Director Frances O'Connor on making Emily

Posted Wednesday 16 Nov 2022

Director Frances O'Connor on making Emily

WIFT NZ talked to director Frances O’Connor about the making of her directorial debut Emily.

Author Emily Brontë was seen as a misfit in her society and her book Wuthering Heights dismissed. These days she’d probably be a celebrity - albeit an unwilling one.

Director Frances O’Connor says she wrote her feature film about the author’s tragically short life for young women who don’t see themselves represented and who don’t feel they ‘fit’.

“What do you do if your creativity or sense of self is different, and people tell you you’re different? If you don’t fit into the patriarchy or have anything to offer it? It’s an exploration of a young woman who feels different, who has some social anxiety, who doesn’t fit in, and how she finds her way through that to eventually write this beautiful book.”

As an actor Australian-born O’Connor has had a successful career, her breakout role in Mansfield Park paving the way for roles in films The Importance of Being Earnest and A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and series such as Madame Bovary and The Missing, with the latter two each earning her a Golden Globe nomination.

Speaking on Zoom from her London home O’Connor says she read Wuthering Heights as a young teenager on the long bus trips to high school from her remote home in the hills of Western Australia.

“I felt transported when I was reading it. It was such a different world to what I was growing up in, yet I also really related to its setting, the wild hills. We didn’t have any houses around us either and Wuthering Heights was a world like that too.”

She wrote the script for Emily in between acting gigs over a number of years, and in 2018 “got serious” and did some workshops on it. She then gave the script to a friend, Australian producer Robert Connolly, whose script editor Louise Gough helped O’Connor polish it to a state O’Connor was happy with.

The budget was six million pounds – “that’s a lot to trust a first-time director with” – and getting finance was tough. Funding applications were rejected by the UK’s traditional film supporters, the British Film Institute or Film Four, which O’Connor says was likely because she’d never even made a short film so had no previous experience to show. However sales agent Embankment came on board, as did UK producer Piers Tempest, and they “fitted together all the funding puzzle pieces”.

When putting together a crew, O’Connor and her Director of Photography, Nanu Segal tried for a 50-50 gender ratio. They didn’t quite get there but O’Connor says there are women in every department. As an actor, she prefers a mixed crew, and says having women in key roles on the set, particularly as DOP, can elicit different performances from actors – male and female.

“If there’s a female DOP I bring more of my real self as an actor because I know I don’t have to worry about whether I’m attractive or not - which is frustrating! - and I’ve observed that with other [actors] too. It’s interesting how that can influence actors to bring a different self to the performance.”

When asked how things have improved for women in the industry O’Connor is cautiously positive.

“I know so many female directors now. I haven’t worked with that many so I notice when I do. But I still feel we’ve got a long way to go. The industry is still fairly masculine in the US and women get smaller budgets. The first female to direct a Star Wars film is only just coming up now. Those films are like the iconography of the culture and they’re still controlled by men. I would like to see women play in those larger arenas, because we’re going to shoot things differently and treat female characters differently and that goes out into the culture and changes people’s minds. That kind of stuff is really important and we need to make headway in those areas.”

Emily’s themes reflect what’s going on with women right now, making it especially relevant for a younger generation, O’Connor says.

“It’s an interesting time for women, with #MeToo and the discussion of how women fit in the patriarchy. [Emily Brontë] really was fairly different and people did have a problem with her. She didn’t fit in. Wuthering Heights is a very dark novel and there’s a lot of her in it, and people freaked out when they read it. The book didn't get a positive review until 50 years after it was published."

The mention of #MeToo sparks the question: does she think things are improving for women in the film industry?

O’Connor’s career coincides with the Harvey Weinstein era, and she knows many women who encountered him.

“Everybody said ‘just don’t get yourself in that situation’. No one said, ‘hey this isn’t right’. Everyone was just like ‘that’s the way of the world’. I think because of #MeToo, young women these days realise that they really don’t have to put up with it.”

- Christine Stride

Emily is in New Zealand cinemas from 17 November.

To be in the draw to win a double pass to Emily check out our competition further down in enews!

Image: Emma Mackey (who plays Emily Brontë) and Frances O'Connor,