'Emily': 5 things we learned from Brontë movie director Frances O'Connor (exclusive)

Watch: Trailer for Emily Brontë drama Emily

Adaptations of great literary works never go out of fashion, with Jane Austen's Persuasion just the latest example to hit screens. Later this year, though, the voice behind one of those classics is due to take centre stage in Emily — an unconventional take on the life of Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë.

Emma Mackey, of Sex Education fame, leads the cast in the title role. The rest of the ensemble includes Line of Duty's Adrian Dunbar, Fionn Whitehead and Oliver Jackson-Cohen.

Read more: Charlotte Brontë returns home after auction

The film marks the directorial debut of actor Frances O'Connor, who has plenty of period drama experience in front of the camera given the presence of the likes of Mansfield Park and The Importance of Being Earnest in her filmography. She now steps behind the camera for the first time, having also penned the script for the movie.

To mark the official unveiling of the film's first trailer, O'Connor had a chat with Yahoo Entertainment UK about what viewers can expect from Emily.

It's born of a lifelong love for Emily Brontë

Frances O'Connor cast Sex Education star Emma Mackey to play Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë. (Warner Bros/Culture Club/Getty)
Frances O'Connor cast Sex Education star Emma Mackey to play Wuthering Heights author Emily Brontë. (Warner Bros/Culture Club/Getty)

O'Connor had been pondering the move to directing for many years, but a busy slate of acting jobs had always kept her away from delving into a potential script. She first conceived the idea for Emily a decade ago and thought the material was a "very natural fit" for her, given she had fallen in love with Wuthering Heights as a teenager.

"I really felt that when you read the book, you could also sense who she was behind the novel," said the filmmaker, adding that Brontë's introverted personality and social anxiety were things people knew little about. "I started reading a lot of different books about who she was and this narrative formed in my mind about a young woman trying to find out who she is, trying to find her place in the world and find her voice while being somebody who was an artist in the making."

Read more: Why is Britain obsessed with period drama?

Brontë stories have been fertile ground for adaptation over the years — Andrea Arnold took on Wuthering Heights as recently as 2011 — but the story of the writers themselves has not been told nearly as often. O'Connor believes that may be because people think they need to tell the story of all three sisters, rather than focusing on one.

She added: "I think it's interesting to just have a very sharp lens on one character and go through the narrative from her perspective, but also connect it to her work as well. That was something I was interested in doing — not doing a straight biopic, but doing something that's inspired by who she is and letting the narrative be what it wanted to be.

Emma Mackey smashed her audition out of the park

Emma Mackey stars as author Emily Brontë in new biopic Emily. (Warner Bros)
Emma Mackey stars as author Emily Brontë in new movie Emily. (Warner Bros)

As Maeve in the Netflix comedy series Sex Education, Emma Mackey has become a household name in recent years and took on a major role in the Agatha Christie adaptation Death on the Nile earlier this year. But O'Connor admitted she wasn't totally caught up on Mackey and her work when she was mentioned as a potential Emily Brontë.

"I had watched a bit of Sex Education, but the casting director said 'what about Emma Mackey?'," said O'Connor. "When she came in and read, she was so the part. She was so fierce and intelligent and beautiful. It was very hard to think of anybody else.

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"We went on and met some other people, but we just kept coming back to Emma. She also grew up loving Wuthering Heights and Emily Bronte, and she went to uni in Leeds and loved it up there. So I feel like it was a really great meeting of a character and a person who was meant to play that part."

It's fair to say, though, that having made the film, O'Connor is now firmly in the Mackey fan club. The director added: "She's a phenomenal actress and she's just at the start of the career, but she's already so uber-talented. She has done the most complex, rich performance. I feel like she's knocked it out of the park and I'm really excited."

It's a very different period drama

Frances O'Connor says Emily takes a different approach to the period drama. (Warner Bros)
Frances O'Connor says Emily takes a different approach to the period drama. (Warner Bros)

O'Connor said she's shedding period drama tropes with Emily and working in pursuit of a feeling of realism. "I don't do any crane shots and there's not too many top hats," she said. "Nobody is doing that kind of period drama acting and I encouraged them to just play it as real as you can and forget that you're in a period drama. Those clothes dictate how you walk."

She said there's a "super natural" approach to lighting in the movie, which aims to put the audience in the world as flies on the wall. O'Connor also pointed to Armando Iannucci's recent adaptation of David Copperfield as an example of a period drama which used a different approach and showed that younger people still want to see these stories.

"I was really interested in younger people coming to see [Emily] and, with Emma playing it, there's something they will really love," said O'Connor.

They filmed in the heart of Brontë country

The home where the Brontë sisters lived and worked is a tourist hotspot in the Yorkshire village of Haworth. (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)
The home where the Brontë sisters lived and worked is a tourist hotspot in the Yorkshire village of Haworth. (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

It was important for O'Connor to root her story in the Yorkshire villages where the Brontës lived in the early part of the 19th century. When it was suggested she film in Eastern Europe instead of in rural England, she emphatically turned it down. The director added: "The atmosphere up there is so beautiful. We did get to shoot on the streets of Haworth, where the Brontës would have walked. That's just so inspiring for all of the actors as well."

But some difficult decisions had to be made. Production spent a lot of time away from Haworth in the nearby village of Dent, given the impact of two centuries of Brontë legacy. O'Connor said: "A lot of Haworth has been trampled on by tourists and there's telephone wires now and we wanted it to look very authentic and evocative. It's beautiful up there."

O'Connor is lining up her next film

Frances O'Connor already has plans to direct again. (Getty)
Frances O'Connor already has plans to direct again. (Getty)

Emily is due to have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and O'Connor confessed that she's "a little nervous" to screen at such a big event, despite her positive experiences in the city in the past. "It's the first thing I've written and directed, so it lands squarely on my shoulders. But I'm up for it. I feel like I'm really proud of the work in it, so what else can you do?," she said.

As she prepares to send Emily out into the world, O'Connor is hard at work on the next project she hopes to direct — something completely opposite to rural Yorkshire in the era of the Brontë sisters. "It's very different. If I could, this would be what I went to do mainly. It's very modern. 100% a departure from Emily Brontë and not even in the same country."

Emily is due to be released into UK cinemas on 14 October.

Watch: Emma Mackey discusses Sex Education and female sexuality