March 26, 2018
SXSW 2018

How 'Wild Nights with Emily' Revealed New Truths About the Life of a Famous Poet

Even the most passionate Emily Dickinson fans may be surprised by Madeleine Olnek's new biopic.

According to Madeleine Olnek, the director of Wild Nights with Emily (which had its world premiere at SXSW 2018), history has given Emily Dickinson short shrift. While it's commonly believed and taught that the poet was an agoraphobic shut-in and societal outcast, Olnek's film aims to shift that narrative, revealing a three-dimensional woman who “led a very rich life” and “worked out of joy,” rather than a “miserable recluse who was scared to leave her room.” And also, that she was gay.

Less than a dozen of Dickinson’s poems had been published at the time of her death. In an effort to preserve their privacy, it was typical practice for a family to burn the papers left behind by loved ones. However, a tangled love triangle between Austin Dickinson (Dickinson’s brother), Mabel Todd (his mistress), and Susan Gilbert Dickinson (his wife) led to an unlikely fate for Dickinson’s work, and it was Mabel who ultimately brought the work to light. 

Madeleine Olnek on stage at the world premiere of 'Wild Nights with Emily' at SXSW 2018.

“Mabel wanted to publish her own love letters with Austin and he said 'no', so finally all she could get her hands on were Emily’s poems,” shared Olnek. “She was really driven to put together these books of poems and publicize them because she was in this competition with Susan and wanted to show Austin how much better she was . . . she put together the first books of Emily’s poems. Lavinia Dickinson, Emily’s sister, paid for them to be published because no one would publish Emily’s work.”

"Every single thing that we’ve heard about Emily Dickinson is untrue!​"

Olnek’s commitment to shining light on a more accurate and nuanced portrayal of Dickinson’s personality and day-to-day existence is apparent in her affirmation: “Every single thing that we’ve heard about Emily Dickinson is untrue!” Typically, in American English classes, students are taught that Dickenson was an eccentric spinster poet who preferred to sit alone quietly, indoors, contemplating life. That she was seen as a “spinster” insinuates that she was straight and either chose to not marry a man or somehow missed her chance at romance.  

However, on the topic of Dickinson’s sexuality, Olnek consulted studies that “restore[d] erasures to her poems and letters, revealing her lifelong entanglements and relationships with women.” On the topic of Dickinson’s reputation for peculiar social behaviors, Olnek disagreed: “She didn’t have agoraphobia. She wasn’t a shut-in!”

In Wild Nights with Emily, Olnek paints a much livelier, dynamic view of Dickinson’s day-to-day existence, admitting “It’s a total soap opera and there was so much going on. It was the total opposite of everything that we hear about Emily Dickinson's life.”

"It’s not in the movie, but Mabel sued the Dickinsons and they sued her."

Outside of her close circle of friends, family, and trusted colleagues, very little of Dickinson’s work was made public during her lifetime. After she died, a contentious battle erupted lasting half-a-century. “It’s not in the movie, but Mabel sued the Dickinsons and they sued her. At that point [Mabel] still had a whole trunk of Emily Dickinson's poems . . . Mabel’s daughter took the poems after and [she] was releasing these books and negotiating access from scholars to Emily’s work in exchange for putting out Mabel’s view of Emily and a negative view of Susan, who was Emily’s primary relationship and married to Emily’s brother,” shared Olnek.

The cast and crew attending the world premiere of Madeleine Olnek's "Wild Nights with Emily' at SXSW 2018.

The film focuses on the time period between Dickinson's late teens and when her poems were first published, a short time after her death. According to actress Amy Seimetz, who plays Mabel in the film, the film begins during Dickinson’s teen years “because Emily and Susan were childhood friends and it’s about their relationship; it’s the centerpiece.” Seimetz continues, the film "explores their deep relationship. Not just love as a passionate love but also a deep, meaningful love; a lifetime love.”

"'We really have to stop and think, 'Oh my God, there's a real cost to us not valuing women in this world.'"

Everyone involved in the making of Wild Nights with Emily came away with a new understanding for and appreciation of who Dickinson was. Molly Shannon, who plays Dickinson in the film, admitted that initially she also “thought the poet was a recluse spinster” and “didn’t know that she was trying to so actively get published as a poet,” that “she was strong and driven” and “had a fun, lively sexual life . . . She was just so different than how she’d been sold to the public for years.”

For Seimetz, who was obsessed with Dickinson in college, a lightbulb went off when Olnek shared her narrative of what she saw as a more accurate depiction of Dickinson’s life. “I was like, ‘that makes so much more sense to me than her being this recluse.’”

One of Seimetz’s favorite lines of Dickinson’s poetry is, “I cannot live with you because that would be life, and life is over there on the shelf.”When Olnek told Seimetz the backstory of Dickinson’s relationship with Susan, the poet’s life began to make more sense to her. Seimetz said, “It’s filled with wanting to live as opposed to being crippled by your own agoraphobia. It’s more like, I want to live, but I can’t because of how society was structured. It’s not going to allow it.”

"It's so interesting to us as we grapple with possibly the end of America as we know it, caused by misogyny..."

Part of the power of how a film is received has to do with the political and historical climate in which it is released. Olnek knows that Wild Nights with Emily can be seen in the context of recent international events, particularly in relation to the women's movement.

“It's so interesting to us," Olnek reflected, "as we grapple with possibly the end of America as we know it, caused by misogyny, and we really have to stop and think, 'Oh my God, there's a real cost to us not valuing women in this world. Look at where we are, look at what's happening. And Emily Dickinson, it’s not just her story—she stands in for this larger story of what happens to women and what happens when we misrepresent them.”     

'Wild Nights with Emily' premiered at SXSW at the Paramount Theatre on March 11, 2018.

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