Warning: This interview contains mild spoilers for Emma., in theaters February 21.
It takes barely ten minutes for someone to get naked in Emma. George Knightley (singer-turned-actor Johnny Flynn), protagonist Emma Woodhouse’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) neighbor, strides into his bedroom at Donwell Abbey and sheds the approximately 12,987 layers of clothing required of 19th century men in order to change for dinner. As his valet removes the final item (fun fact: there was no underwear back then) with a flourish, we get a nice long glimpse of his sculpted butt. This is not your mother’s (or even Gwyneth Paltrow’s) Emma.
And yet, Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 classic follows just about every rule of propriety and etiquette of the era. It’s not Clueless, which transposed the story of petty teenage heiress turned aspiring matchmaker from Regency-era England to 1990s Los Angeles. Instead of flouting convention, the director wields the restrictions to tease out the elements that would have shocked contemporary readers. The result is a film that feels fresh and exhilarating, despite telling an oft-recounted story. After all, longing for the broody best friend next door never goes out of style.
Emma., whose end period seems to declare its solemn status as the first Austen adaptation of the decade, marks de Wilde’s feature directorial debut — but it’s far from her first foray behind the camera. De Wilde’s decade of work for fashion brand Rodarte informed the gorgeous production design in Emma. Every shot looks like a perfected pastry confection, full of pastels and richly festooned ornaments. But the sexual tension? That’s all rock ‘n’ roll. A photographer and music video director, she’s shot album covers for Elliot Smith, the White Stripes, and Fiona Apple, and live concert documentaries for Arcade Fire and The Flaming Lips. Her work has appeared on the cover of Spin, as well as the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, and Nylon, among others.
“I see the rebellion under the skin and that struggle is everything to me,” de Wilde told Refinery29 in a phone interview ahead of the film’s release. Read on for a breakdown of just how she managed to put the horny back in Austen’s work.
Refinery29: Okay, we need to start with Johnny Flynn’s butt.
Autumn de Wilde: “I know, he’s so beautiful! But that’s not why I did it.”
Why did you decide to show it?
“I found a caricature that an artist had drawn of a woman warming her butt by the fire, and then I talked to Alexandra Byrne [the film’s costume designer] and said, ‘I don’t know what men wore underneath — I always see women undressing, with corsets and this and that, and stockings and garters. Can you please show me?’ She rented everything that would have been part of the routine, and Johnny Flynn was nice enough — in his boxers — to show me the process of getting dressed. Men and women were basically wearing the same thing: Dresses underneath their clothes and stockings. Mr. Knightley is a dominant character, the moral compass. He’s always mad at Emma, always yelling at her. But literally by stripping him bare, we could be reminded that he’s human too, and vulnerable. It was a way of telling the audience this is a man we need to all fall in love with.”
Was this your way of reclaiming Jane Austen for the female gaze?
“Jane Austen wrote such amazing fantasies of how we would really like some men to behave, especially men who are grumpy. She is the master of writing about that grumpy jerk who has this soft side and in real life, you’re like, ‘That is not enough, he’s a fucking grump, get away from him.’ But in a fantasy, that person is transformed, and only grumpy because they love you so much. And that is a really fun, thrilling escape.
“Isobel Waller-Bridge, my composer, and I talked about that moment being the Luke Skywalker moment. I was 7 when Star Wars came out, and the first time I saw Luke Skywalker, I was like Oh, I’m supposed to love him. And then Han Solo came in, and I was like Orrrr am I supposed to love HIM? I wanted all these different types of male beauty and feminine beauty, and I wanted to have multiple crushes. In order to have a successful leading man, you need to fall in love with him as a director, and the same for the successful leading lady. I needed to fall in love with Anya [Taylor-Joy] as well. The female gaze doesn’t only have to be on men, or not sexualizing women. I think there’s something really fascinating about giving that power to the performer, and saying You’re in a safe space, what would you do if you wanted to explore this? That is a fun part of being a director, which is why it’s important not to abuse those actors.”
What do you mean by that?
“A shortcut to make someone look hot is to humiliate them. As a director, you have an opportunity to take the shortcut, fuck with someone’s head and make it look hot. But if you’re really doing your job right, you and the actor are getting there together, and no one has a memory of being compromised. This might sound weird when we’re talking about holding hands, but even just that, the actors had to feel comfortable in that sensuality. We were sharing memories of being lovers, and being in love, and attracted to people.”
The female gaze doesn’t only have to be on men, or not sexualizing women. I think there’s something really fascinating about giving that power to the performer, and saying You’re in a safe space, what would you do if you wanted to explore this?
One of the most sexually charged scenes is when Emma and Mr. Knightley dance together for the first time. What’s the key to building up and sustaining that kind of sexual tension on-screen?
“I’m obsessed with the building blocks of a romantic moment. It’s like when you’re talking to your best friend and they want to hear everything. That’s where you say, I saw him from across the room, and he looked at me and then looked away, all that stuff. Or, they picked up something and I don’t know why it was so sexy. Some romantic memories are so fucking ridiculous. They don’t make sense unless you know how sexually charged that situation is between you and that person. It’s not just touching private parts. It’s not just kissing. It’s all that stuff that leads up to feeling like you might be able to do that.
“I love etiquette for that reason — it’s so sexy! The Victorian period, the Edwardian period, all these periods where you’re not allowed to touch. I was very clear with the actors when they went on this journey with me: I want to follow these etiquette rules. Don’t touch anyone’s arm unless it is a distinct moment where we are allowing contact. The reason they were so obsessed with dancing was because, of course, they were allowed to touch more than any other time in their lives! The choreography was very important. Emma doesn’t have her gloves on for that last dance, and I talked to our etiquette expert and said: ‘I’d like her to have bare hands.’ And she said, ‘Okay, we can do that because she could’ve just eaten. And if she just ate, she’d have had to take off her gloves. And maybe when they’re talking, she hasn’t put them back on yet, and then she can dance with her gloves off.’ It was a really fun collaborative experience to together as a group wonder, What is going to make this erotic?”
Over the years, Jane Austen’s books have gotten labeled as stuffy or prudish, when in fact they were written to be thrilling, romantic, and more than a little horny. Why do you think that is?
“What I love about Jane Austen is that it’s so well-written. It’s like a great song — you decide what it means according to your life. You can read Jane Austen, and if you feel like everyone is a prude, you can 100% find a backup for that. Maybe because I’m a romantic, I see all the eroticism in the book. That was what was important for me to bring out. I really thought about all this bullshit about [romance] being for girls. Die Hard is one of the best movies, and that’s a rom-com! I also love Fast and the Furious, and those guys, their eyes well-up when they look at each other. It’s romantic! It has action, but I think that men also like romance. I’m not interested in winning everyone over, but I definitely also wasn’t like, This is for us, you’re not invited. Welcome, young men!”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.