES SO WELL WITH VIEWERS?

In part I think it’s because everyone can relate to loss. It’s an essential part of the human condition, something we grapple with on both a small and large scale on a continuing basis. But, human connection and our ability to in some ways save each other, because we are unable to save ourselves, is really what is at the heart of Emanuel and what I think really resonates with audiences. The film is a psychological drama, but it spreads its wings into magical realism, dark comedy, and is also a love story in some ways, so it has a wide scope, meaning there are many ways in which to access it and connect to the story. I also think it resonate with audiences because of the spectacular performances by Kaya Scodelario and Jessica Biel. They are the anchors and heart and soul of the movie and they really go on the ride with no breaks on, which allows the audience to follow them down the rabbit hole without a second thought.

HOW DIFFICULT IS IT BEING A FEMALE IN THE HOLLYWOOD ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY, TRADITIONALLY IT’S CONSIDERED A MAN’S WORLD?

I have primarily been working outside of the system, in as much as an indie filmmaker, you can kind of circumvent the machine. However, now that I have signed with CAA, I feel like I will getting well acquainted with the machine. I’m not scared. I am curious and I think at the end of the day, talent is talent and drive is drive and if you bring that and focus on doing the best work you are capable of then the rest kind of takes care of itself. This may be a very innocent view of the world and Hollywood, but even though there is an underbelly of darkness to my work, I, as a person, am an optimist. So, that’s how I will be entering the machine. With an open heart. I do think the tide is changing and the more women that enter the industry the better. Not just as filmmakers, although that is vitally important, but also as critic, financiers and buyers (meaning film execs) because that is one challenge that even as an indie filmmaker I have faced. If you are telling stories with females as the lead characters, it’s just harder to get them financed. Then nine times out of ten, the film is judged by a male critic, who very well might not be the intended audience and chances are  nine out of ten times the head buyers at each company are men. So, the problem is just getting more women at the table at all points in the machine, so that it is a more balanced and hospitable environment for the true and full human experience to be told and seen and heard.

DO YOU THINK THE FILM INDUSTRY NEEDS TO WORK HARDER TO EMPOWER WOMEN, TRADITIONALLY THEY ARE ALWAYS THE SUPPORTING PLAYERS IN FILM?

I think this question can be answered both form the perspective of how women are depicted in film as well as the women behind the camera and in the industry. Regarding women in the industry,  if we wait for permission and/or to be invited to the table it will be an endless wait. I think we need to work hard to get our own seat at the table and the way I have done it is to literally construct my own seat (writing and directing Emanuel). Make good work outside of the system that then gets recognized by the system and suddenly you find yourself at the table. I realise that is not everyone path, but it has been mine, so it’s the only one that I can really speak of. That said, I think it’s vitally important for women who are in the industry to be mindful to help other women in and up. Four of my six heads of departments were women. They were not specifically hired because they were woman but because they were the best ones for the job. But, I do think that that requires a mindfulness to look for them and hire them.

Regarding the depiction of women in films, there is a definite correlation to the number of female writers and directors, in my opinion. We need more of them. It’s not that it’s not possible for a man to accurately depict a girl or a woman in a film, but it is by definition, through their male pov, and therefore somewhat skewed. It is of paramount importance that girls and women see themselves not only accurately depicted, but as the lead players in the story. I am not a supporting player in my own life, but growing up I was forced to identify with the male characters in film because they were the ones doing things, not just supporting the boy/man who is doing things. It’s a terrible and inaccurate message that keeps being sent to our youth. It is definitely changing for the better, but we have a long way to travel.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE STATE OF MODERN FEMINISM?

I don’t know that I am qualified to speak about the state of modern feminism. All I can speak of accurately is myself, as a woman in the world today. I feel like in my own small way, I am contributing to change for the better in terms of providing work opportunities for women and telling stories that centre around female characters. If we all do our part it adds up and we are certainly gaining ground, as exemplified by the parity of male and female directors in the US Dramatic competition this year at Sundance. I think the focus should be less of asking for parity and more on just getting on with our lives and our work and letting that do the talking. As an artist, the politics of it all interest me less than the work, but as a woman I do feel a responsibility to tell our stories, as film is one of the most powerful  mediums we have and our depiction in film will undoubtably be one of the biggest legacies we leave behind.

WHO DO YOU ADMIRE?

I could rattle off a number of filmmakers but truly who I admire is anyone who strives to reach their full potential, whatever that may be. Anyone who overcomes their own internal or external adversities and transforms them into an honourable life.

WHAT ARE YOU HUNGRY FOR?

I have been laser beam focused on my film for the last three years to the detriment of many other things in my life, so I think I am hungry for balance, something I struggle with, because I am an all or nothing kind of person. I am hungry for fun and love and adventure and of  course the ambitious part of me is hungry to do the next film, go to the next level creatively and professionally. Making a film is deceivingly taxing, especially if you give it everything you have and I wouldn’t know how to do it any other way, so I need to fill my tank with inspiration and am open to whatever form that takes, from a muse to a motorcycle ride through Vietnam.