Francesca Gregorini was destined to be a storyteller. She just wasn’t entirely sure what kind. Spending a number of years writing songs and playing bass, the daughter of actress Barbara Bach and stepdaughter to Ringo Starr turned her attention to something more visual. After all, as she says, “The songs were kind of mini-movies in my mind anyways.”
“For me it’s all about the telling of the story,” says Gregorini, who quickly found success writing a pilot for HBO and subsequently made her way to the director’s chair. “And I think it’s just something that I’ve always had to do for my own sanity.”
It may not be coincidental then that “The Truth About Emanuel,” her second feature and her first where she is solely credited, centers on two characters who share a tenuous hold on their own sanity and the stories that they create to protect themselves from letting the outside world in. Featuring “Wuthering Heights” star Kaya Scodelario as a caustic teen who blames herself for her mother’s death and Jessica Biel as her new next door neighbor, seemingly withdrawn from society to tend to her newborn, the film follows the two as they discover they have more in common than either would believe at first.
Gregorini doesn’t save all her surprises for her characters, leaving many for the audience as well, pushing the film into the realm of the unreal as it delves deep into the psyches of its two leads who come to terms with their lives not working out entirely as planned while not realizing how much of it is ahead of them. That last part is something Gregorini doesn’t have in common with her characters, sounding positively buoyant when imagining what a career in film holds for her, something she discussed shortly before the release of “Emanuel” this past week.
Well it’s interesting. I had cast Rooney Mara in the film that I did with Tatiana Von Furstenburg called “Tanner Hall” and Rooney and I became close friends. After that film ended, we were both out of a job and I said that I would write her a film. Then it took me more than three years to raise the financing for it, by which point she had aged out of the part because Emanuel is 17 and she was really no longer in need of a vehicle. [laughs] That led me to hunt for the new Emanuel, which in retrospect, I was really grateful for because I stumbled upon Kaya Scolodario, who I think is going to be a huge star and did a phenomenal job in the film.
You mentioned working with Tatiana von Furstenburg on Tanner Hall. Was it interesting going it alone on your second feature?
It was. There’s benefits to both. “Tanner Hall” was my first film, so it was so awesome to have my best friend and collaborator by my side because you’re really stepping off into the abyss when you’re making your first feature. You don’t know what to expect and every day is hellacious, as it was on the second film too. I’ve just learned that that’s just part of moviemaking. Anything and everything that can go wrong will go wrong, every single day and you just have to buck up and learn how to be a very good decisionmaker and it was great to have a comrade in my first venture out.
It was also great to step out on my own in this film, and just in refine my voice and hone in on my particular style, and my interests. Stepping out with “Emanuel” was the first time that I feel I really felt like, “Oh, I’m good at this. I am a director.” I think everyone harbors those doubts in whatever they do about whether they’re worthy, or whether they have the talent and the temperament. Coming off of this film, I gained that confidence that’s hopefully going to propel me on to the next film.
That confidence also seems evident in how much you’re blurring the line between reality and fantasy in “Emanuel,” which you played with slightly in “Tanner Hall.” Were you actually emboldened to push things further in that direction here?
That was exactly the case. And watch out for film number three! I’m going to be pushing that envelope even further. But for me, the screen is big and it can hold a lot. My films tend to be heightened realism – that’s what interests me. I like to keep an emotional truth and the humanity to the story there and grounded, but I feel like if you have that down and a great character and a story that’s compelling and riveting, the audience will travel with you into the absurd, into the magical realism. And if they’re willing to go, God knows I’m willing to take them. What’s interesting to me about film is that you have the tools to take those leaps of fancy and don’t have to tell the story in the flat, realistic, narrative way.
You bring water into the equation for one specific scene, which I won’t spoil, but for filmmakers, that’s always a tricky proposition and you do it in a particularly tricky way. Was it as difficult as it looked?
