Frances O'Connor and Emma Mackey behind the scenes of Emily

Director Frances O’Connor on blending fact and fiction in Emily

Since the dawn of cinema, historical biopics have been popular with both filmmakers and fans. Some are often almost documentary-like in their drive to be entirely faithful to history, but some choose a different, more artistic path. To imagine what might have been or, like in Frances O’Connor’s Emily or Stephen Williams’ Chevalier, to interweave facts with fiction. The result is a narrative that feels less like a staid museum artifact and more like a living, breathing homage to the spirit of the subject.

Seemingly ripe for such a take is the short life of English author Emily Brontë. Her lone novel Wuthering Heights has fascinated readers since it was first published in 1847. A passionate look at obsession and love in the wilds of Yorkshire, it startled contemporaries, who considered it coarse and wild at a time when propriety and convention were far more desirable attributes. Emily’s life and the lives of her talented sisters, Charlotte and Anne, have likewise been intriguing historians and fiction fans for almost as long. That all three died relatively young is well known, and that the younger two never lived long enough to see their true names in print is the stuff of legend. But only Charlotte had her life chronicled by a contemporary author and friend, Elizabeth Gaskell, so it’s natural that more is known about her overall. In fact, despite their continuing fame, relatively little is known about the other Brontë siblings, except what Charlotte herself decided was fit to print.

The latest cinematic appreciation of the authors behind Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Shirley, focuses its narrative on middle sister Emily (played here by Emma Mackey). Gifted with talent, imagination and an individuality that felt rare for the time, she formed an almost symbiotic relationship both with her brother Branwell (Fionn Whitehead) and with Haworth, the family’s home. The film imagines situations and one particular relationship, with her father’s curate William Weightman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), which might have stimulated her great artistic mind as she works to understand what sets her apart.

Emily debuted this past September as a part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s 2022 Platform program. This writer got a chance to sit down with first-time director and screenwriter O’Connor (known for her lead roles in films like Mansfield Park and A.I. Artificial Intelligence) to discuss her loving but fantastical take on Emily’s life, the magnetism of lead actress Mackey, and our mutual love of all things Brontë. Read on to learn more:

The three Brontë sisters are often referred to or treated as almost a single entity, as opposed to individuals. But they are so different, and their work is so unique. What was it about Emily, in particular, that drew you to her story and where did that fascination with her begin?

I read Wuthering Heights before I read Jane Eyre and I just really loved that book. I’ve always felt like Charlotte, and Mrs. Gaskell, edited Emily in a way that was just like ‘this is who she was, and she’s here but now let’s go on to the main star’, which is Charlotte. I mean, I love Charlotte, and she’s an amazing artist. But I strongly identify with Emily–I’m an introvert too. Sometimes introverts do get sidelined because they’re not demonstrative. So I guess it felt like bringing her into the light and just experiencing what is it to be an artist who’s introverted and has a lot of energy and power underneath that. That felt very evocative to me, and it could be a great story. So that was the opening idea.

You approach the story in a really interesting way because, as you said, most of what we know about Emily comes secondhand through Charlotte or through Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte. But you intersperse the facts we know with imaginings of what could have happened to her through a certain period of her life. Was that the angle that you wanted to take from the start? What did you see as the creative opportunities of telling that version of her story?

I knew I wanted to write a story about Emily Brontë, but I didn’t quite know what it was going to be. The chronology of the film is pretty accurate in terms of her going to school and literally not being able to be away from home without becoming sick. So she really did kick around the parsonage with Branwell (Brontë) and (William) Weightman, her father’s curate, and herself for about two years. This raises the question of what happened during that time. I don’t really think that she had an affair, but I think thematically, it worked very well as an example of a young woman experimenting to find out who she was. But also because Weightman was a part of the patriarchy while having this feminine, poetic side of him that we see in his sermons.

He really does straddle that line.

Exactly. And that’s why he’s attracted to her in a way. They’re two polar opposites, and I thought that thematically, that’s going to be a great help as a way to pull the narrative through. I could have written a straight biography, but I feel like that’s already been done. A lot of the time, we’re so respectful of these historical figures that it’s like actually looking through a glass window at them and I wanted to try and make something that young people would want to go and see.

