Francesca Gregorini grabbed everyone’s attention when she made her directorial debut with Tanner Hall and now she is back with her new movie Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes – which was screened at Sundance London over the weekend.
We caught up with the director to chat about the new film, the exciting cast on board and what lies ahead.
– Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is your new film so can you tell me a little bit about the movie?
It is a movie about a young girl – played by Kaya Scodelario – whose mother died in childbirth and so she has had this missing piece in her life.
This neighbour moves in next door, played by the lovely Jessica Biel, who looks uncannily like her dead mother and so she develops this preoccupation with her.
In order to get closer to her she offers to baby-sit as she has a new born and in the process of doing that she gets pulled into this fragile fictional world. I don’t want to say much more as there are a lot of twists and turns and reveals and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
– You are in the director’s chair and have penned the screenplay so where did this movie start for you? And where did the idea for the film initially come from?
I had done my first film Tanner Hall, which I co-wrote and co-directed with my friend Tatiana von Furstenberg, and we discovered Rooney Mara and cast her in the lead role in the film. Rooney and I became close friends and after the movie was done both she and I were out of a job and I was like ‘well I will just write you your next job’.
So that is how it started and the character of Emanuel was supposed to be played by Rooney. But it took me three years to raise the funding for it and by this point she was really no longer of an age to play a seventeen year old – that is why the hunt started and I found the amazing Kaya. So that really was the impetus of the film.
The subject of the film is loss and salvation and redemption is really just mining my own subconscious and things that I needed to deal with. I guess as a writer you don’t know what you need to deal with and by writing it is kind of a conversation with yourself.
– Well that sort of leads into my next question really I read that you called this movie ‘facing your own demons’ so I wondered how you had done that whilst making this movie?
I struggled with infertility for eight years and I think that that was a loss for me as I was unable to have a child. So the character of Linda is that taken to an extreme – I imagined what the worst case scenario would be and that is Linda’s character.
I was interested in people’s coping mechanisms and denial is a really powerful coping mechanism, which I engage in from time to time, so I took that to the extreme with delusions and denial, which we are all capable of.
I grew up in a dysfunctional and alcoholic home where keeping secrets was part of it and I think I wrote Emanuel’s character as someone who can keep someone’s secret and be protective of that and then.
So, in a way, there was two very separate haunting or demons that I put into the same film. Mind you none of this was done with consciousness so I never set out to exercise my demons today (laughs) or I am going to write a movie about loss and redemption.
I think you just set about writing these characters that pop onto the page and by the end of it you realise what you needed to work out for yourself.
– This is a very powerful and emotional story and it was important to cast the right actress in the central role of Emanuel so what were you looking for as you were casting this role? And what did you see in Kaya?
The whole movie rests on her shoulder and so it was imperative that I cast the right girl. Once Rooney was no longer of an age to play this role I began the search for Emanuel. Rooney was a very high bar (laughs) and I was not going to cast anyone who was not as formidable an actress as her.
I saw every actress in that age range in Los Angeles – I am not saying that there weren’t amazing and talented girls there because there were however none of them were not Emanuel.
They didn’t have the essence of this character and, to me, that is crucial even more than your acting chops there needs to be an intricle part of the person that is very similar to the actual character – I saw that in Kaya.
When I couldn’t find the girl in Los Angeles I flew to London in the hope that I would find someone here. And on the second day Kaya came and we just sat down and chatted and I could just see something in her eyes that was this character and I trusted that.
When she sent me her audition even though it was not the best audition that I had seen for this part I knew she was Emanuel, and that was really all that mattered to me. I think she really proved me right and proved herself right because she does an amazing job in this film.
– She is an actress who is very much on the rise so how did you find working with her? And what did she bring to the development of this character?
I just think that she is an amazing actress. For me what separates the amazing ones from the good ones is their courage and I think that she is a very brave actor as she is willing to let the camera see her and see inside her and the essence of her heart.
I think that bravery is really going to take her very far because nothing scares her. Bravery in an actor really is what you want.
– Jessica Biel, Frances O’Connor and Alfred Molina make up a terrific cast list so can you tell me a bit about the rest casting process?
Jessica Biel read the script and came after the part herself. I wasn’t sure that she was the right person for the part because I had never seen her do anything in this realm before. But we met and she said that she was willing to audition and I was more than willing to see that audition.
