Wages of Film: Francesca Gregorini Talks Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes

On day two of Sundance London 2013 I was fortunate to have an opportunity to sit down and speak with the writer-director of Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes, Francesca Gregorini. Despite Emanuel being Francesca’s second feature film following 2009’s Tanner Hall, it represents her writing and directing solo debut. You wouldn’t think it. Francesca talks with the maturity and wisdom of a veteran filmmaker, mixed with the effervescent enthusiasm of a storyteller who possesses limitless passion for their craft. We spoke about how she came to filmmaking, how Emanuel was born out of her sub-conscious, films as windows into the souls of their creators, film as a magical art form, how you can’t go wrong with the Anderson’s, and what turns her off; filmically speaking.

Paul Risker: Why a career in filmmaking?

Francesca Gregorini: I think it is about the storytelling; about telling tales. I started out as a songwriter actually. That was how I started telling my tales. But I am a very visual person, so even my songs were super visual and I found it hard to actually make a living [laughs] as a songwriter. Then I had a band for a while, but I didn’t have the chops vocally to make it in that field, and so I transitioned from song writing into script writing. My first script I sold to HBO and so I figured maybe I am a bit more gifted in this arena than trudging around with my bass. That is sort of how the shift happened, and then I went from scriptwriting into directing.

Paul Risker: You have spoken about how this film was born out of your sub-conscious and your demons. How much is the film an insight into you, and because it is fiction, does the fiction in this film and other films in general distort the insight film can provide into the writer-director?

Francesca Gregorini: Does it distort it? I think it illuminates it.

In telling a tale the truth actually rises to the top if it is done right; if it is done well. Hopefully it is done that way in my film. It is hard to communicate the truth in just its bare nakedness, but in telling a tale I think you cut to the heart of the matter; better than I probably can in conversations. In some ways when you are a writer-director a film ends up being a conversation with yourself. This movie in a lot of ways is about the secrets that we keep from ourselves and from each other. It is hard to get to yourself sometimes, as yourself, and in writing and making films I find my way to myself. It might not always be the happiest place, but it’s the truth, and the truth as they say “Will set you free.”

Paul Risker: So sometimes to get to the truth we need to use the guise of fiction. Do you think that this is because every film means something, has some kind of metaphor that seems to rise to the surface, rooted there whether you intend it or not?

Francesca Gregorini: I think so, yeah. To be honest here, there are a lot of films that are not great, are not doing much of anything, have no message, and not much heart. It’s a lot of pretty faces running around, explosions going off and a couple of tits thrown in.

Film is a metaphor, and it has the capacity to have a lot of meaning and to explore humanity, which is what I think it is best suited for.

Paul Risker: How conscious are you of that as a storyteller? Can you be heavy-handed with it or as you say do you just have to set out to tell a story, and hope the message, the metaphor surfaces?

Francesca Gregorini: I try not to be heavy-handed. I find that really annoying. If a message comes through, it comes through because it wants to, needs to, and demands to. So it is doing its own thing, and I don’t sit down and think I am going to write a movie about loss, salvation and redemption. I’m not quite that pompous, even in my worst hour. But you start writing a tale about these people struggling to get on with their lives, and the message comes by itself. I try to steer away from melodrama, message or any of that bit of business and just tell the story. In telling the tale about humans connecting and finding their way, I think things pop out, and that’s fine.

Paul Risker: As audiences we can follow a visual story. We can combine the words with the images. We can understand what the film is saying, what the characters are trying to say without as you say it being done with a heavy hand. Do you think it is important to trust the audience?

Francesca Gregorini: Yes! The audience is underestimated so much of the time, and part of what I tried to do in editing this film was to take away everything that wasn’t totally essential to the telling of the tale. One of the ways I think the audience stays engaged with the story and with your movie is if they are piecing stuff together for themselves. You don’t have to hold them by the hand or spoon feed them because they are bright, intelligent, artistic people themselves. You want them to connect the dots because it is a conversation and not just information being thrown at them. So it is important to value your audience and to know that they are going to figure it out.

Paul Risker: I have been reading a lot of what you have to say about the film, to me it is a film of opposites. You have described it as as an haunted dance between Emanuel and Linda, but equally it is an haunted dance between seduction and fear, hope and despair, and how loss and redemption are an integral part of our journey, which fuels this dance. Are these the themes you will look to explore further?

