Madeleine Olnek’s movies may be an acquired taste, but the woman knows how to write a catchy premise. Her three feature films — all madcap comedies with absurdist leanings — include lesbian aliens looking for love, lesbian hustlers picking up women outside Talbot’s — and now, lesbian Emily Dickinson traipsing across her Amherst lawn after a tryst with her sister-in-law, her petticoats flung about her head. That’s the premise of “Wild Nights With Emily,” and to say that they just don’t make movies like this anymore would be grossly inaccurate: It’s hard to imagine anyone making this movie other than Olnek. Using Dickinson’s letters and poems (with the permission from Harvard University Press), “Wild Nights With Emily” paints a much sunnier portrait of the poet than that of the reclusive spinster terrified of publication. Instead, the film imagines a lively woman forced to hide a lifelong love affair whose work was mostly rejected by a literary establishment that would embrace it after her death.
Continuing a fruitful post-“Saturday Night Live” indie film career (she won an Indie Spirit Award last year for “Other People”), Molly Shannon is brilliant and warm as the literary icon. The movie begins with a lecture given by Dickinson’s first publisher, Mabel Todd (Amy Seimetz, in a rare comedic turn), who spins the yarn of the reclusive Dickinson with a syrupy grin and pink flat-top hat. Mabel’s narration is a necessary reminder of the Dickinson that the world knows, and its inaccuracy is hilarious when juxtaposed against this vivacious and joyful version, known here simply as Emily.
Though it is certainly a comedy, “Wild Nights With Emily” is anchored by a surprisingly touching love story between Emily and her friend from childhood, Susan Gilbert (Susan Ziegler). Their teenage romance develops during 19th century sleepovers that would make 21st century parents blush. (Young Emily and Young Susan are played by Dana Melanie and Sasha Frolova.) Soon, Emily is heartbroken to learn about Susan’s secret engagement to her brother, but softens when Susan explains her plan for them to be together. Sure enough, Susan and Austin (Kevin Seal) build their house right next door to Emily’s, and a lifetime of early morning scurrying across the lawn ensues.
Olnek takes every opportunity to showcase Emily’s poetry, sprinkled into the film in voiceover and graphic text. We see Emily scribbling lines on the back of a cake recipe that she stows away in her hair, and sending missives across the lawn to her constant champion and reader. The notion that she never sought publication is challenged by a meeting with the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, the bombastic blowhard T.W. Higginson (a note-perfect Brett Gelman), who dashes her hopes by suggesting she title her poems and use more rhyme. Meanwhile, it appears that “reclusive” Emily was really only reclusive around Mabel, and that was because she was having sex with Austin in Emily’s drawing room.
Olnek’s films are feminist statements on several levels, most significantly in the way that she casts so many compelling women, from romantic leads to character bits. The young actresses Melanie and Frolova are both excellent, and Olnek secured memorable turns for Jackie Monahan and Lisa Haas, stars of the only true lesbian hustler comedy, “The Foxy Merkins.”
Shannon keeps her natural zaniness just below the surface as Emily, but brings ever so much mirth to Olnek’s humorously formal 19th century dialogue. An accomplished theater actress and repeat player in Olnek’s films, Ziegler is the perfect match for Shannon, and their chemistry elevates the comedic premise into an undeniably compelling romance. It’s a joy to watch them fall sideways into bed together, tumbling on guests’ coats while hiding from the party downstairs. Their devotion drives home the film’s ultimately political message, and elevates the poignant final image to poetic heights. “Wild Nights With Emily” may be Olnek’s most political film to date, one that could forever change the narrative of the world’s most famous woman poet. In her director’s statement, Olnek writes: “The idea that she wrote without wanting to be published exonerates the world that prevented her voice from being heard and also plants the idea that for women, it is wrong to desire recognition.” With that in mind, here’s hoping for many more movies like “Wild Nights With Emily”—though Olnek is definitely one of a kind.
South by Southwest isn’t typically associated with movies that have a literary pedigree. But the film festival scored a coup this year, by bringing Emily Dickinson all the way to Austin. In “Wild Nights With Emily,” Shannon plays the 19th century poet as the opposite of her pop-culture archetype of a lonely hermit.
Madeleine Olnek’s comedy offers a Dickinson who is a confident romantic. Between composing reams of poetry, she falls in love with her childhood best friend Susan (Susan Ziegler), only to have her true identity erased by a meddling acquaintance (Amy Seimetz), acting as her posthumous publisher. After the premiere of “Wild Nights With Emily” at SXSW, Shannon and her director (and long-time pal from NYU Drama School) Olnek spoke to Variety about making the film and why it’s particularly timely in the era of Time’s Up.
Molly Shannon: Yeah, she is. I think she made the most of the time she was born in history. It breaks my heart to think homosexuality has been around for centuries, but we just don’t have studies on it because people had to be closeted. We’ve come a long way. I think she was so fearless and strong for her time. She was true to herself for being gay and wanting to be a writer.
Madeleine Olnek: I read an article in the New York Times about how advances in science have shed light on historical figures. And one of them was Emily Dickinson and how infrared technologies are restoring erasures to her papers. What was being uncovered in these erasures were things she had written about Susan. And then there were all these other letters Emily wrote to Susan that were just sitting there. The image of Emily Dickinson as this recluse spinster was so big in people’s minds, they couldn’t see the letters for what they were.
Shannon: I’m so attracted to these types of stories. She was born in 1830 and she did the best she could for what was expected of women. And the fact that she had to be sold as a virgin spinster when she was so lively and aggressive and hungry to be published. Most people have only heard of the other version of Emily. I feel like it’s such an important movie for writers of female voices. It’s so timely.
