Interview: Director Madeleine Olnek Discusses Truth in Women’s Stories and ‘Wild Nights With Emily’

Madeleine Olnek began her career in the theater. A playwright with many stage productions to her name, Olnek has also directed two short films and features. Her third feature film, “Wild Nights With Emily,” dramatizes the true story of renowned and misunderstood poet Emily Dickinson.

Molly Shannon stars as Dickinson, using her skills in both comedy and drama to bring her story to life. Olnek, who wrote and directed the film, paints a portrait of a woman who had a full and fulfilling existence, who loved and desired and had dreams. This is not the Emily Dickinson we were taught about in English class.

I had the opportunity recently to speak with Madeleine Olnek about her work and about what motivated her to tell the truth about the woman who has been wronged by history. Please enjoy our conversation.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: I have to start by saying that finished the movie last night and I was so excited that I would get to talk to you almost immediately after watching it. Where did it start? Why did you want to tell the story of Emily Dickinson, and in this way?

Madeleine Olnek: It started for me in 1998 when this article came out in the New York Times. It was called “Beethoven’s Hair Tells All,” and it was about how advances in science allow us to understand new things about historical figures. It included the story of looking at the erasures. Using spectographic technology to look at the erasures in Emily Dickinson’s letters. All I knew about Emily Dickinson was the same thing that everyone else knew, which was what we all had been told. She was a recluse, she was miserable, she didn’t leave her room, she hid away her papers. Someone in college had told me she was an agoraphobe.

This article, it was like there were these erasures and “here’s a letter that wasn’t erased.” And they read this letter, which actually we included in the film. It was so passionate and it was just a letter that had been sitting out there for years and years. It was shocking. I was like, I can’t believe this has been available and accessible and the story hasn’t been told. Why hasn’t this story been told? I’m not saying why hasn’t it been a movie or a play. I was like, Why don’t I know this? Why don’t I know this? Why doesn’t anyone know this?

Then I started doing research. The other thing in the article was about how the mistress of Emily Dickinson’s brother was probably the one responsible for the erasures, and she had put together Emily’s first books of poetry… Everything I was reading was blowing me away. I couldn’t believe it. And then I looked up this biography of Emily Dickinson, which was referenced in the article… Someone had referenced it in the article as, “I don’t believe this story about Emily being in love with this woman. I believe it because I believe in what I read in this biography.” So I was like, Oh, let me go look at that biography. And that biography had been started by the daughter of the mistress, had gone to this professor at Yale. In the book itself, as an appendix, it included this book that Mabel, the mistress, had written but never published, called “Scurrilous but True.” That was like a tabloid version of Amherst. It was just full of smack talk. I was reading it and laughing out loud and thinking, This is just not how you think of the 1800s! That was another big surprise for me.

In terms of the form, I feel like with period films, there’s this idea of period. Sometimes when people make a period film, all they’re doing is they’re making an idea of another period film that they’ve seen. One of the surprises for me in getting to know Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters – which I never had because of that creepy, creepy image, I had no desire to read to her work – but once I got to know it, I was really surprised at the humor in it. I was surprised at the way people spoke to each other, which was way more modern than I would have ever imagined. One of the things Susan called Emily was, they called themselves Combined Girls. That sounds 90s to me, not 1860s! It sounds 1990s!

All of that stuff that was coming up, that was so different. And also knowing, feeling outraged that this great love story had been kept from history. It was interesting, though, because when I went back – that was in 1999 that I did the play version – coming back to the movie, I was as interested in all the untruths about Emily Dickinson the writer, because part of what happened by taking Susan out of her life story, the way her life was held up as a writer was unreal. Like that she sat and wrote this stuff and hid it. You know? Like 2000 poems, she just hid them in her room? Didn’t want any of them published?  Finding out, Oh, no, actually she sent her work. Actually, it was rejected in her life time. Actually, a bunch of people told her how to write. Actually, she had this woman she met with regularly who she wasn’t just in love with… It wasn’t just a romantic love, it was also an intellectual partnership.

