Wild Nights With Emily, now playing in New York and Los Angeles, offers audiences a different Emily Dickinson from the reclusive poet that’s generally been depicted. Based on her own play of the same name, writer/director Madeleine Olnek shows us a feisty, relatable and passionate figure portrayed by Emmy nominee Molly Shannon. Using Dickinson’s poetry and letters to her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler) as well as extensive research, Olnek reintroduces us to one of America’s most admired writers with a funny and compelling drama that celebrates her life and work. James Kleinmann spoke exclusively to filmmaker Madeleine Olnek for HeyUGuys.
James Kleinmann: You clearly have a real passion for Emily Dickinson, it comes across in the film and all the research that you must have done. When did you first became intrigued by her and what drew you to write the stage play which you’ve now adapted for the screen?
Madeleine Olnek: “It was actually an article in The New York Times in 1998 about how technology was enabling us to learn new things about historical figures. There was a story about Beethoven’s hair being analysed for mercury, which could be related to syphilis. There was also a story about Emily Dickinson and spectrographic technologies being used to look at some erasures in her letters. The article said that all the erasures were around the name Susan and that Susan was this woman whom Emily had a lifelong romantic relationship with. I was just so surprised because I hadn’t ever heard anything like that about Emily Dickinson. The article also described how her brother’s mistress had put together the poems for publication. So it was such a soap opera and very much the opposite of anything I’d ever heard about her. Before that, I have to tell you, I had no interest in Emily Dickinson. I’d studied the ‘I Could Not Stop For Death’ poem in High School and had heard that she was weird and that she didn’t leave her room, and she hid away her writing. Back then I didn’t have any interest in the figure that was presented to me or her work.
“The New York Times article quoted an example of a letter which escaped erasure, a letter which I included in the movie, and I thought ‘oh my God, this letter is so passionate!’ So that began my research. The woman who was profiled in The New York Times article, Martha Nell Smith, ended up being our historical consultant and also the person I dedicated the movie to.”
I’m sure it was a very involved undertaking, but could you give us an insight into the process of adapting your stage play for the screen?
“Well, that was actually a really complicated process and I had already gone through it once before. My first feature was also based on a play of mine, but that first play was written to seem like a movie, whereas this play was very much a play. We probably had twice as many letters and poems in the play, because it’s a very standard convention in plays to have someone stand and read a letter or poem. With the movie we worked so hard to make the poems into experiences. Someone who came to see the movie in Boston who had seen the play thought that there were more letters and poems in the movie. So I thought ‘oh good, we pulled it off!’ That was important to me.
“Also with a play it’s standard for someone of one age to play a character from young to older, the audience just goes with you and we couldn’t do that with the movie. I wanted Emily to go from being a teenager to the age she was when she died and it couldn’t be one actor for the movie. I was actually really glad that I made that choice. The play was definitely campier than the movie, because it was older actors playing the scenes when they are teenagers as well as adults, so when they were falling in love for the first time it was so over the top. In the movie, having real teenagers play young Emily and young Susan at that moment in their lives brought their whole hearts to it.”
Yes, I love the women’s Shakespeare society scene where the teenage Emily and Susan are such terrible readers until they start reading about love and look into each others eyes and begin to sound very sincere. That works really well.
“And they were really in a Shakespeare club together and they wrote to each other using Shakespeare references up until Emily’s death. Emily told Susan that she’d given her more knowledge than any human being other than Shakespeare. In one of Emily’s last notes to Susan she wrote ‘remember what was whispered to Horacio’. Which referred to Hamlet as he was dying and he said to Horacio ‘tell this story.’”
Molly Shannon is wonderful in the film. Why did you cast her to help create this version of Emily.
“It was very important for me to have Molly Shannon play Emily Dickinson. There’s a kind of casting that happens where an actor’s qualities as a human being resonate through the role, especially if it’s a known public figure. For example, when Sean Penn was cast in Milk, I felt like one of the reasons he was cast is because he’s such a tough guy, such a hero and people wouldn’t have thought of a gay man at that time as being so bold and such risk-taker. His casting was kind of a shorthand for conveying all that. Casting Molly as Emily Dickinson, I feel like Molly is an original mind, sees the world differently and it’s fascinating how she sees the world and you want to know it. Having her play Emily with all of her warmth and what a loving person she is, she has all these same qualities as Emily and I felt like if she played her people would finally understand who Emily was.”
Yes even when I saw the trailer for the first time I saw Molly Shannon and it does just instantly throw a different light on Emily Dickinson.
“Molly Shannon is wonderful in the role and Amy Seimetz who plays the mistress of Emily’s brother, she just starred in Pet Sematary, she’s wonderful too. She was just so interesting to work with and she read so much and did so much work on her own. She was a joy too. Molly, Amy and Susan Ziegler as Susan were all wonderful.”
I love the speech that Molly delivers as Emily in the scene when Higginson visits, where she talks about ‘women writers’ and how they’re not just called writers, but ‘women writers.’ I wondered if you could talk about writing that great speech. It made me think about the way people talk about filmmakers today, there’s that distinction of being ‘female filmmakers.’ I’m sure you’ve been asked countless times ‘what’s it like being a female filmmaker?’
