An Interview with Francesca Gregorini – By Kirsten Walsh

Francesca Gregorini comes from a world of experience in the entertainment industry. Her mother, Barbara Bach, was a bombshell actress, and her step-father was a famous musician, Ringo Starr. But that didn’t stop her from joining the entertainment industry, first as a musician, and now as a screenwriter, director, and producer! Her first film, “Tanner Hall” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009 and broke her into a world of female directors and filmmakers striving to share strong stories and turn the film world onto its head.

“The Truth About Emanuel” is a story about a troubled young woman becomes obsessed with her mysterious new neighbor, who bears a striking resemblance to the girl’s dead mother. Written by Francesca and set for a theatrical release January 10th, the film has already generated a massive buzz on the indie circuit. The film premiered in Los Angeles in the beginning of December, and has film buffs buzzing for the big screen release! Francesca took a moment to talk about females in film and just how important writing is to the film world.

KW: Can you tell me a little bit about the story behind the film?

FG: The story behind the film is a good dose of imagination. As a writer, I think everything is pretty much personal, because what else do you draw from, really? Then it gets mixed in with your imagination and presto! You have a film. I think both of the characters of Emanuel and Linda, played by Kaya Scodelario and Jessica Biel are sort of pieces of me- exaggerated, because I’m not that insane…yet. Thematically the film touches on madness and loss and mortality, and I think those are valid issues to explore, write about, and make movies about.

I’m trying to answer this question without giving away the twists and turns of the film, because it is a psychological drama, and has thriller elements and certainly some elements of surprise and surrealism and absurdity, which I don’t want to give away!

KW: No, of course! Now, the two characters, like you said, are very personal. In all of the interviews I’ve seen of Jessica Biel and of Kaya, they talk about the characters as being these fully rounded, very soulful characters, and very easy to play because they were written very well. When you were writing this, I understand you had some personal stories that you pulled into it, what else did you put into creating those two entities?

FG: I think, just kind of broken down, Kaya’s character Emanuel is sort of dealing with some predominant issues of childhood and abandonment. In the film, Emanuel’s mother died at childbirth, so she never knew her. Obviously, my mother is not dead, thank God, and I now have a fabulous relationship with her, but I did have a lot of abandonment going on. She was an actress, she was gone for a lot of my childhood, and then later in life, she had other issues which also made her unavailable to me. I think the characters are really fueled by my own internal demons, and I think they read true because they are true to a large extent. They come from a true place. Obviously, they are fictitious characters, but I think when you try to discuss things that have a true source and a personal view as a writer, that is super helpful in the characters coming across as true because they are.

The fact of the matter is that when you put fingers to keyboard, they take on a life of their own and become real in their own way. As does the film. You set out to make things film, but the film very quickly becomes its own entity with its own needs and wants and things it has to say. It starts as a cathartic process for you, but then you start to work in the service of the film, and how it should be. It takes on a life of its own, as did the characters once Jessica Biel stepped into the clothes of Linda and Kaya did the same for Emanuel. They became theirs, and they inject real blood and real feeling into the characters. It is a group sport! As the writer, you are the seed, and as the director you are the conductor of the orchestra, but you have to have a clear vision, and equal part an ability to let go and see what happens and be surprised and be engaged in the process. I think that is how I make a film. That may not work for anybody else, but that is my process.

KW: You were the writer, the producer, and also the director….

FG: Talk about a bit of control! (laughs)

KW: Yeah! With “Tanner Hall”, you co-directed it with your best friend (Tatiana von Furstenberg). How was this experience as far as a solo act for you?

FG: Both experiences were great in their own rite. “Tanner Hall” was my first film, so it was amazing to have your best friend by your side. When everything starts to fall apart, you have someone to look at and go “What the f, now what?”. We were both virgins to the process, and it was really nice to have that level of trust and friendship. I think in the same breath, I needed to step out and do “…Emanuel” on my own, sort of as a coming of age of myself. To step into something and helm the ship on my own, and die by my own sword- if things didn’t go my way! That was an amazing experience as well. I would never rule out doing something else with Tatiana because she is such a talent in her own right, but I think for her next film, she will be doing it on her own.

Both experiences were great, for their own reasons. I have to say, stepping off of the set of “…Emanuel” I think was the first time that I really felt like I could do this. “I’m a director, I’m good at this, I’m going to make this my life’s work”. Stepping off of the set of “Tanner Hall”, I still harbored some insecurities about whether I was worthy enough to be doing this.

KW: Wow. Now with insecurities, I’ve noticed you take a lot of risks with your choices as a writer, producer, and director. In “Tanner Hall” and also with “…Emanuel”, you bared your soul with your screenwriting, you’ve chosen fairly unestablished actresses- You traveled across the world to get Kaia. Is that something you set out to do- make risky choices- or is it something that just comes naturally?

