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Filmmaker Madeleine Olnek Gives Voice to Women's Stories

By James Ambroff-Tahan

Women’s stories and experiences have inspired Madeleine Olnek since her academic studies and through her career in theater, during which she wrote 24 plays. But with her entry into filmmaking, she has gained a much larger audience for the tales that she feels need to be told. Her third and most recent feature film, Wild Nights with Emily, is an entertaining and revelatory look at the life of a widely misunderstood literary giant—the prolific poet Emily Dickinson.

Filmmaker Madeleine Olnek.  

Olnek, a New York City native who grew up in Connecticut, gained valuable experience through the acting conservatory program at NYU, from which she graduated in 1987 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in drama. She followed that with a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Brown, and then she studied the technical aspects of filmmaking at Columbia University, graduating in 1998 with a Master of Fine Arts in film.

AN ACTOR’S MINDSET

“For me, starting as an actor was really so essential in terms of my approach to directing actors, as well as to writing scripts,” Olnek says. “The idea of working from the character’s objective, of understanding what an objective is, understanding how it drives a scene, understanding how the events of a story come from what the characters are doing, writing dialogue—all of those things come from that acting training.”

Olnek’s academic background and acting experience not only served her well as a theater director but also set her up for something of a surprise once she entered filmmaking.

“My first shock when I started making films was that there’s no process here, which seemed so crazy to me, that people wouldn’t have rehearsals, or that they would have so little time on set to get important scenes; all of those things just shocked me to my core,” she says. “It felt like a lot of the way films are shot can feel inorganic to actors.”

Olnek’s first feature-length film, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, was released in 2011. 

Olnek offers the following example of the production disconnect actors and directors routinely encounter in cinema that is alien to theater: “If you are set up for one shot, say, this person is making a confession that they murdered someone’s son, and then by the time you set up for the reverse two hours later for the person’s reaction, whatever was going on in that moment is gone, and it’s all around, OK, let’s get this shot, let’s move on.”

She continues, “In theater, the actors you’re working with are so important…sometimes, what happens in film is that all takes a back seat to the equipment and logistics because the logistics of filmmaking are so difficult.”

MOVING TO MOVIES

Two plays Olnek wrote and directed, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same, a hilarious only-in-New York take on 1950s low-budget sci-fi movies, and Wild Nights with Emily, were adapted, respectively, into her first (2011) and third (2018) feature films. Her second feature film, The Foxy Merkins (2014), an absurdist look at lesbian prostitutes and their socio-economically privileged customers, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, while Wild Nights With Emily premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival.

Olnek’s 2018 film Wild Nights with Emily was recently featured by Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival. Starring Molly Shannon as Emily Dickinson, Wild Nights with Emily is a delightfully subversive take on the real life of the literary giant. (Photographs by Anna Stypko.)

Olnek has a go-to group of actors she works with for her films, including the short Countertransference, for which Olnek won Best Female Short Director honors at Sundance in 2009, and she readily acknowledges the contributions that these actors, particularly her former classmates such as Molly Shannon (who plays Emily Dickinson in Wild Nights with Emily), have made to her success in honing the art of comedy filmmaking.

“I did comedy shows with Molly Shannon, and those were life-changing experiences for me,” Olnek says. “I was learning about the mechanics of comedy, and there was so much that I learned from her and from what she was doing that shapes a lot of the thoughts I have about how comedy needs to be made and performed.”

FINDING EMILY

Wild Nights With Emily, which has both comic and dramatic elements, is a more serious piece than any of Olnek’s previous endeavors, and her idea for the story had its origins in a 1998 article in the New York Times. This article brought attention to the fact that the public’s perception of Emily Dickinson as a reclusive “spinster” was a falsehood crafted in part by her family, to mask Dickinson’s love affair with the woman who would become her sister-in-law.

 Olnek’s second feature film, The Foxy Merkins, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

“I read about how advances in science are changing what we understand about historical figures, and infrared technologies were being used to look at Emily Dickinson’s letters to her brother, Austin, around the time he was getting engaged to Susan, and there were all these erasures of Susan’s name that were probably done by the brother’s mistress,” Olnek explains. “It was such a fascinating story, and it was everything the opposite of what I had heard about Emily Dickinson.”

Olnek found that a proper balance of comedy and tragedy was useful in retelling Dickinson’s story. She explains, “I personally think that it’s a great combination—because after you laugh really hard, you’re emotionally open to feeling the pain of a tragedy, whereas if a film is all tragic, you just numb out at some point.”

Once Olnek embarked upon producing the film, she routinely relied on Adobe Photoshop CC and on Adobe Premiere Pro CC for much of her film editing.

She says, “Premiere was helpful with its ability to work with a color palette and allowing us to be able to try different color looks, which was really important to understanding how this was going to be felt as a story.”

The production team also turned to After Effects CC for some striking production details: “There’s a beautiful poem by Dickinson written toward the end of her life, which we handwrote and shot with a moving camera, but the actual parchment is superimposed over shots of young Emily and Susan running by the ocean, and we have this effect where the poem dissolves into a water-like effect, and that was done in After Effects.”

In one of the film’s many moving scenes, Emily tells Susan that every poet has a muse, and it is apparent that Olnek, as a director, has a cast of muses.

“The actors are my muses because we are making this together, and they have to be inspired by me, and I have to inspired by them to do it, and that’s part of the excitement,” Olnek says. “Every time you direct a film, your actors better be your muses—they damn better be—or forget it…you’re not going to be able to get through it because it’s just too hard.”

Despite the challenges of filmmaking, Olnek—who recently appeared with Wild Nights with Emily at Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival, and continues bringing the biopic to other other film festivals—feels that the profession fully encompasses all of her creative and expressive impulses.

“The auteur combo isn’t really valued in theater. And as a playwright, the more successful your play becomes, the more you are expected to give it up to another name director,” Olnek says. “So film is where you really can be a writer and a director and have that seen as part of a cohesive whole.”