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How Molly Shannon Brought Emily Dickinson Out of the Closet as a ‘Lesbian Feminist Hero’

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, after the Q&A, you called Dickinson a “lesbian feminist hero.”

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.

How did the two of you first get interested in telling Emily’s story?

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.

Because of everything that’s been happening with Time’s Up and #MeToo?

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.

Did you always know that the movie would be a comedy? Or did you think it could be a drama like “Sylvia” starring Gwyneth Paltrow?

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.

I was an English major in college, and I don’t ever remember learning that Emily Dickinson was a gay poet.

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.

Molly, did you ever feel like you didn’t get the same opportunities in Hollywood because of your gender?

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.

Has your career changed since you won an Independent Spirit Award for “Other People?”

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.

Do you think this movie will be considered controversial?

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.

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