“I’m the sort of person who, when I meet someone I fall in love with, I’ll automatically go and make a break up mix tape,” says Emma Forrest from a room at the Roxy Hotel in downtown New York. The 41-year-old first-time director, running on only a few hours of sleep following the premiere of her directorial debut effort “Untogether,” channeled this self-described “fatalistic sense” toward her relationships into the highly personal screenplay for the film.
“Untogether” stars Jemima Kirke alongside the ensemble cast which includes her sister Lola Kirke, Jamie Dornan, Billy Crystal and Ben Mendelsohn, who was a direct inspiration for the story.
“Ben and I were married until really recently, and I started writing the script when we just first got together,” says Forrest. “And it was basically, oh, it was meant to be a one-night stand, but I feel like I can’t let go of this person, what is drawing me so forcefully to someone who I also have a fatalistic sense, like maybe this isn’t going to work?” she continues. “So it was about a one-night stand which is really a love story, and the audience realizes [the characters] are really in love before they end up admitting it to each other. So that was very much, sort of, us. It took awhile to admit that it was really special.”
Mendelsohn was naturally the first person cast for the project — he told Forrest that he was game for whichever role needed — and Forrest found her leading lady after the actor filmed an episode of “Girls” with Jemima.
“I was there, and I felt so connected to her immediately and thought she’d be a great avatar for me, sort of like the way Nora Ephron used Meg Ryan — I would love to use Jemima over and over as the quasi-me; we’re very similar,” Forrest says, before calling attention to the ring on her finger. “Classic Jemima — she came and stayed at my house with her children, and we had a great time, but she put dishes in the sink without washing them, all of that stuff. And then on the last day, she just pulled this off her finger and went, ‘I want you to have this diamond ring,’ and put it on my finger. And that’s the sort of thing I would do; a little bit selfish and narcissistic, but just so big-hearted as well.”
From there, the casting continued to unfold as a chain reaction; Jemima recruited her sister into the project, which marks the first time two have acted onscreen together (and portraying sisters, no less.) Dornan stepped into the role opposite Jemima, bringing his “Fifty Shades” commercial clout along for the ride.
“I just think that’s a real male ally,” says Forrest. “An A-list actor who reads a script where he isn’t the main star — Jemima’s the star — and he comes on because he thinks it’s great, and because he knows that when he comes on, it’s going to get financed. That’s a male ally to a female filmmaker.”
(Forrest also describes him as a “mythological beast,” saying: “Lola and Jemima and me and Ben are quite dysfunctional in many ways. Jamie shows up on set and he’s the most normal, most mentally healthy, just straight-ahead family guy, and we sort of circled him.”)
With Tribeca’s ongoing commitment to championing female filmmakers, the festival was a particularly appropriate place for the debut of “Untogether.” In addition to the director and lead, all of the film’s department heads — from the cinematographer to the editor — are female.
“It wasn’t something I realized until when we were shooting, and Jemima said to me, ‘you hired all women,’ I was like, s–t, I did — that’s fantastic. And I didn’t even mean to, which makes it even better,” says Forrest. “It’s a female gaze film — it’s like, even where I shoot Ben, I was really careful to show what a beautiful neck he has. Because that’s the sort of thing we notice on men like, ‘oh, what a lovely strong neck.’ And his hands,” she continues. “You notice things like that in the men you’re drawn to.”
She also wanted to highlight the, well, assets of her actresses.
“Aesthetically, I’ll absolutely admit I was completely obsessed with Lola and Jemima’s asses,” Forrest says. “I shot them really carefully — I lit them sort of like angels. Their backsides are just so beautifully lit, because they look amazing and they look strong…that’s something I tried to show with the costume design and the angles.”
Forrest, who lived in New York for many years before moving to Los Angeles, recently relocated to her hometown of London. Since the film, she’s turned in her next novel, which will be published next year. “It’s nice to write a novel as a palette cleanser,” she adds. “Because writing is so solitary, and filmmaking is so collaborative, it’d be beautiful to keep coming back and forth between them, and I do feel like I have something visually to offer.”
That next film might be an adaptation of her 2011 memoir “Your Voice in My Head,” which had been in the works with various directors attached to the project. “I’m so far removed from it now because it’s been almost a decade that I feel like I can come to it with an outsider’s eye and not be precious,” Forrest says.
Like the lead character in her film — who shares a literary connection with her one-night-stand-turned-love interest — Forrest notes that her memoir, which concerns her struggle with mental illness, was a jumping off point for her relationship with Mendelsohn. The pair announced their separation shortly after filming wrapped for “Untogether.”
“It was hard to work with him because it was so heartbreaking that it was our last time together. And he had some anger toward me, and I had some anger toward him, but any time I felt angry toward him I would remember: this is a guy who I married who never said anything about how I slept with the urn of my dead cat in the bed — like, he let me do that,” she continues. ”And like any reasonable person, I admire him so much as an actor, and he fell in love with my book before he really got to know me. So we had that to come back to. It did make it almost easier ultimately that we did this for each other, sort of as a parting,” she continues, searching for the right phrase. “It’s like a going-home present.”