It’s been a winding road for Mr. Malcolm’s List. The Regency rom-com—complete with eligible, brooding heir; poor, plucky heroine; and any number of romantic false starts and misunderstandings—began life as a self-published book by author Suzanne Allain, who later spun a screenplay from her story. In brief, wealthy bachelor (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù) keeps an impractical “must-have” list for his bridal prospects, one of whom, the spirited Julia (Zawe Ashton), enlists the help of a friend (Freida Pinto) to woo and then reject this stonyhearted man, who definitely won’t (oh, who are we kidding?) discover his romantic side by the time the credits roll.
The crew at podcast network Earwolf took the Mr. Malcolm’s List screenplay and turned it into an “earmovie”—or, in plainer English, did a live table read of the (still-not-a-) film for the Black List Table Reads podcast. From there, Mr. Malcolm and his list caught the attention of Emma Holly Jones, a British director with experience in commercial and documentary filmmaking. A short film was made, financed by website Refinery29 as part of a short-film series supporting female filmmakers. The short was then put on YouTube, helping to secure financing for a feature volume, and voilà: On July 1, Mr. Malcolm’s List hits theaters courtesy distributor Bleecker Street. In advance of its release, Jones spoke to Boxoffice Pro about rom-coms, a move toward increased diversity in period romances, and her unlikely fandom of … Spice World?
Congratulations on the film! Having your first feature get picked up for theatrical distribution must feel amazing.
I feel extraordinarily lucky. To come out the other end of [the Covid-19 shutdown] and to find out that we’re getting a release that I was not expecting, during a pandemic, is the most exciting thing. I feel very lucky and very supported. Bleecker Street has been incredibly supportive of me and my vision for the movie. To get a platform like that, for any young filmmaker, is pretty special.
Making this film during the pandemic, what was your vision as to how it would be released?
I truthfully never thought about it that much. When you’re trying to make your first film, you’re so consumed with trying to get the film made. And, whilst making the film, trying to make the film good! When Bleecker Street bought the film, finding out that it was going to be theatrical was a really special moment, because being a young filmmaker I never knew if I was going to see a movie of mine in the cinema. The industry is changing so much. It is a special thing. Last week, I went to test the DCP. Even just that, seeing your work with a sound system like that and on a screen like that, is a really special moment.
I made the short-film version [of Mr. Malcolm’s List] in 2018. When I finished the short-film version, Refinery29, who financed it, were very open. They were like, “Do you want to go to film festivals with it? What do you want to do with it?” And I was like, “I want to put it on YouTube.” Starting this project on the internet, really, and then ending up in the cinema is pretty cool. It’s been a long journey since 2018. I think the short film being on YouTube was a good decision, because it allowed us when we pitched the movie to be able to say, “There’s an audience for this.” As a young filmmaker trying to get your project off the ground, that ended up as a really strong part of our pitch for the feature.
I love a good romantic movie. Put one in theaters every month, as far as I’m concerned.
Oh God, me too! Clearly I’m obsessed with them. I grew up loving them. I’m obsessed with people like Richard Curtis and Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers, and all these movies that I’ve watched time and time again since I was a young girl. That’s what I was trying to do, bring back my love of the rom-com. I was also obsessed with Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice. To be able to find and develop a project [combining] those two spaces was a dream come true for me. I rewatched every period drama I think ever made during prep, which I really was not complaining about! I had a great time. I watched the whole of “Downton Abbey” again. It was wonderful. I think my husband might not agree with me.
So you haven’t gotten to see [Mr. Malcolm’s List] in front of an audience yet?
I have not. Bleecker Street did a test screening with a big audience, but I couldn’t be there because I was in London.
Are you texting Bleecker Street during the screening: “Where are people laughing? What’s the reaction?”
It was really fun hearing how different people from different walks of life react to characters and react to the story. The funniest joke in the movie was not what I was expecting; that was a cool moment as well, when they told me what the biggest laughs were. I think you become immune to [a movie’s jokes] in the edit. The energy when people watch comedy—it’s a fun genre to watch in a room with people. That energy is really contagious. You can’t really beat a group of people laughing. If we can do that, then I feel like I did my job right.
The first movie I saw back in the cinema last year was [directors Suhrud Godbole and Vaibhav Khisti’s] June. I forgot how much I missed it until I was in that room. It’s such a special experience. It’s so nice to see that people are going back. I was really worried for a second that Covid might really dampen the cinema moviegoing experience, but it does seem like it’s holding strong.
You want movies of all different types to attract people back to the cinema, too, instead of just big-budget superhero films.
Yeah. I guess we’ll find out. I hope that Malcolm draws people in, because it’s a movie that is about feeling good, making you laugh, falling in love with characters, and watching [the characters] fall in love with each other. There are no heavy politics to it. There’s no heavy drama to it. It’s hopefully just a joyful experience. I’m hoping that people, after these last two years, are looking for that, too.
