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Director Madeleine Olnek Wants You to Know, Emily Dickinson Was No Spinster Recluse

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Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler) in bed - 'Wild Nights with Emily' (Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

Director Madeleine Olnek thinks Terence Davies got it all wrong.

“Terence Davies’ movie [A Quiet Passion]—it’s a travesty that the Susan character is just a church mouse,” she says in our telephone interview.

Her Emily Dickinson biopic, Wild Nights with Emily, starring Molly Shannon, is a corrective to Davies’ film. Olnek disputes his, and many other popularized portrayals of the 19th century poet as “a spinster recluse too frightened to leave her room.”

According to Olnek’s extensive research—she had access to Dickinson’s papers from Harvard University Press—Susan Dickinson (played by Susan Ziegler) wasn’t just her brother Austin’s wife and Amherst neighbor. She was Emily’s intellectual companion and her lover.

“They read literature together. They referred to Shakespeare characters and quotes in shorthand, communicating ideas to each other,” Olnek says. “That’s a full rich life. We have those letters, we know that this is what happened.”


Olnek chatted with KQED about previous depictions of Dickinson, casting an SNL alum and leaving audiences with an experience of the poet’s rich language.

Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler) in  'Wild Nights with Emily.'
Emily (Molly Shannon) and Susan (Susan Ziegler) in ‘Wild Nights with Emily.’ (Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

Before she was on Saturday Night Live, you’d worked with Molly Shannon when you were both at NYU. But what made you think of casting her as Dickinson?

It’s casting where the performer connects with a deep truth inside of them as a person. Emily Dickinson had an original mind and Molly Shannon is one of a kind. If you don’t think of Molly as Emily Dickinson before you see the movie, you certainly do think of her as Emily Dickinson after you see it. One of the shocks for me wasn’t just finding out about her romantic life, but it was finding out that, actually, Emily Dickinson had a sense of humor and was very funny and warm. Molly brings to light who the true Emily was.

Although the film is set in the 19th century, you wrote the script with contemporary colloquial expressions. Did you want to avoid the trappings of a period piece?

I’ve been really moved, if that’s the right word, by Drunk History. It’s shown us that historical pieces, when they’re stripped of all the pretension that we associate with them, are really about people in situations dealing with ideas. When I was reading Dickinson’s letters, I was surprised by how contemporary so much of the language was. It shocked me: jokes and things that you would never think someone in the 1800s would say. So I didn’t want the actors’ attention on presenting the period. We’ve seen that in a million films. I was interested in everyone focusing on what each person felt in that situation, the connections with other people and what they were struggling with.

Emily (Molly Shannon) thinking at her desk in 'Wild Nights with Emily.'
Emily (Molly Shannon) thinking at her desk in ‘Wild Nights with Emily.’ (Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

Before I read her poetry, I grew up with the image of Julie Harris as Emily Dickinson in the one-woman show The Belle of Amherst. Did you?

Oh, of course. The thing to remember about Julie Harris and The Belle of Amherst is that Emily Dickinson wrote those letters [that the play is based upon] when she was in her early teens. Having a middle-aged woman perform those sentiments as if they were current, made her into a weird adult child. There was a gap between what she was expressing and the age she was at, which added to that feeling of, “There’s something wrong here.”

I definitely had that Belle of Amherst idea in my head. And it wasn’t appealing to me as someone growing up in the 1970s. What first made me interested in Emily Dickinson was Philip Weiss’ article in the New York Times that we reference in the end credits. I hadn’t had any interest in Emily Dickinson and that article floored me. Martha Nell Smith, who wrote Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson, was profiled about using spectrographic technology to look at the erasures in Emily’s letters.

That article referenced an unexpurgated letter from Emily to her sister-in-law Susan.

Dickinson wrote out this whole long letter that was so passionate and so clearly the letter of someone in love. I thought, that letter was never erased or marked up and it’s just been sitting out there a few years? It was hiding in plain sight. Emily’s letters to Susan were published in 1998. Other material like The Riddle of Emily Dickinson, about Emily and Kate Anthon [another possible lover], was published in 1951. Every time a piece of information about her would come out, the spin factory would forcefully say the opposite. I was interested in why were we told the opposite about this person, what was the reason for it?

Higginson (Brett Gelman) takes a knife to Emily's poems in 'Wild Nights with Emily.'
Higginson (Brett Gelman) takes a knife to Emily’s poems in ‘Wild Nights with Emily.’ (Courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

Dickinson’s poetry sometimes appears on screen in subtitles, but you also interpreted two of her poems visually.

I tried to think if I was having a dream in the 1800s what would that dream be like. One of the great disappointments in so many literary biopics is that you often leave the theater maybe knowing some more facts about that writer’s life, but never really drilling into their words and ideas. I wanted to make a biopic about a writer where we got to experience what was so exciting about their language and that we would leave the theater having experienced the language, not just having heard it or seen it. As much as possible, we tried to give people those experiences as opposed to just seeing someone trying to write and crumple up pieces of paper as movies often show writers.

Wild Nights with Emily‘ opens Friday, April 19, at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

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