“There’s something magical, when you’re behind the monitor and your imagination and the image line up.”
Emily Brontë’s story is brought to life with style and imagination in Emily, the debut feature film from director Frances O’Connor, who has earned a nomination for the Douglas Hickox Award for Best Debut Director at the 2022 British Independent Film Awards.
We spoke to Frances about the thought that went into the film’s sound design, the process of taking Emily from script to screen, and how she created an environment to get the most out of her terrific cast. Read the full interview below.
What made you want to tell this story, and where did the idea to make Emily come from?
Frances O’Connor: I loved Wuthering Heights when I was a teenager: it’s highly romantic and it’s full of big emotions, and that’s where I was in my life. The book has always stuck with me, alongside Jane Eyre, which is another of my favourite books. Alongside that, the inspiration came from looking into who Emily was as a person. I felt there were all these parallels between who she was as a young woman growing up, and my own experience. With your first film, I think it’s good to start with your opening statement as an artist, and I wanted to explore that idea of being an artist as a young woman through Emily Brontë.
The film feels like the product of a very singular vision, as if it can’t have been directed by anyone but yourself. When you were writing Emily, were you always set on directing?
Frances O’Connor: When I wrote it, I didn’t consciously think “I’m going to direct this.” I just thought I wanted to tell this story. But I did actually want to get into directing. I’d reached a point as an actor where I was still loving acting, but I felt like stepping into a new position on a film set, and helping other artists come together to tell a story. It just felt very much like the next step, like an organic move.
So let’s talk about moving from script to screen. When did you start bringing producers and Heads of Department on board?
Frances O’Connor: I had some advice from director friends of mine, saying that you have to make sure your script is completely watertight when approaching producers, so that the only answer they can give you is: ‘We love this script and we would like to make it.’ Then that’s when you say, ‘And I would really love to direct it.’ I did a lot of workshops with friends to hone the script, and then I gave it to a really good friend of mine Robert Connolly, who’s an Australian producer. I was down there doing an acting gig and he loved it. He’s got two young daughters and he really felt like it would speak to them, that it was a really strong script. Then we reached out to Embankment, who love female-led stories, and they were instrumental in connecting us to Piers Tempest, who is a Yorkshire-based producer — very Indie and grass roots — and he also loved the script. All of these people have daughters so it was interesting, they really felt like this was a story that would chime with them. A friend of mine, David Barron, also came on board to produce, and we went out to a lot of funders.
We approached a bunch of funding bodies and we got knocked back a few times, but luckily through David Barron, Warner Brothers UK came in and put some money into it, and that helped other people have confidence in the project. For a first time director, I was pinching myself.
Emma Mackey is fantastic in the lead role. How did you go about casting her — did you have her in mind while writing?
Frances O’Connor: I knew the whole film hung on who we cast in that role, because she’s in every scene, and the whole film’s about being authentic — so I had to find somebody who the story really spoke to. I remember when Emma did the first scene, I just looked over to the casting director… there was just something that Emma did in the room that was very exciting. It was very real. It wasn’t pushed. We looked at other people, but I just kept coming back to Emma, who also loves Emily Brontë, and I think really had something to say about the role. And I think she’s done such a beautiful job on the film. Not just because of her acting, but with the skill involved in creating this very long arc. When you look at the images of Emily at the beginning, she looks almost child-like, then at the end she’s this ferocious being. She does such a great job with it.
You have a specialized standpoint, as an experienced actor. Did that inform your work with Emma, and was that influential in your directing style generally?
Frances O’Connor: Absolutely. It was really exciting, figuring out how I wanted to work as a director. I’ve grown up on film sets so I know that world really well, and it was about working out if I want to direct in ways that were similar to people that I admire, and that I’d worked with. I felt like I wanted to create an environment that was very warm and relaxed, so that people could do their best work in it. We did a two week workshop with the actors, and got musicians in in the mornings so that everyone could move and dance. We’d all hang out a bit, and then rehearse in the afternoon. Sometimes it’s not really about the scenes, even though we did rehearse the scenes. People were getting to know each other, learning to trust each other, and I always feel like if people really like each other, it can’t help but translate into the work.
The film has a striking visual style. What conversations did you have around how you wanted the film to look? Did you do any concept work, storyboards?
