She’s one of the most recognized names in photography, having shot unforgettable images of musicians and fashion figures, but Autumn de Wilde became a photographer totally by accident. It wasn’t her intention to follow in her father’s footsteps. Jerry de Wilde — known for his iconic shots of Jimi Hendrix and the Monterey Pop Festival in the ’60s — did show his daughter the basics, but she never sought formal education or looked at it as a career path. Capturing the world around her was a more organic pursuit, and it became a passion with time and encouragement from her friends — some of whom just happened to be beloved rock stars. After many years making a name for herself with her images, she moved on to music videos and promotional films for major fashion houses, capturing designer looks in the sumptuous yet whimsical, narrative way that became her signature, and led her to the biggest moment in her career: directing her first feature film.
De Wilde’s vibrant new version of Jane Austen’s classic Emma was released a few weeks ago, and the directorial debut was enjoying great reviews and healthy box office numbers. Then our world suddenly changed. Even before movie theaters closed down across America due to mandatory orders, people were starting to stay home to protect themselves as fears of the COVID-19 pandemic grew. While most of the country continues to self-quarantine, we are all struggling to entertain ourselves and looking for escape. Early video on demand releases of films like de Wilde’s Emma are exactly what we’ve all needed. This movie in particular whisks us away from the woes of contemporary reality and offers a glimmer of joy and impish fun that is truly a gift right now.
The long-term impact of COVID-19 on the movie industry remains to be seen, but de Wilde’s work on Emma is sure to lead to more cinematic explorations either way. Her ability to tell a story with pictures is evolving, and that’s exciting. Hers is an L.A. success story too, though not in the cliched way. Her talents weren’t “discovered,” they were developed and they were inspired by the creativity she’s always immersed herself in. We know this because we saw it happen firsthand.
Born in New York, de Wilde grew up in Silver Lake, and this writer recalls that she always had art-minded passions when we both attended John Marshall High School in Los Feliz. We were part of the same circles, performing in a couple plays and musicals together at school and even sharing a brief stint in a band formed by some of the drama department’s students. Despite being quite tall, Autumn was always graceful. She was heavily into dance as a teen and took ballet for 14 years, which gave her a serene presence that was always pleasant to be around. She was one of those people everyone liked, and you just knew that she would go on to do something really interesting with her life.
“I always took pictures of my friends because that’s what we do in my family,” de Wilde tells us at the Four Seasons Hotel before Emma’s big premiere. “I cherished the photos my dad took of his friends in the ’60s, so I did the same.”
“When I photographed someone, I tried to show them what I thought was amazing about them,” she continues. “Or I was trying to make sure a moment wasn’t forgotten, that something they did that was incredible would not be forgotten. So those people often felt the love that I felt for them from those photos.”
Indeed, her subjects felt the love and de Wilde’s photog gig work started to blossom via word of mouth recommendations throughout the L.A. music scene. It started when she shot her friends in the popular Silver Lake band Whiskey Biscuit, who back in the ’90s lived in an old Victorian party house, hosting jams and hangs that de Wilde documented like only a close friend could.
She also took photos of her pal Beck at Lollapalooza back in 1995, and after the tour he liked them so much he asked for more. “He was like ‘would you come take pictures of this thing, then that thing…’” she recalls. “I remember one time I said, ‘I’m not a real photographer,’ and he said, ‘stop saying that. You are a fucking photographer!’”
Elliott Smith was another champion that de Wilde says encouraged her early on. “He wouldn’t do a video unless I directed it,” she says. “So that was my first directing opportunity. I didn’t pitch it, he just said he wasn’t doing it unless I directed. I thought ‘oh shit, I better bring it.’”
And bring it she did. If not for the trust of these two groundbreaking music artists, she says she might not have done so, or even be where she is today. “It got me through tough times,” she explains of the pair’s influence. “I couldn’t always pay my bills. Not everybody believed I could do it. But in my head I thought, well Beck believed I could do it and Elliott believed I could do it. That was my fuel through the hard times, so I’m very grateful.”
While making Emma, de Wilde confides that she even had a few moments when she broke down, thinking about her departed supporter Smith and the encouragement he gave her early on. “Making this film, there were a couple moments where I was just like — ‘I wouldn’t be here without him seeing what I didn’t see right away in my work,’” she shares.
In a beautiful, reciprocal kind of way, Smith and de Wilde contributed to each other’s legacies. The pair’s most famous collaboration is probably Smith’s Figure 8 album cover taken in Silver Lake in front of a local music store on Sunset Boulevard (just down the street from Thomas Starr King Middle School which de Wilde attended a kid). When Smith died, that wall became a memorial to the singer, and later there was a huge uproar when it was removed. It cemented his memory for a lot of people — in L.A. and beyond.
