‘Emma.’ star and director on updating Jane Austen’s text through blood and tears

February 27, 2020, 6:30 PM UTC
Focus Features—Courtesy of Box Hill Films

Emma, Jane Austen’s beloved comedy of manners, gets a decadent update in the form of Emma. (with a period), now in theaters.

The use of punctuation in a film’s title can often be seen as showy and overindulgent on the part of a filmmaker (mother!, Everybody Wants Some!!). But in the case of Emma., that stylization actually serves a few critical purposes, setting up an in-on-the-joke “period piece” while delivering a take on its source material that’s as intentionally opulent and bracingly self-possessed as Austen’s protagonist herself would have insisted upon.

As helmed by rock-and-roll photographer Autumn de Wilde and top-lined by Anya Taylor-Joy, who brings a chillier edge to the character, this Emma. feels like Emma’s, period.

The story remains largely traditional, as the wealthy and self-centered Emma Woodhouse (Taylor-Joy) passes her days meddling in the romantic affairs of others in the small British town of Highbury. Be it orphan Harriet (Mia Goth), whom Emma is determined to set up with a local pastor (Josh O’Connor) despite Harriet’s affections for a farmer (Connor Swindells), or longtime family friend George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who might just realize his feelings for Emma if he can stop scolding her for long enough, the residents of Highbury are but Emma’s game pieces, to be moved around the board in any arrangement she sees fit, from the cozy comfort of her lavish family estate.

What’s notedly nontraditional is the spirit and style de Wilde applies to Emma., her feature film debut. Bonnets, spencers, and decorative reticules abound, with a stunning amount of attention paid to extravagant makeup and costuming. But the most knowingly arch touch de Wilde brings to the proceedings is a knack for perfect visual symmetry, an eye for knowing exactly how to position actors within each elegantly composed shot.

While promoting the film in Boston this week, de Wilde and Taylor-Joy talked to Fortune about adapting Austen’s classic and making it their own through blood, sweat, and tears—sometimes quite literally.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Emma. isn’t a modernization of Jane Austen’s book, like Clueless, but a lavish, Regency-era comedy that’s at once satirizing its time period and fully committing to it. What appealed to you both about the idea of putting your own spin on this story?

Anya Taylor-Joy: Autumn pitched the movie to Working Title as “humanized, not modernized.” She got the movie, and then, the next day, she flew out to meet me. I’d only heard the movie was happening, and that she wanted me, the day before.

Autumn de Wilde: She was part of my original pitch, her and Johnny Flynn and Mia Goth.

Taylor-Joy: We joke, but we didn’t exchange niceties. Our first meeting was the first meeting working on the film, from the first second we were in each other’s faces.

De Wilde: She still hadn’t agreed to make the movie.

At that point, Anya hadn’t said yes to it.

Taylor-Joy: No, still! I still haven’t. I never said yes to Emma., but we were just immediately there and possessed by it. Personally, as an artist, I was never excited about the idea of showing up to a film and being charming for two hours whilst frolicking in a field and never really going anywhere with it. I wasn’t excited by that. But we immediately discussed the fact that Austen herself said, with Emma, she’d written a character that no one but herself would much like. And I asked whether Autumn would be down for me really going there.

De Wilde: And I was.

Taylor-Joy: Also, weirdly enough, people don’t seem to associate Jane Austen with the word “funny.” And it is so funny. If you’re a fan of the book, you’ll understand she’s brilliant at satirizing characters and people. We all know a Mr. Churchill, an Emma, and we have bits of them within. It’s why Clueless worked so well. If you were to take this story and put it anywhere else, you wouldn’t have to change that much to make it relatable.