Frances O’Connor: I did a big tone book for anyone who came onto the film, whatever their role, of how I saw the world and how I saw the characters. Nanu Segal, our DoP, and I worked together for about four months before the film, because we knew it would be a tight shoot with the budget we had. We just went through every scene and worked out what our visual language was going to be.
I’m a massive fan of Jacques Audiard and Alejandro G Iñárritu, and I love a very gentle hand-held feel. Not so much cinema verité, but just very personal, alive, camera work — so we decided to go for that as the general style. With the landscapes we decided to do these very wide shots, where people look absolutely tiny, so the weather could really feature. Then, when she puts on her mask, we decided to just put everything on sticks. That way, when suddenly the air gets sucked out of the room, it’s more about panning or pushing in – making it feel a little more bit freaked out. For the=at mask scene, we wanted a central light that would become stronger as it went on. The light design for that was really important, and it took us a long time on set to get that right.
I’m so glad you brought up the mask scene — it’s such a striking moment. How long were you shooting that scene? What prep went into it?
Frances O’Connor: That scene took a long time to think about and plan for, and it had so many shots in it. We were really up against it, because we only had two and a half days to shoot. We did storyboards for that scene and we talked about the feeling that we wanted the audience to have at different points. The idea behind the sequence is that the audience twigs that they’re in a different kind of scene at the same time as the characters, so that you’re forced to actually be in there with them, working out what’s happening, creating an uneasy feeling. We had this really great sound designer, Niv Adiri, who did amazing work with the sound in the scene too.
I can’t believe you shot that scene in two and a half days. How long did you have to shoot the whole film?
Frances O’Connor: We had six weeks, and 118 pages to shoot. That’s why we planned so much and rehearsed a lot, so that everyone knew what they were doing and could just get to it when we turn up on set. From there, it’s just that balance of trying to keep it relaxed for the actors, but knowing that you have to push through. And the crazy thing is, inevitably, you cut scenes in the edit and think “if only I’d known, I could have used that time for something else!” But you just don’t know it at the time, and that’s part of filmmaking.
The use of sound throughout is really creative, using repeated motifs of rain, crashing waves and nature. What discussions did you have about the sound design?
Frances O’Connor: Yes, even in the brief that I had given everybody at the start, I made it really clear that I wanted sound to be a big part of it. I always feel like sound is an under-appreciated part of cinema — it’s actually a huge part of film-making. It affects you and immerses you in the scene. We talked about when we wanted to push the sound into something that is more in Emily’s mind, like the rain in the church, or the little soldiers at the start of the film, where we can hear them fighting, or elsewhere where the sound of the wind turns into the sea. It was fun working out how to bed that in, so that it wasn’t 100% noticeable and felt organic. That was really the key.
A lot of directors mention the sense of anticipation on the first day, the first shot on a new set. How did you feel stepping out on that first day? What was the first scene you shot, and what did you do to prepare for that moment?
Frances O’Connor: The first day of the shoot was on a Friday, and then the next shooting day was a Monday, so I actually had two days to rethink and rest if I needed to – but in the end I had planned the hell out of it, so it was fine! The scene we shot was Emily running down the hill from the beginning of the film and, yes, it was pretty amazing — I remember thinking it looked exactly how it did in my imagination.
I think that’s the thing as a first time director, you don’t quite have the faith that it’s going to happen, so when it does it’s the most amazing feeling. Then we also did Bramwell and Emily taking drugs for the first time, which was a nice way in, I thought. But yes, there’s something magical when you’re behind the monitor and your imagination and the image line up. Then of course there’s the other days where it really doesn’t, and you’ve got 20 minutes and you were told you would have two and a half hours for it, and you’ve just put too much time into the beginning of the day — that’s the other side of it! But you do pass through these moments that feel magical. I think that’s why making films is so addictive.
How does it fees to be nominated by BIFA for the Douglas Hickox Award for Best Debut Director, and what does it mean to you as a director?
Frances O’Connor: It’s great. It’s the icing on the cake. Making a film is its own reward, it’s such an amazing creative experience, so then to have people go “we like your film” too… there’s something really beautiful about that. It’s also about feeling like a part of the industry, to be with these other fantastic filmmakers, and to have people take you seriously as a director and love your work.