This interview was first published in April 2019.
AfterEllen: thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me today, I really loved Wild Nights with Emily.
Madeleine Olnek: I’m so glad! I’m delighted to talk to you and asked them if they could give me some extra time with you because AfterEllen is very important
AE: I was very surprised by the movie, it was very unconventional, which I’m sure is influenced by it having been a play first.
MO: Yes, it was a play first, but if you see my other features, you’ll see that’s my style. Even though my first feature was also adapted from a play, my other short films and my second feature were not adapted from plays, so I work in that style for sure.
AE: Well how would you describe that style for our readers who haven’t seen your features?
MO: Well I guess I would describe it as queer (laughs). I think one of the things that’s really unfortunate is that often when people make movies they just copy the Hollywood style, and make it slick and polished. No one does Hollywood movies better than Hollywood, and if you’re going to make an independent film, you might as well take advantage of the freedom that gives you to push the envelope and push the form.
AE: I think it also makes the storytelling rely much more on the writing, and the writing has to give you all the character development and personality. I think sometimes that slickness you’re describing means you don’t have to be as good of a writer. For Hollywood movies, surely some of the biopics I’ve seen in this space don’t have this level of dialogue. But I also appreciated some of the other elements. For instance there’s a scene where Emily is talking with her poem, and it’s against a blacked-out background and two faces speaking that felt very theatrical and yet something that you couldn’t do the same way in a theatre because of its limitations.
I thought that was really interesting.
MO: Right and people really respond to that poem. I’ve been in a theater where the audience gasps at that poem. The thing about this, and I hope you’ll impress this on your readers, this is a movie to see in the theaters, not to wait around until it comes out online. It’s about experiencing the poems larger than life. So often the gay community has been disappointed, women in particular, have been so often disappointed by what they see in movies. Lesbians don’t show up for movies because movies don’t show up for them.
AE: That speaks to the content project itself — I loved the representation of the audience in the film. Lesbian and bisexual women are hungry for representation, and yet we still don’t have it in a way that tells our story a lot of times.
MO: If people endorse the film, go out to theaters. They count the numbers of attendees and they say, ‘how did this movie do, it was made by a woman director, what was the turnout like?’ This is a rare film because it’s a movie about and made by a lesbian — now that’s a confirmed fact, it says so right in my Wikipedia entry: “Madeleine Olnek is a lesbian and lives in New York.”
(reviewing Wikipedia entry)
We did things in this movie no studio would have ever signed off on. So this was a chance for me — having this biography when I was growing up — it’s probably different for someone of your generation — but all we heard was that Emily Dickinson was a miserable recluse.
AE: No, that’s all I heard for sure.
MO: It’s so creepy of an image you didn’t even want to read her work. Some people who did read it, they told me they couldn’t understand it, because that biography hung over the poems in a way that obstructed their meaning, which I thought was really interesting.
AE: I think one of the things you address in the movie is she writes a lot about death, she lived next to a cemetery, but so many of the poems have this flirtation and incredible wit. It makes more sense when you know she had a rich life with social joys and she wasn’t alone, she was basically married to this lady.
MO: Right it wasn’t that she was a recluse, it’s that she was socially selective, which is an empowering image, where recluse is like a victim. The other thing readers should know is the smoking hotness of Emily Dickinson poems. That’s the other thing we get back. There are so many that are so erotic, so sexual and obviously written to a woman. So that’s the other part of it we get back, you know?
AE: You worked with Martha Nell Smith, a Dickinson scholar, and I wonder for how long you were in development and how close was your relationship with her or other Dickinson scholars.
MO: Open Me Carefully is a book of her letters co-edited by Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart and Martha has also done other work on this. She has been almost an activist around this issue. It was an article in the New York Times, that was the first I’d ever heard of it. I came across that article in the New York Times and it was about how advances in science allowed us to understand things about historical figures. They talked about using tech to look at these erasures. And then here in the New York Times they print this, here’s a letter that managed to escape erasure. This whole letter, so passionate, from Emily to Sue, so obvious that they were involved. I was like, you’re kidding me, this letter escaped erasure? And it’s just been sitting out here for years? The unbelievable thing about the story is how long the letters have been sitting out here for people. The collection was published in 1998. There were so many letters from Emily to Sue they couldn’t fit them all in the book. It would have been too long. She had written more letters to Sue than to any other person. Even though they lived right next door. This relationship was avoided.
One of the things Martha said that was interesting was that she got more blowback from the idea that the most important reader and inspiration in Emily’s life was another woman. She got more blowback about the professional and artistic collaboration than the romantic involvement.
I did years and years of research with the play — Martha ended up hearing about it because I dedicated the play to her, and a friend of hers saw it. She said, ‘Martha, i just saw this great play and it’s dedicated to you,’ and she was like, ‘oh maybe I should read it.’