De Wilde: Right. And I’ll also say the decision to stay in the time period wasn’t fear-based. And if I’d decided to modernize it, I wouldn’t have done it just out of fear of not connecting with people. I just really love time travel. I’m a fan of fashion history, in general. I’ve always used it to inform other ideas. I’d use it in my rock photography a lot. “Okay, you pretend to be in this painting.” Pretending to be people in other time periods, that’s so rock ’n’ roll. That’s the Rolling Stones. That’s David Bowie on the cover of Hunky Dory, [where] he’s pretending to be Marlene Dietrich. That was the basis of my style in general. Getting this film, I had permission to go deep into that rabbit hole.

There’s also this quality to the period that heightens the romantic tension, where no one can touch and everyone’s styled in this impossibly extravagant fashion.

Taylor-Joy: Autumn, at the beginning, when we were discussing how we were going to do it, she was like, “We’re going to really stick to the rules. There will be no touching.” We have two hugs in the movie, and I’m so grateful for my two hugs. As Emma, I was a doll. I was not allowed to be touched. People would come up to me, and you’d hear Autumn from the other end of the house, yelling, “Don’t touch her!”

I’ve really enjoyed hearing about everyone saying, “This dance scene, it’s so sexy.” That’s because nobody touches in the movie. When you see these two hands touch, everyone gasps, because it’s scandalous.

De Wilde: There’s this obsession with modernizing. We’ve all seen sex scenes that aren’t sexy, even if they go all the way. I’ve been fascinated by kissing scenes in general, and what makes them work. Because it’s not like they didn’t look good enough, go far enough, weren’t naked enough … It’s just one of the hardest things to do well in a movie, I think, is a good kiss. In daily life, if you think about the person you had the best chemistry with, that starts before you touch. That’s across the room, while you’re both talking to somebody else, and then it’s like, “Whoa. Holy crap.” We talked a lot about the sexual tension between her and Knightley. Also, with her and Harriet, we talked about the sensuality of that first friendship.

Taylor-Joy: Before either of them have kissed anybody! It’s the closest they’ve ever been to anybody.

De Wilde: It’s very sensual. And it’s another kind of love. One of the biggest love stories in this book is between Harriet and Emma.

Taylor-Joy (left) as Emma Woodhouse and Johnny Flynn (right) as George Knightley in “Emma.”
Focus Features—Courtesy of Box Hill Films

So many period dramas feature lavish costuming, that stately and buttoned-up regalia, but they don’t explore the psychology of what wearing all that excess does to someone. In terms of approaching this story, how did you convey character through costuming?

De Wilde: When you first visit a city, you can’t tell where you are. And then, all of a sudden, you can see it from above. We started seeing this story from above, and we saw that the sexual tension of the story could be built by so many different characters in different ways. Clothing played a big part in that. We decided that Mr. Knightley has panic attacks. In the beginning, he has this dressing scene that’s there for a lot of reasons, but to especially show the control he has over his life.

I also wanted to make it clear that Mr. Knightley was the love interest from the beginning of the movie. You get to fall in love with him in that dressing scene, to see that he’s human and that there’s a real man underneath. Then, his armor goes on. And it makes his bossing around Emma a little more comical, the elegance. Later, when he’s panicking about not having told Emma he loves her, he’s tearing his clothes off. Suddenly, the clothes that felt like a necessary part of him are his enemy. We’ve all felt that, where clothing symbolizes a breakup or you have to throw a jacket away because she cried on it.

Taylor-Joy: I was so involved in the fitting process that I must have spent 49 or 50 hours getting the clothes made on me. We wanted to build a wardrobe. Like, with the proposal dress, I wanted it to be this white one with these little green hearts, and Autumn was like, “Yes, with the hearts!” There was always a hair story and a costume story. At the beginning, Emma starts off not human, in the way her curls are almost stitched into her head and seen as satellite wires. Her shoulders are spiky. She’s very constructed. And as the story goes along, and as we get into the crying suite of the movie‚ different tears for different people, in different locations—it was wonderful to get to be in there and to have Emma’s hair be like, “Oh, babe, you have not recurled.”

I feel like you have different crying approaches for every one of your characters.