Yes, yes, yes! It’s funny that you bring that up because that scene is based on this famous meeting between Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He was one of the editors of The Atlantic Monthly and Emily had written to him saying, ‘Mr Higginson are you too preoccupied to tell me if my verse is alive?’ She’d been sending him poems. He finally met with her, he traveled to where she lived and they had this meeting which he wrote an account of after her death. He said in his account, ‘she would ask a question and then I would go to answer it and the she would answer it for me’ and that she just talked and talked throughout the meeting. You try to think of that in the eighteen hundreds, a woman just commandeering the conversation and how outrageous that would’ve seemed, especially to an important man of letters who was used to being listened to. Higginson had the power to make any poet in America famous and after that meeting he wrote to his wife about how Emily Dickinson had drained his nerve power and that he was glad he didn’t live near her.”
“I read the article that Higginson published in The Atlantic which Emily read and which caused her to write to him. In it he made reference to the fact that he was getting submissions that were written in handwriting he could tell was men disguising their handwriting as women. So that was the basis for the monologue, part of it was this idea of what is women’s writing and it being identified by handwriting and appearance. When I read his account of that meeting I thought ‘oh my gosh, Emily was kind of auditioning for Higginson’, and that’s another reason why I thought this part has to be Molly Shannon’s, imagining her in that scene.”
I loved the film’s period detail such as the costumes, how the impracticality of them comes across, something you don’t usually see in a period drama.
“Yes, it added a real complication for women just going about their daily lives, how difficult it was to wear those giant hoop skirts. You know, it was a pretty scandalous thing for the day what Emily Dickinson did when she started wearing that white dress and I believe it was a Steve Jobs thing. I think the reason why so many artists do that, wear the same thing every day, is that they just don’t want to spend any part of their mind on what they’re going to wear. So her famous white dress that so much has been made of actually had a very utilitarian reason, she wanted to wear the same thing and she liked to garden. So it was practical, not weird. But it was weird for a woman in a society that often reduces women to their appearance to say ‘I’m going to care the least about that.’ A very rebellious act.”
You mentioned before that you used less poetry and fewer letters in the film than you had done in the play, and I loved the way that they were used with the text on screen and sometimes we hear it spoken and sometimes it’s just the text. Could you talk about deciding how and when to use the poetry and the letters in the film.
“Thank you for noticing that! You’re the first person who’s noticed that who I’ve spoken to. We didn’t just make a standard choice, I didn’t want people to get into a mode where they turned off thinking ‘oh, here comes a poem and it’s being read and the words are on the screen’ you know. Emily Dickinson’s poems came out of so many different places in her life because she wrote them in so many different places. She wrote them while she was doing the baking for the household, her father insisted that she do the baking because he liked her bread better than the servants’ bread. She wrote when she was gardening, as she had ideas and thoughts wherever she was. We wanted every poem to be experienced differently so we tried, I say ‘we’, me and Emily Dickinson tried, to do what was necessary to create each experience. We didn’t want to rob anyone of the experience of the language.”
“With the movie Paterson, about the poet played by Adam Driver, the poetry they used was very accessible, you can hear it and when it was put on screen it was sometimes repeated even though it was totally everyday language, easy to access and understand. Emily Dickinson’s language is much more complicated. We tried to preserve her line breaks and dashes as they were and to use the longer em dashes. In an earlier version of the movie we didn’t have the true dashes. Whoever had typed up the poems hadn’t used the true em dashes, we just had these short little hyphens and when we redid everything and went from that to the longer dashes it made a huge difference. Emily Dickinson does things where there’s one word on the line, like with the soldier where the word ‘lain’ is the only thing we see on the screen, talking about the soldier in the tomb. Those moments, the way she put poems on the page also allowed us to have an experience, but we wanted a match between hearing it in a way that you could understand the ideas and obviously preserving her dashes and preserving her capitalisations.”
All of that was very worthwhile doing, especially those dashes because there’s a lot in those isn’t there. Well, one final question, I wondered to what extent do you feel that you’re helping to set the record straight about Emily Dickinson’s life with the film.
“The thing that’s kind of shocking honestly is that a book of Emily Dickinson’s letters to Susan was published in 1999, so they’ve been sitting out there for the public to read for years. There’s this website emilydickinson.org so everyone can see all of her letters. What this movie does I think is restore Emily Dickinson as a person, the truly wonderful person that she was.”
Wild Nights With Emily is in New York and Los Angeles cinemas now. For more details on the film, showtimes and to purchase tickets head to the film’s official website here.
In the mid-19th century, Emily Dickinson is writing prolifically, baking gingerbread, and enjoying a passionate, lifelong romantic relationship with her friend and sister-in-law Susan…yes this is the iconic American poet, popularly thought to have been a joyless recluse. Beloved comic Molly Shannon leads in this humorous yet bold reappraisal of Dickinson, informed by her private letters. While seeking publication of some of the 1,775 poems written during her lifetime, Emily (Shannon) finds herself facing a troupe of literary gatekeepers too confused by her genius to take her work seriously. Instead her work attracts the attention of an ambitious woman editor, who also sees Emily as a convenient cover for her own role in buttoned-up Amherst’s most bizarre love triangle. Meticulously researched with the support of the Guggenheim foundation, this dramatic comedy generously intertwines Dickinson’ actual letters and poems into the texture of the film, used with permission from Harvard University Press. A timely critique of how women’s history is rewritten, WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY remains vibrant, irreverent and tender–a perhaps closer depiction of Emily Dickinson’s real life than anything seen before.