After Ellen: Francesca Gregorini on the queerness of “The Truth About Emanuel”

Out director Francesca Gregorini premiered her second film The Truth About Emaneul (then called Emanuel and the Fishes) at Sundance last year, receiving accolades for her writing, directing and performances by stars Kaya Scodelario and Jessica Biel. Now the drama will hit select theaters in the U.S. on January 10, and the innate queerness of the film will not be lost on LGBT viewers.

Kaya Scodelario is Emanuel, a bored but witty 17-year-old who lives with her father and Stepford wife step-mom. She spends her time riding the train into the city for a job at a general store pharmacy, but quickly becomes intrigued by her new neighbor, Linda (Jessica Biel), a gorgeous and mysterious mother to a newborn named Chloe. Emanuel, whose mother died during the C-section she had while Emanuel was being born, offers to babysit for Linda when she needs to get out of the house. They embark on a relationship that is not quite understood by the people around them, causing Emanuel’s stepmother to urge Linda to make sure her interest in men is known to Emanuel, as she can sense Emanuel’s “unnatural” feelings for her.

Although both Emanuel and Linda have inner-turmoil over loss in their lives, they find a bond with one another that borders on mother/daughter and romantic/sexual. It’s a delicate dance that the actors play well and that Francesca has executed beautifully. We spoke with Francesca about the relationship between her female protagonists and what makes a gay film “gay.” The name Emanuel is not one you hear a lot, especially for a woman. What was the reason you chose that and included in the title?
Francesca Gregorini: Basically it just came to me, like the rest of the story. And I’m quite superstitious so that’s the name came to me so that’s the name that stuck. And actually when I wrote out the name I wrote out the male spelling just because I’m a bad speller, basically. And when I realized what it was, you’ve seen the film so there’s actually a scene in the film that explains why she has the incorrect spelling of the name, that’s how superstitious I am about things like that. I just feel like when you’re writing and it’s going well, you tap into the source—not to sound too new agey about it but I don’t like to mess with things too much. I like to be a conduit for what’s happening, whether it’s what’s happening in my unconscious or it’s happening, you know, in wherever I’m tapping into.

AE: I don’t know if it’s because I’m a queer person myself, but I saw the film as being very queer and I was wondering if that’s something you put into the film. Like even in the film, the stepmother wonders if this is some sort of lesbian infatuation.
FG: It definitely was a conscious choice and something that I talked about with Jessica Biel and Kaya Scodelario both. I think, you know, I think love is an interesting thing and when you love someone, I think we’re sexual beings and sexuality is part of who we are and sometimes, espseically when you’re young, you love someone—there’s that tension. And I think that tension exists whether you’re young or old or whatever—when you start to care for someone, sometime it has that component to it. And whether you act upon it or don’t act upon it is a different story but I definitely wanted that to be a part of their dialogue, for lack of a better word. Also I think people are complex and relationships are layered and so I like to sort of, in my films and characters portray people as I experience them, which are complex and layered, really.

AE: The one question I had from the film is if Linda felt like it was more of a mother/daughter relationship or romantic/sexual with Emanuel.
FG: Well I don’t think it’s like—I don’t think we’re all operating on such a conscious level. I think love is love and, like i said, it’s complicated and whatever. So I think these two characters are attracted to each other and you can interpret that in any way that you want. That’s what one ends up doing with art anyway, we sort of bring our own selves and our own experiences to it. Where you and other gay people may come away with really picking up on all the gay overtones that are in the film, I think someone else may much less. It’s definitely there. It’s like “Oh my god! Whoops! How did that happen?” It was definitely discussed and it was definitely something that I think makes the piece more interesting.

AE: I really liked that aspect and I’m sure I would have liked that even if I wasn’t queer. But you could have pushed it more, if you wanted to. At what point do you say “I like that they are flirting with this, insinuating this, but I don’t want it to happen on-screen for them”?
FG: Well because it just wasn’t that movie. That wasn’t the story I was telling, know what I mean? It went exactly to the point that I wanted it to. Obviously actors will do what actors do but ultimately you have control in the editor room to sort of pick and choose where the camera is looking, what takes to use, so I think I had them go as far as was appropriate for the story I was telling. If I was telling a “gay” story, then obviously it would have been very different. I think there are gay undertones in this movie, but this is not my gay opus, if you will.

AE: It was the same with your film Tanner Hall, which I really liked. Is that something you think will always be a part of your work.
FG: It’s such a part of me. When you watch people’s films, especially if they’re the writer and director on it, you can’t help but know them more because there’s so much of them in their work. As a writer, that’s the well you go to. It’s not like there’s some other well you have access to. You have access to yourself and your experiences. And as a director, you choose what interests you and the time you take with things is dependent on your level of interest in something, and what your proclivity is. And also making a movie takes an F of a long time, like three years of your life if you’re lucky. So you better be telling something that is of worth, and by that I mean that has some meaning to you, and because I am a gay woman, that is definitely a part of my identity even though I’ve not found the gay story that I want to tell that is close to my heart. I think I couldn’t—one of the characters in Emanuel is gay. I put some of that into my work because it’s just a part of who I am and I think it’s important that it be reflected in my work and also because it’s important that more of that be out there in the world. And also in the world where it’s not “Oh this is a ‘gay’ movie,” like mostly going to be seen by gay people. It’s like, I think it’s also important to have these gay undertones and gay characters in “other non-gay” films. That’s what I feel I’ve been able to do and in the future, I don’t know.

AE: It’s interesting because you premiered this film at Sundance where typically they will list films that are “gay” and your film wasn’t among them, maybe because it isn’t so “hit-you-over-the-head” gay.
FG: I’m so glad you brought this up because I kind of, you know, I take issue with that. Because I think as a gay filmmaker I should be embraced by Outfest and gay-centric publications, etc. Just because I’m not telling strictly gay stories, I mean, as you pointed out, both of the films that I’ve done definitely attract some form of gayness, for lack of a better word And I am a gay filmmaker so its like, I think, I don’t know. You bring up a good point and what one that has puzzled me as well. I think it’s because they want to see you do gay specific work, and I’m not ruling out by any stretch of the imagination doing a gay love story at some point in my life and career, but in the meantime, I think the work that I am doing—and I do bring gay themes into it, should not necessarily be overlooked.

AE: It’s funny because in the past, gay people—we’ve had to work with less in terms of subtext and things like that. Now that there are movies with two men kissing or two women kissing or having a 10-minute sex scene like in Blue is the Warmest Color, it’s like, this film still screams queer to me but I like how it’s kind of without the hit-you-over-the-head gayness about it.
FG: Great. I think this might be my first queer interview and I’m super psyched to be acknowledged in this realm because these are my peeps!

AE: I’m sure you’re asked all the time about being a woman filmmaker but as a queer filmmaker do you get things sent to you that are queer-themed ever? Or do you think because you haven’t made any gay-specific films you aren’t approached with those kinds of things?
FG: The two films I’ve done I’ve written myself so only as of late have I been open to directing other people’s work and I can’t say—I’m trying to think of the scripts that I’ve read. I don’t think I have been sent specifically gay-themed material. I don’t know if that’s because i haven’t done what is seen as “gay films” or not, but I definitely don’t rule it out. I feel like that’s so personal to me that the film that I do would be something I write because I haven’t found, within myself, the story I want to tell, you know? But I have a feeling, because it’s personal that it’s something I write or direct rather than a gay story I choose to direct. But you never know. I’m not ruling it out.