The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Emily the Criminal.
Can you talk about how the idea for the film came about? I read it was somewhat autobiographical.
John Patton Ford: That sounds weird off the bat. I have not committed fraud. But I did get out of school with a lot of student debt and I worked the same job that Emily had in the movie, which is a catering job. And it’s not like I was doing that when I was twenty-two; I was thirty-three years old when I was doing that, with $100,000 in debt. It was weirdly inspiring, you know. I wouldn’t go back to it, but when you’re in it you’re 100% alive. You’re inundated with the constant challenges and the emotions are so big. And the frustrations are so big. That’s probably where this came from.
I didn’t want to make something where she would be the victim of other people’s decision making
For the actors, what were your first reactions to the script?
Aubrey Plaza: My first reaction was that I couldn’t believe how quickly I read it—the story really moves. It has an energy and momentum and barrels forward. I loved it. This was a couple years ago, but just like today, it was relevant then and probably even more so now. I thought it felt like it could be a great film, an entertaining film, but with something to say.
Theo Rossi: Right off the bat, I love writer/directors because it’s all in one place. If you have questions, it’s all been sitting with them for a very long time. I love stories of the human condition that ask “what are we capable of when we’re put in certain positions?” My favorite films involve watching the humanization of someone who is up against it. This film feels like it reveals who people truly are inside. And I thought people would be able to connect to it. You don’t have to be in student debt, it could be mortgage debt, medical debt… and that may cause you to wonder what you’re capable of in a desperate situation.
The character intros in this film are incredible. With Emily, we learn so much immediately, but with Youcef, he’s more of a mystery that we get to discover as the film progresses. How did you approach each scene?
JPF: I think that was informed by my short filmmaking. I made a ton of short movies. And one of the things that has become permanent for me based on those experiences is how little time you have in a short to introduce a character—what they want, why they want it, and perhaps why they’re having trouble getting that difficult thing, as well as introducing the context and the setting. And in a ten-minute short, there’s like no time to do that so you become a weird scientist of narrative and figuring out what you can do quickly and effectively. When it came to making a feature, I was still kind of in short film headspace, in a way. I was figuring out how to get all this exposition out as efficiently as possible and hopefully do it in a scene that is dramatized and has conflict, as opposed to someone being told something. That’s where the opening scene came from. I was resistant and hesitated about starting the movie with a job interview. Like, come on man! But there’s a reason that happens so much and it’s because it’s so effective in cinema. So I leaned into it and said, okay, if we’re starting with a job interview it’s going to be three and half minutes long. If we’re going to do that thing, let’s go 100%. No regrets.
And with Theo’s character, you’re right, it’s the opposite. I wanted to withhold information on him so the audience would be curious, and the central character would be curious. Instead of laying it all bare, I wanted to give them breadcrumbs. I also wanted people to wonder if he was maybe an antagonist in the beginning, someone to create more crisis for our central character. And I wanted them to be warmed and delighted when they realized he was an ally and he might actually be the most ethical and redeemable person in the whole movie.
Did you each have discussions with the John about planting flags for your characters as they’re introduced early on?
TR: It doesn’t really figure in as early as the opening scene. I just try to think about the character as a whole. In any great story, the character changes. In the case of Youcef, it felt like we were peeling the onion. There’s the scene in the van that always gets me. He turns and says “kill someone” and then goes “just kidding.” It revealed that this is a person, and that’s his personality in there, and he likes Emily. You can tell by the way he looked at her that she was different than all the other people in the room. She was bringing something out in him. I don’t think he’d ever made that joke, or done that. We were so fortunate to have rehearsal and we had talked at length, so when you’re there, shooting a film without a lot of time, you have to have the shorthand of the character ready to go on the day. You do all the work before the shoot, and then you just go and do as many takes as you have time for, and then you figure out what works best. A lot of the process is also getting along with the other people and having the confidence that you can tackle it together.
AP: Like Theo said, I don’t think about it scene by scene but I definitely think about characters and their entire journey from where they start to where they end up. What was so fun about this movie is that Emily was starting at an eleven. Normally movies would start and you’d see her build to the moment where she’s had enough, but she’s had enough three minutes into the movie. Then it’s like, now what? There’s also a difference between preparing to do it and what you do on that day. I’m so proud of how many takes we got on this film. John is really focused on performance, which was really fun for me, and sometimes rare. I definitely had an idea of how it would go, but we were able to try things totally different ways, and that was a real luxury.
There’s something so thrilling about watching Emily self-sabotage throughout the film. Is she a great criminal, or not such a great criminal?
JPF: Well I’ll tell you this. I didn’t want to make something where she would be the victim of other people’s decision making. I wanted her to be driving the narrative points. The reason things are challenging for her are not because of the people making her life difficult; it’s because she’s making her own life difficult. That feels much more reflective of life. She probably could have done fine in that opening scene and gotten that job. Or she could have worked at the ad agency and done credit card fraud at night… why not do that? But like so many of us, her problems are self-generated. That to me feels deeply true and I wanted to lean into that. Is she a great criminal? Eh, no, not really. To me, she becomes herself, and whether or not that person is impressive at what she is trying to do is not the most important to me. What’s important to me is that she allows herself to become who she is over the course of the movie and suspends judgment on that, and succeeds at that for better or for worse.
AP: I keep thinking about the movie Straight Time with Dustin Hoffman, because I just saw it. There’s a scene where he’s banging his hand onto the jewelry box, and Harry Dean Stanton is like, “we gotta get out of here!” and he won’t go. And you’re like, oh, that says everything right there. He’s flawed, and that’s just who he is. He’s not that good at what he does and he’s going to get caught. For this movie though, I feel like there’s a similar vibe in that the predictable thing would be to watch her become this criminal mastermind. But that’s not true. She’s flawed. And it shines a light on her impulse control. It’s complicated. I don’t think she’s that good yet, but I think she’ll get better. We’re watching her beginning, give her some time! There’s a reason she gets into shit. She can’t help it; it’s who she is.
She’s also living the fantasy that everyone who is trying to make it has by telling off everyone at those interviews.
AP: She’s saying everything you want to say but you don’t say. It’s kind of heroic. But then you see the other side of it.