Multi-faceted writer/director Francesca Gregorin has spent the the past several years carving out a diverse body of work, which has been turning the heads of both critics and film fans alike. Her character-driven films are visceral and darkly humorous, stylistically bold, with undertones of the magical and surreal. Her stunningly beautiful work has, without a doubt, established herself as one to watch in the years to come.
Raised in Rome, Los Angeles and the English countryside, she brings a worldly, passionate and unique sensibility to her filmmaking. A Brown University graduate with a Theater Arts major, Francesca sold scripts to both HBO and Paramount before co-helming her directorial debut “Tanner Hall” with Tatiana Von Furstenberg. The film marked the screen debut of Rooney Mara in a lead role. Rooney alongside Brie Larson and Georgina King play a trio of boarding school girls entering their senior year. This coming of age drama focuses on the girls flirting with adulthood and the consequences that brings. The film was an official selection at the Toronto Film Festival (2009).
Francesca next wrote and directed “The Truth About Emanuel”, which stars Jessica Biel, Kaya Scodelario and Alfred Molina. The film tells the story of a young woman (Scodelario) who becomes obsessed with her mysterious new neighbor (Biel) who bears a striking resemblance to the girl’s dead mother. It premiered in the US Dramatic Competition at Sundance (2013) and is being distributed by Tribeca Films domestically, and Myriad Pictures abroad. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Francesca Gregorini to discuss her roots in the entertainment industry, the process of bringing her scripts to screen, the challenges of bringing ‘The Truth About Emanuel’ to to life and much more!
I wanted to give our readers a little bit of background on you. What was it that intrigued you about the world of filmmaking initially?
I was a songwriter before I was a filmmaker, so to me it is really about telling stories. Through filmmaking, I found a better avenue for my particular talent in telling stories. I have always been compelled to tell stories ever since I was a child. I started with songwriting as my medium and then segued into screenwriting and then to directing. It just flowed in that way.
Who were some of the influences, both musically and directorially, who help shape the artist we see today?
I am a huge Roman Polanski fan. When it comes to the old school, I am a huge fan of him. I love Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson, when it comes to guys who are more current. I am a big fan of Terrence Malick as well. I am a big fan of The Smiths, The Pixies and PJ Harvey. They are the people who inspired me as a musician. It all goes into the same pot, whether it is music or film, it all goes into the creative process.
You latest film is “The Truth About Emanuel.” For those who aren’t familiar with it and without giving away any of the twists and turns, what can you tell us about the film?
The best way to describe it is a psychological drama with some thriller elements, some surreal absurd elements and some dark humor. It is the story of a young girl whose mother died at childbirth, so she has a missing piece in her life. A new neighbor moves in next door that looks uncannily like her dead mother, so she develops with a preoccupation or obsession with her. In order to get closer to her, she offers to babysit because the woman has a newborn. In the process of doing that gets strapped into this woman’s fragile, fictional world. She ends up becoming the gatekeeper or protector, if you will. I think that kind of sets it up without giving away the twists and turns.
What can you tell us about the inspiration for the story and the process of bringing it to life?
The inspiration for any story, whether it is a song or a script, comes from me mining my own psyche and exercising those demons. [laughs] The main themes that run through this film are loss, madness and mortality. I think those are terms worthy of exploring and touch all of us because they are parts of the human condition. I experienced some loss in my childhood. Thank God none of it was death! [laughs] Growing up, I had an absent mother for some of my childhood. I think that is something you process throughout your life and is something a lot of us share. Basically, I think the character of Emanuel represents me in my youth and the character of Linda represents me in my adult life. Obviously, it is in exaggerated form and hopefully I am not quite as mental as Linda! [laughs] We definitely share traits, let’s put it that way. I also like the theme of carrying secrets. I think we all do that for the ones we love, especially children for the adults in their life. Part of loving someone is not wanting to burst their bubble, especially when you see the person is rather frail. It is a loving thing to do, yet it causes a lot of crazy stuff to go down.
How did the script evolve along the way from what was in the original pages to the final product?
Interestingly enough, the script I had written for Rooney Mara because Tatiana von Fürstenberg and I had cast her had cast and discovered her in ‘Tanner Hall.’ We became close friends and I said I would write her a script. It took me three years to pull the financing together for it. By that time, she was too old to play a teenager, so that was the impetuous for writing the part. She was the inspiration for the character of Emanuel. As far as how it changed, any true screenwriter will tell you that writing a script is all about the writing. It doesn’t differ much. I was very lucky with the script because it really kind of wrote itself to a large degree. The rewriting process isn’t so much about change as it is about leaving out things that are not as necessary as you think. That is a process that continues in the editing room. The editing room is kind of you final pass on your script in a way. I am a big re-writer but all of the main themes and characters didn’t change exclusively from the first draft to the last to a great degree.
