Interview: Francesca Gregorini Talks the Truth About Emanuel

Working to uncover the truths and motivations of the people around you, and how their actions can influence your own life and emotions, is a continuous struggle, particularly with those you just met or barely know. This is certainly the case for both the disassociated title teen character in, and Francesca Gregorini, the writer-director-producer of, the new thriller, ‘The Truth About Emanuel.’ The movie chronicles Emanuel’s coming-of-age story, and how she finally learns to understand and empathize with other people, as well as the filmmaker’s continued exploration of how young adults truly learn to understand the world around them.

‘The Truth About Emanuel’ follows the title character (Kaya Scodelario), a mildly antisocial teen contending with emotional problems, including the fact that her mother died while giving birth to her. Emanuel vents her anger at everyone else, particularly at her father, Dennis (Alfred Molina), and stepmom, Janice (Frances O’Connor), towards whom she cruelly rejects any maternal instincts. Yet she becomes fixated on Linda (Jessica Biel), a transparent mother who moves in next door with her young daughter, Chloe (Siena Perez).

Emanuel volunteers to babysit for her new neighbor, but quickly discovers that the baby is in fact an expensively crafted doll that mimics the weight and feel of a real infant. After subduing her initial horror, Emanuel decides to protect Linda by preserving her delusion. But the lie becomes increasingly difficult to maintain, as Linda doesn’t seem to think other people will notice Chloe is actually a doll, and Janice and the rest of the neighborhood are anxious to meet the baby.

Gregorini generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘The Truth About Emanuel,’ which is now available on VOD and will open on January 10 in select theaters, over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how she fused her own feelings about heartbreak and mortality, based on experiences from her own life, into Emanuel and Linda’s motives and actions; how she originally wrote the character of Emanuel for her ‘Tanner Hall’ star, Rooney Mara, but after deciding the actress was too old to play the role after the film’s production was delayed, she cast Scodelario, based on her essence and humor; and how she encourages the actors to bring their own interpretations to their characters, because it helps maintain the story’s authenticity.

Question (Q): You wrote the script for the new thriller, ‘The Truth About Emanuel.’ Where did you come up with the idea for the film, and what was the overall process of penning the script?
Francesca Gregorini (FG): Well, I originally wrote the script for Rooney Mara, who I made ‘Tanner Hall’ with. So ‘The Truth About Emanuel’ was really written for a vehicle for her. But it took me over three years to get the financing for the film, at which point she really didn’t need a vehicle, because her career was booming. Also, she was no longer of the right age to play a 17-year-old.

So it was a mixed blessing; I was sad to make it without her, but at the same time, it gave me the opportunity to discover Kaya Scodelario, who’s a phenomenal actress. She did an exceptional job.

The film deals with themes of madness and heartbreak and mortality. So I pulled pieces of that from my own life, because all of those scenes affect us all. I put my experiences into the two main characters.

Q: Speaking of hiring Kaya, ‘The Truth About Emanuel’ features a diverse cast, including Kaya, Jessica Biel and Alfred Molina. What was the casting process like for the actors?
FG: Well, after Rooney and I decided that she was no longer going to play the part, because of her age, primarily, I looked at all the girls in that age range in Los Angeles. Even though there’s phenomenal talent, and many of them are quite brilliant, none of them seemed absolutely right for the role of Emanuel. Since the whole film rests on this girl’s shoulders, as it’s told from her point-of-view, I was determined to find the right girl.

So when I couldn’t find her after months and months of searching in Los Angeles, I got on a plane and went to London. I was like, they speak English there, and I’m sure they’ve got tremendous talent. On day two there, I met Kaya, and I knew she was the girl, even before she auditioned. There was something about her essence that really resonated with me, in terms of her innocence, and being someone who’s wise beyond her years. Kaya herself has a biting sense of humor. Her essence had a lot in common with the actual character.

With Jessie, she read the script and wanted to meet me about it. I wasn’t sure if she was going to be right for the part because I hadn’t seen her do this kind of work in her other films. But I was more than happy to meet with her. She told me she was willing to audition for the role, because that’s how much she wanted it. So that’s what we did; she came in and auditioned and blew me away. She really was a revelation to me, and I think she’s also going to be a revelation to audiences, because she does a phenomenal job in the film. No one’s seen her do this kind of work before, which is awesome.

Alfred Molina was actually one of the first people cast. As the film came together and fell apart and came back together, due to financing and the changing in cast, he stayed on. He’s such an actor magnet, so I owe a lot to him. To keep him on board just gave the film its firm stance. He basically told me, “I’m doing this, and I don’t care what financers you have, and what other actors you get.” He really loved the project, and when we met, we really got along.

We got the rest of the cast through auditioning. I feel really blessed because if nothing else, this is a great cast. The actors are tremendous.

Q: Did you have any rehearsal periods with the rest of the cast before you began shooting?
FG: No, and I think that happens a lot in indie films, because the budget is so tight. We flew Kaya in from England, and we also had to contend with actor availability. So we really didn’t have that much time to rehearse. There was time set aside so I could work with Kaya separately, just so we could have time to work together before getting on set. But we hardly call that rehearsal; it was just some time with the actors together.

