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Emma Jensen: The Process of Writing Mary Shelley

Screenwriter Emma Jensen on her background in development and how her first screenwriting credit became the global biopic Mary Shelley starring Elle Fanning.

Elle Fanning as the title character in Mary ShelleyElle Fanning as the title character in Mary Shelley / credit: Transmission Films 

Mary Shelley screenwriter Emma Jensen has come full circle.

It was an idea that first caught her attention reading Frankenstein as a teenager, but over several decades it grew – into an outline, then a treatment, and a draft. It got her representation in the US, attached acclaimed directors and star talent, and raised finance from around the globe (including England, Ireland, Luxembourg and the US). It had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, and is releasing in Australian cinemas from 5 July, 2018.

“It is very overwhelming,” Jensen says from her hometown of Brisbane.

“But the wonderful thing about Mary Shelley and the global project it became is this moment where it's come full circle again. Here we are back in Australia where it started, in this very unlikely place.”

It was a fascination that began in high school when she first read the 1818 Gothic novel Frankenstein, which was written by English author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (nee Godwin). Shelley conceived the idea of Frankenstein when she, her then-lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, and writers John Polidori and Lord Byron, held a competition while staying at Lake Geneva to see who could write the best ghost story.

Years later Jensen found herself struck again by the material – and how much it had been informed by Shelley's life.

“I re-read Frankenstein and Mary's prologue where she speaks so definitively about how the story was birthed. I felt like we had certainly seen the famous ghost story challenge in Geneva, but no one had really told us Mary's story through her eyes.”

In the meantime Jensen worked in the production department of UK company Film4 and as Development Executive for Working Title Films and Mushroom Pictures, all the while wondering ‘why was no one telling this story?’

It was after some 15 years she thought perhaps she should give it a go.

“With a bit of bravado and the complete naiveté,” she adds.

The challenge was figuring out what to focus on. Shelley’s life was fascinating, from her birth to the years spent with her literary father William Godwin, to her tumultuous relationship with married poet Percy Shelley, and of course, writing the Gothic novel Frankenstein while still in her teens.

“There is so much that is rich there and certainly after the publishing of Frankenstein [too],” she says.

“It's always the challenge in crafting a biopic – do you hone in on a certain part of the subject matter's life? Or is it something that is more epic and sprawling?”

But Jensen continued to be drawn back to the same question that always intrigued her: how did this young woman come to write Frankenstein?

“That informed a lot of the choices that I made,” she says. “My concern in venturing beyond those years was when does this then become about the relationship with Percy Shelley versus the birth of the writer.”

Her instincts paid off. Now Mary Shelley is a feature film directed by Haifaa al-Mansour and stars Elle Fanning. It’s releasing in Australian cinemas through Transmission Films.

“It's been a pretty incredible journey and I feel really fortunate that this story is my first credit and my first thing that I have out in the world,” Jensen says.

Emma Jensen Emma Jensen

Learn about that journey and hear what Jensen has to say about her writing process and development funding below:

How was the process of writing a story based on someone's life – and a historical figure – different to stories you create from scratch?

When I first decided I was going to tackle Mary Shelley I think at that time I'd written two romantic comedies, so this was entirely new territory for me. What probably helped me is that I do love history. I'm a bit of a research geek. I don't mind going down the rabbit hole, so that part of it was real joy for me. But the challenge is knowing when to step away from your research and start telling your story. It's certainly daunting and it's a mix of the responsibility of staying true to who Mary Shelley was – and so much of that is speculative because I can't spend time with her, I can't interview her – but also making choices as to what is going to fit the form, so things you have to leave out or timeframes you have to condense.

It's practical and structural choices, but certainly making those choices can feel a little intimidating. This was the first drama I'd attempted, let alone historical drama, so I certainly had moments of ‘have I bitten off more than I can chew? And who do I think I am trying to this story?’

How do feel like your background in development has informed you as a writer?

It's been such a part of the process. I studied film at university (Queensland College of Art)… but the process of your daily business being screen craft, I learned so much on the job. I read as much as I could in my very early days when I worked as a producer's assistant at Film4. I just devoured as many scripts, as many reader's reports and notes. I would try and sit in on meetings where I could just to understand story and how it works. I truly think it was the best possible training that I could have and it's what probably built my confidence to finally start writing myself, which took a lot longer than I thought.

Does it help when getting notes, having worked in development and helped people yourself in that way?

It does. I think there's always a part of you that gets notes, and you take a deep breath and you try not to go on the defensive. But you also know that there is a part of you that understands the process and understands the spirit in which things are intended, for the most part. I think my background and having done it so much myself [helps] where sometimes even if the note isn't articulated in the best possible way or it's not quite clear, [I can then think] what's the note behind the note?

But there can be a notes day for me where the first hour I go, 'everyone's wrong and I'm right’ and then it's like, ‘okay let's really look at these notes because chances are that's really not the case’.

The project was supported in development by Screen NSW (now Create NSW) and by Screen Australia. What was that process like and why was it significant to the trajectory of the project?

