Inside Francesca Gregorini's Magical Thinking

By Diane Anderson-Minshall

Originally published on Advocate.com January 10 2014 7:00 AM ET

There’s something in Francesca Gregorini’s smile. It’s a smirk, one that lights up her eyes but one that says, “I’ve got a sexy secret — aren’t you dying to know it?” The enticement to uncover secrets is central to her latest film, The Truth About Emanuel, a psychological thriller imbued with magical realism, French romanticism, and contemporary lesbian feminist thought. And it stars Jessica Biel, America’s girl next door, who gives the best performance of her career.

We’re at Le Figaro, an elite little Parisian fin de siècle-style bistro in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. The diners are a mix of starlets, screenwriters, hipsters, and special people like Gregorini — an emerging and talented Italian-American director who happens to be from one of the most famous families in entertainment. Her stepfather is Beatles drummer Ringo Starr; her mother, Barbara Bach, is a famous Bond girl (The Spy Who Loved Me); her uncle is Eagles guitarist Joe Walsh; her stepbrother is the Who’s drummer Zak Starkey; and actress Lucy Walsh (who has a small cameo in Emanuel) is a cousin. That’s just a cursory list.

Gregorini has connections and fame, and for a time, she had a security detail: After John Lennon was shot and killed, “for maybe like eight months after we had bodyguards,” she says. After that there was no escaping the fact of their fame. Bach had been a big movie star in Italy while married to the director’s Italian businessman father, Augusto Gregorini. “Even though it’s a much smaller scale than suddenly having a Beatle in your life, as a young child I remember that she was a superstar,” says Gregorini of her mother.

Le Figaro is the same eatery where she met Biel, when she asked to audition for the role of a mysterious woman who becomes the object of a young neighbor’s fascination. Biel told Gregorini she was used to doing indie roles. The director says, “Later I looked at her on IMBD, and I was like, No, she’s thinking indie like $10 million indie. There’s indie, and there’s indie.”

The Truth About Emanuel was made for a tiny $1 million. It’s an immersive and visually appealing film, billed as a psychological thriller, but one imbued with hope — and one in which the women aren’t pitted against each other, but brought close.

“It’s important to me to be able to delve into heavy themes, like heartbreak and madness and mortality, but have some hope in there,” Gregorini says. “I don’t want to slay people when they walk out of a theater, and they want to throw themselves under a bus. The message, hopefully, if there is such a thing in the film, is that you can’t save yourself, but in saving someone else you end up saving yourself, and that our humanity, our connections, are critical to surviving this ride.”

The lead actress, Kaya Scodelario, who plays Emanuel, is brilliant, brittle and vulnerable, yet smart, strong, and irreverent. Gregorini is the director who discovered Rooney Mara (for her debut feature, Tanner Hall), the actress who later became The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

She’s discovered another actress as talented and award-worthy in Scodelario.It almost didn’t happen. Mara and Gregorini remained very close friends after filming Tanner Hall, and Emanuel was written for Mara, who is credited as a coproducer. But financing took three years to assemble, and Mara, at 27 when production began, wasn’t really believable as a teenager anymore. “That was heartbreaking to me, but it really led to finding Kaya, and that’s been amazing, because I have a new, amazing friend and she did an incredible job.” As Emanuel, Scodelario at times offers shades of Jennifer Lawrence or Emma Stone, but in the end, she’s her own actress, charming and satiric.

For a movie that’s not ostensibly queer, there’s plenty of lesbian subtext. Gregorini leans in like she’s revealing a secret to a confidante, grey pageboy hat askew over her mop of dark chocolate hair. “There were some sexual undertones of the relationship between Linda and Emanuel that were intentional and discussed with the actresses beforehand. As a gay woman I think it’s important for me to put that in my work.” But this is not a gay story. Gregorini says she’s waiting to do that for when she has the right story to tell. “In the meantime, I make it a point to put something in there that is profoundly me.” Linda (played by Biel) and Emanuel develop an intimacy. Gregorini adds, “Also at times in friendships that aren’t gay…when you’re excited and you meet someone and you connect with them there is a sexual energy there. It doesn’t mean you’re going to act upon it or that it’s going to become sexualized, but we are sexual creatures, and that’s part of liking someone.”

The subtext of the film’s friendship includes a kind of a courtship and the fear of homosexuality that underscores modern life. Part of what Gregorini calls “English humor” is set up in the first scene, a traditional family dinner in which Emanuel tells her stepmother that she has had a sexual dream about her the night before. Later, Emanuel’s stepmother tells Linda that Emanuel may have unnatural desires for her because her own mother’s death has left a missing piece in her life. The stepmother creepily urges Linda, “I don’t want her to misinterpret your fondness for her” and then encourages the character to reiterate her interest in men, asking, “You are interested in men?” The scene cuts back to Alfred Molina and Aneurin Barnard — who play the dad and the boyfriend — leaving the question unanswered. The realness and absurdity is one of the laugh-out-loud moments in the film.

The combination of metaphor and fantasy, allegory and symbolism in Emanuel is “very grounded in true human emotion and our true struggles to get over loss,” Gregorini says. Heartbreak and loss are something Gregorini had to experience on a national stage. She was engaged to and had been living with Arrested Development star Portia de Rossi for three years when the actress left her for Ellen DeGeneres. Tabloids ran headlines like “Ringo Starr’s Little Girl Dumped By America’s Most Famous Lesbian.” At the time Gregorini decided not to talk to the press.

“It was pretty harrowing,” she now admits. “I’ve never really talked about it, and I want to be respectful to all the players — and, to be honest, I’ve definitely made my peace. Portia and I are friends, I’m friends with Ellen.”

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Few psychological thrillers are led by women, and those that are (Single White Female, Black Swan, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) tend to pit women against each other. Women’s fascination with each other in these films, when it exists, generally ends in betrayal and violence. Yet Gregorini insists that her film passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Named for writer-cartoonist Alison Bechdel, the test asks whether a work of fiction includes at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man; few films pass.

“The men in it are the supporting characters,” she says. “I don’t feel like I need to make an excuse for that.”

She says it’s still a problem for critics, though. “Still, 85% of the critics out there are middle-aged men. So that’s kind of the stumbling block that you run into. Your film is probably going to land on one of their desks, and, God bless them, love them, want them to write great things about it, but it’s like, it does skew the reviews that you get.” She says, “It’s great there’s more female moviemakers, and it’s great that there’s more and more stories about women, but really what we need to consider is a whole ecosystem, and critics are part of that, and financing is part of that, so the bar that we have ahead of us is higher than some might think.”

After four years in the making, The Truth About Emanuel opened January 10, and Gregorini — who’s had total creative control on her first two films — hopes it does well enough that she can make films with bigger budgets, ones where she doesn’t spend years stumping for cash.

“I’m just hoping that this film does well so that I have enough clout to sort of mitigate some of those factors moving forward,” she says. “I’m sure I’m super naive and it’s not going to [earn] jack-shit [at the box office], but that’s the hope: That if you do good work and they know that you were in control of the entire enterprise, that they’re going to trust you a little bit more to sort of navigate the ship,” she says.

“When we meet again, I’ll tell you if that worked out at all.”