There are plenty of reasons to adapt a Jane Austen novel for the fourth, fifth, tenth, umpteenth time. Austen was a master, and people also never get bored watching well-heeled English folks in period finery nibble delicate pastries over tea while complaining about the weather and sniping about each other. In the case of Emma, arguably her greatest comedy, there’s a greater reason: Audiences need a warm-hearted lesson in manners and how to talk to other human beings. We all have Twitter and Facebook at our fingertips, which means we have the freedom to spurn and mock strangers living hundreds of thousands of miles away should the spirit move us. Emma’s characters lack the luxuries of distance and anonymity. When they say nasty things, they say them to other people’s faces, and they get to see those faces as they turn crestfallen. It’s a surprisingly exhilarating experience considering that the film is based around understated sexual desire, baked goods, lovely costumes, and equally as lovely British actors.
Paste caught up with de Wilde and Taylor-Joy to talk about this quiet theme of social propriety.
Paste Magazine: I went into [this movie] thinking, ‘What does Emma mean in 2020, what does it mean in the last decade, what does it mean in this decade?’ You know what stuck with me? When Emma tells Miss Bates, “When have you ever stopped at three?” How nice would it be if we lived in a time where people said awful things to each other’s faces instead of through … their phones.
Autumn de Wilde: I very much agree.
Anya Taylor-Joy: Say awful things to each other’s faces, but then repent and understand and learn the lesson. Autumn and I talked a lot about the fact that within the film there are a lot of fantasies that are fulfilled, and in the book, as well. One of those fantasies is the fantasy of when somebody says something terrible, that they are humbled by it, and that even if they cannot bring themselves to verbally apologize, they take that slight and they grow from it and they basically become a better person. How wonderful it would be if every person that’s ever been mean to you could actually learn that lesson from feeling bad.
De Wilde: I think Jane Austin, as a female writer, she’s sort of diminished as just being a writer of great romance, which is a great feat in itself, to write romance that connects to us 200 years later. She pinpointed certain human relationships that have nothing to do with the time period, but she also was a great satirical wit. And she’s a writer of fantasies, a lot of different kinds of fantasies: friendship fantasies, like you were saying, and the father fantasy, the father that you want to care for, and relationship fantasies. Almost everyone has someone in their life that they wondered if they should have kissed when they were 16—their best friend or that person they argued with so much and realized they were in love with them. The question of “what does it mean now”—that’s something that you don’t ask about Shakespeare, or things that are such classic human stories that keep translating in every time period. That’s why I think it’s healthy for us to revisit them, to show that we’re still human, and we still have almost the same set of mistakes that we could make possibly.
Paste: That, that fantasy is a very real fantasy though. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the recent events involving Jason Lei Howden? I talk about Twitter with people a lot when I sit down to talk with them, because I feel like it’s one of the great toxins that we live with in our time. I wish we lived in this world where people could apologize and then learn and grow from those things. Was that at any point circling through your minds while you were filming this? Not just the fantasy, but how the fantasy connects in this very direct way to our culture of toxicity?
De Wilde: Well, bullying has never gone away. People have been bullied before there was Twitter, and I think you’re right—the faceless version of it is a coward’s game—but I was bullied in junior high. I’m 6’2”, and I looked like Olive Oyl, and I was bullied mercilessly. My brother is 7’2”, and he was bullied mercilessly. Almost everybody has had some type of bullying experience. So, I think that the people that can really, really hurt you are the ones that you expect more from.
That’s why Emma’s such a great character. She has bullying moments, and she sometimes bullies by accident. She sometimes bullies on purpose. She sometimes bullies because she thinks she’s doing right by someone. I think if we look at ourselves, we might think that we’re Harriet, but we all have moments where we’ve been Emma. I think that’s why she’s such an incredibly complicated, epic character, because we are so complicated, and the issue of bullying is very complicated. A lot of people on Twitter I think have probably caught themselves, when they think they’re defending someone, bullying another person and passing it along. We have to be careful what we do with the written word.
