Autumn de Wilde's secret for directing your first film at 49? Keep whiskey in your cane

Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

When her arthritis got so bad that she needed a cane, Autumn de Wilde didn't just pick one up at the pharmacy. She went to a 19th century Victorian umbrella shop in London and told the shopkeeper: "I need your weirdest cane."

"Check this out," she said, unscrewing the top of the French walking stick, supposedly modeled after one once owned by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Inside was a thin vial containing Japanese whiskey, bookended by a couple of shot glasses. "These need a little wash, because we've partaken recently. It actually only holds a shot, which is so disappointing. I thought it was so much more when I bought it."

The idea of following standard protocol is anathema to De Wilde. Every day, she dresses in a uniform -- some version of a suit with a broad-brimmed felt hat. (She says her style is a mix of Paddington Bear and Oscar Wilde.) Her friends refer to her as "the rock 'n' roll Martha Stewart" because at parties, she gifts everyone with handmade favors. Once, after spending two sleepless nights creating 150 paper robot invitations, her mother asked her: "Why don't you just keep it simple?" De Wilde raged: "Don't you know me by now? I will never! Keep it! Simple!"

But it was this sort of extravagance that helped her first big directing job, the new adaptation of Jane Austen's "Emma," which hit select theaters Friday. When she was asked to pitch the film's financiers on her vision for the story (which has been filmed multiple times, including a 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow and the 1995 modern update "Clueless"), she decided against a digital presentation.

Instead, in advance of their Skype meeting, she sent the executives a parcel wrapped in silk ribbon. Once everyone had virtually gathered, De Wilde instructed the team to open the box. Wrapped in newsprint, they found a set of cards she had curated to illustrate her fantasy film, complete with fashion illustrations from the 1800s, caricatures poking fun at society and lighting and design references.

Though she had never made a feature film, De Wilde had long become adept at the art of the pitch.


"On photo shoots, if I don't talk to the musician about something that makes sense to them, they'll panic and I'll lose the job," said De Wilde, who chose to meet at the Chateau Marmont a few hours before the Los Angeles premiere of "Emma." "And when you're a girl, you have to prove yourself for anything you haven't done. I got good at putting people at ease so they wouldn't have to suffer on my period."

De Wilde, who will turn 50 this year, is best known for her work as a celebrity photographer. Over the last two decades, she has shot everyone from Willie Nelson to Robert Pattinson, Lena Dunham to Busy Phillips. She has documented the work of Rodarte designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy from the inception of their careers, and is often behind the camera for their fashion campaigns. In Los Angeles -- she lives in a Glassell Park home -- her friends include a hip collaborative of artists she has also photographed: the Mulleavy sisters, actress Zooey Deschanel, filmmaker Miranda July and singer Jenny Lewis.

July, who has watched De Wilde struggle for years to try to land her first film, said she was filled with emotion after attending the "Emma" premiere alongside the group.

"If there were more female directors, Autumn's story wouldn't be such a rare and precious thing to us," she said. "Basically a single mom who worked so hard and at this age is coming into her own. I think we all feel really tender because it's a very powerful example."


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