By Lisa Stahl
What happens when an esteemed comic actress like Molly Shannon (best known for Saturday Night Live), a screenwriter with a quirky perspective and a penchant for cinematic originality, political causes and literary scholarship, and a legendary American poet who some say has been misunderstood and misinterpreted by decades of academic critics collaborate?
Wild Nights with Emily happens. The unique film, thoroughly original and entertaining, is inspired by the life of Emily Dickinson. It’s also a creative spin on a literature professor’s reinterpretation of Emily Dickinson’s life and personal relationships.
Madeleine Olnek, producer, director, and screenwriter, gives us a steamy love story (between two women) and the struggles of one of America’s greatest poets to gain recognition in the male-dominated literary world of her times.
Olnek filled me in on her story and artistic intentions. Don’t miss the chance to learn more at NYWIFT’s watch party Tuesday, June 30th at 4 PM EST.
What inspired the story idea?
An article published in the New York Times (1998). I was interested in why the story has not been told and by the fact that resistance to it was so intense.
[Note: The NY Times article profiled Martha Nell Smith, a University of Maryland English professor, who argued several generations of literary scholars ignored or censored a love relationship between Emily Dickinson and Susan, her brother’s wife. She used high technology to examine the letters. Smith documents that Emily Dickinson was corresponding intimately with Susan for decades and that Susan’s husband’s lover, Mabel, deliberately altered Emily’s letters to conceal a relationship that would have been scandalous at the time.]
What creative license did you take in adapting the NY Times article – and academic scholarship?
The whole thing took creative license. With Spielberg’s movie Lincoln you get lost in the historical aspect – because Lincoln’s story is so familiar – and forget that the writer of that movie took great creative license. I wrote the lines. This is the story of how her romantic relationships were revised – also her life as a writer. Emily loved Susan. If you look at the letters they were in love.
Do you think this movie could have been produced 20 years ago? How receptive do you think audiences are to a lesbian love story now?
The world has changed. The passage of gay marriage made a sea change in how people think of gay people, how we relate to them. Students now haven’t internalized the stigma. But sometimes the clock turns back and sometimes goes forward. The waves of prejudice wax and wane.
Is the scholarship on which the film was inspired considered credible by other academics?
The 1998 NY Times article compared the resistance that Martha Nell Smith faced to the long journey by the scholar Fawn Brodie, who challenged the Jefferson persona in the 70’s with the story of Sally Hemings. Many feminist scholars have written about Emily and Susan and the importance of that relationship; and in 2020 there’s more acceptance.
I also used many sources of scholarship, including Rebecca Patterson’s book from the 1950’s about Emily’s affair with another woman, Kate; Polly Longsworth’s volume of Mabel and Austin Dickinson’s love letters; Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s first-person remembrances of Emily; and a book commissioned by Mabel’s daughter, which included Mabel’s trashy tell-all “Scurrilous But True.”
What challenges did you face in producing this movie? Which decisions do you regret, which worked out?
I wanted to base what I wrote on her actual life. But as a writer, your first obligation is toward dramatic structure. I had to make the movie generally accurate – since I knew so many people would challenge the veracity of this story – but also had to satisfy the demands of dramatic structure. That was a challenge. But because we were the first people telling this story onscreen (and maybe even the last people) we had an obligation to get it right.
I regret we didn’t have actual dressing rooms on the set… I wish there was better coffee. It was my great honor to work with several great actors, including Molly Shannon, who I’d worked with before. That was a dream come true. There’s a richness to having a working relationship for years.
How did you hope to change the way an audience might respond to Emily Dickinson?
By making Emily a very passive and meek person who didn’t have the normal desires that a writer would, as biographers and critics have, people could celebrate this woman because she never wanted success. People wanted to believe she was a meek, eccentric writer who never wanted anyone to read her work. That’s not true. She was a writer. She wanted people to read her work. I was outraged as the way in which she was portrayed as someone who didn’t actively pursue publication.
The film came out in 2018. How has it been received? What’s the distribution?
The movie premiered at SXSW in 2018, had a theatrical run and is available on Hulu and Amazon. The support has been overwhelming. I got a Guggenheim, (very hard to get) and the film has been taught in Ivy league colleges. It was a long process as a writer but I’m proud of the fact that fans of Emily Dickinson find this movie very well done. Critics’ reviews have been great, has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The fact that there’s still an audience for this is very exciting.
Join NYWIFT’s watch party, followed by a Q&A with Madeleine Olnek, Tuesday, June 30th at 4 PM EST.
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