During the interview, we reminisced about the Silver Lake we both grew up in. These days, the area, especially along the Junction, looks very different. Most of the cool indie shops of our teenhoods have been replaced by high-end boutiques, chain stores and trendy juice and cold brew hubs. The creativity and color that always felt so deeply woven into the fabric of the neighborhood — that drove us both to want to tell stories in our own way — is harder to find, but it’s still there. It’s just different. And there’s always something in the mix to bring everything full circle, whether it be driving by the Soap Plant, or catching a film at the Vista, or seeing posters for de Wilde’s Emma all over Sunset (as we did when it came out).
De Wilde says that her environment has definitely been an inspiration for all that she does. “I’m so grateful that I lived in a part of town that was not dominated by one type of person,” she says. “There’s no real ruler of our roots. We were exposed to so many different types of people and cultures. I didn’t have to learn later about why I should open my eyes. ”
“As a photographer I learned how to pretend I was anywhere in the world by piecing together parts of L.A.,” she goes on. “Think of it like a giant set with all the props mixed up. I think that knowledge of L.A. as my set and as a storytelling tool, and learning how to harness the light like a beast… that kind of light study I had living in Los Angeles was an awesome opportunity.”
In some ways de Wilde has been “chasing the light” her entire career, and not just in the technical photographic sense. Her work with fashion houses Rodarte and Prada, for example, showcased each brand’s beautiful creations on gorgeous models. These were more than eye candy; they were experiences that injected fantasy and a sort of blissful, airy brilliance into the mix. Whoever thought of de Wilde to helm the Emma project when it was being pitched a couple years ago knew exactly what they were doing. Her attention to detail and her ability to capture nuance of character beyond the surface, incorporating her subject’s surroundings, thoughts and expressions, made her a perfect fit.
“Autumn has a wonderful aesthetic sense,” says producer Graham Broadbent, who notes that de Wilde also really understood the high school prism through which Emma (played by Anya Taylor Joy) looks at relationships. “That makes these relationships feel quite contemporary and accessible and fun.”
Of course Austen’s classic about a 19th-century privileged girl who fancies herself a matchmaker has been explored cinematically before, and via the modern high school perspective (Amy Heckerling’s 1995 hit Clueless). Then there was the more traditional period piece starring Gwyneth Paltrow back in 1996. Both were memorable in their own way and both might come to mind briefly while watching de Wilde’s Emma. But in all the ways that matter, this is its own film, and as many have noted, that is mostly thanks to de Wilde’s direction, which utilizes audacious hues, intimate angles and yes, the all important light, to help envelop the viewer in Emma’s world. There’s also plenty of feel-good moments and laughs. The producers view this version as a screwball comedy, and according to writer Eleanor Catton, “most of the best moments came out of trying to make her [de Wilde] laugh.”
“Jane Austen transformed the idea of the novel with Emma, so making this film felt like an opportunity to learn — which is always high on my list above success,” de Wilde tells us. “I have sort of an obsession with the community of formality because when I was growing up, when I should have been going to punk shows, I was watching Fred Astaire movies. I was just obsessed over Hepburn and Grant and like, Bringing Up Baby. And so those were my heroes in junior high and that was the place that I escaped to. Period films were always important to me.”
While we became friends later, after she had come out of her shell a bit, Autumn did always seem to have an affinity for the past, something which she obviously infused in her work. We lost touch after high school, but her success as a photographer and video director — working with the likes of Florence and the Machine, Jenny Lewis and Jack White —was always on our radar. Years later — because L.A. is a small town when you’re a creative — she had a daughter with this writer’s second cousin, local drummer Aaron Sperske (Beachwood Sparks, Father John Misty). That little girl ended up becoming a rock star herself and Arrow de Wilde now tours the world as lead singer of the band Starcrawler. Yes, mom directed one of the band’s videos, and yes it’s awesome.
On video and film, playing with color and light to create a sense of time and place are two of de Wilde’s most notable gifts. They are, she notes, “great storytelling tools,” and her ability to build layers and make her subjects both appealing yet relatable has served her well. Back in Emma’s era, “color was how you expressed yourself,” de Wilde explains. “It played a role in position and class. Historical pieces don’t always show that. I was making a satirical piece so I used a lot more color.”
“These characters are so human, so iconic and so familiar,” the filmmaker says of the players in Emma, but she could just as easily be talking about the old movie actors who inspired her as a kid, or the rockers that helped put her on the map — or even herself. One thing is for sure: She knows how to convey all three and that makes everything she does shine, whether she’s in the light or not.