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How Jane Austen’s ‘Emma.’ got the rock-star treatment it never knew it needed

When asked why she styled the title ‘Emma.’ with a period at the end, director Autumn de Wilde replied, “Well, because . . . it’s a period piece!”

How Jane Austen’s ‘Emma.’ got the rock-star treatment it never knew it needed
From left: Actor Amber Anderson, actor Tanya Reynolds, actor Josh O’Connor, director Autumn de Wilde, and actor Johnny Flynn on the set of Emma. [Photo: Liam Daniel/Focus Features]

If you’ve seen the trailer for Autumn de Wilde’s new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma., it looks like a Gen Z fever dream. First there’s the cast: Anya Taylor-Joy is the lead, last seen in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2019 box-office smash Glass, and then there are the two Netflix stars: Lovesick lead Johnny Flynn, who is also set to star as David Bowie in an upcoming biopic, and The Crown‘s Josh O’Connor. The film’s soundtrack was composed by Isobel Waller-Bridge (she’s the sister of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and scored Phoebe’s hit series Fleabag), and then there’s the tone. It feels in the same subversive spirit as other daring period pieces such as The Favorite and the upcoming The Personal History of David Copperfield.

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In truth, while the new adaptation gives a particular sheen to its actors and its visual aesthetic, it’s actually a rather faithful adaptation, hewing close to its source material.

Though there have been several screen versions of the novel—notably a 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, a 2009 drama series with Romola Garai, and 1995’s iconic Clueless—de Wilde sought to try something different with this version, using her background as a rock photographer for the likes of the White Stripes and Elliot Smith to give the characters an alluring edge, and heightening the humor of the book by incorporating elements of screwball comedies. Fast Company spoke with de Wilde about finding the comedy in the arrogance of youth, social class dynamics, and misconstrued romance.

Turning characters into rock stars

De Wilde, who made her name as a rock photographer shooting the likes of the Rolling Stones and Beck for publications including The New York Times, says that she sought to bring a rock star spirit to the characters. “A lot of bands had a joke that I was a rock and roll Martha Stewart, because I bring a lot of comfort to the set,” she jokes, adding, “but in all seriousness, I think actors aren’t being presented as rock stars enough.”

Beyond having the actors play music and sing songs themselves, de Wilde tried to play up the rebellious streak in her characters. “The thing that makes someone seem like a rock star, where they seem calm, a little untethered, exciting, sexy, and maybe problematic . . . they might have an air of trouble. I wanted to show that in all of these characters. All of the characters have their little moments of rebellion,” she says. In particular, she focused on the two leads—the brooding Knightley and spoiled Emma—shooting them close up or alone and lingering on their outfits.

De Wilde says that by emphasizing the strict rules and conventions governing polite society in the 1700s, small moments of insubordination from characters, from when a character of a lower social status makes a gaffe to an emotional outburst from Knightley, stood out. “When you play inside of these really uptight rules and then show people rebelling, it stands out,” she says. “The rules were really important to me, because it made the actors seem more exciting when they repressed [their feelings] or when they blew it and broke the rule.”

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Emma Woodhouse in Emma. [Photo: courtesy of Box Hill Films]

Clothing to make the man

De Wilde is known for using her obsession with period fashion in her photography. Her dreamy lookbooks for fashion brand Rodarte also have this sensibility. She brought her careful research of period costumes to the script, using costumes to heighten both the humor in the story and the characters’ personality.

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In one scene, Emma, thinking she is alone, pulls up her dress to warm herself by the fire in a moment of insouciance. “In my research I found out no one wore underwear, and I was like, ‘How have all these movies been made and I had no idea?'” She says the scene was inspired by a caricature from that era of a woman doing the same.

She also shot the demure dresses in the wind to capture the sensuality of the era. “This was the first time in fashion history where when the wind was blowing, men could see the shape of women’s bodies, because they were wearing these diaphanous gowns,” she says, adding, “especially for the older generation this must have been like when the miniskirt came in.”