Taylor-Joy: Thank you so much. No, that’s really important to me. Thank you for that.

De Wilde: No, she does. And with the costuming, Marese Langan, who did the hair and makeup design, is incredible, and she’d work closely with Alexandra Byrne, our costume designer. They’d share information, so the collar would go to a certain height, and Marese would make the curls land right above. It was amazing because I didn’t want to do this softened, ’90s version.

Taylor-Joy: Some of the hairstyles aren’t that beautiful.

De Wilde: But they become beautiful, once you accept the world.

Emma Special Screening
From left: Bill Nighy, who plays Emma’s father, Taylor-Joy, and de Wilde attend a special screening of “Emma.” at the Whitby Hotel on Feb. 4 in New York City.
Sean Zanni—Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Anya, we spoke on the press tour for Thoroughbreds, and you talked about playing characters trapped in these bubbles of privilege. And for you, Autumn, coming from the rock photography world, you were surrounded by people at these incredible heights of privilege. For both of you, how did you make a movie about this elite enclave of rich people without making them entirely alien?

Taylor-Joy: With Emma, what I always started with is that she’s so smart. She’s so intelligent. But she’s almost plagued by that intelligence, because she lives in a world where women don’t have agency. With that intelligence, she’s found a very clever loophole where, because she doesn’t have a mother and her father is a valetudinarian relying on her so much, she really is the mistress of her own house. However, that also means she’s ostracized herself.

When you first meet Emma, she’s taking her first steps into meeting people she doesn’t know. Previously, she’s been surrounded by old people who, when she says something rude, let her off the hook and know she didn’t mean it. When she meets Harriet and tries to play grownup, she falls into mistakes and into lessons that have been taught to her, because she’s never known anything different. She’s trying to figure out her own moral code in a wider world than Hartfield [her estate], than people who have been paid to be there and her father who adores her.

She’s also so young. That was helpful in being empathetic. And I think, through Emma, I became more empathetic toward myself at a younger age, because you don’t know yourself until you go out, mess up, and realize it made you feel bad.

De Wilde: Privilege is always interesting to explore, because it never means that you don’t have real problems. It just means you’ve been spared a whole list of other problems. The musicians I’ve photographed, there’s this impression it’s easy for them because they have the success somebody else wants, but they get their feelings hurt and hearts broken. We’re all human. It’s good to check your privilege, for sure, but there’s always someone who’s suffered more than you. It’s interesting to look at these stories through the point of view of what the biggest tragedy is in this person’s life.

Jane Austen’s novel is a satire of the class system and small-town life. I’m really pointing my finger at the class system. Everyone in the film is participating in it, but she’s not the only one establishing the rules. Everyone’s been raised to accept these positions. And they are all trapped by those rules.

From left: Amber Anderson, Tanya Reynolds, Josh O’Connor, de Wilde, and Flynn on the set of “Emma.”
Liam Daniel—Focus Features

The film’s climax comes in this proposal scene, where Knightley asks Emma to marry him, and she breaks down so violently that her nose starts bleeding. What was it like to film that, and to show the messiness of her emotions breaking through the decadence showcased through the rest of the film?

Taylor-Joy: One of the things Autumn and I bonded over is that we’d both get nosebleeds, and I used to get them a lot as a kid. But I hadn’t really had one in 10 to 11 years. And we were doing the scene, and my nose just started bleeding. It just happened. That’s the take we used. That’s my blood, on-screen.

So, this is your next evolution of the technique, then?

Taylor-Joy: Yes! [Laughs] I will never be able to do it again. We’d done scenes leading up to it, and I’d been crying for a while. And then Johnny asked me to marry him, and I just exploded. [Laughs] I’m very proud that’s my blood. Because Johnny was freaking out, and Autumn—as somebody who deals with blood the same way I do—was just there, like “Block her here, and here.” And I’m like, “Keep rolling,” while Johnny’s there, like, “Ah, ah, ah!” We flustered him, I think.

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