With my background in development, having done a few applications in my time, that all felt quite second nature. It was just ‘oh I'm actually applying myself’.

I had a four-page outline and Screen NSW supported me to develop the treatment based on that. Then Screen Australia supported me to develop the treatment to first draft, which was fantastic for me. I was a new writer, I'd written romantic comedies... I felt that the teams at both Screen NSW and Screen Australia were willing to take a leap of faith with me and to go on that journey. To have that support behind you and that feeling of belief in tackling something like this. Maybe you're not aware of it at the time but looking back that did mean a lot to me.

Mary Shelley had traumatic events happen in her life that influenced her writing. There are arguments for and against writers and creative people having to suffer in order to have something to say through their art. Do you have a view on that?

Look I mean it's one of those things where I think it would be so hard to say that there's a right or wrong way, or there is only one way to approach art. I was someone who started writing much later than I thought. I was thirty five when I started after a very significant writer's block. All I could think is I needed some life to happen to me, I needed some life experience to draw on before I felt that I had something that I wanted to share and that could also speak to the nature of what I want to explore and how I write. But there are certainly novelists and screenwriters who have commenced at a much younger age where you just think they possibly couldn't, but yet turn out work that is absolutely mature. Even that school of ‘write about what you know’ – for me ironically the first thing I wrote was a memoir. But since then it's been about [asking myself if there] was something that I grappled with or I have an experience of, or someone else's story be that fictitious or just something that I relate to in the factual space, which I can channel or explore.

Mary Shelley uses writing as kind of catharsis. Do you find writing cathartic?

I do, actually. I think in writing Mary Shelley there were things that I personally brought to it that I do feel came out and through the other side by having an opportunity to work. So for me it is true. I should be a far more well-adjusted human being (laughs). [I’ve] got a few more screenplays to get through – I'm on my way.

How did signing with United Talent Agency help in getting the ball rolling with the draft script of Mary Shelley?

Having done the first draft, it was ‘what’s next for this story?’. My friend who is now my manager, Rebecca Miller, is with US talent agency The Bernstein Companies and she read it, just as a friend, and fell in love with it. [So she] asked if she could show it to United Talent Agency to Bec Smith and Charlie Ferraro... both Bec and Charlie loved it and offered to represent me and then of course the screenplay and went out quite quickly after that. Amy Baer from Gidden Media put up her hand and said she would love to option it. She was very passionate about the story from the get go and so it felt like that was absolutely the right home for it. So we ended up with a US producer on that, which I did not expect.

How long until director Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda) signed on?

I want to say maybe six months later or so Haifaa came on board. It felt like it moved quite rapidly and then I wrote the next draft with Haaifa and Amy Baer contributing with notes, and that was the draft we used to go out to the cast. So on the back of that draft Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth and Bel Powley were attached.

It was quite a charmed journey. Haaifa came on board quite quickly, while Elle was I believe the first actress we went out to. She was always very much the name that we mentioned and the person we wanted. Then Bel attached not long after and off the back of Diary of a Teenage Girl and her success at Sundance. So it was it was a pretty dream run it felt like. And with Douglas it was quite a rapid response too. So it was really lovely to see it come together and even with the supporting cast and all these wonderful actors like Joanne Froggat, Stephen Dillane and Maisie Williams. It's like, there's something for everyone – Downton Abbey and Game of Thrones fans alike.

What was that process like to write another draft with Haifaa al-Mansour?

It's such an interesting experience to have someone who like Haifaa, who comes from a different environment to me and the themes that obviously Haifaa explores in her work and why Mary Shelley was such a fit for her. So it was a great process to look at this story I created through somebody else's eyes, and [figure out] what can we do, where do we move from here, and what is the next space? We met together in LA and I came back to Australia to write the draft I think while she was in Saudi Arabia. We'd swap notes and chat and it became this quite global project from the outset.

What does your writing process look like? Do you have a set number of hours? How do you manage working across multiple projects (which at the moment include Helen Reddy biopic I Am Woman for Goalpost Pictures, Living with Miss G for Arcadia Films, and memoir How (Not) to Start an Orphanage for Aquarius Films)?

I do have a few projects on the go at once and to the best of our ability both my agents – HLA Management in Australia, and UTA and Bernstein in the US – and I try and stagger them when we can. Inevitably I'm always in the early stages of a new project while I'm on a later draft stage of something else. I try to not be in draft stage on two projects at the same time.

I am someone who likes to, especially when you are working in the biopic space, to read all the information there is to consume and let it sit and gestate before I sit down to write. I actually find my process moves very, very quickly if I've had that time to sit with the material and walk around with it and let it brew. That's my ideal way of working.

In terms of my work day I'm a morning person. So some mornings it really is roll out of bed, make a cup of tea and off I go. If I wake up and something's really sparked for me I run with it. I try and write until I can and there's always that risk that I can write for too long. But I certainly for myself I have seen the pattern of when I know ideas and the stories are flowing to run with that for as best and as long as I can.

Mary Shelley releases in Australian cinemas through Transmission Films from 6 July 2018.

Emma Jensen is also part of the Gender Matters Taskforce.