FG: I think it is within my nature, as my life choices can be equally risky. It needs to excite me. If I’m not excited, I don’t think I can make my audience excited. In choosing the leads for my films, I have really been in a privileged position where I have been able to choose who the best person is for the role. In the case of Rooney (Mara) back in the day of “Tanner Hall”, she had done nothing before- no feature, nothing. There was no way, if this had been a studio film or even a mini-studio film, that they would have let me choose her. That would’ve been a loss to “Tanner Hall” and to the world, as she is such a phenomenal actress. I feel that way about Kaya as well, she was the right girl for this role. Had I been handcuffed- as so many directors are- as far as having the opportunity to choose, I think the film would have suffered greatly. To me it is critical as a director, even moving on and perhaps getting hired as a director for hire, to be given the latitude to cast the film as I see fit. Casting is 80% of your movie! People underestimate it.

Even with Jessica Biel. I don’t think anyone, having read the script, would have said, “Oh, this is a Jessica Biel part”. She has done nothing like this, ever before. She knocked it out of the park, and that was exciting for me. She is going to be a revelation to the audiences who know her in one cookie-cutter way. By giving her this opportunity, she has just been quite phenomenal.

So its not like I do it by design, but it feels right, and it feels exciting.

KW: That is awesome! And Jessica Biel has said that one of the many reasons why she chose to work on this film was because of the well written script, but she was also really inspired by you as a female director. What sets you apart from the rest of the directing community, and do you set out to stand out as a female director or does that even matter to you?

FG: I think it does matter to me. I think a lot of other female directors get very sensitive about getting called a “female director”. They say “I’m not a ‘female director’, I’m a ‘director’”. The truth of the matter is I happen to be female, I was a female well before I was a director (laughs), so I have no issue in being called a “female director”. Obviously that is not all that I am.

The films so far that I have done have had female leads-

KW: Very strong female leads!

FG: That’s what I think I’m good at. I’m a strong female, and I understand women. I have something to say on that, and I am perfectly comfortable with that. If I do nothing else with my career, having strong, female driven films would be totally fine with me. A disproportionate number of films are made with male leads, and that is changing every day for the better, and we (women) are getting near where we need to be. I am happy to be on that train and to be moving that agenda forward. It is different. It is a level of trust and comfort of women working with women. You get something different. There is no way that “Tanner Hall” and “…Emanuel” would have been the same movie if they had been directed by a guy. Just because they are looking for different things, their pacing is different, how the actresses interact and what they reveal about themselves is different. It does inherently make for a different film, I believe. I’m sure I’ll get crucified for saying that, but I think it is just the truth.

KW: I completely agree with you! “…Emanuel” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and you have talked about watching your film for the first time with an audience as being somewhat different for you. Does it change the way you feel about your film when you watch it with an audience?

FG: It does! It is very informative. In the editing process, I am one of those directors who likes to screen early cuts for friends and family and get feedback because it is hard when you are writing and editing and producing to get outside of yourself and see what is coming across. I like the feedback, I find it extremely helpful in the editing process, and then it is incredibly enjoyable to watch the film with an audience, and hear them laugh and cry. This isn’t live theater, so you can’t experience it in a live way, but when you are in the audience, it is a shared experience and you get to go through that journey together. That is a beautiful thing. I’ve gone to a lot of festivals with the film, and they say, “Well, obviously you are not going to watch the movie again, let’s go get drinks”, I say, “Actually….”. Especially if I am doing an Q & A after, I do want to watch the movie with them. I want to go on that journey with them. It is very enjoyable. Otherwise, you’ve put years and years of work into this thing, and then you don’t really know what is happening with it. So I find it enjoyable.

KW: That is awesome. Now, talking about journeys: “Tanner Hall” was a journey where you met Rooney Mara- you discovered her. I know she was originally attached to “…Emanuel”, but the ages didn’t work, but she did come on as a co-producer?

FG: Yes, that’s right. I originally wrote “…Emanuel” for Rooney, because after “Tanner Hall”, we became close friends, and at the time we were both out of a job. Although that quickly changed for Rooney! But I told her that I would write her something, and the character of Emanuel, in many ways, was inspired by Rooney’s quirky and offbeat personality- her true life personality. But it took me three years to find funding for it, and by that point, she was no longer of an age to play a 17 year old believably. That is a pet peeve of mine- in Hollywood, we have these 40 year old women playing 20 year olds, and that’s fine! But to me, it authentically didn’t feel right, so she stayed on as a co-producer because in fairness and honesty, she had a lot to do with the development of the script. She was slated to play the title role. There’s a lot of producers on this film, and each one played a very significant part in getting the film to the screen.

