With its tutti frutti–colored rooms, swagged Italian silk draperies, and patterned wallpapers (reproduced by Adelphi Paper Hangings), Emma—Autumn de Wilde’s luscious film adaptation of the 1815 Jane Austen novel—was a sure bet to become a design-world favorite for its kaleidoscopic yet period-perfect re-creation of the upscale Georgian world of its titular character (played by Anya Taylor-Joy). But immediately after the movie opened for its theatrical release in late February, the coronavirus pandemic hit, forcing cinemas to close. It was de Wilde’s first full-length feature; she is a rock photographer known for her portraits and music videos for Beck, Florence and the Machine, and the Decemberists. “I was so honored that I got to make a movie that was going to be in theaters,” she says, “but then they were closing, and I, as well as the studio and the actors, started getting a lot of reaction from people who wanted to see it.”
Which is how Emma became one of the first new-release films to get an early video-on-demand release (it is now available to rent for $19.99 for 48 hours). Its stunning production design by Kave Quinn and set decor by Stella Fox are giving the sheltering-in-place design community the escapist lift it needs at just the perfect time.
ELLE Decor talked to de Wilde about the enthusiastic embrace of her gorgeous period comedy and how Texture Spray Machine the world of decor—and her own obsessive attention to detail—was crucial in creating Emma’s irresistible world.
ELLE Decor: Autumn, I hope everything is OK with you and your family. Where are you at the moment?
Autumn de Wilde: Yes, it is. I’m on day four of a self-quarantine, because I was in London doing a photo shoot, and then I flew back to Los Angeles and didn’t want to risk exposing anyone in case I had been exposed. Luckily, I’m in a cottage that a friend was able to loan me just 10 minutes away from my home.
ED: You’re bringing a lot of joy to a lot of people with your movie, Emma. People in the design world are obsessed.
ADW: It really means so much to me. I have always valued escape films. In wartime, in America and England, these kinds of movies were very healing. There’s a lot of power in play. In making this movie, it was fun to meet all the people who are so obsessed with Jane Austen and the Regency period. There are so many ways to dive into this time period, whether it’s through design or costume or just a love of stories. Emma is a story of friendship and the magic—and comedy—of misunderstanding.
ED: The movie had just opened in theaters when COVID-19 forced cinemas to close. Did you push the distributor, Focus Features, to stream the movie on demand?
ADW: No. I would never want it to seem like I was pushing to have my movie leave theaters. But they were suddenly closing, and I was getting messages from fans begging to see it. The studio made the decision pretty quickly. I do want the film to survive economically, because I want more movies with complicated female characters at the forefront to be made.
ED: What has been the response since it started streaming?
ADW: Really overwhelming, in a very exciting way. I’m getting a lot of emotional thank-yous on my Instagram and Twitter. I think everybody responds well to beautiful things and to slice-of-life storytelling and the ability to time travel to another period. I’m really excited to see designers writing to me about the sets.
ED: The film has such a luscious, distinctive look. What was the starting point?
ADW: I’m an obsessive researcher in general, and when I went to drama school, which was a long time ago before I became a photographer, I became pretty obsessed with different periods and how they affect the storytelling. When I started photographing bands and making music videos, I brought it into my work in abstract ways. I would show a painting to a band and say, “What if you stood like this?” So as soon as I got the invitation to pitch for this movie, I went in pretty deep.
I was already pretty familiar with the Regency period. And you can tell when you look at the dishes and other things from the era that don’t fade just how colorful the Georgian and Regency periods were. Color then was how you showed your wealth. People of Emma’s stature had inherited furniture and paintings, but they weren’t as old as they are now, so they weren’t as faded. And she was someone, with her financial situation, who would have had the means to wallpaper a room or change the paint color if she wanted to. Remember, this was a time when evenings were lit by candlelight and winters were long and dark, so it made sense to have a lot of color on the walls.
For research, we went to Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. I also discovered Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts, a women’s magazine from Emma’s time period. It showed fashion print illustrations, embroidery patterns, furniture, and even curtain designs. An old print shop in London gave me access to the magazine’s archives, and that provided a lot of visual inspiration. The wallpaper in Emma’s breakfast and dining rooms—those are all accurate from the period. I also looked at a lot of caricatures from that time period. Cartoonists then were poking fun at fashion, society, the aristocracy, and the middle class. And because I knew I was doing a physical, screwball comedy, it was very useful to have those style jokes in there.
ED: The palette reminds me of a box of macarons—would people really have lived like this in England in the early 19th century?