It is nice watching a movie where—and I don’t think this constitutes a spoiler—you can assume that everything’s going to come out OK for the characters.
You kind of know straight away [what you’re getting]. You can look at a poster for a rom-com and know that they’re going to end up together, or know the basic idea. The trick is, even going in knowing what we’re going to get, somehow bringing the audience [along] on that journey, creating romantic stakes for them. Even though, deep down, we all know in a rom-com they end up together. That is the big trick of it. And also, Ṣọpẹ and Freida did a wonderful job of building organic, sweet, lovely chemistry that carries the entire movie.
How did the cast come together? It’s your first feature, and you have some pretty big names.
I was super-lucky. We did the short in 2018. My casting director, Tamara-Lee Notcutt, who is a very dear friend—she used to work for Disney and now she has her own amazing company—was so supportive from day one.
One of the first pieces [to casting the short] was Freida; she was really the first choice for that role. We were so lucky she was interested. When that first piece comes together, every subsequent piece becomes easier. I met Ṣọpẹ in a casting session, and for me it was just instant. Even from three minutes of speaking to him, I remember texting the producers: “It’s him.” I cast him in the short, and I have been so lucky that he and Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Frieda apparently liked the short enough that they wanted to do the feature.
It’s not a huge risk for actors of that caliber to do a short they believe in. It is a much bigger risk to do a feature. The short film was a wonderful place for them to get to know each other, to get to know me, to figure out this movie together. A huge part of its success is that original cast, and then [the cast from the short] was supplemented with some incredible talent as we moved on. Zawe Ashton came on last-minute [as Julia, a role played by Gemma Chan in the short].
She brings such great energy.
She’s incredible. There was another actress originally attached to the part who dropped out very, very close to the shoot date, which was quite a scary moment. One of our casting directors put Zawe forward. She had the most fantastic take on the character of Julia, and she changed so much how I saw Julia through her own interpretation and her own brilliant comedic intelligence. She’s also a great filmmaker and writer. I feel so lucky that it was her, because that character is so memorable, so clever. She really found the meat to it and pushed me to develop and rewrite the character last-minute in a way that was even stronger.
As someone who grew up devouring period romances, I’ve enjoyed seeing their casting get more diverse.
For me, obviously, that’s been a huge part of this. I’d been developing the project for seven years. I found Suzanne Allain’s script, and I fell in love with it. To find something that was so original was a huge benefit and a huge bonus. The same week I heard the podcast episode about this script, I saw Hamilton for the first time. It was instant for me. Representation is important, obviously, across the board. When filmmakers or writers or artists take risks to make something different, to change the standard look of anything set in a period world, it sparks inspiration in me. All I can really hope is that Mr. Malcolm sparks that inspiration in somebody else.
Because the reality is the world did not look like the way Hollywood has painted it to look in the early 19th century. The country of England was a lot more diverse than anybody has ever portrayed it to look. I went down that [research] rabbit hole and couldn’t quite get out of it. You start finding art and poems and drawings and letters. And then to have this massive realization that Jane Austen had a mixed-race character in her final novel, Sanditon.
For me, as a white person, I had to really question what I had been taught and what I knew. Mr. Malcolm then became about something so much more important to me, as well, which was [to make] the period drama that so many communities of people have never had. I love the genre, and it’s so sad to me that some people have never had that representation for themselves. Not even necessarily period dramas, [just] rom-coms as a whole. It’s so rare to see a person of color get the guy or get the girl.
In its genre and the diversity of its casting, I can see this getting compared to Netflix’s “Bridgerton.”
I feel like every period drama should be made in a more inclusive way. I hope that the success of “Bridgerton” is something that paves the way for our success. From someone who’s consumed both, I think the tone is very different. The look of the movie is very different. There are similarities. Hopefully people enjoy our version, too. I don’t want to be out here like, “I did it first!” That’s not the point. I think it’s important that [diversity in casting] becomes a more mainstream approach to how we, as filmmakers, tell stories.
I think of Armando Inannucci’s David Copperfield adaptation, starring Dev Patel—he was so good in it, but in the past it’s not a role he would have been offered.
And by the way, [I know a lot of] British actors who went to drama school. These are the roles, the source material these guys study. Especially from a theater perspective, it was so much fun for them to get to stretch those muscles. They had a lot of fun with it.
Do you remember the first movie you saw in a theater?
I don’t know the first one—I was very young. But—this is a really random one, but I remember one of the first movies I was allowed to see alone at the movie theater, which is really embarrassing. It was Spice World!
That is not embarrassing!
When I was 8, 9, 10, 11, the Spice Girls were my life. I used to think I was Baby Spice. One of my first experiences of the cinema was being allowed to go see Spice World with my friends on my own and being picked up afterwards. It’s one of the first things your parents allow you to do on your own, isn’t it? Go to the movie theater.
Being in an auditorium filled with Spice Girls fans must’ve made it even better.
[Laughs.] I feel like I need to go rewatch Spice World now.