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Francesca Gregorini Dispels Demons in ‘Emanuel’ and ‘The Truth About Fishes’

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Francesca Gregorini and Jessica Biel on the set of Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes.

Nate von Zumwalt

Last January, as audience members inquired about arguably the most artistically liberated film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, director Francesca Gregorini explained, “It’s pretty dark up here. I figure I’d try to get it out, make it a little lighter, give some of my darkness to you.” A few short months later, with the UK premiere of Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes at Sundance London only days away, that sentiment holds true for Gregorini.

“To a large degree, the impetus [for this film] was to exorcise my demons so that I can stay relatively sane,” she says with a slight chuckle. In that endeavor, she’s done audiences a tremendous favor, crafting a plucky drama that offers much more than its murky tone.

The film centers on Emanuel (Kaya Scodelario), an emotionally insular teenage girl who strikes a relationship with her new neighbor, a young mother named Linda, played by a mesmerizing Jessica Biel. Initially intrigued by Linda’s uncanny resemblance to her own late mother, Emanuel begins a chilling descent into a surreal world rife with unexpected discoveries about her new neighbor and her newborn. As Emanuel becomes more cognizant of her complicit role in Linda’s out-of-touch world, she resolves to take a plunge to rescue her from the confines of her mind.

Gregorini took a moment recently to offer insights on the personal plight that informed her script, express her optimism regarding Emanuel’s Sundance: London premiere, and discuss the tinges of humor found in her otherwise gloomy film. Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes is screening April 26-April 28 at Sundance: London.

I think a good place to start is with your experience at the Sundance Film Festival in January, your thoughts on the film’s reception, and your feelings going into Sundance London?

I thought the reception was really awesome. It was truly the first time I had watched the film with an audience, so that was really exciting. It was great to hear the laughter, to be honest. Even though the movie tackles some pretty heavy, dark, twisted issues, there is some absurdity and humor in there. That was one of the surprises—that the audience really got that, which was a relief. Because I knew I had put it in there, and I was like, “Well, maybe I’m just not funny.”

Do you have any hunch as to how a UK audience might receive Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes as opposed to the reception in Park City?

I anticipate that it’s going to be great! Even though my work tends to be on the darker side, I’m ridiculously optimistic, almost to a fault. I grew up in Europe, between Italy and the UK, so I feel like my particular sensibility is definitely influenced by the Brits. I feel like I have some of that in me, and I think that does translate into my work. Also, my editor, my cinematographer, and Aflred Molina and Kaya are all British, so I feel like the production as a whole was very international in flavor. At one point I was in England because I was going to shoot the movie there, so it has a long British history.

In my mind [the screenings] have already happened and it’s gone brilliantly.

The story itself is inherently peculiar and in some ways disorienting. Can you shed light on the genesis of the narrative?

To a large degree, the impetus was to exorcise my demons so that I can stay relatively sane. That’s sort of the driving force. But I wrote this script for Rooney Mara, because we met on Tanner Hall and became close friends and after that we were both out of job, and I was like, “I’ll just write you your next job so that I can have a job too.”

The movie took three years to find financing for, and Rooney became too old to play a 17-year-old, and so enter Kaya. What ended up happening in the writing of the story…well, I had struggled with infertility for a number of years, and it was not a happy story, and the character of Linda (Biel) is that taken 10 steps further. I suffered a loss in not getting to have a baby; I think all humans just assume you get to do that. But I figured what would be far worse than that would to be having achieved that dream and then lose it, so that was kind of the character of Linda, her grappling with that loss.

And then Kaya’s character, Emanuel. I grew up in an alcoholic home, and I think those tend to be homes where the children are carriers of secrets. Emanuel’s ability to sort of carry this astronomical secret that Linda has, while also trying to protect her, and then getting pulled into this alternate reality. That’s sort of where this came from.

What are you looking forward to checking out at Sundance London that you didn’t get to catch at the Festival in Park City?

I’m super excited to check out Peaches. I know my uncle worked on the Eagles documentary History of the Eagles Part 1, which I will definitely be attending. And then some of the shorts, because I am one of the jurors on the Shorts Program, which has been exciting. It’s educational really, and you feel so responsible because you know what it’s like to be on the other side.

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A singular force within the documentary film world with a global reach, Diane Weyermann passed away at age 66 after battling cancer. Over the course of her 30-year career as a funder and an executive, her work elevated the documentary form and expanded its cultural impact.

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