Emily as a character does feel much more modern than audiences might expect. We all often look at the Brontës, at any author from the Victorian era, as these staid, repressed figures who are very removed from us. But as you say, as an introvert, you connected with her. I think she has a lot of those relatable qualities. She has this reticence, but she also has a courage and fire in her as well. That dichotomy within makes her feel so three-dimensional, like any young woman who chafes against expectations but is still trying to figure out who she really is.

Yes. She’s a real person.

Emma Mackey in Emily
Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë

Exactly. I think Emma does such a good job of capturing all those different elements of the character. I wondered if you could talk a bit about how she became your Emily Brontë and how you worked together to bring your vision to the screen.

She was one of the first people who auditioned. I didn’t really know her work, and when the casting director suggested her, I was open to it, but I didn’t quite know what to expect. She just blew me away in the room. There’s something just about who she is. I think she’s just very authentic. Have you met her yet?

Not yet. But she’s so interesting to watch. Really riveting in everything she does.

She’s riveting, exactly. She’s so intelligent, but she’s also very much her own person. A lot of the time with actresses, we just want to be loved. But she doesn’t really. There’s something about who she is where she’s just like, “I am myself.” Also, it helped that she also loves Emily Brontë. She was also a geek. So I felt like we both had something to say about her.

I knew I liked her.

[laughs] Exactly. I knew I liked her too. She’s also just an incredible actress. Her presence on screen is pretty electric, I think. Then working on it together, it wasn’t at all prescriptive. We just talked about it and kept talking about it, and then when we were on set, we just kept exploring. We tried to keep it really fresh and moving and not telegraphing things like, “We’re heading for here.” We wanted to keep it really alive. That really helped me with the shooting style and everything too, I think. Because the main objective was to try and make her as real as possible. It’s not historical. It’s relatable.

You talk about the style of the film there. One other thing that really stood out for me is your use of sound throughout. The score itself is evocative, but the way you use the natural sounds of Emily’s environment really stood out. The distinctive feel of the Yorkshire moors, the wind and the rain, and even the quill scratching on paper as she wrote in front of the open window. What you were hoping to convey by bringing those elements into play?

I think sound can feel invisible, but it’s such a powerful tool for storytelling. When we have these completely quiet moments where that natural soundscape is there that can feel very evocative, and it helps root the audience in the scene and make them feel like they’re really there. Breath, too, is really important. I think we could hear the actors breathe along with the way the clothes moved and the wind. All of those elements work together. And it keeps changing too, like the birdsong, so that you really feel immersed in the world rather than just watching it. There are scenes where the music dominates, but there’s no real soundtrack to a lot of the film, so [sound] was really important.

Like you were talking about earlier–feeling it as opposed to viewing it through glass like a historical artifact at a museum.

Yeah. You’re in there with them, and it feels very real. Then Abel [Korzeniowski, the film’s composer] and I talked about the music reflecting Emily Brontë’s mood and her emotion. If it’s really big, then go with that. Then you have these quite brutal cuts in sound to complete silence.

Speaking of going big: There’s one scene in particular that comes to mind in terms of Emily’s intensity of feeling. The scene where each character takes a turn wearing an old mask as a sort of game. Each person’s go-round is quite comical until Emily puts it on and things become quite serious and dark. Can you talk about filming that scene? I imagine it was maybe one of the more challenging ones to do, both because of the intensity and because it’s quite intricately shot.

I knew it was one of the big set pieces. It felt very ambitious, and you’re right, there were a lot of shots plus all of the sound and music. The balance was going to be really crucial. We really did a lot of prep for that scene in terms of Nanu [Segal, the cinematographer] and I working out exactly what the best way to shoot it was, to tell the story we wanted to tell. We rehearsed it a lot too with the ensemble until it was really firing on all cylinders. My ambition was to create a very long scene. I love long scenes. Where you think it’s one thing, but as it progresses the characters and the audience realize they’re in a different scene altogether. So it was a challenge, but it was actually one of our favourite things to work on.

Frances O'Connor on set directing Emily
Emily director Frances O’Connor on set with the cast.

It’s really powerful when you watch it. It also made me think about the scenes throughout that speak to the formation of Wuthering Heights in Emily’s mind. If you’re more aware of the novel’s story, it’s really interesting to watch the ideas build to a point where she needs to get them down on paper. Scenes like Branwell and Emily looking in the window of the grand house, or even the windows bursting open like they were pushed in by an outside source. I’m not sure there’s an actual question in here, now that I think of it. It’s more of an appreciation of how you wove that into the narrative throughout without it feeling too heavy-handed.

