If you ask her, Emma Holly Jones was practically born to make Mr. Malcolm's List. "I grew up in love with Jane Austen," the 30-year-old filmmaker says. "I'm named after Emma, I've always had that book on my bedside table, and I've watched every period drama that's ever been made."
Jones never thought she would have a chance to create a new period piece — an Austen remake, sure, but something truly original seemed too rare a find. Enter Suzanne Allain's Mr. Malcolm's List, and the screenplay's rise to the top of The Black List, a website where screenplays receive grades and feedback from top industry executives. Mr. Malcolm's List ended up being selected for a table read, which is how Jones found it. "I fell in love with it from moment one," Jones says. "I couldn't believe my luck. It really felt like Jane Austen's long lost screenplay. I never would've imagined that something original with her charm would emerge in my life. "
So Jones contacted Allain's agent and started discussions, eventually partnering with Refinery29's Shatterbox to create the short film Mr. Malcolm's List, a prelude to all the drama and disasters outlined in Allain's original feature script. And while the marriage plot may have been told time and time again, Allain and Jones worked together to create a storyline that added depth and modern nuances to the characters. Watch the film here, and read on to learn more about the casting, the story, and how Tinder played an important role in the nineteenth century tale.
Refinery29: What was your first impression of the script?
Emma Holly Jones: "The dialogue feels exceptional. It feels completely authentic and part of its time. But I think the motivations of some of these characters have these quirks of contemporary emotion in them. Whether it’s the fact that Selena Dalton is more outspoken than women would have been at the time, or that Malcolm is more in touch with his emotions than men would have been at the time. I think there is wonderful subtext in that script that is very relatable to a contemporary audience in very subtle ways."
How did you pull out those contemporary emotions?
"I think to fall in love or to get your heart broken or all those things in life, I don’t think the physical emotional feeling changes, whether it’s 1818 or 2019. When we were working on the opera scene we were talking about how Malcolm’s motivation is like the equivalent of swiping left or right on Tinder. We have a man who is desperately trying to fall in love and meet the right woman, who really wants his date to say the right things and be his match. The motivation of swiping isn’t actually cruel, it’s about looking for a partner."
And in Julia's case? It's refreshing that she's not exactly a role model.
"Julia’s story is a coming-of-age story. We meet a very upperclass, wealthy, to an extent arrogant, queen of society. Her plot for revenge is the motivation for the entire film. She’s sort of our villain in a way, but Gemma [Chan] had such a wonderful take on her. Julia could come across as a little ditzy, but Gemma was so adamant that Julia was innately smart and that she was a product of her time. To be a woman of that time, the revenge and the jealousy was injected into her because she was so frustrated with the limitations."
Were there any modern-day equivalents you and the cast drew on to contextualize Julia's experience?
"For Julia, high society has seen her be jilted by Mr. Malcolm. We spoke about what that would feel like, and we said it would be like waking up one morning and finding pictures of you drunk and falling out of a nightclub in the Daily Mail. It’s that humiliation, except in the feature script she wakes up to a caricature of her in the society news. It helps us all understand who these characters are, what motivates them, and allows them to be these flawed individuals who are just desperately trying to get life right."
The casting was very diverse, especially for a period piece.
"It was very simple. I realized I don’t have to have a rhyme or reason. I can make a film about England then with people from England today. We did spend a lot of time thinking about how we could take the costumes and the set and make them of our characters. I never wanted to put Gemma Chan in ringlets. We looked a lot at how 18th century Chinese women dressed and looked. We looked at West African clothing for Mr. Malcolm, and embedded touches of them into our casts’ costumes and looks. I didn’t want to just put this cast in the costumes of white people. I wanted to create what Julia would have looked like if she were Chinese in 1818.
"More importantly, it’s nice to think that maybe we might make the day of many young people who studied the literature of the time or these great writers, who imagine themselves to be the Mr. Darcy or the Lizzie Bennet of our time, even though that diversity hasn't been shown in art. I think it’s really wonderful that we’re getting the opportunity to give leading roles to people of color in this sort of material."