Emma Jensen: The time is right for ‘Mary Shelley’

02 July, 2018 by Don Groves

‘Mary Shelley.’

When Emma Jensen wrote the first treatment of the screenplay for Mary Shelley in 2011, she could not have imagined how the climate for female-centred films – and more broadly for women’s rights – would have evolved by the time the film was released.


Elle Fanning plays Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who was 16 when she met and fell in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the dashing, brilliant and married poet – a tumultuous affair which inspired her to write the Gothic novel ‘Frankenstein’.

Haifaa Al-Mansour directed the romantic drama which co-stars Douglas Booth as Percy Shelley, Tom Sturridge as Lord Byron, Bel Powley as Mary’s half-sister Claire Clairmont and Stephen Dillane as her father William Godwin.

“When I was writing Mary Shelley I did not conceive it would land at this moment, tapping into the energy of the #MeToo movement,” says Jensen, who has been hosting Q&A screenings in the lead up to the July 5 premiere.

“The responses have been lovely as people discover a story they really didn’t know. Mary was incredibly ahead of her time. I think her tenacity and determination will strike a chord with audiences.

“There is a greater awareness now of female stories and female storytellers. We’ve had some progress in the stories that have come through in the last 12 months. I’m happy to be part of that wave.”

This is her first feature screenplay credit after serving a long apprenticeship working  in development for Hopscotch Films, Working Title and Mushroom Pictures, plus a couple of years freelancing, script editing and assessing scripts for Screen NSW.

Jensen read the ‘Frankenstein’ novel when she attended Indooroopilly High School in Brisbane in the late 1980s but for years felt she lacked the confidence to write a script. In 2011 Screen NSW funded the treatment, and the following year Screen Australia funded the first draft. The turning point came in 2013 when her US agent UTA sent the screenplay to US producer Amy Baer, who quickly bought an option and put Jensen together with Haifaa Al-Mansour, then Fanning, Booth and Powley came on board.

The Saudi Arabian director brought her life experience to the project. “Haifaa grew up in an environment where she felt the constraints of being a woman,” Jensen said. “We brought that to life in the parallels with Mary’s story.”

Transmission Films is launching the film on 25 screens. Perhaps surprisingly, the film had such a limited release in the US via IFC Films it grossed less than $US100,000, so the Australian takings very likely will surpass that.

Emma Jensen.

Jensen is attached to a raft of projects including I Am Woman, the Helen Reddy biopic for Goalpost Pictures and director Unjoo Moon. Tilda Cobham-Hervey will play Reddy with Danielle Macdonald (Patti Cake$) as her close friend Lillian Roxon, the legendary rock journalist who spent 10 years as the Sydney Morning Herald’s New York correspondent.

“Unjoo and I have had a fantastic collaboration,” she says. “From the outset we really jelled and it was always very clear about the story we wanted to tell. We’ve had lots of breaking into songs along the way.”

She is collaborating with Tara Winkler on How (Not) to Start an Orphanage, the true story of Winkler’s experiences when she first went to Cambodia at the age of 19. After visiting an orphanage where the children were living in abject poverty, she raised funds but eventually discovered the money was being embezzled and the children were suffering gross neglect and abuse. Jennifer Peedom is attached to direct for Aquarius Films and Sunstar Entertainment.

Also on her slate is Living with Miss G, which chronicles the friendship between actress Ava Gardner and her African-American maid and companion Mearene Jordan “Rene” Jordan. Arcadia’s Lisa Shaunessy is the producer and the project is out to directors. The screenplay is based on the book of that title by Jordan, whom Jensen met before her death in 2014, aged 92.

Jensen has spent several years developing Em, a comedic take on Jane Austen’s Emma with writer/producer Matthew Dabner. On that she says simply: “Watch this space: Em is making a comeback.”

In addition she optioned a UK-based true crime story as a TV series and is developing two projects with Goalpost.