I wanted to put those things throughout that are just subtle. They’re like little nods to fans and readers of the book.

An added layer for viewers. A kind of “if you know, you know”…

Yeah, which is fun, I think.

For geeks like me, absolutely.

Branwell is a really interesting character too–one who isn’t as often explored. When you read anything about the sisters, he always comes across as a fascinating figure but one on the periphery of everything. But he’s such an influence on the whole family. Emily’s relationship with him seems so supportive and freeing, versus her relationship with others, especially with Charlotte. What did you think were the most important familial elements to bring out as part of this story?

I think Branwell and Emily actually were incredibly close. When he died, she died about three months later, and people say that that was related to the fact that she essentially died of a broken heart. It’s clear she loved him very much. I don’t know whether he encouraged her to write and I don’t know whether their relationship influenced her feelings about Cathy and Heathcliff and their closeness. That’s just me using my imagination. I think her relationship with Charlotte is so fascinating because there’s a lot of love, but at the same time, they’re both tyrannous toward each other. I think there was always a shifting power dynamic.

Emily director Frances O'Connor, Fionn Whitehead and Emma Mackey on set.
Emily director Frances O’Connor, Fionn Whitehead and Emma Mackey on set.

It seems as if Emily could be quite difficult to live with as well.

Yeah, you get a sense of why you relate to Emily, and you understand her, but you can also see the perspective of the people around her and why they would think she was odd.

Charlotte was so young when she had to take charge of the family too. Because their mother was gone and someone had to take on the responsibilities. She felt constrained too, but in a different way from Emily. But they were both victims of expectations.

She was always the one who said, “We’re going to need to make some money to support ourselves.” Whereas Emily really just wanted to live in the house with her imagination. So that had to be very tough for Charlotte. But I slightly push the narrative there in terms of showing Charlotte as being more controlling because I think it helps this particular story. The narrative became its own thing where it had its own requirements.

It definitely helps to reiterate Emily’s unique connection to the house, Haworth, and to the land. It was clear that her friends were her family and the house was where she needed to be. As an introvert, it seems to be where she got her energy and her creativity. She couldn’t survive being apart from that. I wanted to ask a bit about the location too because it is so essential to her story–and to all the Brontës. All of their books speak to their love of the Yorkshire moors, in particular. How important was it to find the perfect place to film? And where did you finally choose?

We did actually shoot in Howorth, in their town, and near the parsonage. But the moors around there are quite trampled now. So we went to a place called Dent, where it’s still very wild and beautiful and how you would, in your imagination, think of Brontë Country. But it also presented some challenges in terms of shooting. But it was so worth it. It was very important to create an environment that felt very evocative, and that could make you feel like you were really there. To do that, we looked pretty hard to try to find places that were going to do all that for us. It was fun too because it’s so beautiful up there and you’re like, “Oh, my God. We’re so spoiled for choice.” But having to narrow it down to what was realistic for the shoot was tough.

I travelled to Haworth and to the parsonage when I was about nine. That’s when I really fell in love with the stories. But I was interested in the location you choose for the reason you mention, because the original area has so built-up in comparison.

It’s still beautiful, though, right?

It’s absolutely beautiful.

Then going to the parsonage. Isn’t that just a crazy moment when you go in there?

It was such an integral part of who they all were, so it really feels like you’re connecting to them directly.

Like you’ve come in, and they’ve just left.


You touched on it briefly earlier, but I wanted to ask a bit more about the sexism inherent in the era. You don’t have much time to expand on it in the film, but the literary sexism that they faced in terms of initially getting their work published has been well documented. You were able to examine what it meant to be a woman of their class at that time, in terms of societal expectations. How did you want to approach that element in terms of the overall narrative? What balance did you want to strike?

I did want to have this sense of a house run by a patriarch, and how important it is to everybody that he loves them. But their mother is already gone when the film begins. That’s the starting point, so Emily has to discover her own feminine energy on her own–who she is and what power she has.

Then there’s the moment when she opens the book, and it says ‘Emily Brontë’. That is obviously not historically accurate as it would’ve said Ellis Bell [her male pseudonym]. But I thought it was too late in the day to get into that part of the story. So I had to make a decision to either include it as a plot point or not. I could feel the story wanting to resolve and approaching a new piece at this stage would prevent that. Also, I think it’s nice to give Emily that moment that she never actually had Wouldn’t that be great? That she can see her name in print and feel proud. But yeah, I did debate about that moment a lot.

