Emily Elizabeth Thomas
Interview by Olivia Aylmer
Olivia Aylmer: Hi, Emily! Where are you originally from, and where are you currently based?
Emily Elizabeth Thomas: I am originally from Austin, Texas and proud of it! I’m based in New York City. I’ll always be a Texas girl, but New York is home now.
OA: Do you recall an early film or director whose work made an impression on you?
EET: Wes Anderson. Everyday, and twice on Sunday! He’s my biggest stylistic influence. I respect his world-making skills over anybody with a camera. But I owe my creative life to a brilliant Czechoslovakian New Wave film called Daisies by Věra Chytilová. Daisies made me a filmmaker. It made me realize that art could confront society in ways that are shocking, productive, and sometimes wonderfully destructive. I go back to that film when I get lost, and it always shows me the way.
OA: Earlier this fall, I had the pleasure of attending the private screening of your first short film, Lola: Girl Got a Gun. Aside from how beautifully shot and perfectly cast it was, I admired how deftly you dealt with such critical issues as gun control in America (particularly in states like Texas) and the pervasiveness of societally ingrained gender inequality. What was that night like for you?
EET: As a filmmaker, I lead with my morality. I believe in justice, and more so, I believe that it is my job to work toward justice. What I am doing with my art will always attempt to serve that higher purpose. I believe guns are harmful to all of us, because they promote violence and cause tragedy. They take away individual agency, because guns give their owners power over the human being on the other end of the barrel that they haven’t earned. That is violence at its most basic level. But it’s not just physical violence that is harmful to all of us—it’s also hateful ideologies that promote the oppression of women in the home, workplace, on the street, and anywhere else a woman should be allowed to exist in safety. That is deeply rooted systemic violence, and it has taken far more lives than guns have. With Lola, I took on these acts of violence, and I will continue to do so throughout my life as an artist. If this industry doesn’t want to give me a platform to try to improve this world through storytelling, I’ll stand on my toes.
Lola came from a very personal and deep part of myself. This story lives in me in a pretty haunting way. I was there at every moment of this creative process, fighting for this story with everything I had to give and then some more, so the night of our screening was very surreal. All at once all of that dedication and intensity turned outward for the first time; it was humbling, gratifying, and really fun! I am so lucky. I have the good fortune of working with people that I love very much as humans and who I respect deeply as artists. The way my collaborators support me, the work, and each other is just outstanding. It was so fun to share that night with them, and to celebrate this beautiful accomplishment together. No nerves, just love.
OA: What do you hope audiences take away from the experience of seeing Lola?
EET: If you recognize yourself in Lola in any way, I hope my film makes you feel less alone in your experience and in the injustices that you’ve faced. Especially if you’re a woman, because I feel you, I’ve been through it, too, and so have all the women in your life. I’m with you, and I am sorry for what you’ve had to survive. If you’re a young girl and you watch Lola, I hope you recognize that there are many incredible things that you can be in your life. You are very important, and you already have the power to take your life into your own hands, and make it as glitter-covered and cowgirl-like as you can possibly dream. And if you feel like you need permission from somebody older and just a little wiser to go and be all the things you want to be, Lola is your permission. Go and find exactly who you are, and never let trauma, pain, or expectations hold you back. That’s my hope.
OA: I read that you got your start in filmmaking at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which coincided with the start of your social activism career. Can you tell me a bit about what you learned during your time spent advocating for the protection and care of inner-city sex workers? How have you carried these takeaways into your current work and mission as a filmmaker?
EET: I am very proud to have been brought up as an artist in Chicago—a city that brought me experiences that I would not have had in any other place. These included social work, which taught me how to feel deep and humbling levels of empathy, and allowed me to confront my own privilege and work very hard to look outside of it. I’m very grateful for that. Chicago primarily taught me one thing, and I carry it with me everyday—every single person matters. Nobody deserves anything over anybody else. No matter the color of your skin, gender, sexual orientation, where you come from, or what you do for a living. A fair shot should be guaranteed for everyone, and it is not. That is injustice, and we should all acknowledge the cruelty in that. I’ve been lucky enough to learn the value and beauty in showing up for others in my life. Just to say “I care about what happens to you,” even when it’s tough, or even when I don’t quite understand what to do. Showing up even when it’s difficult is the only way that things will ever change for the people that need it most in this world. Just show up, do the work, and try to make a difference.
