Emma Mackey and Frances O’Connor talk about filming Emily

By Alexandra Heilbron on February 25, 2023 | Leave a Comment

I had the chance to sit down and chat with Emily director Frances O’Connor and Emma Mackey, who plays Emily Brontë in the film, which is set and filmed in Yorkshire. They both thoroughly researched the Brontë family and gave me a behind-the-scenes look not only into the film but into the lives of the Brontë family. ~Alexandra Heilbron

Frances, congratulations on your directorial debut with a screenplay that you wrote!
Oh, thank you! Thank you so much.

How long did it take for you to get Emily made?
Frances: I actually came up with the idea 10 years ago, and because I’m an actor as well, I was working on it in between other films and projects. Then about five years ago, I really got serious about it and thought, if I’m going to do it, it’s going to be now. I did different workshops and worked with different script editors to really get the script honed. And then it happened very quickly after that.

Emma, your first film, The Winter Lake, was presented at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2020, but because of the pandemic, nobody could come. Was TIFF 2022 the first time you could come to Toronto to promote a film?
Yes, it was the first time I’d been able to celebrate a film properly at a festival so it was pretty special.

What kind of research did you do to play Emily?
Emma: Loads. I read everything I could get my hands on about her and Frances did a list as well of biographies and specific books that had inspired her and helped her put pieces of the puzzle together. So I read as many as I could and then I watched all of the films and all of the documentaries I could on the Brontë sisters and Wuthering Heights adaptations and also Jane Eyre adaptations – I love Jane Eyre – I just tried to be in that world as much as I could before going up to Yorkshire and being in the thick of it. I enjoy that a lot. I like the annotating and the researching beforehand. It’s a nice, quiet time for me.

What was the most interesting thing that you found out about Emily?
Emma: There’s not an awful lot about her, the information is pretty sparse. What we do have is mostly Charlotte [Brontë] talking about her so it’s a very subjective point of view – it’s the older sister point of view and Charlotte’s not easy on Emily at all. I know that Emily had dogs, I know that she walked every single day and that she was quite a homebody and stayed at home quite a lot. Also, she and her sisters wrote in tiny, tiny notebooks. There were some at the Haworth Parsonage [now a museum] where they grew up. They would write in tiny writing with a magnifying glass. And they wrote that small – they say – so that their toy soldiers could read and their father couldn’t read their stories, which I love. It’s quite punk, I think, to write in such small handwriting, it’s hilarious.  Very playful girls and I think Emily had an extremely rich inner life going on.

Frances, how did you choose Emily Brontë as the subject for your film?
I’ve always loved Emily Brontë, I love Wuthering Heights, I love all her poetry, and when I was researching her, I love who she is as a person too, she’s really her own person. She’s very authentic and because she’s a bit of an introvert, she was somewhat different, and she was kind of okay about that and I just really love that. I thought that would be an interesting character to have in a film.

When researching Emily and the Brontë family, what was the most interesting bit of information that you found out about them?
Frances: The kind of power play between Emily and Charlotte is quite interesting and there was a lot of information about that. And then for me, the mask is quite interesting. They had this mask, which is a big theme within the film – they had a mask that the father made them wear and then he would ask them questions, so I used that in the film as a symbol about female creativity. Also the fact that after Emily died, Charlotte burned a lot of her remaining work – that was quite a shock.

Was that because Emily asked her to?
Frances: In my film, it’s because of Emily’s request, but there’s really no knowledge why she did it. Wuthering Heights had received a lot of flak for being quite a controversial novel and I think Charlotte was concerned that people would want to try to find out more information about her sister so I think she was probably quite protective.

How important was it for you to film in Yorkshire where the Brontë family lived?
Frances: So important. Because it’s so different from other kinds of landscapes. Also I wanted for the actors to feel like they were really there. It was really helpful for the actors to be in that world. You’re surrounded by people who are actually speaking in the accent. It looked really beautiful I think, in how we photographed it. There are sheep on the moor and you know, all of that kind of thing. And why not? If you’re going to tell a story in Yorkshire, why not shoot it there?

Emma, what was it like filming in Yorkshire?
It’s everything, it’s so key. In the same way that in Wuthering Heights, the landscape plays such a huge part and is its own alive character, it was obviously really important to film up there. It’s such a specific place, it’s so striking. It has a really particular energy to it, it’s quite lunar, it’s a very “moon-like” place. There’s a lot of rocks and the sky feels really close and it kind of feels really extensive and it’s quite barren. So you kind of get a sense of what it was like for those people living there. And then when you go up to the parsonage where the Brontës actually lived, you see Emily Brontë’s room looks out onto a graveyard. So her whole life, she woke up to graves, which kind of gives you a sense of where her mind was at, bless her. So it’s pretty morbid. But it has a real strength to it as well, it’s pretty informative and you really feel it when you’re up there, it’s quite haunting (laughs).

