Interview by Bears Fonte
One of my favorite films at this year’s SXSW was the period comedy WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY, a repositioning of the famous poet Emily Dickinson. I say repositioning instead of reimagining because many people would argue our traditional notion of who Dickinson was is more than likely wrong and based on years of poor scholarship. This new film, while completely irreverent, is based on contemporaneous accounts of her life which run counter to the prevailing collective understanding of who America’s finest poet was.
I’m sorry, did that sound boring? Did I mention it is a hilarious comedy with SNL vet Molly Shannon as the title character and loads of lesbian sex? Not surprisingly it takes an LGBTQ filmmaker, Madeleine Olnek, to get to core of Dickinson. Olnek’s previous features THE FOXY MERKINS and CODEPENDENT LESBIAN SPACE ALIEN SEEKS SAME showed her to be a director who can confront sexuality with both tenderness and humor and in WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY she has found the perfect vehicle (and star) to bring that formula to a wider audience.
For my own part, I fell in love with the poetry of Emily Dickinson in high school, where a great teacher, Jim Martin, pushed me to look past her biography and into her subject matter, her word choice, and even the specificity of her punctuation. At that age, her morbid fascination with death and its many varieties, as well as her lush descriptions of sex pretty much captured everything my teen heart was interested in. I always thought there was more to her than many historians ‘allowed’ us to believe.
I’m not sure one film can undue a 100 years of scholarship but damn if this isn’t a fun way to try. I had a chance to sit down with writer/director Madeline Olnek and lead actress Susan Ziegler (who plays Dickinson’s sister-in-law/lover in the film) at SXSW.
BEARS: Okay, so tell me how you first were exposed Emily Dickinson.
Olnek: I think the same way everyone was, which was you read her poems in junior high school, grade school. You hear a little bit about her biography, which is that she was a spinster who was a recluse, a shut-in, afraid to leave her room didn’t want to publish any of her work. Wrote poems that she hid in drawers and things. Wanted everything to be burned upon her death or only wanted to be published after she was dead or various forms of that.
BEARS: When did that change?
Olnek: I used to tell people I wanted to be the Emily Dickinson of Comedy like being a joke, because Emily Dickinson was the most miserable, unhappy person in the world. Then I saw this article in the New York Times, and the title of the article was “Beethoven’s Hair Tells All.” It was about how advances in science were allowing us to understand things about historical figures. With Beethoven it was the DNA and seeing the syphilis and deafness. There was also a story on Emily Dickinson about how infrared technologies were allowing them to restore erasures to her papers. Erasures that had been made, and what those erasures were revealing was this lifelong relationship with this woman Susan Gilbert who then married her brother and lived next door.
BEARS: And suddenly her story seemed not so miserable…
Olnek: And the erasures were made by the mistress of Emily’s brother. Oh my God, she had a girlfriend and Emily’s brother had a mistress. All these different people in love with each other, all this soap opera. I was reading some of these letters – they said there were letters that weren’t erased, but the letters that weren’t erased were all these letters Emily wrote directly to Susan. The letters that had been erased were the letters that the mistress had gotten her hands on, and were letters that Emily sent to her brother, Austin, when she found out that he was getting engaged. So the letters from Emily to Susan were just sitting out there, in all their glory, just so intense and passionate, and no mistaking what they were about. But this image of Emily Dickinson had been so built up that people couldn’t even see those letters or even the meaning of her work and her poems for what they were, because this image of her was so overwhelming.
BEARS: In the film we see Mabel Loomis Todd making these erasures. This was Austin’s mistress.
Olnek: [She] had compiled these notes because she was going to make them into a book. She was going to call the book “Scurrilous, but True.” It was never published, but it was published as an appendix, and this other book that won the National Book Award that was very pro — it was the mistress’s point of view on Emily and Susan. Susan she hated and thought was the worst person in the world because she couldn’t get her out of the way. She just wanted Austin to — she wanted her boyfriend to do something. She was very mad that this woman was in the way. She had all of Emily’s poems in her possession, so when this historian wanted access to those poems in exchange he was willing to tell the story which anyone in their right mind would know wasn’t true. Despite the fact she hadn’t seen her face, Mabel had never seen Emily face to face, she knew her better than anyone. Just totally ridiculous statements. All this shit that was said about Susan. It was laugh-out-loud funny, and I was like ‘I can’t even believe this.’ I can’t believe this lady was just so much of the opposite of everything I had imagined.
BEARS: Has it been difficult for you guys to talk about the film and having to fight against people’s conceptions?
Olnek: I don’t feel like this is a film to show to conferences of Dickinson Scholars. I feel like anyone who’s over 30, who is a serious Dickinson scholar and has read the originals of all of Emily’s poems and letters and does not understand that she was madly in love with women — there’s nothing my movie is going to do to change your mind. That’s a lost cause. I was being asked,” who is your audience?” I said, “Not Dickinson’s Scholars.”
BEARS: But one of the things the films does, which I think would be so important to scholars, is to restore someone like Susan to the prominence she obviously had to the poet.
Olnek: This relationship was so central to Emily’s life. Not just as a human being but as a writer. Her work, her meetings with Susan. Susan was her reader, her champion, her editor. She really had a life as a writer because of this relationship, which sustained her. Every artist needs some form of sustenance and the myth that we’re peddled about Emily Dickinson, which she was scribbling this stuff in her room and just on her own, and she didn’t want anyone to read her. But no — every writer has the desire to be read and no one works that hard on their writing if they really wanted no one to see it and no one can work forever without some recognition or acknowledgement or some encouragement or something.