And one of the things Martha Nell Smith, the Dickinson expert and scholar that I worked with, said that was so interesting was, when she first started to write about this, she thought the major pushback was going to be against the idea of this romantic relationship. But she actually found that there was more outrage and blowback about the idea that Emily Dickinson’s main reader, muse, mentor, inspiration was another woman and not a man. And was a woman who was an “unprofessional woman.”

KP: It’s interesting because, like you, I grew up hearing that she was this recluse. I remember in my junior year of high school, getting into an argument in class about how someone who was so isolated from society could write with such passion.

MO: Wow.

KP: That was one of the reasons I was excited about watching your film, because it makes so many pieces fit into place about her.

MO: It does! And you’ve brought up such a good point because we were at opening night of the Provincetown Film Festival and Paula Vogel, who was the first openly lesbian person to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, she said when she was younger and she read Emily Dickinson, she was like, “I don’t understand this poem, because her life, the image of her overwhelmed the work and obstructed its meaning.” She couldn’t put together how the person with the life she was told about could have written these poems. Exactly the same experience that you’re describing yourself having at a young age. And also think about how you felt. Didn’t you feel the idea of her life, did you feel like you wanted to have that life? Unloved, miserable, not leaving your room? Would you want to live like that?

KP: Never!

MO: Yeah, like who wants to be that? And that’s been something our society has been really invested in holding up certain histories of women that, frankly, are not true. And we are paying a price for that. I feel like the only possible good thing that has come out of the Trump election is that I think there was a lot of denial over how deep misogyny ran in our country. And now we’re all suffering from sexism. It’s affecting all of us. Whatever gender, race, class you are, we as a nation are being terribly hurt by the misogyny of our society that paved the way for Donald Trump. There’s a collective will, but the importance of true historical stories, especially for women, are important, because when Hillary Clinton ran for President, it was like she all of a sudden became the first ambitious woman ever. It was like she was a witch.

We’ve all been told Emily Dickinson didn’t want to be published because that was a way as a woman she could be acceptable. That she had no ambition, that she didn’t want anyone to read her poems, which is just nuts.

KP: And there are so many women like that throughout history, where we’re told just one thing about them, but then when you start to really dig into it, you learn they had this full life and they were intelligent and ambitious and powerful and they’ve just been erased. You’re absolutely right, that affects us today.

MO: Yes! I don’t know if you saw “Mary Queen of Scots.”

KP: I loved “Mary Queen of Scots!”

MO: That was so great, and a woman directed that movie. And I was floored by it. I know it’s silly, but it didn’t occur to me how much misogyny those queens… You think, “Oh, they were queens!” But then it’s like, Oh my god! They were just surrounded by it and it’s just amazing.

KP: It really is. But that’s one thing I’m really excited about with this film, with “Mary Queen of Scots,” with “On the Basis of Sex.” All these other films that are coming out about powerful women, they’re being directed by women. For you, what has your experience been like as a female director getting your movie made, and how has it been accepted?

MO: Well, of course it is very difficult for a woman doing anything where it’s an important position. In any field, the women who are CEOs, who are presidents of universities, who are members of our governments, representatives, everywhere. The importance of this discussion of female directors is this: Everything that people learn about women – how to see them, how to talk about them, who they are – is created through the media. From a young age, the images that people see of women come from television they watch, the films they watch. Those images have not been created by women.

I’m not saying that every film about a woman has to be directed by a woman. But something happens to even the movies that the men are making. Art doesn’t exist in a void. Artists are affected by each other’s work, are affected by the language they see and hear, and there’s been so little representation of women by women directors that we are not seeing that perspective and we’re all shaped by what we see and hear. So, literally, the director deciding point of view, which characters we identify with, how the story ends, all of those things that really affect us on that unconscious level.

There was a study that showed that in our dreams, we don’t differentiate between things we’ve seen in our life and things we’ve seen on television or the movies. Like, when you have dream images… it’s part of the REM cycle where your brain does something to reboot. Those images, everything that appears in those dreams that you have is something you’ve seen at some point. It takes it as equally from your real life as from movies and television imagery and doesn’t distinguish between the two.