You hit the ball out of the park when it came to casting “The Truth About Emanuel.” What can you tell us about the casting process and was it difficult to find the right mix of people to bring your story to life?
To replace Rooney was a big challenge, as you can imagine. I literally met with every girl in that age range in Los Angeles over a course of months and months and months! I couldn’t find Emanuel. It was not for a lack of talent in this town because God knows there are some brilliant actresses. None of them felt, in their essence, like Emanuel to me. As a director, that is really how I cast. It is less about the audition and more about if the person has the essence of the character already in them. Ultimately, that is what is going to shine through — at least it is in my experience. When I couldn’t find Emanuel here, I got on a plane and went to London. I know they spoke English and had great actors! [laughs] I met Kaya Scodelario on day two and that was that! I just knew the minute she sat down that our search was over! That was the process of finding Emanuel. Kaya shares an innocence and depth that is behind her years, along with a biting sense of humor. It was about finding this rare, complex girl that is also so appealing, brave and true. Kaya as Emanuel is all of those things. For the part of Linda, Jessica Biel read the script; she loved it and wanted to meet. I wasn’t sure she would be right for the part because I hadn’t seen her do this kind of work in her other films. She told me she was willing to audition, which is how strongly she felt she was right for the part and how badly she wanted to play the part. I said “Fine!” She really blew me away in the audition. I was like “Wow!” I think that is the same way audiences will feel. It will be a real revelation; what she brings to the part. Their chemistry, hers and Kaya’s, was amazing. Alfred Molina was one of the first people I cast. God Bless him! He stayed on even when the cast would come together and then fall apart and financing would come together and fall apart. He was my rock! He would say “I am not going anywhere! I’m doing this film!” The entire cast of the cast of the film did the film for scale, practically nothing, so it was really a labor of love not only for me but for everyone involved. I think you feel and see that in the film through the performances. There is a lot of heart and goodwill. Everyone really brought their talent and rolled up their sleeves to make it happen. Jimmi Simpson gave a great performance and Frances O’Connor really strikes the right balance with the character of the stepmother. Aneurin Barnard is someone I discovered in London while looking for Emanuel. At that point, I hadn’t cast the part of Claude yet. I thought I should look at some boys while I was in London as well. I am glad I did because I found Aneurin! He was such a discovery! He is such a sweetheart and did a terrific job in the film?
Looking back on this project as a whole, what stands out as some of the biggest challenges you faced?
I think the biggest challenge I faced is the same challenge faced by all indie filmmakers and that is the financing. If you are truly working outside of the system, it is about finding people willing to take a gamble on you and your vision. It’s hard, especially when you have a female driven piece. It is a hard sell when you say “This is a film about lose, madness and mortality.” People aren’t exactly seeing dollar signs! [laughs] It took a while but in the end, if you have to make this movie and that is how I felt, then you make it happen. You may have to do it for not as much money as you thought but that is just part of the process of filmmaking. As far as one of the bigger challenges on set, I would say shooting the water sequences was certainly a challenge on this budget level. That was quite a feat and I am very proud of those sequences. I am proud of myself for pulling it off. I am proud of the entire crew and I am proud of Kaya! It wasn’t like she was a water baby! [laughs] It was a real challenge for her. It was one of those things where you just have to power through and hope that it is worth it. It definitely was!
Was there anything you wanted to achieve stylistically with this film or explore directorially?
This is a narrative film, in many ways it follows Hollywood conventional film storytelling. What excites me is pushing those boundaries by going into surreal or absurd moments. I like to shoot a heightened reality. I think my films are realistic and certainly grounded in true human emotion, connection and struggles but they take some liberties and flights of fancy. I am a very aesthetic person, so I take great care in how this film looks and feels in terms of the cinematography, the production design and costume design. To me, it needs to be a feast for the eyes. That is how I like to seduce my audiences into the story. That is how I feel they are most willing to go on the ride. If you take a couple left turns, they are still there with you because they bought into. That is especially true if they have bought into the lead character, then you have them where you want them and can go anywhere you want. I think for this film, in particular, what was important to me was getting the tone right. Since it travels in some dark waters, I wanted to make sure it did have a sense of humor about it as well and it wasn’t this butter ride where people walk out of the theater decimated. I wanted to deal with some real issues that aren’t particularly gun but still have some laughs along the way. It was really important for me was to strike the right tone, look and feel of the film.
How do you feel you have evolved as a filmmaker since first starting out?
