From writer/director Francesca Gregorini, the indie drama The Truth About Emanuel tells the story of the troubled Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario), who becomes preoccupied with her mysterious new neighbor, Linda (Jessica Biel). In offering to babysit her newborn, Emanuel unwittingly enters a world that blurs the line of fantasy and reality, and shows just how dangerous secrets can be.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Francesca Gregorini talked about how this film came about, the themes she wanted to explore in the story, what led her to Kaya Scodelario, what sold her on Jessica Biel, how the final product is a leaner version of the script, the importance of giving a dark story like this some hope, and why the title of the film was changed. She also talked about how she’s looking to direct a film from someone else’s script, but that she could never see herself handing one of her own scripts to someone else to direct, and that she’s no longer attached to direct Your Voice in My Head (in which Emma Watson was set to star).
Where did you start with this story? Was there a theme or idea that you wanted to explore, or did it start with a specific character?
FRANCESCA GREGORINI: It actually started with the character of Emanuel. Rooney Mara and I became close friends after Tanner Hall, and I set out to write her, her next movie, so Emanuel was based on her. Not her, the person, but the characteristics of the character. So, the seed was wanting to write something for her. And then, the themes of madness, loss and mortality are just valid themes to explore, and are something that I grapple with in an existential and non-existential way. It’s hard to explain how stories happen. I just sat down, and that’s what started coming. I wanted to do a story that was about collusion, and the way that children or young people carry secrets for the adults in their lives, because that’s definitely something I had experience with. All the things that live within you find their place, in character and story, once you tap into that other space that is the creative writing space.
Do you find it easy, as a writer, to leave yourself open to including your own personal experiences? Do you want to go on that kind of cathartic journey, or do you find it difficult to open yourself up personally, in that way?
GREGORINI: I find that that’s the goal. The more personal you get, the more universal a story you end up telling. Ultimately, what audiences respond to is truth. Even as fantastical as the story can be, and out there, at its core, it’s dealing with loss, madness and mortality. All of those themes are very human themes, and are things that we all grapple with, in our own ways. Bottom line is that it takes forever to make a film. It’s a gargantuan thing of untold effort. So, if I’m going to take that time and put in that effort, I want to tell a story that is actually about something, is meaningful, and is a tale worth telling. That’s how it is for me. If I’m gonna bother to do that, then it best really touch on some real shit, for lack of a better word.
When you write, do you do so knowing, in the back of your mind, that you’ll be directing, so that you don’t write yourself anything to impossible to shoot, or do you not even think about that?
GREGORINI: I don’t do that. As a writer, I just let myself write whatever. When I then turned around and hired myself to direct it, and I looked at those water sequences, I was like, “How the hell am I gonna pull this off, on this micro-budget that we have to shoot with?” If I was thinking with my right head, I never would have done that, but I just allow myself to write whatever it is that I want. And then, when reality hits and I’m in the director’s chair, I try to do the best that I can with what the vision is. But, I think we all have limitations, as directors. I don’t care what the budget is, it’s probably never enough money and never enough time. You figure it out. Sometimes the limitations bring more creativity.
Both Kaya Scodelario and Jessica Biel are not obvious choices for these roles, but they’re so terrific in the film. What led you to Kaya and ultimately sold you on her as this character, especially having envisioned it as somebody else, originally?
GREGORINI: That was difficult. I actually saw every girl in that age bracket in Los Angeles, over months and months and months, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around anyone. Not that they weren’t extremely talented. Some of them were fabulous, and I want to work with them. But, none of them were Emanuel because it was so specific, in my mind. Also, Rooney Mara is a high bar. I wasn’t going to settle for anything less. So, I ended up actually taking a plane and going to London. I was like, “She’s not here. I know Emanuel is not here because I’ve literally met every actress that it could be.” My producers thought I was insane because we already had such a small budget. They were like, “Really?! You’re gonna go to England, and then we have to fly her over, we have to put her up, we’ve got to train her out of her British accent.” I was like, “I don’t know that’s what’s gonna happen, but for my own sanity, I need to go see.” And then, on day two in England, I met Kaya and I just knew. Casting is very instinctual. I really like to meet people. To me, it’s about their essence more than their audition. Kaya is not even a particularly good auditioner, but I didn’t care because I knew she was the girl. I think it will be exciting for American audiences to discover Kaya because I think she has a tremendous career ahead of her.
