First-time filmmaker Autumn de Wilde might be new to the big screen, but the long-time music video director and photographer has always had a soft spot for the woman who inspired her first film, a lively take on Jane Austen’s classic novel “Emma.” A self-professed Anglophile who grew up fascinated by all British culture (her mom is English, that’s part of it, too), de Wilde wasn’t necessarily the best student, but she was always inspired by the possibilities of Austen’s funny and fleet prose.
“I didn’t go to college, I was not a great student in high school. I mean, I think my teachers found me charming, but I didn’t do my homework,” she said with a laugh during a recent interview with IndieWire. And yet she’s always been intrigued by the possibilities of language and, as she explains, “finding out what a word or sentence appeared to mean and then what it actually meant. All that stuff to me is like Nerd Village, and I like to live in Nerd Village.” Turning “Emma” into another feature film — like most of Austen’s works, it’s been the subject of a number of adaptations over the years, from stage to screen and beyond — offered de Wilde a hell of a chance to decamp to said village.
Starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the heroine, the film is a mostly faithful take on the Regency-era story of a delightful heiress who dabbles in matchmaking, resulting in both wonderful and horrible pairings. Livened up with de Wilde’s keen eye and a sharp script from Man Booker Prize-winning author Eleanor Catton, the film will inevitably draw comparisons to other versions (the 1996 film starring Gwyneth Paltrow is a close corollary, but that film isn’t as biting or sexy as what de Wilde and Catton have crafted). The biggest difference: de Wilde’s bent towards digging deeper into the story’s many supporting characters, including a winning exploration of Emma’s hapless best friend Harriet Smith.
Intent on paving her own way with the material, de Wilde said didn’t catch up on other “Emma” adaptations before undertaking the film, though she has already seen them all. “‘Clueless’ is my favorite version of ‘Emma,’ and I think Amy Heckerling is brilliant,” de Wilde said. “But I didn’t rewatch [any other adaptations] because it was important not to have a sort of recent effect on what I was doing, because the story is so amazing and there’s endless possibilities. … I like the good ones, I like the bad ones, I like to see what people decided was important about the story.”
De Wilde’s sense of what was important to her about not just Austen’s words, but the emotions they can stir in an audience, helped guide her interpretation of the classic story. It’s a lesson that has further reaches than just this first film. “If you take what feels right to you about the story and about Emma, that’s the most interesting movie you could make, because it’s an offering from yourself with how you interpreted everything,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that these movies or TV shows should ever compete against each other, because I think what’s great is that they’re all these different people, they all find different truths in the book and the characters.”
And while de Wilde might not have purposely watched “Clueless” again during her prep period, it stuck with her and still stirred up ideas about the things she wanted to highlight in Austen’s novel. “I wanted it to feel very loyal to the period, and yet still sort of like a high school movie,” she said. “I do think that’s why ‘Clueless’ works so well, is because the American high school classes have some parallels with the class system in England, in that feeling that you’re trapped in a contained environment and there’s no way out. … I think that Jane Austen was a really brilliant satirist, and I wanted to bring out the humor that I saw in the writing and physicalize it. I wanted to poke fun at human nature and the hubris of youth.”
The “hubris of youth” explains away many of Emma’s missteps (that and, of course, her exorbitant wealth), including her dizzy obsession with matchmaking, which threatens to destroy nearly everyone and everything she loves. That includes not just her own romantic prospects (including an unexpected suitor in the form of long-time family friend Mr. Knightley, played by a delightful Johnny Flynn), but those of her newly-minted best friend Harriet Smith, who Catton and de Wilde expanded into a bigger, better role than the character usually is. Here, she’s a true foil for her very rich new BFF.
“Eleanor and I really felt that this passionate friendship between Emma and Harriet, we really wanted to make that a big love story,” de Wilde said. Mia Goth stars in the film as Emma’s new friend, a parent-less parlor boarder at a local girls’ school that the heiress happily takes under her wing. And, yes, fans of “Clueless” who might be less familiar with Austen’s original novel will instantly recognize her as the prototype for that film’s shy but charming “new girl in school,” Tai.
It’s Emma’s meddling in Harriet’s romantic trials and travails that form much of the film’s drama, but they are also the same ones that force her to finally grow up and become a truly better person. Of course, the film has a very happy ending, but Catton’s script makes Emma work for it more than Austen’s original, not just to make her character richer, but to honor the relationship with Harriet.
“Emma really kind of gets everything she wants in the end, and we thought a lot about watching the movie after she behaves so badly and has this epiphany and she’s totally different now,” de Wilde said. “We really felt like we would not be able to enjoy it unless we saw Harriet transformed by their rift.” The solution: pushing Emma to actively make things right with Harriet and her best suitor before Emma can accept a much-desired proposal of her own. Harriet’s happiness is deep, but the twist also allows Goth’s character to forgive Emma on her own terms, coming to visit her at the Woodhouse estate Hartfield and fully healing the pair’s rift.
“The first time you see Harriet, she’s scared of the house and everything around her, she’s so intimidated and excited and we felt like it was really important to see her come back with so much confidence, even though her heart was hurting because she loved Emma so much,” she said. “Eleanor and I felt that we needed Harriet to have her moment to feel like Harriet hadn’t compromised her life and that Emma got everything, but that Harriet really ended up with the person she loved the most, which I do feel like she did.”
Building on the relationship between Emma and Harriet (and truly making it a bond as resonant as the one Emma has with Mr. Knightley) gives the film some deeper emotional reserves. It also helps more believably turn Emma from a spoiled rich girl into a heroine deserving the best in life. That took some time, but de Wilde said she and Catton knew that it was Harriet that held the key.
“It was a combination of a lot of discussions, since Harriet had become such a huge character in the film, because she’s not always portrayed as prominently as she is in our movie,” she said. “That was part of the design of us figuring out how to take everyone on this emotional journey with the two of them. I think by then we felt that we were going to be really invested in Harriet’s future, as well as Emma’s. … Even though it’s called ‘Emma,’ I’d really planned to make an ensemble piece. I wanted the audience to care very much where everyone ended up.”
Focus Features will release “Emma” in limited release on Friday, February 21 with an expansion to follow on Friday, March 6.