Sundance 2013 Interview: Francesca Gregorini

The director of Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes explains why the title is grammatically accurate.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

As you’ve seen by the CraveOnline output at Sundance, we book a lot of interviews with filmmakers. However, some films come as surprises and we pursue the filmmakers once we’ve seen them. Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes was one of those films, but once Sundance started, our schedule and the filmmakers’ were pretty booked. We spent the week pursuing director Francesca Gregorini and finally caught up with her at the annual press and filmmaker reception, where at least we knew we’d both be in the same place at the same time. Emanuel is a drama full of surprises so we kept it as vague as possible. Kaya Scodelario plays Emanuel, a teen whose mother died in childbirth, who bonds with her neighbor Linda (Jessica Biel) when she agrees to a babysitting job. I soon found out Gregorini and I had even more in common than the themes of her film.

Read CraveOnline's review of Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes

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CraveOnline: I’ve found I love movies about dealing with grief. Do you understand the appeal of that?

Francesca Gregorini: [Laughs] I hope there is an appeal to that because to sell the movie is going to depend on that appeal, but you mean like healing and redemption.

Yes, it’s healthy and productive, but painful so most people avoid it. I sort of seek out films about that.

Oh, that’s lovely. Grief and loss is really what we face as humans. The ultimate loss is death but I think along the way we have little deaths all along that maybe are meant to prepare us for the big D. I think it’s what unites us in a large way to the human experience, is that, that necessity to process grief and not get completely buried under it.

Is that as important to you as it is to me?

I think so, yeah. I think mortality and how we can’t really save ourselves but in saving each other we kind of do save ourselves. I think all those kinds of concepts and themes are really important to me and therefore they come out in my work. It’s what I grapple with and like you said, I think it’s what is in the collective consciousness. As writers you sort of tap into that as well as yourself, because we are all connected.

Has it gotten out exactly what Linda is doing to cope?

Here and there, I’ve seen it mentioned. There’s no real controlling it once you’ve screened it. I think we took great care before the premiere to keep it under wraps, but I don’t think there’s a mandate out there, like “Don’t tell.” I think it’s an individual choice of each reporter. It’s not like the story falls apart if you already know, but I do think that it’s more exciting if you don’t.

I think we’re going to keep preserving this secret. The way I’d phrase it then is do you feel the way Emanuel handles Linda’s mental illness is constructive for Linda or enabling Linda?

I think it’s constructive inasmuch as when Emanuel sees her opportunity to heal her, she does take it. But I think it’s hard when you love someone. I think the draw to sort of carry their lie, as it were, is big. I think especially when you’re young, we do that a lot with our parents and adults and I think even as adults you do that with each other. You’re right, it’s not always constructive but I think when Emanuel does see the opportunity to help make it right, I think she takes it and I think that’s sort of her bravery and in doing that she heals herself, which is sort of the message.

I felt like I knew Emanuel because the characterization was so clear. The poetic way she describes her birth in the beginning and the way she’s clever in a way that keeps her from ever having to connect with people.

Right, it’s like she uses that kind of humor to shield herself.

So I’m on the right track. Is that what you intended with the character?

Yeah, I think we all do that to a certain extent, use humor to sidestep real feelings. I think the Emanuel character uses that and Linda just uses good old fashioned denial/delusion. I think we all have all our coping mechanisms in our little tool chest of human coping mechanisms. We use them to a larger or lesser degree and it’s interesting because sometimes we don’t notice it in ourselves but it’s so apparent in someone else. That’s why I think it’s easier sometimes to help each other than our own selves, because we don’t have eyes on ourselves really.

What is it like coming back to Sundance with your second film?

Well, this is my first Sundance. My first movie that I did with my friend Tatiana von Furstenberg went to Toronto. So this is my first film at Sundance but it’s my second time here because the first time I was here supporting my friends, Zal and Brit. Two years ago they had Sound of My Voice so that was my first experience of viewing Sundance from outside looking in. This is definitely fun and exciting.

This connection just blew up so hard. My first Sundance was the year Brit Marling was here with her two films. I saw Another Earth and was so captivated by her, I noticed her picture in the program for Sound of My Voice and I had to see it too. So I’ve been following them and The East was my number one anticipated movie this Sundance. It figured you’re connected to them.

Oh, thank you. I’m going to take that as a compliment.

How did you know them before Sundance?

I knew them through my director friend Jamie Babbitt and I’d been introduced to them in L.A. Then Jamie was going to Sundance and invited me to go and I was excited that I knew some people who had films in it. That’s how that happened. Then after Sundance, they watched my film that had been in Toronto. We just became friends and stayed in touch like that.

So Tanner Hall played TIFF. What are the big differences to you?

Well, I guess here it’s more casual which is nice. I guess there’s a little more formality to Toronto that isn’t here, but they’re both great. They’re so different. The ambiance is so different. Both experiences I’ve really enjoyed a lot.

If I go watch Tanner Hall will I be able to tell it’s from the same voice as Emanuel and the Truth About Fishes?

I think so. I think aesthetically you’ll see some resemblance because I think I’m a very aesthetic filmmaker. That part of the process is very important to me. Yeah, I think so. That was a collaboration so it has differences as well, but I think so. That has Rooney Mara in it and Brie Larson. I’m very proud of that film.

You knew Rooney when she got the role of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?”

Yeah, Tanner Hall was her first feature film, so yes, I did.

What was your perception of how big that was when she landed it?

I think all of us on the inside knew that that was going to be a major career changing, life changing situation and it has been. She’s fabulous.

And it’s the incorrect plural of Fishes on purpose?

It’s actually not incorrect. I did look it up online and you are allowed to say fishes, because when it’s a school of one kind of fish, then it’s fish. But if it’s multiple types of fish, then it’s fishes.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.