Then between the play and the movie I had to do more research. More research came to light, including a daguerrotype of Emily and her lover Kate Anthon– which was the second woman Emily was involved with. Other things came to light — but [Kate Anthon] is such a funny and complicated story. There was a book written in 1951 about Emily’s affair with Kate, and when it came out, it was the height of the Red Scare. Homosexuality was equated with communism. That book sent a real panic through everyone associated with the Dickinson estate because they thought she would be yanked out of schools and the reading public was going to abandon her. That’s when the daughter of [Emily’s brother Austin Dickinson’s] mistress, she went to a scholar at Yale with a bunch of Emily’s papers in a trunk, and that’s when they came up with the whole idea of creating the “Master” character. They took scraps of paper and titled them the Master Letters. Emily did not title them that and they started all this speculation about some mystery man Emily was in love with. It was just like ‘look over there!’ To this day people are, like ‘but I thought Emily was in love with some man!’ By not naming who it was and making it speculative, it put even more energy toward it.
But mostly making her into this person who was afraid to leave her room, someone who didn’t want to be published. It made her acceptable because they took away her ambition and her desire to be published. Which of course she had, no one writes nearly 2000 poems when they don’t want people to read them. So that weird line of bunk we are all fed is just so wrong.
It is still so relevant to today’s world. We’re all acknowledging with the election of Donald Trump that misogyny is really affecting us right now. We are all suffering with the inability to address this inequity.
There’s one more thing I wanted to tell you about. I read your article about everyone claiming the queer banner and I appreciated it a lot. I think as an older person I’m trying to understand what’s going on with young people today and we had this really funny scene in the play where we had modern day interjection. Imagine this was first done 20 years ago, what it was like to tell this story then: “Madeleine Olnek imagines what if Emily Dickinson was a lesbian.”
There was this one scene where Emily and Susan are left alone at Emily’s house and the family leaves for about a month, and this is all true, they left Emily and Susan alone at the house with just their cousin John while the rest of the family went to Washington. For almost a month Emily and Susan got to live together and have this relationship, and I had done this thing with the play where they’re left alone, the family pulls away in the horse carriage and Susan reaches over and they have this long kiss, she undoes her belt, it hits the floor with a clank and then there’s this hard cut to a panel of academics talking about Emily Dickinson’s gingerbread recipe. This other woman has a speech about how identity is a modern construct and we can’t consider Emily Dickinson to be a lesbian because those terms didn’t exist back then, and then it goes to a split screen where this lecture continues, while Emily and Susan make out in every room in the house. In the stage play in 1999 it was really funny, it was an obv joke. You’re hearing this lecture about how you can’t say this thing. But when we had it in our work-in-progress screenings, young poeple thought that I was really saying that, like ‘you can’t say she had this identity.’ They thought I was saying that, that the lecture was my voice, you know that I was saying you shouldn’t have an identity. It was going over so bizarrely. It was good that we cut it because it was the last modern piece in the movie and it interrupted the bonding of these characters. But I never understood why people were responding to it that way until I read your article.
It’s like this idea — it was the reverse in my day — everyone was lecturing ‘don’t label yourself, don’t label yourself’ and now it’s like everyone is saying ‘we’re this label too.’ But it’s the same experience, it’s not wanting to believe that there are things I might go through that you might not go through.
Once we cut the scene, the movie took off. It became something you connected with emotionally.
AE: Thank you so much for saying that! I’m so honored.
MO: Because this is a movie about Emily Dickinson and there’s beautiful poetry and music and costumes, it’s the perfect movie to go to with your parents or your grandpa. This is a cross-generational experience with young and old people both digging this movie. because of the experience of it, and we wanted people to step inside the poems and have a three-dimensional experience with the poems.
AE: One more question. I know you had gone to school with Molly Shannon and, I have been a huge fan of hers forever. I was delighted by the chemistry with her and Susan Ziegler. How did you get Molly Shannon on board?
MO: I first directed Molly Shannon in a comedy show where she first created the character that became Mary Catherine Gallagher. I was the midwife to that brilliance. She would come in and do improv and we came up with this killer ama performance. It was so funny. I had always wanted to work with her since then. When my second feature The Foxy Merkins and Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same. She came up to me at Sundance and said, “Madeleine we should really work together.” I felt like she was the perfect person for Emily Dickinson. I can’t even tell you how much it means for all of us to have Molly Shannon go out and give all these political interviews about what this movie means. It means there is a wider audience that’s going to read these ideas. She’s taken it so seriously and put so much time and energy into it. It wasn’t a big Hollywood movie with trailers and stuff. She would be sitting on a bed with four other people waiting to do her scene, and she gave an incredible performance, so it was thrilling to work with her.