Wild Nights With Emily
by writer/director Madeleine Olnek
One day I came across an article in The New York Times entitled “Beethoven’s Hair Tells All!” It was about how advances in science are allowing us to understand new things about historical figures. There was a story in it about the iconic American poet Emily Dickinson, which documented how spectrographic technologies were restoring erasures to Emily’s letters. These centered around the name “Sue”—a woman who eventually married Emily’s brother, and with whom Emily was in love and had a lifelong relationship.
I was shocked to read this—I had never heard anything like this about Emily Dickinson. I had heard the same story everyone else had—that she was a recluse, miserable, unloved. Also that she wrote thousands of poems that she hid away in a trunk and wanted no one to see. I remember in college someone telling me that Emily Dickinson had agoraphobia. So morbid was this image that I had no desire to read her poems.
The article in The New York Times went on to explain that the posthumous publication of Emily’s poems had been edited by a woman who was the mistress of Emily’s brother. The whole story suddenly turned into a soap opera—but also a history that was the opposite of everything I had ever heard. How odd! I immediately made it into an award-winning play that ran in a theater in downtown New York.
That was twenty years ago; in the interim the entire world has changed. All the reasons people had to censor this part of Emily’s life are far less relevant. And I found I had changed also—when I was younger I was so outraged that history did not remember this great love story. Now, coming back to it at an older age, I found that I was equally interested in her journey as a writer. By the historical excision of Emily’s central relationship with Sue, who was her muse, her strategist, her intellectual companion, and her closest associate, Emily became a cipher who created poems in a void. She was unrelatable. And her poems—especially those about love, joy and passion—were so overwhelmed by the image of her as the nutty recluse that they almost made no sense.
In my desire to present a truthful and revealing portrait of Emily Dickinson so different from what had been seen before, I knew I needed to bring a very special actress to the role. SNL’s Molly Shannon was my only choice to play her. The director Robert Altman once said of Molly Shannon, that she was “some kind of genius.” A perfect description, and just like Emily. You can’t even characterize what it is about Molly—sui generis—but it’s brilliant. Emily Dickinson’s niece Mattie said that no one talked longer or funnier than “Aunt Emily,” and I knew that if Molly, with all her warmth and her original mind, played her, then the world would finally understand who Emily Dickinson was. The rest of the cast is so wonderful: Susan Ziegler as Susan, Amy Seimetz as Mabel Todd (the editor/mistress), Brett Gelman as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, comedienne Jackie Monahan as Lavinia Dickinson, Lisa Haas as Maggie, Dana Melanie and Sasha Frolova as teenage Emily and Sue respectively; and the cast is rounded out by Stella Chesnut (Molly Shannon’s real-life daughter) in the important role of Emily’s niece.
The movie is a ‘dramatic comedy' with equal parts humor and seriousness. That seemed the only form that would do justice to Emily’s voice. We enlisted classical musicians and lavish costumes and—thanks to our Guggenheim award that supported the research—we were given entrée by many different historical societies to properties built in the 1800s. But at the center of this movie are Emily Dickinson’s own words. Understanding Emily’s vision as a writer, and Sue’s support for her work, is the central concern of the movie. I wanted to make a film that parents could go to with their teenage kids. On the festival circuit I was amazed that this movie appealed not only to the young but also to an audience in their 80s & 90s. Dickinson’s words, written in the 1800s, and experienced on the screen in Wild Nights with Emily, are as resonant as if they were written today.