ADW: I think you’re asking that question because you’ve seen so many movies with faded wallpaper. That’s because many period-accurate film shoots don’t have the budget to re-wallpaper the walls, or they shoot in locations where you’re not allowed to change anything. So yes, the colors in Emma are historically accurate. We sought out a house that would let us do that, and that was Firle Place [in East Sussex]. The owners, Lord and Lady Gage, were really open. He is a painter. They were excited to have more of the Georgian elements brought back into the house.
They already had the mint-colored tearoom, where we shot our tea scenes and the pianoforte battle. And the sitting room where Mr. Woodhouse is often sitting by the fire, that room was already gold and cream. In those spaces, we freshened up the paint, which made them very happy.
We added chinoiserie panels to Emma’s bedroom and painted the stairwell blue and white, like Wedgwood pottery. We wallpapered the dining room, redesigned the drapery, and took away anything that looked Victorian.
ED: Did Lord and Lady Gage keep it that way after the production?
ADW: Yes, they loved it. They kept the wallpaper in the dining room. They used to have a billiard table in there, but they didn’t put it back in. I saw an interview with them recently, and the stairwell was still blue. And hopefully when this global pandemic is over, they will reopen for visitors. I can’t wait until people can go back to visiting great houses and romping through the countryside.
ED: I hear you hired an etiquette expert to work on the film?
ADW: Yes, of course, Maria Clarke. It’s really important on a period movie for the actors to understand how people related to each other then. We wanted to show the young people pushing boundaries. Like in the hallway, before Mr. Knightley and Emma danced, Anya really wanted to have her gloves off in the scene—normally she would have always worn gloves—so we asked Maria, “Can she have her gloves off?” And she said, “Yes, if she had just eaten, she wouldn’t have put them back on yet. And since she’s so distracted by the way she’s starting to feel, it made sense.”
ED: For people who love great design and fabulous movies, what films would you recommend streaming right now?
ADW: I’m very influenced by Jacques Tati, who was like the French Charlie Chaplin. His films Mon Oncle and Playtime have influenced me a lot visually, both in terms of the sets and the comedy. There is hardly any talking in them; they are all about design gags. I love Blake Edwards’s films, especially The Pink Panther, with Peter Sellers and David Niven. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a really wicked, really incredible visual exaggeration of a world. A lot of this shirt-matching-the-wallpaper idea that you see in films that came later—that started with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. And obviously, Wes Anderson’s films are so incredibly inspirational.
ED: Any favorite period movies?
ADW: A Room with a View is one of my favorite movies, for a lot of reasons. One, it’s the complete time-period, time-travel thing, but also I loved how the Edwardians had a lot of clutter in their design. So there’s books with pictures in front of them and this layering of clutter that is so beautiful. It makes you just want to go into that room and take a look at those little things on the shelves.
ED: What is your own style like at home?
ADW: My house is like the unfinished dollhouse. It’s more of an idea factory. There’s no complete vision, but my friends say that they love coming over to look at all my little treasures. It’s a bit closer to an antiques store or something. My house could be in a “beautiful clutter” magazine, if there were such a thing. I admire going to places that are complete visually, and I like creating a complete vision. But my own home visits many time periods.
ED: Did you take anything home from the set of Emma?
ADW: I did. I have Frank Churchill’s painting of Enscombe. I’m really proud of our feeble art in the movie. Like how Frank’s painting is good but not great. And how Emma’s paintings are hilariously not amazing. She’s not so bad, but she’s not great.
ED: What’s keeping you sane right now? How are you passing the time?
ADW: I’m trying to see it as valuable rest time, because I’m just coming off of this avalanche of work. But I’m sad about my friends’ businesses and my friends who own or work in restaurants or shops. Also about the PAs, the drivers, all the support on all my films. I love my crew from top to bottom. As much as I design the film, I design the crew, along with my producers, like a dinner party. I bring together people who I think would work well together, and now I’m worried about them.
No one in the film industry or photography can do what we do unless we’re making a movie or a commercial or doing a photo shoot. Musicians, like my daughter’s band Starcrawler, won’t have any income if they can’t tour. And I’ve seen very hard times financially, surviving as an artist for many years. I know how to live frugally, but there have been certain times where I could just not pay my bills. I remember that fear.
And of course I am worrying about people’s health. But the one positive is having the time to daydream. As an artist, you have to really defend that time and take it seriously as part of your work. Some of my better ideas come from those times when I was staring at the ceiling. Every time there’s a terrible experience, if you’re an artist I think your mind tends to wander toward where you would rather be, and that’s where a lot of great ideas are born. I am looking forward to seeing what people do after this. Because that is your imagination, and that is really powerful.
ED: Where would you love to be right now?
ADW: Making another movie. If I’m lucky enough to make another one, it will be a completely different world. And it will be just as complex as Emma, with lots of color, because that’s definitely something that I love to do.