Did you go into the graveyard?
Emma: Yeah.

Were the stones all from before she died?
Emma: Yeah, yeah! They’re all very old tombstones. There was a lot of death in that village. There was a lot of TB and cholera and the story goes that the village water came down from the hill where the parsonage was, so the water went through the graves, and the graves infected the water and gave people diseases.

Frances, how did you find Emma? Had you seen her in something else?
I hadn’t. It was a suggestion from my casting director and she said, “There’s this great girl in Sex Education,” and I said, “I haven’t watched that yet.” So Emma came in and read and she just blew me away. There was just something about her that made me think, “This girl has something to say about this character.” We saw some other people and then after awhile, I thought, this is ridiculous, we have to cast Emma! (laughs) And the fact that she speaks French, I mean I didn’t cast her because she spoke French, I cast her because she was brilliant, but that was just an extra bonus.

Emma, you’ve been in major movies like Death on the Nile. How was your experience on this film different, production-wise?
I loved it. It was really intense. We should have had longer and we could have had more money but there’s no point thinking like that. It was just a real baptism of fire. We were in it for six weeks and there was no time to breathe or think of anything else, which is quite appropriate because you just get straight to the point. But in watching the film again yesterday, it feels like the film still has moments of pause, where we linger on a character’s face for a little bit longer and I liked that. Frances was able to take her time in the edit, which is nice. I mean, I love independent films; it’s always going to be very important for me to do that.

Emily is such a unique person. Were you able to relate to any of her traits?
Deep anxiety? (laughs) Yes, there were, I’m sure. I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint them necessarily because it was still a character for me. I still had to work at trying to find who she was and how to play her, which was fun, that’s the point and why I love the job so much. But yeah, I think the playfulness and the being a sponge, you know, when you kind of just absorb everything that happens around you, you don’t necessarily need to talk but you know what everyone is saying and you observe people and let that sink in. I feel I can be like that sometimes, but I like being around people more than Emily does. I like being social.

It’s probably crucial as an actor to be a sponge.
Yeah, definitely. But there are different levels to it and it depends what you do with all that information. I think Emily took that to the next level and used her brain in such a way that was all consuming. She put all of her anxieties and fears and desires and passions and all the things she would have felt, I think she put them to the service of her intelligence and because she and her siblings read so much and they had access to so many books and music and they spoke German, they spoke French, they were quite erudite. They were quite privileged as a family and yet they were very real authentic people. I like that in the film, there were certain moments that felt quite comedic and funny, it feels like a suitable ode to her and her life and personality. I think the film gives her [memory] a new lease on life and we get to celebrate her in a way that she was in her life.

The costumes are so beautiful in that era. Did you like wearing them and do you enjoy doing period pieces?
Yeah, I do. I mean, it’s not something I actively seek to do necessarily, but as it happens I’ve done a few now. It felt good because it wasn’t a “precious” film, we didn’t have to be clean, well certain characters did but Emily didn’t. So I liked that. The costumes didn’t feel like costumes, they felt like clothes, even when we’re wearing corsets, I felt like I was Emily in the clothes and that’s so key. It felt quite fluid and the material is so nice and made to size. That’s quite a unique thing and we forget that, that everything was tailored to people’s bodies. So that changes everything because it’s not like I’ve just gone to Top Shop or H&M and gotten a T-shirt, there’s a lot more time and energy that’s gone into it.

Frances, how does being an actor influence your directing methods.
I think because I really understand deeply what it is to be in a scene and how hard it is, surrounding by all this technology. I was able to be very empathetic to my actors and I think also for me when I’m acting, if I feel the person behind the lens really cares, and has really got me, I do my best work. So I try to be that for my actors. We also did a two-week rehearsal and we just had fun. We danced and we sang hymns and we rehearsed and improvised and played and I think that all helped.

What kind of a film would you like to do next?
I’ve written my next film, I’m working on the third draft of it and it’s something quite modern. It’s not a companion piece, but it speaks to the themes that are in Emily but it’s set in the U.S. I’ll be able to talk about that in a couple of years (laughs).

Emily is now playing in select theaters. Click here for showtimes and click here if you’ve seen Emily and would like to rate and/or review it.
Emma Mackey in Emily. Photo by Michael Wharley/Popara Films Ltd

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