When people talk about director Francesca Gregorini, it’s usually not about her. They bring up her parents (Bond girl Barbara Bach, Beatle Ringo Starr), or the celebrities she’s dated (Portia de Rossi, possibly Amber Heard), or the actors whose careers she’s helped launch (Rooney Mara thanks to 2009’s Tanner Hall, Kaya Scodelario in this month’s The Truth About Emanuel). Mostly, though, they talk about Kathryn Bigelow.
“I think she’s a phenomenal director, obviously, but my interests lie more in telling stories about women,” Gregorini said in an interview with Bustle.
Looking at the two directors’ careers, there would seem to be no basis for comparison — Bigelow’s known for gritty war thrillers like Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker, while Gregorini’s two films, including Emanuel, out Jan. 10, are female-centric coming-of-age stories. And yet, time and again, the two women, along with a handful of others, from Sarah Polley to Lynn Shelton, are grouped together, if only because of one common trait: their gender.
“A lot of female directors, when you call them a ‘female director,’ their feathers go up and they get bent out of shape,” Gregorini told us. “But before I was a director, I was a female, so I’m fine with being called a female director.”
Gregorini may not be bothered by the label and the inevitable comparisons that it inspires, but she certainly has every right to be. Grouping directors together by gender is inane; Gregorini’s movies have as much in common with Bigelow’s as Her does with 12 Years a Slave. Yet rather than complain, Gregorini embraces the “female director” label and all that comes with it.
“It’s wildly important that stories are told by female filmmakers, because after all, we are half of the population, last that I checked.”
For Gregorini, being a woman directing movies isn’t enough. It’s writing stories about women, she believes, that matters most.
“It’s important for all the young generations of girls growing up that they have an opportunity to go to the cinema and see themselves reflected on the screen, and for them to see movies where the hero of the story — the person you go on the journey with — is a girl,” she said.
“When I was growing up, you kind of had to… assume you were the guy of the story because women’s roles historically and, honestly, still today to a large, large percentage, are the lover of, the mother of, the helper of, you know? The guy is doing his thing, and that’s all fine and good, but we need to tell our stories, too.”
With both Tanner Hall and The Truth About Emanuel, Gregorini is helping to get those stories told. The former, a 2009 drama starring a then-unknown Rooney Mara as a boarding school senior, focused on the complexity of female friendship. And Emanuel, an indie thriller starring Skins’ Kaya Scodelario as a motherless teenage girl and an out-of-character Jessica Biel as the strange new mom next door, takes on a topic even less frequently seen in film: mother-daughter relationships.
“I think that for everyone, male or female, your relationship with your mother is sort of where it all starts,” Gregorini said. “For a lot of us, that relationship is complex… that sort of connection with a woman who’s older and that you look up to and that you’re drawn to — it has an imbalance of power, it has intrigue, it has mystery. These relationships are complicated, and they’re layered.”
For Gregorini, focusing on the connection between mothers and daughters not only made sense — “for me, in particular, it had some elements of abandonment along the way, and that’s sort of something I continue to struggle with in my life” — but a relatable way of delving into deeper issues.
“I like talking about things without hitting them over the head,” Gregorini said. “I mean, the movie is about mortality and madness and about loss, and those are all universal themes that we all have to deal with or ignore.”
“It’s also the carrying of other people’s secrets,” she continued. “That’s something we tend to do, especially as youngsters, for the people we love — we end up doing it unbeknownst to ourselves… there’s a lot of things we’re willing to do in search of connections.”
In Emanuel, the teenage title character (Scodelario) becomes preoccupied with her new neighbor, Linda (Biel), due to Linda’s resemblance to Emanuel’s late mother. The teen offers to babysit Linda’s newborn, but soon learns that nothing is what it seems. The film is part-drama, part-thriller, and part-CGI, a compelling, original mix of realism and fantasy.
“What I think resonates is the emotional truth of things,” Gregorini said. “As long as you have that, you have the license to go into the absurd and go into fantasy and other things, and it still holds water.”
Emanuel premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, where it received a nomination for the prestigious Grand Jury Prize, an honor especially gratifying when considering the years it took just to get Gregorini’s film made at all.
“A lot of times people make movies and they never get released, and you just can’t imagine going through that much work and nothing happening,” she said. “When I got the call from Sundance… I just remember literally, like, crying, going, ‘oh my god, thank god.’”
The journey to make The Truth About Emanuel began nearly half a decade ago, when Gregorini first wrote a second film for Rooney Mara, who had become a close friend after Tanner Hall. But then there were money issues, and scheduling conflicts, and by the time financing for the film was secure, three years had passed and Mara was too old to play the teenage Emanuel. Gregorini spent the next several months looking for a new leading actress, only stumbling upon Scodelario, a 21-year-old known best for playing Effy on Skins, after leaving L.A. in the hopes of having better luck in London.
“The movie kind of rests on her shoulders,” Gregorini said. “She does a phenomenal job.”
Emanuel’s cast is rounded out by Jessica Biel (“She’s gonna be a revelation to audiences who will be able to see her in a new light”), Alfred Molina, and Frances O’Connor.
“I take the casting process really seriously,” Gregorini said.
And good thing she does. Gregorini has an impressive history of casting future A-listers in her films (“I have good taste,” she joked); Tanner Hall also gave Brie Larson, now an awards contender for Short Term 12, one of her first major supporting roles. It’s not far-fetched to believe that Scodelario, who is receiving high praise for Emanuel, will be the next Gregorini-discovered actress to find stardom.
“You can only be as good as the parts that you are given,” Gregorini said, adding, “ultimately, it’s about the connection that you, a director, can make to them as a person and as an actor. It’s that level of trust that the movie is riding on.”
It’s a truism that’s relevant in all filmmaking, but perhaps most so in the indie world.
“With everyone that comes onto an indie film, you’re paying them, like, a dollar,” Gregorini said. “They’re hoping that you’re gonna make something’s that worth their time and their effort. I think of it as a big responsibility.”
And it’s one that the director is happy to have.
“My interests lie there, and in telling these stories,” she said. “God knows from now until I die, I’m certainly not gonna have even touched the tip of the iceberg of stories to tell.”