Even if I had the latitude to have massive rehearsal time, I would still enjoy the unexpectedness of shooting things, and seeing what happens, and keeping it fresh. I think that’s an exciting part of filmmaking, and that part keeps me engaged. It’s new and exciting, and you don’t know which way it’s going to turn. I think that’s an exciting component, which I wouldn’t want to rehearse out.

Q: Like you mentioned, you shot the film independently in Los Angeles. Did that pose any challenges on the set at all?
FG: I think the challenges are the same. I don’t think any director at any budget level would say they had enough time and resources, because you never do. I think that was definitely the case for us. That made it more challenging, in terms of us having some underwater fantasy sequences. People were astonished that we were able to pull it off, in terms of our budget level.

I think you just have to get more creative in the way that you approach things, and sometimes that’s a good thing. It forces you to think of new things, and bring a level of authenticity to the script. If you had been wrapped in a lot of money, maybe you would have done things in some other way, which may have been less interesting.

Q: Besides writing the screenplay, you also directed the film. Was it always your intention to both pen and helm the movie? Do you feel that writing the script helped you with your directorial duties on the set?
FG: Yes, it was definitely always my intention to write and direct. I’m definitely open to directing other people’s work, but I don’t think I would write something and give it to someone else to direct. If you wrote it, you know on a cellular level the answers to all the questions, because it came from you. So I do think it gives you an edge in directing if you also wrote the material.

But I also think there are different gains to be had from not having written it. You could come into it with more of an open mind, in terms of how things are going to go. But I think I tend to keep a level of letting go, even in my scripts. It’s exciting to me to see where actors take things.

So I’m not so tied to things always being my way; I’m open to seeing what the actors are going to bring to it, because that’s what keeps it fresh and new. I think pretty early on in the process of filming, it takes on a life of its own. You have to become a service to that, instead of having an iron grip on your original vision. I think it’s a disservice to both the film and the actors in the end if you do have that iron grip.

Q: Besides writing and directing ‘The Truth About Emanuel,’ you also served as one of the producers on the film. Why did you decide to also produce the thriller, and did producing influence the way you helmed the movie?
FG: On an indie film like this, at least for me, I end up doing a lot of the producorial duties. So I want to be credited for it, and also have the ability and power that a producer has to make executive decisions on behalf of the film. I think coming up through the indie ranks, and having also produced my first film, ‘Tanner Hall,’ I have that skill set now to produce my and someone else’s films. It’s a skill like any other that you either develop or don’t.

As an indie filmmaker, I chose not to shove my head in the sand, and hope for the best. I chose to take matters into my own hands, and really have a seat at the table. I wanted to educate myself about what it really takes to get a film made. Ultimately, as a filmmaker, I find being a writer-director to be the biggest challenge.

You have to get a movie financed, so you have to know what’s going on behind the curtain of Oz, rather than leave it a mystery, I chose to dive in and put my producing hat on and learn about it. I’m glad that I did, because you have more power, and you can influence the critical decisions.

Q: You’re known for helping bring attention to the careers of up-and-coming actresses with your films, such as with Kaya’s in the title role of ‘The Truth About Emanuel,’ and with Rooney in ‘Tanner Hall,’ like you mentioned. What was it about both Kay and Rooney’s acting that drew you to them both, and why do you enjoy working with up-and-coming actresses?
FG: I think I write about that coming-of-age period in one’s life because I find it to be an exciting time. I tend to develop good, trusting bonds with these young actresses. I think because of that, I can help them bring performances to the screen that are exciting and fresh, and bring a lot of truth to them. I don’t really know why this is happening, but I’m happy that it is, and I intend for it to continue. (laughs)

I think both Rooney and Kaya are tremendous. I certainly wouldn’t want to take credit for their performances, because I think that’s an odd thing for a director to do. It’s certainly a collaboration. I think ultimately it comes down to trust and having a good idea for talent.

I like to meet actors outside of the audition process. I cast a lot on the essence of the person. I think that’s ultimately what shines through, acting aside, and is what audiences are drawn to. I think both Rooney and Kaya are formidable people.

Q: ‘The Truth About Emanuel’ premiered in the US Dramatic Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and you were nominated for the Grand Jury Prize-Dramatic. What was your reaction when you found out the film was accepted and nominated at the festival, and what was your overall experience like there?
FG: I have to admit, I did shed a tear when I got the call. (laughs) It’s a long journey while making a film. With this film in particular, it literally took me years and years. I got the call when I was doing color correct on the movie, which is one of the last steps of completing a film. It was very meaningful, because it was a sign that I had done good work, and the film was going to be seen and get to theaters.

For indie filmmakers, Sundance is a big deal, and that fact was not lost on me. I’m grateful to have been given the opportunity by Sundance for ‘Emanuel,’ and by TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) for ‘Tanner Hall.’ It’s a tremendous honor.

Q: Do you have any upcoming projects lined up, whether writing, directing or both, that you can discuss?
FG: I am developing one project and developing another, but I’m trying to be mindful not to discuss things that aren’t a 100 percent go. So I think we’ll leave it at the fact that I definitely am working, and I’m not just kicking back somewhere in the Bahamas. (laughs) I am hard at work, but nothings at the point yet where I feel comfortable discussing it.