De Wilde also included a long scene of Mr. Knightley getting dressed by his servants. “[Knightley’s nudity] was a way of showing the difference between Emma and Knightley at the beginning of the movie. Knightley appears to us a lot more human and fully formed. He’s the moral compass of the story, even though sometimes he picks on Emma. He treats his servants a lot better than her. They’re both snobs, but I wanted to show how far she needed to go.” The dressing scene also highlights Knightley’s composed nature, which then heightens later scenes depicting his panic attacks.

Josh O’Connor (center) stars as Mr. Elton in Emma. [Photo: courtesy of Focus Features]

Turning Austen into a screwball comedy

De Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton, known for being the youngest person to win the Man Booker Prize (The Luminaries), tried not to think about previous versions of Emma as they worked on the script. According to de Wilde, “Different parts of the story can be highlighted and brought out.” For her, that was the comedic aspect of the novel. “Part of my pitch was to incorporate elements of a screwball comedy while keeping it a period piece,” de Wilde says.

She looked to old Hollywood screwball comedies, such as Bringing Up Baby and Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle. Another Cary Grant vehicle, His Girl Friday, also informed the tone of the film. De Wilde says she hoped viewers would be able to turn off the sound and still understand the action on-screen.

Writing the character of Mr. Elton, the pompous vicar who finds himself in love with Emma and ultimately proves to be an unsavory character, she was inspired by the character dynamic in Bringing Up Baby. “I love how Cary Grant’s character is so uptight and gets so rattled by Katharine Hepburn. Elton has that formality around Emma, but he also has a really dark side. We use physical comedy during the lighter moments, to show he has a dark side when he turns serious.”

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In heightening the foppish mannerisms of Elton and others, de Wilde was also trying to make fun of the rigid class system—something Austen did with her words. A running joke throughout the film is that there are always beautiful desserts laid out, but only uncouth characters, such as Emma’s lower-class protégé Harriet Smith (played by Mia Goth), eat them, showing that they are out of their normal social milieu.

When Mr. Elton’s new, nouveau riche wife (Tanya Reynolds) visits the Woodhouse stately home and boasts about her family money in an effort to prove her status, Bill Nighy’s uptight hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse is so incensed that he is unable to let go of his teacup, leaving a servant to pry it from his hands. “Mr. Woodhouse is totally shocked that this woman is so brazen, so he tried to maintain the most polite physical position he can, so much so that Bartholomew the servant has to grab the tea from his clutching fingers,” de Wilde says.

To indicate the social status of characters, De Wilde focused on close-up shots to show their subtle reactions to each other. “Often we would finish a scene and then do singles on each actor. I’d say, ‘Now look at Emma like you hate her. Now look at Emma like you want her.’ And then Emma would do the same.” In doing so, she captures the pathos of each character. “Everything is really dramatic for that person [in the shot], especially in the social situation,” she says, giving an example of a tense dinner party scene with most of the characters in attendance, where an ill-advised remark about whether it will snow leads to high drama. “The party was a really fun place to give each person their own really dramatic problem.”

Toward the end of the movie, in a moment that could have been pulled from a raunchy teen comedy such as Superbad, Emma and Knightley seem like they’re finally about to kiss, but she gets a nosebleed. De Wilde says that this was partly inspired by her own experience getting nosebleeds at inopportune times, but the event also solves a challenge in the film. “There’s an inherent problem, which is that the story has a lot of endings. Usually when a scene like this happens in a movie, you expect it to be wrapped up pretty quickly, but Emma still has a lot to deal with after she gets together with Knightley. She’s got to right a lot of her wrongs. So I wanted something to always interrupt the possibility of them kissing.”

A further comedic element can be seen on the posters for the film. When asked why she styled the title Emma. with a period at the end, de Wilde replied, “well, because . . . it’s a period piece!”

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