So when we talk about why we think about women the way we do, why is our society globally in a position where… There was a report where the United States is 45th in terms of global countries in its treatment of women. They compared on the basis of a bunch of statistics. We always wonder, where does this come from? The thing that’s important to remember about the whole issue of women directors is, it’s not just about certain women not getting opportunities for jobs, although that certainly is part of it. It’s discrimination and it’s not what America is supposed to be about. It’s also about how profoundly the images presented affect how people think of and treat women. Even how women think of themselves.

KP: It’s so true. And that’s something I’ve been talking with a lot of people about in the industry recently. It’s so important we have women telling these stories because the next generation of girls that’s coming up, those are the messages they’re going to hear, and it’s such an exciting time. I love having this film and the truth about Emily Dickinson finally out there. For you, going through this process of writing and directing “Wild Nights With Emily,” what is a way that this has changed you?

MO: It was an enormous effort and I am someone who’s been doing plays. I was a playwright first. I’ve put up a million shows. I’ve worked in horrible conditions. Nothing has been harder in my life than making this movie. The scholarship had to be right. I had so much reading to do, so much research to do and I also had the problem of, I don’t want to lecture audiences and I don’t want to make this a textbook. You know? This is a movie. We’re trying to capture these people truthfully. But I think that this story has been hidden for so long, of course it’s not going to just be easily told. Of course it was an uphill battle to make this movie and tell this story. If this was a story that was so easy to tell, someone would have told it in the 1950s when that first book came out about Kate, who was the other woman Emily Dickinson is involved with in our movie. It would have been told later, but it’s been resisted because the stakes are really high in what’s going on in the world with women.

I’m the first person to tell this story on film, and of course it was going to be incredibly difficult for the same reason that it’s been so hard for society to ever acknowledge this story. Those same vested interests are at play. If it was so easy, someone would have already done it. Of course it was going to take an enormous effort. Of course it was going to be incredibly difficult. Of course every obstacle would be against us.

I was just lucky in that I had actors who were as committed to the project as I was. We had to do it piecemeal and we had to integrate new history as things came up. There were things we had to get right. There were things we discovered in shooting, too, that we had to incorporate. I make a big deal of the price I paid, and it was a big deal. A friend of mine was worried for me at one point when I dropped like 30 pounds. She was like, “I’ve never been so worried for you, Madeleine!” Of course it was going to be incredibly hard. Of course it was because she was one of a kind and a true rebel, Emily Dickinson, and the world has only allowed her to take up the space that she has by presenting her as the opposite.

KP: I know that you are going to face criticism for this film, just because of the fact that any time a story comes out that challenges what we know about history, particularly when it’s about a woman, that’s going to be met with a lot of resistance. But for you, what have been some of the positive reactions you’ve gotten that have really made you feel like you did the right thing?

MO: One of my favorites was when I had a writing class. I was screening the movie in progress at my apartment for over a year. We had different versions and we showed it on the back of my blinds. And this writing class came. This young woman in the class watched the film and as she was watching it, she said she was thinking, “Of course Emily Dickinson had someone she was sharing her writing with!” What she had known about Emily Dickinson, what she thought about her and heard was something like she had lived alone in a woodshed. That’s all she could remember. Something about her being alone and she never talked to anyone. So she thought, “Of course she did. Of course this was her life.” And she said, “Almost any time you look at the history of a woman, it’s almost always a lie, what’s presented.” The idea that she now was going to take this filter with her, this idea of having a grain of salt when she hears things that are told to her about women, and also being inspired by the life that Emily did lead, that really moved me.

Another response I got that also was wonderful was when we showed the movie on the lawn of Emily Dickinson’s actual house. The Dickinson Museum presented it and it was a big deal for them to do that. Someone in the audience wrote me afterwards and said, “When I went to your film I hoped to at best be able to live with the choices, but what I saw surpassed anything I could imagine.” She hoped she just was going to be able to live with it! That also was really amazing because people who really know Emily Dickinson, it’s often just been a disappointment for them, how she’s presented. People who’ve read her poems. It takes a lot of bravery and courage to write. To put your mind on paper and let people see it. Of course Emily Dickinson was this incredibly strong woman. She wasn’t a frightened church mouse. It takes a lot of nerve to write.

We would like to thank Madeleine Olnek for taking time to speak with Awards Circuit.

“Wild Nights With Emily” is distributed by Greenwich Entertainment and is now playing in select cities.