KW: I understand that it is definitely a group sport, as you stated earlier. “…Emanuel” is coming out in theaters in January-

FG: January 10th! Check your theater listings and if its in your town, then great, but if not, it will be simultaneously released on VOD. You can download it from iTunes or Netflix, although my preference as a filmmaker would be for you to see it in a theater. I think for some movies it doesn’t matter, but since I’m quite an anesthetist, I think for this film in particular, it is a different experience seeing it in a theater, but if it doesn’t come to your town, I can’t help that! (laughs)

KW: I will definitely look out for it. Okay, I have to point out, you had a cast member who is one of my favorite actors- Jimmi Simpson…

FG: Oh my God, I love that guy! He really truly is the best. He is phenomenal in this film! Just the right touch. For a film that deals with such heavy material- mortality, loss, and heartbreak- I definitely wanted to make sure there was a touch of humor in there, and Jimmi provided that. And it was the right type of humor, because he is so understated and absurd, and that was my sensibility. He was an integral part of the film.

KW: Of course, the whole cast is excellent. Do you have a favorite moment from onset?

FG: Oh wow, I don’t know. I was so blessed- and quietly terrified about having a bad experience with actors, because to date, they’ve just been so collaborative. There haven’t been any diva moments or anything crazy- you hear so many crazy tales. I can’t say that I have a favorite moment, but maybe the last day of the shoot, when you know it is all behind you. We’ve put the genie in the bottle! This is because every day, without fail, especially on an indie, the wheels are coming off of the bus, and you know, it is a miracle that you get to the finish line, and a miracle that it all works better than you hoped.

KW: Now, you grew up in a world of limelight and have had it thrust upon you several times in your life. Do you think that prepared you for directing and ultimately birthing a film project like this?

FG: I don’t know if that in particular helped me to do this. I remember as a child thinking that I would never go into this industry because I missed my mother so much. She would go off to do her films, and I said I would never do that. But then I went into music for a bit. I’m not sure what really prepared me, I think I’ve just always been an artist. I’ve been a songwriter since I was a kid, and then I segued into screenwriting, and I was always doing short films. I’m not sure that the limelight part of it prepared me, I think it was just life. Maybe the limelight part of it made me more comfortable around it, but I don’t think it was the factor in making me a good director.

KW: Your first film premiered at Toronto, and of course “…Emanuel” premiered at Sundance, so you’ve seen the festival circuit’s high points. What are your thoughts on film festivals, and have you been to any lower tier festivals that you love?

FG: I think film festivals are super important, especially to indie films because they put you on the stage. They give you a fighting chance to get to audiences. I’m extremely grateful to both TIFF and to Sundance for allowing me to do that. I have been to a few festivals. One that I really loved, one being Ashland Film Festival. I really fell in love with it and the surrounding hiking in the area. I also went to the Morelia Film Festival in Mexico. They’re all great! Provincetown was great, I went there with both “Tanner Hall” and with “…Emanuel” so they’ve been super supportive. You just develop these relationships with these people, and they follow your work, and its just a beautiful thing. It is important that these festivals stay as independent as possible. They do not like competing against the big boys. Although they (larger scale festivals) are masquerading that they support indie films, they really have support from Sony and Fox and every other studio imaginable- quietly. I think it is important to me that the film festivals really stay indie and support people that are doing work outside of the studios, because that is really how the innovative voices get heard and scene, and how we make strides in cinema.

I think it is an exciting time in cinema right now! I know I have been accused of being a die-hard optimist, but I think there is a lot of great work, and the fact that there was an equal number of male and female directors at Sundance this year in the dramatic competition- I think it says a lot in terms of the changing of the tide, and that it is an exciting time!

KW: That is great! Finally, what would you say to aspiring film directors, and especially those female directors as far as words of inspiration?

FG: For me, in terms of breaking into the industry, I also write, which is critical. If you can write, then you are not trying to do some kind of tap dance to get hired on something, because you already have the goods. If you can’t write, or it isn’t one of your tools that you have in your toolbox there, then I would say start making friendships with great writers! That is the key. It is about the material. Period. End of story.

To make a movie, it takes a tremendous amount of effort and time. You bleed dry for your film for years at a time. For me, I’ve always found it interesting these mediocre films that are about practically nothing nothing at all, and I think “wow! Somebody spent years of their life bringing this to the screen and acting in it and got hundreds of people to come on and use their talent. But what is the film about? What is it for?

My biggest piece of advice is to make a movie that you MUST make. Like, you can’t sleep at night unless you make this film, and then the ride will be worth it. No one can prepare you for how much it takes from you and how difficult it is on every level. It is about the writing, for me. It is about “what are we talking about here”.

KW: Thank you so much Francesca! Best of luck with the film and the theatrical release!

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Check out these awesome sites!

Francesca Gegorini’s Fan Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/francescagregorini

“Tanner Hall” Official Website: http://www.tannerhallthefilm.com

“The Truth About Emanuel” Website: http://tribecafilm.com/tribecafilm/filmguide/truth-about-emanuel

“The Truth About Emanuel” Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thetruthaboutemanuel