Francesca Gregorini: All of those themes: seduction and fear, salvation and redemption; as artists you swim in the same pond. Those are your themes and you’re s*** to figure out. With each film, each song, or whatever your field is, you dig deeper and continue to explore them.

It will probably be in a very different way that I explore those themes as I move forward, because for sure I have not cracked it; I am not liberated yet, sadly. I made first film Tanner Hall with my very dear and best friend Tatiana von Furstenberg. It was a collaboration – writing and directing – and so for the both of us I love that film. I am super proud of it as my first film, but Emanuel goes much deeper. What I learned on my first film was that it was exhausting making a film. It takes up a minimum of three years of your life, so you better f****** go for it. There is no time to pussy foot around things. You better just dive in there. So with Tanner Hall we sort of waited in the pool, and I think it was a great first film, but I am prouder of my second effort, and I hope to go even further in the next film.

Paul Risker: One of the things I wanted to ask you about was your interest in the visual side of filmmaking. Film is a visual medium and that is where our experience derives from. But what intrigues me is your interest in the essence of actors, not just their skills, but the essence they bring to the performance. This suggests that you are always looking inward beyond the superficial aesthetic.

Francesca Gregorini: When I cast I sit down with the actors and have a conversation with them as a human being [laughs]. I don’t just want them to walk in, stand and deliver. What people connect with in actors is when they reveal their humanity. You are seeing them, in the character, in the clothes, in the disguise if you will, but what moves you is them allowing you to see them. I make it a point to try to find them [laughs], and then see how much of them resemble the character I have written. I try to cast it as close to that as possible, because they are all great actors, all of them, but it is their essence that I am interested in. It is the essence that the audience connects with in the end.

Aesthetically, I am really a closet cinematographer. I love aesthetics. I’m just not a technical person or I would probably be a cinematographer. But I think it is important that a film be aesthetically pleasing and enrapturing, because that is such a big part of the journey. So I have no interest in just setting up the camera and documenting the script. You have to take it to the next level. It is a chance for your imagination to take a ride. The screen is a big space and it should be explored, and you should take chances aesthetically. So I try to do that, and I’m going to be pushing it further and further as I move forward.

Paul Risker: In your director’s statement you state that Emanuel is, “Grounded in true human emotion and yet flexible enough to stretch its wings into magical realism.” How do you define “Magical realism” for your cinema compared to the cinema of other filmmakers?

Francesca Gregorini: To me film is a magical medium. As I have said, I am not really interested in this. This is fine. We are doing this. We are having this conversation. We are seated here, but it (film) has the potential to explore, to go and to capture the conversation that is going on beyond this conversation. We are connecting in a certain way, but if I was filming this, I would be going into the blue of your eyes, and picking up on things that are happening, that aren’t happening in reality, yet are. It’s just that we don’t have a way to see it, but with the lens of a camera you can imagine what that feels like, what that would look like and what colours it would be and how it would move. That is what I am interested in as a filmmaker, not just the documentation of our existence as we experience it because that is already happening. We know that, but documenting the magic of what it is to be human, to connect and to live and stuff [laughs]. Live and stuff.

Paul Risker: Are there any particular influences?

Francesca Gregorini: I am a big Polanski fan and he does that where he glides sort of near the underbelly of things. I love Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson; you can’t really go wrong with the Anderson’s [laughs]… Herzog. I’m not a big consumer of cinema or literature actually for that matter. I really like to make stuff; to keep it pure.

Paul Risker: Is it a good thing to be cinematically influenced, up to a point, or should you try to keep a little distance between yourself and sources of influence?

Francesca Gregorini: I think it is different for everyone. Friends of mine who are filmmakers are avid cinema buffs. They have seen everything, and that is great. It really does work for them because they operate from that point of view whereas I don’t. I hate research more than anything in life. I would rather sit down and write something and be dead wrong than spend that time researching s***. It is not what turns me on, whereas other people spend months researching and dread the idea that they are going to actually have to write it at some point. So it is whatever works for you.

Paul Risker: What do you hope audiences take away from Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes? What experience can they expect?

Francesca Gregorini: Hope! Hope that as far out on the ledge as you might be, there is probably someone who can find you that can recognise you. “Hi. You’re out on the ledge too.”

The message if there is one is that you can’t really save your own ass, but in saving someone else you end up saving yourself. So I think it is really about human connection, and as mad as you can be, there is hope.