Taylor-Joy: Because it’s powerful.
De Wilde: It’s powerful, and it can be translated only by the people reading it. You don’t get a crack at intention with your words. You don’t see the heart behind what someone’s saying with words. It’d be nice to say everyone on Twitter is evil, but I think, unfortunately, that there’s probably a lot of really good people who say terrible things that I think if they said it to someone’s face, they would feel ashamed. But I don’t think the people that bullied me in junior high at the time felt ashamed when they said it to my face. It’s possible that they don’t remember bullying me at all, though. They probably remember all the times they got hurt. That’s what’s so fascinating about bullying in general.
Paste: I can think of moments online when I’ve toed that line myself. It’s surprisingly easy, as Emma finds. That moment I’m referring to, when it happened, you could hear all the air get sucked out of the room.
Taylor-Joy: What’s interesting about that is every screening that we’ve gone to, it has the same effect, which is wonderful as filmmakers because the moment works. But everyone takes an audible sharp intake of breath, and usually after they’ve found themselves laughing for a second longer than they should. I think what’s done very cleverly, by Jane Austin and by the way that we’ve shot the film, is that because you’ve been laughing with and at Emma, you haven’t really realized that you’ve become part of her brain at that point. So you’ve also been laughing at Ms. Bates. You’ve been understanding how Emma finds her cumbersome and in the way—Ms. Bates talks too much and she’s brash and all of these different things. Then when it comes to a moment where Emma’s actually cruel, there’s no other way to interpret it. It’s cruelty. Everyone suddenly checks themselves because they realize that they’ve been laughing at this woman, too, and they understand that they’ve been sucked into this mob mentality of laughing at somebody who really doesn’t deserve to be laughed at. Well, nobody deserves to be laughed at unless it’s in good fun.
De Wilde: That Lord of the Flies thing has very extreme situations, but it also can happen really subtly: The young person laughing of the older person, too, or the taller person or the wider person. I think that Miranda Hart is so brilliant in the role, and the way that all of the actors handled that scene … I told them that I wanted this party to be doomed from the beginning. I feel like we’ve all been parties like that, where you’re just like, “Oh, god.” You walk in, and…
Taylor-Joy: “This should be fun … and yet.”
Paste: There’s just dread.
De Wilde: And you can see it in everyone! They’re just skating. The party vibe is really just like the water’s rising to just right under their noses. [laughs] I was really hoping we would have a beautiful day at Leith Hill, which is where we shot it, and it was idyllic. It was a glorious day. I love visual opposites, where everyone’s miserable and it looks like heaven. So, all those things combined, and then, I think with that argument afterwards, there’s such an interesting balance. Knightley is often berating Emma, and Emma is often trying to justify what she’s done, and he’s often half right. Those half lies, I think, are always the most dangerous in our lives, where you’re smart enough to know that part of what she did is okay. That’s how you fall down into that rabbit hole of not checking yourself.
Paste: [to Anya] Where did you go in your head filming that? I know I’m talking about one particular moment, but that struck me as a very difficult moment to execute. It has to be recognizable but very subtle. You have to balance the delight at the cheap shot with the horror of realizing you’ve said this thing out loud to this person in front of everybody. Where do you go for that?
Taylor-Joy: Well, I want to answer this in two parts, because as Autumn was talking, I realized something that I hadn’t recognized before: I have a very, very close relationship with all of my characters, and even when I’ve played psychopaths, whilst I’ve been playing them, I have always defended them, loved them. I did a movie called Thoroughbreds, and the crew would consistently be like, “God, Lily’s such a fill in the blank,” and I would get Mama Bear protective. “You don’t understand where she’s coming from. You don’t understand what it feels like to be in this house.” And they were like, “Anya, please, calm down. It’s fine.” Yet with Emma there were moments and it was, this sounds ridiculous, genuinely one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to say to another human being.
