EMILY JAMES
The executive producer of The Age of Stupid chats about her intriguing career


Filmmaker Emily James has straddled boundaries in her career, including continents and language barriers. The creative realms have included directing, producing and executive producing, as well as writing a documentary short. This puts Emily in the unusual position of being a female polymath working in the United Kingdom, which, discounting figures like Sally Potter, is dominated by male film-makers. Emily's career so far has included such eclectic subject matters as direct action activism, a Danish film movement and an animated peanut propagating trade matters.

 

Emily was born in Berkeley, California. "I'd left America in a bid to see the world and then sort of ended up in England", the filmmaker says. "I kind of never went back." She went on to give the reasons as to why she ventured to the United Kingdom where she first studied English and History of Philosophy at Cambridge: "I then went to National Film and Television School and found that it was a very industry-based course. You meet a lot of people and make a lot of contacts and so it made sense to stay here. I wanted to make documentaries and this country has a strong documentary tradition."

 

Only halfway through her school course, Emily won the Kodak International 'Best Student Film World Wide 2000' award for her short film, Wag the Dogma. This was influenced by the enigmatic Danish filmmaking movement Dogme '95 and featured a short appearance from the movement's figurehead, Lars von Trier. It follows the journey of a quasi-Don Quixote figure who journeys from London to Copenhagen to discover the truth behind the collective, and was picked up by Channel 4. Emily seems to be touched by asked about a film from earlier in her career. "People don't tend to appreciate this film any-more because the Dogme movement isn't something that you'd necessarily know about unless you were a film buff. Lars von Trier and Dogme was a big deal at the time in film-making circles and I was at film school and so it was something of interest."

 

"I went to see The Idiots with Martino, who is the actor who was in my film," Emily continues. "We had an argument about what we thought about the whole thing after we came out. He called me and said, 'You've got to hear about something I dreamt about last night. I've had this elaborate dream in which I went to Copenhagen and asked Lars von Trier about the truth behind the Dogme movement. And then he kind of tacks on at the end, 'I think I have a donkey with me!'. We decided that this donkey was a symbol of shackling yourself to something that was going to give you a hard time and make your life miserable. He was definitely there to go on a Fool's Journey. At the time I was thinking of my next film to do so I said, 'That's it! Let's go to Copenhagen and find out the truth about the Dogme movement.'"

 

The filmmaker goes on to describe her then motivations at the time: "I was going to systematically break every rule in the book of rules. The donkey of course never went to Copenhagen. We shot it in a green screen studio with Martino but we had shot parts of it when we were in Copenhagen. It was planned from the beginning in order to break rules, such as the rules about music." Emily was touched by the warm reception she received in Denmark. "The whole of the Danish film community love film students and what we were doing and they really opened up. We got to meet everyone we wanted to. It really won me over and they informed a large amount of my future attitudes to film-making."

 

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The turn of the millennium brought a change in Emily's career, with A Brief History of Cuba in D Minor, a clever musical comedy that bravely attempts to the history of the country. The film credits the voice of actor Russell Brand and when asked about this, Emily elaborates: "He was part of an actor's collective, a lot of whom appeared in the film. In fact, he would have appeared on camera except that he threw his back out the day before we filmed all of the dance sequences so we had to change everything. We had already recorded all of the vocals and everything was done to the cameras, so if it had not been for his bad back he would have appeared on camera. Imagine that. In fact, him and Martino, who went on to be my producer on A Brief History, went on to be good friends and still are to this day. So every now and again I stay at Russell's house when I'm in LA."

 

A Brief History featured elements of pastiche. Emily talked about this as well as filmic influences. "All these things are because the mise-en-scène of the whole film is trying to shout at you that it is 'film' and that it is constructed and that it is a version of something. I was trying to allude to all kinds of classic filmic moments, tapes, and archetypes and I wanted it to shout out because it was history and tongue-in-cheek. I was trying to say it was definitive but at the same time acknowledging that you can't have such things."

 

The polymath has also examined other oft-ignored themes as well as satire. Emily's directorial debut, Just Do It: A Tale of Modern-day Outlaws, was released in 2011. The documentary followed the efforts of direct environmental activists. Although lacking the verve of her earlier films, the director approached her subject matter in an honest and respectful manner. Emily states, "I'm an established film-maker and I've made a lot of other films and none of them have really been about activism as such, and yet that film is consistently described as an activist film instead of a film about activists. After a while I decided that it was a form of marginalisation. I think there is a significant difference between the two. It's a different sort of area and I'm very proud of that film. It's quite a different film for me. You've probably noticed that it's not stylistically in keeping with the rest of my work."

 

When asked if female filmmakers are drawn towards marginalised subjects because of their position in the industry, Emily responds, "Gosh, that's a big question. It is still definitely the case that women struggle to be taken seriously in film. I think that as a woman, as you walk into a situation and you have a crew and you have to get everyone to follow you, you have to win people over. As a man there is an assumption that you wouldn't be there if it wasn't justified. Around less than 10% of feature films are made by women, it's very tough to be a female director. There's that saying that Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did only she did it backwards and in heels. You have to be twice as good and you'll be half as recognised."

 

A documentary called Open is currently in its early days of pre-production. However, Emily shares. "We hope it will be a feature length film about the open source movement. It is in a glimmer in the eye stage and we've just started a WordPress website but we haven't built it yet. The idea in a way is that I want to make the film in a way that embraces the open source culture. We've built a website that says, 'Hey, we're making a website about open source. There's some good stories, we're throwing it out to the community and seeing how it could be, but it's definitely an experiment and I'm not sure where it's headed yet."

 

For an auteur that has veered between different subject matters, her influence is already keenly felt. When asked about the slight possibility of Raul or Fidel Castro watching A Brief History of Cuba in D Minor, Emily laughs. "Oh, I wish they had, but it seems highly unlikely."

 

 

Words by Tim Woodward.

 

 

Tim Woodward can be contacted on Twitter and on Facebook.

“You have to be twice as good and you'll be half as recognised.”

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