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Emma 2

An archival review of Emma 2.

Weekly Alibi's Emma Review/Interview With Doug McGrath

By Angie Drobnic
Weekly Alibi Film Vault at
August 7, 1996

The latest adaptation of a Jane Austen novel has just hit the silver screen. Emma, though, is no tear-jerking Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice. Rather, Emma is a fun and light-hearted comedy of manners, with many plots foiled and secret loves exposed. Appropriately enough, the director of Emma, Douglas McGrath, has some very high-profile comedic experience--he co-wrote the screenplay for Bullets Over Broadway with none other than the master himself, Woody Allen. McGrath spoke with Weekly Alibi recently about his new movie, which also happens to be his first directing experience.

The character Emma can be very unsympathetic; at times she's conniving and manipulative and self-important. Gwyneth Paltrow, though, made her seem very genuine and nice, even when Emma is doing really dumb things. What was she like to work with?

She was great to work with. She was a dream to work with because, and it goes to what you've asked, she doesn't bring any of her own personality to it. Some actors bring their personality to a part, and the part has to accommodate their personality because they're really not actors. ... But Gwyneth is a consummate actress, and so she makes herself become the part. She's an exceedingly beautiful young lady, but her beauty is quite animated by her personality, and that's delightful. I think she doesn't shrink from playing what's unpleasant in Emma's character, nor does she inflate what's attractive in her character. She just plays what's on the page. She entirely trusts the script, and ultimately, behind that, the novel. And that's why she comes across so rounded and so honestly. She has a beautiful freshness, I mean, as an actress. She takes dialogue ... and she makes it feel alive, because she speaks that language in a way that makes you feel like you're not really hearing particularly difficult language. She makes it sound very fresh.

Besides directing Emma, you also adapted the novel into the screenplay. What were the biggest difficulties you faced with that?

Well, luckily, Emma as a novel is pretty adaptable as a screenplay because the story happens in dialogue, out loud between people. But the challenges were these: One, the novel is about 400 pages, so you have to shrink it down to about 100 pages. And as someone who loves the novel, it was hard to leave things out. ... The other challenge, and this is as much a challenge for directing as for screenwriting, is that in the novel, so much of the action is set in the home or in rooms. And after awhile, you just have to get it out of the house. ... So, when I got to England (where the movie was filmed), I started trying to re-imagine how everything could be and what action could go with it.

Some people criticize Jane Austen's novels, saying that they're all the same, they're all marital dramas. Do you think there are larger themes at work, though?

I think she says a lot about the people, because she looks at people so sharply and sees them so clearly, that she says something for all times, because she's looking at human beings and human behaviors which have been pretty sadly consistent throughout the ages. There's the same amount of greed, there's the same amount of kindness; everyone is angling to be married, to get some money, all those things. ... The plots are fairly simple in a certain way: You're waiting to see who is going to get married. But in a much deeper way, like in Emma, Emma can't be married, she doesn't even think she wants to be married because she's never put herself at risk in any way. And she has to do that to understand what true love can be. So the central idea of that novel is so funny because it's about a matchmaker who's inept at matchmaking, because she's never been in love herself. So I think that's a funny idea. ... I guess I haven't really answered this question, sorry. (Laughing)

One of the things about Emma's character in both the book and the movie is that she does change. In many ways you can see her growing up, and her psychology changing ...

Well, it's beautifully charted in the book. You know, the change in her psychology and her growth. It's one of the things that makes me love it, too, because she does grow, but she doesn't grow quickly. She grows the way all of us do, if we're lucky enough to grow, which is incrementally. Like after you promise not to do something and then you immediately do it again. She has her two steps forward and her one step back.