The creepy thriller “The Truth About Emanuel” deals with “loss and heartbreak and madness and mortality,” the writer and director Francesca Gregorini said recently. “Every artist is haunted by specific themes, and those, for better or for worse, seem to be mine.”
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Ms. Gregorini, 45, was born in Rome and is the daughter of Barbara Bach — a former Bond girl, model who appeared in a Playboy pictorial, and who later married Ringo Starr — and Augusto Gregorini. As a filmmaker, she is deeply interested in the various ways humans wound and redeem each other. Her second feature, “The Truth About Emanuel,” which opens in theaters on Jan. 10 and is available now on video on demand, follows 18-year-old Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario) as she becomes troublingly devoted to Linda (Jessica Biel), a new neighbor who bears an eerie resemblance to Emanuel’s mother, who died in childbirth. Linda hires Emanuel to babysit for her infant daughter, and together the two women cultivate a charged partnership.
Ms. Gregorini originally wrote Emanuel for Rooney Mara, who aged out of the part while the filmmakers were securing funding. Ms. Scodelario is best known for her work on the British television series “Skins.” The movie indulges certain horror conventions, and its most unsettling narrative concerns the disorienting power of love: what it blinds us to, how we manage its loss. “When you’re hungry to be loved and hungry to belong, you kind of go there — unquestioningly,” Ms. Gregorini said. “That’s a beautiful thing, but also a dangerous and detrimental thing. I wanted to explore that, devoid of judgment.” Ms. Gregorini spoke with Amanda Petrusich on the phone from Los Angeles. These are excerpts from their conversation.
Q. Fantastical elements aside, how personal was this story for you?
A. Emanuel encompasses a lot of my struggles as a youth. I had a mother who was absent — although not dead, thank God — in different ways throughout my childhood. That’s a big theme in my life. I was able to explore that through Emanuel, while the character of Linda encompassed some of my struggles as an adult. Obviously, I’m not as out-there as Linda — or not yet, anyway. But both of those characters are pieces of me, and I decided to put them in the same movie and have them work it out. It was a very expensive form of therapy.
Sometimes, when you’re invested in a story psychically, the work changes.
Very early on in the filmmaking process, a movie takes on a life of its own. It has demands and needs. You switch seats — from being the almighty creator of this thing to being in service of it, and in some ways, that represents motherhood. You make this baby, and then before you know it, you’re subject to it: You have to have a really clear vision of what it is that you’re doing, but at the same time have the let-go to see what it wants to become.
Have you shown the film to your mother?
I have, and she’s so supportive. Because she’s an artist in her own right, she’s very respectful and appreciative of my process. Now she’s the stage mother I never had. She’s so proud. As a kid, and even as an old kid, that’s all you want — for your parents to think you’re the bee’s knees.
Your previous film, “Tanner Hall,” also concerned a coming-of-age.
Coming-of-age as a theme speaks to me. One could argue that I’m still stuck there myself. But all the different moments where we come of age, those transitions are so rich because they’re painful. You have to take a big leap forward. I’m drawn to that because it’s full of drama. You can’t go somewhere without losing something. You have to leave things behind. Again, it’s about loss and heartbreak. All those things that don’t kill us, they make us stronger. I love that.