Inside Francesca Gregorini's Magical Thinking
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.
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.”