Olnek: I think right now we’re having a reckoning where people are finally facing the fact that not having women as equal participants has a real cost. We are seeing that cost. Donald Trump is our president. Horrible things are happening. Will the country ever recover? I don’t know. Women’s issues were always seen as this weird aside. And we’re understanding that the way we perceive women has to do with what we know about history. With the history of Emily Dickinson being so re-written and her being turned into the opposite of what she was, her life is almost held up as an example.
Shannon: People think, she held herself back. If you do that, and you’re demure and quietly writing and not expecting anything, then maybe you too shall be rewarded in the end. It’s such a bad message.
Olnek: It makes it so that when someone like Hillary Clinton comes along, there’s no context for her. An ambitious woman? That’s never happened before. This comes from the erasure and misrepresentation of women for reasons that have to do with not wanting to acknowledge their full humanity.
Olnek: I like that movie. I thought that was a good movie about a poet. But in her case, she stuck her head in the oven. That’s sad. It was important that this was a comedy and included humor because Emily Dickinson herself had a great sense of humor and there was love in her life. There was happiness and joy. The idea of making a drama would reinforce her as having had this miserable life.
Olnek: We are the first people to tell the story. Part of how second-class citizenship happens is not through force but through systems of language and having control of language. That why this moment with female directors is so important.
Shannon: I struggled so much when I was little with my mom dying in a car accident, I was very tough with Hollywood. I was like, “Nothing can be that bad.” I remember moving to LA and having no money. This is nothing against boys. I don’t know if they know how to write for girls. And we need to figure out how to write for ourselves. I didn’t consider myself a formal writer. But I could perform orally and somebody was like, “That’s writing.” Madeleine and I did this comic show at NYU, and people were like you should be on “Saturday Night Live.” When I first started at “SNL,” there were a lot of Harvard Lampoon guys who were formally trained as writers. And I was like, “Oh no, I’m in over my head.” But I had characters and drive and I was forced to pull from within. I relate to Emily’s drive and desire and plowing through that world. It’s different now, but I do feel it was a little bit hard then. There were more boy-dominated groups. And the girls had to be tough.
Shannon: I do feel that way. Most comedians I think are very serious. They have a dark side or a sad side or they’ve been through stuff. I think that movie gave me an opportunity to really pull from parts of myself that are true and real and who I am. People think of me as a comedian, but I’m really an actress that got into comedy. That’s what I love about Madeleine’s work. This is a dramatic comedy, which is always my favorite thing. I always like to play the emotional truth even when I’m doing comedy.
Olnek: That’s a good question. I’m sure there’s room for lots of Emily Dickinsons in the world. One thing that we’ve found, I’ve done works-in-progress screenings in my apartment as I’m working on it. Young people love the movie. There’s something among the older generations, where we almost have PTSD from having gone through the AIDS crisis. Young people are honestly more progressive to the point where they are genuinely interested in seeing stories that aren’t necessarily about their life. The straight kids are interested in seeing gay stories.
“Wild Nights With Emily comedically deflates portrayals of [Emily Dickinson]….Molly Shannon's performance provides a new perspective… tackles the antiquated views of female capability and homosexual relations during Dickinson’s time with laughs.…as entertaining and thought-provoking as [Dickinson’s] poetry.”
“Wild Nights with Emily shows a different side to the poet…Based on actual letters and poetic works from Dickinson used with the permission of the Harvard University Press, the film centers around her love affair with her sister-in-law Susan…Dickinson is portrayed in a way that brings life to a writer who wrote such lively poetry…Period pieces are no easy feat, but director Madeleine Olnek does it excellently…so hilarious…Dickinson fan or not, the premise is interesting and the history fascinating.”
Olnek presents a different, more vivacious side to Emily (played beautifully by Molly Shannon) that challenges how society views her and utilizes comedy instead of drama to really hit the mark on sexism throughout history…Olnek’s style of comedy perfectly blends her film’s message, the characters’ acting, and the untold story of Dickinson. Shannon and Zeigler’s connection is palpable, and their expression of Emily and Susan’s love story is both sweet in its longevity and sorrowful in its concealment. The tone of the film is primarily comedic and has a Drunk History feel …[Olnek’s] balance of satire and feminist ideals are executed extremely well…Wild Nights playfully sheds away the confinements of Dickinson’s life and restores an appreciation for her true self…Wild Nights With Emily is refreshingly liberating in its laughter, but also rich in worthwhile lessons.
“Amy Seimetz [is] hilarious….it’s lovely to see Shannon light up with joy…a passionate love story about two women…the film has the rich look of a period-authentic drama…[Wild Nights with Emily] reclaims Emily’s identity.”
“‘Wild Nights’ uncovers the vivacious and queer life of the world-famous poet…Led by the equally irreverent Molly Shannon…Shannon captures the enigmatic poet’s essence with a gut wrenching performance in – of course – true Shannon fashion, with perfect comedic timing and a face that tells a thousand mysteries. Known for her work on “Saturday Night Live,” Shannon proves to be an enigma herself, stepping up to the plate in one of her more dramatic roles since 2016’s “Other People” to deliver truth and dignity to a misunderstood woman’s life.”
“One of my favorite films at this year’s SXSW was the period comedy WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY….This new film, while completely irreverent, is based on contemporaneous accounts of her life which run counter to the prevailing collective understanding of who America’s finest poet was. I’m sorry, did that sound boring? Did I mention it is a hilarious comedy with SNL vet Molly Shannon as the title character…Olnek’s previous features THE FOXY MERKINS and CODEPENDENT LESBIAN SPACE ALIEN SEEKS SAME showed her to be a director who can confront sexuality with both tenderness and humor and in WILD NIGHTS WITH EMILY she has found the perfect vehicle (and star) to bring that formula to a wider audience. I’m not sure one film can undue a 100 years of scholarship but damn if this isn’t a fun way to try. ”