In term of how I have grown from “Tanner Hall” to this movie is I am more confident as a filmmaker. I think that allows me to take greater chances. I think I have become bolder stylistically and have dug deeper into myself. One thing I learned from “Tanner Hall” that making a film is this major endeavor that requires everything you’ve got for many years on the trot. If you are going to make a film, you best make it about something that is truly important to you and have something to say that is meaningful, otherwise you have just dedicated so many years of your life to something, With that said, I think I just went for it more than I did on “Tanner Hall.” I hope to continue along that path on my next film. You have to be brave because there is not much time! [laughs] We need to be brave in life and in our art as well by taking those chances. I feel I have been rewarded in doing that with “The Truth About Emanuel.” It came out the way I wanted and possibly better. That, in large part, is due to the collaboration with Kaya, Jessica and everyone else who brought their talent to the project.
Where are you headed next when it comes to film projects? Another other areas you are anxious to explore?
I am anxious to explore outer space! [laughs] I have begun work on that but I can tell it is going to be a few years in the making. I have a distinct that will not be my next film. I am also working on something that takes place in Paris in the 1920s, so that might possibly be my next project. There are a few things I am circling and that are circling me, so I don’t feel I am at liberty to announce what my next thing is at this point. There is no firm decision on that has been made to date. I am definitely open to directing other people’s work. I think that is an exciting prospect for me because I have not done that yet. At the same time, I think at my core I will always be a writer and it is what helps keep me sane! [laughs] I am definitely going to continue along that track as well.
You definitely seem to be great at juggling all of the different aspects of filmmaking. Is there a part of the process that you adore or a part that you absolutely dread when it comes to filmmaking?
The part to me that feels like you are tapping into the source and feels like magic is the writing because there is nothing there and then, suddenly, you have created out of thin air this world of characters, what they are saying and doing. That to me feels like an out of body experience! When it is working and going right, you are kind of a conduit o this story that needed to be told. You are kind of just birthing it and it almost doesn’t even belong to you in many ways. To me, that is the magical aspect of it. The part I find I enjoy the most is being on set and shooting. I love actors and I think that is part of why I have been so fortuitous in getting incredible performances out of them. I think actors by nature are very sensitive creatures and sometimes directors don’t particularly love actors and view them as a means to an ends. For me, I genuinely love them. I don’t know if that is because my mother [Barbara Bach] was an actress or what it is about them but I find that rapport and working relationship really satisfying. That is probably the part that is the most fun for me. The part of the process that requires the most out of me and sometimes I find it the most tedious but I really speak to it in a dogged manner is the editing. That is the part, at the end of the day, which really makes or breaks a film. I think editors and editing are the unsung heroes of filmmaking because that is where you movie is made or broken. It is the part of the process where you can really elevate what has been given to you by all the actors and heads of department. I really take it seriously and take that as the greatest responsibility.
I find your work truly inspiring as do many other people. What is the best piece of advice you can pass along to young filmmakers, writers and all-around creatives who look to you for inspiration?
First of all, thank you very much for the compliment. From my experience, things have gotten better as time has gone on. Just do it! [laughs] I know a lot of people who have had a script for years and are like “Oh, I need to get X amount of dollars to make it.” or this that and the other. The truth of the matter is those people are never going to make their films. You can’t let anything stand in your way. I ended up making “The Truth About Emanuel” for exactly 1/5th of the budget that I was told by many a professional that was needed to be spent to do this script justice. At the end of the day, I just couldn’t rally that amount of money. I just pulled the trigger and said “I am going to make this film with the money I have and come what may.” Thank God I did because that is how we got into Sundance and I got to get my foot further in the door and advance myself as a filmmaker. My best advice is to give yourself a time limit, raise the money you can raise and then adapt your vision and script to make it for that. At the end of the day, you just have o get in the game anyway you can. I am in a fortunate position because I am also a writer and I can turn around and hire myself to direct. If you are not a writer and you are a direct, make friends with writers. Find out who are the writers in you school or town and familiarize yourself with who does the work that interests you. The script is the blueprint for your movie, so if it is not shit hot, then your movie is not going to be that. You are building your film on that foundation. To me, it is all about the story and writing. You can shoot it beautifully and have amazing actors but if you are telling a story worthy of being told or that moves you, you aren’t going anywhere with it that you want to be going. It is all about story and making sure what you invest your time into is of meaning and worth. If you don’t feel passionate about it, you are going to lose steam. You can’t fake it and you have to be very passionate about the story you need to tell and bring to the screen. You have to feel that nothing will dissuade you from it. You will get knocked down about 155 times, so the only thing that gets you standing back up is your resolve to tell that story! That is my experience anyway!
Thank you so much for your time today. It has been a pleasure to speak with you about the film. It is a truly brilliant piece of work. You have gained a fan for years to come!
Thank you so much, Jason. I really appreciate hearing that! Thank you for your time as well! Take care and bye for now!