And she just blew my mind as I had no idea what she was capable of. What I am super excited for the audiences to see is her performance and to really discover her and discover what she is capable of as am actor.
I think sometimes when you are that beautiful you do get typecast a lot in parts that don’t have a lot of depth and range and I think she is going to show people what she is capable of. This movie is an opportunity for it to be a pivotal point in her career.
Alfred is just… I love Alfred. As a man and as an actor it doesn’t get much better than him. He stayed on the project when funding came and when funding went and when actors came and actors left – he really was my rock. He is such an actor magnet and he helped pull in the calibre of actors that I have.
And Frances is just a formidable actress and I was so actress to get an opportunity to work with her. I think she did such an amazing job with that character as she brought more to it than what was on the page.
The same for Aneurin Barnard, a Welsh actor that I found when I came looking for Emanuel, and Jimmi Simpson who brings some much needed humour and absurdity to the movie.
– The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival at the beginning of the year so how have you been finding the response to the movie so far – it does seem to be going down very well?
Yes, it really has. I have to say that I am really pleased with the audience reaction it. I think inside the industry some people were nervous because it is really out of the box and it doesn’t really fit into… it isn’t a genre movie as it is a psychological, dramatic movie that has some thriller elements, magical/realism elements and humour .
It is a full bouquet in a way and that is the way that I experience life. I feel that the audience is responding because I think often filmmakers underestimate the audience and what they are capable of and how wide and broad their palette is. They can laugh and cry in a movie and go for the full ride. So, so far so good.
– The film played at Sundance London at the weekend so how excited are you to have the film screened in the UK?
For me it is super meaningful as I spent all of me teenage years here in England, from eleven to eighteen I was in the countryside in Surrey.
So for me it is meaningful because it is a homecoming, of sorts, and the central character is a teen and I feel that British culture and British wit influenced me – I think that my cinema as a European feel to it.
So I am really excited for British audiences to see it as they have played a big part in my upbringing and myself as a filmmaker. Hopefully the response with be good (laughs).
– Robert Redford said that it is a difficult time for independent movies at the moment when he opened the festival so how much would you agree with that having said that funding came and went from this project?
I don’t know any other time to be a filmmaker so it is hard for me to compare – he has been around a tad longer and he is probably a better judge of that. But it is definitely a struggle and I think if you are making a female driven film I think it is even more difficult to find funding.
But if there was a will then there is a way and there was no way that I was not going to do this movie. You have to going into with that mindset – that you are going to make this film, period.
I went in thinking like I was going to make it a certain budget level and when I realised that that was just going to take to long then I just cut it down – you really can make a film at any budget level and it rests on just how determined you are to make the film.
I think a lot of times you just have to make it at whatever money you can get your hands on because it is more important to make it then to do it at a specific budget level, in my mind anyway.
– Emanuel And The Truth About Fishes is only your second directorial outing so how are you setting into the director’s chair?
It is comfy (laughs). I felt that when I walked off the set of Emanuel it was really the first time that I realised ‘oh I am a director. I can do this and I am good at this’.
I think after the first film I felt a bit shaky because it is a big undertaking as you are in charge of a lot of people, a lot of careers and a lot of money and so it is a tremendous amount of responsibility. So I found that whole experience a little overwhelming.
But having got through the first round I walked onto set a bit more confident and I walked off set very confidence. Now I am just a pompous ass-hole (laughs), I am kidding.
I feel like I know my worth a bit more and I trust myself – you really have to do that as a director as there are so many people trusting you. I think I am feeling pretty good now (laughs), as long as I don’t get cut down to size by the British press.
– Finally what is next for you?
I am really considering getting hired as a director. I wrote, directed and produced this film and I did the same on my last film and it is just a massive undertaking that takes a long time.
My goal is to get to set and I want to get to set more and to do that I am going to have to be open to directing other people’s work. So right now I am reading a bunch of scripts and I am actually honing in on a couple that I really fancy – one actually takes place half in England and half in the States so hopefully I will be filming here.
That is one of my dreams actually, to work here. I was actually setting up Emanuel to film in England, I was here two summers ago trying to do that and while I failed I will be back (laughs).