This is also who I try my very best to be as a filmmaker. I show up for my team, my actors, and my collaborators in every way I can. I don’t get it right every single time, because none of us do, but I care so much and I want every artist on my team to do their best work. I think that to be a good director you have to gut yourself, and pour everything you’ve got out of your body mind and soul on that set, or the audience will see right through you. It’s my job to lead with that example, and to hold space for the artists I’m working with to do the same. Art is such an equalizing force, and if everybody shows up with their best selves and with purpose and fortitude, magic happens. I learned this in Chicago, and it will stay with me always.
OA: What initially prompted you to launch Jane Street Productions with your producer Anna Fredrikke Bjerke? What gap in the industry do you aim to fill through your and Anna's ongoing work with Jane Street?
EET: Anna and I were both raised by entrepreneurs. It’s in our blood. We have that natural iron will that entrepreneur-raised folks do, and the ability to keep pushing when everybody else says stop. We started Jane Street because we truly believe that the work we want to make will support diversity and equality. We want to fight for female-centered storytelling, and we want to be the ones telling the stories because we’ve lived through so many of the beautiful, tough, and heart wrenching experiences that define womanhood.
OA: Who are a few of your favorite fellow filmmakers / producers / writers at work today? Anyone you’d recommend that the Constellation community keep an eye on?
EET: I think Greta Gerwig is fantastic and has a unique directing career ahead of her, Ava DuVernay is a queen and a hero, and Reed Morano is a new favorite of mine due to her breathtaking work on The Handmaiden’s Tale. I think what Sean Baker is doing is extraordinary, and of course, the Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern super team is really inspiring. They are using the influence they’ve garnered over decades in this industry to tell stories about real women who suffer deeply, but are triumphant and intelligent. It’s so cool. And, obviously, all hail Barry Jenkins.
Oh my gosh I have so many incredible collaborators and friends that the Constellation community should follow! I will say that my soul sister, Laura Gordon, a Chicago-based stylist and production designer, is one of the most effortlessly talented women I have ever known. She was my wardrobe stylist and production designer on Lola, and I’ve counted her as a best friend for many years. Her work is beautiful, and she is carving out a very unique place for herself in this industry.
OA: What sorts of stories and voices do you hope to see and hear more of onscreen in the years ahead?
EET: Anything that is other: stories about the underdog, the downtrodden, the kicked-to-the-curb but still gets up and fights back. And all the incredible women that we know, and that we are! The broken ones, the twisted ones, the ones who are maybe really crazy, and the soft ones who move mountains and change lives...Our lives deserve to be witnessed, and we deserve to be the ones calling the shots behind the camera on our stories. We deserve everything.
OA: Any upcoming projects you'd like to tell us about?
EET: Currently Anna and I are hustling to get Lola out into the world. But Lola is just the beginning. She is PART I of a trilogy of short films called The Texas Trilogy: an anthology short series which explores complex experiences faced by Southern women. We are working our way toward PART II, titled Untitled Marfa Project. It is a beast of a short film, and I totally gutted myself for the script. It’s very personal and difficult, and we are so excited to take it on.
OA: What advice would you offer to young people, particularly young women and non-binary folks, hoping to find their way into the film industry today?
EET: Choose glitter. Choose light. Don’t let anybody drag you down into the mud. Because, believe me, people will try. And when they do, get right back up and go again. What you have is a gift, and only you are capable of giving it to the world. Your value is limitless, and nobody sitting behind any important desk is capable of changing that. They say no, you keep going. You get knocked down, come back stronger. Mainly: do not ever apologize for your art, for how it is received, or for your wholehearted dedication to it. What you do with your craft is up to you. Everyday. ★
Emily Elizabeth Thomas is the CEO of Jane Street Productions, and its in-house writer and director. Emily is immensely proud to have been born and bred in Austin, TX, where she was raised in true cowgirl fashion. Emily got her start in filmmaking at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she cut her teeth on 16 and 35mm film and screenwriting, and developed her interdisciplinary creative practice. Chicago was also the birth of Emily’s career as a social activist, where she worked on projects that fought and advocated for the protection and care of inner-city sex workers. This compassionate and difficult work solidified her long established insistence that her artistry would stand for something that was truly important to her—advocacy for the equal rights and freedom of all women. Find Elizabeth on Instagram at @emilyelizabeth_thomas or Twitter at @janestreetprod, or visit janestproductions.com to learn more about her work.