Oh my lord. That was truly challenging. It was something that we had budgeted to take one day … and of course ended up taking two days because the crane that we had hired was not big enough to lift the replica of Chloe’s room that we had built in a parking lot in Long Beach. It was very indie, and at the same time, it’s kind of a big budget set piece that I was unwilling to do without. We allocated a lot of our budget to that, but it was so important to me for that to be in it because it’s really the direction that I’m interested in going in as a filmmaker. I needed to flex my muscle and test those chops, but it was challenging, both for myself and for the actress and the cinematographer, Polly Morgan, who I think did an exceptional job.
I’ve heard you say you put a little bit of yourself into both lead characters, who while not all that far apart in age are at very different places in their lives. Was it interesting to watch those characters then collide?
Definitely. I think the most interesting time in people’s lives are those moments of coming of age and we have several of them in our lifetimes. Obviously, Emanuel is coming of age because she’s seventeen, but I think Linda is coming of age in her own way and both of those characters are pieces of myself. Emanuel struggles with a lot of the challenges I had growing up, such as the longing for a mother figure, even though they’re not the same, literal challenges, and the challenges that Linda faces are also hurdles that I’ve had in my adult life.
One of the great things about writing is that you can have that poetic license to stretch the terrain that you know and go further with it and in writing, I find that it ends up being your subconscious having a conversation with your conscious mind. At the end of anything I write, I learn a lot about myself, about things that I’m still struggling with that I didn’t even know I was still struggling with. But the unconscious is magical like that. Still, what audiences connect to is the emotional truth of things and Kaya and Jessica Biel did a phenomenal job in bringing that to life and bringing their own experiences and heart to those characters.
And neither are known for the kinds of parts they play here – Kaya has said she’s never considered herself all that funny and Jessica usually is quite composed. Did you have to bring that out of them or did you see something there that others hadn’t?
It’s always a combination of the two. With Jessica, she had read the script and she wanted the part, but honestly I wasn’t sure that she was right simply because I had not seen her do something like this in her previous work. She said she was willing to audition. She did and she blew me away, and I was like, “Here you go. Here’s your part.”
When I realized that I had to find a new Emanuel, Rooney Mara is a very high bar of actress to replace and I was unwilling to make this movie unless I found someone worthy of that part. Even though I saw amazing actresses in Los Angeles, none of them really had the essence of that character, so I put myself on a plane to London and met Kaya on day two and knew that she was Emanuel, even before she auditioned for me. Ultimately, what shines through in actresses and actors is the essence of their soul. That’s the bravery in acting – not so much who can put on the better performance, but who can let you in to see them.
What’s imperative in the relationship between a director and their actor is building that relationship that is going to elicit that trust from the actors so that they’re going to go places for you, and go places they’ve never been before themselves. That’s what’s exciting, and that’s what I love the most about my job.
You also allow each of them little character moments that don’t necessarily push the story forward, but lets you know who they are. I think my favorite scene in the film is actually when Emanuel talks to a cashier in one of those forced conversations one has at a register and she’s clearly stuck in her own head, something you rarely see in a lead since it might chip away at her integrity. Why was it important to you?
I’m glad you liked that because it always makes me chuckle. We have a lot of those moments in this film. Although I am an American filmmaker, I think I bring that European sensibility to American filmmaking. I grew up in Europe for most of most of my life and my sense of humor tends to be a little bit more on the British side perhaps because I spent my teen years in England, so that’s kind of deeply ingrained in me. But to me, character is really important, so I don’t value plot necessarily over character, even though I like to keep a nice pace. If the character of Emanuel holds enough interest, and people are engaged with her enough, there is time to just be with her and I allow myself the opportunity to do that.
You said how you learned something about yourself in the process of making every film. Does this film mean something different to you now than when you first conceived it?
I don’t know if it necessarily means something different. It’s one of those scripts that ended up writing itself, and that’s kind of when you know when you’re tapped into something. As a director, you have to have a very specific vision, but in equal measure an amount of let-go for the film to become what it’s going to become, especially when you invite in the actors and the heads of department. It becomes a movable feast of which you are the drunken ringleader. It’s definitely a piece that is very meaningful to me on a personal level and that I’m proud of because for such a ridiculously small budget, everyone gave so much to it. You always step into this journey never knowing how short it’s going to fall from your expectations. This one doesn’t do that for me. This one is everything that I’d hoped it would be, which is a rare thing.