Screenwriter Emma Jensen brings Mary Shelley to life in ‘A Storm in the Stars’
Brisbane native Emma Jensen talks to Harry Windsor about her career as a writer and the path to her first feature, 'A Storm in the Stars', starring Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth and set for release this year.
How did you get into writing?
My background is in script development. I started as a producer’s assistant in London 17 years ago at Film4. I was their second assistant. I went to Queensland College of Art and studied film and television, and then graduated and thought – now what do I do? So I spent a few years in illustrious careers like Sizzler and working in a bank and I got to the point where I thought, maybe I should do that backpacking thing. I signed up with a temp agency and they asked if I wanted to do half a day at Film4, and I was like, (laughs) yes I do. And I stayed for three years. That was the start and from there I became interested in doing development even though what I always wanted to do was write. I think in a way it was the best education to have, and then to read coverage too, to see how people worked through a screenplay. Reading the good, the bad, all of them.
Where did you move after the three years at Film4?
I came back to Australia, to Sydney, and it was a whole new industry to move into. I script read for Shanahans for a little while. I worked for Andrew Mason as his assistant. I did a stint at Hopscotch, and then worked for Working Title under Tim White, and segued into a development executive role. I had a couple of years with Mushroom Pictures with Michael Gudinski and Martin Fabinyi. I really get around (laughs). Then I had a couple of years where I just worked freelance; script editing, assessing, little stints for Screen NSW. LA was this thing in the back of my mind. I went over on a business visa initially and when I started writing I was able to move on to an 01 visa. At first I was looking for work and meeting people but I was turning up at 35, and my role was the kind of role that the 20-somethings were going in for.
How’d you get that first writing gig?
The first script I wrote was a collaboration with an Australian living over there. Sal Grover – she’d moved over there to write as well, and we became very good friends. We were both feeling a bit down on our luck and sorry for ourselves, and thought, is there a story here? About two girls who move to LA – she was 25 and I was 3. We decided we might as well try writing a book. We’d written a lot of emails to each other, even though we lived five minutes away from each other in West Hollywood, and so the emails became a book, which was called The LA Team. Working Title ended up optioning that for a TV series which didn’t go anywhere, but that broke through the writer’s block which I’d had for about fifteen years. From there we wrote our first spec together which was called Sex on the First Date and sold to Gold Circle [Films].
When was that?
That was 2011. Then I moved back to Australia and Sal and I went our separate ways as a writing team. I ended up back in Brisbane in 2012 living with my parents (laughs).
And is that when you started writing The Storm in Our Stars?
Probably not long after. I put in to Screen Australia for concept-to-treatment funding that year. I wrote the treatment first and then Screen Australia funded me the first draft but I probably didn’t actually start writing that until the end of 2012.
Where did the idea to tell that story come from?
I think it had been in the back of my mind for twenty years or so. I was intrigued by Mary and Shelley and their relationship. I’d been reading about them as part of another book, and there was just something in the dynamic that fascinated me and sparked something. And then maybe twelve years ago, I re-read Frankenstein and read Mary’s prologue, and thought: this is really extraordinary. My god, she was 18. And at that point I thought: why has nobody told this story, but through Mary? I was always so taken with what she’d achieved at that age, this extraordinary work.
Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth as Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley. (Photo credit: Ricardo Vaz Palma).
How long was the process after receiving Screen Oz funding?
The treatment I don’t think took me that long. From when I started the treatment to delivering my first draft was maybe six months or so. There was quite a lot of research. That happened for a good few months leading up to it and more intensively as I went into the treatment and then before I went to draft I had to go back into my research again. I find myself doing that [at] each step.
How long to first draft?
The draft took me a few months, because I was really quite petrified. By that point I’d written a romantic comedy with Sal, [but] I hadn’t tackled drama, let alone historical drama. I just suddenly thought, maybe I’m not this writer and I’m out of my depth. So there were definitely points [where I was] putting it down and hyperventilating. But then when I went: okay, you’re doing this, or are you going to give Screen Australia the money back (laughs)? And then it really flowed quite quickly. So it was on and off but probably a month of writing quite solidly.
Did you have an agent at this point?
By this stage I had representation in Australia and the States. I actually got representation in the States first, when Working Title had optioned The LA Team. We were able to get an agent, so I had agents and managers over there. I subsequently have a completely different agent and management team in the States. And then when I moved back to Australia I signed with HLA. So I’m now with UTA and a company called Burstein Company in the States and HLA [Management] here. I was with WME initially.
Why the change to UTA?
Sal [Grover] and I signed together as a writing team. It just seemed natural to make a fresh start with a completely different team. I was still with WME at the point where I delivered the draft. There was a bit of: well, you’re in Australia and this project’s [not]. Whereas my now-manager, who’s actually a girlfriend from Australia, read it and loved it. She asked if she could show it to UTA, and Bec Smith and my other agent Charlie Ferraro loved it and wanted to sign me.
Once you’d signed with UTA, what happened? The film seems to have been put together fairly quickly.
They got it out pretty rapidly, and Amy Baer, who’s the producer, read it really early on and right away she wanted to option it. That was 2013 I suppose. Several months later she brought on the director, Haifaa Al-Mansour (Wadjda) and we did another draft together.
Were you still in Oz?
We had an initial script meeting in LA when Haifaa came onboard. They flew me over and that was good to actually have time in the room over a couple of days and then time for me to go away and think and for us to regroup and then for me to go away and do the draft, and then subsequently Skype if we needed, email. At that point Haifaa was between the States and Saudi [Arabia] and Amy in LA and me here. That became the casting draft. Hanway the sales agent came on board, and Elle Fanning came on board. So when we went into the next draft we already had Elle on board by that point. Elle’s attachment was certainly a big thing, and then after that Douglas Booth and Bel Powley in 2014, maybe ’15.
Where did the money come from?
It’s all private. Funding from the Irish Film Board, from Luxembourg. Some investment from the UK and the US as well.
When did they shoot and were you involved?
I couldn’t get to the shoot. I was supposed to but then family things came up and it was just too pushed. I was only going to be there for a tiny window. And they shot end of February, Feb-March , in Ireland and Luxembourg. So it’s currently in post-production at the moment.
Has it been a while since you worked on it?
I did another pass end of 2015, October-November. Maybe at that point I’d been away from it for a good year or so, so that was interesting to come back in and realise that you don’t lose the shorthand into that world and those characters. I was surprised by how quickly I got into it.
Was it difficult having to take on board what the director wanted to do given you created this thing?
It is a challenge I think for someone who thought they would be a writer-director. But writing has always been my love and I think I’m most comfortable hiding behind a laptop and telling a story from that perspective. So it’s about acceptance and compromise. It can be challenging because I think we all – and certainly I did as a developer too – you can come to a piece of material and you’re not talking worlds away in what something has to be, but just the difference in how someone can view a world and what something needs to be. And a little tweak can have bigger ramifications. I think that’s always the challenge in looking at where other people have come from and where it needs to be, and picking your battles is always the hard part.
Can you make a living in Oz as a writer?
The first few years were tough, but for me I think because I had my background in script development and assessing, I had that extra money here and there to get through. But now writing is all that I’m doing, with the exception of the occasional script editing gig for a mate.