What made you decide to cast Jessica Biel?
GREGORINI: She read the script and loved it and wanted to meet. I wasn’t sure that she was the right person for the part ‘cause I’d never seen her do this type of role. And she was open to auditioning, so I was like, “Wow, okay.” She blew me away, in the audition. I was like, “Okay, great! Here’s your part.” I think she’s gonna be a real revelation to audiences who see her in a certain way. The truth is that she’s actually a great actress that has a lot of depth and range and nuance. It was a pleasure, really working with both of them.
Is this final product of the film pretty close to what you envisioned for it, or did it evolve a lot?
GREGORINI: Of course, there’s a lot of shaping in the edit, but one of the things that I learned from my first movie, Tanner Hall, was that your script better be rock solid because that’s the foundation of the entire thing. I really took a long time to get the script for Emanuel to really be where I wanted it to be. Even structurally, there wasn’t much of that kind of craziness going on in the edit room. It’s pretty much the script. If anything, it’s a leaner version of the script. A lot of things ended up on the edit room floor.
Because this film takes a pretty dark journey, was it important that, not only do you never really judge any of these characters, but that you do also leave audiences with a sense of hope?
GREGORINI: Yeah, I think hope is key, in life and in art. If you’re gonna take people on a journey that deals with some pretty heavy themes, I think you best have a sense of humor, here and there. Life, to me, is never one color. Even in the saddest moments, you can have a chuckle. And in the happiest moments, you can shed a tear. I think it’s important that that be a part of it. And what I love is when I’m in the theater with audiences and I hear them laugh. That’s such a relief to me. They’re going on the ride and they’re allowing themselves to enjoy it, even though we’re traversing some dark waters.
What made you change the title from Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes to The Truth About Emanuel?
GREGORINI: I think Tribeca just thought it was too long, quite honestly. That’s basically what it came down to. I put up a good fight, but in the end, they triumphed. But, I’m happy with it. It kept the main elements, which were Emanuel’s name and the word “truth.” I think we came to a happy compromise on that. I knew it was a very long title, but I’m quite superstitious. When I started writing it, that’s the title that came to me, so I had to keep it. I had to keep it until I was told I wasn’t keeping it.
rAre you still going to direct Your Voice in My Head?
GREGORINI: That movie is not actually happening. It’s all new to me because I haven’t been in the director-for-hire position before. It’s all a new experience. But apparently, it happens all the time, so I best get used to it.
Do you have any idea what you’ll direct next? Do you want to direct something you haven’t also written?
GREGORINI: I do, actually. I am open to that. That’s actually the primary reason why I signed on with CAA. I am interested in directing other people’s work. I don’t know what that next project is going to be, at the moment. I’m looking at a 1920s period piece, set in Paris, which is really exciting me right now. We’ll see what happens, in the future. I’m also starting to get the itch to go back to writing, myself. I don’t know, is the actual answer to that question.
Could you ever see yourself writing something that you’d give to someone else to direct?
GREGORINI: No! I don’t see it going that way because what I write is so personal. For whatever reason, I don’t see myself doing that. But, I can imagine a world in which I would direct someone else’s work that spoke to me. The test for me, when I read other people’s scripts, is whether I feel like there’s something about me that is the best person to tell this story. I have a pretty high bar for myself. There’s a lot of scripts that I read and think, “Oh, this is great, but I think there are 50 other directors who could bring this to the cinema.” When I think that it’s only me and that I’m the best one to do it, then I’ll go after it. I’m very jealous of actors that swoop in for 20 days, and then swoop back out. When you’re a director, you’re on that train for the next two years, so you best love it like you’ve never loved anything, ever.