I said to Autumn through gritted teeth, “I don’t like Emma right now, and I’m struggling to do this.” As Autumn was talking, I realized this because I was so badly bullied in school and yet I have never objectively been the bullier, and to be in that position where you are the one bullying other people and seeing that impact now makes a lot more sense in my head. After every scene with Mia [Goth], especially that scene with Miranda—and Mia and I have been best friends for years—I would just go up to them after every take and say, “I am so sorry. I’m so sorry.” And they’d say, “Anya, the words are literally written down on a piece of paper. You’re supposed to perform this.” But the guilt! It was like my skin was covered with this filmy tar. I couldn’t get out of that space of hurting these people. What was wonderful about that scene, and we did it a lot with the Knightley arguments as well, but particularly that scene, Autumn would leave the camera rolling and go, “Okay, now we’re going to do it again, and you didn’t mean to say it, it just slipped out. Go.” And I’d do it. And then without cutting she’d go, “Okay, and this time everyone’s a lot louder than you are and you think you’re going to get away with it because no one’s heard it. Okay, go. Okay, this time, you’re intentionally cruel.” We just kept going at it.
But I have to say that watching Miranda’s face break every time that I said it, it’s just like, “Ugh!” But then it was great, because didn’t we shoot the Knightley argument pretty much directly after that?
De Wilde: It might’ve been the following. We split that scene up over two days.
Taylor-Joy: It was very fresh, and that made it great because when Johnny [Flynn] came to yell at me, I was already in that state where I’d just spent hours doing something that made me very deeply uncomfortable, and if you pushed the wrong button I was going to explode. And he obviously pushed all of the wrong buttons and hence you have me hysterically crying in a carriage!
De Wilde: It was really great that Anya was willing to do the performances that way because my editor, Nick Emerson, and I, we actually switched out her performance on that moment two or three times, and they were all effective. But there was this delicate balance with everyone’s performances in that scene, and there was this one point where we got the balance and then there was this, like, “Don’t touch the scene, don’t touch the scene, it’s perfect.” My editor said something really fun that I agree with. He said there’s a certain point where the movie starts rejecting changes, like a heart transplant that goes wrong. [laughs]
Paste: That’s fascinating.
De Wilde: Also on the subject of bullying: With a psychopath, you know, you’re like, “Well, they’re crazy,” or even someone who’s even a sociopath—
Taylor-Joy: —Their brain just works differently. But someone who’s a good person…
De Wilde: That’s where the cruelty really lies. I use this quote a lot because I think it’s so genius, it’s from a Shakespeare sonnet and it ends with, “lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” I’ve thought about that over the years. What’s funny is the point of that sonnet is “I don’t want to be a good guy because you can’t even make one mistake, because it’s so much worse than if you’re a bad guy all the time.” That was kind of the key to Emma. You had to really believe her and her love and affection for the characters. Otherwise those moments wouldn’t have played as cruel.
Paste: There are so many ways that source material like this can be contemporized. It feels like this movie actively resists the temptation to tweak itself and be modern.
De Wilde: Absolutely. I was very much against that.
Paste: I’m glad, because it feels much more important to talk about the story’s relevance in terms of when it’s opening in theaters versus relevance that’s foisted on it.
De Wilde: I’m not opposed to modernizing—I love Clueless! But to modernize because you’re afraid that people won’t like it enough or get it feels like you’re starting creativity with an insecurity. And I love time travel, so I was always gonna want to go back in time, pretend that I was there, and then really humanize the characters.
Paste: You’re answering a question I haven’t asked yet—what do you wish audiences will walk away from this movie feeling about themselves in 2020? What do you hope that people think of when they think of Emma.?
De Wilde: One, the world’s on fire, so I think we need a couple hours off and then we can go back to fighting.
Taylor-Joy: And everyone’s face when they come out of the screening! They’re all so happy and relieved. How long is our movie?
De Wilde: Two hours.
Taylor-Joy: They got to spend two hours watching people be good to each other and learn their lessons, and it all looks beautiful and there’s cake. It’s a dream. It’s an absolute dream.