Poet Emily Dickinson, the famous belle of Amherst, wrote more than 1,800 poems. However, only 11 of them were published during her lifetime. Since her death in 1886, her story has acquired a certain gloss — words like “recluse” and “spinster” used to describe a woman who lived a life far richer than those words suggest.
It was that richer life that filmmaker Madeleine Olnek wanted to explore. With Molly Shannon in the starring role, Wild Nights With Emily shows Dickinson’s life in full color – her life-long relationship with Susan Gilbert, her humor, her curiosity and her desire to be published.
"I felt like what's been missing from portrayals of Emily Dickinson has been her great sense of humor and warmth," says Olnek. "[She] was someone who was curious, who was involved in life, who had a garden, who loved her niece and nephew, who played the piano ... This is a lively person. You'd have to be to have written that much and written that well."
The film also explores how narratives and history are changed over time, and in some cases, literally erased and re-written. However, Olnek says that the inspiration for the film did not come from any sort of devotion to Dickinson or her poetry.
"She really didn’t play much of a role in my life when I was younger because I found myself so put off by those images I had heard of her," she recalls. "That [Dickinson] was perhaps an agoraphobic, that she never left her room, that she hid her poetry away — all the things I had heard about her made her a very unappealing character."
Dickinson didn't intrigue Olnek until she came across a New York Times article that revealed words and dedications were altered or erased on Dickinson's letters through scientific advancements.
"I started to find out everything we had heard about Emily Dickinson was untrue," says Olnek. "It was such a soap opera that I was immediately taken with how so much the opposite of anything I had ever heard."
Wild Nights With Emily is comedic, fast-paced, and at times hyperbolic in showing the absurdity of the circumstances of who and what changed these narratives over time. But there is also drama and pensive notes that allow the audience to appreciate Dickinson's words.
"When we see movies about writers, you might get a better sense of their life, but you don't get to step inside how exciting their words are or experience the thrill of their ideas," says Olnek. "So, part of what I wanted to capture was what her poems felt like, to give the audience watching them an experience of her poems."
Ultimately, the message of the film is to question the history you are told, Olnek says. She also wants people to take heart and inspiration from Dickinson's rejections and struggles to be recognized as a poet. But mainly, "I want them to become more interested in or want to go back and look at the poems. That's always, I think, the biggest complement to the movie," says Olnek.
Wild Nights With Emily will play this Friday evening at the Oriental Theater as a part of the Milwaukee Film Festival.