[Sundance Interview] Director Emily Wilson for DANNY’S GIRL

How well can you know someone you’ve never met?

In the modern age of Twitter, Tindr, blogs, and texts, it’s easier than ever to get to know someone without ever being in the same room. And yet, distance makes secrets all that much easier to keep.

Writer/director Emily Wilson explores this idea with increasingly bizarre results in her new short film DANNY’S GIRL. We had the chance to ask Wilson a few questions about this piece, and we’re excited to share them with you today.

DANNY’S GIRL is a wild ride that takes some really surprising twists and turns. What inspired the story? 

Emily Wilson: I actually started writing the character of Danny for my friend, Danny. His facial expressions are elastic and he’s naturally gifted in the realm of physical comedy. And so I began to write the script with those traits in mind and asked myself, “What sort of world would the character of Danny flounder and/or excel in?” Now, Danny also happened to be in a long-distance relationship while I was writing the screenplay, and so that inspired the story, even if subconsciously at first. Around that same time, I had finished work on a doc series at a Women’s Media Company exploring elements of feminine frustration and grief, and that awareness inspired Cleo’s predicament. Also, and very importantly, I became obsessed with the epic song “Refugees” by Van Der Graaf Generator while writing the story. The song’s melancholic, but hopeful tone would go on to inspire the emotional arc of the film.

Danny Dikel and Rémy Bennett in DANNY’S GIRL

The tone of the film shifts from sweet to silly, zany to threatening, but it never feels out of place. How do you navigate those tonal shifts with your collaborators to get exactly what you want? 

Emily Wilson: Thank you for saying that! Getting the tone just right was my biggest fear going into production, for sure. Because there are so many shifts, we had to be certain they were motivated and not just frivolous jumps. I have to say that I’d credit the actors, Danny and Rèmy, with really nailing it. They were both devoted to rehearsing and developing their characters, and we made sure that every line was based on a true feeling. Since that was the foundation, it gave us the liberty to then lean into the heightened, weirdo stuff because the characters were rooted in sincerity. From there you sort of let yourself have fun with the cinematography and analyze the best way to shoot each scene with the tone in mind. Hunter Zimny, the Director of Photography, and I discussed each shot and were on the same page when it came to enhancing tonal shifts with bold lighting and to go big when appropriate. He has great sensibilities and an encyclopedic memory for film, so he was an endless source of ideas.

Actors Rèmy Bennett and Danny Dickel are absolutely perfectly cast and bring so much to their roles in the film. What did you look for when casting your main characters? 

Emily Wilson: They are absolutely great, thank heavens. Since I wrote the film for Danny, I sort of knew what to expect there, but was initially drawn to his unique comedic sensibilities and look. When casting for Cleo, I looked for talent, versatility, and the ability to conjure up emotion while having a sense of comedic timing. I was also looking for someone passionate about film, analytical, willing to put in the work, not afraid to get physical, and who possessed a darkness they could pull from if necessary. Danny also made himself available to read with the actors for a chemistry check, which is very important.

Rémy Bennett in DANNY’S GIRL

You’ve also worked extensively as an editor. How is directing a film different than editing one? Has your work as one informed the other? 

Emily Wilson: As a director, you’re involved in EVERY aspect of the filmmaking process from pre-production to post-production, which I love. As an editor, you work with what you are given, and what you are given can be pretty inflexible. You can slap as many effects, graphics, and quick-cutting as you want on an edit, but can only do so much with the footage you have. As a director, it is your job to make sure that what the editor eventually receives is in alignment with the film you set out to make. I do absolutely think that editing has informed my skills as a director. As an editor, you make thousands of decisions a day – every cut is a decision. Editing is decisiveness, endurance, time management, discipline, and pure feeling. All of these skills are incredibly useful as a director too.

Dark comedy is a subgenre that you seem to be drawn to with projects like Picnic Table and I Adore Dolores. You even took home the prize for “Most Outrageous” at the Orland Film Festival for Dolores. What is it about dark comedy that inspires you?

Emily Wilson: I’m endlessly fascinated by the absurdity of human behavior and find it a fun challenge to try and bottle moments of vulnerability, chaos, and the futility of it all – but through a comedic lens. I love watching dark comedies, it’s the best of both worlds. They make me feel less alone in their humor but also point out profound experiences. And it’s so nice to watch a movie or read a lyric that so eloquently captures a feeling you’ve internalized and makes you think – “ah-ha, I’m not alone in these feelings and isn’t that a sweet relief?”

Danny Dikel in DANNY’S GIRL

You’ve worked on lots of nonfiction documentaries as well. Do you approach editing fiction and nonfiction differently or are they more similar than you might expect on the outside? 

Emily Wilson: They are very different. In documentary the story is often found in the editing room and can unfold in so many ways. It can evolve into something entirely different because the footage sort of takes on a life of its own and you just have to listen to where it’s taking you, rather than forcing something. In fiction, I think editing is more about heightening what you have and making sure you do the performance justice. Find the best take, pull out the emotion, make sure the rhythm of the scene is intentional and has a properly motivated arc. It’s almost more precious to edit fiction because every decision feels bigger in its subtlety. Oftentimes documentaries can be more free-flowing and forgiving.

If you found yourself in an awkward situation on a date with someone you met online, what would be your line to get out of it? 

Emily Wilson: Knowing me, I’d stay until the end and file the interaction away as an amusing memory. That’s assuming I didn’t feel threatened. BUT to answer your question, I’d probably just say I got my period and need to run home for a tampon.

Danny Dikel and Rémy Bennett in DANNY’S GIRL
Adrienne Clark
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