BEARS: Which also goes against the idea that she didn’t show her work to anyone.
Olnek: People who are willing to let go of the “okay, maybe she wasn’t the straightest woman in the world” idea are still holding onto ‘posthumous, posthumous you want to be published posthumously.’ Where did they get that from? She sent her stuff out. She sent her stuff out to this publisher, they asked for more. She sent more. It did not include a note, “only after I’m dead, please,” — there’s nothing. It’s based on nothing, so that rewrite to me is as bad as the relationship rewrite. The idea that we’re supposed to accept that she was a woman writer who wanted nothing for herself, especially because she’s one of the few women who have been allowed into the Canon of Great Literature. The myth that’s peddled about her that she just wrote because of some weird psychic turmoil, and she really didn’t want to be published and now she’s in the Canon.
BEARS: Because her work was saved by men.
Olnek: Right, but also that that’s held up as an example. Don’t want anything for yourself. The only reason she got what she has is because she wanted nothing so you women, you shouldn’t be pushy, you shouldn’t have ambition. You shouldn’t have any desires to be recognized or acknowledged.
BEARS: It’s dangerous. But I think one of the things that you guys did so well is to show that this this needs a muse. Having somebody to write for. Can you talk a little bit about playing that character?
Ziegler: You know I came at it not really from the scholar side. As an actor, you just really played the moment and what you’re doing and you can’t play your subtext or anything like that. It was really what, “this is the woman that I love.” And what does that mean in a relationship? I think a lot of times people look at these and just think of the sex part of it and not about “this is my soulmate and we are encouraging each other to grow and to be their best.” That’s really more of what I focused on, not really the historical writer, but more the relationship, just because that’s what I’m in now. It’s kind of a different thing as the actor. I think when you get wrapped up in subtext, then you’re not there and you’re not being truthful because they’re just human beings in the end.
Olnek: It’s interesting because Susan’s been my muse for so many years. She first was in my plays. I was like 22 or 23 years old.
Ziegler: You were quite young.
Olnek: And so were you. So years and years of Susan playing all these different characters. I did many plays. I did about over 20 produced plays in downtown New York. Susan was in my plays and then she was in my movies. Part of what makes it finally come together, or what makes it able to reach the finish line is faith. Faith is the most important element of any resource you could have in making a movie and part of what having a muse or an artistic relationship is — I would say we both have faith in each other.
Ziegler: She’s one of those directors for me, this relationship, that she could say, “okay, turn around and jump up on one leg” and I would just do it because I trust her storytelling. I trust that it is for the telling of the story. Whereas in another situation — we joke about this — I’ve been naked in a couple of different films. It’s funny, the whole #MeToo thing right now, it’s all colliding, but you’re always wondering when you’re asked about that, is this just a gratuitous sort of money shot? Whereas, I know with Madeleine, if it’s purely for the telling of the story, and if it doesn’t have anything to do with the story, it’s not going to be there. So, then you feel okay about that as an actor. But as a woman, you’re so often asked to do these things that aren’t really necessary, and it’s degrading when you do them. Well, anyway, we have that trust.
BEARS: And you had a relationship with Molly Shannon as well, correct? From college?
Olnek: Yes. That was the last time we worked together. I directed her in a comedy show where she first created her character of Mary Katherine Gallagher. It was entirely her creation. I had nothing to do with the creation of it. I was just the midwife for the moment of that character’s birth. I was very newly indoctrinated in the Sanford Meisner technique as taught by David Mamet and was very much like everyone has to be 100% in the moment. I had this scene of an audition, where I have people coming for their audition, and I felt like the second they set their foot in the door if they were 100% trying to do their objective I kept sending them back out. When I sent Molly out, she would just keep ratcheting it up higher and higher until finally she threw herself on a pile of chairs, and that was something that came back for that character when she would do all these mad leaps and things like that. But she would come in and do this completely insane audition in the skit. We’d set points of it, but it was largely improvised. And then she poured her heart out and sing and dance and cry all these things, and I was playing the director. After she did this incredible, huge, emotional, exhausting presentation, I would just say, “thank you,” and that’s all I had to do in this skit.
BEARS: So how did you approach her for this? I mean obviously you have some dirt on her?
Olnek: Yeah, I did. Actually what happened was I had been interviewed by the Huffington Post because I was nominated for an independent Spirit award, and I mentioned how we had done comedy shows in college. We were at Sundance with the Foxy Merkins, which was my second feature, and her publicist Pat was like, “hey, she mentioned you in this interview.” Then Molly came to the premiere with —
Ziegler: She had brought another film.
Olnek: Yeah, she was there with that really funny film about the zombies called LIFE AFTER BETH. She was like, “oh, man. We should really work together.” So I’ve always wanted to ask her, but I didn’t until I had a part that would be worthy of her stature. So then when it was Emily Dickinson, I thought like, oh my God, oh my God. It was funny because it was the scene where Emily Dickinson is talking to an editor for the Atlantic Monthly, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who’s played by Brett Gelman. He visited her and they met for three hours, and she’s supposedly never stopped talking. He said she would ask a question, and he would go to answer it, and then she’d answer the question that she asked. Just talk, talk, talk — and when I read about that historically, I was like there is no way this woman didn’t want to be published. She was auditioning for this guy. I thought that has to be Molly. That has to be Molly.