There is definitely an element of wish fulfilment there. All of the sisters were so young when they died. To give Emily some of the things you have, like the romance with William Weightman, allows for experiences she’s unlikely to have ever had. It feels like you wanted them to have had the chance to do more in the short time they had.

To do more yeah, exactly. I think that’s something fulfilling, as a fan of Emily, just to give her the most wonderfully evocative life that she might have had and yet still try to maintain truth towards the reality of who she was. I was thinking too that I wanted to write a story that she would want to be in. I know there’ll be some people that are probably real Brontë aficionados who might disapprove. It’ll piss them off. But I think that’s great. That’s what art should be. You should be able to express what you want to about these people that you love and who have meant a lot to you, I think.

What do you think it is about the Brontës that has captured people’s imagination for so long? It’s been 175 years since they passed, and there are still regular adaptations of their work and hundreds of websites and blogs dedicated to them. There are so few novels, to begin with, but the interest never seems to fade.

They’re just brilliant stories, but also there’s something about them that’s just very real. There’s something in that I think, that you feel a connection. I think people feel like they know them and they feel a slight ownership over them too. The work feels very personal for something of that era. It’s surprising. I feel like that probably happened because they were quite isolated and didn’t have the influence of society. It was only after they published it that they realized, “Wow, we’ve actually done something slightly risky.” Something out there. Charlotte just went into damage control mode at the time as I’m sure you know. But that’s interesting too, I think.

It is interesting because Charlotte is the only one who lived long enough to see the real popularity of their work–the criticism too–under their own names and the celebrity that then followed.

Yeah, to see famous people take an interest. But the Mrs. Gaskell biography was really an exercise in publicity, so the whole of Victorian society would realize, “Oh, look, she’s very decent.”

They’re more acceptable. They’re not actually coarse, or risqué like people had begun to think. We’re not that. We’re actually very gentle and conventional.

Then Emily was put into [Charlotte’s biography] like, “Look, she was just some weird sister. She didn’t even know what she was doing. Don’t worry about it.” Kind of taking the autonomy away from her and from actually what actually happened. It was actually pretty raw and out there because that’s who they were.

You can see why, especially given the angle that you’ve taken, some critics would’ve looked at the Brontës and said, “How could they possibly, especially Emily, have written stories like that given that they’re so isolated?” But right from their childhood, their vivid imaginations were apparent. They grew up with books by romantic poets, and of course, as daughters of a curate, reading and education would have been very important to them. Do you see those as influences on their creativity?

I do. Plus, they didn’t have a mother to say, “That’s not a polite book for you to read.” They had a father who was in his study most of the time. So I’m pretty sure they were just reading whatever they could get their hands on, and maybe their mother would have tried to control or rein that in a bit more. I think that is actually one of the reasons why those books are so good. Perhaps. I don’t know. That’s just me theorizing. It’s amazing nonetheless.

I hadn’t thought of that. But when you have one parent who’s not as involved and another who has passed away, there was a certain freedom they had that their contemporaries did not.

And they stayed in that childlike creativity for a lot of their life. No one really got married either, except Charlotte once her sister’s had passed away. I don’t know, it’s interesting to think about.

When you mentioned the father just now, it reminded me of the scene which showed how proud and happy he was to see Branwell getting into art school. You might think a patriarch of that time would put more pressure on his only son to take on a more ‘respectable’ profession!

I think because it was prestigious to get into that academy. I think that probably seemed official to him. Branwell actually wrote his own poetry and published it at certain points as well. But yeah, I think he was very proud of his son at the start.

Emily is your first experience both filming and writing a feature film. What do you think you’ve come away with from the experience that you might carry with you into future projects?

I think preparation. Be prepared, but then also be ready to let it go. Stay present in the moment, even if it’s falling apart. Just be okay with the chaos of it because filming is naturally so chaotic. I really really loved the experience. It was so creative, and you get to work with so many different artists from so many different disciplines. Unlike my time as an actor, where you just work with your director and other actors. It felt really expansive.

Thank you so much for your time and for joining me in geeking out about the Brontës.

Thank you. It was a great chat. I really enjoyed geeking out with you too.

Emily is now playing in select theatres across North America.